How do we find true fulfilment? Why repentance is hope, life and joy.
Last time I mentioned that society cannot even really define what constitutes pornography, but that in seeing how pornography is a parody of iconography helps us to understand not only precisely what it is, but also why it is so destructive.
I said that a pornographic image is a parody of the icon, a demonic twisting of the goodness of the image for an evil purpose. Whereas the holy icon reflects Reality, the pornographic image distorts and twists Reality. Whereas the holy icon participates in the Reality it portrays, the pornographic image, having already twisted the Reality it portrays, cannot truly relate to it. And whereas the holy icon draws us into communion, the pornographic image parodies communion with a misuse of sexuality, making a sexual experience something for individual pleasure rather than building a true communion of love.
The holy icon draws us into communion. And porn can only be addictive because it holds out the false promise of a taste of communion. Yet the more someone uses pornography, the more cut off from communion they become.
“It is not good for man to be alone”… we all know this, and we all search for fulfilment through our lives. Because each of us is a person — from the Greek word πρόσωπον (prosopon – face)… Because each of us is a person, not just an individual, so each of us longs to be face to face, truly loving and truly being loved. This is the promise of the gospel — the good news — that we may find that fulfilment in being face to face with God — the ultimate lover — for all eternity.Porn seeks fulfilment of the sexual urge demonically: it can never yield the fulfilment we desire. Click To Tweet
And in this life we taste of that fulfilment in many ways, the most apparent one being the direct physical communion with God we experience in taking into our own bodies the body and blood of Christ — and another very significant one being the communion of persons we can find in marriage. A sexual relationship on earth — in marriage — is supposed to be an icon of that ultimate communion and fulfilment. It is a great mystery, as St Paul says… But in our broken world, this mystery is abused, and pornography is a great temptation to try to seek the fulfilment of that sexual urge to communion in a false, demonic way that can never yield the true fulfilment we seek in it.
St Maximos the Confessor speaks of the divisions of creation — the first, that things created were separated from the uncreated. Then the created was separated into the noetic world (the world of the nous — the eye of the soul) and the world that can be sensed. The third division is of the sensible world into heaven and earth; the fourth, earth into paradise and the world we know, the inhabited world; and fifth, those in the world we know into male and female.
And to say that everything in our experience is iconic, which I have said many times in this series, is also to say that everything can already give us a taste of the reunion of these divisions in Christ towards the day when Christ will be all in all — when everything will be brought fully and finally into union — into a true communion of love where personal differences remain but all divisions are overcome.
The sexual urge is at root an urge towards the union of the last of these divisions… the division between male and female — the union of what is truly diverse in a voluntary communion of persons — a communion so close that they are considered “one body”. In venerating the icon of a saint, we experience a taste of the reunion of earth and heaven. In the Divine Liturgy we experience the opportunity of a foretaste of full union — even up to the reunion of the created with the uncreated — in partaking physically in the body and blood of Christ our incarnate God. All of these are mystical acts, sacramental acts, and all of life for us should be mystical, sacramental experience in this way.
But our day-to-day experience can be very different. Last time I talked about our present reality: the studies and statistics that show the state our society is in with regard to pornography. For a materialist, this is the ultimate reality: the physical world, what we can process with our physical senses. But in truth, this is only a small part of reality… the crudest form, if you like. Higher up St Maximos’s hierarchy of division is the division into the noetic world and the world of the body — and, just as we saw when I talked about imagination and fantasy, the body is an icon of the nous — whatever happens inwardly is manifest outwardly in the body — and the two — body and nous — are to be brought together into perfect communion.What we experience in the physical world is a manifestation of what we experience on the noetic level. Click To Tweet
In fact, then, we cannot really see the truth of our present reality while we see it only in its physical, material aspect: noetic reality and spiritual reality are deeper levels, and what we experience in the physical world will be a manifestation of what we experience on the noetic level — even if, like many of our society, we either explicitly or implicitly deny its reality. Knowing this is to know the futility of fighting the evil of pornography — and indeed, any evil — simply or even mostly in the physical realm. The search for purity must go much deeper.
And meanwhile we have to live in this cultural, physical manifestation of our noetic and spiritual brokenness and sin.
It is easy to fall into hopelessness — whether we are ourselves caught up in addiction to pornography or sexual sin, or whether we just witness the destruction of these addictions all around us. But hopelessness collapses us in on ourselves rather than drawing us out… this is the contrast between what the fathers refer to as “self-love” as opposed to true eros.
C S Lewis, in one of his letters — writing before the scourge of internet pornography, but referring to sexual fantasy — speaks of the man drawn to what he calls a “harem of imaginary brides who ask nothing and give all in adoration”. It is the fantasy of communion without the reality, and as C S Lewis says, “eventually they are the medium through which he increasingly adores himself.” That is, caught in this fantasy, such a man becomes increasingly cut off from true communion, and isolates into the hell of individual, wilful self.
But can we live as Christians in this cultural and physical manifestation of our noetic and spiritual brokenness and sin? We can… because we know that behind it all is the ongoing truth of the constant and consistent offer of a true communion with God that transcends every hint of communion we can know in this life — in which our cup will truly run over.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil, for You are with me… You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.” (Ps. 22/23)
Another way of saying this is in the words of St Silouan: “keep your mind in hell and despair not”. We live in a world of broken reality, of mere facts that exist without the truth of love and communion. But those truths are a deeper reality which is never absent, and so our characteristic attitude as Christians can be one of hope, not of despair. This is not easy in the face of the valley of the shadow of death — what has been called the “culture of death” — that is all around us.
But we know what we do in order to prepare for communion: we fast, and we confess. This is the beginning of hope, the beginning of repentance, and the beginning of communion… and through this process, in hope we look towards those things that are unseen but more real, more deeply true than anything we experience with our physical senses alone.
So this world of darkness is a dark shadow of things as they truly are — a shadow of Reality… A glass very darkly… But if you remember when I talked of masks and veils, even a mask cannot completely obscure reality, however much it may misdirect.
And an icon is also a shadow, a symbol, seeing through a glass darkly… but in a holy icon, we have a pure, bright veil, not a painted mask. A veil that lightly covers how things really truly are. A link to a more final, ultimate Reality. A possibility of tasting communion. An opening of the hope of eschatological fulfillment and eternal communion in love, in contrast to the final despair of the hell of self through the parody of communion on offer in pornography.
So how practically do we get from the despair of porn to the hope of holiness? Through repentance. And for some practical indications of what that involves, next time I’ll walk us through some specific, practical steps and guidance: strategies for strugglers. But for now I’ll just say that the principle is this: the path of purification leads to illumination leads finally to theoria — being face to face with God — and true communion. This requires not will power alone — it’s important, but totally inadequate by itself — this requires also a readiness for humiliation — an acceptance of the true image of our own weakness. It therefore requires confession, voluntary vulnerability, the openness to a new path, a willingness to continue falling and getting up again, staying on the path, seeking support, and deepening communion.Repentance is our hope. Through repentance we can find life, meaning, communion, joy, fulfillment. Click To Tweet
Repentance is our hope. Through repentance we can find life… a life of meaning and communion, of joy, of fulfillment. Without repentance, we can only sink further into existential despair. Repentance may begin in the pigsty, in sackcloth and ashes, but this is only because we often need to be brought that low before the first step of repentance becomes both clear and palatable: in the words of the prodigal son: “take me back as one of your hired servants”. And the repentance that began in the pigsty leads us into the welcoming arms of our true Father, a fresh outpouring of love, renewed communion, and a great banquet.