It’s easy to blame billboards. Or television. Or Mortal Kombat. As our society becomes more sexualizing and violent, the temptation to turn to social explanations also seems to grow stronger. And it would be silly to pretend that this temptation isn’t grounded on some truth. “The world,” after all, is the first of the traditional triad of spiritual enemies (the world, the flesh, and the devil), and if a culture of escalating impurity doesn’t count as “the world,” it’s hard to see what would.
Considering the storm of sensuality that we must weather when just walking down the street, it’s interesting to recall a particularity about the Order of Preachers. From their earliest days, the friars were criticized because, unlike monks, they were exposed to the evils of the world as they traveled and preached. The Vitae Fratrum recounts the impressions of a holy anchoress upon first meeting the friars:
Noticing how fair complexioned they were (for they were freshly shaven), and how good-looking in their comely habit, she utterly despised them at heart, saying within herself, “How can such men keep chaste going thus through the world?” Previous to the meeting she had pictured them to herself as men of austere and forbidding mien, wearing long beards as if come fresh from some desert: so she slammed the window and shut herself up.
Thus, to some the Order has seemed imprudent in the degree of its contact with the world. Yet the very same Order so criticized has also been called an “Order of lilies” for the great purity of its Saints. How can this Order both expose its members to the immodesties of the world and also raise up paragons of purity like Dominic and Martin de Porres?
The first and obvious answer is grace. St. Thomas’ angelic chastity was itself the result of angelic intervention, and if we want to partake in the graces of the girdle he received, we have to pray for it. But more can be said:
In a delightful passage from his little novel The Quiet Light, Louis de Wohl imagines a meeting between St. Thomas Aquinas and his beloved sister. Many years have passed since they saw one another last, and the difference between them when they reunite is striking. As their conversation comes to a close, the tired woman turns to her brother and asks, almost pleadingly, “Thomas, how can I be a Saint?”
The response that de Wohl places in Aquinas’ mouth is marvelous and true. And how does he have the Church’s greatest theologian, indeed, one of the most powerful thinkers of all time, respond? Not with “I answer that . . .” Instead, St. Thomas looks at his sister with love and intensely whispers but two simple words: desire it.
There is nothing on this earth so powerful as holy desire. The true solution to a sexualized society will not be a social remedy. The world is falling because our hearts have fallen first. The more tainted the things we desire are, the more tainted we who desire will be. The world cannot be purified without the purification of hearts. That means turning our eyes to things that are true and truly wanting what we see.
The Rule says “the eye is the herald of the heart,” and that means that the movies we watch, the places we go, the things we read, and even the conversations we have all call for an honest examining. For most of us, this examination will be painful, but it need not be scrupulous or guilt-ridden. If we don’t desire the things that we ought, we can at least desire to desire them, and the holy desires that we do have can serve as a focal point for our prayer and meditation. If we let Him, the Lord will kindle desires in our hearts and stoke them into a furnace that consumes the chaff of our old compromises.
So, are you scandalized and frustrated when you walk by Abercrombie? Don’t blame Twitter. Avert your eyes and long for lilies. God wants to gird our hearts with grace, and all we have to do is desire it.
Image: Sophie Anderson, Elaine or The Lily Maid of Astolat