Friday, March 25, 2016

So Am I Going To Hell?

When I was 9 years old, I woke up with a painful lump on the left side of my chest.  When I went into my mom’s bedroom and complained about it, as most 9 years do when they aren’t feeling well, she immediately took me to the hospital. The doctor, a woman, made me take my shirt off and lie down on a paper-covered table while she felt the lump. “Puberty” was her prognosis. I had never heard the word before and was extremely confused, but the doctor reassured me with a pat on the back and a cheerful “Don’t worry, you won’t wake up in the morning with big boobs or anything; it’s going to take a few years.”  

I got my period when I was 11. My mom, dear private person that she is, nearly died of embarrassment trying to show me how to use a tampon. I never asked her again about anything pertaining to bodily functions. Like most children, I found the answers to my burning questions in old library books that had weird color illustrations of people having sex and grotesque representations of male genitalia. All of it was literally intoxicating to my pre-teen brain. I distinctly remember one book that had a whole chapter on a phenomenon known as “virgins.” “Virgins are sexually repressed and frustrated people,” it said. “If you have a friend who is a virgin, you should do whatever you can to help them.”

Don’t worry, there’s already a movie out there about how to do just that.

While these books were obviously written by people with an agenda (I wouldn’t be surprised if Planned Parenthood was one of the editors), they profoundly influenced my sexual development. I knew my mother would skin me alive if she ever found me reading one, so I would hide these titillating tomes under my mattress or behind my Trixie Beldon books. I didn’t realize it, but I was ashamed. I thought sex was something dirty to be hidden, and my changing body only confirmed this fact. I was feeling pleasure in ways I had never felt before. I was “awakening,” as the feminists would say, to my newfound sexual prowess. Men were looking at my body. I had breasts and hips. I was ovulating. It was incredible and terrifying. I had a power that I didn’t know how to control, and no one to teach me how.

My story is a familiar one. You, and probably everyone else in this world have had a similar experience of waking up one day to a different body and then having the whole world of sex cave in on you. Perhaps you discovered a Playboy magazine in your dad’s closet, or a naked lady popped up in your browser when you were looking for a chocolate cake recipe. Maybe a friend showed you a website or a picture torn out of a magazine, or your dirty old Uncle Johnny took you to an adult bookstore instead of the ice cream parlor. Maybe you were abused by a family member or a trusted adult. Whatever the circumstances, most of us get a rude awakening at a tender age, and the deep wounds that result can haunt us for the rest of our lives. 

There are few good resources out there for despairing Catholics and Christians who are trying to live their faith but are still chained to sexual addictions. There are even fewer resources for women who struggle with masturbation and pornography; it’s still considered a “guy problem,” and more often than not, the solutions that are offered to men are not effective for women. Women are already more vulnerable to body image issues and self-hatred than men; throw sexual addictions into the mix, and you’ve got yourself one hot mess.

The hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life is reconcile my unwanted and unhealthy sexual behaviors with my Catholic faith. Even those who are not Catholic but still devout Christians struggle with this. The Catholic Church has always upheld the fact that masturbation and pornography are mortal sins, but recently, especially in the light of Pope Francis’s reinterpretation of Church teachings, the definition has become very murky. Non-Catholic Christians also go back and forth about the seriousness of these sins; since masturbation is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible or condemned by Jesus, many tend to dismiss it as a normal and natural expression of sexuality. However, this does not account for the deep and sometimes paralyzing guilt that many Christians feel when they engage in these behaviors, even when their pastors tell them that it’s OK.

Guilt is often dismissed and condemned today as a tool that corrupt churches use to control their congregations and terrify them into submission. The Church just wants to squash your fun and make you a cold, sexless prig, so take away the notion of sin and your problem is solved. Or is it?

Guilt is actually not bad. It is the healthy by-product of a well-formed conscience that alerts us when something is not right, when something is conflicting with our identity as sons and daughters of God, made in His image. Pornography and masturbation rob us of the full and complete life we were meant to live. Then convince us that we don’t deserve real, beautiful, self-sacrificing love, so we must settle for whatever we can get.

There are also people who suffer greatly from the knowledge that their sexual behaviors are very wrong and sinful, and yet do not have the resources or support they need to pull themselves out of their hole. Recovering from addiction is NOT based on the amount of willpower a person has or on how holy they are. People who have never suffered an addiction often wonder about addicts “why can’t they just not do it? Why can’t they just quit?” Overcoming an addiction is NOT an act of the will. It requires that you literally rewire your brain circuitry through constant and diligent repetition of good habits to replace the bad habits. It requires connecting on a personal level with people who will help and support you through this difficult journey. But most of all, it requires trust in the mercy of God.

Many Catholics and Christians, myself included, struggle with thinking that God is going to damn them to hell for their sexual sins. Yes, God is forgiving and merciful like the Bible says, but only up to a certain point. If we keep falling and failing and screwing up, we’re eventually going to get to the point where God just isn’t going to be able to help us anymore. He’ll say to us, “Sorry, kid, but you just couldn’t stop masturbating, so there’s nothing I can do. My grace only works for good people. Go through the left door.”

For those of us who are fearing hell every time we screw up, I’d like to offer this thought from C.S. Lewis, who knew more than his fair share of struggles with the flesh:

“The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.”

I tend to agree with Lewis here. Many theologians write that lust will be punished least severely because it is so often a sin of weakness and not of malice. That's why Dante placed the lustful in the highest level of Hell; the proud and the traitors and the hypocrites were at the very bottom.

But, you say, they’re still in hell! So let me remind you of one last thing: God never sends people to hell. We choose it. The souls in hell are the ones who stopped fighting the good fight, who stopped caring, who decided that they would rather spend their eternity in insufferable flames rather than look upon the face of a God that reminds them of their pride and stubbornness. I can assure you of this, brothers and sisters: as long as you keep trying, as long as you go to confession, as long as you get back up after every fall, you will never see hell. Hell is for those who are too proud to keep trying.

Yet it is difficult for many Catholics to stay pure and keep trying when everyone around them--even other Catholics and Christians--embrace porn and masturbation as a normal part of their lives. “How wonderful it must be,” we think, “to masturbate without guilt!” One of my friends brought this up, but then commented on it by saying “I think people who have no guilt don’t even realize that they DO have guilt.” Regardless of our religious upbringing or lack thereof, we are all born with a conscience that is formed by God. We can stifle it, suppress it, or ignore it, but we cannot kill it any more than we can kill God. We Christians have seen the light: we have been baptized, we have been enriched by His word and marked with His blood. When we sin, we know we are betraying who we truly are and contradicting our identity as children of God. As for those who persist in sexual sin, seemingly without any guilt, they have never known the light. They don’t know that there is anything better out there, so they try to satisfy themselves with whatever they can get their hands on. And Satan always has something for idle and empty hands.

There is one more interesting point about sexual sins that I would like to bring up. Before the onset of World War Two, Our Lady appeared to three shepherd children in a place now known as Fatima in the country of Portugal. Mary told the children many things, including this statement that is troubling to many: "More souls go to Hell because of sins against the 6th Commandment than for any other reason. "

Sr Lucia, the last Fatima seer to recently pass away, said this statement refers primarily to sins of impurity. The reason for this statement is not because sins against chastity are the most grievous sins, but the most common, and, as Sr Lucia stated, "because of conscience, " since sins of impurity are less likely to be repented of than other sins.

Why is this the case? Three reasons: 1) Because the sense of injustice committed, which is the primary stimulus to repent of one's sins, is not strongly felt when engaging in them. Our modern world has embraced all kinds of perversions on a massive scale, and it is easy for a Christian to justify his or her actions by thinking “Well, I may be masturbating/looking at porn, but at least I’m not raping people/hooking up/molesting children.” Our conscience, though it cannot be killed, can become numb, and this always leads to the sin of pride, which will make it extremely difficult if not impossible to humble ourselves before God when it is time for us to choose heaven or hell.
2) There is a greater sense of shame when committing certain impure acts and
hence greater difficulty confessing them in the sacrament of confession, or even repenting
of them in one's heart. I have struggled many times to confess certain sins in the confessional, and have even been reprimanded by priests who were less than charitable. All of this, on top of the intense disgust and disappointment I knew would result if I ever told my parents, forced me to isolate myself in my fear. Isolation is another factor that leads to pride, because we eventually believe ourselves to be so darn bad that no one, not even God, can touch us or help us, no one can understand us, no one can love us. We hide from our family, our friends, our neighbors, and eventually ourselves because we believe we are so irreparably disgusting. There is nothing sadder than a soul that isolates itself in its fear and shame, and nothing as tragic as a soul who believes that even God, who is Infinite Mercy and Infinite Love, looks on them with revulsion and even hatred.

3) Sexual activity of all kinds is presented by our post-Christian — even anti-Christian — popular culture as natural and good, and sexual abstinence is even taught to be unhealthy. The sixth commandment, relating to chastity, has always been called "the difficult commandment." Today, with pornography everywhere and perversions of every kind embraced as being normal and good, it can almost be called "the impossible commandment." However, Jesus assures us: "What is impossible with men is possible with God." (Lk 18:27) We must never forget that all who invoke the Blessed Virgin Mary for help in overcoming sins of impurity will receive the grace to do so, as Mary herself has revealed to St. Bridget of Sweden and various other saints. As those who strive to live chaste lives know from experience, when sins of impurity are humbly repented of and confessed, a great burden is removed from our consciences and we experience that peace of soul that the world and the flesh cannot give. 

We belong to God, and He sent his only Son to show us that no matter how far we go, no matter how much we hurt ourselves or others, no matter how often we turn away and become lost, our Good Shepherd will come searching for us. And when He finds us, He will joyfully set us on His shoulders and carry us back to the Father’s house, where there will always be a place at the table for us.


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