Here’s a bit of a letter from Saint Jerome to Eustochium, a consecrated virgin in Rome, about his own temptations to lust in the desert as a hermit. This is from Mike Aquilina’s expanded edition of The Fathers of the Church.
When I was living in the desert, in the vast solitude that gives hermits a savage dwelling place, parched by a burning sun, how often I imagined myself among the pleasures of Rome! I used to sit alone because I was filled with bitterness. Sackcloth disfigured my unshapely limbs, and my skin, from long neglect, had become as black as an Ethiopian’s. Tears and groans were every day my portion; and if drowsiness chanced to overcome my struggles against it, my bare bones, which hardly held together, clashed against the ground. Of my food and drink I say nothing, for even in sickness, the solitaries have nothing but cold water — and to eat one’s food coooked is looked upon as self-indulgence.
Now, although in my fear of hell I had consigned myself to this prison, where I had no companions but scorpions and wild beasts, I often found myself amid bevies of girls. My face was pale and my frame chilled with fasting; yet my mind was burning with desire and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me when my flesh was as good as dead.
Helpless, I cast myself at the feet of Jesus. I watered them with my tears. I wiped them with my hair. And then I subdued my rebellious body with weeks of abstinence. I do not blush to avow my abject misery. Rather I lament that I am not now what once I was. I remember how I often cried aloud all night till the break of day and did not stop beating my breast till tranquility returned at the chiding of the Lord. I used to dread my very cell as though it knew my thoughts; and stern and angry with myself, I used to make my way alone into the desert. Wherever I saw hollow valleys, craggy mountains, steep cliffs, there I made my oratory, there the house of correction for my unhappy flesh.
There, also — the Lord Himself is my witness — when I had shed copious tears and had strained my eyes towards heaven, I sometimes felt myself among angelic hosts, and for joy and gladness sang: “Because of the savor of your good ointments we will run after you” (cf. Song 1:3-4).
Good on Saint Jerome, keeping his chasity while drowning in lust, lust, lust. Yikes! A time of purifying onseself from depending on oneself to depending on Jesus. Very good.
We should be clear, however: penance is never, ever meant to be a tool — in and of itself – to overcome any kind of self-centeredness, as if concentrating on one’s own efforts would do anything more for chastity than castration did for silly Origen! That would be superstition. Instead, penance and mortification begins and ends with friendship with Jesus. For instance, when you fast, do this while looking to the Lord, beseeching Him to let you know more clearly by this means just how terribly weak and beholden to the body over against the spirit that you are, and this not to beat yourself up and get depressed, but so as to use that clarity regarding your own weakness to all the more truthfully call to the Lord.
That calling out to the Lord, perhaps tears and all, is to look to His friendship, His enthusiasm, His joy in bringing one to Himself. It is to be a calling out not of frustration, but of the littlest child looking to his heavenly Father, with simplicity, with enthusiasm. The more the temptation, the simpler and more enthusiastic for the friendship with the Lord. How’s that?
If there is frustration, one is depending way too much on oneself. If there is joy, that speaks of a great friendship with our Lord, depending on Him. If one does not deny the effects of original sin (and any personal sin… and societal, environmental influence), but rather, with honesty, presents such weakness to the Lord, confessing that such weakness is due to the just consequences of sin, then one can take this up as the cross, and know in honestly following Jesus — looking to Him as our Savior, while knowing full well the weight of the cross – that one can look forward to being and be absolutely chaste, and this with the enthusiasm and joy of a little child. So what if there are temptations! They just point one to the goodness and kindness of the Lord in coming into this little hell of this world to bring one out of such idiocy and into the fullness of love and goodness and kindness that He brings to us. Though one is weak, the Lord’s strength shines through those who are chaste in His grace.
Sanctity begins with the cross also of temptations, and ends in heaven. Some think that the spiritual life only begins when they have repressed anything untoward. That’s a roadmap to hell. More on that later. Instead, to the cross! to the frank recognition of weakness! to great friendship with Jesus!
And yes, I have reason to agree with Saint Jerome. Angels make their presense known to the pure of heart, even though, as it were, one has been tempted in this way or that during one’s life. Yikes! Angels are so very good and so very kind. They behold the face of God in heaven now, and bring us to Jesus, to whom we belong as members of a body do to the head: Jesus sees our heavenly Father for us and in some way with us, even now, for those who, however tempted, are joyfully chaste. Awesome.