About Those Two Bishops And the Prostitute

So the story goes…

To teach the theology of the body, Christopher West tells a story about two bishops seeing a prostitute:

The following story illustrates what mature Christian purity looks like. Two bishops walked out of a Cathedral just as a scantily clad prostitute passed by.

One bishop immediately turned away. The other bishop looked at her intently. The bishop who turned away exclaimed, ‘Brother bishop, what are you doing? Turn your eyes!’ When the bishop turned around, he lamented with tears streaming down his face, ‘How tragic that such beauty is being sold to the lusts of men.’

Which one of those bishops was vivified with the ethos of redemption? Which one had passed over from merely meeting the demands of the law to a superabounding fulfillment of the law? (From West’s Theology of the Body Explained, revised edition, p. 215).

A striking story, to be sure. It leads me to ask myself: “Am I truly free? Have I been “vivified by the ethos of redemption”? Or am I merely meeting the “demands of the law” in avoiding to look at a scantily clad woman, for fear of lusting?

Courtship Accusation

West’s version of this story has cropped up a few times in my life as a Catholic, first with a young Catholic woman that I courted a few years after my conversion to Catholicism.

Christopher West
Christopher West

She had been learning about the theology of the body, primarily through Christopher West’s work, and she had introduced me to it for the first time.

I was excited and intrigued by what I learned in the theology of the body, and she and I discussed it often.

One day, we were going to Blockbuster video to rent a movie (yes, I realize this dates me horribly; for younger folks, this was a video rental chain where you went to rent physical DVDs or VHS movies). Blockbuster was pretty awful: every tenth movie you came across featured scantily clad women and some kind of lewdness.

At this point in my Catholic life, I was still struggling with overcoming pornography and lustful sins. I suggested to my girlfriend that I disliked going into Blockbuster because it meant having to face temptation to lust, or at the least have seeds of temptation planted by seeing so many provocative video covers.

She responded by saying: “So you are like the bishop who looked away from the prostitute. You’ve not truly internalized the theology of the body but are only avoiding looking at women because you will lust.”

I was hurt by her words, and at the time I also felt them to be unfair. Here I was, striving to become strong in chastity, but still on the journey, and I was being criticized for not having arrived already at the destination.

Naturally, we got into an argument about it, and we ended up not going to Blockbuster. While that courtship eventually ended, it was a good learning experience for me (and hopefully for her).

What Do I Have to Do to Be Free?

Fast forward 13 years later. I’m happily married with two children. And by God’s grace, I overcame pornography addiction and lustful sins. I am free from them and their power over me, and yet I remain on guard against temptation, knowing that I am not in Heaven yet.

Auxiliary Bishops Robert J. Brennan and Nelson J. Perez of Rockville Centre, N.Y., smile as they process from St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre following their episcopal ordination July 25. Bishop Brennan, 50, is the vicar general of Rockville Centre. Bishop Perez, 51, was a pastor in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia when he was named a bishop. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic) (June 26, 2012)

I created a course to help Catholic men win freedom from pornography and lust. A friend of mine came over to visit and we talked about the course. On the side he does personal coaching to help Catholic men overcome pornography addiction. He himself had struggled with it for many years but conquered it by God’s grace.

He told me that, while he appreciated confession, Mass, the Rosary, devotions, spiritual direction, and so on, he doesn’t think those things are capable of helping a man retrain his heart to see women without lusting after them. At best, they are necessary, but not sufficient, means to achieve purity.

I told him that the course also includes many truths from the theology of the body. But he didn’t think that that was enough either. He explained that he had grown in purity so much that he is never tempted to look at pornography or to lust, and that this type of healing and retraining can only occur through a specific kind of therapy, one that he himself coaches men on.

Now, he said, he is able to look at any woman without being tempted to lust. He went on to say that if any man isn’t at that place yet, then he is really just at the “avoidance” level of purity, only able to avert his eyes and not really free.

Sound familiar? It’s the Two Bishops story once again. Prayers and confession, the sacraments and spiritual disciplines are all well and good, I hear my friend saying, but they don’t lead to true purity. Even learning and understanding the theology of the body is not enough. The virtue of purity must be attained by some other, or at least additional, means than these traditional Catholic practices.

Another Take on the Two Bishops

I am willing to ask myself: “Have I just gotten good at avoiding temptations to lust? Am I not truly free?”

As I reflected on those questions, I could only answer “I don’t know.” I suspect my friend is off the mark, a bit too sanguine about the state of redeemed man and concupiscence, but I am not God and can’t tell you the level of my virtue. Perhaps I have simply not undergone a strong enough test to truly prove me a fraud in this regard.

But I would also answer that it doesn’t matter that much. If the net result in both cases is living chastely, then however one got there, however one may still be tempted, is immaterial. If I’m living virtuously even though it may be very hard, even though I have to avert my gaze from the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, I’m acting in a way that is pure, interiorly and exteriorly, by God’s grace.

One does not conquer pornography and lust on one’s own steam. It requires grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist itself, the Church teaches, strengthens us against future mortal sin. God hasn’t been keeping the remedies to sin and the aids to virtue secret from us. They are there in plain sight, for all to receive and have been since the founding of His Church.

Further, fleeing from temptation, conscious of our own weaknesses, is a practice that the saints commend to us. Pope Francis quoted St. Therese who said:

“In some temptations, the only solution is to escape, to not be ashamed to escape, to recognize that we are weak and we have to escape.” — St. Therese of Lisieux

The truth is that there is a spectrum of virtue between the two bishops. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, and one must flee temptation. Other times, having grown heroically strong in virtue, one is called to fight and overcome.

Teachings Old And New

tocuhIn my course on purity, I highly recommend people read the theology of the body, either in its original form or via an evangelist like Christopher West. I endorse his books and ship them out to people

The teachings of the theology of the body are good, and they are one more weapon to growing in purity. It is vital to arm one’s intellect with the proper understand of the beauty of the human person and the purpose of our sexuality. Learning about these was a key element in my growth in purity.

But we are not all the same. Some men benefit from one tool over another, one devotion over another. And men are at all different stages in their journey to freedom. Men closer to the beginning may need crutches, may need to take radical steps to avoid temptation. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Some men further along in the journey may never need to avert their eyes from a prostitute or swimsuit edition. Others, just as far along, but with a different constitution, may find it prudent to continue averting their eyes. Do we drop the Two Bishops gotcha on them?  I don’t think so.

Wiser, in my experience, is to recognize that every man is different, and to encourage each man to try a variety of tactics and tools to grow in purity.

Further, we should never downplay the Church’s time-honored medicines for conquering vice and strengthening virtue. God instituted them for a reason. They have the backing of His grace and power. They come with divine promises of conversion.

About those two bishops: I’m probably somewhere in the spectrum between them. But both are Catholic.

Stoics Paved the Way to Christianity

I just got done reading a surprising book: The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living, by Kevin Vost. It unveils the striking connection between the Stoics and Christianity.

More Than a Feeling

I admit my knowledge of the Stoic philosophers was thin. I equated Stoicism with responding to life with cold, unemotional stiffness.

Vost disabuses readers of that false notion immediately:

As we’ll see in the chapters ahead, this could hardly be farther from the truth. Their powerful life lessons live on…..They can teach us to live calmer, happier, more productive, humane, noble, and virtuous lives whether we live in Rome, Italy, in Athens Greece, or in Athens, Illinois.

The Stoics actually lived lives full of joy, peace, and meaning. Though bereft of God’s divine revelation in the Old and New Covenants, they stretched their God-given powers of reason to the limit, reaching many of the same conclusions that Christians came to regarding life, liberty, and love.

Four Stoics Walk Into a Bar

Vost focuses on the four most well known Stoics: Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.

These men ranged from slave to Emperor and had dramatically different personalities, yet each embraced the Stoic philosophy that sought to live a worthy life, a truly human life, and so they were united.

vostVost examines the life and history of each of these men, recounts the most memorable stories (and legends) about them, then synthesizes their writings. He compares their teachings with Christianity and (in most cases) demonstrates how closely they came to the truth.

How close were they to divine truth? Musonius Rufus is considered one of the first pro-life philosophers. He praised large families, extolled fidelity in marriage, argued against abortion and contraception, and connected the purpose of marriage to procreation and the unitive value between husband and wife. Quite astounding for someone who was born a few decades before Jesus Christ.

The Stoic philosophers were not interested in pie-in-the-sky theorizing. Rather, they focused on eminently practical topics like: should a child obey his parents? How should we dress ourselves? What is the meaning of pain and hardship? Must we learn what is good and follow it?

Practical Wisdom

My wife was going through a difficult event, one in which she was fearful of what another person was going to do. Fortunately I had just read an idea in this book and relayed it to her: “you can’t control what that other person is going to do; you can only control how you choose to respond to it.”

vost1That reminder was liberating for her. And she continued to repeat it to herself when she began to worry again. I had to take my own medicine shortly thereafter with a situation that I found myself in, concerned about what someone was going to do that could adversely affect me. The Stoics faced exile and worse for their philosophy, yet wherever they were, they bore it in peace, content to be at home wherever they were sent. This detachment is quite Christ-like, an acceptance of suffering that the saints of the Church have often lived out, and spoken of.

A friend of mine a few years back told me he had left Christianity and become a Stoic. I was confused when I heard this, as I had not read Vost’s book. But now I get it more. He was a liberal Protestant before, and that watered down version of Christianity he ultimately found less compelling than the practical wisdom of the Stoics. I plan to tell him about this book, in hopes it will plant a seed for his return to Christianity one day.

Kevin Vost has written an excellent book, enlightening us about this treasure of ancient times, the Stoic philosophers, and how they came right up to the entryway of Christianity.