~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 5.25
Unchastity, and the lust from which it is born, is a problem that we do well to revisit often with an ear to the wisdom of the fathers. How many relationships, marriages, ministries, careers, and so on have been ruined by a person’s own lust? This unnamed old man offers an interesting insight to contemplate. If chastity is “born of serenity, and silence, and secret meditation,” then logically unchastity thrives where there is no serenity, no silence, and no secret meditation.
Of the three, I think the first is most important: serenity. I can imagine one who practices silence and secret meditation still falling to lust. But serenity, that requires satisfaction with what one has (or does not have, as the case may be).
Lust is a species of desire. Desire only comes from dissatisfaction. Not all dissatisfaction is bad, of course. Dissatisfaction with one’s own righteousness motivates us to strive to be more virtuous. But in the case of lust, dissatisfaction leads to vice (unchastity), so it’s a bad thing.
Serenity is a form of peace. In particular, it is the calm after a storm. Our sinful passions are often referred to as a storm, and so I do not think that serenity requires an absence of good forms of desire, only the stormy kind.
But this is what I find so insightful about this old man’s saying: unchastity requires, therefore, a lack of peace. It is not the calm after the storm, but the destruction left in its wake.
I find, as well, a connection between these three elements. Secret meditation, the Jesus Prayer in particular, helps one, according to St. Theophan the Recluse, “keep the mind on the single thought of God.”
In the presence of God, our natural reaction is that of Job:
Behold, I am vile;
What shall I answer You?
I lay my hand over my mouth.
Silence—steadfast silence, silence with strength—is born of the awareness of the presence of God.
The connection between silence and peace can be found in another saying from another anonymous old man, which I have reflected on before:
An old man said: “Take care to be silent. Empty the mind. Attend to your meditation, in the fear of God, whether you are resting in bed or at work. If you do this, you will not fear the assaults of demons.”
The “assaults of demons” are the winds and waves and thunderbolts of the storm that threatens our peace. Meditation helps us learn silence, and silence helps us learn serenity.
Thus, when struck by the thunderbolt of lust, we need to ask ourselves (among other things), “When did I last dedicate some time to praying the Jesus Prayer?” If we find that we have not fallen out of the habit, the next question ought to be: “How well have I been practicing silence lately?”
If we have those two, then we need only fall back on them. We must retreat in secret and meditate, and allow ourselves to be silenced by the presence of God. Weathering the storm in this safe haven, we can reemerge once it passes to the serenity from which “chastity is born.”