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Fasting for Freedom

 

It’s the Christmas season: a time of feasting that we anticipate all year.  As much as I want to savor this time, I find myself preoccupied with more penitential thoughts.

Just as God guilted me into praying the rosary, He’s been using His relentless, persistent tactics to convince me of the need for a change in my life.  Rightly is He called the “Hound of Heaven”. After several months of evasion, I finally realize that I can’t run away from Him any longer.  I’m being called to fast.

Fasting is not something I’ve ever been good at.  In fact, I’ve never been able to fast in any meaningful way.  Two smaller meals and one regular meal, offered up a measly two days a year, don’t help me feel especially accomplished in the art.  Outside of Lent, I’ve often considered fasting for a particular intention, only to give up the idea at the sight of a Hershey bar.  The mental conversation goes like this:

Self 1: “A Hershey bar!  Just when I decide to fast!”

Self 2:  “What?  You may never see one of these again!  Eat it.  How is giving up a Hershey bar going to help anyone anyway?”

Self 1:  “But I am fasting….”

Self 2:  “Ha–like you’ll stick with it.  Quit kidding yourself.  You just want to lose weight.”

Self 1:  “It would be a nice bonus….”

Self 2:  “Aha!  You have selfish motives!  The whole fast is useless. ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!’”

And just like that, my fast is over—rationalized away before I begin.

Another complicating factor in my fasts: food is an obsession for me.  More accurately, food is an addiction.  Unlike the alcoholic, I can’t simply abstain; I have to eat to live.  The problem is that I function at the opposite end of the spectrum: I live to eat.

After twenty years as an adult, I stumbled upon the idea that every food is not problematic—only carbohydrates.  Pooh-pooh all you want, but I can personally attest (as can AnnMarie) that when I quit eating carbohydrates, my thoughts about food change.  I no longer nosh all day, sneak food in secret, or eat whole jars of peanut butter with bags of chocolate chips mixed in.  The evil little monkey on my back goes away and leaves me in peace.

Of course, I fall.  I get off track and binge like crazy.  And I hate it.  I hate the gluttonous, out-of-control, shoving-food-down-the-gullet-without-tasting-it maniac that I become.  But most of the time I don’t hate it enough to walk away.  So I spin in the vortex for a while, down and down, until I can manage to break free again.

I have also come to terms with the fact that my son has an addiction, too.  He is addicted to pornography.  It’s a battle he has fought since age twelve.   While he lived at home, we could help filter his life.  Now, as a freshman in college, he swims in a sea of it.  Like me, he has managed to walk away and stay “clean” for a while, but ultimately finds himself drawn in again.  Sex, like food, is everywhere.

I’ve prayed for my son—prayed, cried and prayed again.  But what I haven’t been able to do is fast for him.  Only in the last year have I begun to see a link between my son’s addiction and my own.  I have always looked upon his sin as worse than mine, but how different are we?  Pornography is a twisting of the precious gift of our sexuality.  My food obsession, too, is a twisting of the goods that God has given.  (Dieters can even look at “food porn” online—graphic images of forbidden delicacies, intended to stimulate and tantalize).  Both pornography and food addiction represent a warped, disordered misuse of things that are objectively good—things that God has given us to sustain and enrich life.  My son and I aren’t so different after all.  I can’t help but think: if I could give up my addiction, as a fast for my son, how powerful would that be?

It may sound bizarre, but I feel that God has given me a unique opportunity to help my son, to do him a service that no one else can.  It is as though we share a strange, supernatural bond, and I have recourse to special aid by virtue of our common sin.  If only I (by God’s grace) can manage to break free of my chains, I can help set him free in the process.  It’s like a scene from a science fiction movie—but I know that in the communion of saints, it’s possible.

Moses fasted for the sins of the faithless Israelite people, begging God’s mercy for them (Exodus 34).  So did the prophet Daniel (Daniel 9).  The Israelites fasted for deliverance (1 Samuel 7; Nehemiah 9), as did the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3).  Jesus himself told his apostles that some demons are subdued only “by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29).

Pope Paul VI, in the 1966 apostolic constitution Paenitemini (On Fast and Abstinence) wrote:“… mortification aims at the ‘liberation’ of man, who often finds himself, because of concupiscence, almost chained by his own senses. Through ‘corporal fasting’ man regains strength and the ‘wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance is cured by the medicine of a salutary abstinence.’”  To put it simply, for those consumed by addiction, fasting is a powerful antidote.

Fr. Rich Simon’s, host of Relevant Radio’s Go Ask Your Father, put the Holy Father’s thoughts into more common language, explaining that in our world we are “enslaved” by many things.  Fasting opposes this slavery.  With fasting, we actively, consciously, choose to forego that which we desire.  Thus we are not mastered by our desires, but willfully master them by saying “no” to self.  Fasting, when coupled with prayer, is a hammer striking at the chains that bind us in sin.  As Fr. Rich says, “Fasting is about freedom”.

Of course all this fasting is still theoretical for me.  I haven’t actually done any fasting.  In fact, as is typical, I have been leery to commit myself to it without a very clear sign from above.  I keep hoping to look down and find this:

But as I was writing, God generously gave me the confirmation I craved.  It turns out that our bishops have issued a Call To Prayer For Life, Marriage, And Religious Liberty.  It is a request for “prayer, penance, and sacrifice for the sake of renewing a culture of life, marriage, and religious liberty in our country.”

I’m no genius, but even I can recognize that my son, a well-formed Catholic young man with much good to offer the world, is a prime target in the spiritual battle that rages in our world.  He has an important role to fulfill in the culture of life—as a husband, father, and community leader—and the sanctity of his vocation is under attack.  The bishops are not asking me to fast for a theoretical soldier in a culture war far, far away.  They are asking me to fast for my son.  They are asking me to strike a blow for the culture of life by working to exorcise pornography from the life of one young man—my young man.  Our culture is renewed not through mighty deeds and acts of Congress, but by me being faithful to my personal call, doing my small acts, changing my own life and family in little ways.  I can’t be Joan of Arc.  But maybe I can be St. Therese.

The bishops call to prayer has five components—including fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays.  The fast begins on December 30, 2012 (the Feast of the Holy Family) and lasts until November 24, 2013 (the feast of Christ the King).  For a complete outline of the Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage and Religious Liberty, visit the USCCB website.

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Ink Slingers Misty

Fifty Shades of Porn

In case you haven’t heard, the most popular books on the planet right now are the Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James. Not because they contain fine literature, but because they contain explicit sex scenes with characters engaging in sadomasochistic bondage. Given our culture, it’s no surprise the books are flying off the shelves and onto Nooks and Kindles at lightening speed. What is surprising, however, is that so many Christians are openly reading and even promoting these books to friends and family.

Well, why not? Fifty years ago, pornography was considered immoral at worst, unseemly at best, but clearly something in contrast to Christian values of fidelity, chastity, and self-control. But today, it’s not even morally neutral, but something people actually recommend to improve a relationship or marriage. The prevailing attitude is that in moderation, it’s harmless. And as an occasionally-used tool, it can actually bring a couple closer and enhance their sex life.

I might buy this, except I’m no stranger to porn and its consequences. I was first exposed to it at the tender age of five, when an adult male babysitter showed me scenes from the film he was watching. At 10, I was cleaning another family’s basement and found an issue of Playgirl. The explicit images shocked and disturbed me, but I still squirreled it away for later viewing. At 12, I found the porn channels on our satellite dish and watched every time my parents ran errands without me. I even stole sexually-explicit paperbacks from my aunt, which were just as effective in piquing my interest and libido as films. (Which is how I know Shades of Grey is just gussied up smut.)

But this was all child’s play compared to the porn I encountered at 17. My 30-year-old boyfriend, Dan, had amassed a large and varied pornography collection. His insistence that porn was just another tool to spice things up in the bedroom is almost certainly why it became a part of every sexual relationship I had after that. It helped that men were impressed I was so “cool” about it. It even seemed normal to use pornography during the first few years of my marriage.

I don’t think these experiences are unusual among my peers and young people today. Most people have adopted Dan’s progressive attitude about pornography–that it’s a harmless diversion that can ultimately lead to better sex and thus, stronger relationships. Except it isn’t true. Experience, statistics, and science tell us a very different story about porn.

Porn changes the brain. And not in a good way.

Research shows that pornography use causes the same kind of brain damage as substance abuse. Like opiates and other drugs, porn triggers the release of dopamine, a vital neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. The massive dopamine release then greatly reinforces your body’s memory of the experience, spurring you to want to do it again (and again). This is why it’s so easy to become addicted to porn, because just like with drugs, our brain then wires our body to desire that extreme sexual high.

The dopamine released with porn use also causes your brain to process the images (real or imagined) in such a way that they’re stored in long-term memory and replayed repeatedly in your mind. As anyone who has regularly viewed porn can attest: these images are burned into your brain forever. I can still vividly recall scenes in books and movies from nearly 30 years ago. Many of these scenes were grossly immoral and I would love to purge them from my memory, but the brain damage is, unfortunately, permanent. No one tells you that when you watch a porno, you’re going to have to watch it forever, whether you want to or not.

The other thing they don’t tell you is that just like someone who takes drugs, you’re going to need more and more porn over time to get the same fix. Dan had been using porn for 15 years and the tame stuff just didn’t do it for him anymore. Near the end of our relationship, I discovered he possessed videos that featured bizarre fetishes, beastiality, incest, and sadomasochism. What people are using today is not your father’s Playboy stash, researchers say. It’s hardcore, scary, and it seriously warps you.

Porn harms men.

Men are wired to be stimulated visually, which typically makes them more prone to concupiscence (a fancy word for lust). To sustain a healthy, give-and-take relationship with a flesh-and-blood woman, a man must learn self-control, self-giving, and self-sacrifice. He must treat the woman as a person with dignity, not just a thing to be used for his sexual pleasure.

But the message of pornography undermines those goals and as we’ve shown, those messages send down deep roots into a person’s psyche. In porn, men and women are not rich, complex persons with hopes, dreams, and emotional needs, but things that use other things for personal pleasure. Sexual desire is portrayed as an animalistic, uncontrollable urge that you have a right to indulge. There is no expectation of fidelity or consequences for being unfaithful; monogamy is a joke.

It should be no surprise then, that men who imbibe a steady diet of pornography have problems maintaining a healthy relationship with a woman. Men see plastic, sex-crazed women in pornos, then get disappointed when their girlfriends and wives don’t look or act that way. (And nothing turns a woman on like knowing her guy got turned on by another woman.)

A significant number of men are also plagued by anxiety that they don’t measure up–literally or performance-wise–to the men they see in pornos. One study found that less than half of all men (45%) felt they were adequately endowed. As one man put it, “I wasn’t able to perform unless I thought I was the biggest. In my mind, I couldn’t see why a girl would want to be with me if she could have someone bigger.”

Porn hurts women.

Few people realize that that nearly 30% of sex addicts are women, with some studies showing that one out of six women–including Christian women–struggle with an addiction to pornography. Not that you have to be addicted to be damaged by porn. A recent study confirmed what women have known for years: that pornography leaves women feeling dismissed, unloved, inadequate, and betrayed.

Porn destroys marriages.

Patrick Fagan, director of the Center for Research on Marriage and Religion, calls pornography a “quiet family killer.” A good description when you consider that a spouse’s porn addition is a factor in 56% of divorces today. Divorce attorneys have confirmed this stat: at a 2003 meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, two-thirds of the 350 lawyers said porn had contributed to more than half the divorces they’d worked.

***

But all that’s neither here nor there, Shades of Grey fans will say. Erotic fiction isn’t porn. It doesn’t involve real people, so it’s not harmful like visual pornography is.

When I was a newly converted and spiritually immature Catholic, I used those same excuses to justify reading porn instead of watching it. But then I realized I read the stories for the same reason I’d watched the movies: to get sexually aroused. I just used my imagination instead of a television, but the end result was the same. Pornography, whether it’s tucked away in the back room of a video store or between the pages of a bestselling novel, has only one purpose: to incite lust. Christians especially should remember what Jesus said about that: “I say unto you, that every one that looks on a woman with lust has committed adultery already with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

When we use our sexuality as God intended–in an act of mutual self-giving with our spouse–we get good outcomes. We bond with our spouse, we bring new life into the world, we forge strong marriages and families. But pornography turns what should be a most profound exchange of love into a solitary, selfish grasping for pleasure. It fosters sexual anxiety, damages our ability to have healthy relationships, and destroys marriages and families. Lust–and thus, porn–is sinful, folks. And we need to stop pretending there’s anything gray about that.

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Ink Slingers Patty

Shame…what happened to it?

SHAME
Definitions:
1.) a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety
b : the susceptibility to such emotion
2.) condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute : ignominy
3.) something that brings censure or reproach; also : something to be regretted.

He felt shame for his lies.
How could you be so rude? Have you no shame?
Her crimes brought shame upon her family.
He had to endure the shame of being fired.

I have heard and read as the emotion of shame has been belittled, mocked and derided as though no person should lower his or herself to the level of feeling guilt for their actions. When did this happen? Why is it that a person can take the life of an unborn child or be complicit in that act and yet deny they should feel the least amount of shame?

Why is it that very young teenagers on up to the elderly engage in sexual promiscuity and won’t even blush when their behavior comes to light? When did it become appropriate for men and women to expose so much of their bodies that the imagination is not needed in the least to fill in the (very small-as in minuscule) blanks? Pornography, masturbation and the open lusting over both sexes on television, movies and in print is accepted as ‘normal and healthy’? Students from high school on up to college don’t think twice about cheating on tests; employees steal from their employers and boast about it afterwards while employers have no qualms about cheating both their employees out of their just wages and the government out of taxes. As for the government…well, the government is the prime example of an organization with no shame and precious little moral compass but it is also a post for another time.

Within the last few months I have read about a toddler in China who ended up out in a street and was run over twice. She laid dying in the street as dozens walked past her, unmoved by the child’s suffering. In the last year I cried as I read about a sick doctor in Philadelphia who severed the spinal cords of dozens if not hundreds of infants born alive in his abortion mill. In that same year I have watched a wildly popular teen-aged musical sitcom popularize pre-marital sex, drunkenness with a huge dose of homosexual lifestyle promotion thrown in for good measure. The show was clever about it, gradually introducing these reprehensible behaviors in small doses until present when the immorality is full force ‘in your face’.

Our Lady of Fatima said the following:
‘More souls go to hell for sins of the flesh than for any other reason.’

This is very easy to believe in our society. No vice is as promoted or exalted as the vice of impurity. Homosexuality, fornication, adultery…you can find all of these sins and more as the glorified centerpiece in sitcoms, movies and television show.

‘Certain fashions will be introduced which will offend Our Divine Lord very much. Those who serve God ought not to follow these fashions. The Church has no fashions. Our Lord is always the same.’

Women are dressed in the scantiest of clothing and at the same time loudly condemn those who would objectify them when they are busy doing everything in their power to draw attention to their bodies. I certainly do hold ‘Hollywood’ responsible for slowly but surely desensitizing young and old to sexual sins. I am reminded of the story (albeit false) of the frog that is put into a pot of tepid water and never bothering to jump out as the water is heated to boiling with the frog eventually dying. That IS our society and that of so many others in the world. Morality, and ethics and a sense of right and wrong based on the ten commandments have been watered down bit by bit over the last four decades until the evidence of morality and a sense of right and wrong comes as a surprise when it is evident.

I worry for my children and your children in a society that has lost shame about issues such as killing, impurity and the respect and honor due to all life from conception to natural death. I worry about a society that doesn’t feel shame when it should and tries to force shame on those who are strong enough to point this out. I worry that any person who does not have a strong foundation in faith and morals will too easily swept away in an avalanche of socially acceptable sinful behavior.