The time of Lent is a time of temptations and spiritual perfection at the same time. If we are to resist temptation and thus grow spiritually, we must know and have the skills to do it. As the apostle Paul said, “And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully.” (2 Timothy 2:5). Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite offers a clear instruction for combating carnal passion. He states that this passion must be fought in a special way, and there are steps to be taken before, during, and after the temptation.
1. Above all, we must avoid the causes of temptation. They can be both things and people, especially of the opposite sex. Never trust the temporary tranquility of the flesh – “Never trust your enemy forever and ever” (Sirach 12:10). What is meant here is not the body itself, created by the Good God, but the “lower” part of our soul. The flesh may be quiet for years and it сould seem that we would no longer be tempted, but as soon as we let our guard down, the flesh would instantly deliver a deadly blow. “Flee, my brother, away from this fire, because you are gunpowder, and never dare think with presumptuousness that you are wet and soaked in the water of good and strong will” (St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, Unseen Warfare, Part I, Ch. 19). Even if your gunpowder is wet, as long as you are careless and obsessed with thoughts, the fire will quickly dry it until it burns.
2. It is necessary to avoid laziness and procrastination and to perform your duties and do everything you have to do while watching your thoughts. Laziness causes idleness, and idleness causes despondency, which you will want to stifle by self-pleasure.
3. Always obey your spiritual advisor, especially with regard to the things that humble you down and are contrary to your sinful proclivities.
4. Do not judge others, especially those who have fallen into this sin, or laugh at them, but show compassion and pity for them. You should learn to be humble when your brother falls, and realize that you, too, are weak and inclined to sin. St. Nicodemus advises us to say to ourselves: “Now he has fallen, and tomorrow I will fall” (Ibid.). If you are quick to condemn and despise others, God may punish you painfully by letting you fall into the same sin, so that you might know the perniciousness of your pride and, having humbled yourself, “seek healing from two evils: pride and fornication” (Ibid.). Remember the words of Jesus, “Judge not, lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1).
5. The Athonite elder emphasizes that even if you have a gift from God and you are in a good state of mind, do not imagine yourself to be a hero who can easily defeat any enemy. If you think so, you will “fall as easily as a leaf from a tree in the fall” (Ibid.).
All these provisions must be observed both before and after the temptation, remembering that the carnal passion retreats only for a while, because it “sometimes does what it has not done for many years in just one hour and in one moment, and is always silent in its preparation for attack” (Ibid.).
During the temptation.
1. Find out the cause of the attack as soon as possible, and try to remove it. The causes may be both external and internal. Saint Nicodemus calls everything that affects our feelings external. This kind of causes can be cured by avoiding everything that disturbs our feelings. The internal causes of temptation derive from the excessive satisfaction of all our needs, from the shameful thoughts that come either from the memory of “all that we have seen, heard and experienced, or from the agitation by evil spirits” (Ibid.). The Athos saint advises to discipline your bodily desires by fasting, watchfulness, and prostrations. As far as thoughts are concerned, the means against them are various spiritual exercises, among which the saint lists prayer, the reading of holy and spiritually edifying books, especially those by St. Ephraim the Syrian, the Ladder and others, as well as spiritual reflections.
2. Another highly important piece of advice offered by St. Nicodemus is the method of fighting against deviant thoughts. The elder advises not to deliberate and not to visualize in your mind how terrible the carnal sin is, what serious consequences for your soul it would have, how your conscience would be hurt and so on. Such reflections will only intensify its attractive force, for in spite of the fact that the mind will reproach the sin and resist it, it will nonetheless be fixed on those subjects to which the feeble heart is so inclined as to gratify itself with these images. We need to turn our attention to the things that have a sobering effect on the heart: the life and suffering of the Lord Jesus, the Last Judgment, and so on. We should occasionally interrupt our reflections by praying to the Lord for deliverance.
3. If the temptation goes away, we should not engage in thoughts of whether or not we have fallen and to what extent we have accepted the thought, for it is not safe to revisit these matters. Instead, we should humbly confess our struggle to our priest without hiding anything.
Therefore, humility is the main weapon against the carnal fire, for the temptation itself arises either out of pride or as a punishment for it. According to the Ladder, “Where there was a fall, there had been pride; for pride is the harbinger of a fall.” (Word 23). As much as the Holy Spirit abhors sexual immorality, there is nothing worse than pride, which is why God allows us to fall into carnal impurity so that we may be humbled. Therefore, the main goal of the Lenten season is first of all to acquire divine humility, for God himself is humble, and only the humble ones can have His Spirit.