Brothers, fathers, men, dudes:

I cannot begin to tell you how many articles there are on fighting porn-addiction. Thankfully I probably don’t have to. If you’ve looked, you’ve seen them. Groups, Christian or otherwise, are flaring up like wildfire trying to provide aid and accountability. They offer journaling, web-filtering, ‘battle calendars’ and all of the latest scientific and psychological methods for controlling and adjusting addictive behaviors.

Now don’t get me wrong – these things are useful, to an extent. They provide men with knowledge and tools, but they usually neglect the heart of the issue, and if they touch on it at all they do it on accident, not by design.

Allow me to explain. When I was a younger man I spent a significant amount of time looking for quotes on chastity to motivate me to virtuous action. I read the pious (and true) quotes about the necessity of prayer, the Sacraments, and devotions like the rosary. I heard the clichés (still true) about how “real men” love. But none of it really struck me. It just reminded me that I wasn’t measuring up. There was however, one quote that really captured my imagination. It was written by St. Josemaria Escriva in his book, The Way. He wrote, “To defend his purity, St. Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow, Saint Benedict threw himself into a thorn bush, Saint Bernard plunged into an icy pond…You…, what have you done?”

Woah. I mean, just woah. What an image! I would be lying if I told you I didn’t think about this quote when passing by frozen duck ponds on my way to class or when lopping off whitethorn while clearing trails in the High Sierras. These men – these Saints – took their purity seriously and went well beyond the steps of setting up an online web-filter. Granted, the circumstances are a little different today, but let’s not dismiss the wisdom of the Church just because the Church Fathers couldn’t get Wi-Fi.

For a long time that is exactly what I did – I was inspired by the general notion of a medieval monk doing the polar plunge for purity, but I didn’t take it seriously. Come on! It was more like when Jesus told people to cut off their members if they cause you to sin. Strong language, but certainly not literal language (Dear God, I hope not…) However, I think there is a principle here that is easily forgotten. A baby that gets thrown out with the figurative bath water – if you will – and that is the principle of penance.

We get a small dose of this in Lent, but let’s be honest, even our Lenten practices have waned mediocre. (Chocolate? Facebook? …Oh the humanity!) But what about real penance? St. Jerome, often pictured with a stone in one hand with which he is said to have beaten himself daily, understood the importance of penance. Contemporary readers of Jerome are quick to judge his radical approach at tempering his passions. They act as if penance that you can feel (pulling a “Jerome”) is a sin against the “virtue” of “patience with self”… Many joke about the anecdotal story of an anonymous pope who supposedly said, “You do well to carry that stone, for without it the Church would never have canonized you.” Ha ha…ha. We modern men understand it as a demonstration of wit. But take a second to re-read it, and consider: what if it were true? What if that stone was all that kept Jerome from falling out of sanctity? What if that stone were all that kept Jerome tethered safely to Christ as the storms of his passions raged? You do well to carry that stone…

So what? Do we need to beat ourselves with stones? Not necessarily, but don’t think that I’m backing down on my claim here. I think the most apparent and most overlooked tool that we have as we battle for our purity and virtue is the real practice of penance. The stuff that hurts. The stuff we can feel. How about only cold-water showers or no television, movies, or internet? How about no secular music, no meat, no snacks, and nothing sweet? How about no alcohol, soda, or sports drinks? How about getting up early – really early – to get a holy hour of prayer in before going to Mass? How about all of the above?

Let me be clear: I am not advocating for some form of Jansenism. Neither am I advocating that anyone submit themselves to penance that actually harms beyond the point of repair. Check with your spiritual director or father or brothers and don’t allow yourselves to be overcome with pride. Yes it is the Lord that brings freedom. Yes it is grace that we need. That said, allow yourselves to submit to self-denial. This opens a path for grace to enter. Gain control of your will again, so that you can exercise its use for Christ. Learn to rein in your passions by tightening their leash and show your soul what life is like when you have only the Lord to lean on. Carry your cross. Pick up your stone. And remember: You do well to carry that stone, for without it the Church would never have canonized you.

[N.B. The practice of penance goes hand in hand with other virtues and is nothing without charity. The Fathers (even Jerome) led integrated lives and their penance was part of a whole discipline and relationship with the Lord. In the future I will elaborate on the latter points in an effort to edify and aid you, my brothers.]