Life After Porn and the Lessons of the Saints

2018-04-05T17:45:31+00:00April 5th, 2018|Blog, Christ, Our Lady & the Saints, Pop Culture & Porn|

The day after – a conversion. Forming some of my earliest memories, pornography was such an integral part of life, how could I now live without it? But I knew that many of my problems directly led from an early exposure to the false promises of porn. Therefore, I had to cut my ties to the world of pornography immediately. At home, I owned a vast collection of pornographic video-tapes. Before, they were sacred relics. I vividly remember taking them all out of my closet and throwing everything into a big plastic trash bag. Then, for some strange reason, I placed the over-stuffed sack behind my car and attempted to back over it. Thinking now, it seems a crazy thing to do. But I was angry. Years had been wasted. I wanted them back.

The anger at the world and myself put me no closer to being healed. I had to start out simply and methodically. I had to extract this cancer out of my body. This was the first step, a radical removal of dangerous foreign elements from one’s life. For myself, this not only included dumping my porn collection, but gay magazines, so-called art books, music CDs, old photographs and letters, and sadly friends. The material objects of my past dropped into the dumpster without a tear being shed. They represented my former self. After having come through a radical encounter with death, I fretfully wanted to transform everything about who I was as quickly as possible. I felt as if there was no time to waste. And the straight-forward act of throwing away cardboard video cases and burning old pictures gave immediate relief. A worrisome load instantly lifted. The human cost was something else entirely. How could I say goodbye to men that I had been intimate with both physically and emotionally?

At first, I did the dishonest and easiest thing to do, I just stayed away. This plan worked for awhile. Then, friends started calling and emailing. I froze and left everyone hanging. Finally, I answered one of them. It was my supremely handsome buddy whom I cautiously loved for years from afar. He wanted to see me. Fear brought me to God, not love, therefore my attachments to this world were still strong. I yearned to be with my former infantile fixation, but I knew that I could not. If I saw him again, I would never be free from my desires. Looking back, I am sure my voice told him the story. I held my emotions back and could almost not speak. He held up the conversation, while it pained me to answer in one syllable words. I never gave him the slightest clue. I kept all that had happened a closely held secret. I am sure that was my unconscious fail-safe mechanism. I wanted a way out of my new and unsure existence. I could not tell him that I wanted to leave everything and everyone behind, because, “What if I changed my mind?”

I did not trust God, I feared Him. The opposite of fear is Faith. Since I did not know God, I could not have Faith in Him. But in and of itself, fear is not a bad thing. Often times, fear will keep us out of trouble. It is part instinctual, a desire for self-preservation. Fear can also reflect a moral remnant buried within the subconscious. At times, I could not understand my slight revulsion at the possibility of partaking in certain sexual acts. I often attempted to work against these unforeseen impulses. Now, I believe this was my sleeping, but still alive, conscious trying to save my soul from infinite disaster. Fear is only a destructive element when the soul remains in a state of stultifying apprehension. For many years after the Lord saved my life, I still looked at him as the Righteous Judge. He was a Byzantine mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the basilica apse: distant, angry, and indecipherably complex. He stood just beyond the veil of my understanding. I had to learn. But I did not know where to start.

Thankfully, after nearing the gates of hell, I had a place to retreat for a while and lick my wounds. My parents, during those day of my endless searching, had gone through their own somewhat troubled times. For the most part, I wasn’t around. During my dealings with the dark-side, I remained distantly elusive. As we were only sporadically practicing Catholics when I was young, from my limited contact with them – it appeared they were not going at all. But owing to the incredible power of the Lord’s lasting Grace, through it all, they remained solidly moral, honest, and charitable. By the time the devil flushed me down into the sewers, my parents had already begun to reevaluate the paths they had taken. Just as I needed to do, they had broken some old ties, began to live more simply, and returned to the Sacraments. I arrived home, acting mentally deranged. I hid in my room, waiting for something to happen.

When I stopped feeling sorry for myself, I got out of bed and hobbled to the bookcase of my mother. Some of the old leather-bound books I recognized from my childhood. I remembered looking, back then, as a little innocent boy, through a huge family Bible, that someone gave them on their wedding day. I didn’t read it, but only marveled at the stunning illustrations. From that point onward, my religious devotion was always image based. As the architects in Medieval Europe knew, the illiterate peasants gained what little spiritual knowledge they had from the uncomplicated narratives of the stained-glass window. When I ran away from the Lord, the only semblances of Him in my life were those beautiful sculptures and paintings from the Catholic past. To my own determinant, when they appeared on the huge movie-screens at the various lectures I attended during my studies at UC Berkeley, one slide after another clicking through the projector’s carousel, I merely appreciated the lone achievements of the artists. They were not sacred objects. While scanning the books on the shelf, I noticed a few small statues of the Virgin Mary and what looked to be St. Therese. I picked one up and held it. Where these people ever real? I took the tattered and frayed Bible back to my room.

While the Bible is a beautiful work of profound spiritual power, I primarily read The New Testament, I still questioned the basic principles of right and wrong. Was pornography sinful? Is masturbation acceptable? What about homosexuality? I did not have the answer. I knew that they all brought a great deal of enjoyment to my life, but they eventually let me down. I knew there had to be more. By the Grace of God, I was favored to be alive after our Pope John Paul II oversaw the publication of The Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992; the English translation appearing in 1994. Somewhere, near the location I found the Bible, my mother had a paperback copy. I cannot recall the occasion, but I did start looking through the book. For the impatient and the desperate, like myself, in the back was an index of topics. I turned directly to the subjects that interested me. The verbiage of the Catechism was direct, plain, and unequivocal. I remember being a little shocked at what I read. The path before me became instantly clear. The questions evaporated. I knew that the porn was gone, it had to stay out. The masturbation needed to stop, although I had recently been to strung-out to even think about pleasuring myself.

As for my porn collection, in a way, it was out-of-sight and out-of-mind. The memories lingered, and still do, though they have become yellowed and faded. Often, the devil threw-up pictures from my former life: a particular sexual experience, a memorable lover, or a porn actor I was attracted to. The mind often reconstructs the past, but then leaves out the pain. I hated the fact that something not so distant, excited my passions all over again. I was a man dependent on having sex at least two to three times a week, often with completely different people. There was a sort-of physical withdrawal, but also a mental one. For years, sex was my nirvana. It was my happy-place: the mental and physical build-up, the pleasure of the act, and then the tension relieving climax. It worked, if only for the moment. But, what was the alternative? The all-encompassing and soothing masculine love of Our Lord and His foster-father was something that I only accepted years later.

On the same heaven-sent bookshelf, I found Butler’s megalithic The Lives of the Saints. I read the four-volumes in just a few weeks. The stories which stayed with me: St. Benedict being tempted with lust by the devil and then throwing himself into a brier of thorns; St. Francis cooling the heat of desire by rolling about nude in the snow; and the flagellation of the mystical St. Dominic. Every night, I sat in my room completely motionless while sweat poured down my forehead. Unbeknownst to me, a scratch mark slowly appeared on the side of my head. I felt pain, then blood running down my face. I thought, there must be some other way to combat the onslaughts of the evil one. As I read further in The Lives of the Saints, I found numerous references to the Saints taking delight in their sufferings. Why? Any rational human being would run from such things. But they embraced their Cross, sought the opportunity to make sacrifices, and to mortify themselves, and to fast. The very concept was absurd to me. I could not understand. The one idea which seemed vaguely familiar was that of fasting. From somewhere during my childhood, a memory resurfaced about my father making sure not to eat meat on one particular Friday or fasting on another assigned day. When I was vigorously exercising and eating well, in my first attempt to remake my body as a newly “out” gay man, I knew that watching what one consumed required discipline and self-control. These were the exact same qualities I now needed in order to overcome my reliance on sex and pornography. After first going to Confession, I began to fast. The pains of hunger kept my mind off of the sexual. But my motives were two-fold, after lying about for several weeks, I had put on weight. My vanity still persisted and I wanted to trim down as well as starve a little to keep out of trouble. When I was in college, I hated going to sleep hungry. Often, I would jump out of bed and make myself a sandwich. Then, feeling content, I curled up under the blankets, and fell right into oblivion. I got my best night’s rest, when I had sex, ate a good meal, then retired for the evening.

Now, my nights were often filled with torment. As a young boy, I always went to sleep fantasizing about some impossible sexual experience. My favorite, a heroic looking man would climb through my window, while I lay unconscious, and we would have sex. I fell asleep with a smile. Sometimes, I would masturbate in bed then drift off afterward. Later, when pornography became my sole means of escape, I looked at the older porn magazines my brother had thrown away, which I quickly retrieved from the trash. Since I was always a bit of an insomniac, without these escapes from the mundane, I usually just lay there, endlessly glaring into the darkness. Here is where the practice of daily exercise became increasingly important. I formed a plan of action derived from the Saints. But, instead of thrashing my body, I used physical exercise as a means to distract my corporeal self from temptation. Retiring for the night when one is not tired can become deadly. The mind wanders, usually to something pleasurable. Once the body reacts, especially in the male, it is often difficult to turn back the tide of desire. At this time, I started the personal tradition of keeping a rosary around the bed post. When a sleepless night arrived, I reached over and began to recite the Rosary. I usually fell asleep before arriving at the third or fourth decade. The only problem, I started to unintentionally break many of my rosaries; as I twisted during the night and the chains would inevitably snap. For that reason, I began to use a knotted rosary, made from black or brown cord, with each knot replacing a bead.

In terms of exercise, I found that the best forms included taking a brisk walk, hiking, riding a bicycle, or swimming. These types of workouts can be done for about an hour or more, you can be outdoors, and they can be performed alone. In general, initially staying away from weight-lifting or team sports is a good idea. Weight-lifting can be more distracting than beneficial as the gym environment is usually not a place to keep our eyes off of barely covered bodies. Also, lifting must be done indoors and in a somewhat sedentary position. As for team sports, a group is always a necessity. I recommend those physical activities which can be done solitarily and outside as they offer the greatest opportunity for quiet contemplation. St. Francis, when harassed by his grumbling friars, often retreated to the mountains. Of course, this down time can provide a path to temptation. But I have found that walking or hiking in a beautiful area allows the mind to take in the splendor of God’s creation. When looking through a photographic biography of Pope John Paul, I was entranced by the numerous pictures of the handsome and vigorous young priest: rowing, skiing, and hiking in the Polish countryside; often in a state of deep contemplation. Also, the exertion during climbing up hills makes the possibility of sexual thoughts arising less likely. The movement is constant. In baseball, for example, there is too much time between turns at bat or standing around in the outfield waiting for a fly-ball, henceforth the opportunity to drift. This does not mean that every activity must be performed alone. Expeditions into the mountains, forests, or desert are often best taken with a friend, for the possibility to share the sights and for safety reasons. Being free from porn and sexual temptations does not mean you have to be a hermit.

In order to combine the foremost qualities of both worlds, I often pray and or meditate when exercising. Prayers that can be easily recited quietly, while walking for example, always include the Rosary. For this, I favor the small metal rosary rings. They do not swing with arm movements and can be easily stored in your pocket. Conversations with Christ, which is the purest form of prayer, can often reach a peculiar level of clarity when the body is occupied. Frequently, I would sit for hours in the chapel at a local monastery. Sometimes, the silence would overtake me and I felt fused with the Lord. More regularly, the attempts to propel myself into heaven left me spiraling down to the floor. My mind would often become preoccupied with other thoughts and past memories. Then, the chair seemed uncomfortable, or I felt tired and sleepy. As I tried to clear my head, I only became frustrated. When exercising, the body is lost in the rhythm of repetitive motion. The brain is then freed up. During my hapless wanderings from California to New York to France, I tried to escape my past. One bright Spring day, while walking through a forest in rural Massachusetts,  nearby a monastery I was visiting, I asked the Lord for advice. Suddenly, I looked up from the dirt path in front of me and saw a flowering dogwood tree in the midst of a sea of green leaves. Tradition dictates that the Cross of Christ was made from dogwood. I got my answer.

The memories which emanate from within are truly powerful and often destructively confusing, but those images that enter our thoughts from outside of ourselves can briskly send us backwards into an exhausting cycle of sin. The main route the devil uses is through the popular media: television, films, magazines, music, billboards, and now the Internet. It was during my initial reintroduction back into the Catholic Church, that the kindly priest I first went to for Confession mentioned the term “custody of the eyes.” I did not understand. He explained that chastity is not only refraining from sexual contact, but also keeping oneself free of lustful thoughts by avoiding temptation. Oh boy, I thought. I can understand the sex and masturbation part, even keeping away from thoughts that might arouse, but how can a person stop themselves from seeing? Well, from trial and error, I learned that it is impossible to stay away from all sexual imagery. This is primarily due to the over-saturation of sex in our culture and the severe weakening of public decency standards. I saw the digression of national taste first hand. When I got involved with the gay S&M subculture, most sadomasochistic aesthetics were too extreme for the general public. Now, fetishism has gone mainstream.

Initially, keeping away from provocative imagery can seem easy enough. Of course, you simply avoid on-line porn. Right? But it is more complicated than this. I first noticed the problem when I tried to escape the world by sheltering myself in a series of male religious communities. In lieu of my room and board, at one community, I took on several household duties including some of the cooking and doing the food shopping. While waiting at the supermarket check-out line, I was bombarded with an avalanche of bare flesh cascading off the covers of various tabloids, women’s magazines and male workout quarterlies. After one look, two looks and another, I was done. Then the imagination takes over. What the photograph suggested, the devil made a point to fulfill. I immediately became angry with myself. So far, having been locked away in our compound, the profane enticements had been few to non-existent. Now, everything was rushing upon me. I went back home and got to work. I concentrated on sweeping these images out of my mind. On my next visit to the grocery store, I kept my gaze away from the magazine racks. It worked. Then, I finally got it, custody of the eyes.

Since, at the time, I was living in a structured community, the influences from the other media rarely mattered. No one watched television, I only saw a religiously inspired movie once-in-a-great-while and had no access to newspapers, magazines, or recorded music. When I left my semi-hermetic life, I dropped back into the San Francisco Bay Area and the degraded world I wanted to escape. Feeling lazy, I remember turning on the TV in my parent’s home and switching to the worst of all channels, MTV. I clearly recall the young female singer in the music video. She was somewhat seductively dressed in tight jeans and a belly-revealing shirt. It was not porn-level salacious, but certainly sexy. I watched for a few seconds and then thought to myself, “Well, this is not that bad. Hey, I can handle this. Maybe I had been overly strict with myself.” Then, the shirtless male backup dances appeared. Instantaneously, I began to lose the so-called custody of my eyes. I did not look at pornography, but at the barbershop, for example, stop myself from flipping through various magazines. A backslide began.

In our modern age, the primary passageway which the devil uses to gain access to our homes and minds is the computer. When I first entered the gay lifestyle, computers were still somewhat unconventional objects that everyone usually referred to as word-processors; because that’s about all they could do. Since the Internet did not yet exist, such things as online porn or hooking up in chat rooms was unheard of. Then, you still had to get in your car, go to a porn shop, buy the video cassette, take it home, and put it in your player. At the time of the Internet’s advent, as I was severely disturbed, my recollection is badly fragmented. One incident that is still decipherable was a time when my bodybuilder friend proudly showed me a simple webpage that featured a nude picture of himself. I mostly remember the large photo taking a long time to down-load. When I returned to the Bay Area, curiosity and sick misplaced pride got the best of me and I searched the Web for anything about me. I was devastated. I almost gave my life for this? At the time, I didn’t appreciate it; but the Lord banished my past to the land-fills. Regardless, I was truly amazed at the incredible growth in electronic porn. In just a couple of years, it went from being a cheap and tasteless side-show to a big-ticket main event. That night, I couldn’t stop from spending hours going from one site to another. I was no longer impressed. It was all so false and hopeless. A few things that I saw even shocked me. But porn had become all too convenient. People didn’t have to sneak into some awful adult store hoping that no one would see them walk in. This new accessibility also created a doorway, right inside your house – with porn as a portal into hell.

For this reason, I am dead set against any child having an Internet-capable computer in their own room. Access to the Web should always be limited to a laptop in a shared area of the home, the kitchen or family room for example. As for adults, and children alike, Internet filtering systems are helpful, but never foolproof. For adults, I found that the best way to keep ourselves on task while using the Internet is to place some kind of holy picture on or near the screen. I prefer those iconic images of Jesus or Mary which look directly at you. The picture of Divine Mercy is a good example. Aside from the holy reminders, we must always be aware of the fact that Our Lord and Our Lady continually keep us in their loving sights. Would we look at porn in front of our Earthly father or mother? And then there is the greater question of physical and spiritual safety. When we allow evil images of pornography into our homes, we are also inviting the demonic forces of hell. Porn remakes your computer work space into an altar for Satan. If you have already loaded porn onto your computer, I recommend immediately sprinkling the area with holy water and then asking a Catholic priest to bless the entire home. Although porn still holds some allure, when I have broken down and viewed it, it appears more and more artificial. It’s become redundant. They are only redoing everything what’s already been done. The truly frightening reality is that they will eventually have to lower the bar and become further degraded; here, we are currently witnessing the proliferation of violent and sadistic pornography, partly inspired by reality TV, that blurs the line between fantasy and actual abuse.

This ease of access to porn makes it all the more difficult to break free from its clutches. A return to old ways, no matter how chaste someone may become, can quickly set you up for a major fall. No one is immune. As for myself, it was all a matter of pride. I thought that I knew what was best. I could judge for myself. I was making the determination of what was and was not acceptable. I opened the door just slightly, but I figured that my urges were in check. Then, I experienced my first significant setback since leaving and then returning to California. I went to a faithful orthodox priest for Confession, what he told me always stuck with me. Our Lord fell several times on His Way to Calvary, but He unceasingly got right back on his feet and picked up the Cross. I did, and then returned to my former practice of avoiding anything which might bring forward sinful desires. This was a much more difficult task, as I was back in the world of the flesh and the devil. And I also began to ponder, “Where do I draw the line? What can I look at?”

As a person who studied Art History in college, and then got involved in pornography, I have often contemplated the difference between art and pornography. The conclusion that I reached is not fool-proof but can serve as a very basic guide. It is rather simple, great art never elicits a purely sexual response. In contrast, pornography always aims for the loins. Here, I am forever reminded of a song I adored as a teenager, “Sugar Walls” by Sheena Easton. The single was penned by the persistently perverted Prince who made a side-career out of renaming and then turning women into sexualized cartoon characters. His first experiment was the otherwise beautiful singer, Vanity. I read later that she underwent an exorcism at the evangelical church she began attending. In his hit for Easton, my favorite lyrics were, “Blood races to your private spots…” While trying to recuperate from surgery, I speedily read through the Bible. This passage never left my brain:

“Finally, brethren, be strengthened in the Lord, and in the might of his power. Put you on the armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places. Therefore take unto you the armour of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and to stand in all things perfect. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice, And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace: In all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one.”

If something produces an electrical charge which travels directly to the groin, it should be avoided. More than likely, it’s porn. It is not the truth; it’s the distortions of the evil one. The Lord understands Man. For this reason, Paul advises the fortifying of our genitals. Not our skull. Great art is seen, and great music is heard, then processed by the brain, not sent instantly to the reproductive organs. It glorifies God and Man. Pornography picks Man up and spins him into the twirling maelstrom. When it’s all over, the storm then drops those that got captured back onto the ground. You come to your senses beaten and confused. But then, strangely enough, you want more. You just got out of OZ, but you want to go back.

Porn is lazy. It requires little effort. The ceaseless close-ups of the torso are symptomatic of a primordial reliance on the animalistic. It’s all about the instincts. It shoots for the lowest of Man’s pretensions. Pornography descends from caricature: pottery statues of crude satyrs, phallus charms, and the explicit drawings of sexual positions on the walls of the Roman baths. The doomed Romantic poet John Keats wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness…” All the ancient porn which has survived the eons is now a mere curiosity. Art lives on. It can inspire, but if untempered by the Spirit, may become taken over by darker forces that only wish to degrade the majestic. Years after returning to the Lord, I stood under the figure of Jonah in the Sistine Chapel; the masterpiece the artist Michelangelo almost killed himself to complete. Like the Biblical hero, I contorted my neck and turned upward. My mouth agape as I marveled at all of the exquisitely painted nude male flesh. Michelangelo created the perfect mortal form that truly reflected the Creator. We only see the beauty. Lust issues from hell, not heaven. Turn away from that which is evil and ugly and the Lord will give you something that is truly glorious to look upon.

One Comment

  1. Frances April 6, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    Dear Joseph …God bless and strengthen you. Thank you for courageously sharing your battle against the flesh and the devil. Your conversion story fills me with hope for my son whom I have agonized over and prayed for years.. One day may he know the deliverance you have been graced with, albeit with the many scars you reference. +PAX

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