Purity, Temperance, and the Power of Wrath
Temptations and sins against purity can be an obstacle to living God’s call to holiness.
St Thomas Aquinas says that sins against purity are the most discouraging, because, by them, we find ourselves to be like the animals. As children of the heavenly Father, we are meant to live with a pure love that seeks the good of the other out of a motive of love for God. Jesus calls us to be “pure of heart.” (Mt 5:8)
Living holy purity is part of the Virtue called temperance. Temperance is that “cardinal” virtue in the Christian life that moderates the attractions and appetites, so that we use created things for their true and right purpose. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1809). The habit or virtue of enjoying food or drink in moderation helps us ‘temper’ that appetite. So also chastity is the proper use of our sexuality according to our station in life. Sexual intimacy is proper to husband and wife who have formally sealed their life-long and exclusive fidelity to each other in marriage.
When we are confronted with temptations against the appetites of food, or drink, or sexual attraction, the best defense is often “flight.” If I am trying to diet and lose weight, it is best to avoid having delicious food (snacks, deserts, etc. ) close at hand outside of the planned meals. A person who has had problems with alcohol, similarly ought not to have lunch every day in the local bar. The temptations might be too constant. And if pornography has entrapped a person in the past, it may be necessary to develop a strategy for the prudent and temperate use of the computer. Some temptations, like sloth, or pride, or jealousy, we resist. But concerning temptations against the appetites, St Thomas Aquinas says we should ‘flee quickly’ from them.
A modern day philosopher and expert on St. Thomas Aquinas, the late German Catholic theologian, Josef Pieper, wrote an excellent work called “The Four Cardinal Virtues.” (Notre dame Press: 1966) Those virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance, are the human virtues which the Catechism says are “pivotal” for the moral life. They get the name “cardinal” from the Latin, “cardo, cardinis,” a word that means “hinge.” The other virtues of the moral life are grouped around them. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1805)
At the end of Pieper’s treatment on the virtue of Temperance, (2016 paperback edition, pages 193-197) he writes about what he calls, “the power of wrath.” Immediately he acknowledges how in Christian awareness, anger or wrath has an almost exclusively negative meaning. But, he reminds us, “In the power of wrath, the energy of human nature is most clearly expressed.” Wrath, he suggests, is a force directed toward that which is difficult to achieve, “toward the thing beyond the easy grasp.” Wrath can rise up to help us win when there is an arduous good waiting to be conquered.
In what way then, can we enlist this human force of wrath to help us in living temperance, or even maintaining purity?
While it is true that a sudden and strong temptation against chastity - according to St Thomas - is most easily conquered by fleeing from the occasion of the sin, what does the saintly teacher tell us about the ongoing battle we may have against these appetites and sinful inclinations? Pieper sums it up best: St Thomas teaches “that the deterioration of one power of the soul [in this case, our failures against purity], should be healed … by the still undamaged core of some other power.” He suggests that we can subdue and quench our unchastity by “attacking a difficult task with the resilient joy generated in the full power of wrath.”
Another word for this heartfelt garnering of all our strength against the sin that seems to rob us of holy purity, might be “passion.” What good can we become passionate about, to channel the human energy God gave us? How can we direct the power of our human nature forcefully toward love rather than lust?
In the short term, we ought to humbly avoid –flee from - those things and inclinations which incite our appetites and which too often cause us to fail in love. In the longer term, what good goal or goals can I set for myself and seek with passion and zeal?
Zeal for your house consumes me! (Psalm 69:9)
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.’” (Lk 10:27-28; Mt 22: 37ff; Mk 12:30ff; Deut 6:5ff)
"I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49)