I have long hesitated to undertake the task of approaching the intimate problem of human sexuality from an Orthodox point of view. In normal circumstances, this subject is personal, a matter of confessional guidance, and something not to be addressed in mixed company or in a public forum. But the circumstances of the society in which we live are anything but normal. Not only are sexual matters openly discussed in the least appropriate arenas, but a wholesale perversion of the nature of human sexuality reigns in modern society. Clergymen, then, cannot remain silent—even those of us in the monastic ranks.
In addressing various matters of human sexuality, I bring with me into this area of study two things: first, the teachings of the Orthodox Church, to the extent that I understand them after several decades of reading in the Fathers; and second, my background as a psychologist, which includes some years of study and research in the area of psychosexual development. Certainly there may be others better qualified to write on these matters, but the necessities which I feel as a pastor of the flock prompt me to speak out in a time of need, putting aside my admitted limitations in knowledge and expertise.
One troublesome problem that pastors and Church counsellors confront these days is that of self-pollution (or masturbation), a problem which one Church Father in particular, St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, has considered at length. His comments and the teachings of the Church have been largely hidden under the cover of modern theories which pastors have unfortunately gleaned from heterodox (and even un-Christian) sources. Moreover, the natural embarrassment that a pious Christian feels in discussing a matter such as this has served to allow misunderstanding and wrong teachings to proliferate, such that Churchmen have become remiss in teaching young people the true position of the Church with regard to this very serious matter.
Sexuality is part of our fallen nature. It is evil only to the extent that we misuse it—misuse that most certainly begins with the curiosity that young people develop at the age of puberty. At the age of sexual self-discovery, the problem of self-pollution is, whether we like to admit it or not, a rather universal one. Pastors have always realized this and have exercised care to deal with adolescents who fall to this sin with patience and careful guidance. With time, these youngsters can be led to understand its nature, to put an end to it before it becomes a habit, and to understand that the sexual urge, like any other, is subject to control.
While normal, healthy instances of adolescent purity do exist (despite the prevailing attitude that this is abnormal), the practice of self-pollution often does become more or less habitual through the younger years. Self-control is not something easily achieved by young people in the confused, first few years of sexual maturity. This is an unfortunate fact, but a fact; and here, again, we must guide young people with understanding and patience. But our guidance must focus on the fact that this activity is wrong, must be corrected, and certainly is not a matter of what today’s social mors call “natural instincts.” Habits cannot be overcome if we believe them to good or innocent. We must know that they are bad and detrimental, before we are prompted to control them. And it is this important perspective that the Church must restore. Self-pollution is not, as many Orthodox pastors today claim, a small matter or something incidental. It is a sin, and a serious one when it is habitual.
St. Nicodemos calls this sin a snare and points out that, according to other Fathers, those who are caught in its net have great difficulty extricating themselves and thus imperil their souls. (See Pedalion, Athens, 1982, pp. 704-705.) Indeed, the eighth canon of St. John the Faster assigns to a layman who falls to this sin, in addition to exclusion from Holy Communion, one hundred prostrations daily for forty days, along with a diet of nothing but bread and water. St. John’s tenth Canon imposes a suspension of one year on any Priest who falls to self-abuse and, should he continue in such a sin two or three times, deposition. Moreover, St. Paul’s famous and unequivocal statement in I Corinthians 6:9-10, that those who practice sodomy and who are “effeminate” cannot inherit “the kingdom of God,” St. Nicodemos observes, can also be interpreted to apply to those who practice self-abuse: a sin which “damages” the soul (ibid.).
Aside from attributing to self-pollution various negative physical effects, St. Nicodemos rightly stresses that this sin opens the mind and soul to demonic influence. It is a path to self-seduction and the complete distortion of the meaning of human sexuality and, of course, the pure image to which the human being seeks to be restored in the spiritual life.
There are today few physicians who would attribute to self-abuse the negative physical effects mentioned by the Fathers of the Church. However, this is not on the basis of careful research, but stems from their acceptance of prevailing theories. The Fathers based their observations on data from pious physicians who carefully monitored their patient’s moral lives and the consequent effects on their physical health. Such things are not done today. Therefore, the observations upon which the Fathers base their conclusions are often called into question. Nonetheless, the Fathers base themselves on empirical data, modern physicians on untested theory. Moreover, there is ample support by inference for what the Fathers and what Christian physicians in the past so firmly believed.
Today we know that there is a close link between the mind and the body and that, to be sure, the Fathers were correct in linking the health of the body to that of the soul. Therefore, while we may not have contemporary empirical studies to support the claims of the Fathers with regard to the negative effects of self-abuse, we can certainly affirm that the theory upon which they based their views—that one’s moral life, a matter of the mind and soul, has consequences for the physical health of the organism—is valid. Furthermore, those of us trained in more traditional psychology are perfectly aware that masturbation has profound effects on the psyche and, thus, ultimately on the physical body. (Even Freud, whose revolutionary view of human sexuality is at times less than healthy and edifying, advised his daughter and other patients to avoid self-abuse.)
Self-abuse has two very serious psychological effects. Firstly, it focuses human sexuality away from the interpersonal dimension and thus distorts its natural goal: procreation—which in turn involves two people, a man and a woman. In so doing, it individualizes human sexuality and turns one entirely to himself. This narcissism can be unhealthy for the psyche, leading to selfishness, a lack of concern for others, and, in fact, sexual dysfunction. And to the extent that this practice focuses one on the self, it is perfectly possible that it leads one to the abnormality of fixation on those of them same sex. This in turn can lead to homosexuality. Thus, it is perhaps no accident that, at a time when society and even clergymen teach that self-abuse is normal, homosexuality (or bisexuality) is at least more open, if not more prevalent in the human population.
The other negative consequence of self-abuse is that it fosters delusions and fantasy. Human sexuality is bridled. Sexual passions are, indeed, quite quickly satisfied (for which reason they are reasonably easily controlled). Thus, whatever the fantasy one may have, in actuality sexual behavior is bounded on all sides by physical limits. Moreover, normal sexuality, involving both a man and woman, also rests on the personal, loving relationship of two people, which tends to transform passionate fantasy into a form of intimacy and into a union which is both decent and capable of sanctification (within the bonds of the Mystery of marriage). When the reality of an interpersonal relationship is absent, fantasy allows one to do whatever he wishes. And this acting-out, should it ever become real, can lead to poor and even violent relationships.
A mind which is turned in on itself, an individual who can live within the world of the passions without taking into account the reality of interaction with others, will ultimately come to a state of serious imbalance. And this imbalance will not only affect his or her physical health, as we have suggested, but will invite the action of negative psychic powers: demons. An individual who lives in proper harmony with those around him and who either controls the sexual impulse or expresses it in a marital context is healthy. His health keeps him watchful against evil and helps him develop as an individual and as a Christian. One who lacks such balance, whose mind has been twisted by the tyranny of the passions, is prey to things demonic. And so it is, of course, that the Fathers speak of self-abuse as a demonic ruse.
Absolute sexual purity is the result of mental health. It is normal. Sexual indulgence is abnormal. This is what we must stress to our young people. If the imbalance that accompanies adolescence leads to certain falls, young people must be guided away from these falls. They must know that sexual health actually resides in a life of absolute purity (ruling out self-abuse, of course) or marriage, in which the passions are modified by a Mystery of the Church and, at the same time, by the natural uprightness that accompanies physical acts carried out in an atmosphere of mutual love and respect. Self-abuse is not normal, but abnormal. And if great guilt attaches to it, this is not the result of the Church calling this sin abnormal; rather, it is the result of that which naturally proceeds forth from something which perverts the mind, body, and soul. It is as natural as the guilt which one feels at taking another life, whether intentionally or not, and helps us to understand the serious abnormality of what is today called an “unimportant and natural thing.”