It seems that even the best of us—namely, the saints—are not free from sexual temptation. There are numerous ways to avoid temptation, but sometimes we forget the most obvious one: fleeing from it, or, when it won’t leave, forcefully driving it away. This is illustrated by two stories about two very well-known saints: St. Benedict of Nursia, and St. Thomas Aquinas—two saints who usually do not come to mind when we think of sexual temptation (unlike say, St. Augustine).
In his Life of St. Benedict, Pope Gregory recounts how St. Benedict once was “assaulted with such a terrible temptation of the flesh, as he never felt the like in all his life.” Suddenly, the saint’s mind was filled with the memory of a “certain woman … which some time he had seen.” The mere memory of her “mightily inflame[d]” him with desire for her. Then, just as soon as he had been nearly overcome with passion, God intervened. Here is how Pope Gregory describes it:
But, suddenly assisted with God’s grace, he came to himself; and seeing many thick briers and nettle bushes to grow hard by, off he cast his apparel, and threw himself into the midst of them, and there wallowed so long that, when he rose up, all his flesh was pitifully torn: and so by the wounds of his body, he cured the wounds of his soul, in that he turned pleasure into pain, and by the outward burning of extreme smart, quenched that fire which, being nourished before with the fuel of carnal cogitations, did inwardly burn in his soul: and by this means he overcame the sin, because he made a change of the fire.
Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas found himself directly confronted with a temptation perhaps more enticing than that which inflamed St. Benedict. Immediately after entering the Dominican order, his ‘noble’ family tried, in vain, to dissuade him from his calling. When all else failed, they hired a prostitute and sent her to his room. Aquinas snapped into action: he reached into the fireplace, clutched a firebrand, and chased the prostitute out of his room with it. From then on, he never sensed sexual temptation again.
Both stories are compelling because of the profound simplicity with which each saint confronted sexual temptation. The response of each saint was direct and immediate—and, in both cases, neither one spent much time hand wringing over how awful it was that they were sensing sexual temptation in the first place. Both saints instead show how, sometimes, it pays to respond physically to a physical problem. St. Benedict, no doubt, must have been fiercely praying for relief from temptation, but he didn’t hesitate to fight flesh with flesh by throwing himself into the thorn bushes. He wounded himself physically, but healed himself spiritually, to paraphrase Pope Gregory. As for Aquinas: he didn’t pray away the prostitute—although he certainly must have prayed over the incident—he drove her away with a firebrand. With both men, grace was certainly at work, but it was followed by action—and I think that’s the important lesson from both stories to keep in mind. As James 4:7 says, Resist the devil and he will flee from you.