• Rob Marco

The Healing of Memories | Cooperating with Grace To Heal From Past Sins

Like most men who survived their twenties, I was a regular consumer of pornography. Not occasionally, and not compulsively, but somewhere between the two extremes. It’s the white sugar of the internet — cheap, accessible, pervasive, and empty.

Being Catholic didn’t help — at least not initially. I came into the Church at 18 in the late nineties when the internet was becoming a staple for college students (though I still had a landline phone in my dorm room, and a flip cell phone for emergencies). I went to Confession regularly, but habits and compulsions can be hard to break.

Pornography doesn’t have to be a part of a young Catholic man’s life, but it often is. It is reported that more than two thirds of Christian men view pornography at least once a month; a scourge, though a common one. It is the Romans 7 of the struggle to eschew sin and live the virtues: “What I hate, I do.” (Rom 7:15).

Of course it’s better to never let it into your life or consciousness, but for many (like myself) who had a B.C. and A.D. period of their lives, those visceral images and memories can try to stay long after they are no longer welcomed anymore. And often, one finds the scripture playing out:

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first” (Lk 11:24-26).

We can sometimes attribute to will power and natural means what belongs to grace, and this can be the case in deliverance from such particular sins: we are healed and delivered supernaturally from what we cannot, ultimately, heal or deliver ourselves from, naturally. Sometimes it is a long slog of cooperation of the will with grace, and sometimes we are delivered in an instant from what binds us. Either way, grace can and does have the power to “deliver us from the evil one,” and restore us to newness of life.

The photographic memories of pornography can be pernicious and persistent, but we are not doomed to be bound by them forever. In exercising the will to “train the eyes” and “beat the body into submission” (1 Cor 9:27), we starve what we previously fed, and what subsisted on our attention.

When I got married at 30 and left such viewing of things behind, time and the healing of memories by God’s grace made sexual purity and chastity possible. This becomes incredibly important in a marriage, specifically, because you don’t want to be subject to transference (having relations with your spouse while thinking of someone else), which is what our Lord warns us about — that is, adultery of the heart (Mt 5:27-28). As a matter of justice, we relinquish our rights to our bodies as our own in taking on “one flesh” and have no right to give away and squander what is no longer ours to give to one to whom they do not belong.

The healing of memories in this context relates to images we have more or less allowed into our consciousness by acts of the will. There are both natural and supernatural forces at play here–when we commit mortal sin, we are left ‘spiritually exposed’ to forces contra to God. This can not only darken the intellect and weaken the will, but kill the life of grace in the soul, making us subject to stronger forces that want to keep us bound and chained.

But the natural forces of compulsion and habit have interplay here as well. There can be the painful kind of psychological withdrawl that comes from trying to let go or leave behind something that has a hold on us. One may not receive the same kind of ‘pleasure’ from viewing such images as before, but the thought of abandoning them altogether (as Augustine recounts in Book 8 of Confessions) is painful and we will play psychological games to keep from going through that.