What Virtues can I Practice to Overcome the Root Sin of Sensuality?

Dear Father John, Thank you for the post on root sin. It has definitely helped me. My question is, charity and humility seem to be the virtues to practice if the root sin is pride or vanity. But what would be the virtue to practice to overcome sensuality? It seems that it is more of an emotional response, hence the sensuality. Thanks to your article have identified this as my root sin, I am not entirely sure what to put in place/practice to overcome it.

I am so glad you asked this question! For two reasons. First, you didn’t let yourself become discouraged by the long post about root sins. I hesitated to publish that post, because I know how difficult it can be for us to face head-on the reality of our sinful tendencies. The ideal place to reflect on one’s root sin is during a retreat, with a retreat master or spiritual director close at hand. They can help us stay calm amidst the surprise and discouragement that can result from seeing more clearly the sheer force of selfishness within us. They remind us that God is not surprised by our sinfulness, and discouragement never comes from the Holy Spirit.

The second reason I am glad you asked this question is because it shows that you have understood the key dynamic at work in a program of spiritual work, a “reform of life” program, as it is sometimes called. The core of such a program is the patient, prayerful, and consistent effort to grow in virtues that correct our deepest sinful tendencies. Sins and vices always involve disordered behavior; virtue is the formation of habitually well-ordered behavior. The only way to go from disorder (for example, taking pleasure in deceiving people) to order (taking pleasure in being honest) is through growth in virtue. In this case, the vice is lying and the virtue is truthfulness, or sincerity. God’s grace helps us grow in virtue, just as nutrients help muscles grow. But since virtue and vice are always connected to our free will, we also have to do our part: exercising our free will in a well-ordered manner so as to strengthen well-ordered habits of behavior.

Two Anti-Sensuality Virtues

Enough theory. Two virtues will help you overcome sensuality: temperance and fortitude.

Sensuality can show itself as a tendency to seek what is most pleasant or comfortable, even to the point of sacrificing what is truly good. Temperance is the virtue by which we grow in our ability to govern desires for pleasure.

But sensuality can also show itself as the avoidance of effort, strain, or pain when the pursuit of what is truly good requires those things. Fortitude is the virtue by which face up to exterior obstacles, difficulties, and suffering in order to attain what is truly good.

Wisdom from the Past

Two images from medieval art can help us understand those concepts. The image most often used for the virtue of temperance was a woman pouring liquid from a large container into a smaller container – measuring out the proper amount of the liquid.

The pleasures available to us here on earth (food, drink, knowledge, sport, sexual intimacy, etc…) are not evil in themselves. They are part of God’s creation. But they become evil when we turn them into idols, when they enslave us. Temperance is the virtue, the habit of correct behavior, by which we use our willpower to enjoy these pleasures in a proper, reasonable measure. Temperance can be subdivided into specific virtues, depending on which pleasure is in question: abstinence vs gluttony (food); sobriety vs drunkenness (drink); chastity vs lust (sexual pleasure), etc.

The image most often used for fortitude is that of a woman holding a shield and a sword. As we pursue our life-mission, we constantly run into difficulties and enemies. Fortitude is the virtue which enables us to battle against them and continue forward, instead of being stymied by them. Fortitude has two major manifestations: courage, when the initial choice for what is right and good demands some kind of self-sacrifice (for example, turning down a bribe even though it may mean losing one’s job); perseverance, when the challenge comes long after the initial choice has been made (for example, being faithful in a difficult marriage, or a difficult season of one’s marriage).

Bite-Sized Doses

Whichever manifestations of sensuality are most evident in your life, then, you will want to make a program of life that includes some specific ways for you to exercise these virtues. In both cases, the key concept is self-discipline. And growth in that virtue only happens little by little. Start small, forming little habits of self-mastery (going to bed at the same time every weeknight, for example, or taking faster showers on weekday mornings, or abstaining from the snooze button…). This will begin to strengthen your capacity to control those deep-rooted tendencies towards over-indulging in pleasure, comfort, or fear.

Finally, don’t forget that the standard Christ has set for us in every virtue, temperance and fortitude included, is not a standard we can follow relying solely on our own strength. We need his grace. That’s why every program of life must also include a prayer program. We need to spend time each day meditating on the example of Christ – his temperance during the temptations in the desert, his courage to challenge the corrupt authorities in Jerusalem, his perseverance in mission even to the point of death on a cross… He is the model of every virtue, and when we meditate on his example, his grace flows into our hearts and helps us follow him, just as his grace healed the woman with a hemorrhage when she touched the tassel of his robe (see Matthew 9). Together with the sacraments, this kind of daily mental prayer is the most effective ingredient to insure progress in spiritual growth.

Yours in Christ, Fr John Bartunek, LC

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Art for this post on what virtues can be practiced to overcome the root sin of sensuality: Detail of Saint-Cloud, Eugène Atget, 1924, author’s life plus 80 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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