Guarding the Sense of Touch (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: The sense of touch is always a delicate matter in the monasteries because the most innocent things can often incite a very intense carnal warfare. Even St. Nektarios admonished his nuns to refrain from innocent touches, caresses, hugs etc. because it could lead them into carnal sin. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, these protocols are also enforced. Each monastery has its own protocol but generally any form of affection, pats on the backs, handshakes, hugs, massaging and any other form of body to body contact is prohibited. In cases where two monastics have to ask each other forgiveness, the superior may make them give one another a full prostration and then hug to make up. Some superiors hug their monastics and tell them they love them shortly after humbling them and making them cry.

Elder Ephraim of Katounakia & Geronda Ephraim of Arizona
Elder Ephraim of Katounakia & Geronda Ephraim of Arizona

The Sense of Touch and Its Activities

We have reached in our discussion the fifth sense, which is the sense of touch. Even though the activity of this sense is generally considered to be concentrated in the hands, it actually encompasses the entire surface of the body so that every feeling and every part and every organ of the body both external and internal becomes an instrument of this sense of touch. Guard yourself then with great attention from such tender touches that arouse strong feelings, feelings that are mostly in the body and most vulnerable to sin. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in interpreting a passage in the Song of Songs, commented that the sense of touch is the subservient sense, the one most likely created by nature for the blind. It is most difficult for one to be free from the power of this sense, once it has been activated. This is why one must be careful to guard it with all his power.

Even though the power of the other senses seems to be active, it nevertheless seems to be far from the enactment of sin. But the sense of touch is the closest to this enactment and certainly the very beginning and the initial action of the deed.

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One Should Not Even Touch His Own Body if it is Not Necessary

Be careful not to bring your hands and your feet close to other bodies, especially of the young. Be especially careful not to stretch your hands to touch anything, unless it is necessary, nor upon members of your body, or even to scratch yourself, as St. Isaac the Syrian and other holy Fathers have taught. Even from such minor activities, the sense of touch becomes accustomed, or to put it more correctly, the devil seeks to arouse us toward sin and at the same time to raise up into our mind improper images of desire that pollute the beauty of prudent thoughts. This is why St. John Climacus wrote: “It so happens that we are polluted bodily through the sense of touch.” Even when you go out for the natural needs of your body respect your guardian angel, as St. Isaac has reminded us. Elsewhere this same father has written: “Virgin is not one who has merely preserved one’s body from sexual intercourse, but one who is modest unto oneself even when alone.”

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[Note: Monastics have to exercise extreme caution with the sense of touch and their genitalia and other body parts. Many monks will sit when urinating so they do not have to touch their genitalia. Many nuns do not wipe after urinating for fear of accidentally sexually self-stimulating. Both monks and nuns are required to wear their underwear while showering—nuns do not wear bras but some may wear undershirts to avoid looking at, touching, or accidentally self-stimulating via contact with their nipples. They wear the underwear so they do not have to visually see their genitalia. If they are to wash the area with soap, it is done quickly so as not to linger too long in this area. Some monastics do not touch the area with their hands to safeguard from inciting carnal warfare].

The pagan Pythagoras taught that even if there were no other spectator of human evils in heaven or earth, man should have a sense of modesty and shame for himself. When someone does evil, he dishonors and degrades himself. The ancient Athenians had a temple dedicated to the goddess of modesty that would act in the place of God upon the true conscience. Now, if these pagans taught this and had such shame for themselves, when alone, how much more should we Christians be ashamed of ourselves when we are alone in a closed room, or in an isolated lonely place or even in the darkness of night? For it is only right that the modesty and reverence we feel when in a holy temple be also felt for ourselves, since we are a temple of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit. “For we are the temple of the living God” (II Corinthians 6:16).

Again St. Paul wrote: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” (I Corinthians 6:19). St. John Chrysostom has taught us also that our bodies are even more honorable and more revered than a temple. We are a living and rational temple, while a building- temple is lifeless and irrational. Moreover, Christ died for us and not for temples. Therefore it follows that more shame and modesty should be kept for ourselves and for our bodies than for the temple. For this reason, then, anyone who would dare to degrade the holy temple of his body by committing some sinful deed will in truth be more sinful than those who would desecrate the most famous temple.

Again, our pagan forefathers sought to teach men to avoid shameful deeds by asking them to imagine the presence of some important and revered person. If the imaginary presence of mortal men can avert one from doing evil when found alone, how much more can the true and abiding presence of the true and omnipresent and immortal God, who not only sees the external deeds of men but also knows the inner thoughts and feelings of the heart?

Most foolish then are those who are by themselves alone in an isolated or dark place and who have no self-respect and shame, nor remember the presence of God. They may say: “I am now in this darkness, who can see me?” God condemns such persons as being foolish. “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? . . . Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:24). “A man who breaks his marriage vows says to himself, “Who sees me? Darkness surrounds me, and the walls hide me, and no one sees me. Why should I fear? The most High will not take notice of my sins.” His fear is confined to the eyes of men, and he does not realize that the eyes of the Lord and ten thousand times brighter than the sun” (Sirach 23:18 – 19).

Romanian Orthodox icon depicting philosophers
Romanian Orthodox icon depicting philosophers

The Use of Luxurious Clothing and What its Use Implies

The use of soft and fine clothing is another matter that we can relate to the sense of touch. Now, if I may be permitted to be more blunt, I want to emphasize especially to hierarchs and priests that they not fall into the error of fantastic apparel which unfortunately many experience because of their bad habits from childhood and the bad examples of others. St. John Chrysostom, first of all, reminded us that the very custom of covering the body with clothing is a perpetual reminder of our exile from Paradise and our punishment, which we received after our disobedience. We who were previously in Paradise, covered by the divine grace and having no need of clothing, find ourselves now in need of covering and clothing for our bodies. The forefathers were naked before the disobedience but not ashamed; after the disobedience they sewed fig leaves together and coverings for their bodies (Genesis 3:7).

1930s-fresco-paris

Therefore, what is the reason for this reminder of our sin and punishment to be done with bright and expensive clothing? “The use of clothing has become a perpetual reminder for us of our exile from the good things of Paradise and a lesson of our punishment which the human race received as a consequence of the original sin of disobedience. There are those who are so affected in their vain imaginations that they say to us that they no longer know the clothing that is made by the wool of the sheep and that they now wear only clothes made of silk . . . . Tell me now, for whom do you so clothe your body? Why are you glad over your particular set of clothing? Why don’t you heed St. Paul who wrote: “If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (I Timothy 6:8).

[NOTE: Many of the abbots and abbesses in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries request silken material for their rouka when women want to make them new clothes. Silk is a very popular material. Though customs vary from monastery to monastery, much of the clothing worn both underneath the rassa and over is top-of-the-line, and sometimes designer brands. Most monastics have at least two pairs of footwear: church/going out shoes and work shoes. However, this can extend to orthopedic sandals, work boots, snow boots (if northern climate), etc. Much of the footwear is orthopedic and expensive. There are monastics in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries who literally have $1-2,000 worth of footwear in their closet. This can also be the cost of a monastic’s wardrobe on any given day].

Mephisto Men's Gusto Oxford
Mephisto Men’s Gusto Oxford

Soft Beds Should Be Avoided for They Are the Cause of Many Evils

In this sense of touch we must also include the soft and comfortable beds and everything that has to do with our comfort. Inasmuch as these may contribute to our spiritual harm, they must be avoided by all, but especially the young. Such comforts weaken the body; they submerge it into constant sleep; they warm it beyond measure, and therefore kindle the heat of passion. This is why the prophet Amos wrote: “Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches” (Amos 6:4). Once a young monk asked an elder (monk) how to guard himself against the carnal passions. The elder replied that he should avoid overeating, avoid slander and all those activities which excite carnal passions. The monk however was unable to find the cure for his passion even after observing carefully all the admonitions of the elder. He would return to the elder again and again for advice until he became a burden for the elder. Finally, the patient elder got up and followed the brother to his cell. Upon seeing the soft bed where he slept, the elder exclaimed: “Here, here, is the cause of your struggle with carnal desire, dear brother!” . . .

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[NOTE: In the early years of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, some monastics had a blessing to get special orthopedic mattresses due to chronic pain and other health issues. Later on, in some monasteries, orthopedic mattresses would be bought for all the monastic cells. Ascetic feats such as sleeping on the floor and other hardships of self-denial are generally frowned upon in the monasteries as they are said to lead to delusion and not necessary in these last days].

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