Chastity is a costly pearl that must be guarded well. Well-lived chastity is a habitual disposition of the heart and mind that makes a person gracious and approachable. The transparent beauty of chastity sees life through a lens of hope.
What infuses peace in a conscience, radiates with rare beauty, but is mocked by our modern culture? Society today disregards the integrity of chastity, and the deep richness, and pristine beauty of what it means to be chaste.
Even though Christian chastity barely receives a nod from contemporary culture, it is truly necessary for healthy living. Through chastity, we conform our sexuality to God’s vision for humanity, which is explained in Scripture, and supported by Church tradition. A simple definition of chastity is that conjugal love is the bond of fidelity between husband and wife, and not an option for unmarried people. This is a difficult call, yet one that is most rewarding in many ways. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us: “The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life, nor duplicity in speech” (cf. Mt 5:37; CCC §2338). Chastity is not the suppression of sexual desire; more precisely, it is the orientation of one’s life toward its highest desire, Jesus Christ. Without the guidance of Jesus, chastity can appear to be unreasonable.
Chastity is dear to heaven because it is a vital part of God’s vision for humanity, and of our lives as faithful Christians. With the help of grace, we are able to love with an upright and undivided heart. It takes time to develop this virtue. Augustine understood this challenge when he said, “Make me chaste but not yet.” “Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfections and sin. Man, day by day, builds himself up through his many free decisions, and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth” (CCC §2343). There is a world of difference between infatuation of the moment, and life-giving love through years of marriage, or between romantic love and sacrificial love. Chastity requires a disciplined body, steadfast heart, and focused mind.
Living chastely necessitates a positive perception of our bodies. From the perspective of faith, we are the beloved sons and daughters of God, in the process of becoming what we were created to be. Our bodies are the earthly homes of our souls. We are part of Christ’s mystical body the Church. If we really believe that we house the Triune God, we would take better care of ourselves. In the Christian worldview, conjugal love is not a right, it is a privilege. The Church confers this privilege to a man and woman when they receive the sacrament of matrimony, and are united as husband and wife. Genesis 2:24 says, “A man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh.” This is why abstinence before marriage, and fidelity within marriage, are basic tenants of the Christian community. Sexual relations outside of the boundaries of marriage separate us from God, and are an abuse to the dignity of the body.
How can we bring to the world the hope and salvation of God, if we do not respect each other and ourselves? Practicing premarital chastity is important because it safeguards and protects a Christian. Augustine wrote: “Do not say that you have chaste minds if you have unchaste eyes, because an unchaste eye is the messenger of an unchaste heart.”
An offense against God is also an offense against humanity. Even though God is all mercy, and the greatest sinner can become the best saint, a sin is still a sin no matter how it is defined by society. Every personal sin has a social consequence. Unchaste living tears humanity apart. Attraction descends into lust when a natural respected pull toward someone is replaced by an inordinate desire to claim, conquer, and own him or her as property. To lust is to covet. Sirach 18:30 says: “Go not after your lusts, but keep your desires in check.”
Modern media promotes unchaste living by habitually depicting sexual relations in beguiling scenarios outside of marriage. However, unchaste living has consequences. Beneath the thrill of the moment, there lies the objectification of the person, a lack of permanence, diminished impulse control, uncertainty, fear of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), psychological bondage, exploitation, deceit, addiction, instability, unwanted pregnancy, and potential abortion, all of which add a dangerous level of agitation beneath the surface. There are risks of being found out, of being abandoned, of being used, of hurting others, of reducing sex to a recreational sport or fleeting impulse.
The “hookup” or “shack-up” scene belittles or eliminates the deep beauty of sexual relations. In the long run, promiscuous pleasures are destructive. Mutual desire is present, but the stability that exists in the ordinary rhythms of married life is not. “Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy (cf. Sir 1:22). Man’s dignity, therefore, requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself, or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good, and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end …” (CCC §2339).
Conjugal love is solemnized and sanctified in the sacrament of matrimony, which is well-established, and has a definite purpose. Marriage is stabilized by vows, deepened by sacrifice, and sustained by emotional support. How precious it is to know a husband and wife who have been faithful to each other for over 60 years of marriage. “I pledge thee my troth” is cherished and lived by being loyal and true to one’s spouse. In addition to the primary bond of conjugal love, all loving activities within marriage become rituals in themselves; sacred routines, something like sacramentals that bring husband and wife closer to Christ. The caring signs in married love are deeper and more tender because they are shared often between husband and wife. The customs of a married couple may be in little things, but they are intimate treasures. An unusual but true example of this is a gentleman whose wife gifted him with a fresh white carnation boutonniere for church every Sunday, as a remembrance of the first one she gave him on their wedding day. Marriage can be very strong or very fragile, so it needs to be handled with care and renewed commitment. It is a long road marked with doubts, joys, struggles, and blessings within a resiliency that brings everything to Christ.
Living chastity as a single person shows more of a dependence on God than on family. The love of God sustains us, and strengthens our Christian identity. Christianity is the air we breathe. Augustine said, “Love God and do what you will.” Doing the right thing becomes habitual, instinctive. We are open to the cascading of graces that the Lord provides. Daily prayers for strength deepen our roots in the Gospel, so that the strong winds of temptation do not blow us off course. Love motivates us toward a more profound understanding of chastity that is founded in a healthy self-respect. There is a strong sense of one’s own value in the eyes of God. If anyone wants to measure self-respect, all he or she needs to do is write down responses to “my faults” and “my virtues.” Which list is longer? For Christians, it would be the list of virtues. We see our bodies not as dirty or shameful, but as a beautiful manifestation of what it means to be created and loved by God. Our bodies allow us to be the hands, feet, eyes, ears, and voice of Jesus in the world today. We are his disciples. Our bodies were washed with the waters of baptism, sealed in faith at confirmation, and are fed with the body of Christ at communion.
If an individual is not called to marriage, he or she may not be privy to certain expressions of romantic love. However, the vocation to be single affords individuals the freedom to focus on God in a way that would otherwise not be possible. Chastity gives single men and women the opportunity to learn more from the School of Divine Providence. It gives Christians time to know Jesus better and love him more. It is a blessing to find new interests, hobbies, study opportunities, and skills that actualize this love. To have the freedom to think “how can I be more helpful,” and then act on it, is a gift. Chastity offers a clarity in doing God’s will to the best of one’s ability. John Climacus said: “Chastity makes us familiar with God.”
St. Basil the Great said, “As the pilot of a vessel is tried in the storm; as the wrestler is tried in the ring, the soldier in the battle, and the hero in adversity: so is the Christian tried in temptation.” Our Christian worth is proven by temptations and trials. No one is free from temptations against chastity. Pius XII wrote: “The virtue of chastity does not mean that we are insensible to the urge of concupiscence, but that we subordinate it to reason and the law of grace, by striving wholeheartedly after what is noblest in human and Christian life.”
What is the best thing to do with temptations against chastity? The choice is ours. We can entertain them or we can get rid of them. With aid from the Holy Spirit, we choose the latter. To be responsive to God’s presence helps us resist temptations against chastity. That should stop those derogatory mind tapes. There are always popular TV programs, movies, books, and magazines that darken the beauty of chastity. Why waste one’s time with them? They only weaken the integrity of a person, and the moral fiber of society. Just because certain behaviors are popular, does not mean they are good. Choose the good. Substitute derogatory media with board games, card games, or a new hobby. Take a walk, call a friend, learn a new skill, weed the garden, clean out a messy drawer. Don‘t just sit there dwelling on concupiscent thoughts, do something practical. Acknowledge the thought and take action against it. Mentally dash it against the rock of Christ and let it go. There are several things one can do to increase emphasis on one’s Christian identity and, therefore, fortify chastity. Within a group of Christian friends, each person can pick a spiritual symbol that identifies him or her. Symbols could be a dove, candle, a crown on top of an M, or an open Bible. We can create a coat of arms for ourselves by drawing a shield on a paper, dividing the shield into five parts, and drawing a symbol that represents one’s family and culture, education, career, greatest achievement, and spiritual identity in each part. We can work on Catholic crossword puzzles, play Christian question and answer games, or find facts about saints, rather than sports heroes. Is any sports hero better known than St. Francis of Assisi? Many good activities can take the place of licentious thoughts.
Chastity is a spiritual discipline that is fortified by prayer, penance, sacrifice, fasting, and receiving the sacraments. These, along with other spiritual practices, are given to us by the Church so we can grow as Christians and get to heaven. With the help of ascetic living, one does not avoid or refrain from something for the sake of rejecting it, but for the sake of a greater good. In this case, one refrains from sexual relations outside of marriage, and remains faithful to one’s spouse within marriage, for greater personal holiness, and for the building up of Christ’s body—the Church.
The Grace of Mystery
Mystery is meant to be lived, not solved. Each person is a mystery, and this reaches into every aspect of his or her existence. Each person is unique in his or her physical makeup. Modesty is discretion in the way we act, speak, and dress. “Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet” (CCC §2522). Modesty protects the personal and intimate privacy of an individual. Modesty motivates us to resist the allurements of fashion, and the pressures of prevailing beliefs, and fosters respect and restraint.
It is disheartening to see people so overly made up that their original beauty is hidden. Each person is different, and each person should be comfortable in his or her own uniqueness. Going after the latest in apparel, accessories, and hair styles can be substituted by refining personal strength, dignity, and good deeds. Looking good should not be one’s primary identity. There are better things in life than looking like a fashion model. More necessary things get done when we are not preoccupied with hairstyle, makeup, clothes, or accessories. The beauty ideal propagated by advertisers can become very time-consuming and expensive, while it diminishes one’s natural beauty. Artificial embellishments block the transparency needed for a Christian’s interior light to shine. Clothes need only be neat, clean, simple, and modest. Biblical modesty is about cultivating humility and propriety. The apostle Paul encourages us to adorn ourselves with good deeds. Like the worthy woman praised in Proverbs 31, we clothe ourselves in strength and dignity. The most important thing we project about ourselves is our Christian virtues. These sustain a healthy pride that transcends time, culture, and circumstance. We are far more than whatever “the latest” communicates. To opt for modesty rather than the current standard of beauty takes courage. There are Hasidic, Muslim, and some Christian women who wear long skirts and head coverings. These women do not make a fashion statement, but have an appealing quality that focuses on something more important than the current trend.
Blessed, or happy, are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Purity of heart is a child-like simplicity, a humble love, a quality in which there is no malice or evil in one’s intentions, only goodness: “May our lives be so pure and limpid clear, that the features of Infinite Love may shine therein reflected” (Msgr. L. Giraud). To strive for purity of heart is a sacred art. It frees us from dwelling on evil actions, and the guilt that results from doing them. A good deed is done for no other purpose than doing the good deed. Because purity is grounded in the light and truth of Christ, it lets us see people as they really are. The apostle Paul helps us with purity: “Your thoughts should be wholly directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, admirable, decent, virtuous or worthy of praise” (Phil 4:8). We are transparent before the Lord. He knows what is in our heart, and it is pleasing to him. Frequently receiving the sacrament of reconciliation is a necessity in cultivating a pure heart. Through this sacrament we experience the depth of God’s merciful love. It strengthens us with what is good. The cleansing waters of absolution are beyond explanation. Purity of heart enables us to see things according to God’s plan and live accordingly.
Chastity is a costly pearl that must be guarded well. Well-lived chastity is a habitual disposition of the heart and mind that makes a person gracious and approachable. The transparent beauty of chastity sees life through a lens of hope. Today is a bad day, but tomorrow will be better. I haven’t heard from a dear friend, but I am sure she will call soon. I have a problem but know of a solution. There is a pain in my elbow; I will see the doctor. It is hot today, but will cool down soon. Hope is so important. It is enhanced by chastity; something we work at and never take for granted, because we love God and, ultimately, because he loves us. We live chastity in positive ways: by practicing it as a virtue, by allowing happiness to mature and blossom, by treating others with dignity and worth, and by using our affections in a responsible manner. Chastity is a beautiful call that protects and affirms authentic love through strength and the presence of something good. “Chastity is a moral virtue. It is also a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort (Cf. Gal 5:22). The Holy Spirit enables one whom the water of baptism has regenerated to imitate the purity of Christ” (cf. 1 Jn 3:3; CCC §2345).
Dear Mary, Help of Christians:
You know how so many of us
are in need of purity of heart.
Help us to live the beauty of chastity
with an openness and receptivity to God’s grace,
and with a gentleness and kindness
Be by our side as we hold
candles with flames of chaste light
in the dark night
of human disrespect.
Teach us to live in the
mercy of divine love and
in the sanctity of human love,
in union with your son
our Lord Jesus Christ.