In Praise of Religious Chastity (by a Lay Man)

A few months ago I read  The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by Fr. James Martin, SJ. (A book I heartily recommend, BTW.) Fr. Martin has a gift for talking about the faith in a way that even non-Catholics can understand and appreciate.

I was especially taken with his discussion of the evangelical counsels, and this passage on chastity in particular:

One of the main goals of chastity is to love as many people as possible as deeply as possible. That may seem strange to those used to defining chastity negatively ”that is, as not having sex. But this has long been the tradition of the church. Chastity is another way to love and, as such, has a great deal to teach everyone, not just members of religious orders.

Chastity also frees you to serve people more readily. We’re not attached to one person or to a family, so it’s easier for us to move to another assignment. As the Jesuit Constitutions says, chastity is “essentially apostolic.” It is supposed to help us become better “apostles.” Like all the vows, chastity helps Jesuits to be “available,” as Ignatius would say.

So chastity is about both love and freedom.

As a lay man working in the Church, this resonates deeply with me, even though  God did not call me to this kind of love. Instead he called me to love a particular woman and particular children in a way above and beyond anyone else. Of all my earthly concerns they come first. Period. Finite.

And that means having to say no to things that, if I had the freedom to love as a religious, I could say yes to; indeed, there have been times in my catechetical work that I wished I had taken a vow of chastity! Whenever an invitation to speak comes along or the notice of another interesting workshop to attend, part of me wishes I had the freedom to go without thought of my wife and kids. But that would be trying to live a different vocation — indeed, it would be a betrayal of my vows.

So I have a great appreciation for religious chastity and those who practice it, even though I was not called by God to be one of them. They live God’s love in a way I do not, with much more freedom to exercise that love. Without them, love would be diminished in the world. So thank God for chastity!

“I just don’t want to be limited by anything.”

This may well be the mantra of our age. It describes our attitude towards everything from food to television, children to transportation. (In fact, the direct quote above came from a recent episode of This Week in Tech during a conversation about bandwidth caps.) It is a message reinforced by the television we watch, the magazines we read and the ads that appear in both: get more, eat more, exercise more, have more fun. More. More.

What this attitude fails to realize, of course, is that we are finite beings. Despite what we are told in ads, we cannot “have it all” — and even if we could, how would we find the time or energy to enjoy it all? Imagine how difficult it would be to keep track of it. (To say nothing about the taxes!)

We have perverted free will — and our language to describe it — to such an extent that we put bandwidth caps and children in the same category as obstacles to our freedom. This is a gross failure to make some fundamental distinctions about authentic happiness and freedom, and one need only look at our culture to see that we are the poorer for it.

The Reality of Sin

If you’re looking for some reading to kick off this Lenten season, you could do a lot worse than this meditation from Tony Esolen:

Suppose I commit a grave sin.   It does not matter what sort it is.   The materialist says to me, “Yes, you did wrong, according to the customs of our age, and perhaps even according to the dictates of reason, if you follow them to their conclusion,” though of course no one is going to consult a book of modern rationalist philosophy before robbing a bank or deflowering the neighbor’s daughter, and it is much to be doubted that the  book would decide the matter anyway.   “But,” he continues, “you were programmed that way.”   And here it does not matter what form the programming takes.   “In fact, there really isn’t a ‘you’ who committed the action; we only use that pronoun because we can’t practically live otherwise.   Now then, don’t you feel  better?”   Well, no, I don’t feel better.   I feel immeasurably worse.   For now I am even farther from forgiveness and healing than ever I was.   When I committed the sin, at least I bore the dignity of sin; it was a weight on my shoulders, but it was a weight I took upon myself, and a weight that might someday be lifted.   Now I am told that the weight is simply a part of my makeup; it will never be lifted; I should not even care whether it is lifted.