The Battle for Purity
by Edward P. Sri
The battle for purity is ultimately fought deep in the recesses of the human heart. Our hearts were made to love, but since the Fall, they have been tainted by a desire to use others. This effect of original sin is seen perhaps most dramatically in our encounters with the opposite sex, wherein our hearts often are drawn to the other person more for the emotional or sensual pleasure we may derive from them than for any true commitment to what is best for them and their true value as a person. In this reflection, we will see that chastity is so much bigger than simply saying "no" to certain sexual actions we may commit in the body. In the end, chastity is a matter of the heart.
Chastity: Yes and No
The word chaste literally means "clean," and Christians have used this word to describe the particular virtue that moderates our sexual desire. But this is not because sexual desire itself is somehow unclean or dirty. In fact, John Paul II—then Karol Wojtyla—in his book Love and Responsibility,
warns against a negative view of chastity that turns this virtue into a mere suppression of sensual desire ("Just don’t have sex before your married!"). In this negative light, chastity becomes merely "one long ‘no.’" And this kind of suppression can have serious consequences for the human person: "Chastity is very often understood as a ‘blind’ inhibition of sensuality and of physical impulses such that the values of the ‘body’ and of sex are pushed down into the subconscious, where they await an opportunity to explode. This is an obviously erroneous conception of the virtue of chastity, which, if it is practiced only in this way, does indeed create the danger of such ‘explosions’" (p. 170).
We must see chastity as a positive virtue that enables us to love, and protects love from being tainted by the selfish tendency to use the other person for our own pleasure. Wojtyla says chastity is emphatically not "one long ‘no.’" Rather, it is first and foremost a yes—a yes in our hearts to the other person, not just to his or her sexual values. It is a ‘yes’ that requires certain ‘no’s’ in order to protect love from falling into utilitarianism. "The essence of chastity consists in quickness to affirm the value of the person in every situation, and in raising to the personal level all reactions to the value of ‘the body and sex’" (p. 171). This positive, wider context of love for the person is key for understanding the ‘no’s’ of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality.
As we have seen throughout these reflections, our encounters with persons of the opposite sex are often dominated by emotional and sensual attractions. We are drawn more quickly and more powerfully to the other person’s sexual values (their masculinity/femininity and their body) than we are to their true value as a person (their virtues, their holiness, their being a son or daughter of God). Because of original sin, we don’t automatically experience authentic, self-giving love for a person of the opposite sex, but "a feeling muddied by a longing to enjoy" (p. 161).
Chastity, however, moderates these desires for pleasure, so that we can see clearly the value of the person and respond to our beloved with a love that is centered on his or her good, not on seeking enjoyment for ourselves. Hence, the virtue is called "chastity," for it gives love a clear, pure love of the other person. Wojtyla explains, "The word chaste (‘clean’) implies liberation from everything that ‘makes dirty.’ Love must be so to speak pellucid: through all the sensations, all the actions which originate in it we must always be able to discern an attitude to a person of the opposite sex which derives from sincere affirmation of the worth of that person" (p. 146).
The Two Battlefronts
Wojtyla maps out two fronts in the battle for purity. First, we must fight against what he calls "emotional egoism," which is the tendency to use another person for our own emotional pleasure. This kind of utilitarianism is not easy to detect, for emotional egoism can easily disguise itself as love ("I have such strong feelings when I’m with him. This must be love"). And even when emotional egoism is brought out into the open (e.g., "she’s just a flirt" or "he was playing with her feelings"), it does not seem as severe of an offense against love as when someone uses another person as an object for sensual pleasure.
Nevertheless, emotion, though an aspect of love, can become "a threat to love," Wojtyla says. Whenever someone puts emotion for its own sake at the center of one’s attention in a relationship, a selfish utilitarian attitude is lurking in the background. And Wojtyla notes that this is still a drastic distortion of love. "When an emotion becomes an end in itself, merely for the sake of the pleasure it gives, the person who causes the emotion or to whom it is directed is once again a mere ‘object’ providing an opportunity to satisfy the emotional needs of one’s own ‘ego’" (p. 158).
The second front in the battle for purity is what Wojtyla calls "sensual egoism," which is the tendency to use another person for sensual pleasure. Certainly, various sinful sexual acts constitute this kind of egoism. But Wojtyla stresses that one can fall into sensual egoism without making any bodily contact with another person. For example, a man can view a woman primarily in terms of the value of her body, and use her body as an object of enjoyment in his own mind when he sees her, or in his memory and imagination long after he has seen her (see p. 108). The Ten Commandments reflect this point. We have on one hand the Sixth Commandment, "Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery," which addresses external physical actions in the realm of sex, and on the other hand the Ninth Commandment, "Thou Shall Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife," which addresses internal actions commonly known as lustful thoughts.
But where the boundary lies between simply noticing someone’s sexual values and being attracted to them in a sinful way is not always easy to discern. What is the difference between an innocent interest in another person’s physical appearance and a lustful thought? Here Wojtyla offers some very helpful insights.
He seems to identify three general stages in the battle against sensual egoism. First, one may experience a spontaneous sensual reaction. At this stage, one happens to notice the sexual values of another person’s body and reacts to those values spontaneously. For example, a handsome man walks into a cocktail party and catches the eye of a woman he has never met, while the man notices the woman’s attractive features and finds himself drawn to her throughout the evening. The sexual values of the opposite sex often present themselves spontaneously like this. We notice them and find ourselves interested in them. This is not lust; nor is it sinful. It simply means we are human and have human sensual desire. As Wojtyla explains, sensuality "merely orients the whole psyche towards the sexual values, awakening an interest in or indeed an ‘absorption’ in them" (p. 148). As we have seen previously, such sensual desire is given by God to draw persons together in love. Indeed, it can serve as "raw material" for authentic love if the sensual attraction to the other person’s body leads to a deeper level of commitment to the person himself or herself—not just his or her sexual values.
However, Wojtyla warns us of how easy it is to move from the first stage of simple interest in the sexual values of another person to the second stage of hankering after them in one’s heart as a potential object of sensual pleasure. Wojtyla calls this second stage sensual concupiscence. At this point, something within the person begins to stir: a desire for the sexual values of the other person’s body as an object to enjoy. Now the sexual values are not simply an object of interest, but an actual object of sensual desire in our hearts. Something in us "begins to strive towards, to hanker after, that value" and we "desire to possess the value" (p. 148).
Still, Wojtyla says that even this second stage of sensual attraction is not necessarily sinful. It is the effect of concupiscence (the inclination toward sin). Because of our fallen human nature, it is not easy for us to quickly direct that inner stirring of sensual desire to selfless love for the other person. Our desire for sensual pleasure can be felt so powerfully that we experience a desire to use the other person in order to gain that pleasure. But here is the key: Wojtyla says even this stirring of sensual desire is not in itself sinful as long as the will resists that desire to use the person—as long as the will does not consent to it. Indeed, we may experience sensual desire mounting intensely within us without our will actually consenting to it and even with our will directly opposing it (see p. 162).
That is why Wojtyla wisely reminds us that we cannot expect to win the battle for purity in our hearts immediately, simply by saying "no" hard enough. He says, "An act of the will against a sensual impulse does not generally produce any immediate result. . . . No-one can demand of himself either that he should experience no sensual reactions at all, or that they should immediately yield just because the will does not consent, or even because it declares itself definitely ‘against’ (p. 162).
This is very helpful advice for anyone desiring, but struggling, to be chaste. One might try with all his might to remain pure, but still experience simple, spontaneous sensual reactions and even the inner stirrings of concupiscent desires. Yet one must remember that as long as the will does not consent to those utilitarian desires, he or she has not fallen into sin. As Wojtyla explains, "There is a difference between ‘not wanting’ and ‘not feeling,’ ‘not experiencing’" (p. 162). I
In other words, one may feel the inner stirring of concupiscent desire in his heart, but this is not the same as his will consenting to follow those desires and treat the other person as a potential object of enjoyment. "A sensual reaction, or the ‘stirring of ’ carnal desire which results from it, and which occurs irrespectively and independently of the will, cannot in themselves be sins," Wojtyla explains. "No, we must give proper weight to the fact that in any normal man the lust of the body has its own dynamic, of which his sensual reactions are a manifestation. . . . The sexual values connected with the body of the person become not only an object of interest but—quite easily—the object of sensual desire. The source of this desire is the power of concupiscence . . . and so not the will" (p. 161).
Crossing the Threshold of Sin
Nevertheless, these concupiscent sensual desires continually try to get the will to consent to them, thereby leading the person to cross the line of sin. Indeed, if the will does not resist this stirring of the sensual appetite, a person falls into the third stage, which Wojtyla calls carnal desire. Here, the will gives up resisting, throws in the towel, and consents to pursuing the pleasurable feelings occurring within him. He deliberately commits his will to the promptings of his body, even though those promptings direct him to treat the woman’s body as an object of enjoyment either in his actions or in his thoughts, memory, or imagination. "As soon as the will consents it begins actively to want what is spontaneously ‘happening’ in the senses and the sensual appetites. From then onwards, this is not something merely ‘happening’ to a man, but something which he himself begins actively doing" (p. 162).
Now the threshold of sin has been crossed. Before this point, the man had maintained an important level of purity in his heart because he was resisting those utilitarian concupiscent desires. But now that his will consents to those desires, something dramatic changes: The man himself changes as he wills in his heart to go along with those utilitarian desires. He is no longer simply experiencing a desire to use the woman’s body; he actually is using her body as an outlet for his carnal desire. He is no longer simply a man struggling against lustful thoughts; he has become a lustful man who has consented to those thoughts in which he is using the woman’s body for his own pleasure in his imagination.
And his consent to lustful thoughts or lustful actions greatly hinders true self-giving love from developing fully in his heart. Since the lustful man views the woman primarily as an object for pleasure, he is not able to show her selfless, loving kindness. He is not able to be committed to what is best for her, sacrificing his own desires for her good, since he is more preoccupied by his own sensual gratification. "The relation to the person is therefore a utilitarian, a ‘consumer’ approach," and thus the person is treated as "an object of enjoyment" (p. 151).
Chastity is the virtue that frees a man from this sad state of being controlled by his sensual impulses. As a fallen human being, even the chaste man may still experience concupiscent sensual desires, but he is not enslaved by them and can quickly rise above them. Therefore, he is easily and promptly able to see in the woman so much more than her sexual values. Deep in his heart, he is able to see her as a person, not primarily as an opportunity for pleasure. And thus he is able to love her selflessly for who she really is, not simply for the sensual enjoyment he may potentially derive from her. In this way, purity of heart makes a man truly free to love.
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