The Beauty of Chastity
by Fr. Gerald Kelly
In the preceding chapters we gave the accepted principles of Catholic Theology for distinguishing between what is sinful and what is not sinful in regard to chastity. These principles preserve a right conscience, and they should be clearly known. Nor should they be looked upon as merely negative norms, for, as a matter of fact, one who lives constantly according to these principles must practice a great deal of positive virtue and exercise much self-restraint.
However, the Christian ideal goes much beyond those moral principles. The ideal is to avoid all sources of sexual stimulation that can be avoided without loss of common sense. We say, "without loss of common sense," because the Christian ideal is not a mere vision; it recognizes the fact that some unintentional stimulation is simply unavoidable, and it is not intended to engender scruples. But one can have the attitude, "I'll aim much higher than the mere avoidance of sin," and still preserve a high quality of common sense and avoid all semblance of scruples. In keeping with this ideal, for instance, we always urge young women to be extremely reserved in allowing even morally permissible favors to lovers; we encourage young people in general to learn to enjoy one another's company without physical contact; we urge that Legion of Decency lists be followed, and that motion pictures that are even partly objectionable be avoided as much as possible, and that "spotted" magazines and books be read only when there is some especially good reason for doing so. In a word, we propose chastity as something to be loved and treasured.
Strong Motivation Needed
To live constantly according to correct moral principles and Christian ideals is hard, and no one will do it without the driving force of high motivation. Mere fear is not enough. Certainly the fear of physical consequences, which is so much emphasized in the hygienic programs of today, will not produce a chaste generation. The fear of the moral con- sequences, particularly the fear of death and hell, is stronger; and we need this kind of fear. Too many people today are forgetting that there is a hell, or trying to ignore it; and the result is that they make light of mortal sin, which is the gateway to hell. Yet the fear of hell will not in itself suffice for complete chastity. It does not sufficiently guard the approaches to unchastity. To keep every such approach safeguarded so that there is no trifling, no negligence, so that there is a constant endeavor to live on the positive side of the line requires it positive love of chastity. One has to want chastity, complete chastity; and this desire must get into the bloodstream. It must be a motive power that works when it is needed. There are many people for whom purity is extremely attractive in their quiet moments. They go to Holy Communion, say their prayers, and want most fervently to be chaste. But in the moment of temptation, purity loses its attractiveness and looks old and weatherbeaten. Evil appears glamorous.
Vice Is Ugly
Let us face this fact squarely: we are too prone to think of virtue as drab and to attribute all the attractiveness in the world to evil. Hence we accustom ourselves to look upon the practice of virtue solely from the point of view of repression. The opposite is the real truth. Remove the lying cosmetics from evil's countenance, and you find only ugliness. The sinner may have what he calls the rousing time the night before, but he has the headache the next day. Most people who have not entirely succumbed to degradation sense a bitter, shameful feeling of detestation shortly after committing a sin; and particularly is this true of the sin of impurity.
When we take a good square look at a habit of impurity, we see that the following statements are true: Such a habit becomes a thorough-going tyrant; it is worse than any dictator. It keeps making more and more demands; it eats away ideals of moral goodness; it makes a person afraid of the open. It breeds selfishness of the worst kind; the impure man will sacrifice anything to satisfy his passion. The will becomes like jelly; the reason becomes a slave to mere physical instincts, when it should be their master.
Virtue Is True Beauty
On the other hand, no sane person will deny that chastity, even apart from any peculiarly Christian glory that may characterize it, is beautiful. Chastity has a beneficial influence on the whole character. The chaste person has a sense of will-control, a confidence that he can look the world straight in the eye; usually he has a clear mind; though he may not be a natural leader, he commands the involuntary respect of others, and often he has an indefinable power in dealing with them.
At first sight, one might be inclined to question such statements; yet, if they are not true, why is it that few men want a wife who has not kept pure and that few parents want their children to look upon them with a auspicious eye I And why is it that even the United States Government tried sometime ago to impress its young men with the fact that their sex powers are a sacred trust and that any girl who accompanies them is also a sacred trust I We have heard any number of young men state that they really respect the young woman who quietly refuses to be "pawed over." And we have heard an equal number of girls say that they breathe a sigh of relief when they find that a young man is not out to see how far he can go, but that he respects her as a human being, as a friend, and as a lady. These various facts show that fundamentally we all recognize that chastity and modesty are really worth while. As one young man once expressed it: "The decent people I know seem to be transformed by the fact that they are decent."
The foregoing considerations might be profitable to all. As Catholics, we can go much beyond them. Our Faith is supposed to supply us with motives for virtue, and we might say that it offers particularly strong motives for chastity.
In the first part of this book we gave some idea of a real Christian attitude toward sex in its various manifestations. We saw the beauty that can belong to human life when allowance is made for the orderly, gradual development of sexual inclinations: the harmonious, happy social life that goes with general sex attraction, provided other impulses are restrained; the beauty of love, when it is true love, not mere fascination or passion; the supremely lovely signification of physical sex expression when it is used as a seal on a solemnly contracted Christian marriage. But this lofty ideal of sex also shows the desecration of sexual abuse. It is something like an unordained person attempting to say Mass. The Mass itself is the most glorious thing in the world when said by a true priest; but when some impostor goes through the same ceremonies it is sacrilege of the worst kind. Again, the confessional is sacred; yet the layman who usurped the place of the priest would certainly commit a black sacrilege. These are, of course, only analogies, but they bring out the point. The use of sexual powers, according to their full Christian meaning as signifying the love of Christ for His Church, is surely beautiful; but the exercise of that same power in any way whatsoever outside of marriage is seen all the more as a desecration in the light of this Christian truth.
The Christian love of purity and hatred of impurity is closely connected with a typical Christian attitude toward the body. This attitude is one of great reverence. Not abhorrence, notice, but reverence--reverence for something our Lord wishes to be sacred. You bring a child for Baptism, and it is his body that is washed and anointed; at Confirmation, the body is anointed; in Holy Communion, it is into the body that Christ our Lord comes. At Ordination, the hands are anointed; in Marriage, the spouses give to each other their bodies; and when we prepare to leave the world, once more the body is anointed. In the religious life, the habit (which symbolizes the whole life) veils the body as a sign of total consecration of the person to God.
This attitude of inspired reverence for the body is contained in germ in scholastic philosophy, according to which the body and soul make a unit, one person; the soul animates the whole body, every part of it; and the body is the soul's helpmate in its quest for God. But far beyond the scope of natural reason is the body exalted by the truths of divine revelation. Go back to that splendid Sixth Chapter of St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, and ponder the truths it contains.
St. Paul's Doctrine
Know you not that your bodies are members of Christ! The moment the waters of Baptism flow over the body, a new supernatural life courses through the person. He belongs to Christ, is consecrated to Him, body and soul. "Ye are Christ's." We Catholics are apt to smile sweetly at a sublime truth like that, profess our faith in the mystery of it, and then let it go at that. Not so St. Paul. He preached the truth as a practical principle, something to vitalize our moral activity. Suppose one were to cultivate the habit of recalling that truth in the moment of an impure temptation, or when inclined to let down the bars of reserve a bit! Suppose that at such times, lie were to face himself squarely with this challenge: "My body belongs to Jesus Christ. Can I use it as an instrument of sin!" We are deeply convinced that not one of us would have the heart to sin-if we may use the expression-if that truth could get to our weakening wills in the time of temptation or negligence.
Your body is destined to rise with Christ in Glory! The second of St. Paul's great appeals for purity. He turns the eye of hope on the future; what matters the suffering of present self-restraint in view of the fact that this mortal body is destined to share in the immortality of the Resurrection? This particular truth has an intimate connection with the reception of Holy Communion. Every time our Lord comes down to the Communion rail to meet us, He plants within us anew the seed of the Resurrection. The purity that is now so difficult will then shine with a lustre beyond our most vivid imaginations. Is there any doubt that if a truth like this could imbed itself within our minds--as St. Paul wanted it to--it could act as a successful barrier against sin and as an inspiration to a lofty purity?
Know you not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit Who is within you? Another of those "sweet mysteries" for most of us Catholics. Yet what a terrifically vital mystery it is! God dwells within the soul in the state of grace as in a living temple. Try making this mystery- realistic. We suggest to young men: The next time you think of the girl you love, close your eyes to her natural bodily charm. and impress upon yourself that she is a living tabernacle, a shrine of the living God. And then make a resolution. never to desecrate that shrine. And let the girl think of the young man in the same light. And let each of us think occasionally, especially in time of temptation, of the fact that our own bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost. Thoughts like this inspire us to avoid defilement. St. Paul was full of them, and he was convinced of their power. No wonder that at the conclusion of his great triple appeal for purity his enthusiasm burst out in that trumpet call to the highest Christian idealism: "Ye are bought with a price. Glorify and bear God in your bodies."
Devotion to Mary
A pure woman always exerts a profound influence on lier friends. Since the days of Christianity's infancy the Blessed Virgin Mary has been inspiring boys and girls, men and women, to try to preserve their souls in perfect purity. Her appeal is perhaps more apt to reach the heart than those very sublime, but legs tangible, motives on which St. Paul insisted so strongly. Those who sincerely and constantly cultivate her friendship do want to be pure. And they find, too, that she gives effective help to achieve the ideal to which she inspires them. It would indeed be interesting to know how many of her devoted children have kept their purity through most trying occasions because they were faithful in saying three Hail Marys a day in her honor and prompt in turning to her when tempted against purity.
Love of Christ
There is a final Christian motive for chastity which should be especially appealing to young men and women of today. Perhaps we can best explain it by recounting a little anecdote that the priest reads in his Breviary on May 3, the Feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross. There the story is told that some time after the fall of Jerusalem, the pagans went out to Mount Calvary and erected a temple to the goddess of lust, "in order to blot out the memory of the Cross and the Passion." A significant little incident, is it not I Anyone who reads the story of the early Christian martyrs will find that the pagans tried repeatedly to undermine Christianity by undermining the chastity of the Christians. That was particularly their method with the young.
Now, the vital force of Christianity is the love of Jesus Christ, utter devotion to Christ as our leader and our God. It is not just a poetic dream, it is a tremendous reality---and just as much so today as it was in the days of the early Church. Our modern pagans hate Him just as much as did the ancients, and their attacks on the followers of Christ are very much the same. Today they try even more viciously than of old to break down our chastity, because they know that if they can do this they can explode our whole moral code; and if they destroy our moral code, our dogmas will be of little avail. So goes the plan: they would not dare ask us to deny our faith in Christ; but they do try to put sex liberalism into our schools, tainted pictures on our screens, obscene books and magazines into our hands. It is an old, old story. The Romans had the same plan two thousand years ago.
This fact shows us as nothing else does the tremendous importance of chastity. It is not, as we have insisted before, the greatest Christian virtue; charity is queen of them all. But generally speaking it is the most practical expression of sincere love for Christ. Neither Christ nor His Church ever preached a theoretical, dreamy sort of love. He preached the love of action: "If you love me, keep my commandments." In the ordinary living out of our daily lives, this test of love reaches its height in the so-called difficult commandment, the Commandment of Purity. Chastity is a concrete expression of personal love of Christ. And chastity is apostolic, for its good example has far-reaching effects on the souls of others.
The thoughts we have suggested show that chastity is something worth while, something sacred. Now we should like to follow a simple little analogy here. If you plant some flowers that are very rare and precious, you do not put them right out to the edge of the sidewalk and draw a fine line in your mind and say: People are not likely to put their feet beyond this line. If you love and appreciate a baby, you are not apt to leave it on the top of a table, even if it is a nice baby and not accustomed to roll much. When you have money and a choice of two investments, you do not choose a "pretty safe" security when you can get a safer one to pay equal dividends.
If we transfer this prudent policy to the realm of virtue, it takes but little mental acumen to conclude that one who is thoroughly convinced of the worthwhileness of chastity, of its sacredness, of its Christlikeness, does not live a borderline life. You would move the flowers a safe distance from the sidewalk and build a little fence around them; you would put the baby in a cradle or a baby carriage; you would consider yourself a fool not to take the safer investment, when it pays at least as well. So, in regard to purity, the man who loves and treasures it, says to himself : "My purity is something too good to trifle with. Why expose myself needlessly to any kind of sexual stimulation? There's nothing to gain, and there's a lot to lose." So he moves the precious flower of his chastity back from the sidewalk by avoiding all unnecessary occasions of stimulation, and he builds about it a protective fence of prayer and self-denial; and, far from developing maples or harmful worries, he feels much relieved that this pledge of his love for Christ is well protected.
It Can Be Done
In this chapter we have given motives that are capable Of inspiring to chastity. But let us repeat-they have to get into the bloodstream. They are useless when kept on one's bookshelf, or in a notebook, or left in Church after Mass on Sunday morning. They have to form part of a dominant ideal, the centralizing force of which is the love of Jesus Christ. Nothing else will carry us through the difficulties we must face today.
One of the deadliest obstacles to the practical power of then motives is an undercurrent of suspicion that "the thing can't be done." This is one of the subtlest form of modern pagan propaganda. Materialists, who look upon man an a mere animal, like to keep repeating: "It can't be done. Chastity is a myth. I I Sometimes they give their testimony in the name of science. "Chastity is unnatural," they say. "The sexual urge is the voice of nature. Man must yield to it, or he'll break down." Obviously, the answer to this is that the "voice of nature" for man is the voice of the nature that God gave him, and that happens to be a different nature from that of Fido, the dog. It is man's nature to guide his instincts reasonably, not to follow them blindly. If the man who controls his sexual urges according to the law of God breaks down, you may be sure that the cause of his breakdown is not the practice of self-discipline. The breakdown can always be traced to something else: to a misguided way of conducting himself, to a brooding fear, to a false idea of what is or is not sinful, or to an inner conflict arising from the fact that he was not giving his whole heart to the practice of chastity.
The so-called scientific testimony about the harmfulness of continence can always be counterbalanced by more weighty scientific testimony in favor of continence. We have on hand, while writing this, several statements of great medical worth, and we know that they can be multiplied by the score. At an international congress at Brussels, the physicians agreed: "There is no known disease resulting from the practice of continence, whilst many are found to originate in the opposite vice." Another testimony is that of 370 doctors on this continent to the effect that: "There is no evidence that continence is inconsistent with the highest physical, mental, and moral efficiency; and continence offers the only sure reliance of sexual health outside of marriage." A report of the British Social Hygiene Council stated that neither psychology nor experience shows any need of sexual intercourse for either physical or mental health.
Such testimonies could, as we said, be multiplied by the score. Yet their value is of small significance compared with the fact of 2000 years of Christianity. One of the outstanding glories of the Church is the fact that she is able to inspire her people, particularly her youth, with a practical ideal of chastity and thus keeps them self-sacrificing and pure in a world that is both self-loving and sense-loving. Doctor Foerster rightly appeals to the example of the saints as one of the most forceful arguments for the fact that chastity is possible. Any Catholic priest, who deals with multitudes of souls, could tell you in general terms and without violating any secrecy that there are vast numbers who lead chaste lives, even in the midst of violent temptations. These legions of souls, of coarse, never make the headlines.
Another source of discouragement, tending to weaken our motive power, even though we do not suspect it, is the modern tendency to make polls. College youths are polled, married couples are polled; and the result of the poll is almost always the same gruesome, depressing conclusion: that almost everyone seems to be unchaste. We ought to ask ourselves honestly: how many decent people are apt to respond to such polls? The percentages are biased from the start. Certainly they offer no valid argument as to the relative number of the chaste and the unchaste; they merely prove that there is a vast amount of unchastity in the world. And we all know that without any polls. No one who wants to be chaste need be discouraged by these gloomy surveys.
Worst of all the undermining forces of motive power is the hopeless conviction of personal frailty. Especially those who have contracted habits of impurity are likely to develop strong feelings that chastity is impossible for them. They have to counteract this with their Faith. Certainly it is difficult, and it really cannot be done without the grace of God. But with the grace of God, even the strongest temptations can be overcome, and anyone who shows good will can get the grace. It is simply a matter of getting sympathetic direction and of taking the necessary means day by day.
So, we need conviction, conviction that chastity is tremendously worth while, and conviction that with the grace of God it is our prize. And then the thing to do is to practice it. Here is a general outline of the main things such practice entails:
- Cultivate the other virtues and a general spirit of self-denial. Chastity is not a flower that blooms alone on a barren strip of land; no real virtue does that. It needs the fertile soil of a well-kept soul. The chaste man must cultivate other virtues and control other emotions. It is absurd for a person to let his temper fly at will, to speak and act selfishly, to pamper his appetite to allow free rein to sentiment, yet expect to be immune from impure temptations or to die like a Swiss Guard rather than surrender to them.
- Avoid all really unnecessary sexual stimulants. This includes such things as thoughts, reading, speech, shows, intimacies, and so forth. When we say "avoid them," we are not suggesting that one adopt a clenched-fist attitude that amounts to this: "I must repress myself." Chastity is not mere repression; it is the expression of the human, the noble, the Christlike in us. By "avoiding" things we mean cultivating the positive attitude that it just isn't worth while to lead a borderline life. This has to be done in a common-sense way; and perhaps that is best explained in the next point.
- Keep a sensible attitude toward the things that cannot reasonably be avoided. We cannot avoid all unintentional sexual stimulation. A certain amount of this depends on physical conditions, as has already been explained. Also, living as social human beings almost inevitably brings us into contact with things that are sexually disturbing. The moral principles we enunciated solve these cases and should be the source of peace of conscience. We cannot hide ourselves from society; we cannot go through life with dark glasses. High idealism and common sense must go hand in hand; and sensitive people are especially in need of common sense.
- Keep interested in something. When one has no absorbing interests in life, it is natural enough to develop a morbid interest in sex. That is one of the dangers of moods, of reactions from strain, examinations, and such things. The soul gets flat and is not interested in life; and impurity becomes a "pleasant distraction." When boys and girls are together, if they have not innocent, interesting things to do, they easily turn to amuse themselves with conduct that is either sinful in itself or that quickly leads to sin.
- Pray and frequent the Sacraments. Not only are these divine aids necessary for avoiding sin, but they are especially necessary for preserving the motive force that keeps one living on a high plane.
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Copyright © Gerald Kelly. Reproduced with permission of Fusion International. All rights reserved.