The Idea of Virginity
For religious, the question is even more fraught with a new kind of tension. What happens to the idea of virginity in a culture where people come to a religious congregation long after their virginity is long gone? The answer, of course, is that chastity is a great deal more than some sort of physical inviolability, some sort of physical prohibition, some kind of control, some kind of absence. That kind of chastity reeks of the static, the empty, the arid, the biological alone. Chastity that adds something to life rather than rejects it, on the other hand, fairly bristles with growth. It confronts a person with such deep questions and such rich experiences that to embrace it brings with it no other option than growth.
The dilemma may well be that sex has gotten completely out of proportion by being held too tightly at bay. Marriage romanticizes it; religious life denies it. The subject of the vow of chastity, then, becomes sex instead of sexuality, possessiveness instead of love, the spiritual divorced from the material, the glorification of the afterlife instead of the appreciation of life lived fully here and now, body and soul.
As a result of that kind of thinking over the centuries, all sorts of shallowness entered into the keeping of the vow of chastity. Religious life became an exercise in disembodiment, in the spirituality of the neuter, in distance, in safety, in fear. Religious rules and church canons specified, long after social norms of the same ilk had disappeared, that women could not be out in public without female companions. The dress of religious, drawn from medieval patterns and never updated, covered the entire body. No flesh was exposed, no hair showed, no body powders or scented soaps were permitted. Physical contact, even with babies, flowers, and animals ranked in some of the spiritual manuals as forbidden activities. Flowers roused the senses; babies threatened the vocation; animals, they worried, would make the unspeakable public and human comfort common. To this day, they tell us, female animals are forbidden on Mount Athos, the orthodox monastery in Greece, for fear the natural activities of the animal population might incite sexual responses in the monks there.
In such a climate, personal interaction rated low on the ladder of spiritual development. Community friendships amounted to casual contact during group gatherings. Religious didn’t swim or dance or sit in the sun or do anything that soothed the body. High back chairs and wooden benches and thick black hose took the place of overstuffed furniture, chaise lounges, or casual wear. The environment, barren of creature comforts, reeked of the formal, the stripped down, the empty. The body—never to be catered to, always to be disciplined, never to be seen—became the nemesis, the rival, the barrier to the spiritual life. Fear reigned. Sensuality lurked everywhere, sex threatened everywhere and human contact—gentle, intimate and real—was everywhere to be renounced.
For religious life, the effects of that kind of theology spelled disaster. Life existed to be negated. Isolation and loneliness became signs of holiness. Work compensated for involvement with people. Community life became a matter of strangers learning to live alone together.
The litany of denials is devastating not because it happened so much as because it completely missed the point. Chastity is surely about total self-giving to the spiritual life, surely about our not giving ourselves over to a lifestyle of unrestrained sexual sensuality, surely about self-control, surely about self-knowledge, surely about contemplative concentration on the mystical dimensions of life. But chastity that makes love impossible, makes friendship impossible, makes privacy suspect and personal feelings unacceptable defies the very purpose of chastity. Chastity is not about not loving. Chastity is about learning to love well, to love grandly, to love with sweeping gestures. It provides an adventure into the self for the sake of others that gives new dimension to life, breadth to its relationships, freedom to the soul and availability to its demands. Sex excites but chastity enlivens living every bit as much as it equips us for the spiritual life.
“The passions are like fire, useful in a thousand ways and dangerous only in one, through their excess,” Christina Bovee wrote. That kind of wisdom shakes the foundations upon which a shallow life rests. Life without passion is a sorry thing indeed.
To go through the motions of life without caring deeply for anyone else robs the religious of the very motives that inspire us to lay down our lives in the first place. There must be something worth living for that is greater than ourselves. Chastity, ironically, bridges the distance between the self and the rest of the world by broadening the scope of activity, not by restricting it. Chastity makes the bridge to multiple others possible.