The Combination of Chastity and Love

The combination of chastity and love borders on the dangerous, of course, for those who consider growth dangerous. The spiritual discipline of choice in the formation of chastity up to this period of religious life has largely been to cage people in systems of their unconscious choosing that made love impossible and then call that chastity. The trick seemed to be to tether a person until the hormones died out and then to release them to their dessicated selves no wiser for the wear. There are, as a matter of fact, two risks where chastity is concerned. One risk lies in the development of relationships and the corresponding growth they demand. The alternate risk is the kind of superficiality and spiritual infancy that comes with going through life physically “chaste” and emotionally untouched. The trick lies, not in choosing not to love, but in coming wholeheartedly to choose between two situations so that our love is real and our chastity is fruitful.

To provide an arena where adult religious can both function publicly and grow privately means to risk the pain of exploration, the natural moments of struggle and choice, that make for wholeness, for commitment informed by information. The male church, distant from creation, from the explosion of the body into the beauty of life, emphasizes the negation of the body, the loss of the self, the concentration on the “spiritual”—as if the body itself were not spiritual. Women, on the other hand, bring to the church the gift of thinking with their feelings, of trusting human emotion, of preferring controlled intimacy to acerbic detachment. It may indeed be a more feminine approach to chastity that the world needs today, a way of learning from one another, a means of finding our deepest selves in our most personal moments. We may need to stop fearing the body long enough to find out what chastity says to the soul about love, about self, about sacrifice and about growth.

The fact is that we have always known that obedience matured from conformity to choice. The fact is that we have always understood that poverty matured from greed to generosity. Chastity, on the other hand, we have considered an event rather than a process. We imposed it from the moment of birth, all physical changes and chemical explosions notwithstanding. Perhaps, ironically, Tertullian, that great scorner of the human body was the only one who, down deep, really understood it at all. “No one can be a virgin until they’re fifty,” Tertullian thought. And Tertullian may well have been correct. Perhaps it is only after the body quiets, after exploration and excitement, tamed by consistent struggle and tested by life, have given way to self-knowledge and spiritual depth, that we can come to the chastity that is more love than denial. When we realize that the conscious, constant recommitment to control our restless bodies is meant simply to bring us to that chastity of mind where the love of life and the love of God come together, then chastity conquers and becomes love.

It is a long and arduous road, this journey to self-control, self-giving, self-seeing. It teeters between natural exploration, emotional growth, human expression and the temptation to unconscionable exploitations. But no one walks through life whole who does not go down this road. Here lies awareness, humility, dependence on God, trust, love and faith. The way, if it is to be really holy, really enlivening, really life-giving, must be strewn more with the conviction that chastity is worth it than it is with warping guilt or senseless shame over lessons learned and loves gone headlong. It is human to be human. It is inhuman to be a plasticized person who seeks self-gratification and abandons self-control, exploits people emotionally, uses people physically and ignores the needs of the heart for the sake of the urges of the body.

Religious now move outside of cages and beyond schedules, between sexes and between sites, in ways that are common and in ways that are perilous. In this world, there is a great deal of love to get and a great deal more that must be given, a great deal that is false and even more that is true. To fall and fail along the way is no disgrace. It is, in fact, part of the process of learning to love. To become trapped in ourselves along the way, however, to give up the struggle, to become bogged down in self-satisfaction, rather than selflessness, is to be true neither to the quest nor to the persons whom our lives are meant to touch. That, surely, is the greatest unchastity of all




Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB is a long-time Benedictine nun, executive director of BENETVISION: A Resource Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and the author of numerous books on the religious life, most recently In Search of Belief and The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart.

From The Fire in These Ashes, by Sister Joan Chittister, OSB. Copyright © 2000 by Joan Chittister, OSB. Reprinted by permission of Sheed & Ward, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, Inc.