Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More on Chastity

Having tired of attempting to engage with abuse from anonymous commentators over at Titus One Nine, I will dare here to draw in some background text to further support my reflection on a more expansive understanding of chastity.

One classical Christian text on chastity is from St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, esp. III.12-III.13 (page numbers here are from my recently purchased copy of the 400th Anniversary Edition published by Eremitical Press).

While Francis’ treatment of chastity clearly begins with chastity’s recognizable technical definition of sexual purity, his opening on the subject in III.12 includes this lovely and undeniable springboard into wider meaning: “Chastity is called honesty, and the possession of it honor; it is also named integrity, and the opposite vice, corruption. In short, it has its special glory to be the fair and unspotted virtue of both soul and body ” (121-122).

Francis articulates the need to pursue chastity even while in the married state, even while enjoying sexual pleasure with one's spouse! The conclusion to be drawn is that there is much more to chastity, then, than merely the container (in this case, marriage) of sexual relations. Francis argues chastity demands a context of moderation and avoidance of abuse (123). This I interpret to mean abstaining from the realm of domination and control, which are arguably forms of abuse, however subtly they might be employed.

Late in the same section, he articulates the necessity of chastity for “all classes of people,” as chastity is inexorably linked with holiness and cleanliness of the heart (124) and he references three distinct parts of the New Testament to support his argument. To amplify Francis’ point further, I would add Jesus’ teaching that it is the heart from where all relational vice and violence come, as in Matthew 15:18-20. Chastity, Francis clearly argues, is not simply a matter of sexuality, but fundamentally and most importantly involves the human heart and the quality of all its relationships.

In III.13 (125-126) Francis takes this yet further by asserting that loss of chastity is possible even outside of sexual relations. A quote he attributes to Basil through John Cassian may very well be at the root of a teaching on chastity I was offered by a celibate monk: “I know not what belongs to a woman, yet I am not a virgin.” The implication is clear – it is possible for even the assiduously celibate to be unchaste. There is, simply put, much more to chastity than sex.

Again, I will concede there are disagreements in the wider church at present over what constitutes chaste sexuality. I might even dare to quibble with Francis on what defines chaste sexuality. But that is not at all to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. By Francis’ standards, the underlying -- and more important -- virtue of chastity is found in its direction for all forms of human relating, and that is relating not through abuse (domination, control) but rather through the purity of love, integrity, peace, etc.


Murdoch Matthew said...

If you define chastity as acting honestly, honorably, and with integrity in all situations, it's a lovely concept. It's also the usual living pattern of a good citizen. Nice to think it has nothing to do with sex -- wish I'd known that in all my afternoons at work spent in not masturbating. I've functioned much better since I abandoned the idea of sexual urgings (and seeking relief) as occasions of sin, guilt, shame, failure. But this view came after an ill-advised 18 year marriage to a woman, one cheered on by therapist and confessor. We didn't find it possible as husband and wife to live as brother and sister; burning remained as marriage failed.)

My husband has been remarkably constant in his affection for 27 years, loving me in my lapses, demonstrative despite my ingrained inhibitions. But he's younger, attractive, and has had a few sexual adventures on his own time. He always comes home to me. To me, that's "faithfulness," a word you used on another forum in this regard. Passing encounters can be constructive and loving; marriages can be hell for embittered partners.

So, good luck with your redefinition of chastity. Seems to me you could get much the same effect by jettisoning the monastic concept and going with the Golden Rule.

R said...


Thanks for stopping by.

To be clear I didn't say chastity has nothing to do with sex. My hunch is that it often starts with sex, as dealing with our sexuality is something we must all do sooner or later, and sexuality is one of our base urges that require self-regulation.

What I am saying here is that chastity, when practiced deliberately, deals with not only our sexuality but also with all of our relationships ultimately. It's a way of being in the world.

As a studied discipline(a vow)in religious communities of many kinds, it is intended to be a path to live into the Golden Rule.

I'm not linear enough to suggest one must come before the other, but chastity for me ultimately points to the Golden Rule (do unto others. . .) or the rule of Christian charity (it has several names and manifestations in Christian tradition) and vice versa.

The painful tangle you so vividly describe has much more to do with a more technical question, and that is what kind of sexual relationship is chaste? It sounds to me as though you've wrestled mightily with the narrow (and at times oppressive) box of traditional understandings of chastity.

I would argue those traditional narrow understandings have too often put the cart before the horse, and your experience bears this out. Recognizing the deeper definition and intention of chastity can point to the fruits we would expect to see in a chaste relationship: mutuality, integrity, fidelity, freedom from domination or control, etc. I believe we can talk about "chaste" and "unchaste" marriages and all relationships in this sense, whether or not sex is involved.

It is Paul who instructed us to look for fruits to measure the presence of God's Spirit in any area of our lives (Gal. 5:22-23). I would suggest following his instruction is applicable especially when traditional proscriptions or prescriptions fail to bring us life, and instead bring us or others misery and shame.

To return to chastity, it is true in most religious orders, as men or women discern entering them, the fruits of the Spirit are tested as part of the postulancy and/or novitiate process. If following the vow of chastity as understood by a particular community begins to bear bad fruit, the person is not called to undertake a life profession of that vow -- at least not within that particular community. Would that we were so careful with couples entering marriage!

Best wishes to you and your husband, and God's peace.

Murdoch Matthew said...

. . . mutuality, integrity, fidelity, freedom from domination or control, etc. are words that precisely describe our relationship -- plus that first sense of being one in a situation where I expected only sex. The experience flipped over my whole past -- temptations became missed opportunities, sexual encounters became people I might have loved.

I recognize the context in which you're working. My husband still dabbles in it. Now I just sit outside and try to inject a bit of secular realism from time to time.

My view of Paul is soured by his statement in Romans I that the purposes of God can be clearly understood by contemplating nature. Not only does the failure of hundreds of nature contemplaters to agree cast doubt on this, but his illustration of the principle -- that male/female sex is obviously natural and those who lust after their own gender are going against God -- is simply wrong. Homosexuality doesn't cause idolatry or vice versa. Paul is a fine phrase maker, but Romans seems an early example of positing guilt in order to sell a proprietary remedy.

R said...

Murdoch, I hear your point, and while I will gently point out we're starting to wander off subject here, wrestling with Paul in Romans is worthwhile, provided we take him in context:

Generally, we wrestle with different understandings of nature all the time in scripture. That many of the ancient writers believed the earth to be flat, the sky a somewhat solid dome, and waters beyond the sky, etc., colors their perspectives, to be sure, but it does not necessarily negate the truths that they disclose to us about a God active among us and inviting us into greater life.

Paul in Romans 1 is so easily misunderstood, because he is painting with a very wide rhetorical brush to get to his primary point at the beginning of Romans 2. (Numerous scholars have addressed this at greater length than I can here.)

In Chapter 1, Paul deliberately scandalizes his audience with the most vividly salacious image he can muster (pagan idolatry with, yes, "unnatural" same-sex intercourse that is depicted, even if we take the most generous road, in a most unchaste way) to put his listeners very much in a judgmental frame of mind.

Then, wham, in chapter 2 he opens by nailing them in their hypocrisy. "Who are you to judge?" he essentially asks them, pointing out theirs is no better than the most scandalous behavior they can imagine, and devastating what we could call their communal pride.

I would argue Paul's overarching point to the church in Rome -- the hypocrisy of their judgment -- is not negated by the fact that his understanding of nature (in particular, human sexuality) is quite different from ours, and in some ways erroneous as we have the benefit of much more empirical data from nature than he did. But the deeper truth he unleashes on his poor unsuspecting audience remains absolutely relevant to us: judgment is an indulgence faithful Christians can ill afford.

R said...

Cross posted over at Daily Episcopalian

I am now reading yet another fascinating take on chastity by an Anglican solitary -- a perspective that was just brought to my attention today:

Maggie Ross' The Fire of Your Life pp 52-66.

In it, we find again the traditional technical understanding as a springboard, but again not the definition, nor the end:

"Human sexuality, however it is expressed, is vacuous and destructive unless it springs from and is focused by chastity, which means single-hearted living in the love of God."

She then sums up chastity this way:

"Simply put, chastity is adoration."

Laura said...