Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Chastity

From a reflection just published at Episcopal Cafe:

Having spent an increasing amount of time in conversation with married couples in recent years, the most commonly destructive dynamic in any relationship I have found has to do with a failure of chastity. But I don't mean sex outside the marriage. By chastity in marriage I mean the challenge of setting aside the stubborn drive to control or change person we most cherish. When couples learn this, the effect in their relationship and family is simply astonishing. Anxiety and anger levels drop almost immediately. There is a renewed simultaneous sense of freedom and connection. Spouses allow their partners to grow. Parents allow their children to seek accountable maturity. Needs are articulated. Resentments are set aside. Rather than using or abusing the relationship to change others, the relationships by themselves become transformative. Everyone is changed.

Update: Kendall Harmon responded to this essay over at Titus One Nine.


rob said...

"Chastity means setting aside dominance and control and seeking instead a new way to relate to the world and to God." - on what basis do you make this bizarre assertion? In other words, by what authority do you redefine the term chastity? If you are going to make up a new word and write about it, go ahead. But at least spell it differently than a word which already has a meaning.

R said...


I'm not clear what you find bizarre about this interpretation.  Nor do I believe I'm necessarily redefining the word's meaning.  Rather I'm attempting to unpack the full flowering of this ancient Christian virtue.

A narrower definition of "chastity" --purity derived from refraining from sexual relations outside of marriage -- points to the word's deeper meaning.

When I take into account that for centuries (and still in many places) sexual relations were generally viewed as the domain of the man, and sexual acts were a sign of male power, gratification, and dominance, I start to understand what chastity is meant to cultivate in our relational lives of all kinds:  that of setting aside domination, the pursuit of self-gratification, objectification, and control over others.  In our day, this just as easily applies to both genders, of course.  

A former spiritual director of mine who has lived a celibate monk for decades in a traditional Benedictine religious community taught me that chastity is not simply about anatomy, and merely refraining from sex outside of marriage is not living the vow of chastity in its fullest sense.  There's much more to it than that.  Put another way, it is possible to refrain from sexual relationships and still be unchaste.  

Being chaste also involves learning to set aside the manipulative, ostentatious, and controlling behaviors that make us impure by sullying our relationships with strife and infidelity of all kinds.  Even outside of sexual relationships, these temptations still can rule us and our interactions with others.  

It may very well be that chastity begins with sexuality, as that is one of our most basic urges, and where the *self*-control of greater life often begins. I would also argue that there are chaste sexual relationships -- that is those that are mutual, faithful, and life-giving.  But, again, I don't believe chastity ends there.

I don't claim this necessarily gives me definitional authority, and to be clear, my attempt was not to generate a new dictionary definition.  But I offer the reflection to you for further consideration, and I ask you to view the quote you lifted from the writing in its fuller context.

Thanks for taking time to reflect with me here.

Laura said...

I would be interested in hearing your recommendations for further reading on this broader (and quite beautiful) vision of chastity.

R said...


Sorry for the delay in my response. As much of my reflection came up in conversation and prayer rather than through written sources, I am looking at some "root-stock" and will post titles here shortly.

R said...


I have taken this matter up-thread here, pointing to one classical reference: Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life.