Looking at “Chastity”
A virtue for all
According to Christian tradition, chastity is a virtue for all people, though the expressions may be slightly different. The only purpose of this article to look along with Xavier Thevenot SDB, a Salesian moral theologian, positively at this virtue called chastity. It may be an ideal way of looking at it, and I accept that none of us follow it perfectly; failure or shortcomings are very normal in our life’s journey. If somebody say, I am perfectly chaste, I would have a little confusion.
A very simplistic definition is that chastity is abstinence from sex or exclusive relationships for priests and religious, and abstinence from sex outside the marriage for married people. Definitely there is value in this understanding, but this is too narrow.
Chastity comes from the latin word “castus” and the opposite of it is “incastus” which can be translated as incest. Thus etymologically a chaste person is someone who is not incestous. But Thevenot would say that incest shouldn’t be understood in that narrow sense, but in broader sense. So he would say anything as incestous for “all the attempts that search, in one way or the other, to extend or to reproduce the state of indifferentiation that existed at the moment of our birth.” Child was almost fusioned with mother in her womb, but the child creates its identity (slowly) with the help of parents, family and society. So chastity could be seen as growing into one’s own uniqueness, which as an dynamic identity (which keeps changing) and is different from all other individuals. At the same time, it is also an acceptance that the other is also unique.
To go a little deeper, I would like to discuss some of the aspects associated with it.
- Accept the uniqueness of mine and the other, which include the sexuality : The virtue speaks about accepting myself and others. It helps us to understand that the other and I are different; we are not one; I can’t dominate him or her, and not the other way too. It is also to accept all my feelings or emotions, which doesn’t mean to act on all of them.
- Invitation to become fully human and fully authentic: Anthropologists say that we are not born as humans, but we become human being. A child born in the jungle, without any human connections may not be raised up as other human beings. That child will be very different from other human beings. (There is no value judgement on the child; s/he will be very different from other humans). Thus parents, adults, family and society play a big role in the early life, and “I” take up that responsibility after a certain age. It is to grow to my full potential, in the most authentic way possible. When I make a choice, it definitely have its own responsibilities. Chastity for a religious person, married person or a single individual may be different. So the choices I take to grow as a fully individual definitely modifies my expression of chastity.
- Purpose is to love and to relate with one another: In our Jesuit vocabulary, we say that all the three vows (poverty, obedience and chastity) are apostolic. We take them for the sake of the kingdom of God. I think in a different way, chastity is apostolic for the married people too. Their chastity helps their family in the first place, but it is open to different activities for the growth of the Kingdom of God. Or a chaste family will never be encircled in their cocoon. Chastity is about loving the human beings and creation (definitely according to our circumstances) and relating with each other. Being chaste should help us to love more; else the chastity does have some problems.
- Accept that we don’t live in a perfect world: Without this condition, it is not possible to love. We have to love in the midst of imperfections, faults and struggles, which exist along with beauty and goodness.
- Not a game of power or humiliation, but of humility: It is definitely against any game of superiority or power or domination on another person. A commonly ignored item in India called marital rape can’t be part of chaste way of life. Being chaste is also against humiliating oneself for not being the perfect (or even not being perfectly chaste), but in accepting with humility the present existential condition and growing into a better “Me”.
My chastity shows my manner of an total engagement of “my most profound self” for the kingdom of God. When the aspects of superiority or power are linked to my conceptions (my way of chastity as superior)or expressions (i am superior to him or her) of chastity , I personally think it is unchaste. Finally, it should help me to become “authentic me”, to respect the “different other” and to related with others and love them.
An Eucharistic Anecdote
In the Catholic Eucharist (in Roman rite), before the holy communion there is a prayer.
Priest: Behold the Lamb of God,behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the lamb.
Response : Lord, I am not worthythat you should enter under my roof,but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
There is the gift of the Lord (a free gift). And we recognise our unworthiness to receive that gift of the Lord (which is Lord himself). The most chaste expression of Jesus was to give himself as gift, and our most chaste response is in realising and accepting unworthiness to receive it, and yet accepting the gift. I was just wondering why this understanding is limited to this prayer and not to all gifts.
When somebody gives me a gift (gift is freely given without the expectation of return), do I really deserve it. We may not, but that person gives it; we can realise our unworthiness to receive it. But recognising that unworthiness, we can receive it. Thus each giving and worthy receving of a gift can be an authentic expression of chastity.
NB: For many ideas, I am indebted to the article “La Chasteté : Une Saine régulation de la Sexualité” which was an exposé by Xavier Thevenot SDB in 1976.
NB: I know my struggles and there is no claim of perfection. But understanding it a little deeper, may help us to live it better.