In this last, little meditation which I have sent to my friend in the States, Jay, I want to examine the two words, chastity and celibacy. I have created for you a little prism of chastity, with nine faces, called the heptagonal prism. A heptagonal prism has seven sides, but nine facets. I want to examine the resurgence of the call of chastity and celibacy seen around the Western and Eastern world. I think there are some odd reasons why people are remaining single, because, for example, the stress of the times, a fact seen in other times of upheaval. However, chastity and celibacy must be key pillars in our Church. The necessity for whole-hearted self-giving of one’s body, as well as one’s soul to Christ, asking Him to be the Bridegroom in one’s life, strengthens the Church. If men have trouble with this idea of the Bridegroom, I suggest they read all the sermons on the Song of Songs by St. Bernard of Clarivaux, a Doctor of the Church. Many of those are free online.
Now, more and more lay people, my parish priest told me, as making private vows. This type of renewal of the consecrated life may very well be a way the Church is renewed from within.
Lay persons making promises or vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience place themselves in the same type of relationship to the Church as the religious. The only difference is that the lay person, now technically not lay after making those vows, is not a member of a community. The obedience is not to an order, or an abbot or prioress, but to the Church, and, in some cases, to a local bishop.
Obedience to the Church indicates that one takes seriously the teaching of the Magisterium. No disagreements with doctrine would be a possibility for one truly following a life of obedience.
Poverty for the person who has made such vows, and I do know one person who has done this, may mean a life of simplicity, detachment, and great generosity to the poor and underprivileged. A vow of poverty would preclude accumulating wealth, and if one had wealth, sharing it.
Chastity may seem like the easiest vow to fulfil, in that one can understand not dating, or in intimate relationships with the opposite sex, or looking at movies, books, etc, which may cause thoughts of impurity. However, chastity and the call to celibacy must be seen as much more complicated than at first sight.
I want to explore what I call the “prism of chastity,” as this virtue is many-sided. Let me give the simple definitions of chastity and celibacy before continuing. I give you this prism of nine facets. But, first, some definitions seem necessary.
The word, chastity, is from the Latin word for “pure.” Chastity technically means not engaging in any unlawful sexual activity. However, as I shall describe below, chastity is much more than bodily abstinence. And, one can be chaste within the vow of marriage as well.
Celibacy is the abstaining from marriage and sexual activity. A celibate never marries. Such is the discipline of the Church regarding priests. Monks and nuns also make a vow of celibacy, sometimes called the vow of chastity. In other words, celibacy is the state of virginity. This does not mean that a man who has been married cannot be a priest. Once accepting the usual Latin Rite discipline of celibacy, the priest no longer has relations with his wife.
This type of discipline makes the priest available more readily to his parish, his bishop. And,God.
As we are made up of body, mind, soul, and heart, which include the senses and the imagination and will, chastity would inform every part of our being, body and soul.
Let me describe the first side of the prism of chastity, that of purity of the body. As the most obvious manner in which chastity is observed, one can see that the senses must be controlled, and, perhaps, mortified, in order to remain bodily chaste. Many of the saints admitted difficulty with bodily chastity, using penances to control their urges. This is all well and good. One who pursues chastity must have the senses of smell, sight, hearing, touch, under control. This discipline may be taught to children. Without going into detail, I can show you that the one-side of the prism demands, for some people, suffering. Others may be “naturally chaste,” not inclined to sexual arousal or feelings of romance which lead to the sin of unchastity. One could be naturally celibate, not inclined to marriage. This different than the call to celibacy, which accompanies the normal call to the priesthood in the Latin Rite. The call to be celibate is accompanied by graces given in the Sacrament of Ordination, and in the making of the vows of the monk, the brother, the nun, the sister.
Some people are given a great gift of celibacy, never to have engaged in the sexual act, and never having to fight temptations to pornography, or other forms of temptation. Our Lord, being celibate and perfectly chaste, born of a Mother who is also a virgin and perfectly chaste, gave His Mother to the only Apostle who we know is a virgin—St. John. The great spiritual writers of the Church tell us that John’s virginity is one reason why he is called “The Beloved Disciple.” His purity of mind, heart, body and soul led him to be celibate all his life, a rare thing in First Century Judaism. St. John is the paradigm for all priests, monks and nuns. His love for Christ filled his heart, mind, soul, body with purity. His purity of body reflects the first side of the prism of chastity.
The second side of the prism is purity of heart. This means that a person is not attached to other people except to God. This is hard for many lay people to understand, but unless one is emotionally objective, not subjective in a relationship, one is not truly a celibate. To remove attachments takes prayer. St. Ignatius has one of the best prayers for holy detachment. The prayer is called Suscipe.
Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me.
To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.
Therefore, I can say that the second face of the prism is purity of heart, as the heart which is pure is only attached to God and through that attachment, to other people. Affections need to be purified in those who want to become saints.
Liberty in the prayer above means the ability to do what one wants to do with one’s mind, heart, soul, and body. Giving up the heart to God creates purity of intention, which is the third facet of the prism of chastity. The second facet, purity of the heart, allows for purity of the will. One strengthens the ability to make good decisions for God. You can see, dear readers, that purity of the will is the next face on the prism. Purity of will, understanding, will, and memory are purities fed by the cardinal virtues of fortitude, temperance, prudence and justice.
Purity on intention is part of purity of the will. One desires only what God wants, nothing else. One intends and does all for the love of God alone. I started this conversation with the body, as no one can tame the will unless the senses are first tamed. Such practices as custody of the eyes, lead to custody of the will and the mind. The mind is what holds the imagination and is the four fact of the prism of chastity. One must be pure in one’s mind, not merely controlling thoughts which are contrary to chastity, but being free of those thoughts. This is possible with grace. One can pray for a cleansing of the imagination which will strengthen the will. One can be watchful as to what one puts into the imagination, such as movies, television shows, even books. If God gives one the grace to have a pure imagination, one’s will can freely turn away from temptations.
The memory holds much which feeds the imagination. All who want purity of body, heart, and will must pray for the healing and cleansing of the memory. This is also possible. Many saints attest to holy forgetfulness.
Body, heart, will, imagination are the first four facets of this prism. Memory is the fifth. The sixth is purity of desire. Now, one may think this is the same as purity of the heart, which is where one feels affections for others, but purity of desire is a deeper, more penetrating purity. One wants nothing except God’s Will. Such a purity is referred to in the prayer above. “All is thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy Will.” If one desires God Alone, one will see purity pushing out impurities in the other faculties.
Purity of desire includes prayer. If one is always asking God for things, or events to occur, one does not have purity of prayer. Prayer which is pure is true contemplation of the Attributes of God. Meditation begins the journey to purity of prayer, and contemplation feeds that way to holiness. The saints tell us that many people fall from the perfection of grace because they do not meditate. Without meditation, one cannot learn to contemplate. Purity of desire is to love God and have an intimate relationship with Him, which begins in disciplining the heart, mind, body, memory and imagination.
The seventh facet of this prism of chastity is that of purity of action or deeds. Now, this may seem a deviation from the above definitions, but what I want to describe is the purity of the duties one does daily. Yes, there can be a type of purity of deeds. Again, the four cardinal virtues lead to chastity of action or deeds. These four virtues can be natural, but the supernatural virtues are given by grace. Even the pagans, such as Aristotle and Plato knew of the cardinal virtues. We Catholics are fortunate to be given the graces necessary to live in these virtues. There are, by the way, sixty-six virtues and if Jay asks me to write to you again, I may explore or at least share that list.
Purity of action does not allow for acting out of egotism or selfishness. God becomes the centre of all deeds, all done for him. Again, as St. Ignatius writes, and this is the motto of the Jesuits, “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.” This translates as “To the greater glory of God.”
When I was at university, when I bought a book, I would write that phrase inside the front page, giving glory to God for and through my studies. Even as a student, I wanted God to be the End and the Meaning of my work. To Him belongs all the glory of our deeds. And, as one becomes holy, even the very being becomes a sign of the glory of God. Hence, we Catholics recognise the saints for their holy lives, which, for all time, give glory to God. However, St. Ignatius meant that all things give glory to God, or to rephrase, all in God gives glory. This means that even a celibate, that is abstaining life, gives glory to God, Everything one does gives glory to God. Of course, this supposes one is in sanctifying grace, as one living in mortal sin cannot give glory to God, as there is no merit given when one is without grace.
This means that one does all for God alone, and not for one’s self, or one’s neighbour. Purity of deed can be seen as a simplicity, Purity of deeds would inform every action from the minute one gets out of bed to the time one retires for the night. Everything done in the day can be done with purity, with chaste actions, chaste thoughts, chaste goals. Deeds become pure only after one has accomplished purity of mind, heart, body, imagination, and memory—a hard task.
Grace leads one to attain purity of deeds. Some people, like St. John the Evangelist, are given great graces of celibacy and chastity. We know that the Apostles left their wives and children and followed Christ. They attained purity of deeds by this separation, which Christ asked of them. Matthew 4:18-19 is worthy of mentioning here.
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
The call to celibacy is a radical call. It demands of the person who is called that he develops all the facets of the prism of chastity and lives a life of complete self-denial. I suggest we pray for holy priests to pursue complete purity, through the graces offered to them.
The eighth face of the prism is that of chastity of speech. This virtue is connected to the cardinal virtues of temperance and prudence. Chastity which is purity inclines one not to curse or use bad language, to be careful of speech concerning others. A chaste man would not gossip and a chaste woman would not judge others unfairly. Tempering one’s speech now leads me to the last and ninth facet of the prism of chastity, that of purity of dress. The minor virtue of modesty flows from a chaste mind, heart, imagination, memory, body and will. Modesty in speech and in dress indicate that a person is humble, and practicing the virtues of temperance and prudence. When one is chaste in all these areas of one’s life, senses, faculties, spirituality, one becomes humble, almost by default.
The holy priest, monk, brother, nun, or sister would exhibit all the facets of the prism of chastity.
But, what of us lay people? St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:7-8—
“But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.'”
We do not all have the same call to the same level of holiness. As I told my students long ago, just as I am not an Olympic swimmer, neither do I have the grace to be St. John of the Cross, or St. Dom Bosco. Christ through His Resurrection freed up grace to be given to all, but not equally. This is a lesson in humility, when one realises, as I have in my old age, that not only have I passed up graces given to me, but that I may have not met the level God intended for me in His Perfect Will.
As I noted above, some lay people are making vows. For the majority of the laity, the way to holiness is through marriage, although I think this is changing. If we are heading for the time of tribulation, God will be calling more and more people to Himself, in order to create an army of prayer warriors, apologists, and evangelist. I can see that some young people are chasing a celibate life for the sake of the Kingdom without joining an order, or becoming a priest. This could be God’s way of purging the Church. The Church is purified only through its members. Remember the teaching of the Church that others outside the Church are saved through the merits of the Church? This fact means that those in the Church must grow into a state of purity, in order to merit not only their own salvation, but that of others.
If the Church is weak, it is because of each one of us is failing to attain the purity God intended for each, albeit at different levels of grace and holiness. Even those who are married can practice chastity, as explained by the seven faces of the prism.
Celibacy is a call. Chastity is a virtue each Catholic must embrace. All of us are called to be chaste. Meditate on the prism of chastity, for then purity will become a way of life for you.
JMJ, pray for us!
God is good,