Carmelite Spirituality – Chastity
Blessed are the Pure in Heart
Patrick Burke, O.Carm. Carmelite Family: Number 20, Winter 2004.
Chastity is closely associated with concepts like celibacy, purity, continence. Chastity is a gift and a virtue that is to be practised by every human being if justice is to be maintained and human growth is to be fostered. Chastity is also an evangelical counsel that binds us to Jesus Christ in our commitment to live in accordance with the Gospel, following the example of Christ himself.
A Way of Relating to Others
Chastity is a matter of relationship. It points to the way we relate to other people, with some emphasis on how we relate to people of the other sex. It is associated with continence, understood as refraining from sexual genital behaviour, and with celibacy, understood as the gift and the choice whereby a person is enabled to live a full life without having a marriage partner. Chastity is also associated with purity, understood as the virtue by which people succeed in being transparent, and fully focused in allowing love and the actions of the Holy Spirit to be the guiding factors in their lives.
In a chaste relationship people relate to one another in freedom and mutual upbuilding, without anyone claiming rights over another, or using another in any way as an instrument to serve selfish ends. People who profess chastity as an Evangelical Counsel will go further by not engaging in sexual activity with another person, simply because of the choice to live out their chastity as celibates for the sake of the Kingdom.
To reflect on chastity enables us to become aware of our fragility in the area of our affective needs. Affection and chaste love do not always go hand in hand. Experience shows that when we love, our love is partly for ourselves. We have needs that we want to satisfy and the other person is the answer. Chaste love is a love of total self-giving. If I love someone, even in part, because of what the person will do for me then my love is not fully chaste. If I love and my love is entirely for the other person, then my love is fully chaste. We can see that only God loves in this way, but the more we are drawn into God and God’s way of loving, the more chaste we become. We might say that we are being transformed into the image and likeness of God.
A Way of Imitating Jesus Christ
The people who profess chastity as an evangelical counsel will find in Jesus the model for their way of life. Jesus appears as the chaste person in the way that he speaks about his being one with the Father. In the many encounters he has with people, we see no sign of him holding on to them, but rather setting them free to be fully themselves. He defended the prostitutes and the woman taken in adultery because he was more concerned about the sinner that the sin and reached out to them in ways that allowed them to see and love him in a way that would make them free. He gathered his disciples around him at the supper table and celebrated with them the banquet of chaste love, a love given to everyone, in intimacy of heart. On the Cross he died as a sign of the greatest love possible in which he did nothing to defend his own pleasure or comfort but accepted totally the loving will of the Father.
A Way of Witnessing to the Kingdom of God
When Jesus says that his mother and sisters and brothers are all those who hear the word of God and keep it, he indicates the kind of relationships that are a mark of the Kingdom of God. There is a relationship that goes beyond the natural bonds of family, one that will reach its fulfilment in the world to come. Chastity is a foretaste of the life to come. Christ’s teaching may seem strange in this regard, when on different occasions he places the relationship with his word on a higher plane to the relationship with mother and father and family. In the Kingdom relationship, no one will be bound except by the bonds of love and no one will be used as an instrument of any other person because all will enjoy the fullness of life.
Signs of Maturity
Chastity of this kind may seem to be opposed to intimacy. If we understand intimacy as the ability to allow another person to know us deeply and to become part of our own life, then chastity will allow that to happen even more because of the love it fosters. Jesus knew this kind of intimacy with the Father and shared it with his disciples when he called them friends and not servants. Intimacy is a sign of the maturity of our relationships. Far from limiting freedom, it enhances it, by taking away the selfish and manipulative aspects of unredeemed love.
A further sign of the genuineness of chastity is our love for the poor. Chastity enables us to love everyone especially the poor, understood as those who may not make us more comfortable in material and affective terms, and who can only reveal their wisdom and giftedness the closer we come to them.
We cannot take chastity for granted, as if it was natural for us to love in this way. Our fallen nature means that we need help and teaching in order to understand how easy it is to fall short of chastity and what we need to do to be truly chaste.