Posted December 15, 2009
Chastity and Christmas
by Ron Rolheiser
Scripture and Christian tradition emphasize that Jesus could only be born out of a chaste womb, just as Christian Spirituality emphasizes he can only come to full bloom inside of a chaste heart. Why? Why this emphasis on chastity?
Chastity needs to be properly understood. For too long we have had an overly-narrow and mostly false concept of chastity. Chastity is too commonly identified with sexual abstinence and sexuality is then seen as something that, in itself, militates against chastity and spirituality. But chastity is not the same thing as celibacy; indeed it is not even, first and foremost, a sexual concept. Someone can be chaste but not celibate, just as someone can be celibate but not chaste. My parents were not celibate, they gave birth to a large family, but they were wonderfully chaste persons. The reverse can also be true. Someone can be celibate but far from chaste.
What is chastity? We are chaste when we stand before the world, others, and God in a way which allows them to be fully themselves without letting our own impatience, selfishness, or unwillingness to remain in tension and violate their reality and natural unfolding. What is meant by that?
Allow me to present three images for this:
• In her book, Holy The Firm, Annie Dillard shares this story: One evening, alone in her cabin, she was watching a moth slowly emerge from its cocoon. The process was fascinating but interminably slow. At a point she lost patience and needed to get on to other things, so she picked up a candle and applied a little heat to the process. It worked. The added heat sped up the process and the moth emerged more quickly from its cocoon, but, since a natural process had been interfered with and unnaturally rushed, the moth emerged with ill-formed wings which didn’t allow it to fly properly. A fault in chastity led to stunted growth.
• The movie, Sense and Sensibility, based on Jane Austen’s classic novel, presents its leading character, a woman played by Emma Thompson, as someone who is asked to carry an extremely painful tension for a long time, one having to do with unrequited and unconsummated love. She has no one with whom she can really share her pain and her circumstance requires her to carry on as if she was not carrying this pain. She carries that tension for a long time, sublimating her pain into a graciousness that she extends even to the very persons who are the source of her tension. Only after a long time is the tension is finally resolved and her forbearance in not forcing an earlier, premature resolution, her willingness to carry the tension to term, helps bring about deeper life for everyone, not least for herself. This is the essence of chastity.
• After the Italian, spiritual writer, Carlo Carretto, had spend a number of years living as a hermit in the Sahara desert, he was asked what message he would give to the world if someone asked him the question: What, in your solitude and prayer, do you hear God saying to those of us who are living active lives in the world? Carretto replied: God is saying: learn to wait, learn to wait for everything – for love, for fulfillment, for consummation, for God! Learning to wait, giving God and life the space to unfold as they need to, is the very essence of chastity.
In a number of his books, Nikos Kazantzakis, both fondly and bitterly, makes this assertion: God, it seems, is never in a hurry, while we are always in a hurry. He’s right: Life unfolds according to its own innate rhythms which try our patience and it will not let themselves be rushed, except at a cost. Life and love demand both the time and the space within which to unfold according to their own internal dictates. Whenever, because of impatience, selfishness, or our unwillingness to stay inside a tension, we short-circuit that process we, in slight or deep ways, violate their reality.
Chastity is the virtue that invites us to live in patience, to wait, to respect what’s other, and to carry tension long enough so that the other can truly be other and gift can unfold precisely as gift.
The word sublime takes its root in the word sublimation. Nothing can be sublime unless there is first sublimation. Nobody gives birth to a baby without a long period of gestation, nobody writes a doctoral thesis in two hours, nobody creates an artistic masterpiece without long hours of sweat and labor, and nobody becomes a heroic individual without carrying unbearable tension. Cinderella only got to go to the ball after she had spent sufficient time in the ashes. Jesus only got to the glory and freedom of Easter Sunday by first sweating blood in the garden.
That is why the Messiah can only be born from a chaste womb and come to life fully only inside of a chaste heart. Christmas allows for no shortcuts.