Posted June 15, 2008
Chastity And the Enchantment of Life
by Ron Rolheiser
More than a generation ago, already before the sexual revolution, Nobel-prize winning novelist and philosopher, Albert Camus, had written: Chastity alone is connected with personal progress. There is a time when moving beyond it is a victory, when it is released from its moral imperatives. But this quickly turns to defeat afterwards.
What does he mean by those words?
Whatever they mean, they are not understood by our generation. Today’s world, with few exceptions, considers the move beyond chastity as anything but a defeat. For it, this is progress, a sophistication, a liberation from a past ignorance, an eating of the forbidden fruit that is more of an entry into Eden than an expulsion from it. Today, in Western culture, chastity is generally seen as naiveté, timidity, frigidity, lack of nerve, being uptight, as an innocence to be pitied.
A salient example of this can be seen in the debate surrounding AIDS and teenage pregnancy. In this discussion, the argument for chastity is generally seen as naive, impractical, narrow, religious (as if chastity was a religious concept), old-fashioned, and even dangerous. Conversely, those who argue on the basis of safe-sex (as if that wasn’t an oxymoron) claim the high ground, intellectual, moral, and practical. The same holds true today in virtually the entire discussion around sexuality. Chastity is given little place and little respect. At best, it is seen as an impractical ideal, at worst, as something to be pitied or ridiculed. This is not progress. Why?
Because, in the end, chastity is partially the key to everything: joy, family, love, community, and even the full enjoyment of sex. When a society is chaste, family can happen; when a family is chaste, it will find joy in its everyday life; when lovers are chaste, they will experience the full ecstasy of sex; when a church is chaste, it will experience the Holy Spirit. The reverse is also true. Chaos, joylessness, division, erotic numbness, and hardness of heart are generally a fault in chastity. To say this, though, implies a certain understanding of chastity. What is chastity?
Generally we identify chastity with a certain sexual reticence or simply with celibacy. This is too narrow. To be chaste does not mean that one does not have sex, nor does it imply that one is a prude. My parents were two of the most chaste persons I ever met, yet they obviously enjoyed sex, of which a large family and a warm vivacious bond between them gave ample evidence.
Chastity, at its root, is not primarily even a sexual concept, though given the power and urgency of sex, faults in chastity often are within the area of sexuality. Chastity has to do with all experiencing. It is about the appropriateness and maturity of any experience, sex included. Chastity is reverence and all sin, in the end, is irreverence.
To be chaste is to experience people, things, places, entertainment, the phases of one’s life, life’s opportunities, and sex, in a way that does not violate them or ourselves. Chastity means to experience things reverently, so that the experience of them leaves both them and ourselves more, not less, integrated. Thus, I am chaste when I relate to others in a way that does not violate their moral, psychological, emotional, sexual, or aesthetic contours. I am chaste when I do not let irreverence or impatience ruin what is gift, when I let life, others, and sex, be fully what they are. Conversely, I lack chastity when I transgress boundaries prematurely or irreverently, when I violate anything so as to somehow reduce is full gift.
Chastity is respect and reverence. The fruits of that are integration, gratitude, and joy. Lack of chastity is irreverence. The fruits of that are disintegration, bitterness, and cynicism (all infallible signs of the lack of chastity).
Allan Bloom, the famed educator, speaking purely as a secular observer, without any religious angle whatsoever, already twenty years ago affirmed that lack of chastity in our culture, particularly among the young, is perhaps the deepest cause of unhappiness and flatness in our lives. He submits that lack of chastity has, paradoxically, robbed us of deep passion and rendered us erotically lame. We have, he asserts, experienced too much, too soon. We have sophisticated ourselves into boredom and unhappiness. We have been to too many places and done too many things before we were ready for them. The result is that we have stripped life, romance, love, and sex of their mysteries and their capacity to enchant us. We have, through lack of chastity, de-sacralized our experience and robbed it of its capacity to enchant the soul.
He’s right, and the re-enchantment of our souls will be predicated on reinstating a proper chastity into our lives
Our generation suffers too much from boredom, disrespect, emotional chaos, lack of family, sexual irresponsibility, despondency, cynicism, and lack of delight. We need to be slower in denigrating chastity and more honest in assessing what constitutes victory and what constitutes defeat in our lives.