October / November 2018 - Vol. 100

.young people welcoming one another
The Courage to Be Chaste
The Vocation of the Chaste Disciple
by Benedict Groeschel
Living a Chaste Single Life in Today's World
A few years ago a young religious sister shared the following experience. She was enrolled at a state university in a course entitled “Human Sexuality." She attended class anonymously and was unrecognized as a [religious] sister. For reasons unknown (and probably unknowable), the students were required to share with the class the wildest sexual encounter they had experienced. Sister resolved to stand her ground and admit the awful truth-she had never had a sexual encounter.

As this exhibitionist's round-robin made its way to her, she disclosed her dreadful secret. The students thought they had been prepared for everything, but not for this! Chastity was just too far out. Between their gasps of incomprehension and guffaws of unbelief, she managed to explain that she was a religious sister. The response of the group completely reversed. Her classmates were delighted, awe-struck and deeply moved. They all agreed that she should stay right where she was and not have an encounter. Even the most jaded were impressed to know that someone, somewhere, had managed to preserve her humanity and yet be chaste for the Kingdom of God.

While this incident reveals the remarkable attraction for the ideal of chastity among those who are culturally conditioned to reject it, nevertheless, the young person, whether married or single, who attempts to lead a chaste Christian life is going to meet a withering amount of opposition. In thirty years, motion pictures and other forms of entertainment have gone from the avoidance of sexuality to the explicit exploitation of lust. Most Christian denominations which had clearly defined codes of sexual mores have adopted libertarian attitudes that history is likely to judge as severely as it judges the seamy side of the Italian Renaissance or the French Enlightenment.

A Working Definition of Chastity
Single Christians, whether young or old, must live in opposition to the strong tide of contemporary decadence. I do not intend to confuse the issue for them by entering the debate over the meaning of chastity. There are aspects of this theological discussion which interest me, but perhaps only because they would give me dangerous opportunities to use sarcasm and irony in uncharitable ways. I will rely on the traditional Christian meaning of chastity accepted by an army of spiritual and moral writers (many of them canonized saints) up to the present time. This definition has been reiterated by Pope John Paul II and is clearly summarized in the pastoral reflection on morality of the American Catholic bishops, "To Live in Christ Jesus," a sadly forgotten but powerful document. It has been restated more recently in unambiguous. terms by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education.

I use the terms chaste celibacy and chaste single life to mean the avoidance of all voluntary genital and pregenital sexual behavior. They also imply a decision to avoid personal relationships of human affection which are likely to be genitally expressed. This is an obligation for the vowed celibate and for the person who cannot validly enter marriage.

A Christian who decides to remain single has, in fact, opted for the same expression of chastity as that chosen by the vowed celibate. Chastity for all Christians means avoiding sexual satisfaction from auto-eroticism or from deviant behavior. It does not mean isolation, rejection of human love and friendship, or refraining from certain non-genital behavior related to the expression of one's sexuality. Chastity implies an heroic effort at times to confront the dark and self-centered aspects of one's inner being.

If you are not generally in agreement with the above definition, this book is not for you. If, on the other hand, you live by or would like to live by these Christian values, which are rooted in the Scriptures and tradition of your faith, you may find this book helpful.

Everyone knows that Christian marriage calls couples to a very challenging form of chastity. There are many similarities between the struggles of married and single believers. In this book we are limiting ourselves to a consideration of those who intend to remain unmarried. At times we may apply the word chastity to the single state but there is no implication that it is reserved to that state.

Obstacles to a Chaste Life
Twice in the past decade writers of satire in the New York Times Book Review have listed and reviewed imaginary books on chastity, written by imaginary authors, on one occasion by a mythical nun. On both occasions the book was a defense of or guide to celibate chastity. These imaginary titles were listed among other books entitled “Aboriginal Gourmet Cooking” and "How To Build Your Own Space Craft.”

It was all very funny in a sick way, but it also indicated the lack of sensitivity of our times. The authors of these satires were civilized men who, I am sure, never meant to be offensive. They should have realized, however, that a high proportion of religious read their book reviews. No doubt their grandmothers taught them, as mine taught me, that it is in poor taste to make fun of other people's religious practices. Perhaps it never occurred to these and other educated scorners of chastity that there are a fair number of people trying to lead the life that they had chosen to mock.

Mockers are simply part of a situation (I hesitate to call it a culture) that accepts misfortune as the only legitimate excuse for leading a celibate life. While those who belittle chastity might admire St. Francis or Mother Teresa, they never come to grips with religious chastity as an integral part of the dynamics and life adjustment of such people. They might admire Gandhi, but they ignore his struggle to observe celibate religious chastity while his wife was still living and very dear to him. A celibate person without the mystique of Gandhi or St. Francis is likely to win only their scorn.

Misunderstanding and Mockery
The negative reactions that the celibate single person encounters are not always mocking; they range from pity to disbelief. In the case of a person who is young and not in a religious community, relatives and friends decide that there must be something psychologically wrong. Even religious and clerics of marriageable age may have a relative or friend suggest that it might be time “to get out and live a normal married life.” Young people intending to try a religious vocation experience various attitudes that range from compassion to ridicule. The one conclusion we can reach from all of this is that voluntary chastity is not a vocation for the faint-hearted.

Anyone who is determined as a result of a religious conversion to be chaste after a life of sexual indulgence, either heterosexual or homosexual, will find out where friendship has its roots. Deliberate attempts will be made to lure the newly converted back to the fleshpots. St. Augustine describes how he attempted to entice one of his boon companions from the Christian life when he was seventeen, and how terrible he felt when the young man died.
This revealed to Augustine that he himself had not been a true friend.

What motivates so many to oppose celibate chastity? It may be a human concern that someone not miss an engaging part of life. I think of the sweet old Jewish lady who told her husband to take me for a walk “and explain things” when she found out I was going off to the monastery as a teenager. Or it may be the reaction of those who are conflicted themselves; they feel a call to chastity which they cannot or will not accept. Or it may be the old insane American fallacy that causes resentment toward anyone who disagrees with prevailing values because, the theory goes, if we all agree, we must be right. Or, God forbid, it may even be a very base impulse from the dark part of the human psyche which seeks to destroy that which is beautiful in another person.

I recall working with a man who was vowed to religious chastity. A woman friend literally pursued him. Her conscious motivation, I suspect, was to bring some love into what she perceived as his loveless life. He actually relinquished his calling and left in order to marry her. Incredibly, she refused to see him at all after he was released from his vows. While I do not accuse this young woman of malicious intent, I suspect that she was subconsciously motivated by a desire to destroy something she did not possess.

This strange case forcefully brought home to me what I have read in the works of great psychologists, namely, that much sexual motivation is unconscious and, consequently, can be dangerous and self-destructive. Anyone who chooses to make the struggle for celibate chastity must look beyond simple sexual need and pleasure to discover the real motivations. Pleasure or its deliberate renunciation is rarely an adequate explanation of either sexual indulgence or chastity.

Going beyond the superficial hedonism of everyday life, Dag Hammarskjöld, a single man, reveals in his diary, Markings, his struggle to be chaste and his religious motivation. He has this to say about the dark side of human nature:
We can reach the point where it becomes possible for us to recognize and understand Original Sin, that dark counter-center of evil in our nature – that is to say, though it is not our nature, it is of it – that something within us which rejoices when disaster befalls the very cause we are trying to serve, or misfortune overtakes even those whom we love.

Life in God is not an escape from this, but the way to gain full insight concerning it.

It is when we stand in the righteous all-seeing light of love that we can dare to look at, admit, and consciously suffer under this something in us which wills disaster, misfortune, defeat to everything outside the sphere of our narrowest self-interest. So a living relation to God is the necessary precondition for the self-knowledge which enables us to follow a straight path, and so be victorious over ourselves, forgiven by ourselves.
(Markings, 1966, pp 127-128)
The Suspicion of Pathology
There are more subtle objections to chastity than those alluded to so far. Perhaps the most obvious is the belief that chastity is an impossible ideal. Contemporary psychology, especially in its "pop" forms, has created the illusion that sexual abstinence is impossible, except in the case of severe pathology.

There is no doubt that a human life without sexuality is impossible. Defining chastity as a life without sexuality is a denial of human nature. Indeed, some Catholics who ridicule chastity are, in fact, reacting to that past definition of chastity. If, however, we define chastity as a life without voluntary genital behaviour, we express a very different reality. Many people live such lives without any symptoms of serious pathology.

The inaccuracies of pop psychology and its need to cater to a large audience explain why popular writers rarely make a distinction in favour of sane celibacy. More thoughtful psychologists like Erik Erikson made such a distinction long ago. In his classic work Childhood and Society written in 1950, Erikson, while discussing generativity as the form of maturity, wrote:

Where philosophical and spiritual tradition suggests the renunciation of the right to procreation or to produce, such [persons] early turn to “ultimate concerns” whenever instituted into monastic movements; [this tradition] strives to settle at the same time the relationship to the care for the creatures of this world and to the Charity which is felt to transcend it.

Although many celibate single people have made significant contributions to human welfare while leading creative and happy lives, the prejudice remains that anyone whose life is without genital sexuality is either ill-informed or psychologically crippled. There is no doubt that in the normative human life, the mature individual exchanges love and affection faithfully with a partner of the other sex and shares most aspects of life, especially the great task of raising the next generation. Genital sexuality is an element in the lives of most human beings and surely it was meant to be so. But as Erikson has pointed out, one can direct much energy to the care of other people's children and to the search for God as the first object of desire. This must be the goal of the single Christian attempting to live the Gospel.

It is important to remember that some people pursuing such nonreligious goals as science or creative art have renounced marriage and, apparently, genital sexuality. While we are not concerned here with these people, they do provide another interesting example of persons being celibate and creative at the same time.

Sexual Bombardment
The single person, and indeed any Christian who is committed to chastity both before and during marriage, lives in a world of continuous sexual bombardment from advertising, media and entertainment. This undoubtedly makes a chaste life more difficult. Some people handle this by selective withdrawal from life, which is not the best way to adjust to the problem. It is far
better to be on the offensive than on the defensive, to assert one's preferences firmly and let others know when something is personally offensive or distasteful.

Perhaps one of the most persistent and obviously invalid assumptions of our civilization is that sexual behaviour brings happiness. The media trumpet the message, “Sex brings happiness.” If this were true, we would indeed live in an earthly paradise, and the world would be “Happy Valley."

I suppose that half the people you meet on a bus, or in a shopping centre, or even at church on Sunday have had some genital sexual experience during the preceding few days. It is the observation of an old celibate from way back that they are not all so very happy. If sex brought happiness, the world would shine like the sun, at least half the time. Celibates need not try to convince themselves that chaste celibacy is the road to earthly bliss, but on the other hand they need not feel deprived of the key to happiness. If there is a single key to contentment, it cannot be sexual experience.

Loneliness – the painful awareness of the need for companionship and support – is probably the greatest obstacle to chastity in the single life. Obviously, the single person has to value aloneness, the state of being on one's own. He or she must also have learned to overcome loneliness, that is, aloneness when it becomes a burden.

Yet the better things of life are often organized for couples – even parish and religious activities. Parties, entertainment, time off and vacations often accentuate loneliness for the single. We will consider later how a single person must energetically organize his or her life, so that loneliness does not become an occasion for unwanted sexual desire or even sexual compulsion.

The Stigma of Being Single
We have already seen that poorly-applied pop psychology may leave the single person feeling like a cripple. This adds to the special burden of those who are unmarried by reason of apparent misfortune, or against their own choice. This group usually does not include clergy and religious, although I have noted this sentiment among religious who wish they could live their lives again.

No doubt many single people would prefer to have married, but the opportunity never came their way or, if it did, it did not seem appropriate for them. Others are widowed or divorced and not inclined to marry again. In the case of the divorced, remarriage may not be possible because of moral principles and Church teaching. Other single people do not consider marriage an option for them because they recognize their lack of psycho-sexual development, or because they realize their strong homosexual inclinations. Certain people suffer very quietly with deviant sexual desires and do not want to jeopardize another person's happiness with their problem. Many others just like to be independent.

Some years ago I met an attractive young woman who was very active in the charismatic renewal. We shall call her Maryanne. She has a deep and well-informed commitment to the spiritual life. Maryanne had accepted peacefully, even joyfully, the knowledge that she would have to lead a chaste single life. Far from being reluctant about her decision, she embraced the chaste Christian life gratefully.

For some years before her conversion to an intense Christian life, Maryanne had been actively involved in a series of homosexual relationships. She had lived on the quiet, respectable edge of "the gay scene." No one meeting this young woman now would think of her as unhappy or frustrated. Determination, a positive self-image replete with self-acceptance and a real concern for others emanate from her personality. This is no mask. Maryanne proves to many that a chaste life can be a fulfilling, creative and joyful experience.

The Vocation of the Chaste Disciple
Whatever their original motives, many single people we have been speaking of are sincere Christians and want to make their lives chaste. In the past they may have taken the edge off temptation by indulging in auto-eroticism, or by "affairs" with no notion of permanent commitment, or by other unsatisfactory and morally conflicted behaviour. Choosing to be celibate will bring them not only peace with God but also a sense of integrity and nobility of life. It will also teach (as nothing else can) a great reliance on the grace of Christ and the need to be saved from themselves. A single life led unwillingly and marred by unchaste behaviour is indeed a pitiful thing. A life of chastity led with prayerful love of God and neighbour is a most worthy form of discipleship, regardless of the personal factors that prompted the individual to be single.

There is an obvious difference between the life of a married Christian and a chaste single life. A marriage can become a noble Christian discipleship, even if it did not begin with a mature decision. Spouses can be converted together and grow together in Christ. Sexuality which may be little more than an expression of need or dependency can grow to be the profound expression of the sacramental presence of Christ in a relationship of human love. Even if the couple does not arrive at these lofty heights, their relationship may be a genuine struggle for discipleship with joys and sorrows, failures and successes experienced together. Repentance shared by a couple can be a beautiful experience.

In the same way, when opting for the single life, a person may not have considered it a form of discipleship. I have met clergy and religious who gave the vow of chastity little thought before they took it; it was simply part of the price of admission to their vocation. The single person, lay or religious, may suddenly find his or her attempt at chastity threatened, or in ruins. This is an opportunity for real conversion and commitment. But it takes insight, self-knowledge, energetic planning, and a great reliance on the grace of God to do anything as worthwhile and complex as leading a well-balanced chaste life. In a word, a chaste life – like a solid Christian marriage – calls for discipleship.

In writing this book I have drawn on the experience of many people who are trying to lead chaste lives despite the obstacles enumerated above; I have also drawn on my own experience with this struggle. For all Christians, married, single or religious, chastity is not simply a struggle with physical urges and drives. It is part of the greater effort to seek God above and through all things. Chastity is an aspect of purity of mind and heart, of thought and desire. Like every worthwhile thing in life, chastity is a struggle which has its rewards. They are summed up in the Beatitude, “How blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”

[excerpt from The Courage to Be Chaste, Chapter 1, by Benedict J. Groeschel C.F.R., (c) 1985 by Province of St. Mary, Capuchin Order, published by Paulist Press, New Jersey.]

Fr. Benedict Joseph Groeschel, C.F.R. (1933-2014) was the founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Catholic priest, retreat master, author, psychologist, a leading anti-abortion figure, and for more than 30 years a television host with Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). His greatest joy was serving the poor and underprivileged in New York City. Founder of St. Francis House and Good Counsel Homes, he also served as chaplain at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry for 14 years. Always deeply concerned with the welfare of others, he tirelessly provided food, clothing, and assistance to people in need—people he always considered his friends. At the time of his death in October 2014 (age 81) the order had grown to 115 brothers and priests and 35 sisters in nine friaries in the U.S., four in Europe and two convents in Central America.

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