A Call to Love

by Joan Chittister, OSB

Featured in Mountain Record 25.3, Spring 2007


Henry Ward Beecher wrote once, “I never knew how to worship until I knew how to love.” Perhaps there is no truer insight into the relationship between chastity and religious life than that single intuition. The point is a good one. If we do not love people whom we can see, as the proverb teaches, how can we possibly love God whom we cannot? At the same time, the understanding of chastity as a social concept has come across time to be so stunted, so warped that the presentation of it has been consistently antagonistic to life and growth and relationships. We have become far more conscious of what chastity denied us than of what chastity enabled in us, demanded of us, provided for us. As a result, we need to rethink the vow completely if the contemporary spirituality of religious life is to speak either to the society around us or to religious themselves.

If chastity requires the repression of sex for its own sake,the world does not need it. Repression simply masks volcanoes waiting to happen. If what stirs unbidden within us is enemy, is danger, then we are at war with ourselves for no good reason at all. And someday, somehow, it will erupt in the most destructive of ways. If, on the other hand, what we feel inside ourselves magnetizes us toward the human race, becomes the glue that binds the world together, the surge that makes us capable of thinking of someone else besides ourselves for a change, then this impulsion we have been given is gift to be nurtured, lesson to be listened to with confidence. Chastity, in that case, compels us to think about love unleashed.

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There are some givens to be faced before we can rethink chastity and its role in religious life: First, lovelessness is not a virtue. Second, exploitation is not love. Third, the function of religious vows lies in more than negation of the human condition and discipline of the self. Fourth, chastity is not developmentally destructive. And, lastly, sexuality gives positive energy, and sex is beautiful.

The problem arises in the fact that those concepts exist side by side and hopelessly tangled in contemporary society. Chastity has too often become a synonym for lovelessness. Exploitation, even in marriage, has become the norm. Religious vows have been couched in terms of loss rather than gain. Self-control has been abandoned in favor of license. Sexuality has been used against women, and sex has been presented as bad, as dirty, as shameful, as something never to be done or always to be done. Chastity has come to be seen as just one more way for men to control women or the neurotic nonsense of naturally frigid people. G.K. Chesterton says it all much better, says it with holy insight: “Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong,” Chesterton writes. “It means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.”

If the chastity of vowed religious is to have any meaning in a world where rape and sex, promiscuity and commitment, surfeit and human deprivation, sexism and liberation range side by side, competing for attention, making demands on the human spirit, draining the human soul, something more flaming than sterile abstinence is going to have to come from it.

The social context of chastity becomes more and more fluid every day. The rhythm method of birth control, the natural family planning programs, the chemical abortifacients, the birth control pills—however we evaluate any or all of the ways used to avoid conception—now give people control of a natural behavior where control never before existed. The theology of chastity—that physical abstinence is somehow more spiritual, more sanctifying, than sexual behavior—grows more and more suspect every day in a world of lay saints for whom marriage supports rather than limits a couple’s involvement in, for instance, the peace movement, the ecology movement, the feminist movement, the struggles of the world and the ministries of the church. As a result of both scientific and theological developments, perhaps, the context for discussing sex and sexuality, marriage and celibacy, chastity and love has never before been more meaningful.