Six myths (and some truth) about the gift of celibate chastity

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Celibate chastity is not well understood in most societies. Everyone who has ever chosen life within a Catholic religious community has taken a vow of celibate chastity. So what exactly is it? First, let’s look at chastity. Theologian Donald Goergen points out that chastity is not virginity. Vast numbers of people in our world are not virgins. That fact does not prevent them from being chaste. Chastity is also not simply celibacy. Chastity applies to married life as well as to vowed religious and single life.

A gift freely given
Chastity is number of things. First of all, it’s a way of looking at the world and everyone in it. Chaste men and women open their eyes wide enough to see the sacred in every person they meet.

Next, it’s a gift of grace. Gifts are things freely given, we can’t earn them and need do nothing to repay the person who offers one. We also have the right to accept or refuse a gift. In the same way, the grace of chastity is a gift, one that helps us integrate our sexual energy into our lives as Christian men and women.

When people are chaste, they see sex as a sign of God’s love by limiting it to faithful and sustained commitments. For Christians, sex is a sign of God’s relationship with us. Stated simply, sexual relations are meant to be a sign of fidelity, God’s fidelity to us. By limiting it to faithful and sustained commitments, we give witness to that fact. Chastity, then, is a gift of grace; God offers it to everyone. Some people accept this gift; others don’t. Those who do, find that they’ve received a wonderful agent for integrating their sexuality and spirituality and realizing the goal of both: union with God and others. Chastity is not a foe of sexuality or spirituality, instead, it affirms both dimensions and unifies them. Growth in human sexuality and a developing spirituality go hand in hand.

A choice made over and over
Chastity is also a choice. Like many choices, this one must be made time and again. People who live chastely do so by repeated actions, day by day, over time. Chastity is not a state I enter, but rather a lifelong and daily decision I choose to live out.

To understand this notion better, consider charity for a moment. It’s quite evident that charity isn’t something we acquire all at once. Only over time, by making hard choices in situation after situation, do we live out the injunction to love our neighbor and ourselves.

Chastity, though, is an attitude as well as a way of behaving. Chaste people need a healthy outlook on their sexuality, an appreciation of their maleness or femaleness, and a wholesome understanding about their bodies and those of others.

Unfortunately, when talking about celibate chastity and Christian marriage, many people believe some of the many myths that surround these two life commitments. Let’s take a look at a few of the myths.

1. The myth that we can try every alternative
Early in life, our opportunities appear boundless; knowledge about limits of time, energy, and talent is something that lies well in the future. Consider for a moment, a 23-year-old woman about to enter a career. She thinks to herself, “If this one doesn’t work out, there’s always time to try something else. I’ve got a number of years ahead of me.”

At midlife the picture changes dramatically. By age 45, most of us have learned that time is the real currency of life, we are also mindful that we have much less of it than we did at age 23!

A 50-year-old religious brother, for example, asked to take on a new administrative assignment, knows full well that after he completes his six-year term only a few additional assignments may lie ahead before age and possible ill health set in. In saying “yes” to this request, he acquiesces knowing that if this new position doesn’t work out, he has limited time ahead for trying something new.

The belief that we can try every alternative has its home in early adulthood. With time and energy on our side, many of us are convinced that possibilities are unlimited. The passage of years, however, brings with it this hard-learned wisdom: it’s just not possible to do it all.

The making of commitments is another factor that challenges the myth that everything is possible. Choice and commitment are essential elements in forming an identity; they also teach us an important lesson about limits.

Whenever I make a choice or commitment, I’m making more than one decision. People who commit themselves in marriage, for example, promise to put their efforts into growing in a love relationship with another person in good times and bad. By deciding to spend their life with one other person, they also elect not to spend their life in the same way with thousands of other people. To believe that time is available in which to try every alternative is a myth that often dies hard during the middle years.

2. The myth that either choice brings perpetual happiness
When my life is not going well, almost anyone else’s life looks better than mine. A woman living a life of celibate chastity but experiencing a period of loneliness may come to believe that she would never be lonely if she were married.

So also a married woman returning home from work one day to a sullen husband and several feisty children may wonder over the dinner table what her life would have been like had she not married this man and mothered all these children.

Any life choice has its happy moments and its times of disappointment and discouragement. We run the risk of magical thinking if we believe otherwise.

3. The myth of normality
A number of mental health professionals like to classify behavior as normal or abnormal. It’s important, however, to ask this question: just what do we mean by normal? A standard normal or “bell shaped” curve defines the norm statistically, everyone who falls into the area under the center of the bell shape is classified as “normal.”

On a history exam, for example, students who score between 70 and 85 percent are the norm, those who fall below 70 or above 85 are exceptional or statistically deviate. In saying that those who lie outside the curve are not “normal,” however, we in no way mean to imply that they are pathological.

Far less than 50 percent of the men and women in the United States live lives of celibate chastity; those who do, therefore, are statistically “deviate” or beyond the norm. Today, some people suggest that Christian marriage, with its assumption of monogamy, is also abnormal. If we are to believe many of the media reports about fidelity and marriage, we might well agree that the notion of Christian marriage is deviate, still, we hope neither it nor celibate chastity is pathological. When discussing celibate chastity, or Christian marriage for that matter, we need to diffuse the myths about what is normal and what is not.

4. The myth that life decisions are free
Our life decisions are motivated by a number of factors. For example, some people, fearful of their sexuality, rush into either marriage or a life of celibate chastity. Early in life we often offer only the most idealistic of reasons for our choices. Later in life we can be a bit more honest: all of us make our life choices out of mixed motives. Some are sterling, others are a bit more tarnished.

If, early in life, I entered religious life, or chose a life of celibate chastity or marriage and my decision was not completely free, does that make my choice invalid? Not at all. Yale psychologist Daniel Levinson points out that most people make major choices about their life before they have enough information to come to the best possible decision. However, if they wait until all the data is in, they’ll be dead before they do anything!

As we grow older and learn more about our motives, we need to rework our life commitments. I may, for example, have entered religious life or married for several very good reasons; often enough, it’s another set of reasons entirely that causes me to stay with my earlier commitment.

5. The myth that problems in the celibate chaste life can be handled spiritually
This myth spells out clearly the “pray it away” solution to problems in a life of celibate chastity. Spirituality is at the core of genuine celibate chaste living. Prayer and a growing relationship with God are essential elements.

Many problems in a life of celibate chastity, however, can’t be prayed away; rather, they must be talked about with others as well as God. Consider a young brother who falls in love. He needs, first of all, to talk with his trusted advisors and friends about his feelings and the meaning and place of this relationship in his life. A regular life of prayer is essential to the celibate chaste life; so also, is honest conversation.

6. The myth that one chooses celibate chastity because one can’t make it elsewhere
This myth is based on the following false observation about people who choose lives of celibate chastity: “The poor things, what else could they have done with their lives!” Men and women who are living vibrant lives of celibate chastity are very attractive people. Their lives, like those of others, have rewards and drawbacks. However, they usually did not choose their lives by default.

So just what is celibate chastity? When all is said and done, celibate chastity can best be described as an affair of the heart. No one wants to live without love. Doesn’t it stand to reason, then, to insist that unless a life of celibate chastity leads those who live it into greater union with God and with other people, they would be foolish to embrace it?

In choosing to live a life of celibate chastity, a person takes on a particular spiritual and sexual identity. Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan, S.J., compares this experience to an otherworldly falling in love. Yes, a total and permanent self-surrender to God without condition, qualification, or reservation.

Herein lies the challenge of celibate chastity: the spiritual life must be at its heart. You and I can learn all there is to know about human sexuality, but unless we have come to grips with what it means to be a spiritual person, we will never be at home with a life of celibate chastity.

Those who embrace a life of celibate chastity, then, must commit themselves to live with passion—to be deeply spiritual and sexual at the same time. To discover anew the fire that longing for the Lord—that they know full well burns brightly within each of them. And, thus, over time they learn to be more at home with themselves and with the Lord, but now on his terms and with infinitely more knowledge about his ways. Is there any apt description of these men and women who eventually live fully a life of celibate chastity? Yes, deeply spiritual and profoundly human is the only one that fits! 

Adapted with permission from An Undivided Heart: Making Sense of Celibate Chastity, by Seán Sammon, F.M.S., published by Alba House .

Brother Seán Sammon, F.M.S.Brother Seán Sammon, F.M.S. was the superior general of the Marist Brothers from 2001-2009. In addition, he has published 10 books and multiple articles on topics of religious life and psychology. 




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