Chastity is for everyone

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Fill their houses with wheat, grain, and oil and with every good thing, so that they may give in turn to those in need.
—Byzantine liturgy

CHASTITY ON TV AND AT THE MOVIES means an easy laugh, the tired punch line to a joke we all know. Chastity is for the losers who have no choice; they can't beg, borrow, or steal a date. Unfortunately, the church doesn't necessarily handle the subject any better than Must See TV. Both of them too often assume, when they speak about chastity at all, that it only and always involves refraining from genital sexual activity, and so has to do with a fairly small and specific portion of the population.

I'm there Sundays when the homily topic is chastity, and it is aimed squarely at the teenagers in our parish. It sounds as though the priest is trying to construct a verbal chain-link fence. But it isn't clear if the fence is there to keep the teens in or out--to keep them safe from the world, or the world safe from them. I wonder why the homily is aimed at the young people in our parish and no one else. Are hormonally charged youth the only sexual beings in our midst? Are they the only ones called to practice chastity? Is the need for chastity--like training wheels and water wings--something we outgrow?

The answers are no, no, and no. And, curiously, because of those no's, the answers are also yes, yes, and yes. We are, each of us, by God's grace, sexual beings. Chastity, the right ordering of the sexual nature we all have, is for everyone--young and old, married and celibate.

The gift of sexuality

But don't priests and religious put their sexuality away, just as a man who moves from Minneapolis to Miami might pack away his winter parka? Why take up valuable hanger space? I mean, he's not going to need it again, right?

Taking vows doesn't rob a person of any of the gifts God has given, including the gift of sexuality. Life in Christ means, rather, the fulfillment of all the gifts God has bestowed. But taking vows, whether in baptism, marriage, or solemn profession, does demand that we answer questions like these: "What am I going to do with this gift? What place should it, will it, have in my life? How best can I use this gift?"

Because the gift of sexuality, with its creative energy, must be used. Sexuality, at its core, is life-giving. Sexuality generates life, but it is not always, or only, genital. We have to understand the true nature of sexuality first before we can understand how celibacy, too, is and must be lifegiving.

Priests are not called to be bachelors any more than they are called to be husbands. Nuns are not called to be spinsters any more than they are called to be wives. But they are called to be life-givers. They are called to be filled with the life force. Think about it: We give them names--"Father," "Mother," "Sister," "Brother"--that speak of human, life-giving relationships. We do not call them by titles describing specific duties--director, chief financial officer--instead, we call them by relational names.

Celibacy and chastity considered

Everyone is sexual; God made us that way. Sexuality is a gift from God. It is a deep, basic, and powerful part of us, which expresses itself in creative, life-giving, and passionate energy. It brings people together in love.

Human beings also need to be able to make and keep commitments, and one kind of commitment has to do with how to express love. And how to express their sexuality. Where is the primary commitment in your life? Given what you know about yourself, in what kind of relationships do you love best?

Whatever state of life we choose—celibacy, singleness, marriage, or other relationships—we begin as passionate, loving people. Through discernment we move into a set of commitments and values that guide us in that state.

Celibacy is a state of life, like singleness and marriage; chastity is a way of living, one might even say a virtue. Chastity means using the gift of one’s sexuality in ways respectful of one’s commitments and the boundaries that come with those commitments.

As vowed members of a religious community, celibate people do not cease having sexual feelings and attraction to others; for them chastity means avoiding genital expressions of love and sexuality and guiding one’s energies into the commitment one has made to the mission and life of the community one has joined. In marriage, chastity means emotional and physical fidelity to one’s spouse. In singleness it means expressing feelings in ways that respect the moral integrity of oneself and others.

Whatever our situation, though, God calls all of us into loving relationship—with God and all of God’s precious creation. How we live this vocation—celibate, single, married—does not make us better lovers of God and others than those who have chosen differently. It does, though, have a lot to do with looking at ourselves and making a judgment about how we are best to love. We have a common Christian vocation to love all without discrimination, and different ways to live it. 
—Joel Schorn

Redirected energy
More than 20 years ago, my husband and I had to make a painful but necessary move from our hometown to a distant city. My brother was dying, and our oldest children were small and deeply attached to their grandparents. We were leaving a secure present for an insecure future.

I do not know if we would have had the strength and courage to drive out of town if not for a priest, a dear friend still, who flew out to help us pack and who traveled with us on our journey. He took the energy he might otherwise have directed to his own family and directed it to ours. He fathered us into our new life, just as surely as he had fathered us into the new life of marriage, our children into the new life of baptism, and hundreds of others into new life.

When we moved into our parish 18 years ago, a religious sister who was then serving as director of religious education saw clearly in me what I only suspected, that I have a gift for teaching. She pushed and prodded me into teaching adult education in my parish, a work in which I am still happily engaged. She saw the gift and encouraged it, mothering me into a life that I have embraced and which has embraced me. She took the energy she might otherwise have directed to her own family and directed it to me--and indeed our whole parish.

My oldest daughter is currently serving as a nurse in a hospital in Haiti. She works alongside nursing sisters from the Daughters of Charity. She tells me of one of them, the superior of the community, who is one of the best nurses she has ever known.

I ask her why, and my daughter says, "She thinks of her patients all the time. She's always considering their cases, reflecting on their symptoms, on the course of their diseases, looking for something that could be done better or with less pain."

My daughter tells of an infant who was brought to the clinic suffering from severe malnutrition. The malnutrition was treated, but the child still failed to gain weight. This sister, focused as she is on her patients, lay awake one night considering the symptoms. She wondered if the baby might have tuberculosis. Tests confirmed her suspicions, and the child is now flourishing.

She takes the energy she might otherwise direct to her own family and directs it to the patients--children, mostly--who might easily die without her care. She mothers them into health and life.

These are stories, and there are hundreds, thousands like them, of the life-giving power of the celibate life. Priests, brothers, and sisters are sexual beings who have ordered the vitality of their sexuality into ways of abstinence-based service.

Chastity in practice
But how to practice chastity? All of God's good gifts require context. Bathing is refreshing, but nonstop bathing would destroy our skin. Sleep is restorative, but sleep without end would be a kind of living death. Food is delicious, but food without times of not eating would lead to diabetes and heart disease and all manner of illnesses. Married men and women are encouraged to celebrate and delight in their sexual union, but sex out of the context of marriage ruins marriages and devastates children.

A baptized Christian is always required to consider the context--the times and the seasons--proper to each gift and then to exercise control. We have been given dominion over the created order by the God who created all, and dominion always means a wise exercise of will.

For the dating couple, the energy of sexuality is rightly channeled into the good and necessary work of getting to know one another. Sharing dreams and hopes, sharing stories of the past, trading favorite books and poems, showing one another a favorite path or view, taking him to your favorite movie, taking her to your favorite ballpark: This is how the intimacy of heart and mind is fostered.

When my husband and I were dating, we were at different colleges. We wrote one another nearly every day. These letters became an opportunity to write about the adult lives we longed to build: How we imagined raising children and ordering a home, how we imagined spending quiet times, how we envisioned our work. Letters allowed us to reveal ourselves to one another and to grow in the knowledge best friends share. A true intimacy of heart and mind can then be celebrated in the physical intimacy of marriage.

For the single adult, the energy of sexuality is rightly channeled into the good and necessary work of getting to know oneself. The teenage years are marked by dependence upon the thoughts and opinions of others. "Does this make me look fat?" "Are you sure she said she'd like to go out with me?"

It's a time of turning to friends for the assurance that we are valuable and valued; that we are loved. But once one moves out of the herd that is high school, where will one look then? The young woman all alone on a college campus far from home, or the young man among strangers on an army base or in an office building--how can they learn to listen to the inner voice that says, "Yes, you should walk this way, even if you walk alone"?

Nurturing the self

Such strength takes time and effort, reading, listening, traveling, meeting people, engaging in constructive argument, exploring, reflecting. This is how the intimacy of self is fostered, an intimacy that can only be shared if one has nurtured a self to share.

My 27-year-old son just married. His wife is a fellow medical student. They met at first-year orientation, and he says one of the things that attracted him to his wife was her obvious delight in her work, her friends, and her very full life.

"She wasn't looking for anyone to fill up the emptiness," he says, "She wasn't looking for anyone to make her whole." My new daughter-in-law came to the marriage a full and free adult. She had done the necessary work of her single years. She had developed a self to give away.

Each stage of life--and each calling of life--is gifted with sexuality. Each stage of life--and each calling of life--has its own need for chastity.

God has indeed filled our houses with wheat, grain, and oil, and with every good thing. May we--single and married and vowed celibate--nurture these gifts. And may we, in turn, give of these gifts to those who need them.

Melissa Musick Nussbaum, the author of five books, is a teacher, a speaker, a campus minister at Colorado College, and the mother of five children.




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