The recent birth of another child as well as the reading of Chapter IV (Tools of Good Works) made me think once more upon the 64th tool: “to love chastity”. Why does St. Benedict dedicate so few words to this topic? I suspect it has to do with the time-tested advice of the Fathers: in the case of temptations to unchastity, one must simply flee; to engage thoughts of this nature expecting to overcome them is to have already lost the battle. There is no need to list ways for the monks to be chaste; to do so might bring up thoughts that would endanger it.
Our holy father simply asks that we “love chastity”. St. Thomas lists 8 effects of unchastity and chastity:
1) blindness of mind; 2) rashness; 3) thoughtlessness; 4) inconstancy; 5) inordinate self–love; 6) hatred of God; 7) excessive love of this world; and 8) despair.
1) spiritual clearsightedness; 2) prudence; 3) reflectiveness; 4) constancy; 5) self–sacrificing love; 6) affection for God; 7) detachment from this passing world; and 8) hope.
Chastity will help us be pure in heart; it will help us grow in charity towards our neighbor. We submit our will to the Word of God so that we might be shaped by It, revealing the Christ into Whose Death and Resurrection we have been baptized. We are to love chastity – to be chaste – because our Redeemer was chaste. Chastity in marriage enables one to see one’s spouse as a person, as one’s helper, and to reflect the chaste love of Christ and His Mystical Bride.
What does chastity have to do with the married state? I know that, for a long time, I thought “nothing”; marriage would eventually give you free license to indulge in that particular carnal desire. Yet, if the years that I’ve been married have taught me anything, it is that that is not the case and neither is it desirable.
A long time ago a friend once commented to me that “the marital act is greatly overrated nowadays.” While sexual liberation seems to have emptied it of any significant meaning – mainstream media and popular “culture” not only tell us, but encourage us, to have sex with whomever we wish, whenever we wish (as long as it’s consensual) – even to the point of procreation now being seen as a mostly unintended side effect, yet one still hears of it being used as a barometer of intimacy/compatibility. A look at the cover of most men’s and women’s magazine reveals what I consider an obsession with sexual intercourse. While I don’t have figures to support this, I would go so far as to say that this morbid preoccupation is the ruin of many a marriage (I know of at least one case where this was so). We’re told that if we’re not engaging in the marital embrace frequently (and even meaningfully), then something is wrong with our relationship. As if that were the pinnacle of married life. I’m more and more inclined to agree with my friend’s comment. Sexual intimacy is just another part of the multifaceted relationship a couple has: one should not undervalue it, but neither should it be blown out of proportion either. Man and woman were made to come together – et erunt duo in carne una – especially for the bringing forth of children into the world. While the procreative aspect has been belittled, taking the back seat in most relationships, one could say that it is the most noble: the Lord has deigned to allow us participate in the bringing forth of life! However, the procreative aspect does not mean that “anything goes” within their intimacy as long as the couple is open to life; there are certain things that Christians simply do not do, no matter what the world may say about it creating “more intimacy”.
Coming back to chastity, where does it fit in married life? Chastity is another curbing of the appetites; it is a form of self-discipline. While the marital embrace is allowed within marriage, it’s not profitable to give it free reign or else one easily falls into excess. Take, for example, eating: we need to eat to live, but it’s not profitable to give into hunger all the time, lest we fall into gluttony. If we fall into lust, we no longer see our spouse as a person, but only as a means to an end (in this case, physical pleasure); we disrespect the Lord by disrespecting one of His creations. Also, satisfying the sensual appetites is a guaranteed way to make the body “soft”, as the monastic authors tells us. If you pamper the body, eventually the soul will become dulled and will not seek after higher, spiritual things. The need for disciplining the body as a necessary, almost fundamental, element of the spiritual life seems to have been forgotten. Perhaps this is the consequence of seeing the Christian faith as nothing else than an ethical system.
Something else worth considering is that chastity in marriage is not only about the correct use of the marital embrace – this is just one of the aspects. Chastity in marriage also has to do with being on guard, of keeping vigilance in thought, word and deed. I believe that being chaste is fundamental to being faithful. I think I can speak for most (if not all) husbands when I say that in today’s world one is bombarded all around with images that do not help one to be chaste. We hear so little of keeping custody of the eyes, of not letting the eyes wander. We cannot unsee the images presented to us; depending on our struggle with lust, they will stay with us for a greater or shorter period of time, being recalled even if we don’t want them to. If we are unable to get rid of these images, even when we see them involuntarily, then doesn’t that mean we should be careful about the programs we choose to watch? The wandering eye may seem harmless enough, but have you ever stopped to think about why your eye is wandering, or about the thoughts that might be going through your head at that moment? If you do, I’m quite certain that you’ll find that those unchaste thoughts are moments when you’re being unfaithful in thought. Exaggeration? “But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I speak mostly about images because men are visual creatures in this regard. But what about being chaste in speech? Are we careful about how we speak to our spouse, about the words we use, if they are respectful? Do we engage in lewd conversations to take pleasure in them? What about flirting with others? We might consider it an ego boost, or “harmless” fun, but what does it say about our fidelity to our spouse?
We are surrounded by so much filth that at times one wonders if a chaste love between husband and wife is even possible at all, seeing as how most of us are damaged goods. How much has the unchaste culture around us influenced our concept of what it means to be intimate with our spouse? In regards to intimacy, here too we must learn how to die to self. The Church, through her liturgy, can also help those in the married state with chastity: in previous times the marital embrace was to be abstained from during penitential seasons; while this is no longer demanded of the faithful, one can keep this practice after having discussed it with one’s spiritual father and receiving his blessing. If we’re struggling with lust, if we cannot be sure of our intentions, can we not say to our spouse “I am unable to control myself in this regard; for you it doesn’t seem to be a problem – I place this in your hands”? I offer here only a few suggestions; obviously this is something that a couple would bring up with their spiritual director.
In fine, I would just reiterate what I have said on previous posts – matrimony is martyrdom. We are to die to ourselves through it, helped by the graces that come from this sacrament. Chastity in matrimony is just another facet of this emptying of self. May the Lord, who blessed the chaste marriage of Tobias and Sara, casting out the demons that cursed their bridal chamber, have mercy upon us and give us the grace to live a holy and chaste marriage, so that, through us, the Kingdom of God may shine through.