There’s a necessary humility in acknowledging our utter inability to live chastely outside the grace of God. The first step, it seems to me, is to acknowledge our complete need for God in winning the battle. Thomas Merton wrote that “real self-conquest is the conquest of the self by the Holy Spirit.” This is most true in the battle for chastity.
St. John Cassian teaches that human effort alone will never make someone chaste:
If we really desire to enter into this spiritual combat on the same terms as the spostle (2 Tim. 4:7), let us concentrate our every effort at dominating this unclean spirit by placing our confidence not in our own forces but on the help of God. Human effort will never be able to win through here. For the soul will be attacked by this vice as long as it does not recognize that it is in a war beyond its powers and that it cannot obtain victory by its own effort unless it is shored up by the help and protection of the Lord (5)
God’s grace is necessary for all virtue, he continues, but a “special gift” is necessary for chastity:
In a certain sense, to escape the flesh is to remain in the body while surpassing nature: to remain surrounded by fragile carnality but not to feel the stings of the flesh. Thus it is impossible, as we have said, for us to fly to such an exalted and heavenly reward on our own wings, unless the grace of God lift us up from the slime of the earth by the gift of chastity. There is no virtue which renders the lives of carnal men more similar to that of the angelic spirits than the attainment and the gift of chastity. As the Apostle says, while still living on earth they have their homeland in heaven (Phil 3:20). They already possess in their fragile flesh here in this life that which the saints are promised to possess in the future when they have left their carnal corruptibility behind (6).
“Carnal corruptibility” sounds a little stuffy and theological. But we all know the truth of our hearts: like St. Paul says, so often we do that which we don’t want to do, and don’t do that which we desire to do. That’s our carnal corruptibility, and we all have it. (I seem to have it in spades!)
Acknowledging our utter need for the grace and special aid from God to win the virtue of chastity, however, does not mean that we just sit by and let him win the victory. No—we need to strive for the virtue, in the way an athlete readies himself for a contest:
Hear what the apostle says: “Everyone who enters a contest abstains from all things” (1 Cor. 9:25). Let us inquire what are “these things” that he mentions so as to acquire instruction for spiritual combat comparable to the carnal combat. For those who desire to struggle according to the rules in this visible contest do not have the freedom to use just any foods that appetite might suggest, but only those laid down as the training regime for those battles. Not only must they abstain from forbidden foods and all drunkenness and tippling, but also from inertia, idleness and ennui [listlessness] so as to increase their strength by daily exercise and assiduous concentration (7.1).
If we’re going to achieve chastity, we have to exercise, and build patterns in our lives that replace the patterns of the past. We have to forego certain things we find desirable, fixing our eyes on a goal for the higher good. We need spiritual disciplines, like frequent attendance at Mass, frequent use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, reading of Scripture, prayer, reading the Divine Office, etc.
If we sometimes despair at our failures, or the seeming impossibility of living a chaste and continent life, these words from St. Leo the Great can bring us comfort:
And lest we should be led by despair into sheer inaction, he promises that the divine power shall make those things possible which are to man impossible from his own lack of power… In him therefore we find our model of patience, in whom we have our hope of life eternal; for if we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him (2 Tim. 2:12), since, as the apostle says, he that says he abides in Christ ought himself also to walk as he walked (1 John 2:6). Otherwise we make a vain presence and show, if we follow not his steps… and assuredly they would not be irksome to us, but would free us from all dangers, if we loved nothing but what he commanded us to love.
The challenge for me is to trust that God makes the impossible possible. I long to see chastity integrated into my life like it was integrated into the lives of Mary, the Mother of God, and her chaste spouse, St. Joseph, as well as in all of the other great saints of the Church who have gone before us. I thank God for the example of someone like David: even though he committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged to have her husband killed in order to marry her, God still forgave him. It has always comforted me to know that David, such a passionate man who clearly had strong sexual urges was still called “a man after God’s own heart.” It has always helped me to realize that God’s forgiveness and redemption are so powerful that, after our mistakes, the rewriting of the story makes the story that much better. Christ the Redeemer came from the line of the union of David and Bathsheba, giving flesh to the words of St. Paul when he tells us, “where sin is, grace abounds.”
I also find inspiring the example of St. Augustine, who battled so much with unchastity. His words in the Confessions echo how often I have felt in my life, when he said, “Give me chastity…but just not yet!”
St. Augustine ran the race though, even if reluctantly at first—something I find myself sometimes doing too. Thank God we have saints like Augustine to pray for us, saints who also knew the delights of sexual pleasure, and how enticingly such pleasure can lure us away from that which we truly desire. And from he who will truly fulfill us.
St. Augustine, pray for us.
Mary, Mother Most Chaste, pray for us.
St. Joseph, Chaste Guardian of the Virgin, pray for us.
King David, pray for us.