The world looks at chastity and sees repression: a dull and frigid lifestyle that is probably the result of fear or not being able to find a date. ‘‘Those poor people living chaste lives. They don’t have a clue what they’re missing. If only someone could liberate them from their prudishness.’’ Sound familiar?
This may come as a surprise to those who think that chastity and prudery are synonymous, but chastity has nothing to do with having a negative idea of sex. In fact, only the pure of heart are capable of seeing the depth and mystery of sex. For the person who is pure, sex is a sacred gift and the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the foundation of chastity is the dignity of every person and the greatness of sex.
Sure, chastity says no to sex before marriage. This is not because sex or the body is bad but, on the contrary, because sex is a holy mystery and a person’s body is a holy temple. Holy things are not open to all; they are only for those who meet the requirement, who pass the test.
Think of the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple, into which no Israelite dared enter except the high priest once a year. The doors were closed to other good and pious Jews not because the Holy of Holies was dirty or because the Jews were embarrassed about it. On the contrary, it was restricted because it was so holy, so special, that it was appropriate only for the one priest pledged to the temple’s service to enter.
A human body likewise is holy and special, and access to this temple is only for the one pledged forever to it in the sacrament of matrimony. If we understood chastity for what it is, we would see that nothing testifies to the goodness of the body and sex as much as chastity does. Just as humility is the proper attitude toward greatness, purity is the proper attitude toward sex. Purity guards the secret of sex because of its greatness. Those who treat sex as if it were a fair exchange for a nice dinner or six months of commitment are the ones who have yet to discover its real value. As writer Elisabeth Elliot said, ‘‘There is dullness, monotony, sheer boredom in all of life when virginity and purity are no longer protected and prized. By trying to grab fulfillment everywhere, we find it nowhere.’’ We constantly look for what we can get out of someone, how we can please ourselves and ‘‘live in the moment.’’
This is why the impure are never satisfied or free. They have yet to learn that they cannot be filled unless they empty themselves. Ironically, the satisfaction and freedom they yearn for is waiting for them in the place they least expect it—chastity. It trains us in self-control so that we can become truly free. ‘‘The alternative is clear,’’ the Catechism ofthe Catholic Church tells us, ‘‘either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.’’
Chastity has a bad reputation because it involves dying to ourselves. But this death serves a purpose. In the words of Christ, ‘‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but ifit dies, it bears much fruit’’ (John 12:24). The world sees chastity as death because it does not have the patience to see the life and love that spring forth from the sacrifice. It is not repression or guilt that motivates the chaste man or woman; it is the desire for real love. Because of this the virtue of purity is wildly attractive. Freed from selfish sexual aggressiveness, the pure are empowered to love as we were created to love.
I travel around the country frequently to give talks about chastity, and I often end up in conversations aboard airplanes about my line of work. Inevitably people ask if I practice what I preach. After I explain that I waited for marriage before having sex, the person—without fail—looks bewildered. Then comes the universal question: ‘‘So . . . you just didn’t have the desires then?’’ I have pondered all sorts of amusing ways to answer this, but the bottom line is that the world cannot fathom a young person who has sexual desires and does not surrender to them.
Working toward God’s plan for love does not eliminate sexual desires, it orders them. The chaste person experiences sexual attractions in all their intensity but places love for the other above the temptation to lust. On the other hand, lust reduces men and women to the flesh, as illustrated in the song ‘‘Mambo Number 5.’’ The lyrics state that all the singer needs is a little bit of several women—a little bit of Rita, Tina, Sandra, Mary, Jessica—concluding that having a little bit of each woman makes him their man. Why only a little bit? Because the singer is not man enough to handle an entire woman. Lust allows us to reduce others to ‘‘bits.’’
The problem with lust is not that the desires are too strong; they are too weak, lukewarm, and self-absorbed. Prudishness is fittingly represented as cold and frigid, but purity is white hot. Purity burns with a passionate love that puts lust in the freezer.
. Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Revell, 1984), 21.
. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2339 (SanFrancisco: IgnatiusPress,1994).