During an insightful Seeker discussion, the notion of ‘chastity’ became quite an intense topic of debate. As Christians we have always believed that one must remain chaste, namely that of sexual abstinence from pre-marital sex. However, do we really understand what ‘chastity’ really means?
I recall coming across this article in the Singapore Catholic News talking about chastity and how Father Ronald Rolheiser says that ‘chastity needs to be properly understood.’ He refrains from the normal misconception that chastity means celibacy; in fact he says it is not even a sexual concept.
‘Someone can be chaste but not celibate, just as someone can be celibate but not chaste.’
So what is chastity? Fr. Rolheiser says ‘we are chaste when we stand before the world, others and God in a way which allows them to be fully themselves without letting our own impatience, selfishness, or unwillingness to remain in tension violate their reality and their natural unfolding.’ In other words, to be chaste is to allow things to naturally happen, to let time unfold in its own way, but more simply, it is about patience.
Fr. Rolheiser uses three key examples to illustrate what he means:
‘In her book, Holy The Firm, Anne Dillard shares this story: One evening, alone in her cabin, she was watching a moth slowly emerge from its cocoon. The process was fascinating but interminably slow. At a point she lost patience and needed to get on to other things, so she picked up a candle and applied a little heat to the process. It worked. The added heat sped up the process and the moth emerged more quickly from its cocoon, but since a natural process had been interfered with and unnaturally rushed, the moth emerged with ill-formed wings which didn’t allow it to fly properly. A fault in chastity led to stunted growth.’
‘The movie, Sense and Sensibility, based on Jane Austen’s classic novel, presents its leading character, a women played by Emma Thompson, as someone who is asked to carry an extremely painful tension for a long time, one having to do with unrequited and unconsummated love. She has no one with whom she can really share her pain and her circumstance requires her to carry on as if she was not carrying this pain. She carries that tension for a long time, sublimating her pain into a graciousness that she extends even to the very persons who are the source of her tension. Only after a long time is the tension finally resolved and her forbearance in not forcing an earlier, premature resolution, her willingness to carry the tension to term, helps bring about deeper life for everyone, not least for herself. This is the essence of chastity.’
‘After the Italian spiritual writer, Carlo Carretto, had spent a number of years living as a hermit in the Sahara desert, he was asked what message he would give to the world if someone asked him the question: What, in your solitude and prayer, do you hear God saying to those of us who are living active lives in the world? Carretto replied: God is saying, learn to wait, learn to wait for everything – for love, for fulfilment, for consummation, for God! Learning to wait, giving God and life the space to unfold as they need to, is the very essence of chastity.’
Nikos Kazantzakis asserts: ‘God, it seems, is never in a hurry, while we are always in a hurry.’ How true is that statement? I think it doesn’t help that our society is always pushing us to get things faster, don’t waste time as time is money! However, we should allow ‘life to unfold according to its own innate rhythms which try our patience and it will not let themselves be rushed, except at a cost.’
We have to keep in mind that, though it may be a struggle, life is not about instant gratification, ‘nobody gives birth to a baby without a long period of gestation, nobody writes a doctoral thesis in two hours and nobody creates an artistic masterpiece without long hours of sweat and labour.’ However, always remember this, Jesus only got to the glory and freedom of Easter Sunday by first sweating blood in the garden.
‘Chastity is the virtue that invites us to live in patience, to wait, to respect what’s other, and to carry tension long enough so that the other can truly be other and gift can unfold precisely as gift.’