Disclaimer: The series of letters entitled "Correspondence on the Monastic Vocation", while based on the real questions of a number of men in various places and states of life, is entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, institutions, or places is purely coincidental.
Letter 12: Cólm
Dear Father Prior,
Thank you for the invitation to visit Silverstream. I shall see about arranging some time off from work. It will be something of a challenge to come up from Cork and return the same weekend. In the meantime, I want to thank you for encouraging me. I sometimes think that because I have had my share of struggles trying to live a clean life, I would be forever excluded from devoting myself to God in a monastery. You gave me hope.
Chastity has never been easy for me, Father, but ever since I began saying the rosary, something has really changed. The clean life that I've always wanted seems to have been given to me by Our Lady. Don't misunderstand me. I still have temptations, I still feel the sting of my flesh, I am still weak, but something has changed inside me. For the first time in years I am beginning to feel lighthearted again.
As long as I was living in unchastity I felt a heaviness of heart that I could not shake. I drank to escape from it, I bought a lot of things that I didn't really need, I was in constant pursuit of entertainment and distractions. I went to America, and Spain, and Greece on holiday, but still the heaviness of heart was there. It seemed to follow me wherever I went. Today, that heaviness of heart is gone. I actually feel more alive. I have more energy. Where before there was a gnawing unhappiness, now there is a quiet joy. I don't know what you make of this, Father, but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this whole question. Cheers, Cólm
Thank you for your beautiful letter. In reading it, I felt something of the joy that has come to you though Our Lady's mediation: the joy of chastity. Many people think of chastity in negative terms. They see it as the virtue of a thousand prohibitions. I think rather of chastity as the virtue that opens a man to the happiness that comes from God. I often pray Psalm 72 with the joy of chastity in mind:
I am become as a beast before thee: and I am always with thee. Thou hast held me by my right hand; and by thy will thou hast conducted me, and with thy glory thou hast received me. For what have I in heaven? and besides thee what do I desire upon earth? For thee my flesh and my heart hath fainted away: thou art the God of my heart, and the God that is my portion for ever. For behold they that go far from thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that are disloyal to thee. But it is good for me to adhere to my God, to put my hope in the Lord God (Psalm 72:23–28)
Unchastity has never made a man happy. Vice has never made a man happy. Self–indulgence has never made a man happy. Chastity, on the other hand, makes a man happy. The world says that a man cannot be happy without sex, i.e. fornication. The world says, "If you're having sex and still not happy, it is because you need more sex, or sex with multiple partners, or different kinds of sex". All lies. Sex outside of holy marriage is always sinful, as are masturbation, the use of pornography, and all of the poisons that the world peddles as stimulating, pleasurable, gratifying, and fun. Believe none of it.
Every man and woman living outside of holy marriage is called to abstinence from every form of genital activity. Just as sex within holy marriage is ordered to fruitfulness, and to life, and to happiness, so too is chastity for those who are not married ordered to another kind of fruitfulness, and to life, and to happiness. Continence opens one's life to a joy that the world cannot give. Self–denial is not morose, it puts a spring into one's step, and gives light to one's eyes.
Just this morning in Chapter (our daily community meeting to read the Rule of Saint Benedict and comment on it) we read the 63rd instrument of good works, which is: "Castitatem amare", To love chastity. In the entire Rule of Saint Benedict there are only two words about chastity, "Castitatem amare". Saint Benedict approaches chastity in an entirely positive way: it is something to be loved. A man loves what makes him happy. A man loves what contents his heart's desire. A man loves what he has experienced as being good for him.
Compare Saint Benedict's two words — Love chastity — with the treatment of the same subject in the Rule of Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine uses 904 words to treat of chastity, where Saint Benedict uses only 2 words. Saint Augustine's approach is negative; he gives a list of prohibitions, and mandates the measures that a religious must take in order to keep his lust and "wantonness of the eye" in check. I do not discount Saint Augustine's prudent precautions — God knows — nor would I ever disparage the ascetical disciplines that he enjoins on his religious. Such things have a rightful and necessary place in the life of anyone who would take up his cross and follow Our Lord. All the same, I prefer the simplicity and clarity of Saint Benedict's two words to every other approach of the question: Love chastity.
Saint Thomas teaches that chastity is both a virtue and a fruit. What does he mean by this? "Chastity", he says, "is a virtue in so far as it works in accordance with reason". Saint Thomas explains that the word chastity is derived from the verb "to chastise", which he interprets as the act of curbing, or moderating something by reason. Following this line of thought, chastity does not consist in the repression or suppression of one's sexual drive, but rather in the harnessing of that sexual drive, so that it might be used, in accordance with reason, in the pursuit of true and lasting happiness. When Saint Thomas speaks of chastity as a fruit, he is referring to the delight that one can rightly take in chastity, or to the enjoyment of chastity as a good thing that contributes to a man's ultimate happiness, that is, union with God.
Worldly–minded people tend to think of chastity only in terms of a deprivation; they see it as a work, but not as a fruit. The worldly–minded see chastity as a mean–spirited prohibition that keeps one from having a "good life". I would hold, following Saint Thomas, that chastity, by moderating one's sexual drive in accord with God–given reason, is precisely what makes a "good life" possible. Saint Thomas explains that, metaphorically speaking, there is a spiritual chastity, just as there is a spiritual fornication. Listen to the Angelic Doctor himself:
If the human mind delight in the spiritual union with that to which it behooves it to be united, namely God, and refrains from delighting in union with other things against the requirements of the order established by God, this may be called a spiritual chastity, according to 2 Corinthianss 11:2, "I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ." If, on the other hand, the mind be united to any other things whatsoever, against the prescription of the Divine order, it will be called spiritual fornication, according to Jeremias 3:1, "But thou hast prostituted thyself to many lovers." Taking chastity in this sense, it is a general virtue, because every virtue withdraws the human mind from delighting in a union with unlawful things. Nevertheless, the essence of this chastity consists principally in charity and the other theological virtues, whereby the human mind is united to God. (Summa, II–II, q. 151, art. 2)
Saint Thomas, then, makes chastity consist principally in charity and the other theological virtues, whereby the human mind is united to God. This is wonderfully positive, is it not? Every choice for God is an act of love. Every "Yes" given to God implies, it is true, a "No" to all that is contrary to union with God, but the joy in saying "Yes" to God is a joy so deep and so high that it altogether swallows up the momentary pain of having said "No" to a lesser good. This is the experience of all the saints. Saint Peter the Apostle says:
You shall greatly rejoice, if now you must be for a little time made sorrowful in divers temptations: That the trial of your faith (much more precious than gold which is tried by the fire) may be found unto praise and glory and honour at the appearing of Jesus Christ: Whom having not seen, you love: in whom also now, though you see him not, you believe: and believing shall rejoice with joy unspeakable and glorified; Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:6–9)
Unchastity gets in the way of a clean "Yes" to God. Saint Gregory the Great says that unchastity spawns seven daughters: blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, self-love, hatred of God, love of this world and abhorrence or despair of a future world. It is obvious that no man can cohabit with the daughters of unchastity without falling into a mortal sadness. Chastity, for her part, has seven lovely daughters; these are clarity of mind, attentiveness to God, constancy, prudence, fraternal charity, love of God, and desire for heaven. Life with chastity's seven lovely daughters makes a man happy. This, I am sure, is why Saint Benedict tells his sons simply "to love chastity".
With my blessing, Father Prior