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    In Defense of Chastity

    In Defense of Chastity

    Is the church’s teaching on sex unnatural?

    By Erik Varden

    May 3, 2024
    • Jennifer Howland

      I am glad to see Bishop Erik Varden addressing Kingdom chastity in this world's culture in a serious fashion. All tradition and churches aside, Christ, Himself, Paul, and some of the Disciples, were all given to singleness by prophecy, calling, or choice. How did Jesus become even thirty years of age without a wife? People must have thought this odd in His own home town. Obviously by prophecy was He single. Once we look past Christ, the others aforementioned had their Kingdom ministries. John and Peter were clearly married and did both. Some Prophets of the Old Testament were called by God Himself to be—specifically—single. They accepted it, trusted God, and were obedient. This was extremely difficult for some as they were persecuted, isolated from the community, and experienced depression and abject loneliness. However what was more important? The flesh, or the Spirit? Then there is the passage in Matthew 19:12 concerning eunuchs, which is directly after the passage on marriage and divorce. Are these the same as being called to singleness for a lifetime or for a season? The passage does suggest that for the sake of the Kingdom of God, some are called to be eunuchs, and some by choice who cannot accept monogamy as God puts forth in marriage. Jesus says in verse 11, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given”(meaning marriage). The rest who are not called by the Kingdom to marriage, or who cannot accept marriage on God’s terms, are born eunuchs for the Kingdom, or made so by men(and they played a great part in the advancement of God’s plans in the Old Testament). Does this mean that if a person does not find marriage in youth that they have no chance at finding a partner later? No. But God must be in it. And in the meantime, for as long as God asks, a person must trust God and obey Him in their own relationship with Him individually. God must be in all of our life’s callings, situations, and decisions by choice through prayer, seeking the Kingdom first, and letting all else be added unto us. I say this from a life lived in this way. I have sought His Kingdom, trusted Him, obeyed Him, and my life has been rich with the Kingdom, the Body of Christ, being able to call all Jesus followers my family. There are struggles because our souls are attached to flesh from conception to death and God gives us trials to bring us closer to Him all our lives until we see Him face to face whether married or single. Some people are only married for a time, others marry later in life, some never—but the Kingdom is always first with its own rewards.

    Gunnel Vallquist, Marcel Proust’s first Swedish translator, once inscribed for me her diary of the Second Vatican Council, which she covered from start to finish as a correspondent for the Swedish press. She wrote out Galatians 5:1: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” That phrase represented for her, as it must for any Christian, the core of the gospel and thereby of the church’s mission.

    Does the church’s teaching on sex and chastity liberate? Many people think it does not. In taking a closer look at the question, however, a couple of distinctions are called for.

    We as a society are muddled as to what it means to be liberated: to be “free.” We ordinarily think of freedom as scope to do what we feel like. We think in terms of freedom from, not of freedom unto. In Christian terms, freedom is about enabling commitment. The biblical view of human nature, evidenced in Christ, regards the human being as essentially relational, defined by self-giving and commitment. On this account, unhindered pursuit of momentary inclinations is not freedom. It is enslavement to whim, which, empirically speaking, rarely produces lasting happiness. Sensational thrills can come of it, true, but they are not much of a foundation on which to construct a life.

    Secondly, the freedom Paul speaks of is of a specific sort: that for which Christ has set us free. This freedom presupposes a call to self-transcendence. The finality of life, biblically speaking, is not limited to present thriving. Such thriving is a good, but a radically incomplete one.

    Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

    Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, oil on canvas, 1828, detail.

    Syriac Christian writings talk about the “robe of glory” – the God-given clothing that Adam and Eve put aside for “garments of skin” when they left Eden for a fallen, broken world. When we posit our present thriving as the be-all and end-all of existence, we sew ourselves up in those “garments of skin,” locking ourselves into the limited, fallen self-understanding we assumed after the Fall. We lose sight of the “robe of glory” that alone reveals the sense of our desires and alone bears the promise of satisfying them.

    Holiness, life everlasting, the resurrection of the body: these notions do not feature much, now, in people’s thinking about relationships and sexuality. We have become alienated from the mindset that brought about the soaring verticality of the twelfth century’s cathedrals, houses holding the whole of life while elevating it.

    Was not a proposal recently made to fit a swimming pool on the rebuilt roof of Notre-Dame of Paris? It seemed to me apt. It would symbolically have re-established the dome of water that sealed earth off from heaven on the first day of creation, before God’s image was manifest in it (cf. Gen. 1.7).

    Whatever fragment of mystery might remain within the church itself would have been performed beneath the splashing of bodies striving to perfect their form. The parable would have been significant.

    Once the supernatural has gone from Christianity, what remains? Well-meaning sentiment and a set of commandments found to be crushing, the profound character of the change they were meant to serve having been summarily dismissed.

    The church, surely, is called to provide the compass by which people of good will might orient themselves in times of confusion, not to run after the crowds like a puffing old spaniel striving to keep up with the hunt.

    It is time to effect a sursum corda, to “lift up our hearts,” to correct an inward-looking, horizontalizing trend in order to recover the transcendental dimension of embodied intimacy, part and parcel of the universal call to holiness. Of course we should reach out to and engage those estranged by Christian teaching, those who feel ostracized or consider they are being held to an impossible standard. At the same time we cannot forget that this situation is far from new.

    In the early centuries of the church, there was colossal strain between worldly and Christian moral values, not least concerning chastity. This was so not because Christians were better – most of us, now as then, live mediocre lives – but because they had a different sense of what life is about. Those were the centuries of subtle controversies over what the incarnation really meant. Relentlessly, the church fought to articulate who Jesus Christ is: “God from God” yet “born of the Virgin Mary”; fully human, fully divine. On this basis the church went on to make sense of what it means to be a human being and to show how a humane social order might come about.

    Today, this sense of who Jesus Christ is has been eclipsed. We still affirm that “God became man.” But we largely apply the dictum in reverse, projecting an image of “God” that issues from our garment-of-skin sense of what man is. The result is a caricature. The divine is reduced to our measure.

    The fact that many contemporaries reject this counterfeit “God” is in many ways an indication of their good sense. What a contrast with earlier times. Nicholas Cabasilas, who lived at the time of the great medieval mystics Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich, writes: “It was for the New Man that human nature was originally created; it was for him that intellect and desire were prepared. We received rationality that we might know Christ, desire that we might run towards him. For the old Adam is not a model for the new, but the new a model for the old.”

    In the midst of present perplexity, with the church weighed down by a history of abuse, with society’s deconstruction of categories that, just yesterday, we thought normative, and with no shortage of people who, like the peers of Isaiah, “put darkness for light, sweet for bitter” (Isa. 5:20), we need to be recalled to this perspective.

    Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, detail

    Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, oil on canvas, 1828, detail.

    The Desert Fathers’ shortest dictum tells us to “look up, not down.” The advice is sound. The church, surely, is called to provide the compass by which people of good will might orient themselves in times of confusion, not to run after the crowds like a puffing old spaniel striving to keep up with the hunt.

    This is not to say that the church should condemn the world. “Neither do I condemn you.” These words of Jesus addressed to the woman caught in adultery remain a norm to which any ambassador of Christ is held. So do the words that follow: “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). Avoid wrong turns! The freedom for which Christ has set us free is freedom to follow him and to obtain the blessedness he has in store for us, not to get lost in the woods.

    The Christian proposition of chastity is unattractive when put forward with rage, an attitude betraying self-righteousness on the part of its proponents. God, meanwhile, as John 8 shows, regards the affairs of human hearts and bodies with illusionless patience – though let us remember that “patience” is more than a capacity to hang on and wait; at its heart is the root patior, which means “I suffer.”

    Christ does not flee from our contradictions. He does not shun in disgust the world of lusts and instant hopes that Siddhartha, in Herman Hesse’s novel of the same name, calls the world of “people-who-are-like-children” (I once heard a seasoned confessor say, “You know, there are no adults, only children”). He enters that world and calls out to us, “Adam, where are you?” Sometimes he calls just by looking at us all-knowing, grieved at our estrangement, but not despairing of us.

    We easily forget that God has hope for us. He knows we need to grow, and to grow up. The Church Father Irenaeus of Lyon presents Adam and Eve as children in the garden: “Man was a child, not yet having his understanding perfected; wherefore he was easily led astray.” But therefore, too, he had potential freely to grow, learn, and change.

    A Christian view of human nature is dynamic. Yes, of course we are conditioned by factors not subject to our choice; of course we carry gifts and wounds of all sorts; these condition us, but do not determine us. What determines a life is not the place from which it begins but the goal toward which it moves. If we believe, like Cabasilas, that the new Adam is a model for the old, we shall live prospectively, drawn by God’s patient hope for us.

    The Christian condition is the art of striving to answer a call to perfection while plumbing the depth of our imperfection – without despairing and without giving up on the ideal.

    We are in the same boat. The second-century apologetic Epistle to Diognetus stresses that, left to ourselves, we are all borne along by “disordered impulses [ἀτάκτοις φοραῖς], carried away by desires and cravings.” For some, disorder will be more patently “objective” than for others. But all of us are called to re-orient our lives toward the ultimate end revealed in Christ. In him fullness of life awaits us. Nowhere else.

    After the death of the theologian Cardinal Jean Daniélou in 1974, Gunnel Vallquist wrote an essay on “The Daniélou Mystery.” She had known the cardinal very well. She set out, though, not from private recollection but from a subject of public lechery: How had it come about that he, a prince of the church, had died of a stroke in the flat of a Paris prostitute, his wallet stacked with cash? Vallquist points out that Daniélou had long ministered to women who worked the streets of Batignolles. He helped them with alms to care for their often-complicated networks of dependents. He carried on this work after being created a cardinal in 1969. For Daniélou, such contact, illumined by Christian friendship, with people considered to be beyond the pale, was no big deal. So sharp, writes Vallquist, was his awareness of the chasm that separates us all from the uncreated glory of God that the calculation of degrees seemed to him absurd. He did not, by being a friend to prostitutes, relativize Catholic teaching: he wrote strongly in defense of chastity. But he was not shy to visit and assist those who, to reach this ideal, had a long way to go. He was just acting like his Master.

    The Christian condition is the art of striving to answer a call to perfection while plumbing the depth of our imperfection – without despairing and without giving up on the ideal. Cancelling the ideal is tantamount to turning cathedrals into swimming pools, to replacing Christ’s personal call, “Come, follow me” (Mark 1:17) with a pre-printed message to “take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:19). The goal to which we are called lies ever ahead. To stagnate is deadly.

    But what if I have no strength to walk? Well, I must learn to let myself be carried. Israel’s exodus, that exemplarily tortuous voyage during which the people tried every trespass, issued in the profession: “Underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27). Providence, Israel saw, had carried them through thick and thin. Their realization corresponded to the oracle God gave when they stood on the Promised Land’s threshold: “The Lord your God bore you, as a man bears his son, in all the way that you went until you came to this place” (Deut. 1:31).

    Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, detail

    Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, oil on canvas, 1828, detail.

    The primary form of ascesis, self-discipline, required of a Christian is trust. By trust we give up illusory claims to omniscience. We give ourselves into God’s hands and choose to be reformed according to his purpose. Only he can realize his likeness in us, uniting in a chaste whole the disparate factors that make up our history and personality.

    An error Christians have often made is to assume that chastity is somehow normal, but no, it is exceptional. Virtue does not come easily to us: when we try to practice it, we find that sin’s wounds cut deep. They condition us to fail of our purpose. Even as we labor to learn charity, patience, courage, and so forth, we must labor to become chaste, letting grace do its slow, transformative work. Short of dazzling exceptions, growth in grace, like other growth, is organic. It happens slowly, secretly, we know not how (cf. Mark 4:27). But it does, in time, bear fruit.

    Athanasius, in On the Incarnation, marvels at Christians who practice celibacy. For him, their witness is a sign of the end times. Subsequently continence came to be taken for granted. Youths embracing the clerical or consecrated life were simply expected to be chaste, without always understanding what their physical passion, a gift from God, represents or how it might be channeled responsibly. Many have lived lives marked by division, as if the senses were pursuing an unruly life of their own to be either suppressed by force of will or anesthetized.

    Marguerite Yourcenar observes with regard to her depiction of Mary Magdalene, in the short story collection Fires, that the process by which vulnerability, desire, and love are changed into supernatural attachment is not one of “sublimation” but of orientation. I concur with her that “sublimation” is “in itself a very unfortunate term and one that insults the body.” What is at stake is something else: “a dark perception that love for a particular person, so poignant, is often only a beautiful fleeting accident, less real in a way than the predispositions and choices that preceded it and that will outlive it.” How do we handle these?

    Physical and affective impulses are ordered according to an attraction of soul made conscious through application of the mind. The integral reconciliation of our being (“integrity” was long a synonym for “chastity”) presupposes a certain kind of motivating energy – an élan. In the Vulgate version of one psalm, the goal toward which Israel journeyed through the desert is described as “the desirable land” (Ps. 105:24, Vulgate). The typology is timeless.

    The goal is freedom and thriving. To learn in this way is to see myself in terms of a reality that exceeds me. It is to be freed from imprisonment in my own limited notions.

    The single ascetic counsel Saint Benedict gives about chastity is “Castitatem amare,” “Love chastity.” Only what I love will change me beautifully. Behaviors prompted by fear or disdain tend to disfigure. Love must be honed. The counsel on chastity is complemented by “Ieiunium amare,” “Love fasting.” To refrain from feeding an appetite, even a physical hunger, can be a way of learning to love in an ordered, fruitful way.

    I stress this aspect of learning. The Law, wrote Saint Paul to the Galatians, is, in the Douai-Rheims translation, a “pedagogue” (Gal. 3:24). The epistle’s rhetoric makes us view the term critically. But to have a reliable pedagogue is splendid. In virtue, as in science and wisdom, we need to be taught. Our conscience must be formed. The point of Christian moral teaching is to outline a process of learning conceived of in terms of conversion and ascesis, a term stemming from the Greek word for “exercise”: a fitting metaphor in our society. The goal is freedom and thriving. To learn in this way is to see myself in terms of a reality that exceeds me. It is to be freed from imprisonment in my own limited notions.

    Grounded in truth, we can reach immense stature. The life that pulsates in us carries an echo of God even when bogged down in self-destructive patterns. Saint John Climacus, abbot of Mount Sinai during the reign of Pope Gregory the Great, speaks of the maturing he has observed in people caught up in what nowadays we would call sexual addiction:

    I have watched impure souls mad for physical love but turning what they know of such love into a reason for penance and transferring that same capacity for love to the Lord. I have watched them master fear so as to drive themselves unsparingly towards the love of God. That is why, when talking of that chaste harlot, the Lord does not say, “because she feared,” but rather, “because she loved much,” she was able to drive out love with love (ἔρωτιἔρωτα διακρούσασθαι).

    It is an astonishing statement. It effectively dismantles the view that would separate spiritual eros – love – from carnal eros. For Climacus, they belong to a single continuum. He calls on “the chaste harlot” to witness his thesis. This perspective does not “insult the body.” It offers neither sublimation nor appeasement. It acknowledges a flicker of eternity in passion. Even disordered eros can kindle a sanctifying love of God that drives out fear. Nothing is beyond God’s ordering power. Nothing in man is unredeemed. Everything natural to man is made in view of the robe of glory. The new Adam waits to embrace the old. The garments of skin are lent to us for a while, to warm and protect us. Then we are to leave them behind.

    Excerpted from Erik Varden, Chastity: Reconciliation of the Senses (Bloomsbury, 2024). Reprinted by permission.

    Contributed By ErikVarden Erik Varden

    Erik Varden is bishop of Trondheim and former abbot of the Trappist monastery of Mount Saint Bernard in Leicestershire.

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