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Conversation with Luke Coppen

You can find the full text of the interview here

Chastity is not a popular topic — in the Catholic Church as much as in the wider culture. But it’s the subject of a new book by a figure familiar to Pillar readers: Bishop Erik Varden, the spiritual writer, scholar, musician, beer aficionado, Trappist monk, and head of the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim in Norway. The 49-year-old gained a new responsibility in August, when he was named apostolic administrator of the Territorial Prelature of Tromsø. That means he currently oversees two of the three Latin Church jurisdictions in Norway (the third is the Diocese of Oslo.) Despite the burdens of ecclesiastical leadership, he recently helped to develop a new beer: Magnus, named after the 12th-century martyr St. Magnus of Orkney. He has also written “Chastity: Reconciliation of the Senses,” a pithy book that is certainly about that often derided virtue, but also addresses the broader challenges of Christian life in the 21st century in a surprisingly practical way. In the interview below, conducted via email as Varden awaited snowfall in the northerly city of Tromsø, the bishop explains why he wrote the book, why chastity is so misunderstood today — and what the virtue has in common with beer.

Did you have any hesitation about calling your new book “Chastity”? After all, many people today find the term deeply off-putting.

My initial idea was more ambitious: I wanted the book to be called Homo castus, to show from the outset that the semantic register of ‘chastity’ regards more than merely attitudes to sex; that it touches a way of being human. The editors thought a Latin title would put readers off, making the book seem too academic. Perhaps they were right. In any case, my motivation remains to show that chastity is a more interesting, generous term than people tend to assume. In Latin Antiquity, the adjective ‘castus’ (from which we get ‘chaste’) was a synonym for ‘integer’. To be chaste is to have integrity, to be whole. This kind of wholeness comes about in so far as I integrate those elements in me that may for whatever reason be fragmented. Chastity is not primarily a matter of mortification; it is an aspirational virtue. In the book I try to account for the depth and breadth of aspiration.  

How did we come, as a culture, to have such a narrow, impoverished idea of chastity?

A good question. The word chastity can make our cheeks flush with embarrassment. That’s kind of funny, given how unabashedly we speak of sex. I am of a generation for whom sex, following the cultural battles of the 1960s, had clatteringly descended from darkened bedrooms into the public square in what was intended to be a liberation. Pundits kept cautioning against the harmful effects of sexual inhibition. The accepted nomenclature for transcendence gradually became almost exclusively psychosexual. Any yearning, any soul-pain was thought definable in its terms. The general assumption was that the pursuit of a well-balanced, complex-free, actively expressed sexual self was a prerequisite for growth, maturity and thriving. That rather discredited a notion that suggests the intrinsic value of self-mastery and a reasoned engagement with instinct.

To what extent do you think the Church is to blame for this impoverishment? 

I think the Church must assume a certain responsibility. Much could be said about this. May I hone in on a single key point? As human beings we tend, in our thinking and self-perception, towards dualism. It’s really hard to fully fathom the Christian belief that we are an inextricable unit of spirit and matter, soul and body — that the soul, as St Thomas taught, is ‘the form of the body’ and that our body is called to be imbued with spirit. The christological debates of the fourth, fifth, and sixth century sought to work this all out with reference to Christ. Seeking responsible ways to express the paradox that Christ is fully God and fully man, the Church developed, by implication, a wholly new, magnificent account of what it is to be a human being — for Christ’s saving work healed and renewed our nature from within. The monastic movement, which took shape during this same period, was concerned with the implications of this teaching in practice. I like to think of monasticism as applied theology. In their literature monks and nuns articulated a sane, realistic account of chaste living in view of configuration to Christ, convinced that the incarnation provides the paradigm we need to understand our human nature, its origin and finality. As the centuries passed, this radically theological self-understanding was obscured; the concept of virtue was replaced, in certain settings, by technical concepts of discipline. Rather than seeing the Christian life in a perspective of transformation, of being restored from fragmentation to wholeness, people came to see it in terms of set comportments, based on an excessively spiritualised view of man. Physical appetites, sensuality, sex, anything reminding us of our animal nature, came to be regarded as unworthy. A dichotomy arose. Claims made by the body were shushed, or ‘sublimated’. Situations could arise in which men and women who had set out from a position of genuine, devout good will lost the conceptual vocabulary and know-how required to live an embodied Christian life, finding themselves back in the dualist trap. Suppressed, unacknowledged vital energies found ways to rebel, leading in the worst cases to double, predatory lives. A re-engagement with the chaste ideal as a pedagogy for integral living has a role to play also in the crucial ongoing work of safeguarding. 

From the title, readers might assume, wrongly, that the book focuses narrowly on sexual matters. In reality, it covers the whole struggle of Christian life. How does the concept of chastity help us to understand the kind of transformation that Christ is calling us to?

Indeed, the pursuit of wholeness impinges on every aspect of human life. I try to shed light on this by dealing with a list, by no means exhaustive, of tensions apt to mark our lives at one time or another: the tensions between body and soul, male and female, order and disorder, freedom and ascesis. We must live these tensions, grow through them. New dimensions of experience will open up before us. Chastity, which initially can seem to spell constraint, will reveal itself as broad strength full of sweetness. This holds for romantic relationships, but also for friendship, and for the relationship between parents and children. Pope Francis has written wonderfully about the need for chastity in parents. He explains it as a resolve not to instrumentalise their children — not to give in to the illusion that their children are their property through which they may realise themselves. By developing this line of reasoning, we might even say that chastity has a political dimension.  

You write that “an error Christians have often made is to assume that chastity is somehow normal; but no, it is exceptional.” Why is it important to grasp this?

It’s a matter of being rooted in the real. Having made the statement you cite, I go on to say, I think, what most of us ascertain if we’re honest: that virtue does not come easily to us. When we try to practise it seriously, over time, we find that sin’s wounds cut deep. They condition us to fail of our purpose. Even as we labour to learn charity, patience, courage and so forth, we must labour to become chaste, letting grace do its slow, transformative work, choosing to cooperate with it. Short of fulgurant exceptions, growth in grace, like other growth, is organic. It happens slowly, secretly, we know not how. But it does, in time, bear fruit. It takes effort, humility, and patience to learn to make of the exceptional a norm. But what a joy when we realise that such transition can happen with God’s help. 

To what extent did your pastoral work — the time you spend face to face with people as they describe their struggles — influence the writing of the book?

Hugely. Even as I have learnt from my own struggles. When theologians and clergy speak of sexual morality and chastity, one sometimes gets the impression that they have never themselves inhabited, for any length of time, a human body. Discourse easily becomes abstract and idealised — another example of the dualistic trend we discussed above. My monastic formation has made me a bit bloody-minded in this respect. In the monastery ideals are constantly tested and tried by interaction with others. You learn how arduous the Christian proposition is, and how wonderful: any human reality is a possible point of departure for a new life in Christ as long as I am prepared to hear the call unreservedly, trusting that God’s grace, made concrete through the Church, will enable me to reach it. It is my privilege and joy to accompany others as they strive to grow in maturity and grace. I hope this book may both give an account of the goal we are called to reach and practical advice, born of experience, on how to get there.

You write, almost as an aside, that Mary Magdalene would be “an excellent patron saint” for the 21st century. Could you expand on this?

In the Church’s spiritual and liturgical tradition, Mary Magdalene represents the orientation of desire. She enters the scene in the Gospel as someone very much caught up in the desire of the flesh. The encounter with Christ transforms her sense of what her deepest desire means, though the process takes time. Even after the Resurrection, she has to be told, ‘Do not cling to me’, that is, ‘Do not hold on to me on terms of affectivity only — learn to know me differently, as a living, death-defying, divinising Presence’. Mary Magdalene heeds, and learns. The Church presents her as someone effectively dismantling a view that would separate spiritual eros from carnal eros. She shows us that they belong to a single continuum, helping us to see that there may be a flicker of eternity also in physical passion; that even disordered eros can kindle a sanctifying love of God that drives out fear; that nothing is beyond God’s ordering power, that nothing in man is unredeemable. This is a message our time needs to hear, I think. 

Is there any person in recent times who strikes you as embodying the full meaning of chastity?

For the full meaning of chastity we must look towards the Word made flesh. But yes, I can think of individuals who incarnate this quality in signal ways. The first who comes to mind is Jérôme Lejeune, the discoverer of Trisomy 21, a husband and father. I have read some of Lejeune’s letters to his Danish wife Birthe, which reveal the depth of their relationship, marked by deep affection and respect; but I also think he represents chastity more broadly, in his way of dealing with patients (in a marvellous documentary you can hear the mother of a child with Downs say something like, ‘Seeing Dr Lejeune hold my son taught me to receive him as my child, not a problem’) and in the moral courage with which, to stay true to his convictions, he relinquished his career. Another example is a Benedictine nun I was privileged to know, Sr Mary David Totah of St Cecilia’s Abbey, Ryde. Profoundly given to monastic life, committed to its solitude and enclosure, about which she wrote incisively, she was a source of life to countless others within and outside the abbey. Her celibate life was exceptionally fruitful. In 2019 I was asked to preface a volume of her writings. I wrote of her: ‘Longish periods could pass during which I had no direct contact with Sr Mary David. But it was always such a reassurance to know that she was there! Like many others, I loved her, loved her dearly. And how wonderful to have known a person so free, so utterly given, that she could let herself be loved without any risk of even a shadow of ambiguous attachment. The one great, consecrated love of her life was always at the heart of every encounter.’ Both Professor Lejeune and Sr Mary David have gone to God, but their generous lives have left behind a wake of joy. That is a sign, I think, of a life chastely lived. 

Beer and chastity aren’t normally associated, but in addition to publishing your new book, you recently helped to launch a new beer. How did that come about (and how can readers try it)?

The first official invitation I received to anything at all qua bishop of Trondheim was to a private tour of the city’s flagship brewery E.C. Dahl — the people there had heard about my involvement in the foundation of our brewery at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey. I got on well with the brewmaster, who produces wonderful stuff. We kept in touch. The idea was born of producing a beer together in conjunction with two fine local craft brewers. We’ve had a lot of fun working on this project. The result is not bad. It’s a beer sprung from local traditions, notably in the way we roasted the malt. It gives the beer a gorgeously rich, well-balanced smoky flavour. While an excess of beer is not a help to living chastely — or to anything else, frankly — the ability freely to enjoy God’s gifts refined through human endeavour is part of a chaste, whole, eucharistic life. I’m afraid there’s not much prospect of export for our beer at this stage; so keen Pillar readers would have to pilgrimage to Norway. They could always come and pray before the relics of St Olav at the same time.