Chastity: Reconciliation of the Senses
Chastity: Reconciliation of the Senses is published today, 12 October 2023.
‘Chastity’ has become a word for antiquarians. It describes a set of attitudes and a code of behaviour associated with a past age. Many rejoice to see it bygone. Hearing the word spoken today, we are more likely to think of thwarted sexuality than of dew-besprinkled strength of virtue ‘fresh as Dian’s visage’.
The unravelling of sexual abuse committed by people, overwhelmingly men, who had professed a vow of chaste celibacy has rightly occasioned a surge of rage throughout society. The ideal of chastity appears discredited, certainly as a mandatory form of religious observance. Revealed to have been, often, not just lifeless but deadly, it is present to us now rather as a decomposing corpse awaiting burial. There is grief clinging to it, yes; but is there any reason to mourn its passing?
It is not my purpose to present an apology for chastity. Nor am I writing as a cultural historian intent on chronicling the demise of a human habitus. Mine is primarily a semantic concern.
I must point out, first, that chastity is not coterminous with celibacy. Celibacy is a particular, not particularly common, vocation. Chastity is a virtue for all. If the institutionalization of chastity has occasioned, or fed into, such frustration, such aberration, it is partly through a reduction of perspective whereby an orientation intended to broaden the heart has, instead, constrained it to the point of suffocation.
To tie chastity down, as has been done, to mere mortification of the senses is to make of it a tool to sabotage the flourishing of character. It is also to misunderstand, misrepresent and misapply the meaning of a complex notion. I hope, in this book, to release ‘chastity’ from imprisonment in too narrow categories, allowing it to stretch, extend its limbs, breathe freely, perhaps even sing. I use these images advisedly. Unless chastity has a degree of full-bloodedness, it is not the real thing, but counterfeit.
To be chaste is to be whole. Chastity, in the full sense of the word, concerns much more than merely our sexual self. It offer a key by which to integrate the various aspects that make up our personality, our personhood, letting them be tuned like the strings of a harp, of a violin.
I have tried to root my account in the Church’s tradition, orienting it towards a clear finality while at the same time taking into account, and honouring, the complexity of human experience. As I said recently in a conversation with Luke Coppen:
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.
One of the examples from the realm of art I draw on in the book is Ingmar Bergman’s incomparable production of The Magic Flute. Papageno and Papagena shed light on human origins, on Adam and Eve, and so on our origin and end. The Mozartian heroes are also paradisal creatures of a kind. Photo from www.ingmarbergman.se.