I was recently asked to give a talk to college students and recent grads about NFP, specifically in the context of Theology of the Body. What follows is an edited portion of this talk about how the virtue of chastity is required for all persons, regardless of state of life.
…It is a consistent teaching of the Church that all married couples are called especially to grow in the virtue of chastity– but what exactly does it mean to be “chaste” in marriage? Aren’t chastity talks all about not losing your virginity and about not doing certain things?
It’s important to understand what chastity is and what it isn’t, but also particularly what a virtue is. Chastity falls under the cardinal virtue of temperance. Thomas Aquinas says it is called “chastity” because it chastises concupiscence, which is our natural tendency to inordinately desire created things. Whereas concupiscence, or sensual desire, belongs to the lower appetites of man, chastity is moderated by reason and, as a virtue, is a habitual act of the will. Sometimes we are tempted to think of virtue as something innate, something that some people naturally have and others don’t. But virtues as such are things which we choose to cultivate in our lives by working to make them a habit. They do not necessarily reflect our base instincts, but our willful mastery of self.
How many of you have been watching Marie Kondo on Netflix? I have, and what has struck me is that the success of her tidying method lies in strict adherence to the process. She only allows tidying sentimental items AFTER you’ve been through everything else in the house because by then you will have honed your ability to recognize what truly sparks joy. This is like the life of virtue– in a show about cleaning your house. From it, we can see that some people naturally have tidier homes than others. But even for those naturally tidy people, the process is exactly the same as it is for those whose homes aren’t as put together. More work may be involved for the latter group at each step along the way, but both groups need to go through each step, in order, if they are to succeed.
Likewise, there are some people for whom sexual temptation is a much bigger pitfall than for others. But with the grace of confession and a heart that is open to the gradualness of conversion, virtue is achievable for everyone. No matter where you are in your own struggles with purity, you can become chaste. If you are no longer a virgin and are currently in a sexual relationship with someone you are not married to: you can become chaste. This is because virtue is universal. It is part of our human nature to grow in perfection, so when we try to develop virtue, we are, in some sense, becoming more human…becoming more of what we were created to be.
Since the virtue of chastity is universal, it then follows that all persons, regardless of their state of life are called to chastity. For married persons, this explicitly means not giving in to sexual temptation outside of marriage, but it also means choosing to act properly within the confines of your marriage. When I am working with an engaged couple to teach them NFP, we talk about how chastity will be required. I always remind clients that abstinence is much harder in marriage than it is when you are single, and they are usually surprised because, let’s face is: abstinence before you’re married is HARD. It doesn’t cease to be hard when you’re married– and I think that’s one disservice we pro-NFP people can sometimes do is to focus on all of the positives and gloss over the real sacrifices and struggles that all couples face as they try to be virtuous in their marriage.
I know that quite a few of you spent last week reflecting on the teachings of John Paul II, specifically on Theology of the Body, and so I want to keep to his language on these topics as much as possible. As we think about chastity within marriage, let’s take a minute to prayerfully reflect on chastity as it relates to Original Solitude.
Original Solitude is a concept that JPII draws out of the second creation account in Genesis, which is the passage I opened my talk with. It belongs to the Yahwist tradition and is the creation account in which we meet Adam and Eve, although when man is first created those distinctions are not present. Instead, at the creation of mankind we see that there is a single human who is tasked with cultivating and caring for the garden, and naming all of the animals. Through these exercises, Adam comes to realize that he is unique within all of creation. Not only is this manifest in a negative sense (that he is different from all the other animals), but also in a positive sense: the he alone stands in this particular relationship to God. He discovers his own identity as a created being that is uniquely tasked (and capable) of being a steward to all of creation through the use of his body. If we blend this insight with the first creation account, JPII will tell us that this aspect of stewardship, this uniquely human activity, is one of the ways we understand what it means to be made in the image of God. It is this awareness of mankind, as a single entity in Adam, that enables the man (is) to fully delight in the woman (ishah). Without this original solitude, without this time to reflect on the meaning of his very nature in relationship to God, mankind would not receive the revelation of God’s design for male and female to be in relationship with one another as a gift. He would not be able to recognize the meaning of original unity.
Chastity is a form of Original Solitude: it gives us the physical, emotional, and mental space to be with God and to understand our worth in His eyes. So no matter where you are, if chastity is integrated as a habit, as a virtue into your life already, or if you struggle a lot with this, we should all ask God to help us see ourselves in this context of Original Solitude. Help us, Lord, to see the dignity and the value of being created in your image. Help us to recognize and respect that dignity in others.