Sister Mary Angela on the challenges and joys of chastity

Our society is somewhat obsessed with sex and the washing of dirty linen in public, thanks, in part, to the sensationalism of the media. The past few years have been marked by an escalating number of ‘sex scandals’ involving clergy being reported, and now ‘sexual orientation’ is running a close second. The Church has become caught up in the ways of the world, and sometimes seems to be bending over backwards to remove any suggestion of sin. Much of the secular agenda is basically concerned with human rights, which are of course important, but there is a tendency for ‘I want…’ to become ‘I must have…’, and that is soon ‘It is my right…’! ‘The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations came into force in December 2003 following a European Union directive, and make it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an individual on the grounds of their sexual orientation. Following pressure from religious organizations there is an exemption in Section 7, which allows employers in certain circumstances to specify the required sexual orientation of an employee’ (Elena Curti, The Tablet, 10 April 2004). Such legislation is a potential minefield, and employment rights appear to have priority over the Church’s traditional teaching and the concept of vocation.

The February 2004 Group of Sessions of the General Synod had a debate (dominated by liberal speakers) on ‘Some Issues in Human Sexuality’ – a good, fairly orthodox and clear report produced by the House of Bishops – that gives a fair ‘hearing’ to different points of view, and has a helpful index. But when I looked up ‘Chastity’, it says ‘See Abstinence’. This gives a rather negative and narrow view of one of the Evangelical Counsels, and I should like to consider chastity in its fullest sense, and this is relevant, I believe, not just to vowed Religious, but also to all who follow Christ. At the Easter Vigil we renewed our baptismal promise to ‘renounce the world, the flesh, and the Devil’, and ‘the flesh’ is much more than sex.

Since the Fall, society has constantly succumbed to temptation, and today is no exception – there is no hope of a ‘way of escape’ (see 1 Corinthians 10.13) in the secular world. The Report has a lot to say about celibacy, and many Religious now make a vow of celibacy rather than chastity, perhaps in recognition of the powerful sexual drive. But we need to see the bigger picture – an understanding of chastity relating to all the appetites or passions: for food, sleep, chattering, self-expression, anger, to name but a few. True chastity is the way of affirmation in Christian life and can be equated with purity of heart. ‘Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person’ (Matthew 15.19–20 ESV). We are all in a state of ‘becoming’ – entering into life in the perfect Man, Jesus Christ, who said, ‘… apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15.5 ESV). I, for one, constantly fall flat on my face, but our merciful Lord pours out his boundless love and forgiveness the second one starts to turn back to him in repentance and faith. Purity of heart or acquiring the Holy Spirit, to use St Seraphim of Sarov’s phrase, doesn’t happen all at once – I guess we all, like St Augustine, frequently say ‘Yes, Lord, but not yet!’ But we are all called to that inner freedom, detachment from self, absence of passion that the Fathers call ‘apathea’. An impure heart cannot judge or see things in the way that God does, so, as we grow in purity of heart, our vision changes and we begin to see others (and ourselves) in a new light, God’s light, with his eyes of love and compassion. It is a love that transcends feelings, emotions, and passions; thus relationships change, and attitudes change. We are called to live each day as if it is our last one on this earth – so ‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth…’ (Colossians 3.2 ESV).

Religious make a vow of Chastity for life, but all Christians are called to acquire the Holy Spirit, which is really the same as acquiring purity of heart or chastity, as they follow Jesus in whom we have Life in all its fullness and abundance. Mary, the pure Virgin, personifies this state. Her humble obedience to God’s Word made her a new creation in Christ, by bearing him in her womb and constantly pondering about him in her heart. She lives in the Way who gave her to us as our Mother. In growing to maturity in this part of life one consciously and unconsciously imitates one’s Mother, and this is also true of one’s spiritual life. Mary shows us how to hear with sustained attention grounded in humility, so that we can echo her ‘Fiat’ and live, move and have our being in him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. ‘The soul of one who has been sanctified, suffused with the Breath of God, is no longer within the body, it is rather the body that is within the soul, and, through it, in the Spirit. The primal clay has become as “spiritual body”, both body and breath’ (Olivier Clement in Three Prayers).

We are all sinners trying to be saints, but we need to remember that sin is basically being separated from God, a brokenness that gives us a sort of internal schizophrenia and an external fragmentation. St Paul has much to say about sin and its remedy, for example: ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires’ (Romans 13.14 ESV). ‘For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you knows how to control his own body in holiness and honour, not in the passion of lust…’ (1 Thessalonians 4.3–4 ESV). ‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God …’ (Galatians 2.20 ESV).

Chastity or purity of heart is a way of life that becomes Life, and then ‘all the world has its place in one’s heart because it has its place in the heart of Jesus’ (Fr Gilbert Shaw) (cf 2 Corinthians 6.11–13).

Sister Mary Angela CSWG is a member of General Synod representing Religious Communities.

This article was first published in the Pentecost 2004 edition of Come to the Father, the Journal of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God.