Sex, part 2

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House

Sexuality and spirituality have a definite and dynamic relationship. That is why chastity is valued as a ‘Holy Virtue.’ This causes problems in our day and age. The contemporary conscience is formed by a set of social attitudes that would be quite at home in firstcentury pagan Corinth. The separation of sexuality and procreation that began in the middle of the last century has had a profound effect on attitudes to sexuality. In this whole area, a spiritual director who is drawing on orthodox teaching can find himself banging his head against a metaphorical brick wall.

Many people find it hard to receive the apostolic teaching regarding chastity. It is quite clear that the Christian faith only permits sexual relationships within lifelong heterosexual marriage. It is also quite clear that this rule is honoured more by the breach than the observance. The contemporary concept of marriage has moved from an orthodox Christian understanding to one that it is barely recognizable as the same institution. It is no wonder that few respond to the call to chastity in the religious life when even chastity outside marriage is too much to ask for the majority of people.

For the spiritual director there is an obvious problem – sex involves two people and he is usually talking and listening to one of them! This takes us to the heart of the dilemma because the issue of chastity opens up the whole question of how do men and women (and indeed people of the same sex) order their relationship around the will of God? What is the process that they go through to decide what goes and what doesn’t between them? This process is more straightforward if both are Christians. There is not much room for negotiation here.

It is a simple matter of taking the right steps to climb on to the narrow path. Those who do usually find a new depth in their relationship with one another and with the Lord. Those who don’t are on a wider but more slippery path. The question is quite simple – if they cannot be obedient to God and put self last in one area of their life, then how are they going to do so in others? None of this is easy. In these things the spiritual director is not acting as judge and jury. His role is to point out the way that leads to life and encourage Christians to walk it.

The truth is that nothing is more life-giving and life-strengthening than chastity. Christians above all people ought to honour and value virginity.

There is another expression of chastity and that is chastity of heart and mind. Jesus’ teaching about lustful thoughts and imagination being equivalent to adultery makes it quite clear that the other sex is not an object and sexuality is not a means of self-gratification. When it is, it both distorts the relationship between subject and object thus opening it up to be destructive and manipulative, and also corrupts the subject him or herself by raising a barrier to communion with God. It is all well and good extolling the positive qualities of a sexual relationship but that good is quickly outdone by the turmoil that results when the relationship is outside the clear boundaries set by God.