Reflections on Chastity without Celibacy
Of course, the question comes up…often! Most recently, my new found digital friend C4bl3Fl4m3 asked what it means to be chaste without being celibate.
First, let me tell you. There are plenty of people I have encountered who are celibate and not chaste. And, of course, in my way of religious life, I experience people daily who are chaste but not celibate. So let’s take a look at two starting points that are integral in my life and my understanding of this dynamic.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines Chastity in this way:
abstaining from extramarital, or from all, sexual intercourse.
• not having any sexual nature or intention: a chaste, consoling embrace.
• without unnecessary ornamentation; simple or restrained: the dark, chaste interior was lightened by tilework.
ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French, from Latin castus.
Looking at the Latin origin, castus means clean, pure, or guiltless.
For hundreds of years, the terms chastity and celibacy have been conflated with one another, largely due to the religious vow itself and its interpretation in traditional order as meaning celibacy.
In the brotherhood, we define Chastity as follows:
Chastity is the decision to live with all in love, with respect for each person’s integrity. It is not a denial of one’s sexuality and capacity for love, but a dedication of the whole self to God: free from indecency or offensiveness and restrained from all excess, in order to be free to love others without trying to possess or control. – The Rule of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory
The Brotherhood’s interpretation of this vow allows for those who are gifted with the charism of celibacy… as some in fact are. We have brothers who are celibate. But Chastity is expansive enough to allow for fidelity in partnership as another interpretation. In order to understand how our community defines and lives Chastity in this way, let’s break down our understanding of this vow into some logical pieces:
Love that is respectful of each person’s integrity
Jesus said, “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31
Integrity, the wholeness of the human person, is essential to our interpretation of this vow. Integrity is a state of being which is whole and undivided. People are integrated human beings: mind, spirit, and body! The fear of the body that has infused Christianity since the days of Augustine is unfortunate. The body has been seen as unclean (despite the Risen Christ’s teaching to the contrary), and any joy experienced with it has been seen as suspect at best and sinfully debauched at worst. This duality that crept into the Christian faith is contrary to Scripture and to God’s proclamation that the Creation was good! It is contrary to a faith that is Incarnational, believing as it does that God became flesh in Jesus Christ and that humanity – all of it – was redeemed as a result.
As Jesus pointed out, it is not the body that is unclean, but all manner of things that proceed from the human heart that makes us unclean. And Chastity is intended to act as a corrective to what comes from the human heart!
The knowledge of being whole and undivided begins with our own selves. We approach our lives in religious vows, recognizing that we are undivided, whole, complete as we are. Unified and unimpaired – in our totality, good and capable of being vessels of the Holy Spirit even in our bodies, and even in our capacity as sexual human beings.
In my relationship with my husband, the practice of Chastity begins with the knowledge of his integrity as a human being, of his wholeness and the fact that he is a unified and unimpaired person. Any relationship with any being must start from this place, lest we treat them as incomplete or broken people (or objects) in need of being fixed. This is the beginning of Chastity.
Not a denial of one’s sexuality or capacity for love
While love is certainly not just about attraction – sexual or otherwise – we would be foolish to start with an assumption that true love, especially the love we are called to in religious witness, always transcends such attraction. Love can be experienced deeply with or without sex, and sex can also be experienced with or without love. They can both be, and often are, experienced intensely as a logical extension of the other.
There are those for whom celibacy is a natural extension of their very selves, and as such it is what we call a “charism” – a gift. But, as is often the case, celibacy is taken on in the traditional understanding of the vow of Chastity, or imposed as a result of priestly vocation. We have seen the results of such imposition for those who are not called to such a charism. It results in people who are fundamentally divided from themselves. Their integrity is compromised. They become impaired.
Chastity, in a more expansive interpretation, recognizes that sexuality can be – and in most cases is – an integral part of the human person. It is not something to be easily denied or denigrated, but it can be included in the celebration of the whole human being in all of our glorious complexity. To reduce Chastity to bodily functions is an egregious form of idolatry that is fundamentally dangerous spiritually and psychologically.
There are those who say that, being freed from the attachment to the physicality of sexual relationships, Chastity as celibacy allows them to more deeply love God and neighbor without conflict. While this may be true for some, it denies God a rightful place in the healthy expression of love through sexual relationships. There are many who will tell you, myself included, that God can be found in the midst of the intimacy of the sexual act, and that the union of two people in sexual congress can allow for glimpses into the Divine Life that are not often experienced in other ways or with such intensity. But Chastity also requires that we refrain from making our spouse, partner, or any other person an object for my sexual use or gratification. To reduce another human being to an object is sinful. To view another human being as merely an occasion to temptation is to objectify them at the basest level. Without love or the intention to experience love as a natural and transcendent moment in the sexual encounter, true Chastity is violated.
The entire point is, as I have come to understand in my own relationship with my spouse, not to conflate love with sex, or sex with love. Either can include the other, and neither is necessarily contingent upon the other. Chastity is a corrective to pursuing sexual gratification without the intention of the experience of love. And while attraction, sexual activity, and romantic love wax and wane over the years dependent upon so many things, the love that is engendered by true Chastity grows and is nurtured by remaining undivided within oneself and recognizing that the other person is as well – and allowing God to be present in whatever expression of love, sexual or otherwise, that grows in the midst of your encounter with the other.
A dedication of the whole self to God
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. – Romans 14:8
Having established that we are intended to live as wholly undivided and unified people – in our selves and as the Body of Christ – it is only natural that it is in this state that we offer ourselves to God. We too often compartmentalize which parts of ourselves are worthy of offering to God and which we hold back. Our vow of Chastity requires the dedication of this whole self to God, in all of its integrity, its completeness. This means not only spirit, mind and body – but our use of these things.
Note well! Chastity is about much more than sexual relations. It is about the way we treat our selves and others, not just sexually but in all the myriad ways in which we are tempted to use other human persons as means to an end. Every human person – and our relationship with them – are ends in and of themselves. They are the beloved in which we experience Christ. They are the answer to the question “who is my neighbor?” They are children of the Creator, dignified creatures of extraordinary beauty and complexity and integrity who are to be valued in and of themselves.
Chastity calls us to recognition of this fact and asks us to treat all others accordingly. How we do this is the subject of the remaining part of our understanding of the vow.
Free from indecency or offensiveness
Laying aside the issue of the physicality of sexuality for a moment. Jesus spoke of the things of the human heart that defile. How do we treat others from the heart? Do we objectify them? What of adultery of the heart – the ways in which we can sexualize individuals in our minds? This is more than an issue of lust. It is a question of covetousness. It is a question of idolatry. Do I fantasize about those whom it is inappropriate to sexualize? Do I fantasize about doing harm to someone who has wronged me? Do I incessantly try to win arguments in my head that I lost in person days, weeks, months ago? Do I ceaselessly compare myself to others in terms of appearance, status, or achievement rather than honoring myself where I am and honoring others where they are?
Indecency is not necessarily about obscenity. It is about appropriateness – appropriateness to the nature of ones relationship to another and fitting to the circumstances of the encounter with another. Decency is about propriety and conformity with the accepted standard of behavior in a given situation. For example – it is not decent for an employer to attempt to seduce an employee, or a priest his or her charge. It is not decent for me to expect my spouse to be my maid.
Offensiveness is about aggression. It is, by means of aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior to cause another to feel hurt. It is about provocation to anger or other ill feeling. To make someone feel guilt is an aggressive act, and so is to deliberately start an argument. Anyone who is married can tell you the nature of this dynamic.
Chastity calls this behavior out for exactly what it is – indecent and offensive. Or, inappropriate and aggressive. And it demands of us a recognition of these dynamics in our own behavior and makes imperative the need for a different approach. In this way, Chastity compels us to revisit how we handle conflict in our lives and in our relationships. Do we accept others as they are, or demand that they be someone else? Do we monitor the kinds of expectations that we bring to the table in our relationships? Do we have a healthy understanding of the difference between our needs in relationships and our wants – and can we negotiate the boundaries between those and the needs and wants of others with whom we are in relationship?
Restrained from all excess
The opposite of excess is moderation. Restraint is about oneself, and most definitely not about restraining the other. Self-restraint is the opposite of self-assertion. Chastity does not ask us to be doormats when it comes to the behavior of others with whom we are in relationship. But it does ask us to keep our needs in check. We do confuse needs with wants – and feel eminently entitled to have both fulfilled. Unfortunately, a good number of people enter into relationship only half full, expecting the spouse or partner to fill the other half.
This goes back to the issue of integrity and wholeness. The only way to cultivate healthy relationships is to come to the table from a place of wholeness. Chastity asks us to moderate our sense of entitlement and need. It asks us to have healthy relationships in a variety of contexts so that we do not require our partner to be the sole source of having our emotional needs met.
Chastity calls us to balance, self-awareness, and self-giving. It asks us to tame ourselves and our desires so that they can be met by the self-giving of our partner and not as a result of our demands. So, if all of this is about ourselves, what are we to reasonably expect from others?
Love that does not try to possess or control
Do as you would do, not as I would do – or – as I would have you do. This is what Chastity asks us to do for others. Cease trying to possess or control them. It is the hardest part of the practice of Chastity.
My spouse does not belong to me. He is the Lord’s possession. But he also belongs – in relationship – to others. He has friends, family, work colleagues – all of whom have their own claim on his time, energy, and attention. He gets to decide how to negotiate the complexity of his social relationships. My desires need to allow him the freedom to do that.
People are not possessions. As Martin Buber pointed out, our relationship to others is not one of “I” to “it,” but rather of “I” to “Thou.” This relationship is defined by love. It does not objectify the other, but understands that the relationship itself is a living thing. Chastity demands the recognition of all relationships as dynamic, life-giving moments or strings of moments in which God can be encountered. All relationships should be characterized as opportunities for self-giving, not as opportunities for demands to be met or needs and wishes fulfilled.
Chastity asks us to discern and understand the myriad ways in which we try to control others – usually to get them to do what we want. We must be diligent in thought, word, and deed not to manipulate those with whom we are in relationship. Control is about trying to determine the outcomes of any particular situation by manipulating them toward a desired ends. This not only doesn’t leave room for other people to exercise their freedom, it doesn’t leave much room for God – in whose hands all outcomes ultimately lay.
A Final Word
So, back to the question – how does one live Chastity without celibacy? Well, the question should be “does celibacy really mean Chastity?” Can one assume that merely by relinquishing sexual relationships with other people, it will lead to wholeness, restraint, decency and self-giving, an affirmation of ones capacity to love, or a diminishing desire to possess or control others? What is the point of Chastity, and does celibacy naturally lead to it?
Or, can one experience the beauty of Chastity in the context of any human relationship, even a sexual one? I would answer with a resounding “Yes!” If the point of Chastity is to love and honor God and other; if the point is to relinquish the debilitating behaviors that damage human relationships and to substitute those behaviors an appreciation of the grace and light of God in the other; then the answer is “Yes!” If the point of Chastity is to bring the whole self before God, offering our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice to God; then the answer is “Yes!”
Chastity is about purity; it is about a love that is whole, unimpaired, simple and graciously restrained; it is about a love that is un-qualified, un-adorned, respectful and non-aggressive; and it is about a love that can be expressed in heart, mind, AND body in ways that are self-giving, utterly non-possessive, and open to the possibility that God can be encountered in the deep love between self and other.