A dear friend recently asked me: how do you pursue chastity in a celibate state? I realized that I have never really written much on this question, though it is deeply significant to the whole project of helping to integrate gay people into a Church deeply committed to a traditional sexual ethic. Meanwhile, another friend has recently charged that we offer a false hope of a life which is ultimately unsustainable. As these questions come more to the front in my mind, it becomes clearer to me that there needs to be more discussion of how we hope to live chastely.
Before people are married in the Church, they receive marriage counseling; while the quality of this counseling may vary from location to location, the structure for formation is there. Similarly, when someone joins a religious order, they have to undergo intensive formation before becoming a full member; again, the quality of formation will vary widely, but the structure is there. But it seems safe to say that, as a rule (though particular circumstances may make it untrue in concrete situations), the person who lives celibacy in the world has, in her or his life, the least and frailest support structures of all; yet he or she is expected to live chastity with the most general guidance and the fewest concrete examples. This seems deeply problematic to me, and I hope in some small measure to begin to shift the balance by talking a little about what I have found helpful in living chastity.
It’s important to remember in addressing this question that chastity is much more than not having sex. The Catechism defines chastity as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (CCC 2337). The union between the bodily and spiritual dimensions of a person does not only involve celibacy, or restricting sex to marriage. It has a far deeper meaning: the mastery of libido and the passions, and their ordering according to the pattern of divine instruction. Thus, “[c]hastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy” (CCC 2339).
Chastity, then, is a much deeper reality than the absence of a sex life. This fundamental integration of the sexual and spiritual elements of a person, which manifests as an interior mastery of desire, is a lifelong process. *I believe that all virtues are more pursued and approached than they are obtained and possessed. While I have doubtless done better in this deeper governance of desire than some, I still have miles to go before I sleep, in terms of the attainment of (or rather, being graced with) a real Christian perfection.
Yet with all that said, perhaps it may help some to read something about how one soul has lived celibacy in such a way that it takes faltering steps toward chastity; to that end, I will be writing a series of posts on some “tools” which I have found helpful in chaste living.
While I have already pleaded human imperfection, I must also note that different practices work for different people. This is simply a brief attempt to begin to describe how different things have helped me, personally.
The first and last thing that must be said is that it is not I; Christ that liveth in me effects all the good that I seem to have. Whatever good there is in me is through grace, and it is only by living in grace that I am able to grow in however small a fashion towards true chastity.
But we can imagine grace to be an overly spiritualized and abstract fact, superadded to the concrete realities of our lives; in fact, grace is given to us in and through those realities, whether they be external or internal. It is my hope to lay out some of the external and internal graced realities which I have found to be helpful in my own pursuit of chastity.
Over the next few days, I will address several topics I have found practically helpful as I have strived to grow in chastity:
Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, DC, where he is pursuing a doctorate in historical theology. His main focus is on Augustine, and he hopes to dissertate on Augustine’s doctrine of grace. He has also occasionally published in First Things, Spiritual Friendship, and PRISM Magazine, where he makes small attempts to help re-orient the way the Church relates to gay people. He can be followed on Twitter: @JoshuaGonnerman.