I recently started a series of posts about graced realities which I have found to be helpful in the pursuit of chastity, defined deeply as the mastery through grace of internal sexual desires and passions, and their ordering according to the will of God. When people are married in the Church, they undergo marriage counseling; when people enter religious life, they have a period of intensive formation. Yet for people in the most difficult situation within which to pursue chastity, cut off from both marriage and the support of a religious community, there is little discussion of how to make this sustainable in a lifelong way. In previous posts, I discussed friendship, stress management, and ascesis.
In my previous posts this week, I have talked a bit about things which I have found helpful in striving to live chastely despite the relative lack of support structures of a celibate life lived outside a religious order.
In my last post, I want to explore the fundamental concern for direction in life and a turn towards God which the Christian tradition has inherited from Neoplatonic philosophy.
Perhaps the best place to start is the famous question of Plotinus: “How is it, then, that souls have forgotten their Father God, and that they belong to His world?” The vision of created beings estranged from their Source, but, on a deep level, seeking a path of return resonates deeply with a Christian vision, and simultaneously prompts another, more important question: How do souls return to their Father God?
Direction has always felt deeply significant to me, and I find the strong emphasis on turning and orientation in Neoplatonism to be deeply resonant, especially in Augustine’s appropriation of it. I find Plotinus to be spiritually fruitful, but turning upwards toward God with Augustine is a fuller fruition; this turning towards the divine is mutually reinforcing with an elevated mode of life. In trying to live a life oriented towards God, I have found that I can cultivate a greater receptivity to the in-pouring of grace which draws me away from sin and toward God. This Augustine-flavored striving to be oriented to God at all times has helped me to try to approach the virtues in general, chastity among them. Abiding in this spirit of conversio, growing into a turn towards God, is one of the most important things I have found to be helpful in my spiritual life.
On a parting note, we must remember: Christ calls us not to be good, but to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. This perfection is a call we strive to fulfill, but which we will invariably fall short of. What failures we may have are no excuse to give up on the whole project. Like the just man, we may fall seven times a day, but each time, we must get up, dust ourselves off, and keep plodding onward, with our eyes not on ourselves or ephemeral joys, but on our eschatological fulfillment.
These are four things which I have found helpful. At no point in my life have I done as well as I could with any of these, but in the seasons of life when I have lived more into a mindset of Godward direction, into practical stress management, into deep connection with friends, and into some measure of ascesis, I have found greater ease and contentment in chastity. I hope that they may be helpful to others, as well. Of course, at no point, or only at the height of perfection, does it become easy, or do we succeed in the mastery of our inner self which it entails. But we do what we can.
Speaking of others, let me open the floor to the other people out there who are living (probably permanent) celibate, single lives, without the support of a religious community. Gay people who are in this situation may have particular insights, but straight people may also find themselves living similar lives. If this is you, what do you find helpful in living chastely?
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.