Chastity, The Art of Living Beautifully

Anthony Zimmerman
Presented at Workshop on Marriage and Family Life Education
St. John's University
Collegeville, Minn
June 18, 1975
Reproduced with Permission

The droll description of the word "chastity" by St. Thomas Aquinas reads:

Chastity takes its name from the fact that reason chastises concupiscence, which, like a child, needs curbing ... Now the essence of human virtue consists in being something moderated by reason ... Therefore it is evident that chastity is a virtue (STII-II, Q. 151, 1).

According to Thomas, then, Father Reason has to keep after the pleasure children in us, so that the children behave like papa says. He writes that we all are attuned to pleasure, especially to pleasures of the touch which are associated with the maintenance of nature. These wax strong when we consent to them; therefore the desires of these pleasures stand in great need of being chastised (Loc. cit. 2, ad 2); and moderation of the use of venereal pleasures is autonomastically called chastity.

Thomas distinguishes the virtue which moderates the desire for eating pleasures, namely abstinence, from the virtue which governs venereal pleasures, namely chastity; abstinence helps to maintain the life and health of an individual; whereas chastity is connected with the use of matters venereal "whereby the nature of the [human] species is preserved" (loc. cit. 3).

From which we gather that we must study human physiology and God's plan for the individual in order to find out what the virtue of abstinence is; but in order to find out what the virtue of chastity is we study not so much the individual person, as the human race and its needs, and God's plans for the race. We are not asking whether the use of venereal acts agrees with individual needs and inclinations so much as whether these agree with the needs of the whole of humanity.

We can't ask God to explain to us what His ideas about the human race are, but we can try to think sympathetically with Him, so that we get sound theological insights. The reason He began the work of creating people at all is because He is good and happy in Himself, and He made the decision to give others a chance to share this goodness; to know and to love and to have bliss as He has it. And we see that when God made the decision He wasn't going to start and end with just a few privileged characters; rather he put into execution a plan of real wholesale proportions, involving not tens or hundreds, but billions of people. We see that God is thinking in immense terms, reflecting His own immensity.

I suppose that God could have made man to increase and multiply in other ways than through venereal acts. You remember how the bible relates about the creation of the first woman; how He formed her from a rib of Adam while he slept.

But God wanted to have man participate actively in the creation of each new person; man should do it freely, so that he will also have responsibility for the new person whom he brings to life. And man should not be urged to do so by force and coercion; God is not threatening man with punishment if he does not pro-create; He does not use the big stick on man. He thinks more of man than that.

Instead, God strongly entices man to procreate by two special devices: by arranging that he can enjoy companionship while so doing, just as God enjoys the companionship of Three Persons in one nature; and by experiencing some of the exquisite delights of pleasure, a small taste of the delights which God has when He creates and sees that what He made is good. The joys of companionship and the pleasures of sense and of spirit which men experience when being partners with God in the work of producing new human life, are the splendid and compelling devices by which God has arranged for the preservation of the human species; they are neither stick, nor carrot, nor bribery, but co-natural joys, making it easy for man to cooperate with God. At the same time they are strong stimuli to help man and woman to socialize and to mature; they make it a pleasure to cooperate with God and to be associated with His work, and to feel His divine presence.

And when God creates in-built devices which are designed to preserve the race, He is not only a Creator whose overflowing goodness motivates Him to make others to be able to share and experience divine bliss; He is also a calculating and wise scientist, or business-man if you will; God is not going to employ weak and questionable devices to preserve the race, which might work, but again which might not. The need for companionship is going to be felt by man so strongly that one would think his whole life depends upon it; and the desire for the pleasure of union is going to blind him to almost every fear of consequences. The pleasure which God built into the act of procreation is so keen that it is unquestionably going to preserve the race; that is, if the pleasure cannot be obtained without cooperating with God's plan of preserving the race. And here we can return to Thomas for the statement that God reserves the use of this pleasure to reasonable situations; that is, to situations which make it an efficient stimulus for the preservation and maintenance of the human species, and which do not deprive it of that function:

I answer that, the more necessary a thing is, the more it behooves one to observe the order of reason in its regard; wherefore the more sinful it becomes if the order of reason be forsaken. Now the use of venereal acts, as stated in the foregoing Article, is most necessary for the common good, namely the preservation of the human race. Wherefore there is the greatest necessity for observing the order of reason in this matter: so that if anything is done in this connection against the dictate of reason's ordering, it will be a sin. Now lust consists essentially in exceeding the order and mode of reason in the matter of venereal acts. Wherefore without any doubt lust is a sin (Q. 153, a 3).

In the subsequent questions and articles, Thomas describes the unnatural sins, such as masturbation, fornication, adultery, bestiality, sodomy; he implies that these are unnatural because they are acts against "the knowledge of which is naturally bestowed on man" (Q. 154, a. 12). He takes it for granted that everyone knows better than to do these things. He also writes that it is against reason to perform a venereal act of masturbation because this is "with prejudice to the future offspring" (ibid). In other words, nature attaches strings to venereal acts, namely openness to life; one who cuts away the strings which nature put there is cheating nature, is cheating the race, is cheating God who made the race. And so Thomas says: "in sins contrary to nature, whereby the very order of nature is violated, an injury is done to God., the Author of nature" (ibid).

Pope Paul was repeating the constant tradition of the Church when he wrote:

Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation - whether as an end or as a means (HUMANAE VITAE, 14).

To say anything else would be as harmful to human society as to say that everyone is allowed to eat without working, to live in homes without building, to enjoy the fruits of labor without contributing. The world would soon be without food and without homes if mankind would accept these unreasonable principles and live by them. And the race would suffer grave harm if man were permitted to divide venereal acts from their co-natural connection with the maintenance of the race.

Hence the importance of educating the members of the race so that the greater part, or at least a sufficient part, will follow the rules of the virtue of chastity. I honestly think that we have to educate our young people, who are coming to sexual maturity and preparing for marriage, better than we do. At least it appears to me that some others have done better in the past than we do now. Probably we do not take care to teach our young people systematically about their responsibilities to God and to others in regard to their sexual appetites as the primitive people took care to do. Permit me to quote from an article written some years ago about his "Sexual Morality Among Primitives" in THE CHRISTIAN FAMILY, Techny, III. November 1957, pp. 6-10; 31-32) . . . . .

Similarly, the Israelites took care to instruct their people explicitly and systematically about their sexual responsibilities. Permit me to cite from an article in CHILD AND FAMILY, Spring 1969, pp. 181-91: "Bible Readings as Material for Sex Instructions.....

If we all know that sexual acts are reserved for the benefit of the species, as St. Thomas wrote, then we also know that we mature into real men and into great women when we learn to reserve the use of sex for the purposes indicated by our understanding. The young man who feels strongly the urge to complete pleasure with himself privately is standing before a unique opportunity to grow humanly; he knows that he is all alone and need not to fear from ridicule by others. Only God sees, and he himself knows. If for the sake of his human integrity, his desire to fit in with the demands of society, his deep yearning to be acceptable to God, this young man makes the great spiritual effort to curb his instinctive sensual desires, the wayward desires of the naughty child in him; if he conquers himself habitually, so that reason gets control over instinct generally; and if he rises to new and better efforts after he has suffered a loss for once, or for some time; then that man is a person who stands above instinct; you can rely upon him when he counts your money without stealing; when he treats your wife, teaches your daughter, gives his opinion in councils. He has escaped the gravitational pull of his lower instincts sufficiently to move about freely in the world of men where many depend upon him to be honest and trustworthy, to stand above passion and instinct.

The woman who demands of her friend that he respect her body, who will not sell herself to an exploiter; who won't be the type which Sirach berates:

Like a thirsty traveler she will open her mouth and drink any water she comes across; she will sit in front of every peg, and open her quiver to any arrow (26,12).

Such a woman will demand that her boy friends grow up, and that her husband be a man, not a playboy. She will have an inner pride in her strength, the joy of a peaceful mind, a conscience in control of her life, which is for her a banquet to nourish her strength. Such a woman will be a teacher for the children by her very attitude, an educator of well adjusted and balanced children.

Chastity within marriage, as others have said so often, and so much better than I can hope to do, adds a third dimension to the husband-wife relationship; the two look at each other as equals, because they respect each other as persons in the sight of God. Neither takes advantage of brute strength, of superior arts of seduction, of cultural patterns, of private opinions; rather each respects the responsibilities which the other claims before God, and that makes them equal. And in this equality, with God as partner, is a depth of love which is beyond the experience of those who do not see God and chastity in marital relationships.

The very difficulty of holding to the rules, for the sake of the other as well as for self, almost compels husband and wife to think more about God, to pray together, to speak of God in their lives, to receive the Sacraments oftener, to go to Mass in Lent and otherwise. Their life for each other almost compels them to cultivate a greater love for God, and this opens them to love towards neighbor and children. Marriage, without the ban against instant contraception, would be a comparatively shallow, dull, insipid, untested relationship. Lovers want to make sacrifice; those beloved want to know that the lover can make sacrifices; the joy of union then deepens immensely. And if the love is totally without the sensuous, then it becomes even deeper and eternal; as in the case of Christ who never loved the Bride, the Church, so intensely, as during the three hours when the nails bit into His hands and feet: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church. He gave himself up for her to make her holy, purifying her in the bath of water by the power of the word, to present to himself a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle, or anything of that sort" (Eph. 5: 25-27).

CHASTITY, is it not God's throbbing LIFE held in perfect self control by His wisdom and command? Is it not the controlled experience by which Father gives Self to Son without losing Self; by which Father and Son sigh together in love to Breathe the Spirit? The embrace of Unity which leaves the Persons in Trinity?

Was it not CHASTITY in God, which motivated Him to look outward from His full experience, to create a way by which others can share in His fullness? Was it not this attribute which won the decision from God to create the heavens and the earth?

In CHASTITY, then, God suddenly made to be, that primordial plasm which unfolded and escalated into a universe. The strength of God's chastity provided the impetus and energies, the discipline of CHASTITY made the development a controlled and predictable evolution.

God's CHASTITY prevented Him from speeding up the process which was so time-consuming; from arbitrarily imposing instant fixtures instead of watching growth for millions and billions of years. When finally a droplet of plasm was isolated and rounded into our sun; and planets solidified to swing around this center, while tinier bodies swung around the planets; when our earth, properly distanced, formed a crust with basins of water and flotsam of continents, protected by an envelope of protective atmosphere; then God's chaste interest focused upon the house which He was building for man.

When the seas boiled, when seismic shocks nudged the continents into their niches, when the mountains rumbled with volcanic explosions, God waited; the time was not ripe for man. When dinosaurs battled in the swamps, and pterodactyls screamed through the skies, God saw that He must wait and bide His time until a more beautiful and less frightful environment come into place for man. For the chaste God, waiting was itself an experience of joy in self-possession.

When, finally, the cataclysmic volcanic explosions simmered down, when the earth's restless heavings became more gentle; when canaries and gold finches flew over fossils of buried flying reptiles; when soft grasses and swaying trees covered the fertile earth; then finally a waiting and chaste God decided to activate His creative love into a full and. satisfying experience, to perform the act of creating man His image and likeness, who will appreciate God and His creation:

Then God said: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground. God created man in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, saying: "Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth (Gen. 1: 26-29).

The chaste God did not spare His arts in making man and woman ravishingly beautiful, unable to take their eyes from each other because each saw such wealth and beauty in the other. When God brought the first woman to the first man, the man was happily in love with what he saw and said:

This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called "woman", for out of "her man" this one has been taken (Gen.1:23).

God, happy and chaste in Himself, did not spare to give man ample opportunities to become likewise happy and chaste. We know how badly man has faltered, failing to live up to the expectations that God placed in him. But we know also that the chaste God did not become violent, or un-loving towards man; God continues to help, to hope, to coax out the best in man. Even the smoking flax is not extinguished by Him, because He wishes to nurture it back into flame. When Moses caught a glimpse of this infinitely patient, self-controlled, and chaste God, Moses said:

The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless (Ex. 34:6-7).

God's self-control, His perfect possession of self, is seen incarnated in the father who chastises sons and daughters, but does not break their bones; the father whose inner goodness is a continuing feast for himself, a support for wife and children motivating them sub-consciously to become likewise holy. God's chastity is evident in the father who does not drive out a prodigal son, but waits to see him return to his better senses; who does not quarrel with the elder son, but urges him to be patient like himself; who does not lose faith in man even if man should do him evil; and if his own family crucifies him, he prays that God will forgive them. The man in possession of self will allow his son and daughter to choose their own occupation, to develop their own talents and life style. He does not expect instant perfection from the children and wife, but waits patiently for evolution, often through painful experiences and mistakes, until the good within them succeeds in unfolding itself; and if the expected good fails to unfold, he is satisfied in having done his duty leaving the rest to God who has made man a free being.

God's chastity is in the mother who works miracles in the children by drawing out of them goodness which they never expected to possess. She supports the growth of her children from within them, instead of injuring their framework and pressing them to fit into her own expectations. Chastity shines on the brow of the mother who sees life unfolding in her offspring and sees that it is good, much as God rested on the seventh day, contemplated all that He had done, and saw that it was exceedingly good. That YES of the chaste mother to life in her children is a powerful stimulus in them to develop their talents. The chaste mother does not panic when son and daughter experience the attractions of erotic love, when they become ready to fly the nest and seek a partner of their own; rather, the great strength of her chastity will be perpetuated in new life in succeeding generations.

God's chastity lives in the wife whose husband finds that she is happiest when the radiance of chaste love dominates their life together. Whose love makes it a point of pride and satisfaction for the husband to grow in virtue; whose irrepressible faithfulness makes it easy for him to take a positive attitude towards the world, towards other persons, and to God; who gives herself so generously to husband that he finds the power in himself to become generous in return; until they give body and blood to each other much as Christ gives us His body to eat and His blood to drink, and we give ourselves to Christ in return.

God's chastity lives in the husband who is faithful to wife and family; who does not exploit their personalities, but supports their independent existence and growth; although he has urges to crush that other personality, to dissolve and digest it, to annihilate her independence and make her completely his; his chastity controls the destructive urge and harnesses it into a positive love which rejoices to see the other as other; much as the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity are a joyous and eternal YES to their mutual personal relations.

If CHASTITY is a divine virtue re-incarnated in man, then the practice of chastity is good for each man, and for the human race. Dr. K.F. Gunning, M.D. stated at the World Population Tribune in Bucharest, August 1974, that history gives witness to the benefits of chastity towards nations and mankind; peoples who have exercised remarkable self-control, he said, have built up the civilizations of the world; and peoples who have failed to exercise the discipline of chastity have eventually become a non-people, have disappeared from the scene of life on earth much as a stream of water disappears into the thirsty sands of a desert. Chastity practiced by individuals is not only an exercise of self-perfection; it is also a gift to the family and to the nation and race.

Our Christianity will yet prove its strength and durability where ever its adherents activate in themselves the energies of self-control in sexuality. The chaste Christian generation is like the grizzly giant Sequoia in the Grove of Big Trees in California, which stood there before the time of Christ, and even before the time of Moses. Fires have devoured the lesser trees and the underbrush around the giant many times during the centuries; but the great Sequoia protected itself by bark at least a foot thick fireproof as asbestos, so that the fires burn out before the heat even registers in its living core; soil has been washed from its surroundings, but it helped to create its own soil and always sent roots down to deeper levels; lightning and storms blasted its branches, but it grew new tissue to heal the scars, and sent branches ever higher into the sky; animals forage on the leaves of smaller trees and underbrush, but its towering crown is out of their reach, gathering dew at night, basking in the sunshine by day.

During the next 3000 years, a succession of nations and churches may rise and fall, much as trees and bushes in the past under the giant Sequoia; but the Christian group which can survive these 3000 years, and lift its serene crown above the lesser groups, will not be one which was soft, yielding, unchaste; it will be the Humanae Vitae group which will have survived the fires and erosion of undisciplined lust in lost generations, which serenely cultivated its sequoian chastity, and merited to be selectively loved and protected by God, who Himself is chaste. THANK YOU.