Chastity: The Seventh Lively Virtue

When Satan, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, insinuates himself into the garden of Eden, he encounters a perfect riot of beauty: lush grapevines hanging over grottoes and heavy with fruit, grassy meadows full of browsing cattle and sheep, streams splashing their way over the rocks, and flowers literally pouring forth at the bidding not of dainty art but of “Nature boon,” showering her gifts in abundance.  But although he recognizes that these things are beautiful, they bring him no pleasure.  The fiend “saw undelighted all delight,” and then he comes upon a sight that saddens him to the core of his being:

Two of far nobler shape, erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native honor clad
In naked majesty seemed lords of all,
And worthy seemed: for in their looks divine
The image of their glorious Maker shone:
Truth, wisdom, sanctitude severe and pure,
Severe, but in true filial freedom placed.

Adam and Eve are both naked and clad: their innocence and their honor are as a robe of majesty, and they need no other.

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Milton understood well that chastity is not the same as abstinence.  Indeed, Adam and Eve are chaste, and they do not abstain from the “rites mysterious” of wedded love.  What they do is not merely permissible.  It is blessed by God.  It is holy.  That is why, when they enter their bower at night, they enter a sacred place where none of the lowly animals will go, “such was their awe of man.”  That is where they go after a day of creative labor, and conversation, and prayer; for theirs is not “casual fruition,” but the consummation of their love as embodied souls made by the God of love.  Chastity is the virtue of reverence for sexual being, male and female, both in oneself and in all other persons.

This reverence, as I see it, implies a metaphysical realism with regard to sex.  What Pope John Paul II called “the nuptial meaning of the body” is immediately and powerfully evident to anyone who sees a husband and wife walking together, hand in hand.  This sense of fittingness precedes a child’s awareness of the details of sexual intercourse, but it is founded upon that reality, for the “mysterious parts,” as Milton calls them, are made for one another.  I can breathe on my own, digest food on my own, and think thoughts on my own.  The only thing I cannot do on my own is, however, the most time-transcending and creative thing of all: I cannot engage in a reproductive act on my own.  Only a man and a woman together, in genuine sexual intercourse – that is, the interactive congress of the sexes as such, male and female – can perform that kind of act.

Here we stand on the shores of a vast and life-giving but also dangerous sea.  Sex is the first thing we notice about someone, and the last thing we forget.  In social situations it never quite fades from our awareness.  We understand that the man is for the woman, as the woman is for the man.  This being-for is marked in the differences themselves.  In the husband and wife, these differences are for completion, as Genesis suggests and as Milton makes clear, in the scene when Adam pursues the newly-created Eve:

                         To give thee life I gave
Out of my side to thee, nearest my heart,
Substantial being, to have thee by my side
Henceforth an individual solace dear;
Part of my soul I seek thee, and thee claim
My other half.

We are not talking here about the pleasure one gains from friendship, or the enlargement of the heart and the mind that is occasioned by social interchange generally.  We are talking instead of something new in the world: the literally “individual” solace of marriage, wherein the man and the woman become one flesh, never, without grave sin, to be put asunder.

Man is a social being; he casts bridges over the rifts that separate one person from another.  But the union of man and woman is unlike those; in it, and in it alone, do we unite with a different kind of human being altogether, a person who sows the seed, which a woman can never do, or a person who is the field wherein the seed and the egg bear fruit, which a man can never be.  It requires the most radical surrender of self.  I do not simply mean that the man and woman bear certain emotions toward one another.  I mean that the man, precisely as a man, gives himself entirely in the act of sexual congress to the woman, who gives herself in return, as a woman.  The very act cries out: “I was made for you,” meaning not just, “I give you pleasant feelings,” or even, “I will always be with you,” but rather, “Everything that I am, in all the reality of my sex, belongs to you, is yours by right, because with you its meaning, biological and personal, is fulfilled.”

Unlike mere abstinence, then, chastity is ineluctably social.  It colors all of our relations with men and women, because it recognizes them and reveres them as sexual beings.  Every man, married or not, is the sort of being oriented towards fatherhood, as every woman is the sort of being oriented towards motherhood.  I’m not saying that every man will actually sire a child; nor will every woman bear a child.  Here we might well mention the spiritual fatherhood of a priest or the spiritual motherhood of a nun.  But instead I would like to draw a corollary from the being-for that is inscribed in each sex.  It is inseparable from procreation.  Animals reproduce; only man, in the act of love, bears within himself a consciousness that he is doing what his own parents did, and what his children may do in turn.  The meaning of the act transcends the moment just insofar as the man and woman are open to that fact and all that it implies.  Our popes have understood the point.  It is a logical and psychological contradiction to say, “I give myself entirely to you,” while saying, “I deny to you the fullness of my sexual being, and the heritage of the generations that I bear within me.”  That is to treat a man or a woman as somewhat less than a man or a woman: as male and female givers of pleasure.

On the liveliness that chastity brings I could say much; and perhaps the subject requires another essay or two.  C. S. Lewis shrewdly noted, in The Four Loves, that the first casualty of a misplaced exaltation of eros is eros itself.  I note this deadening all the time.  Where chastity is not honored, people lose their reverence for the sexes, and with that reverence they lose also interest.  Not to say that they keep themselves free of sexual encounters.  But these then tend to be loveless and joyless, disappointing, sometimes even perfunctory.  The simple pleasures of sexuality are lost.  A lad and a lass cannot flirt innocently without the shadow of a sexual liaison falling over the act.  They are thus “free” to fornicate, but that very license cramps them and everyone else.  The stakes are raised too high.  If a boy says to a girl, “Would you like to go to a movie with me?” she must think beyond the movie – far beyond.  Knowing that this is so, the boy does not trouble to ask her in the first place.

The dash, the pursuit, the courtship, the sending of poems, the singing of songs, the high hearted pleasure occasioned by a smile, or by the touch of a hand – all these are dulled.  One needn’t take my word for it.  The lyrics of folk love songs testify: they could not be composed now, because they would not be understood.  Something as simple as Loch Lomond appears to have come from another world.  The first singer of that song would have understood what prompted Dante to write, centuries before him, Ladies who have intelligence of love.  Our young people can understand neither.

Where chastity is not honored, the boy cannot even enjoy the foolish pleasures of boyhood of old.  If you look at old photographs of high school football or baseball teams, you will see the boys fairly hanging all over one another; that physical expression of affection is only possible because reverence for male sexual being clears room for it.  Boys are for girls: that is that.  If one were to intrude upon this picture of camaraderie and say, “I feel a sexual desire for you,” that would do violence to the maleness of the boys.  It would be a subtle attempt to divert their confidence that they are husbands-to-be or fathers-to-be, to turn their attention in upon themselves – to conceive of their maleness in the severely restricted sense that they possess a certain sort of body, without considering what that body is for.  It would dampen philia with eros, and then would subvert eros itself, replacing it with a kind of mutual autoeroticism.

The society that promotes chastity thus promotes true wedded love, and the land of marriage, despite all the troubles that sinful human beings bring upon themselves, is a perfect paradise by comparison with the land of easy fornication and childlessness by choice.  There we will find all the glorious expectancy of young people in love; the pilgrimage that begins with an exchange of glances and ends within the temple, with man and woman exchanging vows, before they enter that other temple where they exchange their very bodies; the beauty of a gift given without reserve, at the just time, with due ceremony; and the beauty of the child ever present in their midst; the child who may be born from their loving interchange, and the Child whom they in their innocence revere.

Humility: The First of the Lively Virtues
Solicitude: The Second Lively Virtue
Meekness: The Third Lively Virtue
Zeal: The Fourth Lively Virtue
Liberality: The Fifth Lively Virtue
Temperance: The Sixth Lively Virtue


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