This week we will give a consideration of what consecrated life teaches about poverty, chastity and obedience — how all can live these no matter their vocation.
By: Rev. Paul Scalia
When Clare of Assisi decided to give her life to Christ, she did not fill out an application or sign a contract. She did not contact the church Human Resources Department or go to an ecclesiastical job fair. She eloped. In a wedding gown and under cover of darkness, she snuck out of the family home and made her way to the Portiuncula, Saint Francis’s little church. There he espoused her to the Lord and clothed her in a simple habit. Clare understood that she was not entering a profession or career. She knew that she was becoming a bride of Christ.
Saint Clare’s vocation story sets in relief the purpose and importance of the counsel of chastity professed by men and women religious. Religious life is a matter of the heart, not just an occupation. Men and women in consecrated life forego marriage and family and set aside the joys of marital intimacy, not out of any hatred for marriage but to cling to our Lord with a more radical and exclusive love.
Naturally, the vow of chastity takes different forms for women and for men. For a woman, it is an espousal to Christ the Bridegroom. She desires to give herself to Him entirely, as a bride to her husband. As such, they also serve as icons of the Church, the Bride of Christ and they remind us that our souls have been espoused to Him the Bridegroom. A man vows chastity because he has found in Christ that Friend for Whom he is willing to give up all else and follow. By chastity he foregoes not only sinful but also legitimate desires in order to “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Rev 14:4).
Now, if our culture considers chastity at all, it thinks of it as a negative. Chastity describes what we do not do. Of course, there is a “negative” to chastity: it is against something. Chastity fights against that weakness within us that craves indulgence of the flesh. Pleasure is not bad in itself. But when we use it as the principle for our decisions and shape our lives around its pursuit, then we make it into a god. Then we no longer strive for the joys of heaven but turn aside to the passing, physical pleasures of this world. And our fallen human nature is inclined to just such a detour. Chastity disciplines — chastens — our desires so that our hearts will remain on the right path.
But if we remain in the negative, then there is nothing attractive about chastity. No one would take such a vow. More importantly, chastity is freedom from all other loves in order to love Christ more perfectly. Saint Paul counsels it for precisely this reason: “to secure undivided devotion to the Lord” (cf. 1 Cor 7:35). There are many different loves competing for our hearts. Chastity relativizes all of them, proclaiming that He alone is perfectly worthy of our love. In that way chastity is evangelical: those who vow it proclaim the One Who surpasses all other loves.
Their radical commitment reminds us of our need to be chaste according to our state in life. In negative terms this means, of course, avoiding behavior incompatible with the truth of sexuality. In positive terms it means purifying our hearts of anything that compromises our complete self-gift to the Lord and to others. Chastity requires a lot of no’s, but it is ultimately the ability to say yes — to the right person, in the right manner, at the right time. It both disciplines and frees. It disciplines us to avoid what will divide our hearts, and therefore frees us to give ourselves more generously.
“Love is our mission,” was the motto for the World Meeting of Families. Indeed, the family is the place where we learn to love and be loved. Which makes it all the more important that chastity be lived and learned in the family. Because chastity is about the ability to love. Parents should see that their children have discipline not only in school and sports, but also in matters of the heart. The undisciplined heart threatens happiness much more seriously than a bad grade or missed soccer game. The disciplined heart, however, knows how to love properly.
This requires chastity first of all from parents. If mom and dad are contracepting, they have already introduced unchastity into the family. If dad is using pornography, he cannot expect that the effects will not be felt in his family. The chastity of mom and dad — as private as it is — will set the tone for the household.
But chastity has to be seen in a broader context of physical self-denial — of temperance. It does not exist in isolation, with no other mortification of the flesh. The one who eats and drinks whatever he desires — who watches whatever he wants — will not long maintain chastity. So in the home there must be a sense of temperance — that we do not eat and drink whatever we want, that the body does not get all it desires, that pleasure is not the determining principle and that our hearts are made for nobler things and must be disciplined for them.
As a boy, Saint Maximilian Kolbe was offered a choice. Our Lady appeared to him holding two crowns: one red, one white. The white represented purity, and the red martyrdom. Which one would he choose for his walk with the Lord? He chose both. He followed the first by professing chastity as a Franciscan friar. He followed the second by his martyrdom at Auschwitz. But the two really go together. It was his purity — his disciplined heart — that enabled him to love our Lord with abandon, even to giving his life for another.
Tomorrow on Encourage and Teach, we consider what the consecrated life teaches about poverty.
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