Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Chastity

In Part VI of the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius writes a long chapter on the vow of poverty. He writes a shorter chapter on obedience.

Chastity gets one sentence.
What pertains to the vow of chastity requires no interpretation, since it is evident how perfectly it should be preserved, by endeavoring to imitate therein the purity of the angels in cleanness of body and mind.
That's it. Many have commented on Ignatius's reticence here; probably it was a combination of discretion and confidence that the matter of this vow, unlike the others, was quite clear.

However, I have to say, I like to think it also shows a bit of that oh-my-God-this-is-so-not-a-subject-for-conversation, don't-you-talk-about-this-stuff-with-your-friends, squirmy, beads-of-sweat-on-the-forehead discomfort that dads feel today when it's time to give their sons "the talk". Except that Ignatius could not say, "Could you please go ask your mother?"

One of the most interesting interpretations I've heard of the vow in recent years comes again from Howard Gray, SJ, who takes what little Ignatius says about the chastity of the angels and runs with it. Says Gray:
Angels are messengers; they give a message that is unambiguous, that is good news for the hearer, or a challenge to the hearer. It is God’s intervention. Our chastity is really a liberation to be the kind of messenger in which people can see God working.
All the vows are meant to make us more able to serve others. So, he goes on, "Chastity is the empowerment to give people a love they can trust." In a world where trust is often compromised by the needs and desires of others, he says, “what an apostolic gift it is” to be someone who “just wants the good of the other person." For the one who takes the vow of chastity, “Everyone has a claim, whether I find them attractive or not.”

So, a messenger of good news; a love that people can trust; and a love without motive of gain -- aren't they some wonderfully high bars?

I'll be back with some ideas of my own tomorrow, but I encourage any of you reading to make comments or ask questions of your own. Chastity is the least understood of the three vows, and often people's thinking either idealizes us as not subject to the same human feelings everyone else has or considers a chaste life unhealthy, if not dangerous.

What do you think? As the prophet Dr. Ruth Westheimer used to say, "Let's talk!" (And don't worry, you won't offend.)

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