A Gathering Voices post by Lynne M. Baab
Last week I wrote about my friend Caroline Simon’s new book, Bringing Sex into Focus. I quoted Carol in her description of chastity, “the virtue that helps us focus our sexual energies on committed relationships.” Chastity also enables “the successful integration of sexuality within a person that results in inner unity between bodily and spiritual being.” When we are chaste we are able to use our “sexual powers intelligently in the pursuit of human flourishing and happiness.”
Carol has several cool charts in her book, and I found a pair of them quite helpful. Aristotle, she says, taught that states of character range along a continuum. He believed there was a difference between (1) being virtuous and (2) being well behaved, which usually means a person has to struggle to live according to the values they hold dear. Some others, further along the continuum, (3) may struggle but fail. And, with respect to any virtue, there will (4) be yet others who don’t try to live by that particular value.
A general chart looks like this (p. 74 in Carol’s book):
- Virtue – habitually acting well and enjoying it
- Continence – successfully struggling to act well
- Incontinence – unsuccessfully struggling to act well
- Vice – habitually acting badly and enjoying it
If we believe that chastity is a virtue worth pursuing, Carol writes, then “it is an aspect of character that a person can aspire to, achieve, stray from, regain.” She presents a chart laying out the four stages related to chastity (p.75):
- Chastity – an integrated sexuality resulting in inner unity between bodily and spiritual being as well as respect for other’s sexual integrity
- Sexual Continence – successfully struggling to act chastely
- Sexual Incontinence – unsuccessfully struggling to act chastely
- Lustfulness – Sexual dis-integration resulting in habitual enjoyment of treating others as collections of sexual body parts
Why does this matter? I had never considered the difference between chastity and sexual continence. As a married woman, I have been sexually faithful to my husband, Dave. Sometimes I’m attracted to other men, sometimes I’m not. I thought my goal was simply to be faithful to Dave, whatever the attraction I’m feeling. And, in one sense, I suppose that’s true. But what about “the successful integration of sexuality within a person that results in inner unity between bodily and spiritual being”? For me, most issues related to unity between my body and my spirit relate to overeating and struggles with my weight. But I’d like to start praying for “successful integration” in other areas including sexuality.
For people who aren’t married as well as those who are, this way of thinking about a virtue can be very helpful. Carol cites the young woman who had had sex one time. She looked at it as having given away her virginity, and then figured since she had lost that pure state, she might as well keep having sex. That emphasis on virginity makes the issue into an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Carol writes, “Celibate chastity is the ability to happily dedicate all of one’s life, including one’s sexuality, to the service of God.” This clearly could apply to someone who is technically a virgin and to someone who is not. Adultery could be viewed the same all-or-nothing way – I’ve done it once, why not keep doing it? Aristotle’s virtue continuum leaves room for anyone, no matter what they have done, to grow in wholeness and spiritual health by moving further along the continuum towards a place where chastity is a contented state and even a source of joy. This sounds to me like the grace of the Gospel in Jesus Christ.
Very thought provoking. Very helpful.