“No, Father, I haven’t thought about chastity since I was in high school. Besides, I’m married.” I have heard these words many times when talking to men about their struggles with sexual sin. There seems to be an unspoken understanding among Catholic men that chastity is only a virtue for those of us who are not committed to a wife. Almost as if we think that chastity is a virtue that you only need to have long enough to get you into a legitimate sexual relationship. But why would the freedom to engage in the conjugal act be permission to not pursue the universal good of chastity? Our Lord Jesus called all of his disciples, not just a few, to live according to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this vocation to chastity, and gives a succinct and beautiful definition of the virtue. “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” (CCC 2337) I think that many men confuse the use of their sexuality within the marital act, and the successful integration of their sexuality within their person. If the Lord Jesus is calling all of his followers to chastity then, as the Catechism elaborates, all of us are being called to integrate our sexuality into our personality.
For many men our sexuality can seem like a creature with a mind of its own. For example, C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, portrays the warped sexuality of one man as a lizard sitting on the man’s shoulder. This is a creepy and unnatural image, but that’s how a spiritually unchaste man appears. God created man to be holy, or, if I may word play, God created man to be whole-y. Sin leads to the disintegration of our self, and grace leads to the integration of our self. We are most truly men, and we are most truly ourselves, when our sexuality and personality are integrated, or at least on the road to it. This is why we all need the virtue and gift of chastity.
The Lord Jesus and the Church do not pretend that this will be an easy goal to achieve. Many men associate sex with pleasure, which could be why it is difficult for us to think of sex and discipline going together, especially since many of us associate discipline with discomfort. The Catechism speaks of chastity including, “an apprenticeship in self-mastery,” (CCC 2339) and that this, “self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life.” (CCC 2342) Basically, chastity is hard work! It takes a real man to be chaste.
We cannot grow in chastity without a commitment to Our Lord and the Church, and more importantly we have to have a healthy love for our self! Think about it, if you truly love yourself you would not let yourself meander in mediocrity, especially concerning sexuality. If we as men know that we struggle with the disintegration of our sexuality and personality, then by not striving for and praying for chastity we are essentially telling ourselves, “you are not worth it.” We, as husbands and fathers, work ourselves to the bone for our families, but when it comes to our own spiritual growth we slack off and neglect our own hearts. It is time that we choose to work on ourselves for the sake of others.
It might also be helpful to remember our goal in practicing chastity. The Catechism explains that, “Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of self.” (CCC 2346) The gift of self is the beginning of charity. “Charity is the form of all virtues.” (CCC 2346) If we believe in a God who is love (a.k.a. charity) then our lives should be completely ordered to giving and receiving love. As the old proverb says, “You cannot give what you do not have.” It is impossible to make a complete gift of ourselves to others unless we completely possess ourselves. This can only be achieved through the virtue and gift of chastity. Whether married, celibate, or single, all men are called to love their neighbor, and practicing chastity “shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who had chosen us as his friends, who gave himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate.” (CCC 2347)
In the end of the scene from The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, the man with a lizard on his shoulder, the man who is struggling with sexual sins, allows a bright and beautiful angel to burn the lizard off of his shoulder. It is an extremely painful experience, but through the burning we see that the angel is transforming the lizard into a handsome and powerful stallion. The man then jumps onto the horse and the two ride off into the sunrise, deeper into the heart of heaven. Why wait until Purgatory? Let the transformation begin now with chastity.
I encourage you to consider Exodus 90 on the TCM website. It might be just what you need to begin a chaste life.