The Difficulty of Chastity and the Grace of God

All this however most certainly does not go to show that sensual excitability, as a natural and congenital characteristic of a concrete person, is in itself morally wrong.  An exuberant and readily roused sensuality is the stuff from which a rich—if difficult—personal life may be made.  It may help the individual to respond more readily and completely to the decisive elements in personal love.  Primitive sensual excitability (provided it is not of morbid origin) can become a factor making for a fuller and more ardent love.  Such a love will obviously be the result of sublimation.

–John Paul II, Love and Responsibility

I was thinking of this quote from Blessed John Paul II recently when I read something from a fellow who also lives with same-sex attraction and who readily admits to having a heck of a time following the moral teachings of the Church. I’ve come to really admire his openness and his heart, because he’s really “working out his faith, with fear and trembling,” and communicates with painful honesty about his desires to follow God in pursuing chastity, but finds it very difficult to remain chaste, something I understand.  It’s a very real emanation of St. Paul’s famous phrase that we do what we don’t want to do, and don’t do what we want to do.  I can tell from his writings that the man has a beautiful soul.

Chastity doesn’t come easily for me.  If it weren’t for the grace of God, I’d be a full blown hedonist.  I certainly have an “exuberant and readily aroused sensuality,” and I know this makes my life richer.  I don’t understand people who view food as mere sustenance, or who can’t see why poems should be written about the pursuit of the perfect piece of salmon sashimi.  (Or why movies about sushi should be made, for that matter).  It seems that I’m naturally wired to enjoy the sensual pleasures of human existence more than your average Joe, and this makes my life richer, but at the same time, it has made it difficult too.   Chastity doesn’t really appeal to me all that much, nor does the virtue of Temperance, in general.

When I was thinking of this man’s renewed efforts at pursuing chastity, I thought of my own starts and stumbles in this area, and I thought back to a little book that changed my life when I read it around 15 years ago.  The author writes,

Some habits are so deeply entrenched in your spontaneous behavior that you can only keep trying in the face of repeated recurrences of these habits.  If you are willing to continue your effort, God is willing to stand by and help you make progress.

And later the same author writes the most powerful expression of grace that I’ve read: “Jesus is far more reasonable with you than you are with yourself.”  Later, he encourages his readers to ”never count the failures, but rather count the renewed efforts.  This positive effort will help you maintain a firm determination to keep trying the rest of your life.”

The point of pursuing chastity isn’t succeeding.  God isn’t very concerned with how successful we are, with anything.  He’d rather us come to a point where we realize with Blessed Columba Marmion that “Jesus is our holiness.”  I find great freedom in this.  We strive to live out the good, the true and the beautiful, and it’s a gift when we realize that we can’t ever get there on our own.  It’s only by the grace of God, flowing in and through us that we achieve success at anything.  I’m convinced this is why God allows some of us to struggle so greatly with chastity.  For me, it’s been the necessary part of my life that shows my need for Him, and for that, I thank Him.

The key is to maintain a “firm determination to keep trying the rest of your life.”  Amen, to that!  Alongside this is that great line of St. Francis de Sales, “Have patience with the world, but with yourself first,” and similar to it, “Lift your heart up gently whenever it falls.  Humble yourself before God, but do not be astonished by your fall since it is not surprising that weakness is weak, frailty is frail, and misery is miserable.”

Blessed Columba Marmion has helped me make sense of why God allows us to live with such strong desires, and then asks us to wrestle against them.  His thoughts on our weakness being our strength has helped me be more gentle and reasonable with myself, in all of my particular shortcomings:

If we could only understand this mystery of our weakness being our strength! In the same way as poor beggars glory in their hideous sores and, far from hiding them, show them in order to attract the compassion of the charitable, so we ought to rejoice in the thought that we can do nothing without Jesus. Tell Him so often and be glad when the opportunity presents itself of feeling the depth of your misery and weakness. “The more you are confounded by the sense of your misery … the more I stoop down to embrace you in the power of My Love.”

The theologian Josef Pieper has very helpful words for the person who continually finds himself falling into sins of unchastity, against his deepest desires to the contrary.  In the chapter on chastity in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues, he makes a helpful distinction:  “To sin from a basic attitude of one’s will is real malice; to sin in a gust of passion is weakness—infirmitas.  One who is merely uncontrolled is not unchaste, even though he acts unchastely.”

Naturally, one must consider this concept within the whole framework of the Church’s moral theology.  A comment above shouldn’t lead to a notion of accommodationism, whereby we say to ourselves, “I can’t live chastely, because I’m too weak to pursue it, so therefore I need to have the freedom to live out my life in a way that acknowledges that I’m really not being unchaste, even though I act unchastely.”  Nor should our approach be Quietist in nature, believing that all we must do is sit back and let God win the victory, with no participation needed from us.  We must acknowledge our weakness, and know that God gives us any victory, but we must strive with our will to cooperate with the grace of God.  Christ’s words of forgiveness and redemption to the woman caught in adultery must inform our thinking, since they involve both forgiveness, and the call to conversion:  “Neither do I condemn you, now go and sin no more.”  For the man or woman with an “exuberant and readily roused sensuality,” this is easier said than done.

What God asks of us is a good intention, and striving for the good.  We need a strong desire to not offend God, though I like turning that on its head, to a place of wise self-interest:  we need a strong desire to live in accordance with the truth of who we are, and were created to be.  If we live in the most self-interested of ways, with a selfless self-love, we will be living in a way that won’t offend God.  The “thou shalt nots” should be seen as positive gifts from God that guide us to the blessed life, i.e., if we fully realized who we are, we naturally would live in a way that the “thou shalt nots” wouldn’t even be desirable to us.

That journey to get there must take a lifetime, and I’m certainly not there yet.  So we must cling to the grace and forgiveness of God, and realize that there is no limit to his mercy.  He’s always slaying the fatted calf when we return to him, and like a Father observing a child who stumbles over and over again when learning how to walk, I’m convinced God delights in the moments when we stand and walk, and realizes that stumbling and falling is a necessary part of the process.  If there’s a barrier in our way that causes us to stumble, we need to trust that God knows all about it, and knows us better than we know ourselves, which is exactly why He allowed it, because He knows we need some obstacles in our way in order to lean on Him.  He knows the places where we always tend to trip, and knows that eventually, with his guidance, we will learn to step over them.

After every stumble or fall in the process, these words from St. Basil the Great, from his Letter To A Fallen Virgin, are what I think we need to focus on:

The good Shepherd, Who left them that had not wandered away, is seeking after you. If you give yourself to Him He will not hold back. He, in His love, will not disdain even to carry you on His own shoulders, rejoicing that He has found His sheep which was lost. The Father stands and awaits your return from your wandering. Only come back, and while you are yet afar off, He will run and fall upon your neck, and, now that you are cleansed by repentance, will enwrap you in embraces of love. He will clothe with the chief robe the soul that has put off the old man with all his works; He will put a ring on hands that have washed off the blood of death, and will put shoes on feet that have turned from the evil way to the path of the Gospel of peace. He will announce the day of joy and gladness to them that are His own, both angels and men, and will celebrate your salvation far and wide. For verily I say unto you, says He, there is joy in heaven before God over one sinner that repents. If any of those who think they stand find fault because of your quick reception, the good Father will Himself make answer for you in the words, It was meet that we should make merry and be glad for this my daughter was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found.

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