“But I, wretched young man that I was – even more wretched at the beginning of my youth – had begged You for chastity and had said: ‘Make me chaste and continent, but not yet.’ I was afraid that You might hear me too soon and cure me too soon from the disease of a lust which I preferred to be satisfied rather than extinguished.”
— Augustine, Confessions, VIII, 7, 17
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In our last installment we spoke of the Pilgrim’s dedication to simplicity, understood as integrity, wholeness, single-mindedness, and purity of heart. This leads necessarily to the consideration of a related subject which is as indispensable to the Pilgrim life as it is difficult to broach in the contemporary social context: something the New Testament writers call hagneia.
Hagneia can refer to purity in the general sense, but during the earliest years of Christian history it very quickly assumed the narrower connotation of specifically sexual purity. In his first letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul instructs the young pastor to make himself an example of hagneia to the other believers in his community (1 Timothy 4:12). The full meaning of this charge becomes clear when he goes on to exhort Timothy to treat the younger women in the church “as sisters in all hagneia” (5:2). In both cases the Latin Vulgate version renders the original Greek as castitas, or chastity.
Chastity, which has also been called continence, is the ability to contain, restrain, and confine one’s sexual impulses within their one proper arena: marriage. Marriage, in turn, has been very neatly and succinctly defined for us by Christ Himself: “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:5).
Chastity, then, is about abstaining from all kinds of “sexual immorality” and “knowing how to possess your own vessel (body) in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5). It’s a question of disciplining yourself to keep sexual energies in check – of “drinking water from your own cistern, and fresh water from your own well” (Proverbs 5:15).
In our day, of course, chastity has either been forgotten or else dismissed as a laughable anachronistic joke – something to be lampooned in the movies and on Saturday Night Live. The very idea of sexual restraint of any variety is totally inconceivable, entirely foreign, and completely offensive to modern Americans, who fiercely believe that the freedom to express themselves sexually in any and every way imaginable is yet another unalienable “right” guaranteed them in the United States Constitution.
All that may be well and good for modern Americans. Unfortunately, it will not fly for the Pilgrim. And this is something that his friends desperately need to comprehend if they really want to understand him. Difficult as it may be for them to grasp, the Pilgrim does believe that there is such a thing as sexual morality. He cannot buy the idea that “anything goes” in the sexual realm. Nor is he free to compromise on this point.
Does this imply that he “hates” those who do not walk the narrow path he has chosen to follow? Does it suggest that he regards himself as under some kind of obligation to buy an AR-15 rifle and blow such people off the face of the earth? Of course not! How could he when the same Master who calls him to a life of hagneia has also commanded him to “love his neighbor as himself?” Nevertheless, he does feel very strongly that he cannot in good conscience join the party when folks around him want to celebrate the sexual diversity and license on which contemporary culture prides itself so highly.
It’s crucial to conclude by pointing out that hagneia or chastity is not just a matter of submitting oneself to a set of prudish and repressive rules. Its true aim is something much bigger: the unfettering and uncluttering of the heart and mind so as to make room for the advances and inroads of the great Lover of the soul. St. Augustine, whose early adulthood had been as sexually promiscuous and debauched as that of any contemporary college senior, possessed a keen understanding of this truth. As the desire for God was birthed and began to grow within him, the young man found himself torn in two directions. “I desired wisdom,” he writes, “yet I was still putting off the moment when, despising this world’s happiness, I should give all my time to the search for that of which not only the finding but merely the seeking must be preferred to the discovered treasures and kingdoms of men or to all the pleasures of the body easily and abundantly available.”[i]
In the end it was complete surrender to purity – physical as well as mental and spiritual – that set him free.
[i] St. Augustine, Confessions, VIII, 7, 17; tr. Rex Warner (New York: Mentor Books, 1963), 173.