Of the Excellence of the Virtue of Chastity, and the Degrees Whereby We Are to Mount to the Perfection Thereof

by admin on January 9, 2011

THIS is the will of God, your sanctification, that ye abstain from fornication, and know every one of you how to possess the vessel of his body in sanctification and honor; for God hath not called us to uncleanness, but to sanctification (I Thess. iv. 3-4, 7)—not to carnal delights, but to serve Him in purity and entirety of body and soul. By the name of sanctity, or sanctification, the Apostle here means chastity, as St. Bernard observes. Christ our Redeemer in the holy Gospel calls it a heavenly and angelic virtue, making us like to the angels. In the resurrection, in that happy and blessed life, there shall be no marrying nor giving in marriage, but they shall be as angels of God in heaven (Matt. xxii. 30). So St. Cyprian, addressing cer­tain virgins, says: “You are beginning to enjoy in this life what you are to have in the glory of heaven; you are like the angels so long as you persevere in chastity and purity.” Cassian confirms this, and says that by no other virtue do men become so like the angels so much as by chastity; for by that they live in the flesh as though they had no flesh, but were pure spirits, as St. Paul says: Ye are not in the flesh, but in the spirit (Rom. viii. 9). And in some way we surpass the angels in this respect, because for them, having no bodies, it is not much to observe this purity, but for man, living in the mortal flesh, which so violently wars upon and contradicts the spirit, it is a much greater thing to live as though he had no flesh, but were a pure spirit. So pleasing to God is this virtue that, when the Son of God became man and had to be born of a woman, He chose to be born of a virgin mother, and one consecrated by a vow of chastity, as the saints observe.

St. John in the Apocalypse (xiv. 1-5) says that he saw on Mount Sion (that is, in heaven) in company with the Lamb (that is, Christ) those who kept their virginity, and that they followed him wherever He went and sang a new song which none could sing but the virgins. St. Gregory here observes that the virgins are with Christ on the Mount because by the great merit of chastity they are raised high in glory.

St. Jerome and St. Augustine, speaking of that preroga­tive of St. John the Evangelist to be more loved by Christ than the rest of the apostles (since the holy Gospel names him the disciple whom Jesus loved, John xxi. 7), say that the reason of this special love was his being a virgin. And so the Church sings in the office of his feast: “The reason of Jesus’ loving him was because by his special prerogative of chastity he had made himself worthy of this signal love, since, chosen by Him a virgin, a virgin he remained for all time.” And so some explain that text of Proverbs (xxii. 11): He that loveth cleanness of heart shall have the king for his friend. Therefore did the Lord cherish and favor him so much; therefore did He make him recline on His breast; and what Peter, a married man, did not dare to ask Christ at the Supper, St. John asked him. And on the day of the Resurrection, when St. Mary Magdalen told them that Christ had already risen, he and St. Peter ran to the monument, but he arrived first. And another time when they were in their ship fishing in the Sea of Tiberias, the Lord appeared to them on the shore, and when the oth­ers did not recognize Him, he alone who was a virgin (St. Jerome says), with those eagle eyes of his recognized the Virgin and Son of a Virgin and said to St. Peter, It is the Lord (John xxi. 7). Finally, when Christ was on the Cross, in that His last will, to whom did He commend His Virgin Mother but to His virgin disciple (John xix. 27) ?

But I will leave aside the praises and excellences of chas­tity, and many other things that we might say of it, because I intend to be very brief on this matter, imitating therein our Father Ignatius.

Cassian lays down seven degrees of chastity, as so many steps whereby we may mount to the perfection and pur­ity of this heavenly and angelic virtue. The first is for a man in his waking hours never to be overcome or carried away by any unclean and sensual thought or motion. The second is not to dwell on the like thoughts, but as soon as they come, cast them off. The third is not to be moved or thrown off one’s balance, little or much, by the sight of any woman. This is a degree of great perfection, and not so common as the first, owing to the great weakness and corruption of our flesh, which readily rises in rebellion on such occasions. The fourth is not to allow the devil in any way to beard you while you are awake, and also, while you are awake, not to suffer in yourself so much as a simple movement of the flesh. The fifth is, when it is necessary to deal with matters of this nature, either studying them or lecturing on them, to pass them by in perfect tranquillity and to be no more moved by the memory of such things than by a treatise on bricks, agriculture, or building. Of this degree our blessed Father Ignatius was perfect master from the date of his conversion, as we read in his Life. The sixth degree is even in sleep to have no illusions or representations or phantasms of anything impure. This argues great purity and is a sign that no impression of the sort remains in the memory; while the contrary, though it is no sin on account of the person’s being asleep, shows that the sensual appetite is not wholly overcome and brought into subjection, nor the memory of such things effaced. The seventh and last degree, says Cassian, which is granted to few—as to a certain Abbot Serenus, and oth­ers like him, whom the Lord has thus favored—is when one has arrived at such purity that neither waking nor sleeping does one feel in oneself any of those movements which are wont to happen from natural causes. Thus by force of grace the appetite is reduced to quiet and peaceful sub­jection, and that frail and weak element of human nature comes to enjoy now the felicity and privileges which it had in the first state of innocence, the body of sin being destroyed, as St. Paul says (Rom. vi. 6); and sin in such persons by the grace of the Lord loses the force and mas­terfulness which it formerly had; they feel no disorderly movement nor anything redolent thereof, but live in the flesh as though they had no flesh.

But we do not hereby mean to say that it is contrary to the perfection of chastity to experience sundry of these motions, waking or sleeping, because it is a natural thing, and Cassian there acknowledges that even in perfect men such things may occur. To some of His servants the Lord is pleased to do them the favor of granting them this per­fection of chastity; others by the grace of the Lord scarcely feel anything of these disturbances; others, when anything of that sort offers, recover their peace and quiet as easily as if nothing had happened. All this is that imitation of angelic purity which our Father sets before us in his Con­stitutions as a thing to aim at—enitendo angelicam purita-tem imitari. And let this word enitendo (striving) be noticed, because the word strive means not only to labor at getting, but to labor hard, doing violence to oneself, as is done under difficult circumstances to overcome that dif­ficulty. He wishes to teach and advise us on this point, that to arrive at angelic purity it is necessary to put forth our whole strength into the work and take up the affair a long way back, exercising ourselves in all the virtues and par­ticularly in mortification. For though this is a gift of God, and no human industry is sufficient to attain it, neverthe­less the Lord wishes that we should do our part, and He wishes to give us the gift only on that condition.

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