Chastity What the birds and bees and even elephants can teach us!
I remember the first time I heard a talk about sex. Our teacher announced, “Today we are going to talk about the birds and the bees.” The guys went to one class and the girls to another. All through the class I kept wondering, “What do birds and bees have to do with this?”
Of course, after much thought, I soon realized what they meant. God knit sex into the fabric of creation. “Be fertile and multiply,” God said to all creatures. “Fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28) Sometimes you would think the world only heard that and nothing else the Lord said. Our culture is saturated with sexual images. It is true and important to remember that God “looked at all he had made and found it very good.” Sex included! None of us would be here without it. God intended sex, like all human actions, to be integrated into the whole human person. God has made us in some ways like other animals; we have instincts and physical characteristics that help us survive and thrive on the earth. We share many common traits. We must remember, however, we are not made in their image and likeness, but rather in the image and likeness of God. God blesses us with reason and graces our souls with virtues that take the reins of our physical passions, instincts and desires – and brings our behavior to a perfection that leads to God. That includes sexual behavior. A part of being made in God’s image and likeness means we want to make ourselves a gift to God and others. The virtue of chastity governs our sexual desire and helps integrate those desires within the human person so that we can offer ourselves to God and others in a good and wholesome way. Some want to compartmentalize their sexual behavior and separate it from their religious behavior and life with God. Chastity brings an integration of sexual desires and a single-heartedness to a person. There is no divorce between loving God, loving neighbor, loving family members, loving spouse or loving self. In a sex-crazed culture, this aspect of chastity is overlooked. Some see chastity as only a “no” to sex. It is often seen as being priggish or prudish in a puritanical sense. But chastity helps us truly love as we are loved by God. Sexual desire especially needs to come under the gentle mastery of the Holy Spirit and human reason. When we fail in this area, there can be painful and dire consequences. Some have said that we act more like animals and beasts than human beings. Actually, animals and beasts may be acting much better, for they do what they do because of instinct. We do what we do by choice. Speaking of animals, there are a number of things we can learn from animals about chaste living. Back to the birds and bees (and elephants)! For example, quite a few bird species are monogamous. Penguins often take only one mate in a lifetime – and engage in the mating act only once a year! And what about the bees? St. Francis de Sales used an image that can be useful in thinking about the reward of chaste behavior. Chaste people are like honey bees in that they make the world sweet. “Honey” is the end result of a virtuous life. If we live a life of chastity, and work at it, we will have plenty of honey in our lives now and certainly at the end! Another image using honey was more negative, looking at the consequences of disregarding chastity. He pointed out that bees, when they are not careful, can get caught in their own honey. It can cover their wings and bodies and, in some cases, they don’t escape. Killed by too much honey. Well, what about the elephants? OK, believe it or not, I was talking to a priest who is a missionary of St. Francis de Sales. Father Kurian grew up in India and lived in Africa for many years. He liked the fact that St. Francis de Sales used the example set by elephants to teach about chastity: “The elephant is not only a huge beast, but the most dignified and most intelligent animal which lives on earth. I wish to tell you an instance of its excellence. It never changes its mate and loves tenderly the one it has chosen. However, it does not mate with it except every third year, and that for five days only, and so secretly that it is not seen doing the act. Nevertheless, it is seen on the sixth day on which, before anything else, it goes straight to the river. There it washes completely its whole body without any wish to return to the flock before it is purified. Are not these beautiful and chaste characteristics of such an animal an invitation to the married?” (Introduction to the Devout Life, ch. 39 par. 7) After picking myself up off the floor from laughter, I was further moved to read more from St. Francis de Sales, who is a doctor of the church by the way. I would recommend reading his book, Introduction to the Devout Life. It is filled with heavenly wisdom! Even if the biology is a little off in places, his theology and practical insights are dead on!
Spiritual Exercise: 6 ways to strengthen chastity
1 Pray. Devotion to God will lead to greater purity and greater chastity. Read Psalm 51. King David may have written this after he committed the sins of adultery and murder, which followed his sin of lust for Bathsheba. His sexual desires were out of control. God’s love is what we truly desire, not the lust of the body. Sexual integration recognizes that the only true and lasting union is with God. That relation is abundantly fertile. As the heart grows in love for God, one desires God more and longs for all that God desires for the soul. God desires us to be pure, so that one is more able to see the beauty of God reflected in one’s own soul.
2 In prayer, ask for chastity. Pray for a desire to be chaste and pure of heart, free of lust. You cannot gain the gift if there is no desire for the gift within you.
3 Guard against curiosity! Priests hear everything under the sun in the confessional. In my pastoral experience, curiosity has killed the cat on many occasions. What is on this TV channel? What is on this Web site? What will happen if I click open this e-mail? Most of the time people do know what will happen, but curiosity drives them on. “The young are apt to imagine that of which they are ignorant to be wondrous sweet, and as the foolish moth hovers around a light, and, persisting in coming too near, perishes in its inquisitive folly, so they perish through their unwise approach to forbidden pleasures.” (Introduction to the Devout Life)
4 Be quick to turn away from anything that would lead to impurity. Impurity can grow quickly! It is easier to turn away quickly from the temptation than to heal the wound and clean one who is already immersed in the tar. Impurity is like tar on the soul, not dirt. Dirt comes off pretty fast. Tar sticks! To get it off takes stronger cleansers – such as fasting, prayer, penance, the sacrament of reconciliation, the Eucharist. All are powerful means to scrub off the tar of impurity.
5 Seek out good friendships with people who also seek purity. Read good books, watch movies and TV shows that will not compromise the virtue. Ponder and read holy things, especially the Word of God. For God’s Word is pure, “and it will make those pure who study it.” (St Francis de Sales)
6 Especially and always stay close to Jesus Christ crucified, both spiritually in your thoughts and meditations – and actually in holy Communion.