Random listening to the World Service very early on 11th August landed me with “The Why Factor”. Its theme this time was chastity, an unusual enough subject for the small hours of the night. Fearing lapses in my concentration, I later replayed the programme on iPlayer. Of the three people who were interviewed by Mike Williams, an American Christian, a nun from the Congregation of Jesus and a Muslim woman academic, it was the two Christians who interested me most. This was not because the Muslim lady was not articulate or lacked knowledge of her Islamic faith but because the verses from the Koran that she cited and then explained, numbers 30 and 31, seemed to be more about modest behaviour in men and women than on the virtue of chastity as such.
To be chaste includes being modest, obviously but, as a virtue, it is a much more dynamic, creative and radical state of being than simply dressing and behaving with decorum. Jason Evert, the American, spends his life travelling the world to promote chastity among college students. He explained to the interviewer the difference between chastity and virginity, emphasising that chastity cannot be separated from love; indeed, it “helps to defend love from selfishness”. He came across impressively: clear, sincere, persuasive. He argued that the moral rules underpinning Christianity do not take away freedom; “I measure my freedom by my capacity to love” he explained. He added that whenever he gives talks there are long queues of young people keen to ask his advice on their relationships. Working on the front line with students, he has seen at first-hand the unhappiness and emotional mayhem caused by the sexual revolution.
Dr Gemma Simmonds, the nun interviewed, was equally eloquent, dispelling any implicit suggestion that her choice of religious life was a negative one. Chastity, she said, meant loving inclusively rather than exclusively, as in marriage. She added that a vow of chastity doesn’t stop you from being a sexual person; it means that the energy that in other instances would have gone into a particular relationship is now harnessed towards others in all sorts and conditions of life. In other words, she suggested that such a vow allows one to be available to others in a way that would be impossible with personal commitments.
Both speakers came across as balanced, sane and happy; therefore quite unsuitable as characters in a soap opera. It’s good that the BBC gave them airtime, even if the programme was short, but it’s a shame that in our culture the life-enhancing virtue of chastity is probably thought of by most people as either quaint and strictly for “religious” types or else as abnormal and therefore unhealthy.
In his book, “Why Be Catholic?” which I have referred to before in a blog, Patrick Madrid refers to the saints, including St Vincent de Paul. It seems that on his death this seventeenth century French priest had established more than 400 “houses of benevolence” across France. These included soup kitchens, food banks, clinics, orphanages and homes for the elderly and homeless, as well as the ransoming of Christian slaves who had been abducted by the Muslim Turks. Two things struck me on reading this list: a. Social problems don’t change across the centuries and b. Muslim extremists are again attacking Christians (and others) all over the Middle East. St Vincent de Paul’s choice of priestly chastity resulted in an outpouring of practical expressions of love for others. Government aid to those in need also matters – but it can never replace, or indeed replicate, the selfless and inclusive love of individuals, inspired by love of God.
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