“My most exquisite fruits I have reserved for You, my Love”
The vow of celibacy is a vow of chastity, as one of the synonyms of celibacy is chasteness, or purity. The vow of chastity has a strong relationship with the other monastic vows, because the poverty of the body is what chastity is. To gratify one’s sexual desires is something that a person could do, but there is a poverty in voluntarily depriving oneself from it.
The vow of chastity is also a form of obedience, because one is bringing the body under subjection, and because one is fighting the will in order to acquire it. He is bringing his will into obedience to another’s. In this regard, the vow of chastity is strongly dependent on the other two monastic vows.
Genesis of Sexuality One cannot discuss chastity apart from the context of the foundations of spiritual life: we must go back to Genesis and our creation. God is pure, and exists in and of Himself. Although God is immaterial, He created humanity as material beings according to His image and likeness. Man is meant to be as God. If God is perfect, pure, and holy, then man ought also to be so; we were called to be exactly like Him. He precisely commands even in the New Testament, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). We are called to be in His image and likeness, and we exist to be in relationship with Him. Upon these two principles is the the whole context of our spiritual life built: relationship with God, and recovering our true image.
God created sexuality as made clear by “male and female, He created them” (Gen. 1:17). If God is not in agreement with sexuality, He would not have made us that way; He would not have created gender or sexuality. He could have said that it is sufficient for man to be in the presence of God alone and trained Adam to deal with his loneliness. Instead He said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Gen 2:18). The commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) came before the fall. There is nothing unholy about sexuality. The natural way of a normal human is to be sexual.
Consequences of Premature Knowledge Once man sinned and attained knowledge prematurely, the first response of man was to cover himself. In meditating on this response, we may begin to understand that the knowledge of sin may lead to sinful behavior. It was only when man knew what he did that he had a reaction. Once the knowledge of sin enters the mind, the ponderance of sinful behavior went from non-existence, to something common. In light of that, we pray that God remove from us “the remembrance of evil, entailing death.”2 To refrain from concentrating on sin, man covered the flesh which became a temptation after he obtained knowledge. He realized that through his senses he acquired knowledge, and through the control of his senses he can simulate an ignorance to obtain purity.
The loss of purity was the loss of innocence, leading to a new interpretation of the world. A good metaphor for this effect is that of looking through a glass of water. If the water in the glass is pure, one can see a clear image through it. That is, purity leads to an accurate interpretation of the matter. Once impurities are introduced, the image is tainted and our image of reality is distorted. Therefore, the loss of innocence and purity became an obstacle to our complete assimilation to the image and likeness of God that is in us. For this reason, the desert fathers, especially St. Antony, say that if you know yourself, then you know God.
The introduction of these impurities also causes a problem in our way of life. Sinfulness and holiness are like oil and water they cannot mix because they contradict one another. Therefore, we must protect our minds and bodies from the wrong kind of knowledge and the wrong time for knowledge. If we put in the knowledge out of season, it could still be dangerous and harmful, contradicting the image and likeness of God in which we were created and what we ought to project to the world.
Redemption through Purity and God’s Desire for our Chastity Once something beautiful has been tainted, it no longer holds the same value in the eye of its beholder, who would find something else to love. But our God is so loving that He did not leave us to perish and make a new creation. Rather, through His patient endurance, He guided us back; He sought to renew us.
Even before the Law was given by Moses, purity has been a redemptive feature in the Bible. A simple glimpse at Noah’s nakedness resulted in a severe punishment for Ham. His brothers immediately devise a way to cover their father without looking at him and consequently received a blessing (cf. Gen. 9). Even though there was no written law commanding Joseph to be pure and chaste, he knew that this was God’s desire and proclaimed, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). These example illustrate an innate understanding of spirituality that purity was the desire of God. Furthermore, God emphasizes this desire for our purity with laws. The details of these teachings are to accommodate the lack of knowledge of the people receiving them.
In the New Testament, the consecrated life of chastity was clearly instituted by God as a means to attaining the Kingdom of God. Christ’s birth from a virgin allows us to contemplate the beauty and the perfection of complete purity. Celibacy does not signify sterility but, on the contrary, enormous fruitfulness. It is a different kind of fruitfulness, one that is spiritual and not physical. Christ also lived and ministered as a virgin. Through His preaching, He also taught of “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (Mt. 19:12), conferring a wholly new meaning to that word “eunuch,” a spiritual meaning instead of the physical one.
Chastity as Grace St. Cyril of Jerusalem, along with many others, considered “the strength to remain chaste” among the number of gifts given by the Spirit, alongside poverty and martyrdom.4 There is a natural propensity towards sexual attraction, and to attain chastity is a gift of Grace. St. Theognostus of Alexandria said, “It is written concerning Solomon that he loved women, but every man loves females, and we must restrain and draw onwards our nature by main force to purity.”
While sexuality was created, virginity and chastity rise above the natural way of the body blessed by God. As this way of life is above nature, to achieve it or to perfect it, is a gift of grace; human effort alone is not enough. One of the anonymous commentators on the Gospel of Matthew wrote:
He has spoken about fasting, almsgiving and certain other spiritual works. Yet we have heard nothing so far about the likeness of the angels. But in speaking of intercourse between men and women, he says, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven.” Why? The work of reproduction is characteristically a fleshly act that we share in common with animals. Just as all carnal powers have affinity with the animals, so also do all spiritual powers have affinity with the angels. This is preeminently so for chastity, an especially angelic practice. For through this characteristic alone, the chaste are distinctively like the angels, and their nature is overcome with virtues. For the same reason he says, “Neither do they marry nor are they given in marriage but are like the angels of God in heaven.”
To rise to this angelic state, living the Kingdom of Heaven in this present life, we rely on the gift of Grace from God.
Chastity and the Life of Prayer We must understand chastity in the context of our relationship with God, which is synonymous with the life of prayer. Prayer is our active, living relationship with God, and our chastity is part of that. In the context of this relationship, chastity is a sign of love because one preserves “the most exquisite fruits” only for his lover. It is not merely an exercise of self control. We preserve our chastity out of our love for God. This concept is true even in marriage, where Christ is in its midst; He’s not separate from it. But for the celibate, this gift is singularly only for God, as a sign of pure and total devotion and affection.
This commitment is far from dry or mechanical; it is truly romantic. The intimacy shared with God is for Him alone and no one else. In light of this relationship of intimacy, the Lord speaks in the Old Testament using this sexual metaphor. He talks about them as having gone awhoring, using the image and type of prostitution when they are unfaithful. He uses the word jealousy, to say that He is guarding and protecting their love which ought to belong only to Him. We can take this lesson from the youth we serve. They get upset if their boyfriends or girlfriends give others attention. This is the same sentiment that God feels towards us and that we should feel towards our God. We must recover this mentality.
This image of a romance is most evident in the Songs of Songs. There is an aspect of this romance that is strange on a human level. The lover says to the man, “Draw me away! We will run after you” (Songs. 1:4), even though there is no lover that would want other people going towards their spouse. This unique kind of love fills the person completely and overflows to fill all the others around him.
The Calling and Grace of Chastity St. Paul speaks about virginity or celibacy in his First Epistle to the Corinthians as a gift from the Lord, and not as a commandment that applies to all. “For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that” (1 Cor. 7:7).
Our Lord Jesus Christ also expressed this call when He spoke about eunuchs in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, “He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” (Matt. 19:12). So He spoke of this call that comes with a special grace. At the same time, He respected and exalted marriage as a great and holy way of life. Thus, chastity or celibacy does not arise out of a rejection of marriage.
Since this way of life is a calling, there is no room for pride or arrogance, even for the most ascetic of people. Victory comes from God. We express our commitment to this calling through the life of obedience and poverty, putting our hope in the aid of God despite our shortcomings.