Augustine and Chastity

The following is a talk that I delivered on Friday, May 6 to the Goretti Group in San Diego. They typically deal with our Faith Tradition, Sexuality, and Chastity.

Augustine is famous for saying “Lord, let me be chaste, but not yet!”

So what can we say about Augustine and Chastity, especially if Augustine is so famous for having a difficult time with it? Augustine is the notorious Saint for having been a sinner.

So I mention Ethics, as a starting point, merely because Chastity is itself connected to right and wrong. What is, after all, the right and wrong of our sexuality. What does natural law, for instance say of our sexuality? And we approach these questions, because we want what is right in our sexuality to prevail, and we want deep down, what is wrong in our sexuality to be overcome.  And because, at the very same time, a part of us wants what we intellectually know is wrong in our sexuality to prevail over what is wrong, we want Chastity, but not yet. This question is so engaging, and consuming of us precisely because of this innate conflict of interest, often referred to as the battle of sarx and pneuma, or flesh and spirit.

So Ethics cannot be approached on the terms of a disinterested detached scientist who has nothing at stake. Our personal salvation is at stake. Our relationship and union with God is at stake. Our journey to holiness is at stake. But every minute sin, every impurity, every maddening and insane irresponsible inflamed passion we sell our souls over to, destroys us in this life and thereafter, taking away our freedom to actually give love.

Augustine responds that the only thing that can truly allow us to overcome our sinfulness in our sexuality is God’s grace. It is not something we do. We cannot, therefore merely speak in terms of Abstinence, that is negating sex. Chastity is much more integrating of our whole self. Chastity is, after all, an assent to purity and integrity rather than a dissent to our sexuality. There are so many personal actions that we take into our hands to ensure that we become more chaste; like avoiding near occasions of sin, being temperate in the amount of alcohol we consume, avoiding hanging with peers who are trying to hook up, blocking internet pornography. The list goes on, and there are all sorts of things we do externally and internally to ensure that our chastity is not compromised. However, even that can convince us to think that it is merely an act of our own will power to be chaste, and so the concept needs to be further developed. So as you will see, this is not going to be a talk on those exact and precise matters a responsible adult needs to do in their life to be chaste, there are, after all several resources we can connect ourselves to in this area, and if you are interested people in the Goretti group will help you with that. What I intend to do, in my own limited scope, is to discuss what happened in Augustine’s life that led him to chastity. Insofar as we can tell, much of this had less to do with specific measures at his personal disposal then something supernatural that fixed his deepest internal restlessness and longing upon spiritual beauty. So, like Augustine, a deep a truly Christian Love that fixes us in admiration  of spiritual beauty, will be one of the keys that will help us be chaste yet now, and not later.

So what does all that mean then?

Love and Chastity are, under the classification of Ethics. Much of what Augustine taught summed up in a  famous saying “Love and do what you will.” Of course to any person with enough maturity can easily know that Augustine has a much more specific understanding of Love, in this quote. It could not, therefore be taken out of context to justify a young couple who insists that they truly love each other and will have sex outside of wedlock, or that someone would pull the plug on a suffering loved one merely to relieve them. I mean, they would say “I loved them.”

Love is so much more comprehensive then that, and Augustine knew this. He knew this, and would attest to it in the Confessions. Augustine was one who loved, and burned with passion, and had his heart broken, and in the end loved with a spiritual liberty that he never knew in his youth when he was merely seeking to satiate his cravings. Love or Caritas for Charity, becomes the basis of Augustine’s ethics, because it becomes the basis of Augustine’s whole spiritual life, religious vocation, ministry, and personal well being. So the first part of Augustine’s Chastity had been fixing his understanding of love. The first thing we can do is having a correct understanding and practice of love.

Augustine summarizes this succinctly in the City of God, as he locates Love in the Act of the Will. This, further, puts his famous saying, Love, and do what you will, precisely because it clarifies how all the different things we love can confuse us. “The right will is, therefore, well-directed love, and the wrong will is ill-directed love. Love, then, yearning to have what is loved, is desire; and having and enjoying it, is joy; fleeing what is opposed to it, it is fear; and feeling what is opposed to it, when it has befallen it, it is sadness. Now these motions are evil if the love is evil; good if the love is good.

So to put his ethics rather simply and definitely, Love, if it is love, is a gift from God, that allows us to fix our will and desire to the Will of God, who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. For much of Augustine’s life, his love fixed his gaze on his lowest appetites, and his cravings. The result was that he was trying to get his fix, and his actions followed his gaze. He was not in love, he was, he admits, more in love with the idea of love. The idea, that he had with love, had everything to do with his cravings, and less to do with gazing deeply into another and knowing them, as they are known.  Hence, love draws us out of ourselves and our own pettiness. It does sound rather easy here, and it is not. And love of God draws us out beyond anything we can imagine, for to desire the source of untainted goodness, splendid truth and wondrous beauty would bring us a greater joy then anything I can ever begin to describe. We have to realize something else very profound, just as we need to have a more profound grasp of what Love itself is. Consequently, to not have an inkling of fear of sorrow form losing these things is failure for any reasonable person. For most of us, we know this sorrow in ourselves and others, because they have forbidden love of God who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

It became something of a sick cycle of despair for Augustine, because the craving became an obsession. The obsession became attachment, and the attachment was his own downfall. He was with deep affection for a woman, with whom he had a child, and could never marry. This nameless woman, who Augustine merely refers to as the One, returned him with a more profound and shocking awareness of his restless emptiness and brokenness.

Meanwhile my sins were multiplied.  She with whom I had lived so long was torn from my side as a hindrance to my forthcoming marriage.  My heart which she held her very dear was broken and wounded and shed blood.  She went back to Africa, swearing that she would never know another man, and left with me the natural son I had had of her.  But I in my unhappiness could not, for all my manhood, imitate her resolve.  I was unable to bear the delay of two years which must pass before I was to get the girl I had asked for in marriage.  In fact it was not really marriage that I wanted.  I was simply a slave to lust.  So I took another woman, not of course as a wife; and thus my soul’s disease was nourished and kept alive as vigorously as ever, indeed worse then ever, that it might reach the realm of matrimony in the company of its ancient habit.  Nor was the wound healed that had been made by the cutting off of my former mistress.  For there was first burning and bitter grief; and after that it festered, and as the pain grew duller it only grew more hopeless.

Could Augustine ever love again? Honestly, how could anyone with such a broken heart ever love again? It is in that deepest darkest moment, bereft of our self satisfaction, that we come closest to the Sacred Heart of Jesus who was pierced for our offenses, and broken because of our sins.

Praise be to You, glory to You, O Fountain of mercies.  I became more wretched and You more close to me.  Your right hand was ready to pluck me from the mire and wash me clean, though I knew it not.

Something happened to Augustine, which goes against what everything we can understand or comprehend… God was already guiding him.

It could be easily observed that there is an immense gravity in love. The pain is so real. We do, give ourselves, and our hearts over to so many different people. We convince ourselves that this sort of love and relationship will leave us with that deep satisfaction, the rest in our restlessness. We convince ourselves that all the multifarious complicated difficulties in our lives will be completely and absolutely satisfied with some other person who has the same multifarious complicated difficulties in their lives… Isn’t that a whole lot of pressure, to put on someone else, that they could be the sole and complete satisfaction to us, that they could fulfill and resolve every single one of multifarious complicated difficult things in our life that need resolution. This struggle to be persons of integrity is so maddening because we deceive ourselves into believing that we will actually have a restlessness put to rest by some other person who may very well be as restless or more restless than we ourselves are. And we sell ourselves to be enslaved by this love, which actually ends up exposing our restlessness more than we could have ever imagined or comprehended.

We are enigmas. Augustine says “God, I have become an enigma to myself.” I become responsible for my own destruction, and I crave the thing that will destroy me. The dog returns to the vomit. We return to the relationship that broke our heart. We go back to the porn that has brought us sorrow. We try to soothe the pain with the same poison that inflicted the pain. So the second part is accepting the painfully honest truth that nothing in this life will actually grant us rest.

But something beautiful happens.

Late have I loved You, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved You! For behold You were within me, and I outside; and I sought You outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that You have made.  You were with me and I was not with You.  I was kept from You by those things, yet had they not been in You, they would not have been at all.  You called and cried to me and broke open my deafness: and You sent forth Your beams and shone upon me and chased away my blindness: You breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and now pant for You; I tasted You, and now hunger and thirst for You: You touched me and I have burned for Your peace.

Jesus Christ, God’s Word Incarnate, breaks into our brokenness to solve our unsolvableness. Jesus Christ, himself enters our brokenness, himself beautifully broken.

And somehow, a contradiction to our experience, our enigmatic multifarious complicated difficulties are simply resolved in one person. And we believe what is a maddening deception, because we cannot fix our loving gaze upon the one who will bring rest to our restless, the Divine Physician capable of healing the poison we ingest, the Good Shepherd who will lead us to green pastures of peace. We are so easily distracted, and our attention is grabbed by the superficial. We become enamored with a so called beauty here and now and forget about Eternal Beauty.

So Augustine became sick of this enigma that was himself, and prayed that God would resolve him. He was in the Garden, when he heard children singing “Tolle Lege” or “Take and Read,” and so he picked up the Scriptures as his eyes chanced upon the passage in Romans 13:13 “Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”

And God spoke to him.

The encounter and union with God, that which he had longed for was actualized. With all his brokenness, being himself a fraud to his identity, God came to him. And if even for the moment of a breath, if even for a moment which one enters into eternity… And perhaps, several of us here can recount a moment when we felt incredibly close to God. Perhaps we can mentally, and emotionally return to such a moment, and we ought to.

And so he recounts that moment beautifully, and perhaps it will resonate with your own moment.

My love of You, God is not some vague feeling; it is positive and certain. Your word struck into my heart and from that moment I loved You. Besides this, all about me, heaven and earth and all that they contain proclaim that I should love You. But what do I love when I love You? Not material beauty of a temporal order; not the brilliance of earthly light; not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey and not limbs the body delights to embrace. It is not these that I love when I love my God. And yet, when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace; but they are the kind I love in my inner self, when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away in the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfillment of desire. This is what I love when I love my God.

The mystery, the union, it awakens in us a spiritual passion, and an intensified longing for a reunion. The encounter many of us have had with God leaves us desperately chasing after that elusive and ineffable encounter with the ineffable and inexpressible divine wonder that is God. We are now after crossing paths with Christ, not indefinitely without a definite longing. But we begin to place that longing into a greater context. Certainly, even that longing itself is a crisis, but a crisis marked with an inexpressible peace. Whereas, before, the crisis of our enigmatic selves was irresolvable, in this case it is resolved. We are left with a genuine emotional and passionate desire for Christ the lover who sweeps us into the most unimaginable magnificent romance. It is no mere matter for us finite mortals to encapsulate the grand infinite eternity of God for ourselves in this life, but to let ourselves be encompassed by God.

So practically, how does this express itself. We are desperate for Jesus. We come to adoration, we sing that special praise and worship song, we go to Mass more than Sundays. We turn off the lights, put on a candle. We invite the saints as we pay attention to their stories about this encounter. We sneak away to pray, and we take a secret pleasure in that special kind of intimacy that nobody in this life who cares about us manages to comprehend. We are alone, but never alone.

This is prayer. We need it. We desire God. Prayer, Augustine says in his catechism, is related to the Theological Virtue of Hope. It is also connected to Desire, which I have spoken of much in the beginning of this talk. This is how hope expresses itself in us, draws our desire. Augustine says, we need desire in prayer. We need God to deny us what we want. Either because God has bigger plans, or that our desire be purified. Our desires in love for God purify themselves, and bring us back to God. To have that desire instantly satiated denies us the opportunity to grow into ourselves, to grow into the person with the capacity to humbly and righteously receive that gift. As Love, right will, and desire are essential to our intentions, actions, and practice of chastity, Hope is essential as well.

Further, Augustine expresses that Hope, and Love for Chastity by personifying Chastity as “Lady Continence.” In some way, we personify Beauty, Spiritual Beauty, especially in the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Quite literally, I had to express my religious vocation because of how mad I might become should I not be granted the freedom and liberty to be at the feet of the Divine Master literally several times a day. It is not enough that I fulfill the minimum obligation, not because I am above average. Quite literally, I have to go to adoration and do holy hours several times a week. I need to see, I need to taste, I need to touch, I need to literally be there with my Savior. My passions have never disappeared, they are just out of my control. My passions have to go to God, because my passion will draw me closer. That is why Augustine becomes my spiritual father, because everything he wrote to God was passionate and sensual. So here’s a little secret. A good prayer life is better then a good sex life, because it attunes us to heaven. Heck, even a crummy arid prayer life is better then a crummy sex life, because it still attunes our desire and right will to God.

And although there is much I literally cannot say about my relationship with God. There is much that is just to special to expose to everyone. We are in age when public figures are all inching to expose themselves and release a sex tape. I mean that is fashion, show more. Nobody is allowed to have private intimacy are they? We have let curiosity enslave us to such a point that sex is so shamelessly out in the open.

My best friend, Jackson, and former partner in Rap, is married. He married a wonderful woman, Katrina. I knew her before he did, and in fact a part of me wishes he would clobber me for the way I treated her when we first met. But we have all been great friends since then. She has probably inspired me toward chastity more than most women I knew at the time. I needed it. Anyways, when he showed me their new apartment, he wouldn’t let me see the bedroom. He merely pointed to the closed door, and said that is the Sanctuary of the Marriage. I never asked to see their room, and I never will.

The irony of all this, is if Romance is to be preserved, if beauty is to be preserved, it must be hidden. The irony is, that chastity and modesty actually intensify romance. Forbidding ourselves to have our desires satiated actually adds a magnificent beauty, by hiding special in the unknown future. Waiting to marriage to consummate the sexual act, then, obviously allows the romance to grow, and love to intensify, and passion to be present. Even for me, practicing chastity and celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, I am finding more wonder and admiration of the beautiful sexual act itself, when it can be expressed this way.

We are now, in the Second Week of the Glorious Paschal Season. In that period when Sacred Corpse of Christ was sealed in the darkened tomb and the Disciples truly encountered a Glorious Risen Christ… What happened there? I mean the most special thing, that promises our future, is not accounted for in the revelation of Scripture and the testimony of tradition. It is not that we speculate, but that some things are so wonderful and magnificent and beautiful that if we don’t long, not only will we miss it, we won’t grow in the gift of hope that God has for us. All our expression of Prayer, Augustine asserts, is an expression of this desire, and longing for the eternal consummation with Christ the bridegroom. The desire awakens a heightened and holistic passion within us, that will not be satisfied with frauds and knock-offs. That longing is itself an incredible gift to have, it keeps our passions, it keeps our eyes, it keeps our hearts fixed upon Christ who as Augustine says, is the all beautiful one, who comes down to us to transform our ugliness into beauty.

So, in summary, I have emphasized the importance for us to regain a proper understanding of love. I explained how the lack of understanding love wrought havoc on Augustine’s life, and I am sure have wrought misery on your own. Love has God at its source, and anything that forbids God in that love is tragedy. That leads us to the profound truth, that we will never actually find the rest we ultimately long for in this life. So that when temptation comes, you can say no, because the TRUTH you must thrust into the abdomen of this deception is that ultimately nothing will give your soul rest. Finally, the deeper and more profound TRUTH that gives us a deep longing and prayerful desire in hope is that we will have rest, and ultimate and wonderful magnificent rest in God. Until we have that rest, we find romance in that very longing we have.


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