Monday, August 3, 2009

What's In You for Me?

We tend to think of chastity as having to do with sex. This is because we tend to think of everything as having to do with sex. A fuller discussion of sexual chastity, continence and celibacy is out of place here, and has been done elsewhere. (, for example.)

I am more interested in chastity in the broader sense, as set forth in the Principles of the Third Order of St. Francis:

Our chief object is to reflect that openness to all which was characteristic of Jesus. This can only be achieved in a spirit of chastity, which sees others as belonging to God and not as a means of self-fulfillment.

By this definition, chastity is that quality of mind whereby we are able to perceive others, not in relation to ourselves and our agendas, but as complete in themselves.

You’ve probably seen at least one old cartoon in which each of two characters, marooned on a desert island or adrift in a lifeboat, seem to see the other transformed into a steak or a turkey leg or something. Then they start shaking salt on each other and whetting their carving knives. That’s what unchastity does to us: transforms other people before our eyes from something actual into something potential--with the potentiality being wholly in relation to ourselves.

Capitalism is rife with unchastity. Before I had CDs to sell, I had audiences; now I have potential CD buyers. So not only is the quality of my relationship to my listeners less immediate than it was, but I cannot be fully satisfied with the interaction unless it ends in a transaction. I used to want to connect with people; now I want to profit by them. (Or at least recoup my investment by them.)

How often have I been at a gathering and mentally divided everyone into those who could help me, and those who couldn’t? Does a person’s personal magnetism increase with their potential to buy what I’m selling, get me gigs, advance my career or introduce me to other useful people?

Unchastity doesn’t always appear in such gross forms—there are subtle forms, too. Will a person’s conversation amuse me? Or instruct me? Or provide material I can steal? How will this person respond to me? Will they be impressed by my knowledge and accomplishments, feeding my sense of self-worth? Will they find me interesting and funny, thereby helping me find myself interesting and funny?

In his “Essay Concerning Technology,” Martin Heidegger describes people’s tendency to view things not as things, but as potential other things. Our gaze transforms a river into a potential power source, a forest into potential building materials. Nothing is simply what it is—everything is “standing in reserve,” as Heidegger puts it.

What frightened creatures we are, always worried that the future will bring scarcity and lack unless we grab all we can in the present, always hopeful that every person we meet and every situation in which we find ourselves can be turned to our advantage. This must be why Jesus told his disciples not to worry about what they were to eat, drink or wear: so that our human interactions would be untainted by the dirty devices born of our fear. In fact, the single most frequent utterance of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is “Do not be afraid.” Prudent providence is one thing; faithless unchastity is another.

This is one of the best things about being a Eucharistic Visitor—a layperson who brings Communion to parishioners who cannot attend church. Most of them are elderly, confined either to their own homes or to a retirement home, and I am more free of personal agenda in my interactions with them than in almost any other interactions. And I think I am finally learning to really pay attention to people.

All the Gospels give accounts of Jesus seeming to read people’s minds. I don’t think there was anything supernatural involved in those incidents. If Jesus “didn’t need to be told about people, for he knew what was in a person,” I think it was because he was paying attention. He was able to size people up as they were, because he wasn’t trying to size them up as potential means for his own self-fulfillment.


  1. Wow. Just, Wow. This was absolutely beautiful. I'd never realy thought of chastity beyond sexual terms, but the concept that kept coming to mind as I read this was acceptance. Acceptance is a term that people tend to throw around very easily - I accept you, I accept this situation, I accept responsibility - and yet I think true acceptance is much rarer that any of us would like to believe. I think that this concept of Chastity, and the act of genuine acceptance (which in itself is a form of submission) go hand in hand.
    To me, acceptance and chastity for another human being involves completely letting go of the self aspect of the interaction, and surrendering to the moment that the interaction is taking place in.
    It's not an easy thing to do, but when those moments happen, they're precious, and beautiful, and transcendent.

  2. Karen Peissinger-VenhausAugust 8, 2009 at 10:45 PM

    Is it unchaste of me to have been instructed by reading this blog entry? ;-)


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