In all things, Chastity

Perhaps you have heard the saying, “In all things, Charity.” It comes from St. Augustine in this form. He likely said this because of St. Paul’s treatise on love, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). There is a truth I have come to know through experience and through study: the virtue of chastity is essential to charity — to true human love.

Chaste relationships are loving relationships. Chastity is a foundation of trust and therefore of truth. Chastity is a virtue for everyone, in all walks of life, in all attractions or temptations. Charity is loving God (Who is Love), by loving one another and spreading God’s love. Chastity is embodied Love. It is using our bodies in a way that gives God (again, Who is Love) — in a way that is life-giving, and this giving foments union between human persons and God. True communion is a mutual giving and receiving of love that starts in the heart, is chosen by the will, and is manifested through the body. It is made possible by the Incarnation of the Word — Truth Himself — Jesus Christ. Chastity is living out the redemption won by Jesus: body, soul, and spirit.

Chastity, truth, and charity are essences of Christ, who as the One Incarnate God is one with the Father, through the Holy Spirit. There is no separation; however, we do not speak of the Father’s love as chaste because the Father has no body. God became man in Jesus so that we can be unified with Him, in order to bring us into His divinity. This is called deification, and is spoken of specifically in the second letter of Peter, where he says we are to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). This communion is experienced in earthly life most profoundly through the Sacraments, beginning with Baptism, and through the vocations of service: Holy Orders and Matrimony.

God shares His creative essence and wants us to have all of Him. That is why Jesus gave His whole Self for all of us. That is why He gives Himself truly and substantially through the Sacraments, so that we have abundant life!

Does this seem difficult? Of course it is, because we are fallen; and we are burdened by concupiscence and sin. We live in a challenging world that has many beautiful created things. We over-desire things that are good for us and we too often desire things that are not good for us! But Jesus has redeemed us! It is hard for us to grasp this glorious reality. What does it mean to live the redemption, to live in the grace of God, to partake in the life of the Trinity?

It means to grow and live in the virtue of chastity.

What does chastity look like? First of all, since chastity is consistent with truth, we understand that human nature is both body and spirit. They cannot be separated. One way to think about it is to imagine how the water of the ocean permeates a sunken ship (this analogy falls apart if we were to remove the ship from the water). The soul is the form of the body, and as such, permeates every part of it. What is truly good for the body is good for the soul, and vice versa. (Yes, even coffee!). Therefore what we do with our bodies not only affects our soul, but speaks a language about who we are as unique, spiritual persons.

All healthy people have physical (bodily, sensual) desires for created things such as food and sex; however, these are not just material desires. There is a spiritual aspect of these and all desires of the human person, because we have a longing for connection with others. (For example, there is spiritual fulfillment from a meal with friends versus a meal alone). The virtue of temperance orders our hunger towards fueling our body sufficiently. Similarly, temperance orders our sexual desires towards love. True love is to desire the true good of the beloved. Desire for connection with others causes physical attraction, and stems from a spiritual desire for giving and receiving love. This desire is fulfilled through the body through looks, touches, and other interactions, using the senses. So you see, the soul which has the powers of reason and will has the capacity to make temperate choices for chaste love of others that is fruitful — both spiritually and materially.

How might a married woman practice and grow in the virtue of chastity? A chaste married woman has her sexual desires ordered only towards her husband. Jesus is the center of their loving relationship, especially in their sexuality. A married woman growing in the virtue of chastity doesn’t dabble in anything that would keep her from loving her husband fully and completely. These things, among others, are immodesty, pornography and sexual acts for only pleasure rather than self-giving love. This includes contracepted sexual acts. (If this idea is concerning, consider how wearing a mask inhibits our “knowing” of a person. When we choose contraception we are keeping a part of ourselves hidden; love expressed through intercourse says NO to the beloved’s fertility. I am speaking of an act of the will — the chosen act of contracepted intercourse. It speaks NO to the potential material fruit of the act, which is a co-creation with God). A married woman’s body is not her own, but belongs to her husband through their one-flesh union in marriage. (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:4). He is to love her as he loves and cares for his own body.

Similarly, a chaste married man has his sexual desires ordered only towards his wife. Jesus is the center of their loving relationship, and their union in marriage is most manifest through their sexuality. A married man growing in the virtue of chastity doesn’t dabble in anything (see above) that would keep him from loving his wife fully and completely. He rejects any sexual act for gratification that does not involve a potentially fruitful union with his wife. His body is not his own, but belongs to his wife through their one-flesh union in marriage. The Sacrament of Marriage constitutes chaste love between husband and wife in which they grow together towards their goal of Heaven (the beatific vision), and they are sanctified through their embrace, always willingly accepting the resulting fruitfulness. Notice that chastity in marriage is not abstinence. Chastity in marriage is the freedom in the will to love through the body with periodic continence or intercourse.

Chastity for a consecrated celibate (foregoing marriage) person (man or woman) requires the giving up the material intimacy of sexuality. For example, a chaste priest has his sexual desires ordered to love of the entire Church, as Christ gave Himself up for her. His vow of celibacy is giving up the bodily use of his sexuality to love others, i.e., ”giving it up for the Kingdom” (cf. Mt 19:12). It is a higher purpose and a higher calling that furthers the spiritual communion between Christ and the People of God. A chaste priest growing in the virtue of chastity doesn’t dabble in anything that would keep him from loving his parish family fully and completely, or participate in any unchaste act that would violate his vow of chastity through celibacy, or place him in the near occasion of sin. This includes flirting, use of pornography, masturbation, and any friendships, male or female, that take him away from his service to others through his vocation. He rejects any and all forms of sexual pleasure and anything that takes his complete gift of self away from his bride, the Church.

No matter what state we are in life — married, single, or consecrated celibacy — if we look at violations of the virtue of chastity as “no problem” or “just a little thing” we inhibit our ability to grow in Christlike love for others. We are all called to love like Jesus. Of course we fail — everyday we fail. To this truth St. Paul said “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Even Jesus fell three times as He carried the Cross for us. Jesus picks us up when we fall and makes us better than before! Through the great Sacrament of Reconciliation we encounter Christ Himself and His healing grace.

“The more things change the more they stay the same,” goes the old adage. This isn’t more true than with human sexuality. Everyone wants fulfillment and we all have desires. Our goal as Christians is to grow in virtue and become more like Jesus Christ, through His Word and Sacraments. When we do this, our bodies grow into a living Sacrament, a sign of God’s love for His people. With His grace, we grow in the virtue of chastity, and thus a pure love that images the love of Christ for His people.

If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?

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Why wouldn’t we take pleasure in the death of the wicked, or in the downfall of our enemies?  Because death and downfall means more than just the ceasing of wrongdoing.  Yes, the wrong action may be stopped, but we are talking about persons — persons made in the image and likeness of God.  We are really talking about the death and downfall of one who bears the God-image.  God takes no pleasure in this, for that would be taking pleasure that a part of Himself has died.  

 

Today in Ezekiel we hear how the Lord delights and rejoices when a sinner repents.  When we turn away from our sins we are turning to God, to goodness.  We are turning to life — to God’s eternal life.

 

How do we know what is evil?  Again, bearing the God-image and having been created good, we can naturally know what is good.  But there is also the moral law that has been fully revealed and fulfilled in Jesus and subsequently through the Church.  The psalmist prays today, If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand? (Ps. 130:3). It is God who teaches us in our hearts and through His revealed divine law what is good and what is wrong.  We cannot determine that for ourselves; we can choose to follow or not.  It is true that sin corrupts our thinking and darkens our intellects, which is why God is always calling us to repent.  Repentance brings life to the soul and therefore renewal to the mind.   

 

Jesus fulfills the law of God in the Gospel by internalizing it.  He calls us to renew our minds through repentance.  It is not enough to do good deeds on the outside, or to preach the law of God.  He wants the law to be in our hearts.  When we are angry with another person, we need to do our best to connect with them.  True love of another is to seek what is best for them, to seek their true good.  In a practical application, a loving boundary can be agreed upon internally — one that acknowledges the anger inside and respects the dignity of the other.  The love of God will then have a channel to flow from our hearts to others, bringing God’s life to all of His people, even those with whom we disagree.

No One but You, O LORD, my God

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Today’s readings are all about interior disposition.  What is outside begins inside.  This is true at the remotest level, even in the material realm (that which we discover through science).  For example, the surface tension of water, an observed property, begins on the molecular and even atomic level, with hydrogen “bonding.” In the same way we see the mortal anguish inside of Esther propelling her to intense prayer to the only One in Whom she has recourse: the LORD.  She asks the Lord to put in her mouth persuasive words, that God’s Spirit will speak through her.  She asks the Lord to turn the heart of the one to whom she speaks, so that her plight will be heard by him.  So not only is the Lord moving and speaking through the heart of Esther, but also the one who has the earthly authority destroy her and her people. It is God who moves hearts.

 

This is why intercessory prayer is so important.  When we pour out our heart’s desires to the Lord, it is He who listens and makes things happen!  Psalm 138 says, Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me. God builds strength within us to be His hands and feet, to make things happen! It is He who turns hearts, most especially our own, when we ask Him. A clean heart create for me, O God (Ps 51:12a).

 

Finally, in the Gospel Jesus completes the teaching of the law and the prophets, saying, do to others whatever you would have them do to you, and, ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. God places holy desires in our hearts so that we will ask Him to fulfill them, both for ourselves and for others.  The Spirit gives life to all our being and prays through us to make God’s will manifest in the world.  He has given us the freedom in our will to seek Him; we have the choice to open our spirit to His Holy Spirit, like Esther did.  And our intercessory prayers put into motion His desire for others to do the same.

Announce to It the Message I Will Tell You

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The message is loud but we don’t hear it. What would it look like today if a prophet like Jonah went through the city of Washington DC and called the United States to repentance? What would our leaders do if they were like the king of Ninevah and they led by example; if they called loudly to God, and every man turned from his evil way and from the violence and hatred we have in our hearts?

It would look like this:
The love of Jesus Christ would permeate their [OUR] hearts. First we would look at those with whom we disagree with love. We would listen to what they have to say. We would find solutions to our problems for the sake of each individual’s true good and for the sake of the common good, for what is truly good (God and His merciful love) is a universal good. These solutions would be something like this:

-Kind words from our politicians and in the media
-The poor and vulnerable would be vaccinated for the virus, and those who are not poor and vulnerable would make sure it happens.
-No persons would be placed into categories or called names.
-All persons, old and young, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, unborn or elderly, illegal or citizen…would be looked upon as having dignity, made in the image and likeness of God…and treated as such.
-No children would be hungry or abused.

This seems like a utopia, indeed. Impossible! This kind of society begins in our hearts, which seem to have been hardened into stone through our societal sins. But Jesus is there. He is in our relationships. This kind of society begins with our families and the neighbors on the street. It begins in the classrooms. It begins with taking care of and loving the persons who are in our lives.

Jesus is there, in our hearts. He is greater than all of our societal problems. He is greater than all of our personal and family problems. His love is there — deep within us.

If we but turn inside to receive it. And then give it away.

When God Speaks He Creates

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The Word of God is truth. God creates. Our Father speaks His word and things are created. These things come to life! When God speaks something happens! We hear in Isaiah that God’s word is like the rain and snow that water the earth, making it fertile and fruitful. God’s word which creates is the essence of fecundity, and it returns to Him in abundance.

When Jesus, the Word, gives us the Our Father, He is essentially giving us the Father’s power to increase life through our words. Our words matter too. We image God through the words we speak. Do they give life, or do they enter the void? God, in His goodness, has given us amazing freedom. We have been given the choice to achieve the end for which He created us: abundant life. Eternal life.

In everything we do and say, may we have as our purpose the Kingdom of God. May we turn towards Him. He will rescue us, deliver us from all fear and evil, and save us from all distress. We are also His word, for He spoke our name when He created us, and we shall not return to Him void, but shall do His will, achieving the end for which He sent us (cf. Is 55:11). Jesus, give us the strength to accomplish the Father’s words of life and love. Amen.

A Chair of Service

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Today in the Catholic Church we celebrate a chair. You heard that right. It is the chair of authority that is also the Chair of service. They go together — authority and service. We may also know it as Servant Leadership.

Let’s begin with the authority aspect of the chair. Jesus Himself said to Peter, “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). We also see an example of keys being given to the steward by the king in the prophet Isaiah: “…he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house (Is 22:21b-23).

He will become a throne of honor! It is through this imagery in Isaiah that we can see how the authority Jesus is giving Peter in the Gospel is related to a chair. The meaning is security. One can sit and be safe. This is the place from which eternal Truth, the truth relating to God (and therefore that which truly matters), comes. It is solid. It is binding. This authority has also come with a promise: evil shall not ever overcome it.

Even more important than authority is the service aspect of the Chair. St. Peter tells us in his epistle that he is a presbyter among presbyters. He is a servant of the servants of God. Jesus gave another command to His apostles in the Gospel of Matthew: “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and that they exercise great authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Mt 20:25-27). Peter echoes the command of Jesus, saying, “Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock” (1 Pt 5:3).

This applies to anyone in leadership, whether a churchman, a political representative, a parent, a teacher. Something to remember for all leaders: You lead for the sake of those underneath you, not for your sake; you lead for their good, not yours.

This is why we celebrate the Chair of Peter. It is to remind us that everything we have comes from the King, the ultimate Servant, who died for us that we might live.  The authority of this chair unites us in Him.

The Way of Love

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Lent is all about conversion in every moment. “Follow me,” Jesus said to Levi. There are little things, (which to God are actually big things), that we can do. Isaiah gives them to us: remove oppression, false accusation, and malicious speech; give food to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; and finally, delight in the LORD on the Sabbath—do not seek your own interests, but delight in the LORD. As I read these and examine my own life it is not too difficult to see where conversion is necessary. The key is to look inwards, and to realize that Jesus is calling me (every part of me), just like He called Levi. “Let Me into all these inner places where you seek your own interests,” Jesus says to me. He wants me to recognize my sinfulness and repent. “Let Me into all these inner places where you are hurting and try to fix things on your own.” He wants to be in everything, and He is not repulsed by any part of me. All the “little things” matter. He wants to be in every little moment and every little thought. He calls to us all the day, says the psalmist (86:4). Anything and everything can be offered to Him, for He takes pleasure in our conversion (cf Ez 33:11), and will make us like a spring whose water never fails (Is 58:11).

It takes practice. It takes a gentle curiosity looking inward, rather than condemnation. In the Gospel today, as well in other Gospel stories, we witness the Pharisees looking to condemn. They don’t “see” the beauty of love and compassion offered by Jesus to sinners; their hearts are closed. Who of us wants to go to a physician who condemns us? Who of us will even approach the divine physician if He condemns us? This is not the way of Jesus, and it should not be our way as we look inside to examine ourselves.

Love is what changes any person. Knowing the love of Jesus is what draws me to Him. Patience and gentleness are the seeds of the Word that grow to be the abundant fruits of the Spirit. They are the means to conversion within myself and of others. They are the way of the Lord.

In sum, Isaiah gives us the things with which new should examine our Christian life. Jesus gives us the manner in which we should do it — the way of Love. He is patient, kind, and gentle.

Fast with Others, for Others

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Today in Scripture we are encouraged to use fasting for one purpose alone: to grow closer to Jesus. There are so many reasons to fast, but only one good one. We are to deny ourselves good things in the material realm for the sake of growing spiritually in Christ, and therefore sharing what He gives.

Isaiah had a difficult job. He was to tell people who think they are doing well that they are really not. In fact, he was to tell them of their wickedness. I don’t know about you, but I cringe at the idea of being told that I am wicked. The way he was to tell them is interesting — he gives them a little examination of conscience, both personal and collective. I will paraphrase and add a little modern nuance…

Yes, it is true that on the outside you look pretty righteous. You have wealth, and you share it with others who need it. You personally donate to charity, as a nation you help those in need and in crisis, and throughout the world you are known to give aid. And, of course, you are fasting.

But I ask you, what about the people in front of you? Is there someone hurting in your family that you are ignoring? Do you have loving conversations about things that matter with those close to you, or do you just argue politics? Is there anyone in your life who could use a phone call or a note of kindness?

Moreover, are there any people suffering in your community? Perhaps a neighbor who needs her driveway plowed? What about the schoolmate whose father was deported to Mexico just because of his “illegal” status? What about the homeless men and women who are standing in the cold asking for money?

God, through His prophets, goes on and on about the same things, all of which can be summed up in the commandment that Jesus gives us: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (cf Mt 22:37-40). The prophet Amos (the first prophet to the Israelites) is quoted in today’s Gospel acclamation: Seek good and not evil so that you may live, and the Lord will be with you. This simple message is as true now as it was then. Isaiah makes it clear that we are to ease the suffering of others in whatever way we can. We fast for the sake of attunement to those in need — by denying ourselves we will become better able to accompany others. We fast with them. That which we deny ourselves we give to them.

Is that not what Jesus, our bridegroom, did for us — giving His earthly life so that we might have eternal life?

The Land

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When Moses is speaking to the people and he speaks of “the land” he is speaking literally of the Promised Land. He wants the Israelites to know that God will give them a place to live and to thrive.

What does this mean for us?

“The Land” is the moment of time in front of us. It is the choice within our spirits that we have every moment. Every moment is set before us, in which we can choose to love God and walk in His ways. We enter each moment and occupy it just by living in it and experiencing it. Just like the Israelites, Christians cross the Jordan via Baptism, and life and death is set before us. We have the eternal blessing of life in Christ as a son or daughter of the Father — if we but heed His voice and hold fast to Him.

The law of the LORD is our hope; it is our roadmap, our guide. Stay on the road, follow the map, and we prosper. Does this mean there won’t be any potholes? Absolutely not, for even the Son of Man experienced potholes, in terms of those who rejected Him. Again, “the land” is the moment of time in front of us. We can choose to occupy each moment yoked to Him, knowing in our hearts that His way is the way of life.

Return to Me with your Whole Heart

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We cannot give anything that we haven’t already received. We hear in the prophet Joel that the ministers of the Lord are to say,

“Spare, O LORD, your people,
    and make not your heritage a reproach,
    with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
    ‘Where is their God?’”

God’s heritage is to give generously, abundantly. We receive and give back. Firstly we have received life and all that sustains life: a home, food, clothing. God’s legacy is to give!

Our response is to receive with joy and gratitude. And then to offer our lives back to Him. It is like a cycle of giving and receiving, except it never ends; it never stops…

Unless we stop receiving, and forget the Giver.

“Even now, says the LORD,
    return to me with your whole heart,” again, the prophet says.

Every Lent we are reminded to return to the Lord with our whole Selves. We are called to remember the divine Giver of life and sustenance who is gracious and merciful and full of compassion. There is nothing that we have that doesn’t come from Him, including our very breath and our freedom.

In freedom we are encouraged by the psalmist to say,

“For I acknowledge my offense,
    and my sin is before me always:
‘Against you only have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight.’”

We all have used our freedom for evil, and yet God is ready to renew our spirits. He is always waiting and knocking at the door of our hearts. We choose to open it to receive His divine life. Paul says to the Corinthians and to us: “we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.”  Let us not allow these gifts pass is by! Turn to Him and allow Him to make us righteous! It all comes from Him — so much so that “he [the Father] made him [the Son] to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” We become His righteousness through the Spirit of life and love that He has breathed into us.

When we receive and give back in freedom, the cycle continues, and the reward is within our hearts. Our closeness, our intimacy…with the One who gives… increases. It is its own reward. It is joy and peace in our hearts, living His divine life. The eternal now.