Rob Gordon vs. Joan of Arc
May 20, 2011
“Part of chastity is not being too attached.”
That was Father T during our most recently bi-weekly (supposedly) phone call. “Supposedly” because, as with the doctor, I usually wait until things are pretty bad until I give him a call. And, as with the doctor, if I just talked to him regularly then things probably wouldn’t get so bad. But I’m a man and men are stupid about going to the doctor, spiritual or medical. I will probably die of prostate cancer.
Things weren’t bad at all this time, actually, but it had been a while, and we needed to catch up. I got to talking about Sal, naturally, and said I missed him. That’s when Fr. T said the above.
This isn’t the wisdom of the world. It’s an unusual thing to say, at least from a secularist1 perspective, and for at least two reasons.
(1) The typical Hollywood narrative, I think, is that you meet the one person in the universe who is absolutely perfect for you and who you will always feel rapturous passion for, at every second (even when they smell bad), and then you sink your claws into each other a mile deep and never let go, and just generally forget about the rest of the world because he/she is all you’ll ever need.
That is not Christian love. A little closer to the Christian ideal is the popular wisdom that, unless you’re okay by yourself, you won’t be okay with anyone else either. There’s a bit in High Fidelity where the narrator talks about how, when he’s not dating someone, he goes “fuzzy around the edges.” Pretty insightful for Nick Hornby, who seems to be writing mostly novel-length Lifetime movies for Manchildren2 these days.
That brings us to (2): What has this got to do with chastity? The word, in popular culture, usually means “not having sex.”3
This is not the meaning of the word as Christians understand it, and as Fr. T. meant it. Chesterton says it better than I could:
Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen. Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.4
When I first read this several years ago I frankly had no idea what he was talking about. I’m still not sure I do. What I am getting, though, is this: the chaste man is the independent man, the man who stands up on his own. When the chaste man loves deeply, he gives his beloved himself — but he does not become emotionally dependent on her. Or, for that matter, him. The chaste man does not mistake his beloved, or anyone else, for God.
Chastity, in other words, has something to do with wholeness; or at least with not trying to fill our gaps with another human being, when really only God will do.