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The chastity of the monk

· Not to limit the love, but to love more ·

The vow of chastity has been the defining factor of consecrated life from early Christian times. Of course monastic life was also inspired by the two other vows, i.e. poverty and obedience. But it is chastity that has always aroused esteem, respect and attention. Is there an order, a tàxis, present in the vows? A closer look at the spiritual writings of the Fathers and the teaching of the Magisterium suggests there is, for in these texts chastity appears as the sun around which poverty and obedience both turn. This order, however, does not correspond to the itinerary set forth in the Bible.

Both biblical texts and many ancient rules state that the life of faith and the decision to consecrate oneself personally to God begin with listening to Divine Revelation and the obedience that derives from it. Moreover, in the Gospel Jesus points to poverty as a form of freedom and detachment from every possession, as a liberation from all greed and concupiscence, for to follow him one must give all of one ’s goods to the poor. Jesus himself also observes chastity for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and he proposes it to us. A paschal journey of conversion and rebirth thus unfolds that distinguishes Christian life from the thinking and ways of the world, which bend obedience to one’s own will and pervert sexuality in concupiscence and lust, reducing one’s body and that of a woman to an object of pleasure.

Now, if religious consecration is seen as something over and above the life given us in baptism, then voluntary chastity will be understood as an unicum that makes religious life something special as compared to the life of other members of the Church. If instead consecrated life is understood as a journey of baptismal life itself, one might show the order of the vows in a way more in line with the Gospel: obedience, poverty and chastity. Lastly, one might suggest a progressive assimilation along the path of initiation into consecrated life: professing a vow of obedience as one begins the novitiate; poverty with simple profession, finally to arrive, at solemn profession, at that physical-psychological-spiritual maturity which the vow of chastity, as a true openness to love, demands.

Unfortunately in the past, by focusing all the attention on chastity as an act of renunciation, it was too often lived in a sterile manner, or as a form of physical-sexual impotence, giving rise to obsessive moral scruples, neurosis, bitterness, rigidity and personal withdrawal. When instead, Christian chastity is linked with love, and with an ever greater love. Once chooses chastity not to limit love, but to love more.

Some will say: to love more because urged on by the love of agàpe (1 Cor:13). And it is here that I would like to pose the second question, that is, about the fact that for centuries we have believed that chastity was to be lived out only with the love of agàpe, repressing èros and even philia. A conflictual opposition was thus created between èros, love as desire, and agàpe, oblative love. We must thank Benedict XVI who in Deus caritas est addressed this antithesis between èros and agàpe, and reached the conclusion that it must be overcome because man needs to live both. “Èros and agàpe - ascending love and descending love - can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even ifèros is at first mainly covetous and ascending (…) in drawing near to the other (…) it increasingly seeks the happiness of the other (…). On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive” (n. 7).

The vision Ratzinger presents to us is extremely interesting for once the opposition between èros, which in ascending is purified and liberated from its Dionysian form, and agàpe, which in descending renounces its Apollonian form, has been overcome these two realities can meet in the life of every man, not only in those in marry but also in those who respond to the gift of chastity. I believe that the meeting between èros and agàpe takes place precisely in philia, in recognizing that the most beautiful form of love, and the one that corresponds most to our human nature, is the love of friendship lived out by means of the new commandment, which forms the basis of every Christian relationship.

Chastity, then, cannot be reduced to a battle against èros, for there is a vital energy in èros that must be summoned and directed toward the good. And it cannot be thought of as a life climbing toward the perfection of a disincarnate Apollonian love, which would lead life toward a plastic alienation that would distance us from everyone. Instead it should be proposed as a symbolic and unifying process in which the vital force of èros and the oblative and free gift proper to agàpe are made to convergein the relationship of philia proper to our humanity. I fear that, without philia, love will not be complete either in marriage or in the chastity proper to consecrated life.

by Alessandro Barban




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 17, 2020