Carlo Carretto, the renowned spiritual writer, spent many years living alone as a hermit in the Sahara desert. He wrote a number of books from that place of solitude, including one entitled, Letters from the Desert. In that book, he has a message for those of us who live busy lives in the world. “What is God trying to say to us in our busy lives?” He suggests this: “Be patient! Learn to wait – for each other, for love, for happiness, for God!”
Learn to wait! That’s not something we do easily and many of our problems flow from that. We often don’t wait properly for things.
Annie Dillard shares this story about proper waiting: She had been watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon and was fascinated by the process until she grew impatient with how long it was taking and, to speed things up, took a candle and heated the cocoon, albeit very gently.
The experiment worked, but it was a mistake in the long run. The butterfly emerged more quickly; however, because adding heat violated something within the natural process, the butterfly was born with wings too weak to fly. Haste and prematurity had stunted and deformed a natural process. Some things can’t be rushed.
Dillard understood immediately what had gone wrong. A certain chastity had been violated. Impatience had triggered an irreverence that had interfered with and damaged the natural order of things. In essence, the Christmas gift had been opened too early; the bride had been slept with before the wedding; a process that needed an allotted period of time had been short-circuited. There hadn’t been enough advent.
Advent means waiting. Among other things, it celebrates the idea that the messiah must be born from a virgin. Why? Is sex something unworthy of God? If Jesus had been born in a natural way, would that somehow have given him less dignity? This is a dark underside in some spiritualities, but Jesus’ birth from a virgin has nothing to do with that.
Scripture and Christian tradition emphasize that Jesus was born of a virgin to underscore the fact that he had no human father and also to teach an important truth, namely, that in order for something sublime to be born there must, first, be a proper chastity, a proper time of waiting, a season of advent. Why?
The answer lies in properly understanding chastity. Chastity is not, first of all, something to do with sex. Chastity has to do with how we experience reality in general, all experience. To be chaste is to have proper reverence – towards God, towards each other, towards nature, towards ourselves, towards reality in general, and towards sex.
Lack of chastity is irreverence, in any area of life, sex included. And reverence is a lot about proper waiting. We can see this by looking at its opposite: To lack chastity, to be irreverent, is to be impatient, selfish, callous, immature, undisciplined, or boorish in any way so that our actions deprive someone else of his or her full uniqueness, dignity, and preciousness. And we do this every time we short-circuit waiting.
Thus, it is understandable why the prime analogate for chastity is proper reverence in the area of sex. Sex, because it so deeply affects the soul, speaks most loudly about chastity or lack of it. Sex is only chaste when it is not short-circuited by impatience, selfishness, or lack of respect. Sadly, because sex is so powerful, these things are often short-circuited. We violate chastity in sex whenever there is prematurity, unfair pressure, subtle manipulation, crass force, taking without giving, posturing an intimacy we don’t mean, lack of respect for previous commitments, disregard for the wider relationships of family and community, or failure to respect long-range happiness and health. Annie Dillard’s metaphor basically captures it: There is a fault in our chastity when we put a candle to the cocoon so as to unnaturally rush the process.
Chastity is about proper waiting and waiting is about patience in carrying the tensions and frustrations we suffer as we live the unfinished symphony that constitutes our lives.
There are some wonderful refrains in apocalyptic literature around the importance of waiting. Before the messiah can be conceived, gestated, and given birth to, there must always be a proper time of waiting, a necessary advent, a certain quota of suffering, which alone can create the proper virginal space within which the messiah can be born: “God is never in a hurry!” “Every tear brings the messiah closer!” “It is with much groaning of the flesh that the life of the spirit is brought forth!”
All of these phrases say the same thing: What’s sublime depends upon there first having been some sublimation; a feast can only happen after there has first been some fasting; love can only be a gift if the gift is fully respected; and (as Carretto so poignantly puts it) we must learn to wait – for God, for love, for the bride, and for Christmas.