Sublimation, waiting, and chastity, these are not the virtues of our time. American educator, Allan Bloom, in his controversial book, The Closing of the American Mind, suggests that lack of chastity is, among young people, the leading cause of unhappiness. What helps make this statement interesting is that he is a purely secular analyst with no religious agenda whatsoever. The Catholic Church has always linked chastity and happiness, but lately, that message has been largely ignored and even ridiculed.
Bloom’s thesis runs something like this: “I look at the students that I teach, young twenty-year olds, and I see most everything, except happiness and erotic energy. This is a great irony; young people today tend to be erotically lame, old, even while still young. They have been everywhere, experienced everything, but they have never had anything sublime in their lives, because sublimity depends upon sublimation and sublimation depends upon waiting and waiting depends upon chastity and, whatever else they may have had in life, they have never had these: sublimation, waiting, and chastity.
Much of our unhappiness comes from our lack of chastity. But to understand that, it is important to properly define chastity.
Chastity is not celibacy and it is not primarily even a sexual concept. It has to do with how we experience things in general, not whether we have sex or not. My father and my mother were two of the most chaste persons I have ever known. Yet they were married and had sex. Conversely, I know celibates, who do not have sex, but are not chaste.
Chastity is not so much about sex as it is about reverence and respect. To be chaste is to experience in such a way as to be fully reverential and respectful. When this not done, when one is not chaste, then experience fragments and disintegrates the soul rather than builds it. Hence it is important to know that we can violate chastity as much by prematurity as by substance. Chastity is not just about what we experience, but also about when we experience it. An experience can be wrong simply because it is premature.
Thus, chastity is about waiting for the right moment for something, about living in tension and accepting incompleteness and inconsummation in life.
And this is not something at which we are very good. We have never been taught how to wait for things. Former generations, whatever their faults, were much better at this than we are. Perhaps it was not so much a question of virtue as of lack of opportunity, but, irrespective of whether it was by choice or conscription, they knew how to wait, certainly better than we do. They used to incorporate as part of their understanding of life and as part of their daily prayer the idea that, here in this world, we live and mourn in a valley of tears, that we are not to expect full fulfillment. We judge this negatively, see it as morbid, and then wonder why our kids live together before marriage and are ever so under-prepared for the frustrations that their lives and marriages invariably bring. We have given them neither the discipline of chastity nor any system of symbols by which to comprehend and accept that in this world all symphonies remain unfinished.
And they do remain unfinished. We spend 98% of our lives waiting for something else to happen to us. Very rarely do we have a moment that is fully pregnant, fully satisfying; always we are waiting. We are in one moment, but waiting for something else to happen: for the bus to come, for the meeting to end, for this day to be over with, for this season of life to be done with, for our vacation to come, to meet the right person to love and marry, to be less tired, to be in a better time and place than we are in now. Here, in this life, there is no such a thing as a clear-cut pure joy. We are always still waiting for it.
Sadly we have not been taught how to do this, how to be chaste. Sadly too, our culture lacks the honest courage to stare this square in the face. So we are paying the price, not least in the fact that today it is considered sophisticated to be cynical and nihilistic. Happiness is seen as a naiveté. So is chastity.
Bloom is right. Few things contribute as much to our unhappiness, and indeed to the breakdown of community, as does our lack of chastity. We need to learn the art of waiting, of understanding again how every tear brings the messiah closer.