Various groups are travelling around high schools and colleges today promoting chastity among young people. They aren’t always getting an enthusiastic reception.
One commentator recently quipped: “They’re telling young people to save it for that one special person they will one day marry. Well, that sounds a lot better when you’re 19 and waiting for that special person than when you’re 39 and not sure what you’re waiting for!”
There’s enough raw truth in that to merit a symposium. What’s expressed here is the despair we feel when life begins to pass us by, when our real dream for love seems over, and when, daily, we become more and more unsure as to whether or not we are on the side of life or not. Waiting seems pretty foolish then and the temptation becomes strong to begin to bend the rules.
But the rules don’t change because we lose our dream. What changes are our feelings for chastity and waiting: How do we wait then? How do we wait when, it seems, there is no longer much worth waiting for?
We don’t have a lot of healthy models on this: Liberals too easily write off the ideal and conservatives too easily refuse to see the hard truth, but the secret lies neither in compromise nor in denial. What we need when we begin to lose heart for the ideal is to get our hearts in touch with what, deep down, they really want. And how do we do that? By committing ourselves to what will give us real life in the long run.
Allow me an example, namely, the infamous, unenthusiastic, but deep, commitment that Peter gives to Jesus at a low point in his discipleship.
The incident takes place in John’s gospel. Jesus had just given a teaching that both confused and upset everyone, the disciples included. He told the people: “Unless you eat my flesh, you will not have life within you!” John reports that, after he said this, everyone walked away, saying this was an intolerable teaching. Jesus then turned to his disciples and asked: “Do you want to walk away too?” Peter answered: “Yes, we would like to, but you have the words of everlasting life!”
This response, devoid of all enthusiasm, speaks though of real maturity: “You have the words of everlasting life!” What gives us life sometimes calls for commitment even when our hearts aren’t onside.
In essence, Peter is saying this: “We don’t get it, but we know that we’re better off not getting it with you than getting it with somebody else!”
I once used those exact words in a class when explaining this story and a man quipped: “That sounds like my marriage!” There was snicker in the classroom, but he said: “I’m serious. Anyone who’s ever been married or committed in a relationship knows that there are times when that relationship will be full of tension, disappointment, and even flat-out coldness. It might feel dead, but you’re smart enough to know that, for you, life lies there, not elsewhere. For you, long-range, life means staying in that relationship even though, on this day, it seems lifeless. Deep down, all of us know exactly what it means to say: “I’m not getting it with you, but I’m better off not getting it with you than getting it with somebody else!”
What’s at issue here, obviously, is not just chastity and waiting until marriage, but a wisdom and a maturity that intuit the big picture and know that what ultimately brings life is not just what helps us make it through a bad night or a bad season.
Love is a decision, not a feeling. We find that hard to believe because, long before we have to decide for love, we first fall into love. Initially it chooses us more than we choose it. But that changes, as we know, and real maturity comes at that exact moment when, like Peter, we commit ourselves to something beyond what feels best in the present moment. Maturity waits, even when it’s 39 years old and not sure any more what it’s waiting for.
And sometimes too, eventually, we know the joy of realizing that it was all worthwhile.
On his wedding day, G.K. Chesterton handed a note to his wife on which he had written that, in all the years previous to their marriage, he was a man who had “four lamps of thanksgiving always before him. The first is for his creation out of the same earth with such a woman as you. The second is that he has not, with all his faults, ‘gone after strange women’. You cannot think how a man’s self-restraint is rewarded in this. The third is that he has tried to love everything alive, a dim preparation for loving you. And the fourth is – but no words can express that. Here ends my previous existence. Take it: it led me to you.”
Patience, waiting, chastity, and commitment are, in the end, worth it.