In her marvelous little book, Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard describes how she one learned a fundamental lesson about life simply by watching a moth emerge from its cocoon. She had been fascinated watching the nearly-imperceptible process of metamorphosis but, at a point, it because too slow for her. To speed up things a little, she applied a tiny bit of heat from a candle to the cocoon. It worked. The extra heat quickened the process and the moth emerged a bit sooner than it would have otherwise. However, because nature had not been able to take its full course, the moth was born damaged, its wings were not able to form fully.
What Dillard describes here is a violation of chastity. Properly understood, chastity is precisely a question of having the patience to bear the tension of the interminable slowness of things. To be chaste is to not prematurely force things so that everybody and everything, each within its own unique rhythm is properly respected.
That is normally not the way we think of chastity. Generally we relate to chastity to sex, more particularly, to the lack of it. For most of us, chastity means celibacy – and celibacy, in our culture, suggests an unenviable innocence, an ignorance, really, a missing out on the most central thing in life. Chastity, as we know, is not very popular in our culture, partly because we conceive of it so badly. What is it?
Chastity is not first and foremost a sexual concept. It has to do with the way we relate to reality in general. In essence, chastity is proper reverence and respect. To be chaste is to stand before reality, everything and everybody, and fully respect the proper contours and rhythm of things.
To be chaste then means to let things unfold as they should. Thus it means, among many other things, to not open our gifts before Christmas, to not rush our own or our children’s growth, to not experience things for which we aren’t ready, to not lose patience in life or in sex because there is tension, to not violate someone else’s beauty and sexuality, to not apply a candle to a moth emerging from its cocoon because we’re in a hurry, and to not sleep with the bride before the wedding. To be chaste is to let gift be gift. Biblically, to be chaste is to have our shoes off before the burning bush.
Chastity is reverence and respect. All irreverence and disrespect is the antithesis of chastity.
Chastity as a practical virtue is then predicated on two things: Patience and the capacity to carry tension.
Patience is basically synonymous with chastity. To fully respect others and the proper order of things means to be patient. Something can be wrong for no other reason that that it is premature. To do anything too quickly, whether that be growing up, or having sex, does what applying extra heat does to the process of metamorphosis. It leaves us with damaged wings.
Allan Bloom, the renowned philosopher of education, in describing lack of chastity in today’s youth, put things this way: Premature experience is bad precisely because it is premature. In youth, for example, yearning is meant precisely for sublimation, in the sense of making things sublime, of orientating what aches in us towards great love, great art, and great achievement. Premature experience, like the false ecstasy of drugs, artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of some great endeavor – victory in a just war, mature consummated love, great artistic creation, real religious devotion and the discovery of deep truth. Premature experience has precisely the effect of clipping our wings in that it drains us of great enthusiasm and great expectations. Great longing then becomes little more than being horny. Only sublimation, tension, and waiting (the proper definition of patience) allow for the sublime.
The capacity to carry tension is too an integral part of chastity. To properly respect others, to have the patience to not act prematurely, requires that we be willing and able to carry tension and to carry it for a long time, perhaps even for a lifetime. To wait in tension, in incompleteness, in longing, in frustration, in inconsummation, and in helplessness in the face of the interminable slowness of things, especially in the face of how slow love and justice seem to appear in our lives, is to practice chastity.
When Jesus sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane he was practicing chastity; just as when Mary stood under the cross, unable to stop its senselessness and unable even to protest Jesus’ innocence, she too was practicing chastity. Unless we are willing to carry tension, in the same way, we will, precisely, never wait for the wedding night.
Chastity’s challenge reads this way: Never short-circuit the process of metamorphosis. Whether you are dealing with sex or with life in general, wait for the wedding night for the consummation.