In the early 1960’s, Michel Quoist wrote a book entitled, Prayers, which became immensely popular. The book combined rare depth with a language bordering on poetry. One of the prayers in the book speaks of our struggle for purity – purity of heart, of body, of intention:
I’ve given you all, but it’s hard, Lord.
It’s hard to give one’s body, it would like to give itself to others.
It’s hard to love everyone and claim no one.
It’s hard to shake a hand and not want to retain it.
It’s hard to inspire affection, only to give it to you.
It’s hard to be nothing to oneself in order to be everything to others.
It’s hard to be like others, among others, but to be other.
It’s hard always to give without trying to receive.
It’s hard to seek out others and be, oneself, unsought …
That describes perhaps our deepest struggle in life and in love. We struggle with purity, though we rarely admit it.
Today the word purity has taken on mainly negative connotations. It’s understood as a sexual concept and is mostly seen as negative. For many people it connotes fear, timidity, and a certain uptightness about sex and life. The popular culture almost ridicules purity and it’s rare that a critically-acclaimed movie, a major novel, or a renowned artist captures its essence aesthetically, celebrates its beauty, and challenges us with its importance.
That’s sad, really, because our lack of purity is, I believe, is one of the deep causes of sadness in our lives. There’s a difference, as we know, between pleasure and happiness. Bracketing purity can sometimes be the route to pleasure, but it’s never a road to happiness. Lack of purity always brings a sadness.
What is purity? First of all, it’s not primarily about sex, though because our sexual desires are so powerful we often compromise our purity in sex. And here, despite all our claims of how free and liberated we are, we still sense the value of purity, however inchoately. Indeed the idea that sex is somehow dirty never quite disappears. Deep down, we still long for purity, though mostly we don’t understand what we’re longing for. What we long for is not immunity from the earthiness of sex, but purity of heart, chastity of intention. The deep-seated idea that sex is dirty has, I suspect, more to do with millennia of bad hygiene than with the aesthetics and morality of sex.. Sex isn’t bad, but our intentions can be.
“Blessed are the pure of heart, they shall see God!” Those words come from Jesus and contain more challenge than we imagine. Purity isn’t just a route we need to go if we want to see God, it’s also a practical secret for tasting happiness in this life. Purity is what takes manipulation out of our relationships and sadness out of our lives. How?
Purity is not so much about sex as it is about intention. We need a certain purity and chastity of intention or we will always manipulate others in everything, including sex. We are pure when our hearts don’t greedily or prematurely grab what isn’t theirs. As Quoist so aptly puts it, we are pure when we can grasp a hand and not try to retain it, when we can love without being over-possessive, serve without being manipulative, and when we no longer try to make other people orbit around us as their center. We are pure when we stop using others for our own enhancement, whatever that might be. We become more pure as we become less manipulative in relationships.
But that’s hard to do. It’s hard to do in love and sex because of the fierce, restless, and sometimes obsessive desires and jealousies we feel there. But it’s hard to be pure in any aspect of our lives. We live with such powerful desires to drink in everything and everybody that it’s easy to be manipulative, to be blind to what we’re doing to others as we struggle to create meaning, pleasure, and power for ourselves. It’s easy to have a sense of entitlement, to be angry, to be bitter, to be jealous, to be driven by the search for pleasure or power, to use others for our own enhancement, to be so addicted to the pursuit of experience and sophistication that we sacrifice even our happiness on that altar. It’s easy to be impure.
And it’s also easy to be sad and unhappy, right within the experience of pleasure. Impurity can bring a certain richness of experience, a certain sophistication, and a certain pleasure. Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened, not closed, after their sin and one suspects, despite the pictures in our early catechisms, that their new-found sophistication helped block any real remorse. Impurity does open one’s eyes..But it also brings a certain sadness, a cynicism, a split inside of ourselves, and a lack of self-worth into our lives.
Having a sense of our own dignity is predicated upon a certain purity. Impurity never lets us feel good about ourselves.