Before committing his life to Christ, Saint Augustine once famously said, “Give me chastity and continency, only not yet.”1 Though his honesty may surprise us, few of us know what chastity really means. Contrary to popular belief, chastity is not synonymous with abstinence or celibacy. Like courage and kindness, chastity is a virtue. The chaste person is able to take his or her sexual desires and order them according to the demands of love rather than lust, which is chastity’s opposite.
Writer Ronald Rolheiser explains it like this: “To be chaste is to experience people, things, places, entertainment, the phases of one’s life, life’s opportunities, and sex in a way that does not violate them or ourselves. Chastity means to experience things reverently, so that the experience of them leaves both them and ourselves more, not less, integrated.”2 Because each of us has been created in the image of Christ, we should respect and revere ourselves and others. To treat people as objects for our pleasure is to diminish and demean them. And to allow others to treat us that way is to allow ourselves to be degraded.
Under this definition, married couples who are faithful to each other can have sex and be chaste. Single people, on the other hand, are chaste when they abstain from sex because that is appropriate to their state in life. Chastity allows them to treat themselves and others with the dignity and respect that Christ’s love demands.
To put it in simpler terms, chastity is like a governor on an engine that regulates its speed. Without it, the engine could accelerate to the point that it is destroyed. Though chastity might sound odd and old-fashioned in our sex-saturated society, it’s a virtue that will restore God’s peace in our lives. More
- Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. Edward B. Pusey (New York: P. F. Collier, 1909), 135.
- Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 202.