Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sainted love

Someone recently asked me who I thought should be upheld as the patron saint of purity.

My answer was, "All of them."

I think the need some people feel to isolate certain saints as icons of chastity reveals the mistake, encouraged by our culture, of seeing such purity only in terms of resisting sexual temptation. But, rightly understood, chastity, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, "does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc."

Living—or, rather, loving—chastely means loving fully according to the manner that is appropriate to each individual relationship. The "yes" to loving chastely does include a "no" to engaging in sex outside of the marriage bond. But to believe that only through sex could one love and be loved fully—that would be terribly limiting and sad. The saints' lives, by contrast, were and are infused with joy.

So, I find it odd when people suggest we need to point to a particular saint as a model of pure living. Certainly, I can gain inspiration from the stories of saints who struggled with and overcame the temptation to use or be used sexually, such as AugustineMary of Egypt, and Mary Magdalene. To single out a patron saint of purity, however, implies the saint was an "expert" in loving chastely, the way that Paul was an expert in tent-making or Cecelia an expert in music.

The beauty of chastity is that it is not an ability, but a grace. It does not get us into heaven. It is the leading edge of heaven.