Faith Works 5-14-11
On the Beauty of Chastity
We're heading into the heart of commencement season, with advice and counsel freely provided to captive audiences.
You'll hear some good ones, you'll hear some bad ones, all of them well-intended and some ("Use sunscreen") quite brief, as well as helpful.
The late David Foster Wallace gave what is considered to be one of the best commencement speeches of the last few decades, just up the road at Kenyon College in 2005. It's been turned, since his recent tragic death, into a book ("This is Water"), and the text of the basic address itself is easy to find online.
If you consider yourself rather old school about things like graduation ceremonies (say, you'd never imagine bringing an airhorn in your pocket for when your relative crosses the stage), it starts off rather ramblingly, and fairly typical commencement fare for all that.
Then Wallace makes a sharp pivot in his talk to say this: "There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."
Whoa. Outside of a private Christian high school or a denominational college, that's a bit unusual. He goes on in this vein, with a nod to the variety of traditions honored or deferred by his audience in Gambier on that sunny day:
"An outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough."
"Will eat you alive." I read a blog post where one of the graduates that day said he paused there, and repeated it, to rapt silence.
"Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you."
A commencement speech that is unlikely to be heard much of anywhere is an address "On the Beauty of Chastity." Like David Foster Wallace struggling with the question of what (or Who) to worship, there are some subjects even in these days that are not fit for polite company. Chastity would be one of them.
If you had John Milton, or C.S. Lewis come back to speak, or St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila (maybe even old St. Joseph himself), they'd surely find chastity a good starting point for their talks to graduating students, even as they might be baffled by airhorns.
It's not so unlikely a subject for moderns as you might think, given that chastity doesn't mean the Punch-n-Judy caricature most people think of hearing the word. Chastity is purity in the sense of self-discipline; as Kierkegaard said "Purity of heart is to will one thing."
We stand in awe as basketball players sink three-pointers, knowing the tens of thousands of practice shots that led to that game winning moment; we watch, rapt, at footage of Navy SEALs in grueling training in ice cold water, preparing for feats only possible with intense focus & discipline; we listen in delight to singers & instrumentalists who practice, practice, practice to give a fluid, easy performance on the day of the show.
That's what chastity is, as the saints knew. It's not NOT having sex outside of marriage, but it's the life practice of discipline, self-discipline, a learned focus that allows us to achieve that which truly leads to happiness. A happily married couple is chaste, a single person who hopes to marry and prepares for that relationship until it begins is chaste, and chastity is as much what you do, when, much more than it is what you don't do.
Chastity is deferring some satisfactions now to gain a greater joy and peace later, and can be practiced by anyone.
Anyone, that is, who worships a vision and a goal somewhere beyond their own fleeting pleasures; who can accept short-term pain for long-term gain. Exercise and diet and study, as well as sex, are all tools for a life well-lived if used in a disciplined, which is to say chaste, manner. Tools flung about without intention or plan are dangerous, to self and others.
Chastity, on the other hand, can make something beautiful. May all those who commence this graduation season become craftspeople of their own lives.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio. Tell him a story at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow Knapsack @Twitter.