Today is the anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s papal installation. This time next year, it will be the feast of St John Paul II.
22 October is also the anniversary of my ordination as a deacon, which is the day I committed myself to celibacy for the Kingdom. Since celibacy was one of the things we studied and prayed about during my annual course, I’ve been thinking a lot about it.
I thought I would share some of the practical resolutions I thought and prayed about. Consecrated celibacy is peculiar to a few, but it’s easily related to the virtue of chastity, which is relevant to every Christian, whatever their state of life.
An affirmation of love
Celibacy for the kingdom is a positive affirmation, not a negative denial. It sounds cliched, but I often pray on this. The notion of self-sacrifice, however noble and heroic, is inadequate.
Speaking personally, my primary motivation is love and affection for a person. I’m doing this for our Lord, not for a collective, or for an abstraction.
The struggle to be chaste demands absolute sincerity in spiritual direction and confession. In the first place, this means being sincere with God. It compels me to recognise when my heart desires something that God does not desire. (This seldom constitutes a sin of course, but I’m talking about virtue here, not the avoidance of sin.)
In the second place this this means being sincere and speak frankly with another person, which is hard for me. I demand this of myself not only for the sake of chastity, but much more for progress in humility. I struggle with this, so I often meditate on these words of St Josemaría when I’m preparing for confession or spiritual direction:
How shall we be able to overcome our meanness? Let me make the point again because it is so important: by being humble and by being sincere in spiritual direction and in the sacrament of Penance. Go to those who direct your souls with your hearts open wide. Do not close your hearts, for if the dumb devil gets in, it is very difficult to get rid of him.
Forgive me for insisting on these points, but I believe it is absolutely necessary for you to have deeply impressed on your minds the fact that humility, together with its immediate consequence, sincerity, are the thread which links the other means together. These two virtues act as a foundation on which a solid victory can be built. If the dumb devil gets inside a soul, he ruins everything. On the other hand, if he is cast out immediately, everything turns out well; we are happy and life goes forward properly. Let us always be brutally sincere, but in a good-mannered way.
I want one thing to be clear: I am not as worried about the heart or the flesh as I am about pride. Be humble. If you ever think that you are completely and utterly right, you are not right at all. Go to spiritual direction with your soul wide open. Don’t close it because, I repeat, the dumb devil will get in, and it is difficult to get him out again.
Temperance (= moderation)
I laughed out loud the first time I read these lines from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, because I felt like I’d swallowed “the grand lie” hook, line and sinker:
[The] chief use [of excess in food] is as a kind of artillery preparation for attacks on chastity. On that, as on every other subject, keep your man in a condition of false spirituality. Never let him notice the medical aspect. Keep him wondering what pride or lack of faith has delivered him into your hands when a simple enquiry into what he has been eating or drinking for the last twenty-four hours would show him whence your ammunition comes and thus enable him by a very little abstinence to imperil your lines of communication.
If he must think of the medical side of chastity, feed him the grand lie which we have made the English humans believe, that physical exercise in excess and consequent fatigue are specially favourable to this virtue. How they can believe this, in face of the notorious lustfulness of sailors and soldiers, may well be asked. But we used the schoolmasters to put the story about — men who were really interested in chastity as an excuse for games and therefore recommended games as an aid to chastity.
Lewis’ point is that we often tend to see virtue as the polar opposite of its corresponding vice, but this approach only encourages excess. Authentic virtue is never excessive, but always temperate. Aristotle called virtue “the golden mean” between opposing excesses. (Chastity is not the opposite of lust for example, it’s the golden mean between lust and frigidity.)
Practically speaking, I attend to the details of moderation in what I eat and drink, in my relaxation and exercise, and especially in my use of time. I seldom over-eat, but I’m easily tempted to spend too much time on a single task, upsetting my schedule and my prayer life, which typically precedes a temptation against chastity.
Devotion to Our Lady
I have a friend whose mother trained him to ask, “Would I continue watching this if the Blessed Virgin Mary was in the room?” “Would I be having this conversation?” “Would I tolerate this occasion?” I laughed when I first heard it, but I gradually find myself adopting this measure more and more.
I ask our Lady and St Joseph to pray the Rosary with me, and I commend to them my struggle to be chaste. When I started in the seminary, the Spiritual Director of the College encouraged us to look to St Joseph as a model of masculine chastity, and a powerful intercessor. It’s a good point I think.
I try to renew every day — when it is possible — the consecration and entrustment I made to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on my first day as a priest.
I’m training myself to pray the Memorare out loud whenever I am tempted against chastity. Not for myself. For someone else, somewhere in the world, who is also at that instant afflicted with temptation. My thinking is, even if I fall, maybe my prayer has helped someone else, and built up the Kingdom.
I don’t really have any explanation for why these Marian means work. No explanation based on psychology or anthropology, anyway. But they do work, that’s for sure! It’s purely supernatural I guess.