Today we celebrate the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and tomorrow we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The heart is the special place in our being that most represents us. One Catholic commentator calls the heart, “the deepest center of the person, the irreplaceable and irreducible ‘I’ of the unique human individual. All the other powers of human nature flow from and depend on the heart.” Our Lord, though having two natures—one human and one divine—had but one, human Heart. Our Lady, conceived without sin, had the most beautiful and pure of all singularly human hearts, Immaculate or free of stain.
It is these two Sacred and Immaculate Hearts that we celebrate today and tomorrow. Our Lord’s words in his famous Sermon on the Mount echo now in my ears: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). Blessed—indeed happy!—are the pure of heart. In fact, being pure of heart is a prerequisite for both being happy and seeing God in heaven. Purity of heart is another way of saying, “holiness.” An important analogue is purity of body, which is not the most important virtue (charity is), but it is a sine qua non for happiness both in this life and in the life to come.
Holy purity is not simply the absence of sins of the flesh, though that is very important. Holy purity is a joyful affirmation of one’s humanity and is a loving sacrifice for God, one’s spouse (or future spouse), for others in one’s life, and indeed for the whole world. In other words, holy purity is not just about saying “no,” but about saying “yes:” to true love and to the plan God has laid out for us.
When we listen to our lower passions and desires, we give into our animalistic instincts and become little more than pigs or cows. You and I are more than a cow! Etched into our hearts is the unwritten law—or natural law—that adultery is wrong, that faithfulness is right, and that keeping oneself pure before, during, and after marriage is the right thing to do. Of course, like the fifth commandment prohibiting murder, the sixth commandment probiting adulterty, is much richer and more encompassing than simply that one specific act of wrong-doing.
Moses did not receive these commandments to be interpreted in a narrow and legalistic way. In other words, beating an innocent man half to death offends the commandment not to kill, even if the beaten man doesn’t die. Likewise, it is an extremely slippery slope and perilous exercise to ask oneself “how far can I go” before something becomes a sin. This kind of childish splitting of hairs almost always leads one to go too far, to cross the line, to fall off the slope. Christian ethics in this area teaches that we should be asking, “how can I please God and serve my neighbor in every and all situations?” not “how close can I get to the edge of the cliff without falling off?”
Holy purity then, like any virtue, is saying “yes” to the right things and “no” to the wrong things. And like any human virtue, there can be tendencies toward excess on both extremes. For example, with the virtue of courage, too little of it is cowardice, but “too much” of it would be rashness (think of a daredevil stuntman). In the case of holy purity, too little would be sexual depravity and “too much” would be a kind of unreasonable prudishness. An extreme example of this would be groups or religions that oppose marital relations altogether, which is obviously ridiculous as the birth rate would be reduced to zero this way.
My point here is that true, Christian purity is not necessarily a kind of neurotic avoidance of all things related to the sexual realm, but rather the patient and temperate placing of them in their proper context and at their proper time. For the married person, this may mean one thing; for the the dating couple it may mean another; and for the priest or celibate person it may mean still another.
So what exactly does Christian sexual ethics teach about God’s plan for us? Simply put, sexual relations is ordered for the marriage between a husband and a wife for the purposes of procreation, the greater union of the couple, and the pleasure of the spouses. We will find that any other pursuit of sexual pleasure outside of marriage will only lead to frustration, emptiness, loneliness, and despair.
When listing the purposes of human sexuality, I purposely listed them in order of importance. Procreation is the most important purpose of sexual relations. It is an awe-filled and mysterious cooperation with the creative powers of God that this act can lead to the creation of a new human person! Thus every act of marital relations is sacred and must be open to new life. Contraception—or any act that does not permit the possibility of the conception of a new life—is therefore gravely disordered and contrary to the plan for sexuality that God has for us. Other methods of avoiding pregnancy such as Natural Family Planning, where pregnancy is avoided by postponing relations during times of fertility, are permissible, but only when grave matters such as health issues or extreme economic hardship exist. It is best to consult a priest or Catholic knowledgeable in this area of ethics to help guide you in which situations warrant Natural Family Planning and which scenarios are God’s invitation to be more generous.
A final word on some practical ways to live holy purity. For men especially, but for everyone: guard your eyes. Shortly after proclaiming the Beatitudes and while still preaching His Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord gives this advice: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29). And immediately prior to this, He says, “Every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). Clearly the area of purity is very much an area that begins with the eyes. In this area, courage is to flee! As soon as it becomes apparent that a temptation against purity is happening, flee! Run away as fast as you can (figuratively) and don’t look back. This could be when browsing the Internet, enjoying an afternoon on the beach, or even at work with a colleague. And beyond the eyes, be very careful about how you feel about someone who is not your spouse. The moment a hint of familiarity or affection that’s not appropriate for your relationship may develop, snuff it out. It is easier to blow out the first sparks than extinguish a raging forest fire.
Holy purity will look different for the young, for the married, for the celibate, for the widowed, and so on. However, the main principles remain. We must echo St. Augustine’s famous words: “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You,” O God. A restless heart leads to impurity as it did in St. Augustine’s own youth (this holy saint had a mistress and an illegitimate child before becoming Christian!). A pure heart, a heart that rests in God through a life of prayer, sacrifice, and service to others, leads to a life of holy purity, controlling one’s passions so as to “see God” both now and for eternity. And what could be better than that!
~ Chris Spellman