Sometimes a story is only a story. Other times, a story is true. And then there are stories that are more than a story.
During my four years of study in Italy, a friend, a fellow seminarian, decided to take a two week vacation in a country that shall remain nameless. On his return, he shared with me the experience that he had.
In many respects this country had a highly developed culture, much like our own. One could easily travel great distances in short periods of time. Technology made nearly instantaneous communication possible. Most people were able, with hard work, to have a very high standard of living that allowed for all of the material comforts that one could imagine. Medical care was available that could extend life and improve its quality.
After about a week, it became clear that the main thing that interested the people of this country was food. In the first week or so, my friend said that he appreciated the fact that food was very inexpensive and available in abundance just about everywhere he went. He thought it was nice that rather than the typical three meals, the people there ate five: breakfast, brunch, lunch, supper and dinner. Eating seemed to be the activity around which daily life revolved. But, by the eighth day of the visit, it started to get a bit creepy.
My friend began to notice that almost every television program was about preparing and eating food. The news and reality shows centered on who was cooking what and how and with whom they were eating it. He started to realize that some people of this strange country spent hours daily using their phones to look at different types of food just so that they could get their mouths to water. Some of them, when they found a picture of a particularly appetizing food, would send an image to their friends and talk about how much they would like to get their hands on it.
Toward the end of his two week stay, my friend started to see that this obsession with food had its negatives. When he went to the gym, he noticed that it was always full of people who were trying to stay ahead of the consequences of their rich diet. Many in the country were overweight. These observations spurred his curiosity. On his last day there, he popped into an internet café to do some research. He discovered that the incidence of diabetes and heart disease was very high in the country. But that wasn’t all.
Two generations ago, the public health community there made the decision that it would be impossible to get the people to restrain their appetite for food and that it would be better to develop drugs that would reduce the consequences of their overindulgence. “Food is a good thing, isn’t it?” was the slogan. While this medical research offered a panacea, experience taught that the new medications led people to believe that one could eat whatever one wanted whenever one wanted without any negative health repercussions. Far from improving public health, the new metabolism control pills they introduced only worsened mental and physical wellness.
Other profound social changes came from this dietary revolution. The country’s economy used to be a powerhouse of food production, exporting food all over the world. Due to the increased food consumption, the country gradually became dependent on imports to meet the ever-increasing demand. Worker productivity also declined precipitously. The typical workday now included two lunch breaks. Studies indicated that many employees spent hours a day looking at food websites when they were supposed to be working.
For centuries, meals had been a privileged time for families to spend together. The family meal was a way for spouses to communicate and to keep track of what was going on in the lives of their children. Common meals were also a means of strengthening the bonds of love that knit families together. Paradoxically, as food became more and more the center of peoples’ lives, families shared meals less and less. Eating became a solitary action. Young people reported that they wanted to get down to business rather wasting time on the preliminaries of setting the table and preparing a sumptuous meal. They preferred to microwave their meals and eat standing up.
As he got on the plane to go back to Rome and had some time to reflect, my friend could not help but think that this country had a serious disorder when it came to its approach to food and eating.
Sometimes a story is only a story. Other times a story is true. And then there are stories that are more than a story.
In Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Church at Corinth the Apostle to the Gentiles invites us to reflect on chastity. This virtue is particularly misunderstood today. The entertainment media and now the internet have done a great deal to bring out into everyday public life some of the most private and intimate parts of the human condition. For Christians, these realities are so sacred that they ought to be treated with the greatest discretion.
Before getting started with a discussion of chastity, it is important to distinguish between the virtue of chastity and celibacy. Celibacy, more properly called continence, refers to the renunciation of actions proper to the married state by those who are either not yet married or those who have taken a vow not to marry. Contrastingly, chastity refers to the virtue of bodily self-control that is appropriate to one’s state in life. For married persons, chastity is not a total renunciation, but the temperate use of a good thing according to God’s plan for life and love. Official Church teaching has always defended the holiness of marital love against those who have disparaged the dignity of this sacrament.
Saint Paul tells us that “the body is not for immorality.” A more focused translation might be “the body is not for impurity.” It is clear from our Lord’s own words in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament that the Christian standard of morality as regards chastity is very strict: total abstinence outside of marriage and complete fidelity after marriage, between a man and woman.
Why might this be? It cannot be because God wants to forbid pleasure. He was the One who created it and decided to attach it most intensely to the actions that put us in communion with others. An example might make this point more clear. For a priest, prayer is often experienced as an extremely pleasurable activity. However, if a priest spends long periods of time meditating and ignores his parishioners’ legitimate needs, he would be abusing prayer by trying to enjoy the spiritual pleasure attached to it without accepting the concomitant responsibility of service. A priest who prays while refusing to be of service to others has effectively sterilized his prayer life.
It is noteworthy that Paul situates his call to chastity in a deeper faith context. God made each one of us to be temples of His Holy Spirit. He loves each one of us so much that He wants to live inside us. This aspect of our Catholic faith is really quite extraordinary. Friends show their love by making time to be in each other’s presence. Spouses show their love by faithfully living a life-long one flesh union. Parents show their love to their children by doing everything that they can to foster the lives with which they have been entrusted.
Each of these forms of love, the love of friendship, martial love and parent love, is beautiful. God’s love for us includes all three of these but goes far beyond it. Jesus desires to be our friend. He wants to share a meal with us, to tell us His story and listen to us tell our stories. Jesus is the bridegroom of the Church. He loves us, the members of His body, with the ecstatic intensity of spousal love. Jesus also reveals the Fatherhood of God. When Jesus took on a human nature, He made it possible for each one of us to call His Father “Our Father.” Just as an earthly father loves his children by giving them life and giving of his substance to sustain them, so also our Heavenly Father loves and cares for us.
However, and this is a significant however, in none of these forms of love does the lover come permanently and abidingly into the beloved. They are weak analogies of the love that God has for us. The image that Saint Paul uses in 1st Corinthians comes much closer to the mark. God loves us so much that He desires to come into us and live in us! He wants to be more intimate to us than we are to ourselves, to share His own self with us.
What follows, therefore, is that when Saint Paul asserts that “you are not your own,” he is not putting forth a master-slave paradigm for our relationship with God. It would not even be entirely accurate to say that he is suggesting that God wants us to know Him in a way that a beloved knows her lover. God wants to live in us in order to make us like Him. As Saint Athanasius of Alexandria said, “God became human so that humans could become gods.” The Holy Trinity wants to transform us so that we are taken into His eternity, goodness, knowledge, power and most of all, His infinite Love. When we lose ourselves in God by surrendering ourselves to Him, we find something greater than we could possibly imagine, namely, the fulfillment of all our desire. “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.”
We are, each one of us, temples of the Holy Spirit. And God knows how difficult it is to be chaste in the immoral culture in which we live. He will not leave us without the help of His grace and mercy when we earnestly seek holiness. All that He asks is that we never settle for anything less than perfection and that we learn to rely on His grace to get there.