A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 11 : The Value of Chastity and Its Spiritual Fruitfulness

We have discussed prudence, justice, fortitude, and patience, which are all united to meekness. We must now consider what temperance should be in us, especially under the form in which we most need to practice it, namely, that of chastity, which corresponds to that of the beatitude: "Blessed are the clean of heart." We shall first consider this virtue in the most general manner, as it should be practiced in every condition or type of life, including Christian marriage. To proceed with order, we shall speak of the value of this virtue, of the motive which ought to inspire it. We shall then see its spiritual fruitfulness, especially when it is practiced under its highest form, virginity.(1)


Chastity, says St. Thomas, is not simply that laudable natural disposition called modesty, a happy inclination, fearful by nature, which, through its very fear of evil, protects the soul against the disorders of concupiscence. Modesty, no matter how laudable, is not a virtue; it is only a natural good disposition. Chastity is a virtue and, as the name virtue indicates, it is a power. The acquired virtue of chastity, as it appeared in the Vestals, causes the light of right reason to descend into the occasionally disturbed and troubled sensibility. Infused chastity, received at baptism, causes the light of grace to descend into the sensible part of the soul; it makes use of acquired chastity somewhat as the intellect makes use of the imagination. They are exercised together; acquired chastity is thus at the service of infused chastity.(2) Virginity is a still higher virtue, for it offers to God for a whole lifetime the integrity of body and heart which it consecrates to Him. It resembles simple chastity, says St. Thomas, as munificence resembles liberality, since it offers a splendid gift, absolute integrity.(3) According to St. Cyprian and St. Ambrose, it gives the Church a particular splendor (4) and contributes in giving it the luster of the mark of sanctity, to distinguish it from the sects which have renounced the evangelical counsels.

The value of chastity, whether that of virgins, widows, or married people, appears first of all by contrast with the disorders which spring from the concupiscence of the flesh, disorders which often bring in their wake divorce, family dishonor, the unhappiness of married couples and their children. We need only recall the divorce of Henry VIII of England, which drew practically the entire country into schism and then into heresy. To preserve us from similar errors, Christ says to all: "If thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out. . . . And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off. . . . For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body go into hell." (5)

Chastity is lost through the exterior senses, the thoughts, the desires of the heart. It does not admit of any kind of forbidden pleasure. It retrenches even pleasures that are useless though permitted, and it leads man to live detached from them.

The motive that should inspire chastity is the love of God. Chastity of heart and body is in reality the renunciation of every illicit affection out of love of God. It prevents the life of the heart from descending, so that it may rise toward God like a living flame ever more pure and ardent. Chastity of the body is like bark around chastity of the heart, which is the more precious.

To preserve this virtue we must keep always spiritually close to Jesus crucified, as St. Francis de Sales says.(6) We cannot do this without a twofold mortification: that of the body and senses, especially as soon as danger arises, and that of the heart, by forbidding ourselves every inordinate affection. Such an affection would become not only useless, but harmful, and would start us down a perilous slope. It is only too easy for us to descend, and to slip much more rapidly than we foresee, and it is very difficult to reascend. People sometimes forge chains for themselves which later they lack the courage to break. They end by saying as worldings do: "Human love, if sincere, has undeniable rights." To this we must answer: "There can be no rights contrary to the love due to God, the sovereign Good and Source of all truly generous love."

On inordinate affections, The Imitation declares: "Whenever a man desireth anything inordinately, straightway he is disquieted within himself. . . . It is by resisting the passions therefore, and not by serving them, that true peace of heart is to be found. Peace, therefore, is . . . in the fervent and spiritual man." (7) In the same work we read that excessive familiarity with people causes the soul to lose intimacy with our Lord. The author declares: "How foolish and vain, if thou desire anything out of Jesus! Is not this a greater loss to thee than if thou shouldst lose the whole world? . . . Whoever findeth Jesus, findeth a good treasure, a good above every good. . . . For His sake and in Him, let enemies as well as friends be dear to thee; and for all these thou must pray to Him that all may know and love Him." (8) The same sentiments are also expressed in the hymn, Jesu, dulcis memoria:

Jesu, spes poenitentibus
Quam pius es petentibus!
Quam bonus te quaerentibus!
Sed quid invenientibus!

To reach this close union with Christ, we must be humble and pure of heart; we must, as St. Francis de Sales says, always practice humility and chastity and, if possible, never or very rarely mention them.


Chastity practiced in its perfection makes man live in mortal flesh a spiritual life which is like the prelude of eternal life. Since it frees man from matter, it makes him in a manner like the angels. It even has for its effect to make his body increasingly like the soul, and the soul more and more like to God.

When the body lives only for the soul, it tends in fact to resemble it. The soul is a spiritual substance that can be seen immediately only by the spiritual gaze of God and the angels. It is simple because it has no extended parts; it is beautiful, especially when it keeps a continually upright intention, beautiful with the beauty of beautiful doctrines, of beautiful actions; it is calm, in the sense that it is above every corporeal movement; it is incorruptible or immortal because it is simple and immaterial, because it does not depend intrinsically on a perishable body.

By purity the body becomes spiritual, so to speak; from time to time it lets the soul shine through the gaze especially, like the look of a saint in prayer. By this virtue the body becomes simple: in proportion as the attitude of a worldly woman is complex, in the same proportion that of a virgin is simple. As someone has said: "There are two very simple beings: the child, who does not yet know evil; and the saint, who has forgotten it by dint of conquering it." By purity the body grows beautiful, for all that is pure is beautiful: for example, an unclouded sky, a diamond through which light passes without any hindrance. Thus the bodies of the saints represented in the frescoes of Fra Angelico have a supernatural beauty which is that of a soul given entirely to God. By purity the body becomes calm and, in a certain way, even incorruptible; whereas vice withers, ravages, and kills the body prematurely, virginity preserves it.

Neither the body of our Lord nor that of the Blessed Virgin underwent the corruption of the tomb. Not infrequently the bodies of the saints remain intact, and long after their death sometimes exhale an exquisite odor, a sign of their perfect chastity. Their body, which lived only for the soul, still keeps its imprint. The Eucharist leaves, as it were, seeds of immortality in the body, which is destined to rise again and to receive a reflection of the glory of the soul. Christ tells us: "He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, hath everlasting life; and I will raise him up in the last day." (9)

Since perfect chastity renders the body like to the soul, it is even truer to say that it renders the soul like to God. The three attributes of God appropriated respectively to each of the divine Persons are power, wisdom, love. By perfect purity the soul becomes increasingly strong, luminous, and loving. Here especially appears the fruitfulness of this virtue.

By chastity the soul becomes strong. We have only to recall the courage of the virgin martyrs: St. Cecilia, St. Agnes, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Lucy of Syracuse, and many others. Their executioners tired more quickly of torturing them than they did of suffering. St. Lucy declared to her judges that a chaste and pious soul is the temple of the Holy Ghost. Upon this answer, they determined to profane her body by dragging her to a place of debauchery, but she remained rooted to the ground like a pillar of granite; the Holy Ghost kept her for Himself in spite of the efforts of her persecutors. The Lord gave these virgins an invincible strength which made them surmount every fear in the midst of the most severe torments. Though not miraculous, what strength, what moral authority perfect purity gives to religious in hospitals, in prisons, where they often gain the respect of poor perverted creatures who recognize in this virtue a superior power, that of the strong woman whom nothing weakens! For this reason particularly, the Virgin of virgins, the refuge of sinners and consoler of the afflicted, is terrible to the demons. She also bears the name of Mary Help of Christians or Our Lady of Perpetual Help. We may all hope in her power, which is full of goodness.

Likewise by purity the soul becomes luminous: "Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God." The Eagle of the Evangelists was a virgin, and so was St. Paul. St. Thomas, the greatest of theologians, was delivered at the age of sixteen from every temptation of the flesh that he might devote his entire life to the contemplation of divine things which he was to teach to others. Perfect purity also gives occasionally to Christian virgins, like Catherine of Alexandria and Catherine of Siena, a supernatural perception enabling them to see in a way even in this life the beauty of God, the sublime harmony of the apparently most contradictory divine perfections, such as God's infinite justice and the tenderness of His mercy. These Christian virgins do not confound the good pleasure of God with arbitrariness; they do not argue about the mysteries of infallible Providence and of predestination, but if they touch upon them, they use exact expressions full of the spirit of faith. This clear vision of pure love has also enabled contemplatives and Christian virgins devoid of theological learning to write unforgettable pages on the spiritual beauty of Christ's countenance, on the secret that unites in Him the most heroic fortitude and the most tender compassion, superabundant sadness and the loftiest serenity, the supreme demands of justice and the inexhaustible treasures of mercy. Only great wisdom knows what can be said and what remains inexpressible on this subject, a mystery that calls for the silence of adoration.

Finally, perfect purity gives to the soul, together with supernatural light, a spiritual love of God and of our neighbor, which is truly the hundredfold and which compensates far in excess of all the sacrifices we have made or still have to make.

In a truly purified heart, the love of God becomes increasingly tender and strong. Far removed from all sentimentality, it rises above the sensibility; in the higher part of the spiritual will, it becomes that living flame of love spoken of by St. John of the Cross. It is the perfect realization of what the supreme precept demands: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind." (10) Under certain touches of the Holy Ghost, the spiritual heart melts, as it were, into that of the Savior to draw from Him greater strength and ever new youth. In this love there is a savor of eternal life.

When the soul consecrated to God is wholly faithful, it merits the name of spouse of Christ. By the strength and tenderness of its love, it is associated with His sorrows, His immortal joys, His profound work in souls, His anticipated or definitive victories.

At the summit of this ascent, there is on earth between the consecrated soul and its God a spiritual marriage, an indissoluble union which transforms it into Him and enables it to say: "My beloved to me, and I to Him." This spiritual marriage is a profound intimacy, reaching at times even to the revelation of most secret thoughts. There are a thousand things which the faithful spouse of Christ divines and foresees. Between Christ and the soul there is perfect communion of ideas, sentiment, will, sacrifice, and action for the salvation of souls; and the reception of the Holy Eucharist each day with greater fervor, a fervor of the will, if not of the sensibility, is the daily testimony of this love.

This very pure and strong love of God and of souls in God is the source of a lofty spiritual paternity or maternity. To convince ourselves of this we need only recall the words of St. John the Evangelist to his children. Our Lord said to His apostles: "Little children, yet a little while I am with you." (11) St. John says to his disciples: "My little children, these things I write to you,"that you may not sin." (12) "Your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake." (13) "And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He shall appear we may. . . not be confounded by Him at His coming." (14) "Let no man deceive you." (15) "Let us not love in word nor in tongue, but in deed and in truth." (16) "You are of God, little children. . . . Greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world." (17)

St. Paul speaks with the same fatherly tenderness and strength when he writes to the Galatians: "My little children, of whom I am in labor again, until Christ be formed in you. . . . I am ashamed for you." (18) To the Corinthians he writes: [Shall I remind you of] my daily instance, the solicitude for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is scandalized, and I am not on fire?" (19)

Such is spiritual fatherhood in all its generosity, tenderness, and strength. It compensates far and beyond for the temporal fatherhood which the Apostle renounces. He does not found a definite and limited home where a life that will last sixty or eighty years is transmitted. He labors to form souls for our Lord, to communicate to them a life that will last forever.

Also worthy of admiration is the spiritual maternity of true religious, who, by increasing fidelity, deserve to be called spouses of Jesus Christ. They exercise this maternity toward abandoned children, the poor who have been forsaken by all, the sick who have no resources, suffering souls who are drifting away, and the agonizing. To such religious Christ will say: "I was thirsty, and you gave Me to drink; . . . I was hungry; . . . naked, . . . sick. . .in prison, and you came to Me. . . . Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these My least brethren, you did it to Me." (20)

Perfect purity renders the soul increasingly like to God, strong, luminous, loving, and makes man share in God's spiritual paternity, in that of the Savior, who came to found not a restricted family, but the great family of the Church which should extend to all peoples and to all generations. All this shows the grandeur of the evangelical counsel of chastity and of its effective practice.

The spirit of this counsel has on occasion also completely transfigured temporal fatherhood or motherhood. One of the greatest examples is that of St. Monica who, having given birth to Augustine, brought him forth spiritually by her tears and prayers. Monica thus obtained the conversion of her son; she became doubly his mother, of body and soul. All who are indebted to St. Augustine for the doctrine he taught should thank the mother to whom Ambrose said: "The son of so many tears could not perish."

To sum up, the moral virtue of chastity, when truly understood and practiced in a high degree, prepares the soul to receive the grace of contemplation, which proceeds from living faith illumined by the gifts. Then begins the realization of the promise: "Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God." The truly pure soul begins, as it were, to see God in prayer, while uniting itself more intimately to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to the Consecration, and to Communion. It also begins to see divine Providence in the circumstances of life, for "to them that love God [and who persevere in this love], all things work together unto good." (21) Finally, following this way, man begins to see God in the souls of those about him; gradually he sometimes discovers, under a thick and opaque envelope, a luminous soul that pleases God far more than he had first thought. Thus to see God in souls is a grace that must be merited. It requires a particular clear perception which is gradually obtained by detachment from self and a more pure and strong love of God, which makes us discover in Him those who love Him and those who are called to love Him, those from whom we can receive and those to whom we can and should give for love of Him.



1. Christ tells us: "He that can take, let him take it [the counsel of virginity]" (Matt. 19: 12). The Council of Trent, Sess. XXIV, can. 10 (Denz., no. 981), defined against Luther that the state of virginity or of absolute chastity consecrated to God is superior to the conjugal state. St. Paul clearly says so: "Now concerning virgins, I have no commandment of the Lord; but I give counsel, as having obtained mercy of the Lord, to be faithful. I think, therefore, that this is good for the present necessity, that it is good for man so to be. . . . But if thou take a wife, thou hast not sinned. And if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned; nevertheless, such shall have tribulation of the flesh. But I spare you. . . . He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord: how he may please God. But he that is with a wife is solicitous for the things of the world: how he may please his wife. And he is divided. . . . But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world: how she may please her husband. . . . But if her husband die, she is at liberty. Let her marry to whom she will. . . . But more blessed shall she be, if she so remain" (I Cor. 7:25-40).

2. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 151, a.1-3.

3. Cf. ibid., q. 152, a.3 and ad 5um; a.5.

4. Cf. ibid.

5. Matt. 5:29 f.

6. Introduction to a Devout Life, Part III, chap. 13. Ibid., chap. 12: "As one may more easily abstain from anger than regulate it, so it is easier to keep ourselves altogether from carnal pleasures than to preserve a moderation in them."

7. The Imitation, Bk. I, chap. 6.

8. Ibid., Bk. II, chap. 8.

9. John 6:55.

10. Luke 10:27.

11. John 13: 33.

12. Cf. I John 2: I.

13. Ibid., 12.

14. Ibid., 28.

15. Ibid., 3:7.

16. Ibid., 18.

17. Ibid., 4:4.

18. Gal. 4:19 ff..

19. Cf. II Cor. 11:28 f.