This is Derek Redmond, one of Great Britain’s greatest Olympic runners. At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Derek snapped his hamstring during the 400m semi-finals and collapsed on the track. In spite of multiple officials telling him to stay down, Derek got back up to finish the race – 250 more meters. As he hobbled his way to the finish line, Derek’s father met him on the track and acted as his crutch the rest of the way. It’s a testament to a lot of things: endurance, perseverance, and love. (You can watch the whole scene unfold below:
When St. Paul writes that “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), it is moments like these that he was writing about. Derek’s father saw how important it was for his son to finish the race, and in the excruciating final meters, the Olympic crowds gave them a standing ovation.
Love matters. All of us want to be loved. Our basic human vocation is to love, both in relation to God and one another. For many, this “vocation” to love seems to be bound to our sexuality – which on one hand makes sense, as sexuality is a profound part of every human person, something that is holy and sacred. A sexual relationship draws two people as near to one another as is humanly possible – and it’s also the place where new life (babies!) comes from. It is for this reason the Church talks about sexuality having both a unitive (two people becoming one) and procreative (life-giving) dimension. This is meant to involve a lifelong commitment to love, which is the Church considers it such a big deal that sex be saved for a permanent, sacramental marriage between a man and a woman. Sex binds two people permanently to one another, and unlike a hook-up, which is about one moment in time, sex makes concrete your wedding vows, re-speaking them in the language of the body.
This is why the Church expects us to be in control of our passions, to learn what it truly is to love, and to live our sexuality in a healthy and holy way. We call this the virtue of chastity, and Pope John Paul II explained it well in his book, Love and Responsibility:
To be chaste means to have a ‘transparent’ attitude to a person of the other sex – chastity means just that – the interior transparency without which love is not itself, for it cannot be itself until the desire to enjoy (use) is subordinated to a readiness to show loving kindness in every situation.
This is not easy. St Augustine says that: “Of all inner conflicts the most arduous are concerned with chastity. These battles are of daily occurrence.” C.S. Lewis points out that it is in this area and this area alone that we’ll argue – even as Christians – that doing what we want is more important than God’s plan for us: “Every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is four legs in a bed. It’s like having a morality in which stealing fruit is considered wrong – unless you steal nectarines.” People use the excuse “I deserve to be happy” to do all sorts of things in the name of love that miss the point of giving oneself to the other in a permanent, life-giving relationship.
So how do you do it? How do you properly integrate your sexuality and live the transparent chastity JPII described earlier? I’m going to suggest three things – an I.R.S. to living a life of sexual purity (and authentic love):
I-Intimacy with God.
First of all it is difficult (if not impossible) to properly live this vision without God’s help. If you ever saw Bruce Almighty, there’s a beautiful scene where Bruce finally realizes how he’s been treating his beloved selfishly, and God asks him to pray for her – truly, for her. So he does, and ends the prayer asking to be able to see her as God does – through His eyes. Integrating our sexuality requires in part the gift of seeing those around us as God does: as His beautiful sons and daughters. So a part of learning to love involves drawing near to the Divine Lover. But there’s another side to this, because if you compromise your purity, it will play itself out in your relationship with God. Roy Schoeman writes: “There is a close relationship between the maintenance of purity and intimacy with God.” Essentially, it comes down to knowing that God expects something from you, and when you choose not to live up to it, at a certain point you will, as Adam and Eve did, feel the need to hide from Him. If you do fall short, return to Him in Reconciliation, be strengthened by the Eucharist… but the point here is that you need to pray, drawing close to God, asking for and receiving His grace, and letting Him shape the way in which you live love.
R-Respect your Sexuality:
When you really treasure something, you do everything you can to protect it. We value the possessions in our homes, so we lock our doors and in some cases hook up security systems to keep them safe from others. My wife and I go to great care to make sure our three children are safely buckled up before we drive anywhere.
Similarly, the gift of yourself – your sexuality – is a sacred gift, and needs to be treated that way. The way you talk about it, dress (or neglect to dress), the way the music you listen to talks about it, the attitudes of your favorite TV shows – all of this will impact the way you view your sexuality. As St. Augustine says, “What you contemplate, you become.” This doesn’t mean you starve yourself on a diet of Vitamin C & Baby Einstein- but you need to be discriminating about what you listen to. If there’s a sex scene in a show you’re watching, look away. Some shows and music are probably not worth your time – consider that. If you’re tempted to by the parts of a person – guy or girl (we call this lust) – take the advice of Sirach 9:8, and look in a different direction. Basically, do all you can to think about, talk about, and treat sexuality as a beautiful gift – not just as an urge to be fulfilled or an itch to be scratched.
Catholic spirituality has a great tradition of fasting. You see it throughout the Old Testament, as different figures fast for a particular intention – to save someone they love or to change someone’s heart. Jesus, admonishing the Pharisees for fasting to get attention, admonishes them “WHEN you fast” (Matthew 6:16 & 17) – not IF you fast, meaning that fasting is not just an optional part of Christian faith. To fast from something – like food, or a TV show, or some other comfort – is not to say that this thing is bad, but that you value something else (your relationship with God) more than that. It builds character in you, teaching you self-control, sacrifice, and helps you to have more strength when faced with temptation (God’s grace at work in you.) Spouses who have successful marriages sacrifice for one another and for their children all the time. You will also occasionally see some profound sacrifices in other relationships. So in addition to praying, and doing what you can to treat your sexuality as sacred: look for opportunities to fast because you’ll discover what is TRULY valuable then. The Church used to have a practice of fasting from meat EVERY Friday – you could choose to do that or something along those lines on day of the week, or during one evening… but the point is, as is the case with prayer: do it.
Know I am praying for you on this journey- don’t give up, because it is positively worth it. You might also want to check out a Pastoral Letter on Chastity from the Canadian Bishops that you might find encouraging on this journey.