This is the fifth and final installment of my reflections on the “purity culture” often found in Christian homes and churches. Out of fear that young people will be corrupted by the sex-obsessed culture, we sometimes miss the mark ourselves. We link shame and sexual desire together in ways God never intended; we abdicate our responsibility of providing apprenticeship in chastity; or we model a moralistic self-righteousness rather than humble growth and fruitfulness. Perhaps the biggest mistake is turning “purity” exclusively into a moral issue and/or a sexual issue. That is certainly not the biblical view nor the Catholic view.
Lie #5 – “Purity” is mainly about sexual morality
In the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:7). Isn’t it interesting that most American Christians hear these words and instantly imagine sexual morality?
Yes, Jesus proceeds to address adultery and lust in the subsequent chapters. But he also addresses murder, aggression, anger, unforgiveness, and greed. He teaches about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He invites us to seek first the Kingdom of God, and in so doing to persevere in seeking, asking, and knocking.
Above all else, Jesus speaks from start to finish about a relationship with God the Father. He invites us into communion. He desires us to be “blessed” by our Father, who sent his own Son to die for us while we were yet sinners. We do not and cannot earn our way into relationship by good conduct. We enter our covenant with God as ones who are poor in spirit; grieving and mourning, meek and humble; aching with hunger and thirst. Jesus knows that we will be presenting broken lives to God for mending. Purity of heart means bringing God all of the scattered pieces of our shattered hearts! It is then that real growth can begin.
In other words, when Jesus speaks of being “pure in heart,” he is inviting us to be wholly and wholeheartedly consecrated to God. That means allowing every dimension of our being to be blessed by him. It is the opposite of hiding away pieces of ourselves in shame! It was the devil who tried to convince Adam and Eve to run and hide after they had disobeyed God.
Toxic shame is perhaps the single greatest obstacle that keeps us from letting ourselves (ALL of ourselves) be loved by God and others. Many of us are more susceptible to shame because we learned to tie performance and relationships together: “I am only lovable if…” or “I am only lovable when…” To the extent that those lies have purchase in our hearts, Christian morality becomes a torment rather than Good News.
The urge to hide ourselves is challenging enough when we feel shame over moral faults. But the devil has worked still greater harm in many of us. In moments of betrayal, abuse, abandonment, or neglect, he has crept in and whispered lies – convincing us to hold contempt toward our desires, our bodies, our sexuality, or our capacity for delight. We then enter a false battle for “purity” – trying to rid ourselves of that which is best in us! If we feel shame every time we feel desire, how can we grow in healthy relationships? Hiding ourselves does not lead to intimacy.
Our shame can be healed by moving away from hiding and towards relationships: becoming truly and safely seen, known, heard, understood, and cherished – not some idealized version of ourselves, but as we currently are, a work in progress.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2518) speaks of purity of heart as a threefold sharing in God’s purity: in our charity, our chastity, and our orthodox belief. In other words, we are created to share in divine Goodness, divine Beauty, and divine Truth.
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty – the human heart has an almost insatiable longing for all three! The devil HATES this longing in us, but cannot erase it. So he attempts to divert and distract us away from the intimacy of relationship that is at the core of all three.
Our intellects are ordered to the Truth. Purity of heart includes surrendering to the Truth whenever the evidence is in front of us. The humble heart is willing to be proven wrong – or incomplete. The arrogant heart resists the vulnerability of surrender – either through obstinate refusal to believe what God has revealed or through a dogmatism that thinks it knows everything – as though Truth is an object we could possess. The closer we get to divine Truth, the more we realize how little we truly know!
Our wills are ordered to Goodness. We long to love and be loved. And so God commands us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is a two-way street: freely receiving and freely giving. Growing in purity of heart includes recognizing any ways in which we are blocked – either in giving or receiving. The more we love, the greater our ache to become more God-like in our love.
Our ache for Beauty flows from both our intellect and our will. Here we find the intense desire of eros that is such a glorious divine gift. No wonder the devil tries so hard to ruin it! Early and often, he entices us to curse our desire for Beauty – to feel shame around this God-given longing.
Yes, our desires often run wild – overindulging in food, becoming possessive in relationships, or wandering into sexual fantasies. That is why the Catechism speaks of “apprenticeship” in chastity. There is an appropriate pruning or discipline – not for the sake of cutting off desire, but of fully claiming it.
The word “purity” is first and foremost about our relationship with God –with sexuality as only one dimension. It is a damaging distortion to use “purity” in a moralistic sense. Instead, the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes ten full paragraphs to the much more helpful words “integrity” and “integrality” (see nn. 2338-2347). Little by little, we learn how to put all the pieces together, aided by healthy relationships with God and others.
Becoming a whole person in our sexuality, our desires, our emotions, and our relationships is not a matter of “on” or “off,” maintaining or losing. It is a lifelong task. The Catechism proclaims this integration to be “a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life” (n. 2342).
We are called to keep growing in charity, chastity, and truth our whole life long. The more we grow, the more we will long to grow. Getting a taste of God’s Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is described by many of the mystics as a “wound” – but in this case a wound of love that keeps us coming back to our lover for more. Once we begin tasting from the spring of living waters, our thirst for God intensifies. We desire more; we ache; we taste; we desire; and so the cycle of growth continues.
Apart from those living waters, we wither and die. If we only bring parts of ourselves to the living waters, the relationship will remain impartial and restricted. God desires ALL of us. The mystics desire ALL of him. Unlike lust, however, there is no devouring here. Jesus and his bride become one flesh, in a way that causes both to flourish. Every healthy and holy human relationship imitates that heavenly nuptial union. It is indeed a daunting and lifelong task to keep maturing in imitation of Christ. We need not shame ourselves or others in the process, but allow the kindness of God to keep spurring us on to deeper repentance.