The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to better understand the Jesuit Vows. To learn more, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: Vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience.”
Last summer, I was visiting two of my closest friends in Long Beach, California. Driving with them to pick up their seven-year-old daughter from her summer day camp, one of my friends turned to me and asked if I ever get lonely as a Jesuit. “Human beings are meant to be touched,” she reminded me. “Don’t you ever miss the touch of another person?” It’s a fair question and one that most of us in religious life wrestle with ourselves. Of the three vows we take (poverty, chastity, and obedience), chastity seems to be the most confounding and unsettling—both to those of us who live the life of the vows and to those who don’t. As I’ve grown in my own life of chastity, I’ve come to learn that celibacy is a grace, a “habit of that heart,” that we learn from those around us, both our brothers and sisters in religious life and also from family, friends, and loved ones who are married, single, widowed, or divorced.
In my own life, God has shaped my heart for chastity through the witness of my parents’ faithfulness to their own vows at the end of my father’s life. About ten years ago, my father was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. If there is one thing to know about the disease, it is that it slowly robs a person of who they are. For my dad, it took his language first, then his speech, then his personality and behavior, and finally his body. He died when he lost the ability to use his facial muscles and so could no longer eat or drink.
Through the whole process, my mother stood faithfully by his side. She cared for him at home for as long as she could and, when we eventually had to move him into a memory care community, she would visit him with devoted regularity. What impressed me most were the many ways that she found to touch him. She would stroke his back with the tip of her fingers, smooth lotion slowly into his dry hands, and gently caress his forearm as he lay in bed. He was visibly more at ease when she touched him: he would stop pacing, he would slowly start to relax, and he would stop humming (a telltale sign of his anxiety).
My mother’s care for my father is a reminder that all people–and not just Jesuits–are called to chastity, a term that describes the healthy integration of one’s sexuality into their state of life. “All the baptized are called to chastity,” the Catechism states, by which “the Christian has ‘put on Christ.’”1 My parents modeled for me chastity within their vocation of marriage. But, now in my fifth year as a Jesuit, these tender moments between my parents continue to teach me about my own religious vows. My father’s vulnerability bore witness to our nakedness before God, while my mother’s care for him modeled for me the unconditionality of God’s love. And seeing the two of them together in this state of intimacy and powerlessness still evokes for me the mutuality of our relationship with God.
As a Jesuit, my experience of chastity is a bit different from my parents’ (or the married friends that I introduced earlier). Practically, Jesuit chastity means that we do not form an exclusive relationship, but instead offer our love and care to all, including those we live with in community and those we serve in our apostolates. As one group of Jesuits wrote in the 1970s, “by [chastity], we offer an undivided heart to God, a heart capable of self-giving in service approaching the freedom from self-interest which God himself loves all of his creatures.”2 As vowed religious, our chastity is expressed in celibacy, meaning that we abstain from marriage (and from sex outside of marriage).
There are certainly times when the vow of chastity is a challenge. On one of my first days as a Jesuit, an older priest told us that chastity is a matter of the heart (and not just the plumbing!). Like many others, I am a hopeless romantic. There are days that I yearn for the banal intimacies of life with a romantic partner: someone who will be there when you go to the doctor’s office, cook dinner, struggle in life, and wake up in the morning. In my experience, the struggles with religious chastity have more to do with intimacy than they do anything else. As that great fictional Franciscan Friar Nacho Libre once said, “I get to sleep in a bed by myself for the rest of my life. It’s fantastic.”
At its best, though, chastity invites us religious to live lives marked by vulnerability, mutuality, and nakedness before God. It invites us to see our own human expressions of intimacy—touch, love, imagination, sensuality, and vulnerability—not as things made for our own pleasure or gratification but, instead, as bearers of God’s grace, as ways of experiencing and communicating an experience of God’s totalizing love for each of us. This is certainly the case for married people too. But for me as a religious (and as a single person before that), the absence of an exclusive romantic partner makes prayer, community, and service all the more important as sources of intimacy, connection, and union.
In The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus—our rule of life—St. Ignatius has very little to say about the vow of chastity. “What pertains to the vow of chastity requires no interpretation,” he wrote,” since it is evident how perfectly it should be preserved, by endeavoring to imitate therein the purity of angels in cleanness of body and mind.”3 While I’m no angel, there is characteristic wisdom in the words of Ignatius. As I understand them, angels are messengers of God’s grace sent to bear forth God’s word to the world. Thinking back to my father’s journey to the cross, and the graced moments that I have spent beside hospital beds, around dinner tables, in living rooms, and in classrooms, it is clear that, when lived in earnest, chaste lives allow us to imitate angels by tasting and seeing the goodness of the Lord on this side of heaven.
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Washington D.C., U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000, no. 2348. ↩
- Curia of the Superior General of the Society of Jesus. “Decree 11: Union of Hearts and Minds in the Society.” In Jesuit Life and Mission Today: The Decrees and Accompanying Documents of the 31st-35th General Congregations of the Society of Jesus. St. Louis, MO: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2009, p. 345. ↩
- Curia of the Superior General of the Society of Jesus. The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus and Their Complementary Norms. Edited by John W. Padberg. St. Louis, MO: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996, no. 547. ↩