“Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.”—Matt. 5:8
No one knows the value of chastity better than God Himself. Now God says: “No price is worthy of a continent soul.” (Ecclus. 26:20). All that man prizes and esteems, riches, pleasures, honors, bear no comparison to a continent soul. St. Ephrem calls chastity “the life of the spirit.” St. Peter Damian styles it “the queen of virtues,” and St. Cyprian says by means of chastity we celebrate the most glorious triumphs. He who conquers the vice opposed to this virtue will easily triumph over the rest. On the contrary, he who permits himself to be ruled by incontinency falls an easy prey to the other vices such as hatred, injustice, etc. Chastity, says St. Ephrem, renders us in a certain sense like angels. This comparison is altogether justified, for the life of angels is far from being a life of carnal gratifications. Angels are pure by nature; chaste souls are pure by reason of virtue. “On account of the merit of this virtue,” says Cassian, “human beings are placed on a level with the angels.” “Of course there is a difference,” says St. Bernard, “between the chaste man and the angel, but it is not a difference of virtue; it is only one of happiness. If the chastity of the angels is more blessed, the chastity of man is more courageous.”
St. Basil tells us that “chastity makes man very similar to God Himself, who is a pure spirit.” On this account Our Lord chose a virgin for His Mother, a virgin for His foster father, St. Joseph, a virgin for His precursor, St. John the Baptist. St. Jerome says that Our Lord loved St. John the Apostle more than the rest on account of this virtue. To the virgin disciple He entrusted His Immaculate Mother, just as He now confides His Holy Church and His Sacred Presence in the Holy Eucharist to the care of the celibate priest. “O holy purity,” says St. Athanasius, “thou art the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, the life of angels and the crown of saints.” How great, therefore, is the value of chastity! But how frightful the war that the flesh wages to rob us of this precious pearl!
Our body is the most powerful weapon the devil possesses to make us his slaves. On this account it is seldom that a man comes forth victorious from this conflict. “The struggle for chastity,” says St. Augustine, “is the most violent of all; the battle is renewed every day, and victory is rare.” “How many unfortunate persons there are,” says St. Lawrence Justinian, “who having spent long years in solitude amid prayer, fasting and mortification, yielded at last to sensuality, gave up their holy life, and with the loss of chastity suffered the loss of God.”
GREAT VIGILANCE NECESSARY
He, therefore, who would preserve the virtue of chastity must use the greatest precaution. “It is impossible for you to remain chaste,” says St. Charles Borromeo, “unless you constantly watch over yourself. Negligence in this regard leads almost invariably to the loss of virtue.” With regard to evil thoughts, there may be a twofold delusion. God-fearing souls who have little or no gift of discernment, and are inclined to scruples, think that every wicked thought that enters their mind is a sin. This is a mistake, for it is not the wicked thoughts in themselves that are sins, but the yielding or consenting to them. The wickedness of mortal sin consists in the perverse will which deliberately yields to sin with a complete knowledge of its wickedness and with full consent. And therefore St. Augustine teaches that when the consent of the will is absent, there is no sin. However much we may be tormented by temptations, the rebellion of the senses, or the inordinate motions of the inferior part of the soul, as long as there is no consent, there is no sin.
For the comfort of such anxious souls, let me suggest a good rule of conduct that is taught by all masters in the spiritual life. If a person who fears God and hates sin doubts whether he has consented to an evil thought or not, he is not bound to confess it, because it is morally certain that he has not given consent. For had he actually committed a mortal sin he would have no doubt about it, as mortal sin is such a monster in the eyes of one who fears God that its entrance into the heart could not take place without its being known.
Others, on the contrary, whose conscience is lax and not well-informed, think that evil thoughts and desires, though consented to, are not sins provided they are not followed by sinful actions. This error is worse than the one mentioned above. What we may not do, we may not desire. Therefore an evil thought or desire to which we consent comprises in itself all the wickedness of an evil deed. As sinful actions separate us from God, so wicked thoughts rob us of His grace. “Perverse thoughts separate us from God,” says the Book of Wisdom (1:3).
From what has been said, it follows that not all evil thoughts are sinful and not all sinful thoughts are equal in malice. We must therefore distinguish between an evil thought that is a mortal sin, one that is venial, and one that is no sin at all. With regard to sins of thought, three things are to be taken into consideration: enticement, pleasure and consent. By enticement, or allurement, is meant the first thought that prompts us to commit the sin suggested to our senses. This enticement or suggestion is no sin; indeed, if it is rejected at once by the will it becomes a source of merit. “As often as you resist temptation,” says St. Antoninus, “so often do you merit a crown.” Even the Saints were tormented by such thoughts. To overcome a temptation of impurity St. Benedict rolled himself in a bed of thorns, and St. Peter of Alcantara plunged into the ice-cold water of a pond. St. Paul tells us he was tempted against holy purity! “And lest the greatness of the revelations should exalt me, there was given me a sting of my flesh, an angel of Satan to buffet me. For which thing thrice I besought the Lord, that it might depart from me. And he said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity.” (2 Cor. 12:7–9).
“When a thief is trying to break in a door,” says St. Francis de Sales, “it is a sign he is not yet in the house. So, too, when the devil continues to tempt a soul it is a sign that soul is still in the grace of God.” St. Catherine of Siena was once violently assaulted by the devil for the space of three days with temptations against holy purity. When Our Lord appeared to her to comfort her she cried out: “Ah my Saviour, where hast Thou been these three days?” Jesus answered: “I was in your heart, and it was I who gave you strength to resist those temptations.” Our Lord then gave her to understand that her heart was purer after the assault than before.
Next to the enticement comes the pleasure. If the temptation is not rejected at once, a certain pleasure is experienced, and this it is that hurries one on to consent. As long as the will does not fully acquiesce, there is no mortal sin; at most it is venial. But if instant recourse is not had to God and every effort made to resist the temptation, the will is very apt to yield full consent and fall into grievous sin. A certain woman who was regarded as a saint was tempted one day by an evil thought. Failing to reject it at once, she became guilty of grievous sin. From false shame she neglected to confess the sinful thought she had yielded to, and shortly after, died. Now the Bishop of the place had considered her a saint, and accordingly he had her buried in his own chapel. On the following day the unfortunate soul appeared to him and declared that, owing to a sinful thought to which she had consented, she was eternally lost.
MEANS TO OVERCOME TEMPTATION
When assailed by such temptations, therefore, we must have instant recourse to the means necessary to overcome them. The first means consists in humbling oneself continually before God. David acknowledged that he had fallen into sin because he had not been humble and had trusted too much in himself. “Before I was humbled, I offended.” (Ps. 118:67). Distrustful of self, therefore, we must place all our confidence in God. The second means is to have immediate recourse to God without stopping to consider the temptation. The best thing to do is to pronounce the holy names of Jesus and Mary and continue to pronounce them until the temptation is overcome. If it is a violent temptation it may be well to repeat the following resolution: “Oh my God, I will rather die than offend Thee! Oh my Jesus, help me! Mary, my Mother, assist me!” The names of Jesus and Mary have particular efficacy against the temptations of the devil.
The third means consists in often receiving the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist. It is of the greatest importance to reveal our temptations to our confessor. “A temptation revealed,” says St. Philip Neri, “is half overcome.” If one has the misfortune to yield to such temptations, no time should be lost in confessing it. As for Holy Communion, it is well to remember that this heavenly Food affords us great strength to resist temptations. The precious Blood of Jesus Christ which we receive in Holy Communion is called a “wine springing forth virgins.” (Zach. 9:17). Earthly wine is a snare for chastity. This heavenly wine is its preservative.
A fourth means is devotion to the Immaculate Mother of God, the Virgin of virgins. Oh, how many have kept themselves pure as angels by devotion to this Blessed Queen of angels! Other means will suggest themselves to each individual, such as the avoidance of idleness, for “Idleness is the devil’s workshop”; modesty of the eyes, and diligence in avoiding dangerous or proximate occasions. Nearly all the passions that assail us have their origin in the unrestrained liberty of the eyes, for as a rule it is our unguarded looks that awaken in us inordinate inclinations and passions. “I made a covenant with my eyes, that I would not so much as think upon a virgin,” said Job (31:1). Why does he say: “so much as to think upon?” Should he not have said: “I have made a covenant not to look upon”? No, he was right in expressing himself as he did, for the thought and the look are so closely united as to be inseparable. In order, therefore, to have no evil thought, the holy man had resolved not to look at a virgin.
St. Augustine says: “From the look proceeds the thought and from the thought the desire.” Had Eve not looked at the forbidden fruit, she would not have fallen into sin. But she took pleasure in looking at it, and the fruit seemed beautiful and good. She took it and ate and was guilty of disobedience. We see here how the devil tempts man first to look, then to desire, and at last to consent. Therefore, as St. Jerome says, the devil needs on our part only a beginning. It is enough if we only half open the door for him; he will then force it open all the way. A voluntary glance at a person of the opposite sex may be an infernal spark that will cause the ruin of the soul. “The first arrows that strike chaste souls,” says St. Bernard, “and frequently cause deadly wounds, pierce through the eyes.” It was the eyes that occasioned the fall of David, a man according to God’s own heart. And so too with Solomon, who before had been the chosen instrument of the Holy Spirit. And many others have gone to destruction through their eyes. Seneca says that blindness is very useful for the preservation of innocence. In accordance with this principle, as Tertullian relates, a heathen philosopher deliberately deprived himself of sight in order to preserve chastity.
A Christian would not be permitted to do such a thing; but if we wish to preserve chastity, we must be blind insofar that we look at nothing which would awaken unclean thoughts within us. To this end we are exhorted by the Holy Ghost: “Gaze not upon another’s beauty, for hereby lust is enkindled as a fire.” (Ecclus. 9:8–9). The deliberate gaze is followed by sinful imaginations which enkindle the unholy fire. Therefore, St. Francis de Sales says: “He who does not wish the enemy to force his way into the fortress must keep the gates closed.”
For this very reason the Saints have been exceedingly cautious about their eyes. For fear lest they should accidentally fall on some dangerous object they kept them nearly always cast down, and denied themselves the satisfaction of looking even at innocent objects. After St. Bernard had been a whole year in the novitiate, he did not know whether the ceiling of his cell was flat or arched. In the church of the monastery there were three windows; but St. Bernard did not know how many there were, for during that whole year he had not raised his eyes to gaze about. The holy Bishop Hugo never looked into the face of a woman with whom he happened to be speaking. St. Clare resolved never to look at the face of a man. One day when she raised her eyes to look at the Sacred Host she chanced to see the countenance of the priest, and she was very much disturbed.
When we consider these great precautions of the saints of God, how very imprudent and rash seems the conduct of those who, without the virtue of a St. Bernard or a St. Clare, gaze unconcernedly at persons of the opposite sex, and yet expect to remain free from temptations and the danger of sin. St. Jerome had retired into the grotto of Bethlehem, where he constantly prayed and mortified his body; and yet he was frightfully tormented by the recollection of those women whom he had seen long before at Rome. “What is injurious to us,” says St. Francis de Sales, “is not so much the casual glance, but rather the intentional gaze.” When Brother Roger, a Franciscan who was noted for his exceptional purity, was asked why he was so guarded in his looks, especially concerning women, he replied: “If man shuns the occasion, God protects him; if he deliberately puts himself in danger, the Lord abandons him and he easily falls into grievous sin.”
If we suffer no other harm from the liberty we accord our eyes, we are at least deprived of recollection during prayer, because what we have seen will present itself again before the eyes of our soul and cause us endless distractions. Now, it is certain that a Christian who lives without interior recollection cannot practice the virtues, such as humility, patience, and mortification, in a proper manner. We must be careful, therefore, to direct our gaze to objects that will lead us to God and not from Him. “Downcast eyes,” says St. Bernard, “direct the heart to Heaven.” And St. Gregory Nazianzen writes: “’Where Christ dwells with His love, there recollection reigns.”
A MEANS OF EDIFICATION
It is well to remember that the custody of the eyes is useful not only for our own sanctification, but also for the edification of others. God alone sees our heart; man sees only our external actions, and is either edified or scandalized by them. “A man is known by his look,” says Holy Scripture (Ecclus. 19:26); that is to say, from the exterior we judge of the interior. Every Christian should therefore be what our Redeemer called St. John the Baptist: “a burning and a shining light.” (John 5:35). Our interior should glow with divine love; our exterior should shine by Christian modesty. What St. Paul said to his disciples should apply also to us: “We are made a spectacle to the world, and to angels and to men.” (1 Cor. 4:9). “Let your modesty be known to all men.” (Phil. 4:5). It is related in the life of St. Francis of Assisi that one day he invited a religious brother to accompany him on a walk, saying he wished to preach. While going along he kept his eyes modestly cast down. After walking for a while he returned home. “When are you going to preach your sermon?” inquired his companion. “It is already preached,” replied the Saint; “our sermon today consisted in mortifying our eyes, by which we edified all whom we met.”
St. Ambrose says that the recollection of virtuous people is for the worldly-minded an excellent admonition. “What a beautiful thing it is,” says the Saint, “that their mere appearance does good to others!” In this regard it is related of St. Bernardine of Siena that while still a young man in the world, his appearance was sufficient to restrain the unguarded remarks of his young companions. As soon as they saw him coming they would say to one another: “Be quiet; here comes Bernardine”; and they would either remain silent or begin some other topic of conversation. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Ephrem was so recollected that the very sight of him moved one to devotion, and one could not come in contact with him without feeling better for it.
More wonderful still is what Surius relates of the holy priest and martyr Lucian: “By his modesty and recollection alone he converted many heathens to the True Faith. The Emperor Maximian hearing this, and fearing that he too might be converted to Christianity, did not wish to look at him. When, therefore, he was summoned before the tribunal, the Emperor ordered him to stand behind a curtain so that he might talk to him without fear.”
Our most perfect model in the practice of mortification of the eyes was our Divine Redeemer Himself. As a learned author remarks, the Evangelist expressly mentions that on certain occasions Jesus raised His eyes, indicating thereby that ordinarily He kept them cast down. Therefore the Apostle, when writing to his disciples, praises the modesty of his Divine Master: “I beseech you by the mildness and modesty of Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:1).
Let us conclude these remarks with the words of St. Basil to his monks: “My dear sons, if we desire our soul to direct its gaze to Heaven, we must keep our eyes fixed on the earth. In the early morning as soon as we awake let us say with the royal Psalmist: ‘Turn away my eyes that they may not behold vanity.’” (Ps. 118:37).
“They are the noblest portion of the Church of Christ,” says St. Cyprian, when speaking of virgins who consecrate themselves to the love of their heavenly Spouse. Some of the holy Fathers, as St. Ephrem, St. Ambrose, and St. Chrysostom, have written whole books in praise of virginity. It is not my intention here to dwell at length on this beautiful subject, but merely to give a few ideas from which the devout reader may judge of its surpassing excellence.
In the first place, virginal souls are particularly dear in the sight of God. “They shall be as the angels of God in heaven,” said our Blessed Redeemer. (Matt. 22:30). Baronius relates that at the death of a virgin named Georgia, doves were seen flying about, and when her corpse was brought into the church they hovered over the spot where her remains were placed, nor did they leave until the virgin was buried. It was thought that these doves were angels who desired in this manner to show a last honor to her virginal body.
Virginal souls who consecrate themselves to the love of Jesus Christ become His chosen spouses. Wherefore St. Paul, when writing to his disciples, does not hesitate to say: “I have espoused you to Jesus Christ.” In the parable of the virgins, Our Lord appears as the Bridegroom. By the faithful in general our Saviour is called Master, Shepherd, Father or Lord; by virginal souls He desires to be called Spouse. This espousal with the Divine Redeemer takes place through faith: “I will espouse thee to me in faith.” (Osee 2:20). The virtue of virginity is, in an especial manner, the fruit of the merits of Jesus Christ; therefore we read in the Apocalypse that they “follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth: These were purchased from among men, the first fruits to God and to the Lamb.” (Apoc. 14:4).
The Divine Mother once revealed to a pious soul that those consecrated to Jesus Christ must, above all virtues, love holy purity, for it is this in particular that makes them similar to their heavenly Spouse. Prudent people of the world who desire to enter the state of matrimony are careful to inquire and find out who would most likely be the worthiest and most desirable partner for life. Those who enter the religious life are espoused to Christ by their holy vows. Let us turn, therefore, to the spouse in the Canticles to see what she has to say of the Divine Bridegroom. “My beloved is white and ruddy,” she says (Cant. 5:10), white by reason of His purity, and ruddy on account of the glow of love with which He is inflamed towards His spouse. In a word, He is so beautiful, so perfect in every virtue, so kind and friendly that there is not and cannot be a nobler or more amiable spouse than He. St. Eucherius says: “There is nothing to compare with His majesty, His beauty, or His generosity.”
A PRECIOUS TREASURE
St. Clare of Montefalco said that she prized her virginity so highly that she would rather suffer the torments of Hell during her whole lifetime than lose this precious treasure. Virtuous young women have even refused the proposal of marriage with kings in order to remain the spouses of Jesus Christ. Blessed Joanna, Infanta of Portugal, rejected the hand of Louis XI, King of France. St. Agnes of Prague renounced a matrimonial alliance with the Emperor Frederick II; Elizabeth, the daughter of the King of Hungary and heiress to the throne, refused to be wedded to the Archduke of Austria. When Domitilla, the niece of the Emperor Domitian, was urged to marry the Count Aurelian, she replied: “If a person had the choice between a great monarch and a poor peasant, which would she choose as her bridegroom? Were I to marry Aurelian I would have to give up the King of Heaven; that would be the greatest folly, and I shall never be guilty of it.” To her crown of virginity was added the crown of martyrdom, for her rejected lover had her burned to death.
A virgin who gives herself to the Lord, says Theodora, is freed from useless cares. She has nothing else to do but to deal confidently with the Lord. “Had she no other reward to expect,” says St. Ambrose, “she would be happy indeed in being freed from worldly cares and anxieties and in occupying herself solely with God.” But the peace and happiness she enjoys here on earth is but a foretaste of the great happiness and glory that await her in Heaven.
ACCEPTABLE TO GOD
Virgins who consecrate to God the lily of their chastity are as pleasing to Him as the holy angels. St. John was called the favorite Apostle of Our Lord, the Apostle whom Jesus loved, because he had preserved his virginity intact. For this very reason he was loved more than all the rest, and when our Saviour was dying on the Cross He committed His Immaculate Mother to the care of His virgin disciple, St. John. The great value of virginity is enhanced in our eyes by the extraordinary praise which the Holy Ghost bestows upon it: “No price is worthy of a continent soul.” (Ecclus. 26:20). The Blessed Virgin Mary taught us this when the Archangel Gabriel brought her the message from on high: that God wished to become man and to choose her for His Mother. To the angel’s words Mary humbly replied: “How can this be, for I know not man?” (Luke 1:34). By these words our Blessed Lady showed that she preferred to renounce the dignity of the Mother of God than to lose the treasure of her virginity. According to St. Cyprian, virginal purity is the queen of all virtues and the perfection of all goods. They who preserve their purity for the love of Jesus Christ, says St. Ephrem, are particularly favored by Him. St. Bernardine adds that virginity disposes the soul in an especial manner to see God by faith in this life and by the light of eternal glory in the next. One day God showed His great servant, Lucretia Orsini, the throne of glory prepared for those who serve Jesus Christ in virginal purity. Ravished in ecstasy, the Saint exclaimed: “Oh how dear to God and His holy Mother are virginal souls!”
“My son, when thou comest to the service of the Lord prepare thy soul for temptation.” (Ecclus. 2:1). Be prepared therefore to suffer with humility and patience, for “silver and gold are tried by fire.” No man can serve two masters, God and the world. He, therefore, who desires to consecrate himself to God, must renounce the world and say with all sincerity: God alone is my treasure and my only good. A heart that truly loves God despises the world and all that the world can offer; in a word, it despises all that is not God.
The venerable Francisca Farnese knew no more effectual means of exhorting her religious Sisters to the practice of perfection than to remind them that they were the spouses of Jesus Christ. “It is certain,” she would say, “that each one of you is chosen by God to become a saint, since He has given you the great honor of being His spouse.” And in very truth this is an inestimable grace which deserves our most generous cooperation. St. Augustine, when writing to a virgin consecrated to God, made use of these words: “You must know that you have a Spouse who is more beautiful than anything that earth or Heaven contains, and in choosing you to be His bride He has given you a most certain pledge of His love. From this you will recognize your obligation to love Him in return.”
Should the world attempt to win your love, O spouse of Jesus Christ, answer in the words of the noble St. Agnes: “Away, away; you seek my love, but I can love none other than my God who has loved me first.” “As you are the spouse of a God,” says St. Jerome, “you should be proud of such a distinction.” People of the world feel highly honored and make much ado about matrimonial alliances with the noble and wealthy. You have something more than this to be proud of, since you are affianced to the King of Heaven Himself. You can well say with a holy pride and joy: “I have found Him whom my soul loveth; I will embrace Him with my love, and I will never leave Him.”
Love is the bond which unites the soul to God. Say often in the words of the Apostle St. Paul: “Who shall separate me from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress or famine, or nakedness, or danger or persecution or the sword? . . . I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus Our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38–39).