Desert with mountains on the horizon

Pursuing Purity of Heart Through Chastity

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Scott Hamilton, YTI Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling

October 10, 2018

This is the second in a short series of posts designed to better understand a few of the early monastic ideals.

There are few things more disturbing than the conversations between my true and false selves. A conversation might be as simple as asking, “Do I look presentable today?” On the other hand, a chat might be an indictment like, “I can’t believe she said that. Who does she think she is, telling me what to do and when to do it? Her dress is ugly, too!” My ego (false self) is the mask I wear for others, the self I want you to think I am. It is needy, judgmental, and blames others. My ego seeks others’ approval, needs constant attention and validation, and is uncomfortable being alone. According to Freud, “The ego is not master is its own house.”

One of the overarching goals of early monasticism was deliverance from the false self. Those who retreated into the desert wanted God to purify them in ways that confronted the false self and prompted the emergence of the true self. The migration to the desert was a proactive engagement of spiritual purification. One of the monastic practices that moved the false self toward spiritual growth and maturity was chastity.

Chastity: Choosing Purity of Heart

James Faust said, “Discipleship includes many things. It is chastity… forsaking anything that is not good for us.” Faust is not saying that sexuality or its expression is bad for people; he’s saying that anything, including our sexuality, can evolve into something that detracts from our relationships with God.

Choosing chastity was a way toward liberation

The words chaste and chastity come from the Latin word for pure, and purity of heart and soul was of grave importance to the early monastics. Choosing chastity was (and still remains) a way toward liberation, the freedom to love one’s self and others with the love of God. Lest people lose themselves in thoughts of spiritual purity, excluding the rest of “the world,” please remember this: Comparatively speaking, God has called very few people to exclusion. Rather, God calls most of us to be beacons of hope, very much a part of the normal functioning of the world.

Living Chastely: Engaging Life with Purity of Heart

The challenge is to live in the world from the perspective of a chaste (pure) heart. As I mature, I am beginning to better understand the possibility of living chastely, which is far more than maintaining my marriage vows. Living with a laser-like focus on God’s presence in my life is what empowers liberation from the false self.

Engaging life with purity of heart, empowered by God’s presence, prompts the emergence of the true self. In the desert’s seclusion, the monastics peeled back the layers of the false self, hoping to purify their thoughts, while removing emotional, spiritual, and physical distractions in order to become fully conscious of those thoughts and actions. They trusted the Divine, learned to accept themselves, love and honor the value and worth of others, laugh at themselves, and accept responsibility for the consequences of the choices they made.

Purity of Heart: The Basis of Ministry

The early desert fathers and mothers lived out their chastity in solitary prayer that prompts us, “to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions, and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord” (Nouwen 21). In solitude, we exercise compassion with ourselves, which then becomes “the basis of all ministry” (24).

Willfully living into places of quiet, desert or otherwise, encourages spiritual chastity and forms the foundation of ministry with and for others. Interestingly, over time, travelers would stop and visit with the monastics, perhaps for company or spiritual conversation. Eventually, others moved into close proximity to the desert fathers and mothers, establishing small desert communities. Some of those hamlets eventually evolved into religious orders that became bastions of hospitality, safety, education, and cultural development, including Christianity.

I suspect most of us would benefit from spiritual chastity and solitude, if only to quiet the excessive noise that may limit our ability to hear from God. After all, living into our brokenness requires a level of spiritual healing that only comes from spending time alone with God.

More on Monastic Ideals

The Value of Monastic Ideals (part 1)

Nouwen, Henri. The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981.