This blog was originally posted at Courage International's Truth and Love website.
“You seem very…managed.” I sat across from a priest on a retreat. He had just heard me describe a few elements of my relational history. This was his response. “I mean, it’s sort of like a filing cabinet,” he went on. “You pulled open these nice, neat folders to show me, then put them back in.”
In the immediate aftermath of the conversation, I felt frustrated. You can’t be emotional all the time, after all! Wasn’t there a place for ordered, rational description of events and the current standing of relationships? While I believe that point stands, I don’t think it’s entirely what he was getting at.
Experiencing attraction to other girls as a teenager, I had already determined I wasn’t going to act on them. I’d been to youth conferences and teen Masses and chastity talks. I was committed to Jesus and had a basic understanding that certain acts (read: sex) were destined for certain circumstances (read: marriage). Admirable as that was, I didn’t know how to confront or even “manage” my experiences of attraction. So I just tried not to think about them. One could say I tucked them away in the filing cabinet. I was abstinent, but I can’t say I understood what I was living, nor did I feel particularly free. I wasn’t so much “chaste” as I was compartmentalizing.
The Catechism defines chastity this way:
“Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (CCC 2337).
“Integration” comes from the Latin meaning “of the whole.” For me to be chaste, I need to first be aware of the whole picture of my life. Then I need to look honestly at those areas where I struggle with those truths. I need to entrust the doubts and longings of my heart to God, so I can make virtuous choices. Chastity involves the whole person - the movements of my internal soul and the expression of my physical body.
THE WHOLE PICTURE (IN PART)
First and foremost, my “person” is created in the image and likeness of God. In Genesis 1, we see this image and likeness manifested in two ways - male and female. For me, this means my womanhood (or “femaleness,” as St. John Paul II would say) is intrinsic to my person and my sexual identity. It’s essential! The same thing goes for a man. His manhood (“maleness”) is essential to his person and sexual identity. As a woman, I recognize that knit within my femaleness is an organ system that is incomplete unto itself. It cannot fulfill it’s procreative and unitive purposes alone. In that sense, my sexual complementarity (man) is inseparable from my sexual identity (woman). There’s more to a robust Catholic understanding of the human person, but these are the bare bones that related to my particular experience.
#THE STRUGGLE IS REAL
I don’t think teenagers say this anymore, but the statement is true! The effects of the Fall are universal for all but two human beings (and they’re no longer available for audible two-way conversations). I can understand the logic of the aforementioned theological points, but knowledge alone doesn’t bring my wayward heart into perfect alignment.
The Catechism states that “everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his [or her] sexual identity” (CCC 2333). For many of us, however, “acceptance” might look a lot like that filing cabinet. “Well,” we say, “I’ve acknowledged that I’m the sex that I am and that I experience attraction to people like me. Checked that box! Let’s just file that away for now.” Unfortunately, the acknowledge-and-file method is still it’s own sort of compartmentalizing. If I’ve “filed away” my capacity for same sex desires, how will I respond when I’m stirred by a scene on TV? Or if I’m nearing my alcohol limit and my eyes settle on someone they wouldn’t settle on otherwise? If all I’ve done is acknowledged truth without integrating it, will I make the choice for chastity in these scenarios? I hope so! But it might be a lot more challenging.
Chaste integration is a process. I need to take a hard look at the challenges to it’s progress. Two of my favorite Scripture passages include two very similar comments from Jesus. They bookend the Gospel of John. In one, Jesus has no disciples yet, but Andrew and John are trailing him. Jesus turns and asks them, “What are you looking for?” At the end of John’s Gospel, the tomb lies empty and Mary Magdalene weeps. A man approaches. The gardener, perhaps? Then comes the question. “Who are you looking for?”
With these experiences, I need a hard, prayerful examination of what I’m looking for. “What is it about being a woman that frightens me? What empowers me?” “When I’m attracted to women, what am I looking for? Besides ‘not being alone,’ why do I want to be with HER in particular?” “When I feel attracted to men, what draws me in there? Is it similar? Different?” “What are the trends and movements in my imagination?” “Do any of these answers connect to particular wounds in my life or relationships? How can I move toward healing?”
Prayerfully examining the reality of my emotions is not acceptance of a cultural conclusion! If I want to live as a whole, healthy person, I need chaste integration. I need to adhere the whole of my life to the whole of the Gospel. I can only do that if I lean into these realities before God and in conversation with trusted friends and mentors. Together we can sort through my desires and my doubts.
GOOD LIFE CHOICES
As a former high school teacher, there was a lot of focus on helping teens make “good life choices.” This pertained not only to their dating relationships, but to sports, to family, to socializing, to schoolwork, and all the rest. My commitment to chaste integration involves my whole person and my whole life. Embracing my Creator-endowed sexual identity as woman has connotations for my romantic relationships (read: not other women). But it impacts all of my relationships. It makes me a daughter, a sister, a spiritual mother. It means life in relation to others in community. It means discernment of my charisms and gifts for the life of the Church. It means my life is a tightly woven tapestry, not a filing cabinet.
Where we compartmentalize and how we cope looks different for all of us. And by “all of us” I, of course, mean all of us. No matter our sexual desires, we all have aspects of our lives that we tuck away in the filing cabinet. We might even lock it up. The progression I’ve outlined here - awareness of the Church’s teaching, prayerfully examining where your head and your heart conflict, and living the truth in all aspects of your life - these apply to all of us. So let’s take another look at chastity and personal integration. Together we can move beyond “managed” and into freedom in Christ.