To further illuminate Christ’s words about purity and chastity, we consider them in the light of Pauline teaching on the subject, which focuses on life in the Spirit and reverence for the body.
Live by the Spirit and d0 not satisfy the desires of the flesh; for the flesh has desires contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit contrary to the flesh, so that you do not do what you want. ~Galatians 5:16
Paul so accurately defines the conflict that is a part of all human nature – because of original sin, our hearts tend to be dominated by worldly values “of the flesh,” by what does not come from God. This is not what the Spirit wants – the Holy Spirit, who acts so deeply in our hearts that there is an inner conflict between desires we have at His prompting and desires caused by sin. On this side of heaven, there will always be an interior conflict between good and evil.
This is the will of God: that you refrain from impurity, that you keep your body in holiness and reverence. ~1 Thessalonians 4:3
This scripture of St. Paul summarizes the twofold ethical requirement for temperance – one part negative, one positive. In the negative aspect, we are to refrain from any sexual impurity. This is an ability known as chastity, one aspect of temperance, a habit that must be deliberately acquired through practice. It is something a man or a woman does – resisting sexual impulses.
Reverence and the “less presentable parts”
The other, positive aspect is to keep your body with reverence. John Paul uses another scripture to draw this out further.
The parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are surrounded with greater propriety. God has so constructed the body… ~1 Corinthians 12:23
What is this protection for the less honorable parts if not reverence for your body? This idea that we protect the sexual parts of our bodies, clearly true from experience, gives witness to the situation of original shame, and also to the remnant of original innocence that makes us want to stop the cycle of lust that comes so naturally. From shame is born reverence. (TOB 55:5) Before original sin, there was no disunity in the body – all parts were considered good and were respected. Now, certain parts seem dishonorable, and we sometimes even feel at odds with our own body. By “keeping the body with holiness and reverence,” including the bodies of others, we can transform this state of disunity into one of harmony again.
What about “holiness?” Why are our bodies holy? Well, in themselves, they aren’t. But, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within in you?” (1 Cor 6:19) Consider the profound implications of this shift. In the Old Testament, the temple was a building where God visited and was worshiped, especially through priestly sacrifice. In the New Covenant, our bodies are actual temples – God dwells there, we worship Him there, we offer sacrifice ourselves. To commit sins, especially sexual bodily sins, is a profanation of this temple.
The Incarnation and the Redemption give our bodies a new dignity in two ways. The first is the indwelling of the Holy Trinity and especially the sacrament of the Eucharist – the body of the Lord physically present in my body. The second is through the mystery of the Incarnation itself – if the second person of the Godhead is now a human person with a human body, the human body has much more dignity than it did before. With this new dignity is a new obligation to treat the human body with respect.
Therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:20). This conclusion to Paul’s discourse on the reverence due to the body reveals that purity is the glory of the human body before God. Purity brings such dignity to the body, and especially to relationships between men and women, that God is glorified. “From purity springs that singular beauty that permeates every sphere of reciprocal common life between human beings and allows them to express in it the simplicity and depth, the cordiality and unrepeatable authenticity of personal trust. (TOB 57.3)
Purity as a gift
The Holy Spirit dwells in us. He actively works in our hearts to turn them away from sin and toward God. He gives us many graces to act, both interiorly and exteriorly, with more holiness than we would be capable of if left to our own devices. We specifically name seven of these gifts as:
(try it yourself first!)
Wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. Piety is the will to worship God and to serve him. If you notice in yourself either a passing impulse or an abiding desire to pray, to worship, to make others worship, or to do anything specifically in the service of God, this may be a direct gift from the Holy Spirit. Pray for piety!
Piety fits into this context because of the reverence due for the human body. Just as a pious person treats a church or the Mass or the eucharist with great respect, he treats his own body with respect. If you would be unwilling to commit an unclean act, especially an act of sexual impurity, in a church, why would you be willing to do the same in your own body, where the Holy Trinity resides? If you don’t have this sense of reverence for your own body, and the bodies of others, ask the Holy Spirit for it. Keep asking until He grants your request.
A Word from the Old Testament
I knew that I could not possess chastity unless God gave it – and this, too, was wisdom, to know whose gift it is. ~Wisdom 8:21
In the Wisdom literature, purity is a prerequisite for Wisdom. Those given over to sexual impurity are not able to know God. On the other hand, Wisdom also serves to increase purity further as a gift from God to those who seek Him.
The next post will be a summary and conclusion of all that has been said about “adultery in the heart,” original sin, and the call to purity.