The concept of chastity, as it is commonly understood in Christian circles today, is frequently tinged with shades of repression and denial, colored as it is by our puritanical past. Too often we explain and understand chastity as the absence of something, or as the denial of something enjoyable and desirable.
I remember reading a line in Joshua Harris' Boy Meets Girl, the sequel to his best selling I Kissed Dating Goodbye, in which Harris finds and begins to court (not date, apparently there's a difference...) the woman who will become his wife. The love story is beautiful. The theology is, well, not so much... but an anecdotal recounting of an afternoon with his soon-to-be bride in a backyard hammock has remained with me for years.
Joshua is sharing a hammock with his then-fiancé, Shannon, and as she naps, he mentally justifies the close proximity of their bodies with the close proximity of their wedding date, rationalizing that those legs he admired would soon be those of his wife. A mental debate ensues between Josh and his conscience, going back and forth on whether or not Shannon's beauty was yet his to posses, even visually. The argument ends with Josh heaving himself out of the hammock and taking a walk, shouting an "I love you" over his shoulder to Shannon, who undoubtedly understands and appreciates the level of sacrifice her bridegroom is willing to endure to maintain the purity of their relationship.
This story is great, but whether or not the author intended it, I was left with the distinct impression that if one could only "hold out" until the wedding night, all the hard work (aka "chastity" would pay off in the end. I don't know if this was Harris' intention, but it was my impression, and I think it bespeaks a common misconception of the virtue of chastity as we know it.
Chastity is not a lack of something; rather, it is the beautiful fullness of something, a maturation and celebration of the glory of the human person. This only makes sense, though, in light of a proper understanding of the antithesis of chastity: lust.Lust, in fact, is a lack, a poverty, an absence of something necessary essential to real love and full personhood.
Rather than being a condition of sin imposed upon our souls after the Fall, lust is really a departure from the original purity of gaze that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden. Just as macular degeneration destroys the integrity of the human eye, acting as an impediment to clear vision, so too does lust destroys the integrity of the human heart, resulting in an impoverished and unfocused view of the other.
Understood in this context, we can approach the beauty and the gift of John Paul II's Theology of the Body with fresh vision, seeing not a repressed dichotomy (sex=bad, chastity=good) prescriptive to proper Christian morality, but instead recognizing the intrinsic value of chastity as a true appreciation of the other. Chastity empowers purity of heart, purity of gaze, and purity of intention. It acts as an antidote to lust, tempering the tendency to use the other for pleasure or personal gain.
This is why we can speak of chastity outside the bedroom. Chastity not only as physical purity, but as a refusal to ever use anther human person as a means to an end, to posses them for one's own purposes. So too does lust transcend the bedroom walls, translating to an unhealthy desire to posses what belongs to another, no matter the cost or impropriety. Chastity defers, lust dominates. Chastity denies self-gratitude for the necessary good of the other, lust demands at any cost.