The Seven Virtues #3: Chastity

Some days while I am struggling to write a piece I think about this self-imposed challenge. It is never easy, always time-consuming, mainly frustrating, often rewarding, but also thought-provoking. That is where the enjoyment comes in.

Some days I arrive with preconceptions. I am arrogant enough to think I know all the answers, but nothing focuses the mind more clearly than publishing 1,000 words. Deficient arguments will be exposed. Woolly thinking is laid bare.

It was like that last night when I started this piece on the virtue of chastity.

I was a teenager in the 1960s and those years shaped and defined me. I am a natural libertarian. I can support the decriminalisation of cannabis. I think the NHS could dispense harder drugs to take the scourge of dealers off the street. I don’t see a stigma in prostitution. I arrived at this piece with prejudice.

I have had my say about lust as a sin and now is the time to write about chastity as a virtue. I was ready to condemn, but before I put the pen to paper and in the spirit of fairness I was willing as ever to do my research.

It was unsurprising to see most of the reference were to religious sites and reluctantly I was duty bound to at least flick through them.

OK, here comes the apology, now I have a better understanding, some of my opinions have changed.

To practice chastity or to be chaste, until the sixteenth century at least, had different meanings distinguishing between sex in or out of a committed relationship. Other than, monks, nuns, and priests (I am not going to get into that discussion and the Catholic child abuse scandals) the virtue is remaining chaste and not, necessarily, practising chastity.

Let’s get then easy bits out of the way.  Simply, chastity is going without sex. Chaste is not having sex outside of a committed relationship.

There are good anthropological reasons to encourage ‘being chaste’ as a virtue. Even without the 9 months of pregnancy, it takes up to 15 years, or thereabouts, for a child to become self-sufficient. There are obviously good reasons for society to encourage chaste, meaningful relationships between the parents to ensure genetic development.

Historically, values encouraged by the Church were important to society to allow it to develop. Canon law, in its widest sense, through the Christian Church managed and is the basis and validity of marriage. It defines the ability to end a marriage as well as the rules for remarriage, and therefore defines the norms for sexual behaviour.

When society was less well defined and universal civil law was more concerned with property, making chastity a virtue and lust a sin, the Church was codifying good anthropological behaviour.

For the majority of the adult population married in a church or an equivalent place of worship, we buy into this concept of chastity with vows of faithfulness. In the Christian church the vows in The Book of Common Prayer, are: with this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and …..

Marriage, faithfulness and chastity are central to the wellbeing of society and today I have started to realise that the virtues are a guide to help build a cohesive society. Maybe, we shouldn’t look at them as absolutes.

But they must also reflect the society we live in and a society that is developing. In the UK at least, the concept of faithfulness in a relationship is being consistently diminished and for many is less relevant today. In the UK there are now 1.8 million families with one parent and dependent children

I said that was the easy bit and the libertarian in me was eventually bound to break out.

What about chastity and in particular sex as a recreational behaviour for those that are not in a committed relationship?

Since the 1960s and the introduction of effective birth control that gave control of conception to every woman, we have become far more tolerant of sex as a leisure activity.  And probably, more importantly, we have accepted that women have the right to enjoy sex every bit as much as men.

The right of women to control when they have children is usually cited as the biggest benefit of The Pill but probably the right of women to enjoy sex is the greater benefit.

But every benefit is always accompanied by a caution. Our liberal attitude to sex and internet technologies have increased the availability and distribution of pornography. Personally, I have no problem with pornography, but I do get worried about pornography and its impact on young children.

Pornography does nothing to teach children about the joy of sex and it is predominantly misogynist. We need to look at the way we educate and teach our children about the joys of sex. We should change the name from sex education to relationship education broadening its scope.

Sex can be one of the most enjoyable of all experiences and, with the noted caveats, to feel ‘dirty’ or sinful for consensual sex, is wrong. We need to educate our children to understand that sex is not a rite of passage nor an athletic pursuit but a shared and healthy expression of a developing relationship.

We always have choices. I have been in a long-distance relationship for nearly five years and staying chaste is not easy. There are always temptations, but it is part of the commitment that both Sasha and I made. We must teach our children that they also have a choice.

I do not expect my now adult children to be chaste before marriage. I do expect them to have full, rounded, and meaningful lives. I see no virtue telling anyone to deny themselves enjoyment because of a moral code that doesn’t apply to them. On the other hand when they make a shared vow of commitment I expect them to buy into it totally.

I still believe that Chastity is outdated but I am a big fan of being chaste. It’s just a shame that tolerance isn’t one of the Seven Virtues. I am feeling full of that right now.

The Seven Virtues#2: Abstinence

Humility, kindness, patience, or diligence, are characteristics I can admire. Chastity was never going to be a personally achievable objective. But abstinence and abstinence from food, what is that all about? Time to find out.  As gluttony is the sin so abstinence is its corresponding virtue.

Abstinence is well founded in the Abrahamic faiths and so deeply embedded in our culture.

Roman Catholics fast during Lent, other occasional specific religious holidays and for one hour just before receiving the Eucharistic.  In Islam, there is a month of fasting during the daylight hours of Ramadan. I have lived in Dubai during many celebrations of Ramadan and understand just how strictly it is followed.

There are major and minor fast days as part of the Jewish year.  The two major fasts, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, last just over twenty-four hours. This fast is absolute and the faster may not eat food, drink, brush his teeth, comb his hair, or take a bath. Minor fasts differ in their duration and no food or drink is taken from dawn until nightfall.

In all the religions the purpose of fasting is not to suffer, but to guard against impure thoughts, deeds, and words. Fasting is accompanied by increased prayer and in particular, almsgiving. Giving to charity is one of the five pillars of Islam and paying Zakat during Ramadan is required of every adult Muslim man or woman who possesses a wealth of a certain minimum amount.

But for those of us living in a far more secular world, we have updated our conformance to abstinence and become obsessed by our own self-esteem and self-image. These have become the driver of our eating habits.

We are asked to be ‘beach ready’, the models in our adverts are invariably thin. We have a perception of ideal body shape which we share through advertising and social media.

These new norms have caused us to develop a strange relationship with our food. Of course, we eat too much, and the range and choice are excessive, particularly when you think about world poverty. However, we don’t think of third world malnutrition when abstaining from food; which we do a lot of the time.

The first world is on a continuous diet.

It was in 2004 that a BBC survey showed that more than one in four adults in the UK are trying to lose weight “most of the time”.  The poll estimates that this means 13 million people are effectively on a permanent diet.  Almost two in five (37%) women were dieting most of the time, compared to around just one in six (18%) of men.  The research found that although people were conscious of the need to eat well for the sake of their health, many were dieting to look good.

And it’s got no better, and by 2014 the Daily Mail reported: A record-breaking two out of three women tried to lose weight in the past year – and more men than ever are trying to slim down, figures have shown. This means that last year a total of 29million Britons decided to exercise or diet to ward off problems associated with weight gain.

If it’s not dieting, then we modify and manipulate our diets. Over half a million people in the UK are on a vegan diet and January this year was labelled Veganuary encouraging even more to try a plant-based diet.

There is a diet for everyone and it seems everyone is on a self-inflicted weight loss course.

I am not writing from any position of strength or moral righteousness.

I can control some of my ever-increasing list of ailments with a very restrictive diet. My diabetes is helped with a stricter control of carbohydrates and sugars than I would like, although I do have the orange coloured phial of insulin for the days when my control is less than hoped.

My stomach problems have all but disappeared but only by removing all gluten and most of the other fodmaps. I am supposed to be reintroducing them one-by-one on an exclusion diet, but I really can’t face 2 or 3 days of stomach ache, just so I can spread Marmite on to a slice of stodgy gluten-free bread.

Did I say that by choice I am also a vegetarian?

I have become a moral abstainer, and, I admit, I gloat just a little as I decline a slice of pizza. I may quote doctor’s instruction, but I am happy to see my abstinence reflected on the scales. A point made more poignant as this is Eating Disorder Week.

Food is the essential fuel of our lives but the pressure not to eat and deny ourselves, is pervasive.

In the Abrahamic faiths abstinence and denial strengthen more than the body. The original virtue of abstinence was more than a historical diet but a wider penance embracing the soul. Full denial that harms the body was seen as much a sin as gluttony. More importantly, all the faiths associate giving as an essential side dish to fasting.

Of all the virtues, abstinence is the one most widely embraced, but that doesn’t make any of us virtuous. In our modern culture of self-denial, the single-mindedly focused is on ‘me’.

As always there is a meaningful lesson in our history.