The traditional vow of chastity taken by those who enter into religious orders is an expression of a commitment to purity and set-apart-ness that goes beyond sexual celibacy, but clearly includes it. As new-monastic communities may include married couples, chastity per se is not appropriate; but the commitment to purity and set-apart-ness remains.
I live in a tabloid society. In example of this, the latest series of Celebrity Big Brother has begun this week, and the gutter press are baying for sex. Now, I am very positive about sex; but that we should demand that strangers – to each other and to us – perform sexual acts in front of us for our entertainment is utterly depraved.
I honestly believe that my society revels in seeing good things debased; and yet, ironically, is repulsed by the results. The current epidemic of binge-drinking, with the resultant massive hangovers – not to mention long-term health implications – is not only an example, but also a short-hand, a symbol, for this dual condition. Such a society desperately needs an antidote.
But when it comes to purity, the Church has often found itself in a compromising position. Many of the neo monastic communities come out of, and/or remain within, evangelical and/or charismatic backgrounds. Evangelicalism has within itself a tendency towards* pharisaical obsession with purity laws, and judgement of those who fail to live up to them. Obsession can blur into fascination; fascination into flirtation; flirtation into consummation. Pentecostalism and the charismatic renewal movement have within themselves a tendency towards* addictive behaviour, as observed in the experiential highs of the ‘God fix’. Any high is followed by its low, with withdrawal symptoms that drive one on to seek the next high; and those who seek God highs are often vulnerable to filling the inevitable lows with other things that deliver a fix. Both traditions have been hurt by high-profile scandals, especially of either a sexual or a financial nature, among their leaders; and, of course, these traditions are not unique within the Church in this regard. In taking a vow of purity, within the context of community, we are saying, we need each other’s help to live this way.
Purity is not so much a matter of observing certain rules (Jesus was a notorious rule-breaker), as a motive in our relationships, and an interpretive criterion for the choices we make on a daily basis. As such, commitment to purity is complex, dynamic; not as black-and-white as it might first appear; yet, not relative either. Again, it requires community! It forces us to ask questions, especially of our motivations, that we might prefer not to ask. Purity looks like Jesus; and the desire to become/be pure is the desire to be transformed into his likeness. Purity gets its hands dirty, so that the dirty might have the opportunity to be made clean. Purity is offensive to those who believe themselves to be good, and infuriates such people with its freedom. Purity lands you in a whole heap of trouble. But I see a seeking after purity in many unexpected places, as expressed in opting out of the mainstream, in opting into ethical consumerism, in embracing outdoor pursuits, to name but a few examples. Purity is rough-and-ready, fierce, untameable. Far from withdrawing from life into anaemic religiosity, purity celebrates life with a passion – and draws the sedated and jaded into its party. That is the kind of purity I want to be characterised by. That is what we are set-apart for.
*By tendency towards, I do not mean that such behaviour is inevitable; but, unless a tendency is recognised and acknowledged, the one with that tendency is reasonably likely to come undone over it.
The Order of Mission , new monasticism , nu monasticism , purity