Part II: Chastity (Gently discerning)

Chastity: Two Paradigm Shifts

I met my first spiritual director, a Jesuit man, on the 5-day retreat that was my conversion experience.  I have often likened that retreat to being melted down in the foundry of God’s love – with many tears and many tissues!  I respected this man, and in the months that followed I observed him and his office closely for signs of how I was being called to live.  I told him about the deep desire to be a Jesuit that had surfaced on retreat, and though gently incredulous, he was willing to listen, and threw a lot of books and articles at me, many of which inform my formation experiment and this website today.  A few months into our work together, I noticed that across from where he sat, above my head in the directee’s chair, hung a luminous black-and-white portrait of a woman’s face – sharp, peaceful and kind.  He told me that she was a religious sister, and that they had met during their respective 30-day retreats.  They had been friends for decades.  “It’s the best picture I ever took,” he said softly.

This same man, at the last meeting of our spiritual direction relationship, saw me to the door, said a tender good-bye, kissed my lips and shut the door.  Heart open and livened by his good wishes, I had reached the parking lot before I realized that he had kissed me on the lips!  I took a pause to check my own feelings about that, and found that I did not feel put upon or uncomfortable.   My heart was light and warm.  The word “chaste” came to mind, and the phrase “kiss of peace,” and (nerdily) “May the force be with you.”  How had he done that?!  I wondered.  I started to think of him (nerdily) as Obi-wan, my first Jesuit mentor in chastity.  God bless Obi-wan and his long-time friend whose picture hangs on the wall, for showing me new possibilities in relationship!  (And yes, in case you were wondering, I am Luke Skywalker in this scenario.)

I don’t mean to be naive or overly cute about this.  There is a dark side to our human longing for intimacy, security, and power, which I fully acknowledge.  I was called back to Catholicism only 5 years after the Boston Globe became the first newspaper to report the true extent of sexual abuse (and its cover-up) in my Church.  Now I live in the age of #MeToo.  Sexuality and its misuse are volatile issues in our public life, and real intimacy seems hard to come by!  There are confusion and hurt in my culture about love, sex, and power, which lead us to mutually fear one another.  It might be easy to despair of ever feeling safe with one another again.

This is why authentic reflection on chastity is both timely and important.  I believe that Jesuit women have much to contribute to this communal reflection.  In fact, chastity is one of the major items on my “bucket list” of issues for Jesuit women and men to explore together.  This is because exploring chastity in my friendships with Jesuit men, and talking about these situations with other women and with God, have created a paradigm shift in the way I experience my sexuality.

The first paradigm shift was seeing chastity as a relational vow.  In this paradigm, chastity is not some static state of renunciation, but a dynamic practice of discernment that I bring to every relationship.  The second paradigm shift was moving beyond seeing chastity as sexual purity, toward seeing chastity as sexual maturity.  Purity is good!  But a discerning maturity is the goal, always geared toward freedom to respond to Christ’s call in each situation.  Vowed to sexual maturity, I do not repress the sexuality inherent in my relationships with self, others, and God.   On the contrary, I take radical responsibility for the interior work of accepting and then observing my own sexual thoughts and feelings; for pondering their meaning, sharing them openly with God in prayer, and acting from a place of freedom and generosity rather than stuck-ness toward other people.

I have also started to see chastity as having much wider implications for how I relate to others.  Beginning with my sexuality and extending to my whole way of being, it involves the development of a “reverence that doesn’t grasp,” in the words of one dialogue partner.  It also involves respecting my own limits in relationship.  I have started to ask myself these questions periodically, as part of a chastity practice:

  • Am I looking at others mainly as vehicles for satisfying my own immediate emotional and physical desires?  Or can I look at them as whole in themselves, and revere them regardless of what they have to offer me?
  • On the other hand, how do I look at myself? Do I see myself as worthy only if I am attractive to other people, if they want or need me?  Or do I see myself as whole and valuable, regardless of whether somebody in the vicinity happens to find me attractive?
  • Have I said “no” lately?  Have I accepted and honored another’s “no”?

When I really deal with these issues, and look at my embodied life with appreciation and honesty, it actually makes me more capable of intimacy.  I can sit in the burning of desire, share that explicitly with God, and love myself in the midst of it. I can then relate to others with a reverence that doesn’t grasp.  People feel that.  There is a glow to it, and a gentleness, that lets people open up and be themselves around me when I am really in this practice.  Sweet fruit!

Object lesson: Falling in Love

We’ve talked a little about the paradigm shifts that I have experienced, living chastity as a complex practice of honest reflection rather than as a static state of repression.  I would now like to share with you God’s favorite object lesson for me in chastity: falling in love.

As I begin this story, I have to remind myself that for the most part, we do not start out as Obi-wan.  (Even Obi-wan did not start out as Obi-wan!)  For example, do you recall how terrible Luke Skywalker was at Jedi-ing sometimes?  He got punky.  He got angry.  He dropped the ship.  He made rash decisions that endangered his teacher and his team.  He lost faith in the force and tried to control it rather than holding it gently.  Likewise, my chastity practice is fraught with mistakes.  I am tempted to overstep my boundaries and rush ahead without discernment.  In this state I can become aggressive and manipulative.  On the other hand, I am also tempted to be ashamed, and not to trust God and myself.  In this state I can become rigid and defensive.  In each case, I am called simply to turn back to God, to pause and re-orient.  This is a simple move, but it doesn’t always feel simple, especially when I am tired, stressed, or buffeted by the false spirit.  This is the time to be very gentle, or in Ignatian terms, to let myself return to consolation.

From this consolation, this gentleness and balance, I am able tell you that I fall in love with Jesuit men (and men in general) a lot!  I’ve noticed that I fall in love with one man at a time, and God teaches me something important through our relationship.  Then the “falling in love” feeling relaxes, whether through distance, or time, or shared activity that de-romanticizes the man and shows me his vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies, as well as my own!  Each man who has touched my heart remains there, and receives the spontaneous prayers of the heart from time to time as I move forward on the path.

There is a special place in my heart for the first Jesuit man I fell in love with, who was very important to my formation.  The arc of this relationship had finished before I started a conscious chastity practice with Jesuit men, and yet the insights that emerged from it are foundational to living my vow.  With some key details changed in order to protect the privacy of this person, let’s call him “Kermit.”  (And yes, in case you were wondering, I am Miss Piggy in this scenario.)  As you listen, know that I am curious as to whether you have experienced a Jesuit friendship like this, or know a Jesuit woman who has.

When I met Kermit, I had just experienced a conversion, and had begun to explore the mysterious call to “be a Jesuit.”  This involved having to be honest with the very good and attractive person I was dating at that time that I might be called to religious life, and having that person decide he didn’t want to be dating me while I was exploring this path.  “It’s like dating two people!” he said, quite reasonably.  Nonetheless, it was painful to let go of that connection, and I was still in a healing process, even as I was excited and inspired by the possibility of a Jesuit path for women, and was getting more involved in prayer, study, and ministry.

Enter Kermit: funny, talented, extroverted and basically kind.  We share gifts and interests, are of the same generation, and both love God and ministry.  I tell him I’m investigating religious life, and he invites me to come talk about it!  We have some great conversations about Jesuitry, and within a few months are seeing each other several times a week in the context of mass, ministry, and community events.  Kermit exudes a kind of love that the Greek philosophers call ludus: “play,” referring to plays on words, playful activities, and a playful manner.  I am a sucker for ludus!  It attracts me in people of all genders, and I begin to really look forward to seeing Kermit.

Over the spring and summer, our friendship takes on another form – we meet outside of ministry settings, once for a drink, once for food.  More great conversations in the car, including conversations about a Jesuit path for women.  I am learning more about the history of women called to be Jesuits, and want to know what he thinks.  “If Ignatius were to found the Society again today, I’m sure women would be Jesuits,” he says confidently.  Then he becomes ambivalent.  “But…I don’t think that’s where it’s headed.  I think that’s pretty unlikely.”  We sit for a while with this contradiction, and I appreciate that he is willing to talk with me about it, to share his honest thoughts, and to listen.

Throughout the arc of this friendship in ministry, there is an increasing sense of familiarity and common goals.  I think about Kermit a lot, and about our shared ministry and vocation.   Yet I don’t see a path for myself, or a communal welcome within the Society of Jesus.  I begin to try to rationalize this lopsided situation.  What is God trying to tell me?  Then one day a fateful thought appears, which I believe many Catholic women, including Jesuit women, have experienced: if I share a vocation with Kermit, and yet there is no formal path in the Society of Jesus for me because of my gender, does that mean my path could actually be with Kermit?   I begin to wonder, would Kermit ever leave the Society of Jesus?  What would it take for him to do that?  How would he communicate that desire to me? This line of thinking doesn’t feel quite right, but I am still learning how to discern the spirits (remember, Luke Skywalker!) and am still baffled at times by the wily spirit of false reasonings, and forcing solutions.

Meanwhile, Kermit really likes being friends.  Sometimes his eyes light up when he sees me.  I like seeing his eyes light up!  The ministry group that we are part of grows more effective, as we grow more comfortable and cooperative with each other.  But one night as we are talking animatedly with some colleagues after mass, still high on that great space of communal encounter with God, I realize that along with my thoughts, my feelings have changed toward Kermit.  I want him for myself.  Disconcerted, I throw out a silly joke to give him a hard time, waiting for that mock outrage to arise, falling back on the ludus that is a familiar part of our friendship.  Instead of mock outrage, he meets me with a blazing look that leaps out and literally knocks me backwards in the midst of our socializing.  It is not angry, not laughing, not mock-haughty or warm and friendly.  I have nothing in my experience of him to compare it to, except perhaps a few looks I have seen when we were at prayer, or making sacred art as part of a group.  On reflection, the best word I can find to describe this look is ardent, and I believe it may be eros that was blazing in Kermit’s eyes.

I am deeply unsettled.  All night and the next day at work I am batted about between various manifestations of hope and fear.  My feelings toward Kermit are strong, like whipping winds in a storm.  It is hard to find true north, and yet there is a quiet voice that I can hear.  It says, Let him come to you.  I can tell that it is counseling me to Be still, in the manner of Psalm 46:10.  But as anyone who has fallen in love knows, it is very difficult for the mind to be still in this state.  Perhaps impossible.

Fantasy and imagination are incredibly powerful forces that can be employed by both the true spirit to guide us, and the false spirit to throw us off track.  I watch my fantasies.  If this were one of those 90s movies that shaped my understanding of romantic love, then my friendship with Kermit would end in a major airport, on an escalator, as he declares undying love and we kiss, with about 100 extras watching.  I come to the conclusion, however, that this is not a movie (at least, not that movie) and what I should probably do is just talk with him, as a friend.  “How ya doin’?  What do you need?  Are we ok?”  Even “I’m sorry” comes to mind, though I don’t know exactly what I would be saying sorry for.  Fortunately, I am seeing him tomorrow, so I will have more data for discernment after that.

Our shared event the next day is a mass, followed by a picnic, with Kermit’s community.  He looks different.  He looks kind of terrible, actually.  Dark circles, and a deflated air.  I know something is wrong when he won’t meet my eyes at the sign of peace.  All afternoon, he stays on the opposite side of any space we share, and won’t look at me or talk to me.  This sudden silent treatment continues for two weeks and is very painful.  As you can imagine, the false spirit has a field day!  Shame, fear, anger, resentment, confusion.  Especially shame.  We have some very unkind terms in English-speaking Catholicism for a woman who flirts with a priest – even with a priest-in-training.  “Chalice chaser” and  “Collar stripper” are the two that beset me, in this case.  I have heard Kermit himself use one of these terms, in a general way, in the past.  So I am concerned that he may now be applying it to me, in his mind.  But an even deeper shame comes from the thought that he simply didn’t think of our friendship the way I did.  That to him, the collaboration was easily dispensable.  That he had thought of me as “other” and “less” the whole time.  (Now, post-Exercises, I recall these “all-or-nothing,” simplistic thoughts with the understanding that they both smack of the false spirit.  Luke Skywalker, remember?)

Full of pain, I start to avoid Kermit, too.  Then one day I walk into church and he is standing right next to the entrance, dressed in an alb, impossible to skirt.  He is looking a lot better.  “Hello Maggie!” he says brightly, eyes clear.  His face is open, friendly, and composed.  “Hello,” I mumble and rush by, feeling his cool, friendly greeting like a punch in the chest or a smack in the face.  I go to confession and talk about how I need to forgive Kermit for shunning me and then acting like nothing happened.  The confessor, a Jesuit man, is visibly proud of Kermit.  “He worked through it!” he says.  “He took his time and worked through it.  What do you think he did wrong?”  The room gets a little hot as I sit facing him, feeling conflicted because in an abstract sense, he is correct.  Kermit did nothing morally wrong.  Once he saw the dynamic that was developing between us, he cut off the relationship, not leading me on.  But in a relational and contextual sense, his reaction was also deeply hurtful, partly because of a power difference that I had known was there, but of which I didn’t feel the true impact, until it reared its head between us.  I don’t say it out loud to my proud confessor, but his questions help me to articulate the notion that in shunning me, Kermit treated me like a person who didn’t really matter – a non-person, not real.  It is this trespass that I need to forgive Kermit, in order to be able to truly receive God’s forgiveness myself.  Because perhaps, in not giving Kermit the grace to pull back and act like a stranger for a while, I also treated him like a non-person, not real, not vulnerable or allowed to be confused.  In letting myself be shamed by his behavior, and refusing to relate to him after that, perhaps I gave him more power over my feelings than any person should have over another.

You’ll be glad to know that this story has a paschal ending.  With God’s grace and some time, I do forgive Kermit, and I do find the courage to talk with him about what happened.  One difference between a Jedi padawan and a Jesuit woman is grace – that for us, the force is not neutral, but tirelessly and independently works for the good, even through our confusion and woundedness.  No matter how dark it may feel, we are never completely lost to the “dark side.”  So it is that over months of a cooler, less personal version of collaboration, I notice gradual changes in both Kermit and myself.  He seems gentler, humbler, a little less ludus and a little more agape.  I also change.  With prayer and practice in discernment, I begin to see him with more compassion.  I recognize how high the stakes were for him when he cut off our friendship, and how afraid he must have felt.  I see that he truly did his best, and that even in a context of holy restlessness, Kermit’s best was good enough.  My best was good enough.  Our mutual bumbling was, in fact, graced, because the fruit of it was wisdom.

Most importantly in this process, I learn to be gentler with myself.  I see that I am not a “chalice chaser” for experiencing passion for Kermit – that this is a defensive label, necessitated by fear and perpetuated by a lack of sexual maturity.  As I explore chastity more deeply, I begin to understand that my failure in chastity wasn’t falling in love with Kermit.  Through the lens of this new paradigm, my lapse in chastity came with not listening fully to the voice that consoled me, Let him come to you.  That true-spirit voice was transmitting a basic instruction in angelic chastity: to be gentle with my own limits, and with other people’s.  To give a loved one space, and to accept his boundaries and behaviors as an expression of his basic needs, even they do not leave me perfectly comfortable.  In the same breath, that voice encouraged me to receive him when he was ready to talk again, and then to be honest about the impact that his actions had on me.

By the time Kermit left our community to continue his Jesuit formation, I was much farther along in my own Jesuit formation, too.  We had the chance to sit for a few minutes in the sanctuary and reflect on the past few years – to say thank you, I’m sorry, I love you, good-bye.  As our conversation came to an end, Kermit surprised me.  “I would like to…erm…embrace you!” he said.  As he initiated a hug, light and careful, but real, I put a cheek on his shoulder and both palms flat on his shoulder blades.  I could feel how alive he was – clammy, solid, fragile and brave.  Full of tenderness and gratitude for both of us, I moved to kiss his cheek goodbye but missed, hitting near the ear.  He released me steadily.  “I can’t wait to see where you end up!” he said, and literally ran out of the chapel.

May the force be with you, I thought.

The path continues to unfold. I have fallen in love with other Jesuit men since then, and in terms of chastity practice, my best seems to keep getting better!  Chastity practice is now, for me: 1) relational; 2) more about maturity than purity; 3) gentle; 4) a work-in-progress.  Each Jesuit woman will necessarily discern her chastity practice alone with God, but I think it would also move us a long way toward genuine reconciliation with our brothers in this area if we can develop a common language and a mutually supportive practice, too!  So please let me know if you would like to “talk shop” sometime about your Jesuit chastity practice. And ’til then – May the force be with you!