Chastity and Almsgiving – a New Thought

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October 12, 2013 by lucieromarin

I’ll tell you a story. In my last (or second-last) year of high school, the guest speaker at the annual prize-giving night was a Protestant man who ran a mission for the homeless in one of Sydney’s toughest and most neglected suburbs. A few days later, I heard someone ask a friend what the topic of the evening had been, and she rolled her eyes and answered, in a sing-song, so-over-it voice, “Homeless teeeenagers.”

I was too startled to speak. People thought that social service was boring? People thought that homeless teenagers were funny? There was a culture in which listening to others speak about their work didn’t make you ask yourself what you, too, could do for the poor? This was the moment at which I realised that the Christian culture of almsgiving (or social justice, if you like), was, actually, specifically Christian.

So, cut to a decade or so afterwards. I noticed something else, which was that those passages of Scripture which refer to the virtue of chastity almost always refer to it in tandem with detachment from money, violence, drunkenness and gossip. We’re never exhorted just to be chaste. We’re asked to be chaste, generous, peaceful, sober, kind and truthful, and these, not just as a sort of heap of miscellaneous commands, but as an integrated whole. Have a look – you’ll notice that commands to the effect of ‘Flee fornication’ and ‘Reject impurity’ and ‘Do not give your body over to carnal lusts’ or whatever, are always only a breath away from, ‘Do not be a slave to money,’ together with, ‘Be healed of gossip, quarreling, violence, factions,’ and so on.

So, I had this thought:

Catholics all over the place are talking about ways to integrate contemporary efforts at chastity education into our culture better than we do. My suggestions?

The first step is to restore our sense of the integration of the virtues. Let’s look at how they work together. For example, if we think of chastity as that virtue by which we love our states of life so well that we do not try to steal the privileges of other states of life, we start to see how impurity-as-theft relates to defrauding workers and robbing others of their reputations. There’s detachment from material goods; you can own clothes, but the man with two cloaks must share with the man who has none. There’s also detachment from pleasurable goods; drink wine and marry, but don’t get drunk and sleep around. None of this is about hating anything. All of this is about not being addicted to anything.

I’m certain that some problems will never be solved until we understand that virtues are connected. Women, teenagers and children are sold into prostitution, not only to gratify male lust, but to satisfy a demand for money. The transaction requires not only a buyer so addicted to sexual pleasure that he will abuse a human being in order to obtain it, but a seller so addicted to money that he will abuse a human being in order to obtain it. The same can be said for any peddler of anything related to unchastity. (In fact, the same can be said of anything related to anything that shouldn’t be sold. I’m pretty sure that the editors of rubbish magazines love money more than they love trees.)

Second, let’s look at how we do almsgiving, and imitate that. Almsgiving comes so naturally to us now that we hardly notice it. We all put money in the collection-plate, and we never take a sidelong glance at our neighbours in the pew in order to judge them for their contributions. Sharing doesn’t come instinctively to any child, yet most Catholic children are used to putting pocket-money into their Project Compassion boxes during Lent. Then, come Advent, every parish in the country collects gifts, hampers, Christmas cards, you name it, to share with others at Christmas. We take the Society of St Vincent de Paul for granted – half of us are dressed by them! We have the Night Patrol. We have Caritas Internationalis. We have Aged Care. We have hospitals. We have have Franciscans. And we don’t walk around exclaiming, “OH MY GOODNESS!!! I GIVE ALMS!!!!” We just give, like we turn up for Mass.

Furthermore, we do all of this without caring too much what other people think of it. Sure, it’s annoying that if one man posts something dreadful online about chastity, 2,000 people will write in to say “We hate you,” and none of them will write to Caritas to say, “Oh, by the way, thanks for looking out for all the poor people so that I don’t have to.” However, despite the annoyance, the work goes on, and no one complains about it, (except me, here. But I’m not perfect).

Also, our almsgiving is neither defensive or aggressive, as far as I can tell, but done with one glance towards God and another towards neighbour. When we do talk about it, we do so without much reference to the people who want to get in our way. The worship of money and power is more subtle than the worship of sex – you’re less likely to endure direct anti-Christian name-calling because of it, and more likely to have to put up with broadly snide remarks about your inferior dress or career, which will be attributed to you as a general failure, rather than an oppressed or oppressive Christian – but it’s idolatry for all that. Even so, when anyone stands at a pulpit to describe the next fundraising drive, he does so without freaking out about consumerism, capitalism, the fashion industry, women’s magazines, and Wall Street. 

Can we not try something similar when we speak about chastity? Obviously, we have to talk about it sometimes, but let’s make it less about who we’re superior to and more about Who is superior to us. Let’s not make it about what we’re opposed to, but about Who we love. 

3 thoughts on “Chastity and Almsgiving – a New Thought

  1. Amanda says:

    Well, OK, but I think it’s just a teeny bit complacent and kind of offensive to suggest that giving money or time to help other people, etc, is specifically Christian. It isn’t at all. Loads of people do it (also quietly, privately and without fuss) who are atheists, agnostics, and y’know, it’s mandatory in Islam. There are also a lot of charities that Christians won’t donate to because they don’t agree with some aspects of the work of the charities – but nonetheless these charities are crucial for the support of lots of different types of people in different types of situations, and someone is funding them. Also depending on your perspective on social justice, you might consider that charities that make help conditional on conforming to Catholic doctrine, regardless of whether the people in need are Catholics, do a lot of harm.

    You’ve posted about thinking it’s important to recognise the virtues of other people, so it seemed worth reminding you of the above! Can’t help thinking it might have been a better post without the first two paragraphs.

    • lucieromarin says:

      It would be all kinds of wrong to say that almsgiving is specific to Christianity!! But this isn’t the same as saying that the Christian attitude to almsgiving is specifically Christian; everyone’s attitude to everything is specifically theirs, if that makes sense.

      I did not say that I discovered that I was virtuous; I said that I discovered that my habits of mind had been formed by a particular culture, almost without my noticing it. It seemed worthwhile, then, to wonder if this formation might be applied to other virtues – especially those more contentious virtues which are often be completely destroyed by their own apologists!

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