Tag Archives: Chastity

Compassionate action

So, if you have followed me through the last seven blog posts on Matthew’s ‘sermon on the mount’: his skilful summary of Jesus’ teaching, we are ready to take an axe to the roots of our consumerist society. Well, that’s what these next words of Jesus seem to suggest –

“…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Chapter 6 verse 25)

 Monks and nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Those of us who desire to live the way of Jesus in our complex secular lives must find our own interpretations of these vows. I talked about chastity in my last blog post. Some rare and courageous individuals take the vow of poverty quite literally in their daily living – Hindu and Buddhist monks with their begging bowls for example as well as some Christians. The difficulty for them is that they have to rely on the rest of us who do plan ahead.

Looking carefully at verses 25 – 34 of this chapter 6, I do not think those of us who make plans for the week, or month, or even years ahead are excluded by Jesus’ teaching. Last week I heard the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University talking about their research programme. He told us that it has taken the last 8,000 years to achieve a 40% increase in agricultural productivity (No, I have not added a nought by mistake). Given the rapid increase in world population we need a similar 40% increase over the next 30 years. Scientists don’t have much time to help us avert a catastrophe. We can say the same about our response to climate change.

There are, of course, Christians who think the end of the world is a good and inevitable thing that God might bring about in our lifetime. Reading my blog, I think you will guess that I’m not one of them. The teaching of Jesus makes sense whatever we may think about the way the world might end. Notice one little word in verse 32. In the version I use it’s the word ‘strive’. Our consumerist society depends upon striving for the latest fashion, or some newly created take-away food. Jesus says,

“Strive first for the kingdom of God. So do not worry about tomorrow….” 

Notice, it’s not strive only but strive first. Get your priorities right. If you are an activist, be a contemplative activist. Act out of enlightened consciousness, not out of fear, desperation, hatred, contempt for politicians who are ‘getting it wrong’ or any other ‘I’m-right-you-are-wrong’ attitude. A Buddhist might say, listen to the cries of the world and act out of compassion and a Christian can fully embrace that. I am profoundly grateful for all the contemplatives-in-action whose compassionate striving is part of the silent revolution that is this stage of the evolution of human consciousness. They might help us avoid panicky short term solutions.

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Chastity – what’s your definition?

So what is your definition of chastity? For me the clue lies in these two short passages of Matthew’s Gospel chapter 6:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…..but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven….For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (verses 19 – 21)
“No one can serve two masters…..You cannot serve God and wealth.” (verse 24)

“But,” I hear you say, “they are not talking about sex!” That is because I get my definition of chastity from the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (executed by the Nazis for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler). For him chastity is the total orientation of my life towards a goal. And the goal? You might call it the single heart. Stanza 18 of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, puts it with heart wrenching drama. In December 1875, as the Deutschland founders in a storm off the Kent coast and the sea swamps the ship, one of the passengers, a nun, calls out ‘O Christ, Christ come quickly!’ Hopkins writes:
“Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine! –
And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one:
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
Ears…….”
Here is the single heart – “Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine ears”
Later, in stanza 29, Hopkins combines the single heart and the single eye
“Ah! There was a heart right!
There was a single eye!”
Perhaps he had in mind the three short sayings I have been focussing on in these last two blog posts.

BUT – aren’t jihadists in Iraq and Syria also single-minded – even to the point of martyrdom?! Weren’t Christians single-minded in the medieval crusades to liberate Jerusalem and the ‘Holy Land’ from ‘infidel’ Muslims? Do we not have to admit that religions of all kinds can get it seriously wrong? How do we distinguish? How do we discern the true from the false? By their fruits, says Jesus. We don’t gather figs from thistles, he adds. Brother Roger of Taize said, “Nothing is more important than the loss of love”. You might say that the whole of these three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel could be summed up in those words from the Prior of the Taize Community.

Not one of us acts alone. We are all part of a wider community. To quote John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” We can all get swept up by a communal tide of unexamined assumptions, fears, anger and hopes. They can blind the healthy eye, create division in the single heart. To help counteract this blindness (especially in the religious person) there are three checks and balances within the Christian tradition. One of them is just that – tradition; the tradition of thinking and spiritual practice that has mapped out down the centuries the dangerous byways that religious zealotry can tread. The second is scripture: for Christians, the Bible. The third is reason: just plain old rational thought. These three, interacting with each other, no one of them dominating the remaining two, can provide a supporting framework within which my heartfelt desire to live a life of chastity can find proper expression, and that includes my fifty five years of marriage!