by Bridie Vail
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us the human person is ordered to his beatitude by his deliberate acts: the passions or feelings he experiences can dispose him to it and contribute to it. The term “passions” belongs to the Christian patrimony. Feelings or passions are emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil. There are 6 passions listed by the Catechism, and they include: hatred, desire, fear, joy, sadness, and anger.
We are going to delve into a touchy topic. Emotional Chastity. What is this? Have you heard of it? Let’s reference the Catechism once more. Chastity means a positive integration of sexuality within the person. Sexuality becomes truly human when it is integrated in a correct way into the relationship of one person to another. Chastity is a moral virtue, a gift of God, a gift of grace, and a fruit of the Holy Spirit. These definitions are ones that we are used to reading, but what happens when we tie it together with our emotions? I would like to give practical and spiritual advice from Holy Scripture, the Saints and personal experiences of others and myself, in the hopes that we can all strive to order the desires and emotions that fill our hearts.
Harvard Business School, which you wouldn’t really expect to export any type of information relating to this topic, did just that. Two professors Nohria Nitin and Bridget Gurtler wrote a case called "Note on Human Behavior: Reason and Emotion.” They state:
“Human beings are driven by reason and emotions. On the one hand, as rational choice theorists assert, human beings are resourceful and evaluative as they strive to maximize their own interests.” … “[It] has long been recognized (and reinforced by contemporary research on the human brain) that human beings are also driven by emotions. Emotions can be in accord with rational behavior (e.g., when fear evokes caution in the face of danger, or pride motivates greater effort). But emotions can also be at odds with rational behavior (e.g., when pain avoidance leads to an unwillingness to confront difficult decisions, or shame leads to cover-ups). Understanding the importance of both reason and emotion is, thus, critical to designing organizations, control systems, and governance structures that promote desired behaviors.”
Thank you, Harvard Business School. Now that we have seen a secular example to prove our point you can all imagine what faith has to say about the successful integration of our emotions. However, this is not just a simple Google search.
I remember my first time hearing about emotional chastity and it was actually at one of my first Pure in Heart meetings. Danielle (Alaimo) Isenberg gave a beautiful talk to the Pure in Heart community. Since then I’ve thought, “Hmm, wow. That talk was beautiful.” And then I just left my understanding of it there. However, when I began writing this, I took it as God wanting me to take this chance to allow Him to bring me deeper and hopefully send an invitation for your hearts to do the same.
We were given a great gift in Pope St. John Paul the Great. This is not news to anyone, but any social issue large or small can be given guidance and direction in many of his encyclicals, exhortations and audiences.
In his book Love and Responsibility, he delves into the core meaning of authentic human love and the relationship of persons, specifically regarding sexual ethics. What do I mean by sexual ethics — did you think I was only talking about emotions here?
If we only knew how the two go hand in hand. Sex is very emotional. When two are united in the spousal union, the body, heart, mind and soul are all united into one. It is impossible to detach one from the other. The emotional bonds that are formed work as a means to unify the couple and thus promote healthy levels of security and trust. For more information on how connected one is to the other after the sexual union, I would refer you to Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children by Joe S. McIlhaney Jr. and Freda McKissic Bush.
In the same way that sex should be saved for marriage, so should the emotional bond be made with the person you are to be married to. Pope JPII says: “In such a relationship of total security and total trust in the other person-when there is no fear of being used or hurt, one feels free to give himself as he really is, knowing that he will be welcomed and fully received as a gift.” Being emotionally virtuous is liberation from the bonds that tie us to our human weakness and insecurities. Humans are very capable of thoughts or emotions that insight rational and irrational behavior. It can be one aspect of our lives or twenty that cause anxiety, worry or obsessive thoughts, as well as joy, peace and serenity in relation to everyday living. We have a choice in how we choose to react and what we choose to do with emotions that come our way.
Guard your heart. Proverbs 4:23 reads: “With all watchfulness, keep thy heart because life issueth out from it.” Heart health is hugely important in the physical sense, but what do we do for the emotions, desires and formation of our hearts? We need to actively be striving to do what it takes to expand the capacity of our hearts to love others and ourselves. Emotional chastity is less about the repose of our emotions and more about inviting God, our Father into the deepest crevices of our being. It is all about the Intimacy.
My spiritual director was talking to me about my relationship with God. He said, “God desires to enter into a union of Intimacy with you.” “In-to-me-see.” He told me that God can see my heart vividly, but He wants me to invite Him in and also wants me to open the locked doors of my heart. If I open the locked doors of my heart to God, this means He then gets to hold the key. JPII explains that “if man’s relationship with God (is) understood as a relationship of love, man’s posture can and must be one of surrender to God.”
This is where my research has found the root of struggle with emotional chastity. Taking our emotions to their highest levels without ever consulting the guardian of our hearts.
When explaining the emotions of humans, it is best to separate female and male emotions as they are so different from one another. Female emotions can be up or can be down. They can be joyful, excited and peaceful and then in .2 seconds become angry, stressed and annoyed. Or become the emotions I just listed, all at the same time. Needless to say: women are rock stars. Women feel things deep with their souls. The word ‘empathy’ is one of the best attribute, I believe, of a woman.
If a woman sees a person suffering, she wants to unite with them and show that she is willing to be there with the person in need, as the Blessed Mother did during our Lord’s passion watching and being with him along the way of the Cross.
Male emotions on the other hand can be the exact same description except you’d never know, because they wouldn’t tell you (insert laugh here). When men see suffering or receive the emotions of another (a woman), they turn into “doers” or initiators. They stand up and want to stop the suffering. They will do as many acts as possible to “fix” the situation.
Even when guys get together there is usually a reason or something to do; an action to be performed that will initiate a conversation. A man very rarely walks over to a person without a mission fueling his intention. No, men will come over and give reasons on what they feel called to do within a group of people. Jesus did just that during the wedding feast at Cana. He waited for His hour, He saw a need and provided a solution to the problem that was at hand. These are very general examples of male and female complementarity and how each gender shows emotion. It is only by these differences, these ways in which men complement women and women complement men, that we ever fully understand who we are.
A woman is attracted to the man who initiates. The man is attracted to the woman who receives. It is in the genetic make up of our bodies as male and female. Thus, when we have interactions of the opposite sex, the intentions must be pure because naturally, we were created to be what the other needs, especially when speaking of emotions. The attraction is biological but the intention is what is perceived by the emotions. In Love and Responsibility, Pope JPII explains, “Feelings arise spontaneously — the attraction which one person feels towards another often begins suddenly and unexpectedly — but this reaction is in effect ‘blind’. (p. 77) The value of any attraction...depends on whether the good to which it is directed is really what it is thought to be.”
The Catechism says, “Emotions and feelings can be taken up in the virtues or perverted by the vices.” Striving to be virtuous is not easy. A man striving for emotional virtue looks different than a woman who is striving for the same emotional virtue. Everyone, man or woman, receives and distributes emotions differently. We can see that when we take “Love Language” into consideration. Love language differs not just from men and women, but it differs person to person, too. Love language is the essence of your emotion in the outpouring and receiving of love. To quote St. Paul, “love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant…” (1 Corinth 13:4). However, our emotions, when not properly controlled, are not patient nor are they kind; they can be envious and boastful.
We have all had that interior conversation, especially when we’ve found ourselves attracted to someone, thinking: “What does this mean?”, “Does he like me?”, “I’m so confused”, or “Should I ask her out?”, “Is she interested in me?”, or “What if she says no?”. The enemy of emotional chastity is infatuation and selfishness. To be interested in something, let alone someone to the point of obsession, is to actually want to take possession of that thing. In order to posses something, it has no choice in the matter because that is the means for why it was created.
When speaking about the human person, we cannot infringe on the rights and freedoms that are endowed by our Creator. We can not possess a human as our own; that is not the means for why God created us. Keeping that in mind, to be infatuated to the point of obsession with another human person is to, even if subconsciously, will to take away their freedom. When we find ourselves becoming infatuated with a person, or our idealization of a person, we need to nip it in the bud and chose to root our emotions for their good. Ask yourself: “Am I willing the good of that person or am I willing the satisfaction I hope to receive from getting my own way?”
If you like someone and can’t stop thinking about them, don’t decide to plan your wedding day in your head. Stop, offer your thoughts and desires to God and ask Him to purify your will and intention. I can guarantee that if you do that, God will show you how this energy can be spent for the other person’s good instead of just feeding a daydream.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this restlessness is not what we were created for. Reading too much into a situation and the fear of rejection have led us into a place where risks aren’t taken and relationships aren’t formed.
Furthermore, the restlessness manifests in our hearts, it stays there, and it destroys any interior peace and confidence that had been present. “The love of man for woman and woman for man cannot but be love as desire, but must as time goes by move more and more in the direction of unqualified (or complete) goodwill. (p. 84)” What I think JPII is saying here is that the desire to know and love someone cannot just stay as a desire, but must MOVE into a relationship united for the goodwill of each other. Attractions that are simply staying attractions, and chances that aren’t being given, are only adding to the fear of commitment that we see in the culture today.
Active discernment, patience, humility, wisdom, knowledge and purity of mind and heart are all qualities and virtues of striving to live an emotional chaste life.
Men, as images of God and initiators of life, DO NOT BE AFRAID to ask a girl out. If you’re not willing to die to yourselves and your pride, you will never be able to rise with Christ, and if called to marriage and family, lead them to heaven.
Men, please be honest with your sisters in Christ. Be upfront with them. Make sure that if friendship boundaries need to be set that they are set. Actively examine your actions and conscience to make sure you are only sharing the emotions with women that you’d be willing to share with a guy friend. No matter how close you are with a girl that’s “just a friend”, she is still a female and filled with emotions. Just remember, inviting someone into the garden of your heart is a privilege of one, not the free for all for many.
Women, as images of God and the receivers of life, don’t feel the need to share every part of your thoughts with the outside world. Frankly, the world does not deserve them. Our Blessed Lady, who’s body, heart and soul were the vessel that formed Jesus Christ, pondered her thoughts in her heart. The image of her carrying Jesus is perfect for us to remember that Jesus, who is fully present in us, wants to bear the knowledge of our emotions, until the day when we are able to share the depths of our hearts with a future spouse.
Women, don’t be afraid to feel your emotions. If you like someone, that is a gift from God, and a gift TO God, that one of his creations takes delight in another such creation. That is the biggest compliment you could offer the Creator! Just remember that reverence is necessary in making sure your intention with that delight is rooted for the good of the other person.
Ladies, don’t string men along. If you want to be friends with a guy, be clear. Also, do not ONLY be friends with men you are romantically attracted to, for you lose out on knowing some pretty great brothers in Christ that way.
In all of the struggles that we face living in the times that we do, it is key to strive for a deeper interior union with God. Additionally, the antidote to struggles with emotional chastity is authentic same gender friendships. Honestly, it can be harder finding authentic friendships in this world than it is trying to find someone to date! However, if anyone is going to understand your emotions it surely will be someone who is going through the same struggles. Spend time building your friendships. Ladies, spend time with your sisters, and men, spend time with your brothers. You will be all the better for it.
In closing, I’d like to end with this passage from Philippians 4:6-9. Commit to reading this passage often, especially when the world has got you down. If there was ever a love letter written to your emotions and desires, this would be it. It makes you understand that all things from the Creator are causes for joy.
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Bridie Vail lives in Lowell, MA and serves as Assistant Director of Pure in Heart America. She thrives on asking people, “How deep is your love?”, as well as drinking coffee, and of course, being with Jesus in the Eucharist. You are most likely to find her yelling “Tony Tony” on the regular when looking for lost items, but is happy to have found her home at Pure in Heart.