St. John's scene of the woman caught in adultery comes up in the lectionary today. (John 8:1-11) As I said to the sisters this morning, it's so full of encouragement and beautiful teaching that one almost feels ashamed to say anything after it by way of homily.
As I was praying through the passage last night, I started to reflect on chastity. Who is it, really, who is unchaste in the story? The woman, of course, was guilty of some kind of unchastity to one degree or another. But as I prayed I began to realize that is the men in the story, the scribes and Pharisees, who are the most unchaste. Their heinous unchastity consists in how they instrumentalize this woman, using her even to the point of her fate of life or execution, just to try to impose an impossible dilemma on Jesus and thus have something with which to charge him.
Jesus, in contrast, cleverly refuses the dilemma and protects the woman. To him she isn't someone to be used for some purpose apart from her own salvation--we see this in how Jesus addresses her personally and then commands her to leave sin behind.
My reflection reminded me of a conversation I once had when I was in the parish. A young man asked me if I could think of any spiritual strategies or practices that could help in a struggle with the use of pornography. Without really thinking, I said, "When you see a pornographic image of a young woman, wonder if she has received her Confirmation, and then pray for her safety."
We both laughed, partly because the thing about Confirmation is so 'parish priest'; when you spend a lot of time dealing with marriage preparation and baptismal sponsorship, the confirmed/unconfirmed distinction is the principal way young adults are distinguished. But as time goes by, I've come to think that my spontaneous advice was inspired. It's a little way that someone could begin to develop a chaste attitude toward his neighbor, reminding himself that it is her salvation and happiness in God that really matter, rather than anything she might be for his selfish purposes. The ascesis of chastity consists in training our hearts and eyes to see other people as God sees them: as unique and unrepeatable creations whose flourishing, happiness, and salvation are desired for their own sake.
So, I continued to the young man once we were finished laughing, "Desire God for them, instead of desiring them for yourself. That's love against lust."
I remember once when I was young in religious life I went to a talk that some wise old priest was to give on the subject of chastity. When he got to dealing with the 'lust of the eyes,' he made this observation, which I wrote down: 'When you see a beautiful tree or a beautiful sunset, you just appreciate it for itself, and for God who has made the creation so full of delight. You don't immediately get distracted by any dumb idea that the beauty of the tree or the sunset is supposed to do anything for you or be some kind of possession that you can grab for greedily. You begin to see through the physical beauty to the perfect loveliness of God and so are drawn into an attitude of contemplation. And yet, this happens in such a way that you are not taken away from the particular, concrete moment and your full attention to what is before you. When you can be like that when you encounter some pretty woman to whom you are sexually attracted, that's chastity. But when you get to that point, it won't even matter to you whether or not someone is pretty, because everyone will be beautiful.'