chastity is optimism

Chastity is optimism. Chastity looks to the future. Chastity believes things will last. Chastity will never take the sex of the moment, because chastity always insists that the relationship has more to offer, that there is more to come. Looking to the spiritual existence above all, chastity believes that we can never go wrong by getting to know each another first, that we will never be disappointed by cultivating love first.

This is not mere pie-eyed idealism, a schoolgirl’s sweet, weightless dream of a perfect first time; it is a radical act of faith, given the tenuousness of existence. Things change all the time — we fail to continue to love each other; we fall prey to old habits; we cannot sustain trials of distance and disease; we die. We are always leaving each other, and yet even at the most extreme end chastity must make the argument that we have loved each other better in this short time by not having slept in the same bed. I love you, deeply, joyfully — and yet if I died tomorrow, chastity argues, I would have loved you more truly by never having pressed my teeth and lips to yours, bruising you in desperate passion; by never having kissed all the different textures of your skin; by not knowing the smells of your hair after one, then two, then three days without washing.

“This is a hard saying; who can hear it?”

Chastity argues, entirely correctly, that this will “induce stabler marriages.” It makes perfect sense that, on the road to marriage, two people should love each other for their spiritual qualities first, without allowing desire to cloud their judgement. Films, television shows, and the better romances often go to truly extraordinary lengths of plot machination to enable this to happen, so strong is our expectation that under normal circumstances people will sleep together — and yet why go to such lengths, except to give our heroes a chance to breathe, to find themselves and each other, to put off the awesome and brain-numbing power of sex for a little while?

On the other hand, the power of that idea faces a certain wall at its extremities. For one thing, we don’t marry every person we love. For another, there are many people who don’t want to marry. For a third, we may love someone who is for some reason unavailable for marriage. It may be unfair to one’s future spouse to make love to someone else now — but what of the person who is here now? How can one push her away in favor of some hypothetical future spouse who is not here and who may never come?

I had an affair several years ago with a married woman. This is not a boast or a confession; merely one of the facts that make up my life. She was only married in a very technical sense; they were separated and not under any circumstances going to reunite. Yet that technicality caused us to keep the relationship secret, and it also meant that at no time in the foreseeable future would we ever be able to marry.

This was not long after I had joined the Army, and although I cannot say, at this distance, what she was thinking, I know in my own heart I carried the expectation of death. Despite the overwhelmingly positive survival statistics, no one who volunteers to fight in a time of war can be unaware that he has, at the very least, drawn the sword and thrown away the scabbard. This imbues soldiers with a certain recklessness, a desire to feel the intensity of life before we subject ourselves to the glaring eye of death.

These two conditions — the perhaps temporary but decidedly long-term impossibility of marriage, and the imminence of death — led me to make a decision, almost unique in my life, to consciously step out of the shelter of the laws of Baha’u’llah, the “sanctuary of Thy protection and the stronghold of Thy defense.”

This is not to say that I hadn’t strayed before. But my previous straying had been largely innocent — not truly understanding, when I was young, what constituted chastity and what constituted sex; or it had been a result of weakness, knowing the right thing but being caught in the intensity of a moment.

This was different, a decision made, not without the influence of passion, but nonetheless coldly, over a period of weeks, and from a place of seemingly clearsighted desperation. I had this one-sided conversation with God:

Oh Lord, I have tried. Not well, and I know I’ve been highly imperfect in this area, but I’ve tried. Every woman I’ve loved, I’ve given less than I wanted to — even the ones I had some kind of a physical relationship with. If I haven’t always lived up to the standard, I’ve always striven for it, wrestled with my own weakness and desire. And in the end, I’ve always tried to come back to chastity, often wrecking or precluding relationships to do it.

Lately I’ve lived entirely within Your law — down even to avoiding naughty pictures or overly sexy movies, lest I be tempted to take matters into my own hands. I’ve dated Baha’i women, and in that last relationship we were so scrupulous that even holding hands was something we worked up to after many months. I did everything right, Lord, and yet that relationship failed like all the others, just one more of the ships I’ve built and set on the sea to run up on the jagged teeth of an impenetrable reef — and if it was the prettiest so far, the most perfectly built, what did it matter?

So, Lord, I don’t know what to do anymore. And so I’m taking a break — this time I’m going to follow love and do the catastrophically wrong thing. Because I don’t know how to fix this, and I don’t know how to make this person someone I can marry, and I’m tired of holding her at arm’s length, and I’m tired of disappointing her. Lord, I’m going to do a wrong thing; but if I’ve ever done anything that pleased You, then help me find a way to make it the right thing.

That was the substance of my prayer for several months, as our relationship ran its course. I’m sure I never articulated all those things in exactly that way, but I knew perfectly well what I was doing, and the help I was asking for.

At the time, I thought I was being hopeful. This illusion was somewhat buttressed by my family’s founding mythology. My parents met and fell in love while my mother was married to someone else — on the surface, their romance seemed to validate my own.

But in fact, my parents’ history validated doing the right thing. Deeply attracted to one another on first meeting, they stayed far away from each other for several years — my father actually moved to another state — until my mother’s first marriage ended for reasons having nothing to do with my father. When it did end, however, she sought him out, and they entered into a tentative, informal union, moving in together without a firm commitment, but with my older sister, then a toddler.

That’s act one, and good enough, but act two was even more interesting. My parents had left the path of organized religion, my mother for what seems to have been an unconcerned atheism, my father for a searching philosophical agnosticism. But when they investigated and then joined the Bahá’í Faith, they were almost immediately faced with the issue of chastity. The teachings of their new faith required that they either marry or stop living together. For my mother especially, following hard on the fracturing of her first marriage, this must have been an act of amazing courage. And this is not to slight my father — I am now slightly older than he was when they married, and at this point in life, when all your friends have already married at least once, when the wedding invitations have been supplanted by the birth announcements and then the family newsletters, you begin to question whether you’re really the marrying kind.

I have always wondered, as I suppose everyone raised in a Bahá’í family must at some point, whether I would have had the courage to accept the Faith if I hadn’t been raised in it. Becoming a Bahá’í is not like becoming a Catholic or a Muslim or a Buddhist. For one thing, those faiths have huge numbers of followers and ancient, mostly honorable histories; it is easy to see that they are, at the very least, world-shaping movements, and despite the obvious imperfections of their members and the occasional gross errors of their man-made clerical institutions, one can see the tremendous power each has to rectify human character and sweeten individual souls. For another thing, no faith asks its followers to embark on quite such an ambitious program of global transformation — both in the sense that Bahá’ís believe their religion will ultimately change the nature of society on the entire planet, and in the sense that the transformation they are asked to effect in their own lives is all-encompassing.

As in every true faith of God, declaring one’s belief in Bahá’u’lláh involves being tested, especially in these early days. As Kierkegaard put it in Fear and Trembling,

One is stirred, one harks back to those beautiful times, sweet tender longings lead one to the goal of one’s desire, to see Christ walking about in the promised land. One forgets the fear, the distress, the paradox. Was it so easy a matter not to be mistaken…? Was it so easy a matter to become an apostle? But the outcome, eighteen centuries, that helps; it helps that shabby deception wherein one deceives oneself and others. I do not feel brave enough to wish to be contemporary with such events, but for that reason I do not judge harshly of those who were mistaken, nor think meanly of those who saw the truth.

And if it was distressing to accept Christ on faith, what is it like for those who accept His return, with all its 2000 years of accumulated expectations?

So I find the enormity of my parents’ faith and courage in joining the Faith daunting. And in the same way, I find their decision to get married on the basis of faith to be one of the most profoundly optimistic, even visionary acts I know. One might say that it was not much of a gamble — after all, they had known each other for years, and they were already living together. But I say, on the contrary, that their unwillingness to commit adultery when they did not believe and their absolute submission to the law of marriage, despite their own personal fears and reservations about it, when they became believers are both deep-sounding measures of character and spiritual insight. On the one hand, they resisted their own desires in favor of honoring marriage, even a perhaps unworthy marriage; on the other hand, when it became clear to them that the law of God asserted that they would be happier and healthier as a married couple, despite society’s insistence that sleeping and living together for years first is preferable, they chose to believe God.

It is, nowadays, something like advocating leeches and bloodletting to say that people should marry before sleeping in the same bed. But to say that you believe that even those who are currently “living in sin” should either marry or desist from co-habiting is even odder. After all, many people might say, the horse is out of the barn already. But it indicates, at its core, a fundamental belief that chastity is always the preferable course; that it is in itself a worthwhile pursuit, regardless of your previous sexual activities; that it inherently enriches human life by, on the one hand, making one the master of one’s desires, and on the other hand elevating the station of marriage to something above those desires.

And so I find, in retrospect, that although my parents’ story superficially resembled my own, they made all the right decisions, with no guarantee that their faith would be rewarded and only a very few role models in their tiny Bahá’í community. Whereas I, who grew up in the Faith, with dozens upon dozens of happy, spiritual marriages to observe, somehow nonetheless contrived to make the truth obscure, to make it harder for myself to believe that chastity would lead to happiness. After years of trying to live within the confines of God’s teaching, I lost faith, in quite a literal sense, although I never stopped praying or believing in Him.

But this is because I never understood the spiritual implications of what I was rejecting. I understood that I was disobeying, and that I was substituting my own views for the wisdom of God. But I failed to understand that chastity was a condition of the soul, a way of viewing and loving others precisely in order to make our love both more long-lasting and more intense and true in the moment, no matter what happens tomorrow.

Chastity echoes the radical argument of `Abdu’l-Bahá:

The love which exists between the hearts of believers… is attained through the knowledge of God, so that men see the Divine Love reflected in the heart. Each sees in the other the Beauty of God reflected in the soul, and finding this point of similarity, they are attracted to one another in love….

But the love which sometimes exists between friends is not (true) love, because it is subject to transmutation; this is merely fascination. As the breeze blows, the slender trees yield. If the wind is in the East the tree leans to the West, and if the wind turns to the West the tree leans to the East. This kind of love is originated by the accidental conditions of life. This is not love, it is merely acquaintanceship; it is subject to change. Today you will see two souls apparently in close friendship; tomorrow all this may be changed. Yesterday they were ready to die for one another; today they shun one another’s society! This is not love; it is the yielding of the hearts to the accidents of life. When that which has caused this ‘Love’ to exist passes, the love passes also; this is not in reality love.

To the worldly heart, this may well be one of the bitterest passages in all of religious literature, similar in its brutal directness to the Preacher’s “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!” Again — “Who can hear it?”

Yet to the spirit, this is a thrilling blast of light cast upon human relationships. It encourages us to abandon old notions of love based on proximity and shared experiences and even compatibility of personalities, and to instead love based on our attraction to the Beauty of God reflected in each other’s souls, a Beauty which will neither diminish over time nor keep us waiting.

Our relationship was relatively brief, ended without rancor but with considerable pain, and ended with me looking foolish in many ways, not the least for having shanked my own principles so easily for what was, in the cold morning light, a lost cause from the beginning.

But I prayed on it, prayed sincerely, remembering every time the words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha:

His Mercy is vast, illimitable. He answers the prayers of all His servants. He answers the prayer of this plant. The plant prays potentially, “O God! Send me rain!” God answers this prayer and the plant grows. God will answer any one.

And the answer to my prayer came, though not in the way I might have hoped. Because before it all ended, maybe even before it really began, I had a chance to figure out something new about love.

Of all the components of attraction, certainly a large part of them fall under ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s description “the yielding of hearts to the accidents of life.” This is probably inevitable, even healthy. There are accidents of human interaction that we can’t avoid, probably shouldn’t even try to avoid — we simply can’t interact with everyone in the same way. Some of these accidents include the obvious — and the highly temporal — sexual attraction, compatible senses of humor, shared goals, etc.

But one of the things I noticed about this woman that was strange was how obvious and evident her good qualities were to me. They weren’t evident to everyone; and even from the beginning I knew her bad qualities intimately. But they didn’t matter, because for whatever reason, whatever mystery of how human beings come to know each other, what I could see most clearly in her were her spiritual qualities — her kindness, her solicitousness in making others comfortable, her roving, casual, yet earnest desire for knowledge, combined with a good-natured humility, especially in intellectual matters. Moreover, I think she saw the best, highest things in me, too; in an odd way, she even loved my confused piety and devotion, although it ultimately seemed to come between us.

Each of us saw a little past the other, a little through the other, saw the spiritual reality which too often lurks shyly behind all the other stage dressing with which we try to dazzle one another.

I wrote recently to a friend:

I think one of the things I’ve learned is that even though you’re supposed to see the spiritual (the “good qualities”) in everyone, each of us is attuned to different qualities and different ways of manifesting the Beauty of God.  So with some people you may have to work very, very hard to see their spiritual qualities, even though they may be perfectly good, nice people — it just takes a lot of work to figure out how to relate to them on that level.  And then 
with other people all that stuff just seems totally out in the open and totally obvious.

I think that’s maybe the true definition of being “in love” with someone — a sticky phrase, and hard to use well, but if it has a meaning, I think that’s it: a person you can truly love is a person whose spiritual attributes are obvious to you.  And of course when you can see someone’s spiritual attributes, your soul sings with that recognition.  And I think that’s the true definition of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s injunction “First thou must choose one who is pleasing to thee….

I wrote those paragraphs without much thought in a private letter, responding to my friend’s concern that she didn’t have many close friends. I wrote it late at night, when I was almost too tired to think coherently. But despite that, and despite the casual tone, if I had to crystallize everything I know about human relationships (not just the romantic) in something shorter than the Gettysburg Address, this is as well as I could hope to do.

Of course, that’s only the first half. These accidental situations, in which we meet someone whose spirit is so brilliantly apparent to us, can, if we let them, teach us how to see those qualities better in everyone we meet. I had read those words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha about love dozens of times before, and I had loved many people in a deeply spiritual way, I had never entirely put it together. But having, quite by accident, stumbled into a situation in which I could see one person’s spiritual self clearly, I began to understand that as the fundamental basis of all real human relationships.

It’s not that other factors don’t affect me — it’s not that I don’t still respond to physical attraction and personality and flashy social skills. But now I hunger for that same recognition, a recognition that had always spoken within me (“[The soul] is the first among all created things to declare the excellence of its Creator“), but which I had never consciously acknowledged before.

Chastity is optimism; it is the essence of faith; it cannot exist without the acknowledgement of our existence in another world parallel to, but more real than, this one. Because if we are not fundamentally spiritual beings, then chastity is, at best, choosing the safe road to avoid emotional disappointment, pregnancy, disease, the trivialization of the marital relationship, and the other “selling points” by which well-meaning people sometimes try to advertise for abstinence — and at worst it is a senseless betrayal of the opportunity for love and happiness in this life.

It is only when we see our relationship with another as primarily spiritual — only when we believe that the most important consummations are taking place from the moment we meet and continuing on indefinitely into eternity — that the philosophy of chastity makes sense. Only when we love on that level can we accept putting passion on hold for those other arguments, the entirely reasonable, practical ones.

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