It seems to me that the virtue of chastity is one of the most counter-cultural, radical aspects of being a Catholic Christian today. If this is true, then my choice to make a vow of celibate chastity as a woman religious should make a radical difference, shouldn't it?
That question has been the subject and focus of my reflection in these days. What difference does my vow of chastity make to my life and to the way I serve Christ in the world? There are may ways to answer this, but I’d like to skip ahead to something I learned when I was studying as a novice: The vow to chastity, made and lived in response to God's call, opens my heart to love.
At first glance, this may not make sense. I’d guess that many people think that a life without having sex is cold or lifeless; that my vow of chastity shuts down my heart. But the exact opposite is true! It's a Gospel paradox that only "makes sense" in the light of the life of someone who lives this vow wholeheartedly.
My vow of chastity is a response to Christ's love for me. Because my relationship with Christ comes first, and it's so fulfilling and important to me, I focus all my attention on him. All the other relationships in my life are seen through or in my relationship with Christ. Gradually, Christ's gaze of love on the world becomes my own.
My relationship with everyone else changes. Chastity reminds me of the giftedness and sacredness of my life (including my femininity and sexuality). And it reminds me to recognize this giftedness in others. Instead of relating to others in a utilitarian way, "What can you do for me?”, I relate to them as a supportive sister, as a loving mother. "Who are you, and how can I support you on your journey?"
And people seem to be able to sense this. When I am walking the streets of Toronto, why is it always me they approach to ask a question? Whether it's a request for directions, or a quick comment about their faith--or lack of faith--in God, or a plea for prayers, it's rare that I can walk for more than 15 minutes without being stopped. A couple months ago, I was waiting for an appointment in a full but silent hospital waiting room. Two people struck up conversations with me, one to tell me about her life journey of faith; and the other to pepper me with questions about being a "nun." Even though she wasn't Catholic, she'd always been fascinated by sisters and I was the first one she'd met
In one sense, this has nothing to do with me. None of these people know me. But they have a certain expectation of a sister in a religious habit--expectations of kindness, understanding, listening. They know intuitively that a sister is called to be Christ's loving presence in the world. We are supposed to be everybody's mother, everybody's sister.
So, how is my chastity relevant today? I think one of the biggest "benefits" of the virtue of chastity is an open, loving heart. A heart that sees people and the world as God sees them--through eyes of love. When we truly fall in love with Jesus Christ, our heart eventually gets torn open by the suffering of the world. I do not yet have God's heart. But I do pray that little by little, God will allow my heart to be transformed so that every day, I can see with more compassion, listen with more wisdom, and love a little more generously.
Sr. Marie Paul Curley, FSP, is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, who seek to live and communicate Christ in their lives and in the media. Currently in Toronto, she is an occasional guest on Salt + Light's Perspectives: The Weekly Edition and on S+L Radio.