Why Purity?

by Maria Grizzetti

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss | Oil and gold leaf on canvas, 1907–1908 Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss | Oil and gold leaf on canvas, 1907–1908 Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna


T.S. Eliot wrote some stirring lines in ‘Little Gidding (1942),’ one of his famous Four Quartets, wherein he reflects on the relationship between the person and the divine. We will use some here, to set a broad foundation for purity, departing somewhat from their original mystical meaning and historic context, but applying them creatively to a modern purpose. A handful of stanzas go like this:

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us — a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

Why purity? Why engage probable defeat in a culture that shatters this ideal with all of its power of persuasion? What is the motive of purity? Is it the absence of its forsaking? Are we only able to speak about purity by reflecting on what it is not?

To answer the ‘why’ question, we need first to step back and take a closer look at what purity is. I contend that the better way to understand purity is to think of what it is, rather than what it is not. Many words and thoughts down that road will lead to clarity on what most destroys it. But no action we undertake, desire we experience, or thought we ponder, is deliberately aimed at a downward spiral of purity-destruction. All of them are expressions of a greater need. We will call this the need for love, where love is broadly understood as a good, necessary for human flourishing, and enabling the expansion of the human heart. One way to think of purity then might be to consider it as a perfecting desire for love.

Some see in purity the end of their perceived happiness, only to later, perhaps painfully, hopefully discover that the ‘end’ is also the beginning of their joy. We live in a culture where the human heart is trampled and thrown back at us in an endless pleasure-meets-despair spiral, in an ever-vicious cycle of desire and frustration. Over and over we give love, personally, spiritually, physically, intimately, only to have that gift used against us. And it needs be said, contrary to common belief, that in this we are wounded, and fallen — although not lost. There is a lesson here beyond the immediate pain, and it is that in that place of vulnerability, we stand precisely placed on a springboard to renewal. Fortunate are they, blessed are they, who take that leap, for in it they might find a spark from which the flame grows–towards purification.

It is also hard for us to pretend not to know a single soul, whose desire for love had not landed them in some pretty tough places. Yes, this pertains to love understood physically–sexually, but also to the love that is sacrificial in regards to other human relationships: love directed towards one’s family, one’s friends, one’s God. They, real people that they are, in their suffering and agony of heart, are the symbols perfected in death. We, real people that we are, are the symbols perfected in death. Yes, perfected, in death, because every good thing comes ‘tested like finest gold in the refiner’s fire’.

Inherent in every act of love, physical emotional or spiritual is a sacrifice and an offering. It is a denial of self and simultaneous giving of self; an offering which implies a giving and receiving of what is most personal in one’s body, one’s heart, one’s mind, one’s soul. Such is the ideal; far cry from the reality.

It is here that we see how most modern love is almost always incomplete. People offer their bodies and not their hearts, they offer their minds and not their bodies or their heart, they offer their hearts and calculate that that was a waste; they sacrifice any of these for the good of another and find that desire used and abused; they know use and abuse, and live in it because they think love will come, or they are afraid, or they are paralyzed. In all of these, and the many more unstated alternatives, there is a form of death: death of a heart that expands enough to give itself and then contracts; death of a body offered over and over again to those who use it and then set it aside, as a one sets aside old clothing; death of a mind’s intention to love offered over and over and rejected; death of a will to intend the good, when it falls prey to addiction and passion. Each of these is a dimension of the death of purity; death of purity of heart, of body, of soul.

And yet the poet cries a piercing high note in the devastation. He contends in the borrowed words of the mystic, Julian of Norwich: ‘All shall be well; all manner of things shall be well.’ But he does not leave it here as if this spring of wellbeing were grounded on something simply ethereal. No. He proceeds: All shall be well in the purification of the motive, in the ground of our beseeching.

We have a personal stake in figuring out the purity question; a critical stake.

Which opens a huge portal to thinking of wellbeing and purity in the context of our motives, and may open an even wider portal to thinking of purity in the context of our freedom. And it is this freedom, which stands in direct contrast to that death.

So we are back to the opening question: Why purity? Let us briefly explore two very basic and contrasting answers.

There are possibly selfish motives for purity: I will not do ‘X‘, because I do not want ‘Y’. In each of the possibilities that follow, the operative motive is a paralyzing selfishness, related to me, and my perceived well-being aimed at avoiding perceived pain.

And there are possibly generous motives for purity: I will love completely, and I cannot now. I will love with my heart and body and soul. I will love to receive and to give. I will love physically and singularly, you alone and not many others, always and not conditionally, with a full consent of my will and of my soul, because you deserve nothing less than everything I can give. And here lies the choice for a greater freedom.

The drastic distinction, between selfishness and generous freedom, is that in the latter option, one seeks more. More than just sparing the self from perceived hurt, more than just avoiding this or that consequence, more than just a planned or spontaneous interaction, rooted in passing infatuation or passion. Here one loves with a view on eternity, because one perceives human love, wounded and imperfect as it is a way to love, as a perfecting desire, as containing an elevated positive purpose and potential: the participation in a greater and fuller love which redeems it, and suffices for its deficiency, and activates its generosity.

Shall then ‘our beseeching’ have any place in purity? Beseeching is not always an outward asking, a begging from another. What happens when we stop for a moment, to then pass beneath the superficial portal of our soul, and enter its depths and see radically purified motives, and there discover radically transformed desire?

Will we give ourselves, the change to ask more of ourselves, and so to be free? To be well?

All shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

To be well, is a possible answer to the ‘Why purity’ question. And being well is other-bound.

Because no one, is well alone.

To be continued.

You may reach Maria Grizzetti at incarnationandmodernity@gmail.com