This is the second in a series of three reflections on purity for Incarnation and Modernity. For the first, see Why Purity?
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre —
To be redeemed from fire by fire…
–T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets- ‘Little Gidding’
There will be trials of heart and body — deeply difficult attempts at keeping on the way of the good and true. There will be falls — humiliating and crushing ones. There will be heartbreak. Interiorly and physically, we are swayed and inclined, we rise and we fall like the tides. It seems this is the way that we live our lives: struggling between strength and weakness, pain and glory.
In love and friendship there is a unity between this interior universe and the way we act; there is a unity between the life of the soul and that of the body.
Actions have consequences, but they also go deeper. They shape and mold who we become. The tides etch their patterns in the sands, they carve the rock, they divide and unite what is separated. Everything we do changes us. And in this, there is no doubt that practice makes perfect, and it does so in every act that we engage in.
So when it comes to reflecting on purity less abstractly, a more concrete approach is to look at it through the lens of practice. No difficult thing is mastered if it is not repeated over and over again. Think of the pianist, or the sculptor, or the great writer. Yes, some have innate capacities, and yes, they may have natural inclinations. But proclivity is not sufficient. We need to nurture capacities, talents — aspects of ourselves that are oriented towards one skill or another. On a more spiritual level, practice unites the powers of the soul with the actions of the body and fuses them.
This is why purity needs to be understood in the context of purification. We do not just chance on this virtue, but are refined in it, constantly, and we become it more each time we practice it. Yes, the choice is to be redeemed from fire by fire — the suffering and glory are bequeathed by the same source.
We constantly run the risk of being convinced by a dualist understanding of the way we live, as if the body operates apart and independently of the interior inclinations of the heart. What is missing from this is an understanding of the integration between the passions and the will, which together translate into concrete actions that we effect physically, with our bodies. Only through this return to an integrated understanding of human life, can purity be a possibility that is desired, practiced and realized.
So the body is not bad. Though wounded and often wounding, it can also be elevated and redeemed. It is good.
And our desires and passions are also not bad. They may be disoriented, they may veer from virtue, but they also can be redeemed and elevated, and so be good.
In this unifying exercise, what emerges is a capacity for purity, exercised with conviction in every interaction we have with another– physical, intimate, spiritual, and generative as it might be. This is a purity of heart and body, a purity that does not envy, or lust, or diminish and denigrate, but uplifts, and encourages, and loves, truly.
And it is so, that when the culture around us proposes the opposite, what we might be surprised to find deeply within ourselves is a nascent distaste for the mediocre, an anchored capacity to respond to that which is less than luminous and pure, with a witness that might lead another to question why, and maybe even desire the same.
For purity is powerfully attractive, and makes attractive, and attracts, if it is grounded in a love that is itself pure.
Gold is tested in fire, a statue emerges out of rough stone, present suffering clears the way for future happiness. And from this, slowly, the soul seeks more than fleeting satisfactions, purity is ever purified, and our power for virtue grows. We become what we do: we become pure, we become loving, we, become ever ‘more’ inclined to the good and the true.
But all this hinges on the power of attraction, which must undergo the refiners fire to be revealed the jeweler’s prize possession.
…Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
And so consumed, like a candle whose flame destroys and illumines, glory might be ours in the torment and the pain — radiant, and beautiful, and true, and pure. The attraction is made powerful.
And Love wins, refulgent.
To be continued.
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at firstname.lastname@example.org