The Carnal Gaze of Chastity

Francesco Hayez, Il Bacio | 1859, Italian, Oil on Canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano

Francesco Hayez, Il Bacio | 1859, Italian, Oil on Canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano

When I enter my house, I shall find rest with her,
for companionship with her has no bitterness,
and life with her has no pain, but gladness and joy.

–Wisdom 8.16

Everyone desires to know, and to know truth. We can hide from the truth, we can hide the truth itself, but no one will say they prefer to be deceived. In seeking truth, we should ask for wisdom — that capacity to distinguish between the veritable and deceiving, between good and evil, light and the darkness.

Interestingly, Wisdom is compared to a woman. Preferred to all else, Wisdom is “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness”(7.26). She is described as the light of man, the paradigm of goodness and virtue, “more beautiful than the sun”(7.1).  Reading this, we are led to understand what such a personification of Wisdom tells us about the relations between men and women — what it says about their search for pure love.

Transfixed, the modern heart looks upon the body of another either with sensual pleasure or contemplative delight. At the root of this struggle is a division between body and soul, a dichotomy between physical pleasure and spiritual joy; a severance which brings forth a tension between the contemplative and the carnal gaze. This deep-seated contrast of visions is at the center of the human struggle for chastity.

Though made of body and soul, man is one. Through his bodily composition he gathers to himself the elements of the material world; thus they reach their crown through him, and through him raise their voice in free praise of the Creator (cf. Gen 1:6; Wis 2:23). For this reason man is not allowed to despise his bodily life, rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and honorable since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day. Nevertheless, wounded by sin, man  experiences rebellious stirrings in his body. But the very dignity of man postulates that man glorify  God in his body and forbid it to serve the evil inclinations of his heart.

Gaudium et Spes 14

Any effort to reconstitute unity amid such divisions requires reclaiming the unity and goodness of the body, of its rational and affective capacities, of its physical desire and spiritual meaning. It requires reclaiming joy as distinct from pleasure and understanding the contemplative as made possible in and through the carnal.

Such an incarnate understanding of chastity gives insight to how frail human beings can love purely as real men and real women. By a strange paradox, what is often called the mortification of the will – forming the will to seek the good and avoid evil — must take human passions into account, using them precisely to orient them in virtue. Because the nature of human passions is both personal and relational, doing so is never a solitary act. Every attempt at nurturing personal virtue must retain a dimension of communion proper to friendship and true love: it must take into account the value of the affective life—the life of our emotions — and how those operate in us and in those around us. 

Strong feelings are not decisive for the morality or the holiness of persons; they are simply the in-exhaustible reservoir of images and affections in which the moral life is expressed. Passions are morally good when they contribute to a good action, evil in the opposite case. The upright will orders the movements of the senses it appropriates to the good and to beatitude; an evil will succumbs to disordered passions and exacerbates them. Emotions and feelings can be taken up into the virtues or perverted by the vices.

Catechism  of the Catholic Church 1768

The greatest of the commandments elucidates this clearly: Christ says “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13.34).  This is not a commandment to love ourselves, but to love one another so that through that love, the love of God might be imitated, expanded, and perfected in us. It is this command to love the other — a divine command, the greatest of the commandments — that shows us how we can purify the will, and properly orient our desires. For if we truly love another as God loves us, then that love is by its very nature pure, and participates in the fullness of God’s own life.

Conversely, it is likewise this commandment that enables the vigilance proper in love – a kind of awareness, that does not fear the assault of the other on the scared character of love that intends fidelity, but acknowledges the goodness of the offer of the other’s  love, since it receives it as the  invitation to respond in love – to  love in return as God himself loves.

The carnal gaze of chastity, then, is the human gaze that takes on the form of the crucified gaze of the Savior. It beholds the Other — God — as it beholds another in love. It is raised high. It does not avert its eyes. It looks upon the full frailty of the human condition with the truly human and truly divine capacity of the Incarnate Son of God, who is not afraid to engage it in His flesh because He is the fullness of grace, because He redeems what is lost in us. It extends its vision to enable embraces that are fully free and fully human — the celibate embrace of the priesthood, the conjugal embrace of matrimony — and sees in these the extension of Christ himself, pure and chaste, yet wed in love to His Bride, the Church, always pouring forth His love for her, and life in her.

By choosing to love in this way – for indeed such love entails a free choice and requires faith — the divinization of man made possible in Baptism is actualized in the very reorientation and transformation of human power and agency.  Love takes on a salvific dimension in us. It rejects utilitarian tendencies that debase and destroy the integrity of proper, good, and noble human affection. It triumphs over fear of infidelity, and subjects temptation to the power of grace, conquering sin itself. It gives God permission to truly dwell in the temple of our body.

From this vantage point, every attempt at chaste love looks upon the One and must refer itself to the One who loved with such freedom. And it must not fear or despair.

At the heart of this freedom is the distinction between pleasure and joy. All too often we confuse the two, and assume that the kind of bodily pleasure, that fleshly delight which is part of who we are as persons and part of how we express human love, is itself joy. All too often, in well-intentioned attempts at redirecting our passions, desires, lust, we end up down a misguided road and debilitate our search for joy. Here the carnal gaze is not illuminated by grace, but remains mere human sensuality. The key to redirecting ourselves aright is not an allegorical aversion of the eyes, but to beseech the grace of new vision, such a that the same frail carnal gaze, directed at the same object of love, delights not on the level of mere human desire and pleasure, but transcends it and is transformed into a contemplative vision of truth and goodness.

We can then behold the marvel of God’s making, the work of his hands, and live in our flesh the same generative joy which began in creation: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” ( Genesis, 1.31).  He saw it, and delighted in it. We see. And we delight.

This joy is a chaste joy. It seeks its protection in the very beholding, in the very loving, in the very exchange of human tenderness which presents the kind of opportunity for fidelity to what is true and good. It engages the object of delight as it is: beautiful and real. It engages us as we are — human beings with real feelings, real attractions, capable of rightly ordered love. It gives God the upper hand, by recognizing the great marvel that we are capable of in human love, the great gift of its consecration in the vowed life of the celibate or of the married, and its very fruitfulness as it brings us to a fuller understanding  of divine abundance and charity.

Here, the carnal is divinized — not because it is merely set apart, protected, cloistered from temptation — but because it is engaged in its full capacity, in its reality, in its transcendent orientation; bound in confidence of the efficacy of grace, it lives in union with the spirit and the spirit’s boundless capacity for pure love.

There are great risks and great struggles that affect this progression in virtue. They are the real temptations of the flesh, the doubts which impede human fidelity, the lack of trust and the weakness of faith and hope.

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Romans 8.5-8

Indeed the flesh is weak, which it why it depends on a willing spirit (cf. Mt. 26.41). The interweaving of flesh and spirit is the interweaving of the spiritual and the carnal, an interplay that manifests itself in all human relationships, but most poignantly in expressing the hidden love for God of  vowed celibacy, in nurturing familial bonds of affection, in building marital union between spouses, in sustaining spiritual friendships that transcend natural friendship and reveal the possibility of a higher communion and higher love. All of this happens in the body, with the body, through the body. It is a carnal work made holy, a spiritual work expressed carnally.

Chastity is strengthened when this integration exists, because the chaste soul, drawn by grace to such virtue because of its goodness, finds then the freedom to be bound to it by fidelity — celibate fidelity, conjugal fidelity, personal fidelity that enters into the mystery of real love. And this fidelity is itself expressed bodily. No human action, escapes this reality. No acknowledgment of love, no kiss, no embrace we offer will be authentic and pure in the flesh if it does not posses intrinsically a knowledge of its spiritual dimension, its final orientation, its subsistence in purity through grace.

Fundamentally this is an incarnate fidelity, a carnal fidelity that is redeemed and finds its freedom to love in the freedom of the union between God and Man—the hypostatic union where what is human becomes divine in Christ, and what is divine becomes human “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (cf. John 3.16).

“In the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God confirmed the dignity of the body and soul which constitute the human being. Christ did not disdain human bodiliness, but instead fully disclosed its meaning and value: ‘In reality, it is only in the mystery of the incarnate Word that the mystery of man truly becomes clear.’”

Dignitatis Personae, 7

The mystery of man requires faith. This is the same faith that is required to assent that bread and wine become the Body and Blood of the Savior. Conversely, the same faith we receive and profess in acknowledging the Mystery of the Altar, is the same faith that enables us to behold another person as the image of God — to treat them with reverence due the sacred. The same purity of faith and desire that allows us to receive Christ in the flesh, enables us to engage the world and the people in it with purity of mind, of body, and of soul. For He who is pure dwells in us.

Chastity, like all other virtues is bound up in this mystery. It subsists in grace. It learns gradually what purity means, on a deeply personal, deeply individual level, as it also extends beyond the self to infuse deep mystery of relatedness that is integral to human love and bound with divine love. It makes it possible to look upon the other with a carnal gaze that reveres rather than objectifies, that is free rather than constrained, and that gives life rather than instills fear or scrupulosity. As this kind of purification happens, the veil that shields the soul from its Maker is torn, and we are readied to behold a love that never ends, now, in our flesh. This is the work of a lifetime, but each day presents opportunities to live this deeply perfecting love. “So shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart.” (2 Timothy 2:22)

This kind of love does not destroy its object, but rather ennobles it. It “bears all things”, not simply in compassion, but in communion. It shares all things, and sustains in the one loved a radical hope that the spirit will triumph over the imperfect desires of the flesh — for though the flesh decays, the spirit lives, and is vivified in God.

But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness.”

Romans 8.9-10

The carnal gaze of chastity then becomes an act of worship, for it sees the Lord in the other, and offers a love that is in a sense a transcendent act of adoration directed through the other at the One who made all things very good. For this adoration to be pure and real, the self must be in secondary place: a kind of self-negation has to take place such that the order of our passions, the object of our love is set in the right order, and subsists in that Love that precedes all things, and sustains all things.

I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover my flesh will dwell in hope.

Psalm 16.8-9

I saw the Lord before me, and my flesh dwells in hope. And I shall not be shaken — I shall not fear, I shall not doubt or deny the woundedness of the flesh and its imperfect desires. But my flesh, my body, my senses, my frail and broken humanity, my very living and loving dwells in hope.

This is the gaze of chastity that sees the love that we are capable of, the reverence we are called to — the carnal gaze that is infused with Wisdom and beholds goodness and truth as it sees the attractive and the beautiful.

This is the carnal gaze of chastity that allows the battleground of the human heart to find peace.

This is the carnal gaze of chastity that gives men and women reason for hope, cause for rejoicing, finally the chance to delight abundantly.

…I shall find rest with her,
for companionship with her has no bitterness,
and life with her has no pain, but gladness and joy.


You may reach Maria Grizzetti at