Passion and Purity

by Mary Healy

Pope John Paul II’s teaching in his monumental “Theology of the Body” helps us to recognize the error of two false alternatives: promiscuity, in which distorted eros, or lust, is given free rein, and prudishness, in which eros is denied or repressed. Neither of these is true to our dignity as embodied persons in the image of God.

The first views man as a mere animal; the second views man as a disembodied angel. Both are based on a devaluation of the body (a perennial human temptation, known in the ancient world as the heresy of Manichaeism).

The true answer for putting our sexuality in right order is purity of heart, to which Jesus calls us in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Purity is not a midway point between promiscuity and prudishness. It transcends both by liberating the nuptial meaning of the body. It enables us to channel our desires toward the true value of the person. There is no genuine love without purity.

Purity is a virtue, an aptitude that we acquire through consistent “abstention from unchastity.” In this sense it demands a painful process of crucifying the flesh. But at the same time purity is a gift of the Holy Spirit, given only through redemption in Christ. Purity matures in the heart of the person who cultivates it, to the point that the person enjoys the fruits of the victory won over lust. Purity restores to the experience of the body – especially in the relations between man and woman – all its simplicity and its interior joy. This joy is utterly different from the satisfaction of lust.

Purity is a virtue, a gift of the Holy Spirit, matures in the heart of the person who cultivates it and restores to the experience of the body all its simplicity and its interior joy.

Purity includes the virtue of temperance or self-control, the mastery of one’s desires. Undeniably, temperance can sometimes feel like emptiness and restriction, the very opposite of freedom – especially when it is attempted for the first time and if habits of lust have already been formed. The pope is a realist. Temperance is not easy!

Yet temperance means more, not less. Gradually the temperate person begins to experience the interior freedom of the gift, the ability to experience the true meaning of life as self-gift in love and purity. The innermost layers of the person’s human potential acquire a voice, layers that the lust of the flesh would hide.

Christian preaching can sometimes give the impression that morality is basically a series of no-no’s: no casual sex, no homosexuality, no living together before marriage, no contraception, no pornography (basically, no fun, as the media portray it).

Rather, we should thank God for Christian morality! It is not ultimately a “no” but a “yes.” It is all about true freedom, about liberating the desires God has built into us for their full potential. The passion of lust (grasping for what I want) is transformed into the passion of gift (giving myself for you).

Think of the difference between a man who treats a woman as a sex object and a man who is passionately attracted to a woman but treats her with reverence and care, delighting in the beauty of her femininity and of the inner person revealed through her body. Passion united with purity frees the body to do what it was created to do: to be a living expression of the spiritual communion in which persons become a gift of self to one another.

John Paul wrote in Theology of the Body,

“Purity is the glory of the human body before God. It is God’s glory in the human body, through which masculinity and femininity are manifested. From purity springs that extraordinary beauty which permeates every sphere of men’s common life and makes it possible to express in it simplicity and depth, cordiality and the unrepeatable authenticity of personal trust.”

This article is excerpted from Men & Women Are from Eden (Servant Books, 2005) by Mary Healy.