Holy Purity

by Louise Kirk

Yesterday I received an email from a lovely teacher with whom I am working. She said that her latest prayer of offering had been to forgive three boys in her Year 9 class who had stuck her head on the body of a porn star and circulated it among their pals. It had been shared 139 times before she had managed to get it taken down.

I don’t tell you this to shock you, but to show you how important the virtue of Holy Purity is, the topic of this talk, and why we need to spread it to others.

Holy Purity was one of the virtues especially loved by St Josemaría Escrivá, Founder of Opus Dei. He used to call it the Little Sister of charity. The two go together, and he would insist that without charity purity itself is barren.

“Charity is the seed that will grow and yield rich fruit under the fertile rain of purity.” (The Way, no. 119)

Put it the other way around, and charity without purity becomes sterile.

How does this virtue fit in? We are composite beings, made of body and soul. It follows that if we are to love God in a fully human way we need to love him completely, through our souls and bodies operating in unison.

The sad effect of original sin which lives in us is that our bodies revolt against the dominion of our spirits.

The Ninth Commandment addresses this: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife”. In Catholic catechetical tradition, this forbids carnal concupiscence, or, as the Catechism puts it:

“The movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of the human reason.”

This is not sin in itself, but inclines us towards sin.

The Catechism goes on to say that the heart is the seat of moral personality. Out of the heart comes love, but also evil thoughts: murder, adultery, fornication.

The struggle against carnal covetousness entails purifying the heart, and practising temperance.

(You know how direct St Josemaría could be: he says of the latter, bluntly, “Overeating is the forerunner of impurity.” (The Way, 126))

It is, as we know, the pure in heart who shall see God. That is what we are aiming at. The “pure in heart” are those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness chiefly in three areas:

  • Charity
  • Chastity
  • Love of truth and orthodoxy of faith.

This last one may surprise you. I will be coming back to it later.

The three interplay with each other:

  • Charity without chastity swiftly becomes self-love.
  • Chastity without charity: pride.
  • Chastity and charity without truth: we cut ourselves loose from God Himself, who is Truth.

By contrast, those who are both loving and chaste have their eyes opened to believe, and to understand what they believe. Part of this is seeing the human body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and respecting it accordingly.

There is another important point to take in: we don’t acquire Holy Purity just by our own efforts. Purity is a gift “which God will give us if we ask for it with humility” (The Way, 118). We do the groundwork, and God does the giving.

I have given you the rich background to the gift of Holy Purity in the hope that you will be tempted to read the Catechism for yourselves (2514-2533). We need to understand this gift well if we are to spread it to others.

Purity is a gift which grows. We don’t just “have it”. Sometimes we will fall down, because it will be a struggle for the rest of our lives, and we can expect the devil to attack us, and our families. He hates purity. If this should happen, we say sorry to God, mention it in Confession, and start again. Thoughts of an unruly nature can also come unbidden. The more we try to push them away, the more they can come. These are not sinful, but it can be helpful to get rid of them by mentioning them to the priest.

Turning specifically to chastity, I like this definition, which I picked up from Dawn Eden’s book The Thrill of the Chaste:

“Chastity is the virtue that enables us to love fully and completely in every relationship, in the manner that is appropriate to that relationship.”

I love the positive approach. You’ll notice that we’re not talking about “not doing things” but about ensuring that the way we treat other people is consonant with truth. This is a logic which anyone can understand. Body language is important. It can be even more important than the words we say.

Women have a special temptation against chastity which is different from a man’s. While a man has a stronger sensual drive, a woman has a thirst for male affirmation and emotional fulfilment, often driven by loneliness. Outside marriage, this can weaken her resistance to a man’s sexual advances and demolish her role as gatekeeper to the relationship. It can also encourage her to tempt a man, by the way she behaves and dresses, giving her a sense of control. Now often people today, especially the young, behave like this just because they are following fashion or the crowd. They aren’t consciously doing these things, but it doesn’t stop their behaviour being damaging both to themselves and the men they taunt.

Inside marriage, the problem can reverse itself, with the woman losing interest in sex, and failing to make the effort to court her husband. An obvious ingredient of this can be the way she looks. Does she still make the effort to please him? Now men vary. Not every husband takes full notice of the way we dress – my own doesn’t like me in trousers, but it means nothing to him if I put on makeup or not. What is important is that we discover what it is that makes our man feel drawn to us, and what makes him feel loved. Just as important is that we appreciate his ways of loving us. This is more complicated than it sounds because everybody feels loved in different ways – for one, it may be the gift of flowers, for another, mending the tap, for another being listened to. Women on average talk about twice as much as men, and that can be a source of love, or of friction. It’s so easy to judge our marriages by the little things that make us happy, rather than taking the effort to perceive our spouse.

Nicky and Sila Lee in their Marriage Course have a whole page of possible desires that we may each have and suggest that husbands and wives go through it together every so often to pick out their priorities. The list includes things like: affirmation, approval, companionship, conversation, physical affection, practical help, presents, time together, undivided attention.

But the gift of purity is for everybody, regardless of position in life. I have already mentioned Dawn Eden. In her book The Thrill of the Chaste Dawn recounts how she lived a life of Riley before discovering the attractions of chastity. It’s God’s gift for anybody, for those with same-sex attractions, single parents, the divorced, the separated, the widowed. Otherwise, we could be in danger of saying, with the Irishman: “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

In more complicated situations it can be easiest to start with the third category of purity mentioned in the Catechism: Love of truth and orthodoxy of faith.

Here we can help our friends and the people we meet see the beauty of the Church’s teaching so that they live it themselves and pass it on to their children.

I shall end by citing an email I opened not yesterday, but today. It comes from Pat Fagan, whom you may remember is going to be giving a talk in Manchester in June. I hope that it will tempt you to want to come to hear him.

He has sent me a piece of his research which isn’t yet published. I’m going to read it to you:

“Adolescents who worshipped weekly performed best academically. (We’re talking about things like their Maths and English.) Those who worshipped a few times per month did next best, followed by those who worshipped a couple of times a year. The worst were those who never worshipped. This is a snapshot of American teenagers! The more that social scientists analyse the data on religious practice the more powerful it reveals itself to be.

It can be seriously contended from review of the literature that religious practice has more impact for good than anything else in the social sciences. Some parents have no choice about being a non-intact family, but every parent can choose to worship God weekly. Single, black, inner-city welfare mothers who bring their children to church each week give them much of the same benefits as if they moved into a middle-class neighbourhood and sent them to middle-class schools.

Weekly worship improves virtually every outcome measured in the US federal survey system. The only interesting question for the social scientist is not “if” but “how much“ benefit weekly worship delivers. Thus, every newly-conceived child can say to his parents:

To reach my potential I need your worship of God, for without it I will not become the person I am capable of becoming. The choice is yours. The result is mine.’”


Not every parent can alter the situation they may find themselves in with regard to marital condition, but every parent can bring a child to church. When we hear so much about the difficulties faced by children living without both father and mother at home, it is worth remembering that just taking them to church could make such a difference.

As I said at the beginning of this talk, charity and chastity belong together. May the Lord give us the grace of Holy Purity and help us to spread it to others with joy.

The Creed

The Sacraments



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