Your Family Matters - Salt and chastity

Photo: Shutterstock Photo: Shutterstock

A pure gaze focuses our desire on our husband or wife alone

When people defend pornography, they often say things like, “It’s not hurting anybody. What harm is there in just looking? It’s not like you’re doing anything.” Remember Lot’s wife, whose wistful gaze back at Sodom and Gomorrah caused her to turn into a pillar of salt? (see Genesis 19:26) 

She “just looked” back at the town where sexual immorality was rampant, and it destroyed her. She turned into something sterile, the stuff that tears are made of.

The way we look at others is morally and spiritually significant. Looking with lust objectifies others and harms marriage. A pure gaze, on the other hand, sees the other in the full dignity of their personhood, created in the image of God, and it strengthens marriage. A pure gaze is an important part of marital chastity.

Wait! Married people don’t need to hear about chastity, do they? Actually, all the baptized need to practice chastity. Because we have been baptized into Christ, who is the model of all chastity, “all Christ’s faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life.” (CCC 2348) Chastity is the virtue which rightly orders our sexuality so that it serves authentic love. For unmarried men and women, celibate clergy, and religious brothers and sisters, this means sexual abstinence and vibrantly living masculinity and femininity in their celibate relationships. For husbands and wives, chastity preserves the integrity of the one-flesh spousal union in all its fruitful richness of meaning.

Strengthening your union

Marital chastity keeps husbands and wives from using each other for selfish gratification. Chastity guides them to use their sexuality for strengthening their union, for renewing the covenantal self-gift of their wedding vows. It helps them preserve the integrity of the life-giving power intrinsic to sexuality. And it keeps them from looking outside their marriage for sexual arousal or pleasure.

Adultery is an obvious offense against marital chastity. But viewing porn on your phone or computer? Reading Fifty Shades of Grey or other erotica? Fantasizing about someone else while you’re making love to your husband or wife? Whether it’s with our physical eyes or the mind’s eye, sexually gazing at men and women to whom we are not married, whether they are real or fictitious, attacks the purity of our heart, which should belong entirely to our spouse.

Jesus was very serious about the reality of what we do in our hearts: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) Perhaps this interior infidelity is at the heart of the statistics which correlate high divorce rates for men and women who view pornography. Users also report higher instances of depression and dissatisfaction with their life in general, and in particular with their own body image and their own real-life sexual relationships. Jesus tells us that the pure of heart, by contrast, are “blessed,” or “happy.” (Matthew 5:8)

Intimate, joyful, life-giving

A pure gaze that focuses our desire on our husband or wife alone says, with the bride in the Song of Songs, “I belong to my lover, his yearning is for me.” (7:11) Our faith celebrates the beauty and joy of the sexual union of husband and wife. In the Book of Tobit, Tobiah and Sarah pray before going to bed together on their wedding night: “Now, not with lust, but with fidelity I take this kinswoman as my wife.” (8:7) The catechism also calls the married lovemaking “noble and honorable,” enriching spouses with “joy and gratitude.” (CCC 2362) In contrast to the bitterness and sterility of salt, chastity keeps an intimate, joyful, life-giving, flower-filled garden. (see Song of Songs 4:16)

Like Lot’s wife, we live where immorality is accepted as the norm. How can we keep our look and our hearts pure in the midst of our pornographic culture?

The practice of keeping “custody of the eyes” can help married people just as much as celibates. By choosing to avert our gaze from the impure images that bombard us, by choosing to cultivate a pure imagination, we develop a self-mastery that keeps our hearts wholly available for the love of our life.

Prayer and self-discipline, along with following the commandments and the teachings of the church, are also part of growth in the virtue of chastity. And the reward? Jesus promises: “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) We see the image of God in others, and we see Christ at the heart of our sexual sacrament.

Northwest Catholic - January/February 2015

Sarah Bartel

Sarah Bartel, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, holds a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America, where she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics and bioethics. Her website is