Something is up with me. Whenever I consciously make a choice in my work, my relationships, or my parenting that’s out of the mainstream, I want to hide it. I avoid talking about it.
Yet a part of me also wants others to find out, so I can talk about it. What is it that makes me a living, breathing contradiction?
To stand for something, to let your voice be heard and in doing so, to reveal who you are, satisfies the part of us that longs to be known, seen, and understood. Name a political or social matter, and you’ll most likely find a contingent speaking out against it.
And rightly so. Freedom is a gift; our voices are a gift, and the desire to make our opinions known is rooted in a good desire that speaks to how we’re created. Yet going against general opinion means something different than it did a generation ago. What was once considered progressive is now perceived as normal, and what was once considered traditional is now perceived as uptight and reactionary, particularly with regard to sexuality.
Chastity, the virtue of sexual self-control, is widely written off, misunderstood as mere abstinence or rigidity. Saving sexual intimacy for commitment within marriage is radical. Pouring yourself out for another person, even when feelings and convenience are absent, seemingly makes no sense. If you’re engaged and have made the choice to save sexually intimate acts for marriage, maybe you’ve been met with puzzlement, at best, or outright derision, at worst. After all, you and your spouse-to-be have made a promise to each other and it’s only a matter of time before it’s official, which isn’t that different anyway, right?
That might be true, if getting married just meant changing a few things on paper. For the Christian couple, though, and specifically for the Catholic one, entering into marriage is so much more.
A sacramental reality — a literal transformation — takes place during a nuptial Mass, binding two into one and creating an indissoluble bond. Love comes down, and man and wife echo the Cross in their vows: I am yours entirely and unreservedly, no matter the cost to myself. I pledge to sanctify you, to bleed for you, to make your sufferings my own. I empty myself out of pure love, and even through that agony, there is joy to be found. Bride and groom walk out the church doors actually changed from who they were when they walked in.
Through a sacramental lens, then, it’s fairly obvious why sex within engagement is different from sex within marriage. Yet even from a non-religious standpoint, making the choice to save sexual intimacy for your wedding night, no matter where you’ve already been, still holds weight and calls us on to greater strength and deeper virtue.
Since in most cases, engagement gives you the certainty that you will only be with each other from here on out, it can be hard to see the point of saving sexually intimate acts for marriage. I respectfully challenge you to examine the real matter at the root of this question: what’s the point of marriage?
The romance, friendship, and shared rituals of marriage are intoxicating, but they alone aren’t love. Love is making the choice to die to yourself, time after time, because the good of your spouse matters more than your own good. Of course, no couple is perfect at this crucifying love 24/7. Yet that doesn’t mean trying is worthless.
Your engagement is a training ground for married life–an opportunity to form the habits you’ll practice, for better or worse, over a shared lifetime. A major way to safeguard and strengthen your marriage before it even begins is to develop the habit of saying “no” to your own desires and “yes” to the good of the other, starting today.
Consider a person who can’t say no. This slavery to desire renders their yes meaningless. But the chaste individual, one who’s not mastered by his or her wants, who can and who has said no to sexual intimacy before getting married (virgin or not), can truly mean yes when the time comes. Chastity pertains specifically to sexual self-control, but consider, as well, the benefit of self-discipline in other areas of one’s life: emotions, food, language, exercise, entertainment. Habits of self-control benefit a marriage, while a lack of self-control is selfish and damaging. Which marriage is more loving: one in which each partner serves himself or herself first and the other second, or a marriage where each spouse puts the other first?
Saving sex for marriage, even during engagement, isn’t a no. It’s a yes. It’s yes to putting your beloved before yourself, yes to love prevailing over lust (which, I’d argue, is not the same thing as passion, which can be good and pure). Anyone can start saying that yes today, no matter what’s in the past. That’s the amazing thing about chastity: you can always start over, always run to mercy and healing. Chastity isn’t just about sex, so it doesn’t end in marriage. Living a pure, chaste life has such power to restore brokenness and, I can promise you firsthand, will spill over into every part of your life, your every interaction, and the way you see yourself and your spouse. Sleeping together while you’re only engaged isn’t about previewing your future married life. It’s about missing the real point of love and marriage.
So live boldly. Be a radical for the sake of love. Embracing chastity, not living or sleeping together before your wedding, and doing something by choice (not because you feel or don’t feel like it) is countercultural.
You’ll be different, torn at times between the desire to keep quiet and the desire to be known. It’s swimming against the tide, one that sometimes feels relentless and unceasing.
As it crashes over you again and again, through exhaustion and torment, though, you realize something: you are alive. Chastity is freedom–a chance to be alive and to be that fully.