Chastity and obedience are among the vows made by each person who enters professed religious life. From the earliest days of the church, men and women who were striving for Christian perfection took up the mantle of committing their lives around these promises which, along with the vow of poverty, are called the “evangelical counsels.” Christ is the perfect example of all three of these virtues. But we are also called to imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary, who also lived them to the full.
Those of us who have not entered the Carmelites, Franciscans or other religious communities have a responsibility to participate in these three areas of perfection as well. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “Christ proposes the evangelical counsels, in their great variety, to every disciple.” (915) Therefore, if we count ourselves among those who seek to follow Jesus, we must take up the task of living — in our own way — the call to Christian perfection which these vows bring about.
Mother Most Pure, pray for us
The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary (also called the Litany of Loretto) includes many references to Mary’s chastity. We invoke her intercession under titles such as Mother most pure and Mother most chaste and we hear about her virginity in seven other titles the church has ascribed to her. Mary holds a special place among the saints by her whole “gift of self” to the mission announced to her by the angel Gabriel. She is unique among all women in history in that she is both virgin and mother.
The purity of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been heralded for all of Christianity being the exemplar of purity for both men and women. This reality is in no small part because every “beloved disciple” of Jesus was given to Mary as a son or daughter to receive her as a mother. This command to do so was among the final words of Jesus’ labored breathing from the cross. ( Jn. 19:26-27) Her purity is a symbol of her single-hearted devotion to God. Not even the strongest natural human desires could distract her from what God called her to do. This radical devotion to God creates in her a radical ability to be a coworker in the plan of Jesus to bring about the world’s salvation. It took nothing less than Mary’s perfect purity and perfect chastity to be the mother of Christ: Christ the head in the person of Jesus and Christ the body his church.
Mary is not simply a saint of purity to be marveled at, but also an example for us to follow. Two ways to do this are:
Custody of the Eyes
There is no shortage of visual temptations to sin against purity. In our times, these temptations are found most often (and most intensely) in the digital realm. Pornography, sexually suggestive advertising and movies and series which contain nudity are among the greater offenders against purity in our world. Practicing “custody of the eyes” is a somewhat old-fashioned term that reminds us that the images we bring into our minds through our eyes can affect us profoundly. We are called to protect our souls by avoiding these images. If you do see an impure image, ask Mary, Mother of Purity to strike the image from your memory. This can be done with a short prayer such as “Mother Mary, help my mind and heart to belong wholly to Jesus.”
Few things help us conquer sin more quickly than fasting. It is a powerful way to pray not only with our lips, but with our bodies too. Fasting is meant to be a regular part of our Catholic life (Jesus did not teach his disciples what to do if they pray, fast and give alms but when they pray, fast and give alms [Mt. 6:2-6]), therefore fasting should be among the habits of a joyful missionary disciple. Make a commitment to fasting in one way at least once a week. This can be done in the traditional way of the church — by abstaining from meat on Fridays — or in another way like not choosing your favorite entrée at a restaurant, going a day without social media or TV or letting another family member have their way instead of your own. Fasting denies our own will and strengthens us to fight the temptations against purity. If purity is not a challenge for us, we can offer the graces which come from our spiritual fasting for a loved one or a young person we know.
Mary, most humble
Obedience is usually the hardest of the evangelical counsels but when it is done well, it brings about a spirit of humility. Humility is one of the most attractive spiritual qualities because it is so countercultural. Humility requires spiritual obedience. This is not simply an exercise in self-denial but rather a realization of the truth that Jesus is Lord. If we profess this truth of the Lordship of Jesus, it must be that he has dominion over our whole life and the only proper response to him is obedience
Mary’s humility is demonstrated all throughout her life. We see her humility in understanding Jesus when he is found in the Temple, (Lk. 2: 41-52) when she is denied access to him during his public ministry, (Mt. 12:46-50) and finally, at the cross when she faithfully and excruciatingly remains by Jesus’ side as he dies. ( Jn. 19:25-30) But the first and clearest expression of her humility in Scripture has echoed down the ages in her response to the angel’s testimony of God’s plan for her to be the Mother of God’s Son: “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum” (Be it done to me according to your word).
Being joyful missionary disciples requires us to imitate Mary’s radical humility and obedience to God’s will. We can do this in these two ways:
Daily Prayer to Give God Permission
Make a part of your daily prayer a commitment to belong wholly to God. This short prayer, when prayed fervently, can be incredibly powerful. Men and women were made into the greatest saints through this spiritual practice. Mother Teresa resolved to never refuse God anything. St. Ignatius of Loyola has my favorite version of such a prayer in his Sucipe: Take Lord, and receive, all of my liberty, my memory, my intellect, and all my will — all that I have and possess. Thou gave it to me, to thee Lord I return it. All in thine, dispose of it according to your will. Give me thy love and thy grace for this is enough for me. Offer this prayer daily when you wake up; in a couple of weeks you will have it memorized and will see the impact it can have on your life.
Go to confession monthly
It is tremendously humbling to have to admit my mistakes. It is even harder to have to do it again and again and again … and to have to do it when my mistakes and sins are so often the same ones again and again and again. The sacrament of Confession is a masterclass in humility. Bonus points: it also forgives your sins.
Do not be afraid of the call to holiness! These spiritual practices will help you to grow in the virtues of purity and humility and help you become the saint God has made you to be.
Father Stephen Pullis, STL is the graduate director of pastoral formation at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He also co-hosts the Encounter Grow Witness podcast to equip and evangelize ministers on a mission to unleash the Gospel and create a joyful band of missionary disciples in the Archdiocese of Detroit and beyond.