Chastity Liberates the Soul
The titulus Chrysogoni, yet another of Rome's twenty-five parish churches in the 5th century is today's Station. As the name tells us, a Greek Christian of that name dwelt here; the basilica dates to before 499. St Chrysogonus was a Roman officer in the army and martyred c. 300 by Diocletian. His name is included in the Roman Canon. Since 1874, the Trinitarians have the custody of this basilica. A few months ago, I was amazed to discover that the Trinitarians, a 12th-century religious order had a habit (at least in its current incarnation) very much like that of the Order of Preachers...
The readings for Monday in Passiontide (Dan 13:1-62; Jn 8:1-11) were originally appointed for Saturday in the Third Week of Lent when the Stational church is fittingly Santa Susanna, a clear allusion to the Susanna mentioned in the First Reading. What can it say to us in Passiontide, as we contemplate more intensely the Passion of the Lord?
Susanna's plea, "Here I am about to die, though I have done none of the things with which these wicked men have charged me" (Dan 13:43) can clearly be applied to the Lord. The Gospel too highlights the Lord's sinlessness in comparison to those around him; He alone is the guiltless and sinless one, who will be put to death. And yet, such injustice seems to stir up a sense of deep compassion in the Lord for those who are condemned to death. Commenting on Jesus' response to the woman caught in adultery, fr Conrad Pepler OP says: "Our Lord, who could know sin only in us, is as full of love and mercy as the rectitude of justice... justice too must be chastened by love and mercy."
In addition Conrad Pepler, inspired by the example of Susanna, discusses chastity of life which finds its perfection in Christ and he explains how "the whole purpose of Lent is to being a true love of God by chastising all natural and sensual inclinations and desires that attach the soul to earth." As he says:
"We ought to realize that chastity is legitimately applied to the whole Christian life, as well as to the special virtue that regulates sexual emotions and desires. Strictly speaking, an unchaste person is one whose desires and happiness are mixed with the pleasures of his sensual nature, one whose soul is bound down to earthly and fleshly things. Consequently in the wide and general sense a chaste man is one whose soul is free from entanglements or contamination from the things of this creation. Chastity thus liberates the soul, for 'chastity taken in this sense is a general virtue, because every virtue withdraws the mind from pleasureable union with illicit things. Principally, however, the essence of this chastity consists in charity and in the other theological virtues, whereby man's soul is united to God' (ST IIa IIae, 151, 2). The love of God grants perfect freedom.
This freedom from contamination with worldly pleasures necessarily implies the stringent asceticism characteristic of all great lovers of God. Chastity implies a process of chastening and chastisement, and purity means purification. Without the severest self-denial this chaste love of God is unattainable... In other words, the chaste soul is detached from all creature pleasures and is attached in the most intimate union to God alone...
Thus Susanna (right, by Rembrandt), whose name means 'lily', and who is an emblem of chastity, has learned to be detached from all earthly things. She enjoyed the luxuries of bathing with sweet-smelling oils and balls of soap in her husband's 'paradise' when the world took its rest in the baking heat of the noonday sun. She must have enjoyed, too, all the goods of a chaste married life. Life must indeed have been very sweet to her. Yet she had the highest spirit of detachment, the spirit of the martyr who is not even attached to his own earthly life. The union of love of God that is called charity is shown most perfectly in the acts of the martyrs..."
And the King of Martyrs is the Lord Himself, crucified for the love of poor wretched sinners. As we come to the final fortnight of Lent, it's not too late to intensify our observances and renew those we have failed to keep up. The Lord will surely have compassion and pity on us (as he had on the woman caught in adultery) and by His grace He will unite us to His Cross if we ask Him, transforming us with divine charity so that we may imitate His chastity of life, His total love of God and neighbour.
May the holy martyrs, Chrysogonus and Susanna pray for us.