Ebur Castitatis – ‘Ivory of Chastity’
At the translation of the relics of St. Dominic, we are told that the air was filled with the odour of sanctity. Indeed, this manifestation of St. Dominic’s holiness was certainly due, in no small part, to that purity of body and soul with which he lived his remarkable life. Chastity, from the Latin root of the adjective castus meaning pure, was a virtue highly prized by St. Dominic, and in his final discourses, he placed considerable stress upon the cultivation of this virtue. It is recorded that he told those brothers present toward his death, of the ‘jealous esteem’ in which he always held the virtue of purity, and admitted to them that he had received the grace of perfect virginity of body and soul. Then, rather unexpectedly, he added that nevertheless he was ‘no stranger to the charm of youth in women’. We can take this final statement as, perhaps, a sign of humility from St. Dominic or even perhaps a show of humour, but it runs much deeper than these surface impressions. Out of this display of candour shines a rare simplicity of being, a simplicity that allowed the grace of purity to take such firm root in his soul. He believed, as we should, that we must strive to be pure as God is pure.
Chastity in religious life is, all too often, viewed as a form of renunciation rather than a form of holy consecration; something to be mourned or pitied rather than celebrated. Such a viewpoint couldn’t be more mistaken. Referring to St. Dominic’s wishes, St. Catherine of Siena, in her Dialogue, points out that purity is an indispensable condition for carrying out the purpose of the Order: “Since impure living obscures the eye of the intellect, and not only the eye of the intellect, but also of the body, he does not wish them to obscure their physical light, with which they may more perfectly obtain the light of science; wherefore he imposed on them the third vow of continence, and wishes that all should observe it with true and perfect obedience.”
In the Dominican form of profession, the vow of chastity is not explicitly mentioned, but is fully embodied by the vow of obedience. Indeed, our obedience, firstly to our superiors and ultimately to the will of God, allows us the means to flourish and cultivate the virtue of chastity. But this is not easy and we must pray for the gift of perseverance. Indeed, from St. Dominic himself we have another promise of a special blessing on perseverance in this regard: “The spotlessness of your lives will ensure you great triumphs among men.” In these good works and in living aright before God we can hope to draw ever closer to Him, and by the example of our Holy Father St Dominic, we can hope to be united with Him in the heavenly kingdom.