Brother Joseph Zoetti in his workshop at the Benedictine Monastery in Cullman, Alabama
According to Merriam-Webster, a role model is “a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others.” I would add that a person’s values and standards, whatever they may be, define what those behaviors are and who models them. For example, I wouldn’t choose a terrorist to model the sanctity of life for my son. I wouldn’t choose a politician to model honesty (okay, there may be exceptions). But those are common sense values, or at least they have been. Other values and behaviors to model are not always so clear. Which brings me to chastity. Let me say up front that I’m not a saint, I don’t have all the answers, and this post is not meant to “condemn.” I really don’t think a Christian person can condemn anybody. In this atmosphere of hyper-political correctness, I think one of the biggest problems is that there has not been an ongoing conversation about sexual ethics. Everything to do with sex has been categorized as “dirty.” Then all of that silence seemed to end recently when the Supreme Court deemed same sex marriage was a constitutional right. Now everybody wants to join the conversation. From what I’ve seen, people discussing chastity, especially on the internet, fall into one of three groups: They’re looking for a mate, they’re selling chastity-related merchandise, or they’re trying to pass this virtue to the next generation. I fall in the third group. And that’s where the whole idea of role models comes in.
I think real role models don’t think of themselves as role models and don’t advertise themselves as such. I don’t. I really don’t like the phrase. One thing that makes it more complicated is terminology. We would not be able to describe values that are important to us without consistent terminology. Yes, I have been celibate for 54 years. Yes, I am a virgin. Yes, I have been chaste for 54 years. Yes, I am a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven. I’m sure there are a lot more words that have been applied to me. What it all comes down to is I haven’t had sex. Is that so complicated? Revisionists have tried to dilute these definitions over the years. Some words even have biblically-based meanings, but we are inconsistent in how we use them. For instance, chastity has come to mean just what everybody is doing when they’re not having sex – they’re practicing chastity – or at least some vague sense of its commitment. “Not having sex? You’re chaste!” “Would you like next day delivery with that?” Even the eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 19, which I identify with, are being redefined in some circles as homosexuals. I recently saw a headline that read, “Everybody is a Virgin!” Just think, Madonna is no longer like a virgin. She’s the real deal all over again! You would think virginity is a commodity being sold on the sidewalk along with all the books on the subject, purity programs, and jewelry. But I must say there are some very good books out there on the subject by authors who are conscious of their priorities. And forgiveness, it seems, has become but a delete button for our pasts. No consequnces. Just hit the pound key and continue. The reality is that, like all the other virtues, chastity cannot be modified with technology or dictionaries. Of course anybody can wait again on sex before marriage. That is what Christ calls for. But we have not been given the right to revise biblical language to fit the comfort level of contemporary political correctness. I think it’s one of our biggest mistakes.
The Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus knew the significance of words and symbols when they put a purple robe on him, crowned him with thorns, and put a sign on the cross that read “Jesus, King of the Jews.” But Jesus didn’t ask the soldiers to change the words on the sign. He didn’t try to revise the dictionary. He carried his cross, including those words, even while he was being mocked and degraded. And he told us to do the same in Matthew 16:24: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Words and their meanings are more significant than we realize, especially when trying to pass values to the next generation. Ephesians 6:17 describes “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” For some people, just the word “virgin” is a sword. It’s like chastity can’t even get off the ground. But it’s a biblical word. There are people today who question Virgin Mary’s virginity. “What makes you so special little miss virgin?” “Found favor with God? Yeah, right.” “You’re no better than anybody else.” “What’s your boyfriend’s name?” Now step into that scene and ask yourself what you would do to defend her. Put yourself in the shoes of virgin martyr St. Maria Goretti’s. How far would you go to protect your honor as a woman of God? Pondering these things has been critical in my wait for the kingdom of God. Remember, God invented virginity. Man didn’t. It was a requirement to be the mother of Christ. It was also designed to be the state before marriage between a man and a woman, and that standard is still in the Ten Commandments. I don’t think it’s our place to second-guess these truths or the reasoning behind them. Our responsibility is to follow them as best as possible. There are a lot of mysteries we will not understand until we get to heaven. Can we move past the “nobody’s perfect” and “that’s so judgmental” rhetoric? Chastity is just one of the many virtues. It is not a mark of sainthood. I’m working on humility. That one is difficult for me, as I have a tendency to see things in black and white and speak too bluntly and too fast.
I also tend to look at many things in life in an analytical way. I am a math and science geek. For instance, if I wanted to learn how to race at NASCAR, I would try to find a professional NASCAR driver who could teach me. I would want somebody that had been racing for years and had won some races to prove it. I would want to see the statistics. And I actually do have a good friend from high school who is a retired NASCAR driver who has won many races. I would choose him over someone who had never been behind the wheel of a stock car or someone who had never placed in the top 10. I would choose him over someone who hit a guardrail on the interstate last year and totaled his car. That does not mean that I hate all the other drivers. Even though the virtue of chastity is not even in the same universe as NASCAR, I do look at human track records or – as the old timers called it – reputations. Or, as the Bible calls it, honor. Everybody has been effected one way or the other by people in their lives. And if you’re an adult, you are affecting other people, even if you don’t know who they are. I think children listen more to our actions than our words. This is especially true when they are looking up to someone as a role model. “Divorce is wrong,” we tell them, but our actions say “as long as it doesn’t interfer with your NFL career.” “Having sex outside marriage is wrong” we tell them, but our actions say “as long as having a baby doesn’t interfer with your singing career.” Everybody makes fruit of some kind. You can’t hide it from children. This is what worked for me growingup. Something else may work for you. The few people I know today (thanks to the internet) who are remotely around my age and still waiting are a godsend to me. I wish I could transport them back in time to when I was a teenager at Chelsea High School. There were a few adults I looked up to as mentors – my dad, an uncle, a very good friend who wrote a book on purity. I personally knew these people. They weren’t just Facebook friends. There were no computers. I looked for more people, but couldn’t find any. The people involved in my life had track records I respected. Maybe it’s just me, but I have to respect somebody before I will emulate them. And I think self-respect plays a big role. As A.C. Green said “You need to have self-respect, values and a little bit of virtue in your life.” I saw him speak in Birmingham back in the 1990s. He remained a virgin until he was 38 and got married in 2002. He’s a man I respect. Of course, my number one role model is Christ, and I think it’s critical that we stay in contact with him everyday. Everybody tells me that nobody my age waits any more. I wouldn’t say nobody, just fewer. But wasn’t one of Christ’s main objectives to bring down ageism and sexism and marital statusism?
What I don’t understand is why sexuality, especially chastity, has become a divisive topic, more divisive than age and gender. We have our instructions in the Bible. They are not easy. For people who feel they are attracted to the same gender, we all have the same standards. Yes, I do have a sex drive, but I have not gotten what I want. That’s why I always feel a bit uncomfortable when I meet a stranger and their eyes go to my ring finger. I say to myself “oh gosh, I’m just another single dude.” As Olympic gold medalist Lolo Jones, who is still waiting at 32, said: “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Harder than training for the Olympics.” I can relate to Lolo. She’s one of my heroes. I remember a time when waiting until marriage was something to be proud of. What has become all too common today is this: When a person says anything positive about virginity, they are automatically attacked as judgmental, condemning, better than everybody else, hater, full of pride, perfect, religious fanatic, and on and on. And so many Christian people think it’s their responsibility to make everybody feel comfortable. It is not.
When I was in my 20s and 30s, I wanted to relate to people who understood what I was going through, what it felt like to be a black sheep, what it felt like to be ridiculed because I wouldn’t do what everybody else was doing, what it felt like to be out of touch with society. Those years were excruciatingly painful. Then in my 40s, I wanted to relate to people who understood what it was like to be a “40 year old virgin” and the punch line of movie jokes. Without anybody else to relate to, I turned to other things, like the monastery of St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, AL, which was about two hours from where I lived. It was the first place where I felt connected, where there were no stereotypes associated with being an older single guy, where I didn’t have to hide my ring finger, where I felt part of something bigger than my little world. I have spent hours in their cemetery, pondering the lives of those monks. I have studied the life of Brother Joseph Zoetti, who built their masterpiece known as “Little Jerusalem.” They were all role models for me. Especially Brother Joseph. One day I hope to meet him. Of course, my number one role model is Christ.
I think young people have the best chance of waiting until marriage with mentors who are still living and walking the same road – or who have walked it at their age and beyond. As harsh as it may sound, sometimes that excludes parents. My special friend and mentor is still very important to me. She probably does not realize how much impact she had on my life. But a lot of Christian youth today have no one. If somebody reads what I’ve written today or years from now after I’m gone, I hope it encourages them in some way. And I hope the stereotypes associated with chastity will disappear – things like it’s only for teenagers, only for girls, only for religious people, only for Catholics, only for people who can’t have fun, only for people with a low sex drive, etc. It would be nice for my legacy to be “age and gender won’t matter in heaven.” It would be nice to be remembered as the person I never found when I was a younger man. That’s all.
Thank you Julia.