Learn About the Fruits of the Holy Spirit: Part 4
In this fourth and final post on the fruits of the Holy Spirit, we will look at modesty, self-control and chastity.
Modesty is a particular manifestation of the more general virtue known as temperance. Temperance refers to the ability to moderate one’s passions so that they are subjected to correct reason. Understood as a category of temperance, modesty is the ability to moderate one’s passions in commonplace, everyday matters, rather than issues of great or significant importance.
In our modern culture, the word modesty most often is used to refer to the way people dress, that is, in a way that is decent and respectful of the human body. This is certainly one way in which modesty can be practiced, but it may also be exhibited in other areas of life, such as one’s speech. Scripture advises against being too quick to speak, because when we speak too soon, we often don’t think clearly, and thus we regret our speech. “Know this, my dear brothers: everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the wrath of a man does not accomplish the righteousness of God,” (James 1:19-20). It is better to moderate one’s speech, thinking rationally before speaking, so that we don’t end up saying something we'll regret. In general, modesty can be used to curb any sort of excess in daily life, whether it be in our clothing, our speech, or even our eating habits.
As with many of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, modesty serves the purpose of regulating our passions so that they are more in line with reason. Ever since the original sin in the Garden of Eden, human beings have not always been able to behave in ways that accord with reason, because our passions are often too strong. Modesty is one way for us to keep our passions in line with reason, which was God’s original plan for humanity. Passions themselves are not bad, for even Our Lord experienced emotions, as when He wept at the death of Lazarus (John 11:35), and when He was fearful in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). However, we must never allow our passions to lead us to do, say or even think things that are sinful. They must only impel us to virtuous living. Modesty is what allows us to regulate our passions rationally, for it is only by living rationally, and not giving in to inordinate desires, that we will attain true happiness on earth and blessedness in Heaven.
Self-control, which Saint Thomas Aquinas also calls “contingency” (ST I-II Q 70, A3), refers to the ability to control one’s desires in things that are not necessarily bad in themselves. In many areas in life, one’s activities can be placed on a spectrum, with two extremes on either end. The pre-Christian philosopher Aristotle recognized this, stating that the extremes of any action are to be avoided, and that the virtuous way to act was always in the middle between two extremes. For example, one may eat too much food, too little, or just the right amount. The virtuous thing is to eat a reasonable, moderate amount of food. This principle can be applied to many areas of human life. Self-control allows us to order our actions in ways that are reasonable, avoided the vices of excess and defect. When we do this, we are truly free and able to live virtuously; for a person who is enslaved to his passions is not happy.
Self-control is no easy task. Because of our fallen human nature, we tend to want things that are not good for us, or to want good things, but to an unreasonable degree. This is often due to our limited viewpoint and our misplaced priorities, which in turn are due to original sin. When we fall into the trap of believing that this life is all there is, or that happiness in this life is our ultimate goal, we will make the mistake of giving in to our every whim, and not moderating ourselves, either internally or externally. On the other hand, when we live with heaven as our goal, we will not mind so much when we have to endure the discomfort of restraining our appetites, for we know that there is something waiting for us in heaven that is infinitely greater than any earthly pleasure. Saint Paul recognized this when he said, “For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” (2 Corinthians 4:17). The rewards in heaven far outweigh any discomfort we may feel in this life when we have to exercise self-control.
While self-control is a very general concept, it can be manifested in a number of ways, one of which is in the area of human sexuality. Self-control in the area of sexuality is called chastity, and it is the twelfth and final fruit of the Holy Spirit. The word chastity comes from the verb to chastise, which means to rebuke or reprimand. Chastity rebukes and restrains the vice of concupiscence, which is the tendency to sexual excess. In our modern day and age, when sexual vice is rampant and traditional customs and mores are no longer observed, chastity is crucial, especially for the young. Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is an invaluable resource for a proper understanding of the purpose of human sexuality, respect for one’s body and the bodies of others, and how to live chastely in today’s world. But chastity refers not only to one’s external actions in the realm of sexuality. A lack of chastity can also refer to an inordinate attachment to things that are below one’s dignity. The only proper object of one’s most personal and genuine desires is God, and so to inordinately attach oneself to lower things is a kind of spiritual unchastity. It is not wrong to love human beings, of course, but all of our earthly affections must be subordinated to and directed towards our love for God.
Though the fruits of the Holy Spirit may seem to be virtues that can be cultivated, since they affect our external actions and our internal thoughts, they are in fact gifts that the Holy Spirit freely bestows. They cannot be taught, earned, or worked at the way one would work at a natural gift such as chess, piano, or a foreign language. As with all graces, they can only be given by God. They touch both our actions and our hearts, because God wants all of us.
The Catholic faith does not subscribe to the idea that man is a soul trapped inside a body. The human being is a body-soul composite, and both of these elements are equally a part of our identity. God loves the entire human person, body and soul, and so what we do with our bodies as well as our souls matters to Him. The fruits of the Holy Spirit align both our bodily actions and our interior dispositions towards God, which is the only way of living that will make us happy.
If we want to grow in our love for God and to attain blessedness after death, it is crucial that we pray for the fruits of the Holy Spirit, so that we can live lives of goodness, happiness and virtue.