On Reading Well
Karen Swallow Prior
By Edith Wharton
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Chapter Eight of Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well examines the virtue of Chastity with examples drawn from Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. All virtue is related to one’s deeds, but chastity includes the will of another. On examination, it can be said to include the will of many.
As Karen wrote
Lauren Winner explains, “The community is not so much cop as it is storyteller, telling and retelling the foundational stories that make sense of the community’s norms.” Marriage is not only about mutual companionship and romantic love, but it is the institution “out of which cultures and societies are formed.” Marriage “is about children, and household economy, and stability. And marriage is also about God.” Marriage forms a little society. And the health of that little society depends to some degree on the health of the larger surrounding society.
Unlike abstention, an act of an individual, chastity is a form of community, and chastity depends on community. We can’t always choose where we place our roots, but when we can, it’s important to choose well. The ancient monastics took their vows of chastity within a community. Whether or not we realize it, we do as well.
What role does the community have in cultivating chastity in its members? How can communities do a better job at this?