The Power of Chastity: An Interview with Dawn Eden
The greatest tragedy isn't being unloved. The greatest tragedy is not loving.
Dawn Eden has been sharing lessons from her life as a single Christian since her blogging days at the Dawn Patrol. She recently released a new Catholic edition of her breakthrough book, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On (Ave Maria Press, 2015) and talked to The Stream about what it means to love others as God loves you, recovering vulnerability, Dorothy Day, how chastity de-commodifies personal relationships and the best Valentine’s Day song.
The Stream: Loneliness is the unspoken fear for many Christian singles, and your book speaks so beautifully to it, particularly in the way you spin these anxieties around from self-absorption to self-giving. You write that “the greatest tragedy is not that of being unloved. The greatest tragedy is not loving.”
How do we as Christians reorient these desires for love to give more of ourselves?
Dawn Eden: If we are going to be happy — and who doesn’t want that? — then at some point in our life we will have to realize that no human person can complete us. St. Augustine had it right: God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him.
That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to want to have a husband or wife to love; for most of us, that desire marks a true vocation to holy matrimony. But it does mean that, if we are expecting that all our longings will be solved when we find a spouse, we’re headed for disappointment.
Every human being is going to disappoint us in some way. If they don’t disappoint us by the way they live, then, just the same, there will come the day when they will disappoint us by dying.
So, we can’t place our hope in another person, because people fail. But God is love, and love never fails. If we love God first, then he will give us the love that will enable us to love fully and wisely in our human relationships.
What is more, the love he gives will enable us to discern his presence in the “now and not yet” between our earthly life and our ultimate fulfillment in heaven, when we will see him face to face.
The Stream: Your latest book is The Thrill of the Chaste: Catholic Edition. For those of us who read and loved your first book (should we call that the Evangelical Edition?), why did you decide to go back and do this one over?
Dawn Eden: The original Thrill of the Chaste was the book I wanted to write in 2005, as a Jewish convert to Evangelical Protestantism. I felt there was a need for a book on chastity for adults like myself who had sought love in things that were not love.
By the time the Thrill came out in December 2006, however, my life had changed significantly. I was still seeking to live chastely, but I was now doing so as a Catholic. Living within the rhythms of the liturgical seasons and the sacraments, with the saints as my friends in heaven, made a real difference in my practice of chastity, but the book I was promoting did not reflect that. So, in a sense, although I am proud of the original Thrill and am thankful that it has helped people, I have wanted to rewrite it from the moment it came out, to add what was lacking.
Also, there was the problem of the original Thrill being directed only to single women like myself. I made the choice to write for women because I thought it would make the book more personal, but it had the unfortunate effect of making me appear to be reinforcing the myth that chastity is for women only. That myth is not Christian in origin, but it has unfortunately seeped into Christian circles, leading radical feminists to use it as a stick with which to beat people of faith.
So, I was glad to have the opportunity to rewrite The Thrill for an audience of men and women, and also to talk about different kinds of chastity — not only single chastity, but also marital chastity. Chastity is for everyone; it is just lived differently according to the type of relationship. For married people, it means sharing a love that is freely willed, total, faithful, and fruitful. Whatever your state of life, the heart of chastity is loving others as God loves you.
The Stream: One of this book’s reviewers wrote that you had “hard-won wisdom” when it comes to living the chaste life. How did you find the courage to share your testimony, which includes painful stories of abuse?
Dawn Eden: I was afraid to speak about my childhood sexual abuse in the original Thrill of the Chaste because I had not yet begun to really come to terms with it myself. Children tend to blame themselves for their abuse, internalizing the misplaced guilt and shame all the way into adulthood, unless they get help.
It was not until 2006 — just after writing The Thrill — that I began to get the psychological and spiritual help to enable me to process the effects of my childhood abuse and recognize that I was not responsible for what I had suffered. Going deeper into my Catholic faith, I attained a level of healing greater than I had thought possible.
In my second book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, I speak openly both about my pain and my healing. Doing so enabled me to gain the courage to be similarly open in the new edition of The Thrill of the Chaste. At the same time, in neither book do I dwell on abuse; the point is not the pain, but rather the healing.
The Stream: You write that we can’t regain innocence, but we can regain vulnerability. What does that look like?
Dawn Eden: We usually hear about vulnerability in terms of the unhealthy kind — the kind of vulnerability that leaves a person open to being hurt, used or abused. But, as I write in The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition), there is also a healthy kind of vulnerability.
Healthy vulnerability is the kind that enables you to allow the right person to get close to you. If we are seeking any kind of communion with another person — whether it is marriage, friendship, or an improved relationship with a family member—we will never have the intimacy we seek unless we are willing to be open to the gift that the other person has to offer.
We learn how to be open to the gift of the other person through learning to be open to the gift of himself that God gives us at every moment of the day — the same gift I received physically this morning, when I consumed the Eucharist.
The Stream: Isn’t chastity just a musty word for abstinence, and isn’t abstinence something only high schoolers get pushed on them? What does this have to do with married people or those younger or older than marrying age?
Dawn Eden: Chastity can’t just be abstinence, because abstinence is purely negative, while chastity is a virtue. Virtues are always positive; they enable us to do what we couldn’t do on our own power. I write in The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition) that chastity is the virtue that enables us to love fully and completely in every relationship, according to the type of relationship. For married people, chastity includes sexual intercourse, but it also includes seeing your spouse as a fellow child of God in Christ — not your servant, not your toy. For myself, as an unmarried woman, chastity means loving fully and completely as a daughter, as a sister, as a friend or neighbor.
The Stream: How did chastity change the way you looked at men? Do you think chastity has the same effect on men as they see women?
Dawn Eden: Pursuing chastity enabled me to appreciate many things about men that I did not appreciate before. I had not appreciated those things because I had not noticed them, and I had not noticed them because I was not really paying attention to things that did not relate directly to whether a given man was a potential love interest.
In general, I would say that, whether you are a man or a woman, living chastely de-commoditizes your approach to personal relationships. It enables you to appreciate others better for who they are, rather than for what they do.
The Stream: I love how you present chastity as a power. I like to think that chastity is the superpower given to superheroes who radiate the love of Christ, like the holy men and women you tell about in your book. Are there any heroes in particular that you see as demonstrating the power of chastity?
Dawn Eden: I wouldn’t say that chastity is just for saints and superheroes! It’s for everyone. But if I had to name a chastity “superhero” off the top of my head, I would say that Dorothy Day ranks high on the list. After her conversion to Catholicism, she gave up her atheist live-in partner — the love of her life — because he refused to solemnize their relationship with wedding vows and let her raise their daughter in the faith. As I relate in The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition), Day did not make this decision out of prudery or out of a desire to maintain a churchy appearance. She made it because he forced her to choose between God and him, and she chose God.
The Stream: Your story involves something that’s a little strange to many of our readers: a call to celibacy. That sounds lonely, yet we see some of the happiest people are those who have a similar call. Why is that? What can we learn about God from those who are called to celibacy?
Dawn Eden: I talk in The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition) about how, during the years after the publication of the original edition of the book, I came to discern a call to consecrated celibacy. For me, discerning the call entailed coming to realize that God had always wanted me for himself. That is to say, the space in my heart that would have been given to a husband is meant to be kept open for God.
Being celibate doesn’t mean that God fills all my needs for personal intimacy. I still need friends and family, and I am still capable, at least at this stage, of feeling the ache of being without a husband to share my life — even though I have freely chosen celibacy. What it does mean is that there is grace in the loneliness, and that this grace enables me not only to deepen my love of God, but also to deepen my love of those whom God has put into my life.
The Stream: Let’s talk about clothes. You have great taste and spent most of your life around fashionable people, and your take on modesty is informed by chastity — dressing for everyone. You have a beautiful story about your mother’s apostolate of beauty: what did that look like?
Dawn Eden: My mother told me a moving story, which I share in both editions of The Thrill, about how she used to style herself to look her best before making hospital visits to her dying mother, my Grandma Jessie. Making herself look beautiful was in this way an act of love. For me, my mother’s story illustrates that even our dress can be a means of communication through which we bring Christ to others.
The Stream: I think that story dovetails so prettily with my favorite part of your book, where you discuss the loneliness of the unmarried and how we have forgotten what it means to “be as little children.” What does being like a kid have to do with the joy of friendship?
Dawn Eden: When I was hoping for marriage, the worst thing in the world was to hear that a man I desired thought of me as “just a friend.” But when I was a child, the best thing in the world was to have a friend. Somewhere along the way, I had become so single- focused upon attaining the just-out-of-reach blessing of marriage that I had forgotten how to appreciate the blessings in front of me. Living chastely enabled me to stop defining myself by the relationship I lacked and instead define myself by what I have — my relationship with God and with those I love in God.
The Stream: You end the book on a note that echoes C. S. Lewis’s “The Weight of Glory”:
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat — the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.
Lewis was also writing from a vision of Heaven. What does Heaven have to do with my time as a single girl here on earth?
Dawn Eden: I love that quotation! Thank you for reminding me of it. Heaven is where our love will be perfect and everlasting. To whatever extent we love perfectly and permanently on earth, to that same extent we are at the leading edge of heaven.
The Stream: Last question: any favorite Valentine’s day songs?
Dawn Eden: “The Kiss” by Judee Sill is about seeking God’s face through the face of the beloved. I am hard pressed to think of a more beautiful love song.