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The Virtue of Purity: an Undivided Heart  

by Mark Lowery, Ph.D.  

We can only arrive at our ultimate end, the Beatific Vision, if we are purified of everything that is incompatible with God’s grace. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “purity of heart is the precondition of the vision of God” (2519). St. John of the Cross compares our souls to windows, which unless pure and clean cannot fully receive the light of God’s love or see that light. The pure heart is the undivided heart that wills what is true and true loyally and unreservedly. 

The Catechism notes that the pure of heart are those who "have attuned their intellects and will to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity, chastity or sexual rectitude, love of truth and orthodoxy of faith" (2518). We most often think of purity as connected to the area of sexuality, and rightly so; sexuality is so central to our humanity that impurity in that area is not uncommon. Hence, the Catechism mentions it specifically as the second of the three key areas of purity. But note that the first area is "charity," and this area is far-reaching. Charity here refers to God’s love poured into our hearts (grace), by which love we are capable of loving ourselves and loving others. Loving ourselves means being concerned about our final beatific end, and ordering our lives in light of that end. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means being as concerned about the rest of the community reaching their final goal as we are about ourselves reaching it.

Hence, charity is all-encompassing, and as the first of three areas to which the virtue of purity is pertinent, it suggests that a pure heart must accompany all our actions. Purity concerns not only unchaste sexual thoughts but thoughts of envy, greed, covetousness, pride, and so on. Such thoughts compete with God for our loyalty, and hence we need to be vigilant over them lest they gradually possess us, taking priority over God. What follows are some practical suggestions for working on the virtue of purity.

  • Many are under the false impression that various impure thoughts that flow through our minds are basically innocent. So long as we do not act on them, or plan to act on them, there is nothing wrong with these thoughts. However, there is an important distinction that is missing here: the difference between an impure thought entering the mind, and the choice to dwell on that thought and take pleasure in it. The choice to dwell on and take pleasure in the thought is to act on it.

  • The impure thought that enters the mind may well be neutral, so long as a person does not intentionally put himself in a situation that invites the thought. There is no reason to feel guilty about such thoughts. Again, it is the choice to dwell on the thoughts that is inordinate and sinful. As the Catechism notes, "Emotions and feelings can be taken up into the virtues or perverted by the vices" (1768; and see the whole section on the passions from 1763-1770).

  • Once one has a clear intellectual grasp of impurity and purity, an interior conversion of the heart, a turning toward the true and the good, is needed. This may be one of the more terrifying moments in the Christian’s life—old habits die hard— but the terror is mitigated by the fact that one is turning toward a person, Christ, who is a friend. Plus, Christ is the one helping you to turn to him. Only by his grace can conversion occur. As Pope Pius XI noted in Casti Connubii, "God does not ask the impossible, but by His commands, instructs you to do what you are able, to pray for what you are not able that He may help you" (section IV, #31).

  • In regard to conversion, it is a good idea to read and meditate on the key texts in the Catechism about conversion. Start with 1427 through 1433. Then follow through on all the marginal notes, as well as the Scriptural texts that are given.

  • Once the process of conversion has begun in you, realize that it is an ongoing process that must be renewed on a daily basis. Here are a number of practical aids. If you have a spiritual director or someone with whom you could comfortably discuss these matters, then by all means use such help. But for the many people who presently have no such assistance, the following steps can go a long way in getting off to a good start.

a. Begin each day with a short prayer asking for help in keeping a pure mind.

b. During each day you will be besieged by impure thoughts crossing your mind. In fact, they may initially seem even stronger than before. For when you were in the habit of surrendering to them, they were less oppressive. As you confront them head on, they may seem virtually overpowering.

c. Find a variety of techniques to ward off the temptation to dwell on these thoughts (again, their mere presence is neutral). The first technique is very concrete and physical: if possible, change your physical position or activity. If sitting, stand up and walk around.

d. A variety of spiritual techniques can then accompany the physical ones. The "Jesus Prayer" could be repeated: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Also, consider short lines from the Psalms or other favorite prayers. Consider from Psalm 51: "A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me." Repeat the beatitude: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Another helpful technique involves music: find certain songs that inspire you, and play them "in your mind" whenever impure thoughts begin to oppress—it is a great deterrent.

e. A rosary, or a small finger rosary, readily avail able in your pocket, is a great "weapon." Repeating short prayers with it, or saying a decade of the rosary with it, lends a concreteness to your efforts. Note that all such "techniques" replace impure thoughts with pure thoughts. And the replacement is more than just a sound psychological technique; it is a replacement that invites Christ’s grace as the force that ultimately will conquer impurity.

f. Hence, remember that what are called "your efforts" are really your willingness to cooperate with Christ, who is doing the work of purification within you. He takes the initiative, he develops the virtue in you, you cooperate with him. Also, there are many Saints to whom you might pray (not least of which is St. Joseph).

g. In the past, impure thoughts may have been so common that it was impossible to keep track of them. If you confessed them in the Sacrament of Confession, it was probably under very general terms. Now is a good time to keep track of those times that you fail, and when you receive the sacrament, mention to the priest the number of times you dwelt on impure thoughts. (Unfortunately we also encounter at times a priest who does not think the issue is important. A prudent response is, "These thoughts separate me from Christ.")

h. There could be a serious relapse in your conversion, in which work on this virtue seems so overwhelming that you give up all together. Slow down, go to confession, re-commit yourself to Christ, and start over.

i. It will be very important to avoid those occasions of sin that invite impure thoughts. Make a list of those items that are seductive, and make a clear decision to avoid them. In the area of sexual impurity, it is critical to distance yourself from all seductive materials. Also, be alert to the "soft" porn that can show up just about anywhere you look in our society.

j. Also specific to the arena of sexual purity: For the unmarried, it is of course natural to be attracted to members of the opposite sex, and to think about them. But it is critical not to think of them in terms of satisfying sexual passion; otherwise, one’s choice of a marriage partner may be based on a purely physical standard. Physical preferences are natural and to be expected; but potential marriage partners ought not be treated as objects. For the married, it is important to think only about one’s own spouse, lest one fall into the habit of coveting someone else. During conjugal relations, develop the habit of thinking only of one’s spouse.

k. Imagine the virtue of purity firmly in place. You probably will continue to experience impure thoughts, but now by habit you don’t dwell on them. There may be some frustration at the realization that such thoughts are even remotely connected to you. While there is no sin involved here, this is a cross to carry, and can be turned in a positive direction: consider offering up the frustration for others who are struggling with impurity. Part of purity is a willingness to suffer: an undivided heart does not come cheaply.

Purity is a natural virtue, meaning that it is accessible to all people of good will, be they Christian or not. However, Christians believe that the theological virtue of charity—God’s own love and life graciously poured into our hearts—infuses all of the natural virtues. Hence, these virtues ultimately are only reachable with Christ’s divine assistance, or grace. In the above points, this added dimension of God’s grace is presupposed (though one could also develop a corresponding natural method for developing the virtue of purity).

As you practice the art of having a pure mind, you gradually will move from "acts of virtue" to "virtuous acts." The truly virtuous person is one from whom virtuous actions emanate naturally and with ease, just as fine shots flow regularly from the professional golfer. A person who is not necessarily virtuous can still produce individual acts that are morally good and properly ordered, but these acts do not flow from the habit itself of virtue. It is like the poor golfer who still can produce a number of superb shots throughout a round of golf; such shots, though, occur not because of but in spite of his rather awkward swing. Likewise, purity at first will exist in a sporadic way, in spite of the habit (vice) of impurity. Gradually, it will exist consistently, so much so that it will be unimaginable to you not to think purely. So be patient with yourself!

It may be of interest to see how the virtue of purity "hooks up" with the four cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. You will see that as you are working on purity, you are simultaneously working on all these as well. (See the Catechism 1803-1811 for a brief treatment of the cardinal virtues.)

Prudence as a moral virtue perfects the intellect in knowing the right kind of action in particular circumstances, and attaches itself to the other virtues so as to practice them in "just the right way." The right balance must be struck, and prudence is the ability to know that middle point. This middle point is technically called the "mean" of virtue; the mean lies between excess and defect. For example, excess in regard to sexual purity would be thinking that every sexual thought is evil, while defect would be thinking that so long as one does not act on a thought, the thought is fine.

The virtue of justice is the habit by which the will easily chooses to give others their due. Some examples of particular virtues which fall under the cardinal virtue of justice are trustworthiness, respect, honesty, loyalty, friendliness, obedience, and courtesy. When practicing purity, one also treats others as persons; for impure thoughts often turn other people into objects, means to our own selfish ends. Hence, justice demands purity, and purity contributes to justice.

The moral virtue of temperance (or moderation) perfects our appetites toward things pleasurable. Specific related virtues are chastity, sobriety and modesty—and purity fits here as well. There is a technical term for the appetite in us toward that which is pleasurable: the concupiscible appetite, not to be confused with concupiscence though they are related. By the wound of concupiscence we find it difficult to control our concupiscible appetite, as well as other appetites. It is important to note that the pleasurable is not evil; rather, it is the pleasurable when misused that is evil. Temperance allows us to use the pleasurable goods of the world in a proper and ordered way—exactly what the above method is for. Again, prudence assists temperance in helping find the proper mean between excess and defect. Someone who disdains material goods practices temperance on the side of defect, since the creation is good and meant to be used and enjoyed. But someone who takes various goods of creation and misuses them, or makes them into an ultimate end, is on the side of excess.

Finally, the moral virtue of fortitude perfects that appetite which makes us shun things that are difficult. The technical name of this appetite is the irascible appetite. For instance, if you see the importance of studying Latin, but feel overwhelmed by its difficulty for you, you are affected by the irascible appetite. Fortitude is the virtue allowing you to overcome this barrier and bravely set out to do that which is difficult—note how appropriate it is in the battle for purity!

In sum, in practicing the virtue of purity, one is simultaneously practicing prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. That is why the tradition often speaks of the virtues as being "one," even though it is most helpful to subdivide them. The subdivisions make it possible for an individual to work on one portion at a time of the whole life of virtue. But note well that as you work on one virtue—purity in this case—you are simultaneously working on many others of which you are not even aware. And other virtues to follow will actually then be quite a bit easier—good news indeed!

Dr. Lowery is an Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Dallas. The author wishes to thank the class of ‘98 of the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies, Portland site, for their assistance with this article.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved