Book Review: The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition)

The Thrill of the Chaste:Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On by Dawn Eden
Ave Maria Press, $15.95

One gets the idea that a fruit of the Spirit needs better PR when even practicing Catholics seem skeptical of the topic of chastity. Whenever I mentioned reading Dawn Eden’s newest book (an updated Catholic version of her first edition Protestant-leaning book), the title alone gave most people pause (“oh!”), or a reason to raise an eyebrow and smirk, or avoid my eyes like I was putting them on the spot. One friend quipped, “I think my mom would like to be in a book club with you!”

Fortunately for them, I gave a speedy synopsis with a smile and solid encouragement to read this book. Single, involved, discerning, consecrated or married – every human being can practice chastity happily, and for the sake of love.

Those who do not know Dawn Eden’s story are in for a treat – raised in the Jewish faith, an agnostic, a survivor of sexual abuse, and a journalist in New York City finds herself a Christian in adulthood, and later on, is received into the Catholic Church. She has dedicated her life to studying, writing and speaking on chastity, love and God – which is good for us, because we all need better advocates for it.

Chastity is not afraid of sex: chastity is a reverence of sex. Dawn’s own life gives witness to the fruits of this virtue, when actively sought. The book really gets interesting in the second chapter: entitled “Why It’s Easy to Blame Mom and Dad (And Why You Shouldn’t)”, we glimpse into a family affected by divorce.  Just as parents should not take credit for their child’s good behavior (because, ultimately, it is the child choosing goodness), children should not blame their parents for mistakes. Could parents have taught better, been better examples, said the “right” thing? Absolutely. This type of guidance is invaluable. But for the truth seeker, one’s parents cannot be the only light to goodness.

Behind the scenes of this book is one of the more interesting characters: Dawn’s mom. She and Dawn’s father divorced when she was 5, and she pursued a hedonistic lifestyle for most of Dawn’s formational years. She also, however, kept reverence of the Sabbath and attended synagogue with her daughters. Through all the messes she made, and people she knew, she ended up in the Catholic Church years before Dawn considered giving her life to Christ. This kind of influence, while not overly expanded upon, is not lost on the reader.

Dawn says that she lost her innocence before she ever had sex, when she “learned it was possible to separate sexual sensation from love.” She believes people do this so as to detach, which is a means to protect one’s self. Protecting oneself, say, from the reality that sex without love and commitment isn’t as satisfying or desired. Most discussions on sex are tedious, because they’re broken up into “pro-love” or “anti-sex” camps, which leaves no room for real discussion. This book changes the discussion because chastity is given its own stage.

If the generally accepted definition of chastity is refraining from sexual intercourse outside of marriage, then what do people who are married or who do not want to practice chastity gain from this book? A new perspective, if given the chance. Dawn tells her story, threading it with literature, Scripture, Catholic theology and logic. She writes, “I learned, through discovering chastity, that the greatest tragedy is not that of being unloved. The greatest tragedy is not loving.” Pushing culture away from its “spiritual bulimia” and allowing our faith to be a living reality, the call to love authentically is found in all vocations.

Chastity is just as important in marriage as it is in holy orders; it is an invitation to taste heaven. As Dawn writes,

If you want to receive the love for which you hunger, the first step is to admit to yourself that you have the hunger, with everything it entails: weakness, vulnerability, and the feeling of an empty space inside. To tell yourself simply, “I’ll be happy once I have someone to love,” is to deny the depth and seriousness of your longing. It turns the hunger into a superficial desire for flesh and blood when we really want is someone to share divine love with us, to be for us “God with skin on.”

The story of the Samaritan woman is the crux of this book, because it ties into the reality that no one is beyond the graces of God. Jesus offers each of us his “living water” – the water that quenches beyond the immediate physical needs of life. We cannot deny that our spirituality is inherently intertwined with our physical body. This book encourages each of us to stop telling ourself “This is who I am!” and start saying, “This is who I am becoming!”

Even if you are not Catholic or practicing, this book is an excellent introduction to the subject of chastity, and its relevance in experience, seeped in theology reflection, gives insight to those who want a new twist on an old subject. Chastity is not just a “no” to sex; it is a “yes” to more. It is an investment in yourself and your relationships, and it is a backboard to start the much-needed conversation in today’s society. Dawn Eden’s book is beautifully written and has much to offer. The clarity of her message is invaluable to our conversation on sexuality, and challenges us towards heroic virtue and not selling love’s potential short.

**

In addendum: if you or a loved one has been touched by sexual abuse, Dawn wrote another book called My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, which is highly recommended.