Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Fathers of the Church

Of the Discipline and Advantage of Chastity


Discussion of chastity in the moral life and Scripture.


This treatise is attributed to Cyprian on questionable authority. It was more likely written by Novatian. It is written as a letter from an absent bishop to his flock.

by Cyprian of Carthage in Circa 250 A.D. | translated by Rev. Ernest Wallis, Ph.d

1. I do not conceive that I have exceeded any portions of my duty, in always striving as much as possible, by dally discussions of the Gospels, to afford to you from time to time the means of growth, by the Lord's help, in faith and knowledge. For what else can be effected in the Lord's Church with greater advantage, what can be found more suitable to the office of a bishop, than that, by the teaching of the divine words, recommended and commented on by Him, believers should be enabled to attain to the promised kingdom of heaven? This assuredly, as the desired result day by day of my work as well as of my office, I endeavour, notwithstanding my absence, to accomplish; and by my letters I try to make myself present to you, addressing you in faith, in my usual manner, by the exhortations that I send you. I call upon you, therefore, to be established in the power of the Root of the Gospel, and to stand always armed against all the assaults of the devil. I shall not believe myself to be absent from you, if I shall be sure of you. Nevertheless, everything which is advantageously set forth, and which either defines or promises the condition of eternal life to those who are investigating it, is then only profitable, if it be aided in attaining the reward of the effort by the power of the divine mercy. We not only set forth words which come from the sacred fountains of the Scriptures, but with these very words we associate prayers to the Lord, and wishes, that, as well to us as to you, He would not only unfold the treasures of His sacraments, but would bestow strength for the carrying into act of what we know. For the danger is all the greater if we know the Lord's will, and loiter in the work of the will of God.

2. Although, therefore, I exhort you always, as you are aware, to many things, and to the precepts of the Lord's admonition—for what else can be desirable or more important to me, than that in all things you should stand perfect in the Lord?—yet I admonish you, that you should before all things maintain the barriers of chastity, as also you do: knowing that you are the temple of the Lord, the members of Christ, the habitation of the Holy Spirit, elected to hope, consecrated to faith, destined to salvation, sons of God, brethren of Christ, associates of the Holy Spirit, owing nothing any longer to the flesh, as born again of water, that the chastity, over and above the will, which we should always desire to be ours, may be afforded to us also, on account of the redemption, that that which has been consecrated by Christ might not be corrupted. For if the apostle declares the Church to be the spouse of Christ, I beseech you consider what chastity is required, where the Church is given in marriage as a betrothed virgin. And I indeed, except that I have proposed to admonish you with brevity, think the most diffuse praises due, and could set forth abundant laudations of chastity; but I have thought it superfluous to praise it at greater length among those who practise it. For you adorn it while you exhibit it; and in its exercise you set forth its more abundant praises, being made its ornament, while it also is yours, each lending and borrowing honour from the other. It adds to you the discipline of good morals; you confer upon it the ministry of saintly works. For how much and what it can effect has on the one hand been manifest by your means, and on the other it has shown and taught what you are wishing for,—the two advantages of precepts and practice being combined into one, that nothing should appear maimed, us would be the case if either principles were wanting to service, or service to principles.

3. Chastity is the dignity of the body, the ornament of morality, the sacredness of the sexes, the bond of modesty, the source of purity, the peacefulness of home, the crown of concord. Chastity is not careful whom it pleases but itself. Chastity is always modest, being the mother of innocency; chastity is ever adorned with modesty alone, then rightly conscious of its own beauty if it is displeasing to the wicked. Chastity seeks nothing in the way of adornments: it is its own glory. It is this which commends us to the Lord, unites us with Christ; it is this which drives out from our members all the illicit conflicts of desire, instils peace into our bodies: blessed itself, and making those blessed, whoever they are, in whom it condescends to dwell. It is that which even they who possess it not can never accuse; it is even venerable to its enemies, since, they admire it much more because they are unable to capture it. Moreover, as mature, it is both always excellent in men, and to be earnestly desired by women; so its enemy, unchastity, is always detestable, making an obscene sport for its servants, sparing neither bodies nor souls. For, their own proper character being overcome, it sends the entire man under its yoke of lust, alluring at first, that it may do the more mischief by its attraction,—the foe of continency, exhausting both means and modesty; the perilous madness of lust frequently attaining to the blood, the destruction of a good conscience, the mother of impenitence, the ruin of a more virtuous age, the disgrace of one's race, driving away all confidence in blood and family, intruding one's own children upon the affections of strangers, interpolating the offspring of an unknown and corrupted stock into the testaments of others. And this also, very frequently burning without reference to sex, and not restraining itself within the permitted limits, thinks it little satisfaction to itself, unless even in the bodies of men it seeks, not a new pleasure, but goes in quest of extraordinary and revolting extravagances, contrary to nature itself, of men with men.

4. But chastity maintains the first rank in virgins, the second in those who are continent, the third in the case of wedlock. Yet in all it is glorious, with all its degrees. For even to maintain the marriage-faith is a matter of praise in the midst of so many bodily strifes; and to have determined on a limit in marriage defined by continency is more virtuous still, because herein even lawful things are refused. Assuredly to have guarded one's purity from the womb, and to have kept oneself an infant even to old age throughout the whole of life, is certainly the part of an admirable virtue; only that if never to have known the body's seductive capacities is the greater blessedness, to have overcome them when once known is the greater virtue; yet still in such a sort that that virtue comes of God's gift, although it manifests itself to men in their members.

5. The precepts of chastity, brethren, are ancient. Wherefore do I say ancient? Because they were ordained at the same time as men themselves. For both her own husband belongs to the woman, for the reason that besides him she may know no other; and the woman is given to the man for the purpose that, when that which had been his own had been yielded to him, he should seek for nothing belonging to another. And in such wise it is said, "Two shall be in one flesh," that what had been made one should return together, that a separation without return should not afford any occasion to a stranger. Thence also the apostle declares that the man is the head of the woman, that he might commend chastity in the conjunction of the two. For as the head cannot be suited to the limbs of another, so also one's limbs cannot be suited to the head of another: for one's head matches one's limbs, and one's limbs one's head; and both of them are associated by a natural link in mutual concord, lest, by any discord arising from the separation of the members, the compact of the divine covenant should be broken. Yet he adds, and says: "Because he who loves his wife, loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ the Church." From this passage there is great authority for charity with chastity, if wives are to be loved by their husbands even as Christ loved the Church and wives ought so to love their husbands also as the Church loves Christ.

6. Christ gave this judgment when, being inquired of, He said that a wife must not be put away, save for the cause of adultery; such honour did He put upon chastity. Hence arose the decree: "Ye shall not suffer adulteresses to live." Hence the apostle says: "This is the will of God, that ye abstain from fornication." Hence also he says the same thing: "That the members of Christ must not be joined with the members of an harlot." Hence the man is delivered over unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, who, treading under foot the law of chastity, practises the vices of the flesh. Hence with reason adulterers do not attain the kingdom of heaven. Hence it is that every sin is without the body, but that the adulterer alone sins against his own body. Hence other authoritative utterances of the instructor, all of which it is not necessary at this time to collect, especially among you, who for the most part know and do them; and you cannot find cause for complaint concerning these things, even though they are not described. For the adulterer has not an excuse, nor could he have, because he might take a wife.

7. But as laws are prescribed to matrons, who are so bound that they cannot thence be separated, while virginity and continency are beyond all law, there is nothing in the laws of matrimony which pertains to virginity; for by its loftiness it transcends them all. If any evil undertakings of men endeavour to transcend laws, virginity places itself on an equality with angels; moreover, if we investigate, it even excels them, because struggling in the flesh it gains the victory even against a nature which angels have not. What else is virginity than the glorious preparation for the future life? Virginity is of neither sex. Virginity is the continuance of infancy. Virginity is the triumph over pleasures. Virginity has no children; but what is more, it has contempt for offspring: it has not fruitfulness, but neither has it bereavement; blessed that it is free from the pain of bringing forth, more blessed still that it is free from the calamity of the death of children. What else is virginity than the freedom of liberty? It has no husband for a master. Virginity is freed from all affections: it is not given up to marriage, nor to the world, nor to children. It cannot dread persecution, since it cannot provoke it from its security.

8. But since the precepts of chastity have thus briefly been set forth to us, let us now give an instance of chastity. For it is more profitable when we come in the very presence of the thing; nor will there be any doubt about the virtue, when that which is prescribed is also designated by illustrations. The example of chastity begins with Joseph. A Hebrew youth, noble by his parentage, nobler by his innocence, on account of the envy excited by his revelations exposed for sale by his brethren to the Israelites, had attained to the household of a man of Egypt. By his obedience and his innocence, and by the entire faithfulness of his service, he had aroused in his favour the easy and kindly disposition of his master; and his appearance had commended itself to all men, alike by his gracious speech as by his youthfulness. But that same nobility of manner was received by his master's wife in another manner than was becoming; in a secret part of the house, and without witnesses,—a place high up, and fitted for deeds of wickedness, the unrestrained unchastity of the woman thought that it could overcome the youth's chastity, now by promises, now by threats. And when he was restrained from attempting flight by her holding his garments, shocked at the audacity of such a crime, tearing his very garments, and able to appeal to the sincerity of his naked body as a witness of his innocence, the rash woman did not shrink from adding calumny to the crime of her unchastity. Dishevelled, and raging that her desire should be despised, she complained both to others and to her husband that the Hebrew youth had attempted to use that force to her which she herself had striven to exercise. The husband's passion, unconscious of the truth, and terribly inflamed by his wife's accusation, is aroused; and the modest youth, because he did not defile his conscience with the crime, is thrust into the lowest dungeon of the prison. But chastity is not alone in the dungeon; for God is with Joseph, and the guilty are given into his charge, because he had been guiltless. Moreover, he dissolves the obscurities of dreams, because his spirit was watchful in temptations, and he is freed from chains by the master of the prison. He who had been an inferior in the house with peril, was made lord of the palace without risk; restored to his noble station, he received the reward of chastity and innocence by the judgment of God, from whom he had deserved it.

9. But not less from a different direction arises to us another similar instance of chastity from the continence of women. Susanna, as we read, the daughter of Chelcias, the wife of Joachim, was exceedingly beautiful—more beautiful still in character. Her outward appearance added no charm to her, for she was simple: chastity had cultivated her; and in addition to chastity nature alone. With her, two of the elders had begun to be madly in love, mindful of nothing, neither of the fear of God, nor even of their age, already withering with years. Thus the flame of resuscitated lust recalled them into the glowing heats of their bygone youth. Robbers of chastity, they profess love, while they really hate. They threaten her with calumnies when she resists; the adulterers in wish declare themselves the accusers of adultery. And between these rocks of lust she sought help of the Lord, because she was not equal to prevailing against them by bodily strength. And the Lord heard from heaven chastity crying to Him; and when she, overwhelmed with injustice, was being led to punishment, she was delivered, and saw her revenge upon her enemies. Twice victorious, and in her peril so often and so fatally hedged in, she escaped both the lust and death. It will be endless if I continue to produce more examples; I an content with these two, especially as in these cases chastity has been defended with all their might.

10. The memory of noble descent could not enervate them, although to some this is a suggestive licence to lasciviousness; nor the comeliness of their bodies, and the beauty of their well-ordered limbs, although for the most part this affords a hint, that being, as it were, the short-lived flower of an age that rapidly passes away, it should be fed with the offered opportunity of pleasure; nor the first years of a green but mature age, although the blood, still inexperienced, grows hot, and stimulates the natural fires, and the blind flames that stir in the marrow, to seek a remedy, even if they should break forth at the risk of modesty; nor any opportunity afforded by secrecy, or by freedom from witnesses, which to some seems to ensure safety, although this is the greatest temptation to the commission of crime, that there is no punishment for meditating it. Neither was a necessity laid upon them by the authority of those who bade them yield, and in the boldness of association and companionship, by which kind of temptations also righteous determinations are often overcome. Neither did the very rewards nor the kindliness, nor did the accusations, nor threats, nor punishments, nor death, move them; nothing was counted so cruel, so hard, so distressing, as to have fallen from the lofty stand of chastity. They were worthy of such a reward of the Divine Judge, that one of them should be glorified on a throne almost regal; that the other, endowed with her husband's sympathy, should be rescued by the death of her enemies. These, and such as these, are the examples ever to be placed before our eyes, the like of them to be meditated on day and night.

11. Nothing so delights the faithful soul as the healthy consciousness of an unstained modesty. To have vanquished pleasure is the greatest pleasure; nor is there any greater victory than that which is gained over one's desires. He who has conquered an enemy has been stronger, but it was stronger than another; he who has subdued lust has been stronger than himself. He who has overthrown an enemy has beaten a foreign foe; he who has cast down desire has vanquished a domestic adversary. Every evil is more easily conquered than pleasure; because, whatever it is, the former is repulsive, the latter is attractive. Nothing is crushed with such difficulty as that which is armed by it. He who gets rid of desires has got rid of fears also; for from desires come fears. He who overcomes desires, triumphs over sin; he who overcomes desires, shows that the mischief of the human family lies prostrate under his feet; he who has overcome desires, has given to himself perpetual peace; he who has overcome desires, restores to himself liberty,—a most difficult matter even for noble natures. Therefore we should always meditate, brethren, as these matters teach us, on chastity. That it may be the more easy, it is based upon no acquired skill. For the fight will that is therein carried to perfection—which, were it not checked, is remote (scil. from our consciousness)—is still our will; so that it is not a will to be acquired, but that which is our own is to be cherished.

12. For what is chastity but a virtuous mind added to watchfulness over the body; so that modesty observed in respect of the sexual relations, attested by strictness (of demeanour), should maintain honourable faith by an uncorrupted offspring? Moreover, to chastity, brethren, are suited and are known first of all divine modesty, and the sacred meditation of the divine precepts, and a soul inclined to faith, and a mind attuned to the sacredness of religion: then carefulness that nothing in itself should be elaborated beyond measure, or extended beyond propriety; that nothing should be made a show of, nothing artfully coloured; that there should be nothing to pander to the excitement or the renewal of wiles. She is not a modest woman who strives to stir up the fancy of another, even although her bodily chastity be preserved. Away with such as do not adorn, but prostitute their beauty. For anxiety about beauty is not only the wisdom of an evil mind, but belongs to deformity. Let the bodily nature be free, nor let any sort of force be intruded upon God's works. She is always wretched who is not satisfied to be such as she is. Wherefore is the colour of hair changed? Why are the edges of the eyes darkened? Why is the face moulded by art into a different form? Finally, why is the looking-glass consulted, unless from fear lest a woman should be herself? Moreover, the dress of a modest woman should be modest; a believer should not be conscious of adultery even in the mixture of colours. To wear gold in one's garments is as if it were desirable to corrupt one's garments. What do rigid metals do among the delicate threads of the woven textures, except to press upon the enervated shoulders, and unhappily to show the extravagance of a boastful soul? Why are the necks oppressed and hidden by outlandish stones, the prices of which, without workmanship, exceed the entire fortune of many a one? It is not the woman that is adorned, but the woman's vices that are manifested. What, when the fingers laden with so much gold can neither close nor open, is there any advantage sought for, or is it merely to show the empty parade of one's estate? It is a marvellous thing that women, tender in all things else, in bearing the burden of their vices are stronger than men.

13. But to return to what I began with: chastity is ever to be cultivated by men and women; it is to be kept with all watchfulness within its bounds. The bodily nature is quickly endangered in the body, when the flesh, which is always falling, carries it away with itself. Because under the pretext of a nature which is always urging men to desires whereby the ruins of a decayed race are restored, deceiving with the enticement of pleasure, it does not lead its offspring to the continence of legitimate intercourse, but hurls them into crime. Therefore, in opposition to these fleshly snares, by which the devil both obtrudes himself as a companion and makes himself a leader, we must struggle with every kind of strength. Let the aid of Christ be appropriated, according to the apostle, and let the mind be withdrawn as much as possible from the association of the body; let consent be withheld from the body; let vices be always chastised, that they may be hated; let that misshapen and degraded shame which belongs to sin be kept before our eyes. Repentance itself, with all its struggles, is a discreditable testimony to sins committed. Let not curiosity be indulged in scanning other people's countenances. Let one's speech be brief, and one's laughter moderate, for laughter is the sign of an easy and a negligent disposition; and let all contact, even that which is becoming, be avoided. Let no indulgence be permitted to the body, when bodily vice is to be avoided. Let it be considered how honourable it is to have conquered dishonour, how disgraceful to have been conquered by dishonour.

14. It must be said, moreover, that adultery is not pleasure, but mutual contempt; nor can it delight, because it kills both the soul and modesty. Let the soul restrain the provocations of the flesh; let it bridle the impulses of the body. For it has received this power, that the limbs should be subservient to its command; and as a lawful and accomplished charioteer, it should turn about the fleshly impulses when they lift themselves above the allowed limits of the body, by the reins of the heavenly precepts, lest that chariot of the body, carried away beyond. its limits, should hurry into its own peril the charioteer himself as well as it. But in the midst of these things, nay, before these things, in opposition to disturbances and all vices, help must be sought for from the divine camp; for God alone, who has condescended to make men, is powerful also to afford sufficient help to men. I have composed a few words, because I did not propose to write a volume, but to send you an address. Look ye to the Scriptures; seek out for yourselves from those precepts greater illustrations of this matter. Beloved brethren, farewell.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland beginning in 1867. (ANF 5, Roberts and Donaldson). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.

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