Sterility and Fruitfulness

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

If Jesus had not said it, I doubt most people in our culture would ever connect “purity” with “seeing God.” As we saw last time, a huge number of people in our culture, when the word “purity” is propounded to them in their simplicity, associate it with not seeing something: something icky, or salacious, or dirty.

Admittedly, we Christians sometimes help along this perception that “Purity=Don’t Touch” by wasting time fretting about things God doesn’t care the slightest bit about. The other day I heard a woman on the radio call a priest because a relative of hers said that going to see a card-tricks-and-rabbit-from-hat magic show would “open her” to the demonic (the good Father assured the caller this was rubbish).

There are Christians who fear spiritual contamination from yoga exercises that involve absolutely no invocation of pagan deities or non-Christian spiritual elements. According to them, mere adoption of a yoga posture is somehow going to “open you” to the power of fallen angels.

There are Christians who believe listening to a Christian rock station will result in demon possession.

I once knew a woman who was terribly concerned that watching ET: The Extra-Terrestrial would “open you” to demonic powers.

I’ve known people who worked themselves into such sweaty fear of “spiritual contamination” that they saw it everywhere. The whole Church became, for them, a vast network of contaminating spiritual influences and webs of connections between sinister occult forces. Not surprisingly, those who go this route sooner or later cut themselves off from contact with the Church, because the Church is notoriously full of people who are in every imaginable stage of conversion from (and therefore connection to) every imaginable form of sin, uncleanness, perversion, false teaching, occultic involvement, and just plain rottenness.

Often, for those Catholics who fundamentally disbelieve in the power of the Holy Spirit to cleanse, sanctify, heal, and redeem, only one papal utterance since the Second Vatican Council is given any credence: Paul VI’s remark that the “smoke of Satan has entered the sanctuary”. And this is given the force of an ex cathedra—not to say divinely inspired—dogmatic teaching that trumps everything else the Council and the Popes since the Council have taught. True Catholics can only, in that hothouse, remain True Catholics by keeping separate from the Contaminated Church, not to mention the unutterably filthy World.

The trouble is that avoidance of contact with the human condition is only orthodox if you are a Manichaean. As Chesterton puts it, “Now it was the inmost lie of the Manichees that they identified purity with sterility. It is singularly contrasted with the language of St. Thomas, which always connects purity with fruitfulness; whether it be natural or supernatural.”

That is why our Lord does this counter-intuitive thing of saying that the pure shall have the reward, not of grit in the face of sexual temptation, nor of cleanness from the filth of sin, nor of deliverance from the snares of the devil, but of seeing the face of God. That, shockingly, is nuptial imagery. “Apocalypse” is a term that refers, not to “nuclear holocaust”, but to “unveiling”: specifically, the moment at which the bride and groom were unveiled to each other on their wedding night and saw each other face to face.

We don’t tend to think of “purity” and “passionate sexual imagery” in the same breath. Right. And that’s the point. We moderns and postmoderns do not associate purity with fruitfulness. But God does. So does St. Thomas. So does the whole orthodox Catholic tradition. Purity is, in the tradition, not primarily about denial. It’s about union.

That’s why the saints—instead of hiding from the world in fear of contamination by movies, or yoga, or magic shows, or contact with prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners—have waded right out into the middle of it. Instead of gathering their skirts around them in terror of contracting leprosy (whether physical or spiritual), they have reached out and touched the leper, confident that the power of God was greater than the power of sin, hell, and death. Instead of dreading the conquest of the Faith by the powers of darkness, they have walked in the assurance that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has neither understood nor overcome it. For love is stronger than death.

That is one of the meanings of the commission our Lord gave to Peter. Jesus was using an image from ancient siege warfare. Hell is on the defensive. Yes, Hell still has power to fire arrows and pour boiling oil. But the fact nonetheless remains that the Church, in the purity of the Holy Spirit, is the Battering Ram against the gates of Hell. And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • Guest

    Purity is highly charged.  Purity is not vanilla but points to ultimate truth.  We must teach our children and our friends and family to embrace purity with a vengeance.

    Love overcomes all.

    GK – God is good!

  • Guest

    I really liked your article! It is of utmost importance to be the "Salt of the Earth" (as the book about then Cardinal Ratzinger is named) nowadays. 

    We just cannot sit at home and think that's enough not to hurt our loved-ones. We have to reach out. To be the "salt of the earth" we must pray. And prayer enlarges the heart until it is big enough to receive the grace God can give us -and then give it out to others. 

    many blessings to you and your family! 

  • Guest

    I've been studying St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila), who writes extensively of being "afraid" of evil and the devil.  During the time-period of the study, I've thought several times that her obsession was humerous and quaint.

    This article reminds me that her attitude is neither.  I've read far enough to find that she grasps the same idea that Mark is expressing here, stated outright by St. John in 1 Jn. 4:4: "Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world"!  She moved in the power of that revelation and was spiritually "fruitful".

    On the other hand, St. Paul warns us more than once that we need to be care-ful (and yes, I did that deliberately) for the needs of those who are "weaker" in the faith.  There is still that bit of Adam in us that can be tempted.  If yoga or slight-of-hand (or, Harry Potter!) is an "occasion of sin" for them, we have to respect that and not put before them the temptations that we may think are silly because they don't bother us.  Then, perhaps, God in His Mercy will keep someone else from putting before us those temptations that do bother us.  "(Love) your neighbor as yourself".

  • Guest

    good comment Cooky–thank you.


    Jesus, I Trust in You!