The following severe saying is reported of St. Basil, the Bishop of Caesarea: “I know not woman and yet I am not a virgin.” By this he means that bodily purity consists not so much in foreswearing women but in integrity of heart. For it maintains a perpetual incorrupt holiness of heart whether from the fear of God or from love of purity.
St. John Cassian, Institutes 6.19
A little while back, I mentioned the three monastic virtues of poverty, virginity, and obedience. In that post, I wrote specifically about poverty. While I have written about virginity or chastity before, it is my conviction that such an important and unpopular subject really can’t be talked about enough today, and I was encouraged to revisit it through a recent conversation with a friend. While one could decry the evils of a secular culture that treats sex like candy, to do so would miss, to me, a much more severe problem: a Christian culture that treats sex like candy.
No doubt some readers may already be upset. I am sorry to say that the anger of such readers will likely not be subdued by anything else I am about to say—quite the opposite, I expect. Before we can even begin to appreciate the wisdom of this saying of St. Basil the Great, I need to lay down a few basic presuppositions:
First of all, sex is not the summit of human experience, not even close. It can be wonderful, but communion with the living God is the summit of human experience and central to Christianity. Sex is not central to Christianity. Case in point: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born of a Virgin.
Second of all, sex is not the summit of human experience. Did I say that already? Well, it can’t be said enough. As a student of theology, I cannot help but point out that the practical attitude of some (behaving as if sex, albeit within marriage, is the summit of human experience) presents a serious christological problem. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is not only fully divine, but fully human. Indeed, he is understood to be the redemption and fulfillment of all that it means to be human. Despite the historical fiction of Dan Brown and other Gnostics before him, Christians believe that Jesus was celibate. If the Gospels and early Christians are willing to go on so much about his Mother, how much more so would they have venerated his wife! (Incidentally, spiritually speaking, Christians believe the Church to be the Bride of Christ and historically venerated it as such.)
I remember attending a wedding once with my then-girlfriend Kelly, to whom I am now happily married. The pastor literally began his sermon by telling the bride and groom, “Today you are complete.” At which point Kelly looked over at me and said, “Sorry, Jesus….” Jesus Christ did not need to be married to live a complete human life nor, indeed, to complete human life for us. Too often, Christians speak and act as if this were not the case. This brings me to my next point….
Third of all, sex is not a necessary component of marriage. It may be a normative part of most marriages (as are, I would hasten to add, children), but paralysis, for example, does not annul a marriage. Furthermore, it was not unheard of in the early Church for a man and a woman to get married and at the same time to take vows of celibacy and live their lives totally committed to one another but, in that area, as brother and sister. Oddly, I have been able to physically see the anger in Christians’ faces when I have told some of them this in the past.
Traditionally, and among at least some Orthodox teachers up to the present day, celibacy was considered the goal of all people, including the goal of married people. St. Gregory the Theologian said of his parents’ marriage that, at the end, it was “a union of virtue rather than of bodies.” That this is what all married couples ought to strive for may be a scandal today, but it was standard fare in the ancient Church.
Fourth, just because two people are married does not mean that they do not still need to practice chastity. It seems that some Christians today have the mistaken notion that St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians was actually written by Alfred Kinsey or Sigmund Freud.
Christians, no matter what their callings in life, ought to be people of self-control, including sexual self-control. That some would take St. Paul’s words on the matter to mean that if one spouse wants sex then the other must simply go along with it, is anachronistic, not to mention potentially abusive.
What St. Paul actually writes is this:
The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:4-5)
If one’s body is not one’s own and one does not have authority over it, then how in the world could someone understand this passage to mean that if one spouse desires sex the other simply needs to go along with it? People should not be aware of their own desires at all! That body, their own, doesn’t even belong to them.
Rather, this passage is about self-control and service to the other person in the marriage, not about self-gratification. Indeed, St. Paul continues to qualify his statement, saying, “I say this as a concession” (7:6), implying that if they did not suffer from a “lack of self-control,” he’d recommend that they abstain for longer periods of time for the sake of “prayer and fasting.”
All this brings me finally to St. Basil: “I know not a woman and yet I am not a virgin.” According to St. John Cassian, this means that “bodily purity consists not so much in foreswearing women but in integrity of heart.” That is, virginity is, first and foremost, a state of the soul, and one toward which all people ought to strive. Those who cannot conquer lust within their marriages ought not to be surprised when their appetites grow beyond that holy state.
Perhaps we would do well to ponder more the words of St. Paul to the Romans, that as punishment for having debased minds, God gives people over “to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves” (Romans 1:24). That is, the punishment for being lustful and sexually unrestrained is to be a person who is lustful and sexually unrestrained. Sin, as I have written before, is its own punishment, just as, conversely, virtue is its own reward. As evil has no existence of its own but only exists as a distortion of what is good, so to embrace it is to embrace an existential emptiness. Keeping this in mind, cultivating “the fear of God” in this way, is one means by which we can counteract the roots of unchastity in our lives.
But there is another way as well. St. Anthony once said, “Now I do not fear God, but love him: for love casteth out fear.” In the same way, if we love that which is eternal, such as virtue that unites us to God, we move even beyond the proper fear of sin to the joy of godliness. In this sex finds its true meaning, so that, in a sense, a married man might say, “I do know a woman and yet I am a virgin,” a virgin in “integrity of heart” that loves virtue and seeks, like Christ himself, to serve others rather than to be served.