Let no one think however that herein we depreciate marriage as an institution. We are well aware that it is not a stranger to God’s blessing. But since the common instincts of mankind can plead sufficiently on its behalf, instincts which prompt by a spontaneous bias to take the high road of marriage for the procreation of children, whereas Virginity in a way thwarts this natural impulse, it is a superfluous task to compose formally an Exhortation to marriage.
~ St. Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity 8
As it turns out, my most recent post, “Virginity: Not Just For the Single,” has by far already been my most viewed. I wrote it after a friend cynically recommended that I write about sex if I want my blog to get more views. So I wrote about virginity instead. As it turns out, it appears that virginity sells.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, in the quote above, highlights the need for exhortations to virginity in his own day. Trust me, if he felt that such a thing was needed in the late fourth century during the flowering of Christian monasticism, then we must have a desperate need in our society today.
Incidentally, for those who might be worried, despite his misgivings St. Gregory actually goes on to produce a short, perhaps informal, exhortation defending the goodness of marriage. He writes,
But our view of marriage is this; that, while the pursuit of heavenly things should be a man’s first care, yet if he can use the advantages of marriage with sobriety and moderation, he need not despise this way of serving the state. An example might be found in the patriarch Isaac. He married Rebecca when he was past the flower of his age and his prime was well-nigh spent, so that his marriage was not the deed of passion, but because of God’s blessing that should be upon his seed.
Notice—to reiterate my point from my previous post—that marriage ought not to be “the deed of passion” and that it should be a place of “sobriety and moderation.” But how can it be so today, even (especially?) among Christians who so often view virginity as an obstacle to overcome (albeit by marriage), rather than a virtue to cultivate and enjoy, or as St. Gregory of Nyssa puts it: as “the life according to excellence.”
The reason for this, he writes, is in one sense quite natural: “Virginity in a way thwarts [our] natural impulse [for procreation].” For this reason, it takes a little convincing, a little salesmanship, we might even say.
I mentioned in my previous post that I hardly get favorable reactions when I talk about ancient Christian understandings of virginity, marriage, and sex. There is a sort of “righteous indignation”; “how dare you tell me what should or should not go on in my bedroom” seems to be the substance of the sentiment. Indeed, I wonder how many views of my last post were from people who were outraged. WordPress doesn’t tell me if the views were favorable. Probably best not to know….
In any case, I am happy to write about virginity again. One way or another, it has proven to be a subject that attracts a lot of attention.
St. Gregory of Nyssa highlights a need in his own time, surely applicable in our own as well, to praise the virtues of virginity. I have said before that the three monastic virtues—poverty, virginity, and obedience—are perhaps the three least popular things in our culture today. I can’t quite decide which is the least popular of the three, but virginity is a good contender.
We do indeed need people to praise the virtues of virginity. But, I would argue, we cannot forget the rhetorical importance of ethos. That is, those Christians who are currently committed to living a chaste life (whether or not they are virgins), need to truly enjoy it.
This is truly a hard thing. So many people are longing for a marriage relationship through “the common instincts of mankind,” not just for procreation, but even for companionship. I know that for myself, loneliness was a hard passion to overcome when I was single. I do not wish to discount that struggle.
Nevertheless, I can say that coming to a greater appreciation of “the life according to excellence” while I was single went a long way to expelling such loneliness. It didn’t take away any natural feeling for marriage, but it did moderate it. Alongside an appreciation for the goodness of marriage, grew a competing appreciation for singleness.
Though the concept may be somewhat philosophically problematic, the two became for me what some call “incommensurable goods.” That is, while appreciating both, I had no real preference. I was happy to accept the will of God, whatever that might be for me—that truly, after much struggle, was my preference.
I came to appreciate the freedom of singleness, especially “the pursuit of heavenly things.” Paradoxically, such a perspective turned out to be necessary, I believe, to cultivating a healthy dating, and eventually marriage, relationship when the time came.
When people take the time to attend to heavenly things, even if far from perfectly, their whole earthly life is transfigured, put in a healthier perspective. I would not have had such an essential paradigm shift if I had not learned to love my virginity. And I can say that, so far as I know, the same blessing holds true for anyone else who would learn to love it as well. It may lack sensual pleasure, but it holds great potential for true joy.
Like everything else on the way of life, the road may be difficult and the narrow gate hard to find (Matthew 7:13-14), but once found and traveled upon, the “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Indeed, for Gregory of Nyssa, there is a sense in which there is no one who escapes marriage: the married to each other and virgins to Christ, the true Bridegroom of us all. In this lies the true joy of virginity, for those who find it.
Given its greatness, I would submit that we need more “salespersons” for virginity, not only in word but especially in deed. While it is a maxim of modern marketing that “sex sells,” perhaps no one says that “virginity sells” simply because no one has tried.