And when Paul entered into the house of Onesiphorus, there was great joy, and bowing of knees and breaking of bread, and the word of God concerning abstinence (or continence) and the resurrection; for Paul said:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are they that keep the flesh chaste, for they shall become the temple of God.
Blessed are they that abstain (or the continent), for unto them shall God speak.
Blessed are they that have renounced this world, for they shall be well-pleasing unto God.
Blessed are they that possess their wives as though they had them not, for they shall inherit God.
Blessed are they that have the fear of God, for they shall become angels [messengers?] of God.
Blessed are they that tremble at the oracles of God, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that receive the wisdom of Jesus Christ, for they shall be called sons of the Most High.
Blessed are they that have kept their baptism pure, for they shall rest with the Father and with the Son.
Blessed are they that have compassed the understanding of Jesus Christ, for they shall be in light.
Blessed are they that for love of God have departed from the fashion of this world, for they shall judge angels, and shall be blessed at the right hand of the Father.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy and shall not see the bitter day of judgement.
Blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they shall be well-pleasing unto God and shall not lose the reward of their continence (chastity), for the word of the Father shall be unto them a work of salvation in the day of his Son, and they shall have rest world without end.
Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the holy virgin St. Thecla. The account of her meeting with St. Paul and how she miraculously escaped martyrdom several times comes right after these Pauline beatitudes in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, a product of the era of the Apostolic Fathers of Christian literature or just after (a late first- or second-century text).
While, of course, one may question the details of the story, there seems to be strong evidence that there was indeed a St. Thecla of Iconium, and St. Paul did in fact travel there and preach there. But I’m not so concerned about historical curiosities as I am about the text itself: Whatever else they may be, writings like this were meant to be didactic, and so we need not be historians to learn something valuable from the text.
As the story goes, St. Thecla could hear St. Paul preaching nearby and sat in the window longing to meet him and learn more about the Gospel. It is something of an anti-romance—I could see feminist theologians finding a lot to like in it. Thecla is engaged to a man, but after hearing the Apostle’s teaching, she falls in love with virginity.
And what was that preaching? According to the text, it included the beatitudes above. Many early Acts like this one, such as the Acts of Peter or the Acts of Thomas, contain very austere teaching about sex, often at least seeming to imply that Christians should all be celibate.
We know from the writings of St. Paul collected in the New Testament, however, that he opposed this impulse. For example, he wrote to St. Timothy,
Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:1-3)
St. Paul opposed any sort of spiritual utopianism: the idea that if I just do X, Y, and Z perfection will be the certain result. He did not, for that, oppose asceticism, however.
He says to the Corinthians, “I wish that all men were even as I myself [i.e. celibate]. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that” (1 Corinthians 7:7). He goes on to recommend celibacy to anyone who thinks they can handle it, but he also cautions the married not to be too ambitious if they decide for a time to fast from sex.
It is possible that some of that subtlety was lost on the writer of the Acts, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.
So why would St. Thecla fall in love with virginity? Well, despite the strong emphasis on continence in the narrative, it should not be read out of the context of the beatitudes that begin it. That message, it turns out, is much broader. Let’s see what we can see there.
First of all, there is some overlap with the beatitudes of Christ recorded in the Gospel according to St. Matthew: “Blessed are the pure in heart” and “Blessed are the merciful.” Neither of these are exclusively, if at all, about sexual restraint.
The first, purity of heart, is understood by desert fathers like St. Moses the Ethiopian (or at least St. John Cassian, who recorded his meeting with him) to mean apatheia, that inner calm that can only be achieved through watchfully guarding oneself against strong emotion or wayward thoughts.
The second, being merciful, is one of the central themes of Jesus’s teaching. Christians do not set aside the requirements of justice, but they go beyond them to live lives characterized by mercy. This is why Christ can say both that he has not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it and that while you have heard “an eye for an eye” you should instead turn your other cheek to the one who strikes you, love your enemies, and so on. Injustice renders harm to one who doesn’t deserve it. Justice renders to each what is due. Mercy renders good to one who does not deserve it.
Also among these beatitudes are admonitions to grow in wisdom and understanding: i.e. to think! One cannot grow in knowledge through fideism. There is much that can only be known through experience, of course, but so long as we are human and have rational minds, there is no experience that is not understood through reflection. The habit of thinking wisely, however, is something that reason alone cannot achieve.
And so we get back to chastity. These Pauline beatitudes contain some amazing statements! “Blessed are they that abstain (or the continent), for unto them shall God speak.” Why? Let’s set aside the question whether or not we agree. We can’t decide that until we know why anyone would think something like this in the first place.
The psalmist writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Married people can appreciate this, but St. Paul does point to the practical problem that marriage brings many distractions. These distractions are not bad things, in fact they are duties of any married person, but they are distractions from spiritual contemplation just the same.
For example, being married means that I don’t get to schedule my weeks however I want. It would, in fact, be selfish of me to abandon my wife every weekend to go visit a monastery, even though the life of a monastery may be far more spiritually uplifting than life in the world. I’m not a monk. To use St. Paul’s language, God has not given me that gift.
Furthermore, think of all the things that stress people out. I remember being single and I know that singleness comes with a lot of stress of its own; please don’t mistake my meaning. But still, now I worry about keeping my job, paying my bills, maintaining my house, being a good husband, being a good father, and so on. These things are all wonderful and ascetic in their own ways (rightly done), but they are not the same as praying all day or helping the needy.
The chaste, by contrast, are empowered to devote far more time to these things that ought to hold a central place in life of all Christians. It is a life where one does not need to put oneself through the great ascetic exploit of going camping to notice the voice of God in the flowers or a stream or the clouds. Perhaps the statement “for unto them God shall speak” means audible words, but we need not read it that way. God is always speaking, but we are not always listening.
Lastly—there is so much more I could say!—notice the last beatitude: “Blessed are the bodies of the virgins.” This ought to problematize simplistic accounts of asceticism as requiring a belief that the body or material reality is somehow evil. He does not simply say, “Blessed are the chaste” but “Blessed are the bodies of the virgins.” With its central belief in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christianity has always had a sacramental understanding of materiality: all of the physical world can be spiritualized.
Thus, we keep our baptisms pure through purifying our hearts, dying daily to ourselves, putting to death every thought, dream, desire (including romantic desire), or fear, knowing that, to quote St. Augustine, “God [is] the end or our desires; but the end of desire marks the beginning of eternal love.” When we die to our desires we rise again to that most pure form of love.
Blessed, indeed, are any who embrace that life, however imperfectly, in the present.