Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Friday, April 15, 2005

On Virginity and Hierarchy 

So, back to our conversation. The next question put to me was what, in my opinion, was the theological significance of both our Lord and our Lady choosing to remain virgins? I responded unblinkingly, 'Well, because it's a more perfect form of life.' The recoil from that response was a bit more severe. I admit I had to backpedal a bit.

As I've said before, I live so much of my life between pages of patrology texts, and I sometimes find myself saying things that don't quite make sense to modern ears. You see, among the Fathers it hardly needed being said that virginity was, in St. Augustine's words, a 'greater gift' than marriage. St. Augustine's treatise, On Holy Virginity, is definitely representative of the thought of his age. In fact, as he himself says, he found himself constrained to write a parallel treatise, On the Good of Marriage, in order "to admonish the virgins of Christ, not, on account of that greater gift which they have received, to despise, in comparison of themselves, the fathers and mothers...' Jovinian, who alone dared to pronounce virginity equal to marriage, was branded a heretic and cast out of the Church in 390.

But I have to catch myself whenever I speak of Augustine being 'representative of the thought of his age'. Whenever an educator uses that phrase of some past saint, you can be sure that he doesn't care a whit either for the saint or his thought. But, in my mind, this conviction, that the life of the consecrated man constitutes a higher calling than that of his married counterpart, is somewhat of a 'constant' in our tradition (as to how 'higher' is defined, that is another story, and would be an interesting discussion). Read the seventh chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians, where he speaks of the ideal life as "undivided devotion to the Lord," a state which for him this was incompatible with the married state. Skip to the height of the Middle Ages and we have St. Thomas not only declaring that certain states in life are 'more perfect' than others, but generating a somewhat complex and top-heavy hierarchy of perfection, in which bishops, parish priests, archdeacons, contemplative religious, active religious, and laity are each placed on their proper rung on the ladder. True, we have more than one modern theologian - many of them fully orthodox ones - who altogether shun this elitism, but, from my point of view, the more ancient belief casts too broad a shadow across the tradition to ignore altogether. Perhaps we can hedge some of Jerome's more radical claims (probably made on days when he just woke up on the wrong side of the bed), but to reject the belief as entirely misguided would be to challenge minds possessed of far more wisdom than my own.

Egalitarianism is rooted more deeply into the modern mind than any other idea. And by egalitarianism I do not simply mean the presupposition that all should be equal: Rather, the presupposition that any sort of hierarchy requires a denigration, a disparagement, of that which is lower.

It is a well-known fact that, from the perspective of the ancient mind, the whole cosmos was shot through with hierarchy. When man looked upwards he saw an upward-reaching chain of heroes, demigods, daemons, planets and stars, gods, the Supreme God, and then even beyond, to Being and the Good at the pinnacle. When he looked downward he saw the irrational animals, plant life, and inanimate objects. But when did we hear of Plato complain that he was cheated of divinity? When did Aristotle declare himself worthless because he was less than a demigod? For them, every being attained its perfection by living to the fullest that life which was proper to its station. Man, a rational being, attained perfection by living reasonably, in accord with wisdom. Accordingly, the horse attained its proper perfection by, well, being the best damned horse it could be. And so on and so forth. Yes, many of the ancient thinkers believed women inferior to men, and we shant follow them there, but at the same time, this did not prevent them from believing women capable of their own proper perfection, i.e. that which was appropriate to womankind. In short, just because you are not at the tip-top of the hierarchy of being, does not deprive you of value, or even of perfection.

But for the modern, all this is anathema. If another is intrinsically greater than I, in any fashion or mode, than I am dispossessed and belittled - if there are grades of perfection, I will settle for none but the highest. This is why we recoil at the possibility of one state of life being higher than another. Isn't this unfair? Isn't marriage thus denigrated, rendered second-class and undesirable? Should all of us, then, shun marriage and embrace solitude? Isn't all this just elitism and snobbery?

This is, maybe, why I'm more at home amongst the fathers and doctors. For Augustine, it is not enough to say that the goodness of marriage is not spoiled by the superiority of virginity. Even more, virginity could not be superior unless marriage existed for it to be superior to. You see, if there were no good, there could be no better. If the married state were not available as an option, there would be no virtue in choosing virginity. There is also a more practical edge: If all men were dirt-poor, solitary and celibate, how would the human race sustain itself? As usual, Augustine has the best take:

As, therefore, that was good, which Martha was doing, being engaged in the ministering unto the Saints, but that better, which Mary, her sister, sitting at the feet of the Lord, and hearing His word; thus we praise the good of Susanna in married chastity, but yet we set before her the good of the widow Anna, and, much more, of the Virgin Mary. It was good that they were doing, who of their substance were ministering necessaries unto Christ and His disciples: but better, who left all their substance, that they might be freer to follow the same Lord. But in both these cases of good, whether what these, or whether what Martha and Mary were doing, the better could not be done, unless the other had been passed over or left. Whence we are to understand, that we are not, on this account, to think marriage an evil, because, unless there be abstinence from it, widowed chastity, or virgin purity, cannot be had. For neither on this account was what Martha was doing evil, because, unless her sister abstained from it, she could not do what was better: nor on this account is it evil to receive a just man or a prophet into one's house, because he, who wills to follow Christ unto perfection, ought not even to have a house, in order to do what is better. (On the Good of Marriage, 8).

# posted by Jamie : 10:25 AM


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