(The following is based on an interview I conducted with Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P., some years ago.)
“Why all this fuss about virginity?”
Modern Christians, looking at early Church documents, might well ask the same question a theology student recently put to Dominican Father Benedict Ashley.
The Christian Church, from the time of St. Paul through the eighth century, did place a particular emphasis on the life and conduct of virgins. “Consecrated virgins” were those Christians (especially women) who chose to live celibate lives of prayer, work, intensive study and service, all the while remaining “in the world.” Most, it seems, continued to live in their family homes. The homilies, tracts and legislation of the early Church Fathers discuss consecrated virgins about as often as they mention the clergy.
Why all the fuss about virginity? Because the way Christians esteemed virgins was revolutionary in its time, and it spoke volumes about the greater rights women would win through Christianity’s triumph.
“Vowed virgins were Christians who had consecrated their entire life, including all the energy and intimacy of love, to Christ, with whom they hoped to live for all eternity on the great wedding day,” explained Father Ashley, who discussed the ancient role of consecrated virgins in his recent book on gender issues, Justice in the Church (Catholic University of America, 1996).
The Church esteemed these women, viewing them as prophets, teachers, role models and leaders. In the fourth century, St. Jerome wrote, in his letter of praise for the Roman virgin Asella, that priests and bishops “should look up to her.” In the liturgy in the third century, consecrated virgins were given a place of honor at the liturgy, receiving Communion before the laity.
Perhaps the modern Christian cannot fully appreciate how revolutionary this was — not only for WOMEN to be so esteemed, but for VIRGINAL women to be esteemed at all.
In ancient cultures, a woman’s value was almost exclusively derived from the males with whom she was in relation: her husband, her sons or her father. If a woman never married (and so never bore sons), she was almost certainly destined to poverty and obscurity. This was true in pagan cultures as well as in Israel, where marriage was considered a duty and virginity a curse.
Yet Christianity — with its cult of two prominent virgins, Jesus and Mary — turned that value system on its head. This is evident in Scripture, in the Acts of the Apostles (see, for example, 21:9) as well as in St. Paul’s lengthy treatment of consecrated virginity in his first Letter to the Corinthians (see all of chapter 7).
Now, not only was the “curse” lifted from virginity; virgins (and widows) were seen as meriting the direct support of the Christian community.
Not too long after St. Paul, St. Justin praised Christian virgins, as did St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch and, later, Tertullian and St. Cyprian. By the fourth century, consecrated virgins were probably relatively numerous. At any rate, the writings about virginity had multiplied by then, with Saints Athanasius, Basil, John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine weighing in with praise and good counsel.
A recent anthology of ancient texts illuminates the life of consecrated virgins. In Handmaids of the Lord: Holy Women in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cistercian Publications, 1996), scholar Joan M. Petersen drew together biographies and correspondence of consecrated virgins from the fourth through sixth centuries.
Reading these texts and knowing the place of women in pagan Rome, a modern can only marvel at the decision of Christian virgins to remain in the world. After all, by the fourth century, Christian women could fairly easily opt for a cloistered life removed from the culture. But many consecrated virgins discerned a vocation to stay put. Jerome wrote of Asella that “she found herself a monastic hermitage amidst the hurly-burly of the city.” It was in Rome, at the same time, that the virgin Lea lived a quiet life of renunciation and fasting. “In all that she did, she shunned any display of individual peculiarities,” Jerome wrote, “in order that she might not receive her reward in this world.”
Yet another Roman, Marcella, was widowed in the first year of marriage. Beautiful and wealthy, she decided to live as if she had neither money nor prospects for marriage. She consecrated her life. Afterward, Jerome wrote, Marcella “used her clothes to keep out the cold and not to show off her figure. Of gold she would not wear so much as a signet-ring, choosing to store her money in the stomachs of the poor rather than keep it in her purse.” Jerome wrote of still other virgins who lived in the world, yet used their inheritances to support monastic communities of women or men.
Jerome’s voluminous correspondence with consecrated virgins shows that many of these women were engaged in study at a level attained by few women (or men, for that matter) of their time (or our own time). One casually quotes Plato. Most show an easy familiarity with the Bible and even the most technical works of biblical exegesis. Jerome sets out a daunting curriculum in a letter to Laeta, a mother who wanted to raise her daughters to be consecrated virgins, The girls were to read the Scriptures, of course, but also the theological works of Saints Cyprian, Athanasius and Hilary.
But great learning was not the primary goal of the virgin’s life. It was a means to the end of holiness. More to the point, in a letter to Demetrias, a young virgin of North Africa, Jerome advised a daily plan of prayer woven with study and work: “In addition to the rule of psalmody and prayer, which you must always observe at . . . evening, at midnight and at dawn, decide how many hours you ought to give to memorizing holy Scripture, and how much time you should spend in reading, not as a burden, but for delight and instruction of your soul. When you have spent your allotted time in these studies, often kneeling down to pray, … have some wool always in your hands, and spinning out the threads of the weft with your thumb, attach them to the shuttle and then throw this to weave a web … If you busy yourself with these numerous and varied occupations, you will never find your days long.”
The daily work varied from person to person. Some virgins busied themselves with the care of their aging parents. Others managed the family household. Still others worked among the poor. Often, their witness would move other family members or neighbors to emulate their life. There are many examples of family homes that became “house monasteries” in this way.
Though pagan Rome was hostile to both their virginity and their life style, the empire’s law and order were indispensable to the security of consecrated women. With the decline of the empire comes a corresponding decline in historical evidence of women living as consecrated virgins in the world.
“The middle ages were a socially disruptive and dangerous time,” said Father Ashley. “People went around armed. It became dangerous for a woman to be out in public alone. Talk about sexual harassment! She was safer in the cloister.”
Indeed, by the eighth century, it seems that marriage and the cloister were, practically speaking, the only two Christian vocations open to women.
Yet Father Ashley sees something of a resurgence of the idea, in the last two centuries, with the rise of active religious orders that are not cloistered and are oriented toward service in the world. And he cites secular institutes and the personal prelature, Opus Dei, as giving further opportunities for vocational commitment in the secular realm. The Church restored the rite for consecrated virgins living in the world in 1970, and there is even a U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins.
This can be good ground regained for Catholic women, according to Father Ashley. “The male ascetic cannot fulfill the symbolic role in the Church that a vowed female virgin can,” he said. “Just as a woman cannot appropriately symbolize Christ by ordination to the priesthood, a man cannot symbolize Mary, the New Eve, the Mother of God. Nor can a man symbolize the Church as bride. Yet Mary in her contemplative role is superior to the priest in his active, ministerial role. Thus, as a sign, the consecrated virgin is superior to the priest.”
That’s why — from St. Paul onward — there’s “all that fuss” about consecrated virginity.