Friday, October 19, 2012

Holy Virginity

Virgin Mary Annunciate by Fra Angelico
from WikiPaintings 
Sex is good. Or so I've been told, loudly and often, by churches eager to set themselves apart from a past perceived as anti-sex. We are not those old Greek Fathers who hated sex. We now see that the Jews perceived sex as unambiguously good, and so, therefore, should we. Nevermind, of course, that the culture which surrounded the Greek Fathers also saw sex as good, and engaged in it, apparently, in ways wild enough to make the sexual revolution look like a Victorian luncheon. Nevermind that when Socrates, in Phaedrus, contrasted love and sex, he was doing so in a society in which pederasty was the norm. Nevermind that Christianity, in making virginity a virtue for all people actually created great liberty for women.

And certainly let's not ask how we got from the (admittedly extreme) place of St. Gregory of Nyssa insisting that the Song of Songs could only be allegory and not about sex at all, to a place where Mark Driscoll can claim it's not at all allegory, but just a sex manual.

No, nevermind all that, the Greek Fathers were prudes, and we most certainly are not.

Of course, we are quickly reminded, this is sex in its proper context, which is marriage. Till we can have this proper sex, we should wait. Virginity, then is virtuous.

Yet what if the Greek Fathers had a point? Yes, sexuality is a good thing, when it is, and we should never cease to give glory to God for His gift to us of it. Yet in a world in which sin is a reality, it is hardly unambiguously good. Its not just promiscuous sex that's the problem either, married relations have their fair share of problems.

I vehemently affirm the proposition that sex is good, and that we should not forget this fact. Yet, it's a fact that would be hard for us to forget in the world we live in. Our culture frequently tells us that sex is good. We tell ourselves sex is good. And let's not forget the huge problems that single men and women in the pastorate have in finding jobs, or the marginal place which single people are assigned in our churches. Nor is it unproblematic that, in my experience, the Christian desire for companionship looks almost identical to that of the contemporary non-Christian world, and radically different from that of the past. The pendulum has swung too far.

Let us continue to affirm the goodness of sex, but let us recover virginity. Let us affirm the positive goodness of virginity as a virtue, and not just its negative goodness. In other words, let us not just see virginity as avoiding a sin of commission, but as a positive commission of virtue. Let us also not fall into the trap of thinking that spiritual virginity is asexual. To engage virginity as a Christian virtue is very much to engage ones sexuality. One cannot be a virgin without being a sexual being.

We should also not let the religious virgins and sacramental marriages be two different worlds. Both expressions of Christian virtue ought to speak into and inform each other.

Many of the great Saints of the Church, from St. Paul to St. Thomas Aquinas, and above all, of course, the Virgin Mary, have been such virgins.

 I will close by saying that it is not impossible to transverse from one world into another. For those, like me, who are single, but do not feel a call to lifetime celibacy, there is still a place for positively engaging our virginity as a special gift by which can be identified with the great Saints of the Church, and be shaped more into the image and likeness of Christ. We can, and ought to, engage our virginity as a prayer unto God, and not merely as a waiting room for the glorious future of marital bliss. Let us be present to where we are, that, in the sacrament of the present moment, we, with all the Saints, might be transformed by God's love so that our lives might be a good for the sake of others.