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How did the Fathers understand the concept of Virginity?
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DescriptionHow did the Fathers understand the concept of Virginity?
We must also consider why these texts were written and later preserved; it must be remembered that descriptions we find of female ascetics we probably not written primarily for historical accuracy. We sometimes find texts, for instance, of persuasion, or the author’s portrait of and an ideal of asceticism and celibacy, which might not necessarily have ever existed. Elm points out, however, that these negative points can be used, to a certain extent, to our advantage: whether male or female, we know that our protagonists belonged to a ‘common culture’; they ‘used the same rhetorical language and sought to fulfill the same ideas – those of the Gospel’.
The information from the fathers that we seem to have in abundance is that of praise of the virgin. Ambrose, for example exalts the celibate as ‘you, O happy virgins, who know not such torments, rather than ornaments, whose holy modesty, beaming in your bashful cheeks, and sweet chastity are a beauty’ . Similarly, Gregory of Nyssa refers to this state as ‘the holier life, the calling of Virginity….which is free from any stain of sin ’. In fact the adjectives used to describe the attributes of the virgin often include words like ‘purity’ and ‘chastity’ which shows a notable step away from the ideas of the curse of barrenness and the blessings of fertility, which throughout the New and Old Testaments are running themes. Many Fathers felt that this way of life was a higher calling than a life of marriage and it will be interesting to see where exactly these ideas originated from and what exactly was involved in becoming part of this ‘holier life’.
A way of describing this preferable state, which is employed particularly by Gregory of Nyssa, is to contrast the idea of virginity with their concept of marriage. It seems to have been a generally accepted view that marriage was essentially the result or the necessity of the results of the fall. Augustine, in his treaty ‘Of the Good of Marriage’ writes that, because of the sin of the first men, humanity will be constantly in a ‘condition of being born and dying’. The sin of the first men meant that sexual intercourse, though a sin became necessary for reproduction; had there not been original sin, Augustine insists ‘they would have had sons, from the gift of the Almighty Creator’ . Marriage is instated by God, primarily as a means of curbing the sin of mortal procreation; marriage controls passions and lust if the husband and wife make a mutual decision to allow intercourse only as a necessity for reproduction . In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul instructs ‘Better it is to marry than burn’ , and Tertullian in his writings ‘On Monogamy’ follows this vein of thought, that marriage is a means by which the sin of lust is contained.
Perhaps it is in the light of this common view that we should interpret the well quoted phrase of Gregory of Nyssa; if only humanity knew better it ‘would run from marriage into the virgin life’ . If the purpose of marriage – though Gregory admits it is instated by God – is to contain lust, then surely to surpass the calling of the ordinary is to avoid the sin itself by living a chaste life. For Gregory, then, marriage was ‘the last stage of separation from the life that was led in Paradise’, and the means of attaining a place in paradise again would be a desperate struggle towards reaching man’s original state before evidence of sin had taken hold, one that had no need of physical procreation; the life of a virgin.
If we look at canons from the Council of Elvira and the later Council of Ancyra, we are given some idea as to the public process of gaining the status of ‘Virgin’. Whilst both examples actually discuss the treatment of fallen virgins (something I will look at later), the canons begin with a statement about the individuals before their sins. The canon of the Council of Elvira describes that the virgins had made a promise, or pactum, with God , and in the same way the Council of Ancyra decreed that the title had involved a proclamation, or in Greek, epangelia . Both texts present us with, as Elm points out, ‘terms which imply a quasi-legal obligation’; becoming a virgin evidentially involved some sort of binding vow – although we do not know anything about whether this involved some kind of ceremony – which according to these canons were taken very seriously by the Early Church.
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