Virginity vs Marriage in the Fathers

Today I read Gregory of Nazianzus’ poem 1.2.1, ‘In Praise of Virginity,’ and it brought home to me one of the great difficulties facing us as we read the Fathers,* and this is the fact that a vast number of them were celibate, all but two of them male. All four ‘Doctors’ of the East and all four of the West were celibate.

They have a very strong preference towards celibacy and virginity as being the better path, spelled out very clearly in GregNaz’s poem.

As a married person, I inevitably react against this sort of thing. Why is virginity better than marriage? For GregNaz it seems that the main goal of marriage is child-begetting.

Clearly child-begetting is not a virtue. All it requires is sperm and an egg in one hot night of passion.

I don’t think anyone has ever imagined that simply producing offspring is what makes marriage a great thing, though.

A better perspective is that the raising of children is a great good. Sure, if virgins live together in monastic coenobia, they will learn the virtues of service and love of neighbour and so forth. But those who spend time with very young children learn a very great amount about sacrifice and service. And about the outpouring of love for a fellow human being. And, while you might hope for thanks from your fellow monk, children are frequently being trained to say thank you, sometimes accompanied with a little bow. Infants cannot say thank you, and I don’t think they always even care.

Of course, sometimes they do. This is certain. As I posted elsewhere, the contemplative as well as active virtues and life can be pursued whilst taking care of the very young.

Furthermore, I think marriage can be a great good for those of us who do not have children. Marriage is a school for souls — this is an observation that Charles Williams makes in The Descent of the Dove, where he laments that a high view of marriage was lost early on in the Church and we have never properly recovered a view that sees marriage in spiritual terms.

Outside of celibacy and complete, utter silence, married people can engage in pretty much all of the ascetic labours. We can submit to others as greater than ourselves, pray continuously, serve in meekness and humility, pray the divine hours, fast, regulate our diet when not fasting, engage in holy conversation, and so forth.

Furthermore, if we look at GregNaz’s family background, we should realise that his father (also Gregory) was raised a pagan but converted to Christianity by his wife, Nonna. The marriage of Gregory the Elder and Nonna did not simply produce Gregory and his two siblings, but the spiritual fruit of Gregory the Elder’s salvation and his leadership of the church at Nazianzus. Furthermore, their three children were raised Christianly and virtuously, all of them committing their lives to Christ.

Gregory says that one has no clue whether one’s children will be Judases or Peters. Nonetheless, one can, by God’s grace alone, work towards raising Peters, as Nonna and Gregory the Elder did.

I doubt these concerns would hold much water with a committed celibate like Gregory. However, I think we can spiritualise and Christianise our view of marriage in response to the ascetic downplaying of marriage. Marriage is a good, as many American Evangelicals will tell you. But how is it to be a good? Perhaps we need the monks to help us form a specifically Christian view of marriage, sharpening our positive understanding against their negative one. Perhaps.

*As well as Mediaeval and Byzantine writers.

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