"TO HIS COY MISTRESS"
John Chrysostom, “On Virginity”
   
Bishop John Chrysostom’s fourth-century treatise “On Virginity,” translated here from its original Greek, is a promotion of celibacy as a superior way of life to marriage. To be a virgin on earth, he argues, is tantamount to the status of an angel in heaven. Chrysostom’s commentary is based on Paul’s writings in I Corinthians 7, but unlike Paul, he claims that marriage is a sin associated with the fall of humankind in Eden. While marriage is evidence of human weakness, virginity is evidence of bravery and fortitude: Because the virgin is able to control her sexual desire, she will be able to reap rewards in the afterlife.

John Chrysostom, “On Virginity; Against Remarriage,” trans. Sally Rieger Shore; Introduction by Elizabeth A. Clark (New York: E. Mellon Press, 1983).

XI
Virginity Makes Angels Out of Men Who Sincerely Pursue It
1. But mankind, inferior in its nature to be blessed spirits, strains beyond its capacity and, in so far as it can, vies eagerly to equal the angels. How does it do that? Angels neither marry nor are given in marriage; this is true of the virgin. The angels have stood continuously by God and serve him; so does the virgin. Accordingly, Paul has removed all cares from virgins “to promote what is good, what will help you to devote yourselves entirely (to God).” If they are unable for a time to ascend to heaven as the angels can because their flesh holds them back, even in this world they have much consolation since they receive the Master of the heavens, if they are holy in body and spirit.
2. Do you grasp the value of virginity? That it makes those who spend time on earth live like the angels dwelling in heaven? It does not allow those endowed with bodies to be inferior to the incorporeal powers and spurs all men to rival the angels. But this applies in no way to you, who dishonor so great a virtue, who slander the Lord and call him wicked. The punishment of painful slavery will await you; but the virgins of the Church will meet with many magnificent blessings that will surpass the comprehension of the human eye, ear and thought. Therefore, dismissing the heretics—for enough has been said about them—let us now speak to the children of the Church. . . .

XXXIII
To Repeat, to Practice Virginity Is to Imitate Christ
1. Thus Paul continually returns to this point in order to lead the Corinthians to this reasoning: “Every man should have his own wife; the husband should fulfill his conjugal obligations toward his wife; a wife does not belong to herself; do not deprive one another; return to one another.” For the blessed apostles did not grasp at once Christ’s meaning from his first words on the subject, but when they heard it repeated, then they were aware of the imperative nature of his remarks. When Christ was sitting on the mountain, he discussed continence and returned to it again after treating many other subjects. In this way he led them to the love of it. Thus do statements that are constantly repeated have greater force. Here, then, the apostle Paul, imitating the Master, discusses his topic continuously. Nowhere does he simply set forth his consent for marriage, but rather he always adds the reason: “Because of fornication, the temptations of Satan and incontinence.” And so, he subtly praises virginity when he speaks about marriage.

XXXIV
Virginity Is Admirable and Worthy of Many Crowns
1. If Paul has feared separating for a long period those who live in the state of marriage out of his concern that the devil may discover a way to their souls, how many crowns would those women deserve who needed no such encouragement to begin with and who preserve to the end unconquered? Yet the cunning work of the devil is not applied in the same way to each case. I think he does not harass the former group because he knows that they have a place of refuge close by. If they experience too violent an attack, it is possible to flee directly to that haven. Saint Paul does not allow them to sail out too far but advises them to turn round whenever they tire and to renew the communal life. The virgin, on the other hand, is of necessity entirely at sea and sails a harborless ocean. If a very severe storm arises, it is not her right to anchor ship and rest.
2. Therefore it is like pirates on the sea; they do not attack ships where there is a city, seaport or harbor, for this involves a useless risk. But if they intercept a ship on the high sea, since they have solitude for their work with no chance of someone coming to the rescue, this situation feeds their recklessness. They ransack and overturn everything, and do not stop until they have drown the crew or suffered this fate themselves. This is how that dread pirate assaults the virgin: with a great storm accompanied by a distressful surging of the sea and towering waves. Tossing her this way and that he so confounds everything that he overturns her ship with brute force. He has heard that the virgin has no recourse to the married state of intimacy but must wrestle entirely by herself and battle against the spirits of evil until she puts into a truly calm harbor.
3. Paul shuts the virgin outside the walls like a brave soldier and he does not permit opening the gates to her, even if the enemy rages against her, even if the enemy becomes more violent precisely because his adversary has no means of ending the action. The devil is not alone in harassing the unmarried. The sting of desire does this, too, with greater urgency. This is clear to all, for we are not quickly overcome by the desire for things that we enjoy, since the license to enjoy them allows the souls to be indifferent to them. A proverb, popular and quite true, attests to this: What is within our grasp does not excite strong desire. However, once forbidden what we were formerly masters of, the opposite results, and what was scorned by us when we had authority over it arouses in us a more violent desire whenever we lose this power.
4. This is the first reason why there is more serenity among married people. The second is that even if at times the flame of passion struggles in them to reach a climax, sexual intercourse follows and swiftly represses it. But the virgin on the other hand has no remedy to extinguish the fire. She sees it rising to a crescendo and coming to a peak, but she lacks the power to put it out. Her only chance is to fight the fire so that she is not burnt. Is there, then, anything more extraordinary than carrying within one all of this fire and not being burnt? To collect in the inner chambers of the soul this fire but to keep one's thoughts untouched by it? No one concedes to the virgin the right of emptying these coals of passion outside herself, yet what the author of Proverbs says is impossible for our bodies, she is compelled to endure in her soul. What does she say? “Will someone walk upon burning coal and not burn his feet?” But behold, she walks upon it and bears the torture! “Will someone wrap fire in the fold of his garments without his clothes burning?” The virgin has the provocative fire roaring not within her clothes, but within herself, yet she sustains and endures the flame.
5. Tell me, will someone still dare to compare marriage with virginity? Or look marriage in the face at all? Saint Paul does not permit it. He puts much distance between each of these states. “The virgin is concerned with things of the Lord,” he says, but “the married woman has the cares of this world to absorb her.” Moreover, after gathering married people together and having done this favor for them, hear how he reproaches them again for he says: “Return to one another, that Satan may not tempt you.” And since he wishes to indicate that not all sins stem from the devil’s temptations but from our own idleness, he has added the more valid reason: because of “your lack of self-control.”
6. Who would not blush hearing this? Who would not earnestly try to escape blame for incontinence? For this exhortation is not for everyone but for those extremely prone to vice. If you are enslaved by pleasures, he says, if you are so weak as to have always given way to coitus and to gape in eager expectation at it, he joined to a woman. The consent therefore comes not from one approving or praising this action but from one scoffing at it with derision. If it had not been his desire to assail the souls of pleasure-seekers, he would not have set down this term, “incontinence,” which quite emphatically conveys the idea of censure. Why did he not say “because of your weakness”? Because that phrase is one of indulgence but to say incontinence denotes excessive moral laxity. Thus, the inability to refrain from fornication unless you always have a wife and enjoy sexual relations is an indication of incontinence.
7. What would those people who consider virginity superfluous say at this point? For the more virginity is practiced the more praise it receives, whereas marriage is deprived of all praise especially when someone has used it immoderately. “I say this,” Paul declares, “by way of concession, not as a command.” But where there is a concession there is no place for praise. He also said, however, in his discussion of virgins: “I have not received any commandment from the Lord, but I give my opinion.” Has he not undercut his own position? Not at all. In the case of virginity he has given his opinion but in the case of marriage he makes a concession. He orders neither the one nor the other but not for the same reason: in the one case, so that anyone who desires to rise above incontinence not be restrained, as he would be if bound by injunction; but in the other case, so that someone incapable of ascending to virginity not be condemned for having disobeyed a commandment. I do not order you to live as virgins, he says; for I fear the difficulty of the task. I do not order you to continually have relations with your wife; for I do not wish to be the legislator of incontinence. I have said “return to one another” with the intention of keeping you from sinking lower, not to check your willingness to advance higher.
8. You see, it is not his intention to lead you to continually resorting to your wife, but the incontinence of those weaker morally requires this rule. If you wish to learn the will of Paul, hear what it is: “I should like you to be as I am,” that is, continent.—So, if you want all men to be continent, you want no one to marry.—No, not at all. I do not prevent those who want to marry, nor do I reproach them, but I pray and long for all men to be as I myself am. However, I give my consent to marriage because of fornication. Therefore, I said at the beginning: “A man is better off having no relations with a woman.” . . .
 
 
Contributing author: Michelle Ephraim, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Responding to John Chrysostom, “On Virginity”

Answer the following questions in your notebook—this will be collated so that you can print or e-mail your work when you are finished.
 
 

1). Why might Chrysostom select metaphors such as a ship and a soldier to describe a virgin in this excerpt?

 
 

2). Why does he condemn the “serenity” that he associates with marriage?
 
 

3). Based on Chrysostom’s privileging of virginity and celibacy over marriage, what values would you say he ascribes to the ideal Christian?


 

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