12. Do you wish for proof of my assertions? Take examples. Sampson was braver than a lion and tougher than a rock; alone and unprotected he pursued a thousand armed men; and yet, in Delilah’s embrace, his resolution melted away. David was a man after God’s own heart, and his lips had often sung of the Holy One, the future Christ; and yet as he walked upon his housetop he was fascinated by Bathsheba’s nudity, and added murder to adultery.421 Notice here how, even in his own house, a man cannot use his eyes without danger. Then repenting, he says to the Lord: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight.”422 Being a king he feared no one else. So, too, with Solomon. Wisdom used him to sing her praise,423 and he treated of all plants “from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall;”424 and yet he went back from God because he was a lover of women.425 And, as if to show that near relationship is no safeguard, Amnon burned with illicit passion for his sister Tamar.426
13. I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the church, their mother: stars over which the proud foe sets up his throne,427 and rocks hollowed by the serpent that he may dwell in their fissures. You may see many women widows before wedded, who try to conceal their miserable fall by a lying garb. Unless they are betrayed by swelling wombs or by the crying of their infants, they walk abroad with tripping feet and heads in the air. Some go so fat as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder. Yet it is these who say: “‘Unto the pure all things are pure;’428 my conscience is sufficient guide for me. A pure heart is what God looks for. Why should I abstain from meats which God has created to be received with thanksgiving?”429 And when they wish to appear agreeable and entertaining they first drench themselves with wine, and then joining the grossest profanity to intoxication, they say “Far be it from me to abstain from the blood of Christ.” And when they see another pale or sad they call her “wretch” or “manichaean;”430 quite logically, indeed, for on their principles fasting involves heresy. When they go out they do their best to attract notice, and with nods and winks encourage troops of young fellows to follow them. Of each and all of these the prophet’s words are true: “Thou hast a whore’s forehead; thou refusest to be ashamed.”431 Their robes have but a narrow purple stripe,432 it is true; and their head-dress is somewhat loose, so as to leave the hair free. From their shoulders flutters the lilac mantle which they call “maforte;” they have their feet in cheap slippers and their arms tucked up tight-fitting sleeves. Add to these marks of their profession an easy gait, and you have all the virginity that they possess. Such may have eulogizers of their own, and may fetch a higher price in the market of perdition, merely because they are called virgins. But to such virgins as these I prefer to be displeasing.
14. I blush to speak of it, it is so shocking; yet though sad, it is true. How comes this plague of the agapetae433 to be in the church? Whence come these unwedded wives, these novel concubines, these harlots, so I will call them, though they cling to a single partner? One house holds them and one chamber. They often occupy the same bed, and yet they call us suspicious if we fancy anything amiss. A brother leaves his virgin sister; a virgin, slighting her unmarried brother, seeks a brother in a stranger. Both alike profess to have but one object, to find spiritual consolation from those not of their kin; but their real aim is to indulge in sexual intercourse. It is on such that Solomon in the book of proverbs heaps his scorn. “Can a man take fire in his bosom,” he says, “and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals and his feet not be burned?”434
15. We cast out, then, and banish from our sight those who only wish to seem and not to be virgins. Henceforward I may bring all my speech to bear upon you who, as it is your lot to be the first virgin of noble birth in Rome, have to labor the more diligently not to lose good things to come, as well as those that are present. You have at least learned from a case in your own family the troubles of wedded life and the uncertainties of marriage. Your sister, Blaesilla, before you in age but behind you in declining the vow of virginity, has become a widow but seven months after she has taken a husband. Hapless plight of us mortals who know not what is before us! She has lost, at once, the crown of virginity and the pleasures of wedlock. And, although, as a widow, the second degree of chastity is hers, still can you not imagine the continual crosses which she has to bear, daily seeing in her sister what she has lost herself; and, while she finds it hard to go without the pleasures of wedlock, having a less reward for her present continence? Still she, too, may take heart and rejoice. The fruit which is an hundredfold and that which is sixtyfold both spring from one seed, and that seed is chastity.435
16. Do not court the company of married ladies or visit the houses of the high-born. Do not look too often on the life which you despised to become a virgin. Women of the world, you know, plume themselves because their husbands are on the bench or in other high positions. And the wife of the emperor always has an eager throng of visitors at her door. Why do you, then, wrong your husband? Why do you, God’s bride, hasten to visit the wife of a mere man? Learn in this respect a holy pride; know that you are better than they. And not only must you avoid intercourse with those who are puffed up by their husbands’ honors, who are hedged in with troops of eunuchs, and who wear robes inwrought with threads of gold. You must also shun those who are widows from necessity and not from choice. Not that they ought to have desired the death of their husbands; but that they have not welcomed the opportunity of continence when it has come. As it is, they only change their garb; their old self-seeking remains unchanged. To see them in their capacious litters, with red cloaks and plump bodies, a row of eunuchs walking in front of them, you would fancy them not to have lost husbands but to be seeking them. Their houses are filled with flatterers and with guests. The very clergy, who ought to inspire them with respect by their teaching and authority, kiss these ladies on the forehead, and putting forth their hands (so that, if you knew no better, you might suppose them in the act of blessing), take wages for their visits. They, meanwhile, seeing that priests cannot do without them, are lifted up into pride; and as, having had experience of both, they prefer the license of widowhood to the restraints of marriage, they call themselves chaste livers and nuns. After an immoderate supper they retire to rest to dream of the apostles.436
17. Let your companions be women pale and thin with fasting, and approved by their years and conduct; such as daily sing in their hearts: “Tell me where thou feedest thy flock, where thou makest it to rest at noon,”437 and say, with true earnestness, “I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ.”438 Be subject to your parents, imitating the example of your spouse.439 Rarely go abroad, and if you wish to seek, the aid of the martyrs seek it in your own chamber. For you will never need a pretext for going out if you always go out when there is need. Take food in moderation, and never overload your stomach. For many women, while temperate as regards wine, are intemperate in the use of food. When you rise at night to pray, let your breath be that of an empty and not that of an overfull stomach. Read often, learn all that you can. Let sleep overcome you, the roll still in your hands; when your head falls, let it be on the sacred page. Let your fasts be of daily occurrence and your refreshment such as avoids satiety. It is idle to carry an empty stomach if, in two or three days’ time, the fast is to be made up for by repletion. When cloyed the mind immediately grows sluggish, and when the ground is watered it puts forth the thorns of lust. If ever you feel the outward man sighing for the flower of youth, and if, as you lie on your couch after a meal, you are excited by the alluring train of sensual desires; then seize the shield of faith, for it alone can quench the fiery darts of the devil.440 “They are all adulterers,” says the prophet; “they have made ready their heart like an oven.”441 But do you keep close to the footsteps of Christ, and, intent upon His words, say: “Did not our heart burn within us by the way while Jesus opened to us the Scriptures?”442 and again: “Thy word is tried to the uttermost, and thy servant loveth it.”443 It is hard for the human soul to avoid loving something, and our mind must of necessity give way to affection of one kind or another. The love of the flesh is overcome by the love of the spirit. Desire is quenched by desire. What is taken from the one increases the other. Therefore, as you lie on your couch, say again and again: “By night have I sought Him whom my soul loveth.”444 “Mortify, therefore,” says the apostle, “your members which are upon the earth.”445 Because he himself did so, he could afterwards say with confidence: “I live, yet not I, but Christ, liveth in me.”446 He who mortifies his members, and feels that he is walking in a vain show,447 is not afraid to say: “I am become like a bottle in the frost.448 Whatever there was in me of the moisture of lust has been dried out of me.” And again: “My knees are weak through fasting; I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin.”449
18. Be like the grasshopper and make night musical. Nightly wash your bed and water your couch with your tears.450 Watch and be like the sparrow alone upon the housetop.451 Sing with the spirit, but sing with the understanding also.452 And let your song be that of the psalmist: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and forget not all his benefits; who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases; who redeemeth thy life from destruction.”453 Can we, any of us, honestly make his words our own: “I have eaten ashes like bread and mingled my drink with weeping?”454 Yet, should we not weep and groan when the serpent invites us, as he invited our first parents, to eat forbidden fruit, and when after expelling us from the paradise of virginity he desires to clothe us with mantles of skins such as that which Elijah, on his return to paradise, left behind him on earth?455 Say to yourself: “What have I to do with the pleasures of sense that so soon come to an end? What have I to do with the song of the sirens so sweet and so fatal to those who hear it?” I would not have you subject to that sentence whereby condemnation has been passed upon mankind. When God says to Eve, “In pain and in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children,” say to yourself, “That is a law for a married woman, not for me.” And when He continues, “Thy desire shall be to thy husband,”456 say again: “Let her desire be to her husband who has not Christ for her spouse.” And when, last of all, He says, “Thou shalt surely die,”457 once more, say, “Marriage indeed must end in death; but the life on which I have resolved is independent of sex. Let those who are wives keep the place and the time that properly belong to them. For me, virginity is consecrated in the persons of Mary and of Christ.”
19. Some one may say, “Do you dare detract from wedlock, which is a state blessed by God?” I do not detract from wedlock when I set virginity before it. No one compares a bad thing with a good. Wedded women may congratulate themselves that they come next to virgins. “Be fruitful,” God says, “and multiply, and replenish the earth.”458 He who desires to replenish the earth may increase and multiply if he will. But the train to which you belong is not on earth, but in heaven. The command to increase and multiply first finds fulfilment after the expulsion from paradise, after the nakedness and the fig-leaves which speak of sexual passion. Let them marry and be given in marriage who eat their bread in the sweat of their brow; whose land brings forth to them thorns and thistles,459 and whose crops are choked with briars. My seed produces fruit a hundredfold.460 “All men cannot receive God’s saying, but they to whom it is given.”
Some people may be eunuchs from necessity; I am one of free will.461 “There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. There is a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.”462 Now that out of the hard stones of the Gentiles God has raised up children unto Abraham,463 they begin to be “holy stones rolling upon the earth.”464 They pass through the whirlwinds of the world, and roll on in God’s chariot on rapid wheels. Let those stitch coats to themselves who have lost the coat woven from the top throughout;465 who delight in the cries of infants which, as soon as they see the light, lament that they are born. In paradise Eve was a virgin, and it was only after the coats of skins that she began her married life. Now paradise is your home too. Keep therefore your birthright and say: “Return unto thy rest, O my soul.”466 To show that virginity is natural while wedlock only follows guilt, what is born of wedlock is virgin flesh, and it gives back in fruit what in root it has lost. “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a flower shall grow out of his roots.”467 The rod468 is the mother of the Lord—simple, pure, unsullied; drawing no germ of life from without but fruitful in singleness like God Himself. The flower of the rod is Christ, who says of Himself: “I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys.”469 In another place He is foretold to be “a stone cut out of the mountain without hands,”470 a figure by which the prophet signifies that He is to be born a virgin of a virgin. For the hands are here a figure of wedlock as in the passage: “His left hand is under my head and his right hand doth embrace me.”471 It agrees, also, with this interpretation that the unclean animals are led into Noah’s ark in pairs, while of the clean an uneven number is taken.472 Similarly, when Moses and Joshua were bidden to remove their shoes because the ground on which they stood was holy,473 the command had a mystical meaning. So, too, when the disciples were appointed to preach the gospel they were told to take with them neither shoe nor shoe-latchet;474 and when the soldiers came to cast lots for the garments of Jesus475 they found no boots that they could take away. For the Lord could not Himself possess what He had forbidden to His servants.
20. I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins. I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell. “Doth the plowman plow all day to sow?”476 Shall he not also enjoy the fruit of his labor? Wedlock is the more honored, the more what is born of it is loved. Why, mother, do you grudge your daughter her virginity? She has been reared on your milk, she has come from your womb, she has grown up in your bosom. Your watchful affection has kept her a virgin. Are you angry with her because she chooses to be a king’s wife and not a soldier’s? She has conferred on you a high privilege; you are now the mother-in-law of God. “Concerning virgins,” says the apostle, “I have no commandment of the Lord.”477 Why was this? Because his own virginity was due, not to a command, but to his free choice. For they are not to be heard who feign him to have had a wife; for, when he is discussing continence and commending perpetual chastity, he uses the words, “I would that all men were even as I myself.” And farther on, “I say, therefore, to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I.”478 And in another place, “have we not power to lead about wives even as the rest of the apostles?”479 Why then has he no commandment from the Lord concerning virginity? Because what is freely offered is worth more than what is extorted by force, and to command virginity would have been to abrogate wedlock. It would have been a hard enactment to compel opposition to nature and to extort from men the angelic life; and not only so, it would have been to condemn what is a divine ordinance.
21. The old law had a different ideal of blessedness, for therein it is said: “Blessed is he who hath seed in Zion and a family in Jerusalem:”480 and “Cursed is the barren who beareth not:”481 and “Thy children shall be like olive-plants round about thy table.”482 Riches too are promised to the faithful and we are told that “there was not one feeble person among their tribes.”483 But now even to eunuchs it is said, “Say not, behold I am a dry tree,”484 for instead of sons and daughters you have a place forever in heaven. Now the poor are blessed, now Lazarus is set before Dives in his purple.485 Now he who is weak is counted strong. But in those days the world was still unpeopled: accordingly, to pass over instances of childlessness meant only to serve as types, those only were considered happy who could boast of children. It was for this reason that Abraham in his old age married Keturah;486 that Leah hired Jacob with her son’s mandrakes,487 and that fair Rachel—a type of the church—complained of the closing of her womb.488 But gradually the crop grew up and then the reaper was sent forth with his sickle. Elijah lived a virgin life, so also did Elisha and many of the sons of the prophets. To Jeremiah the command came: “Thou shall not take thee a wife.”489 He had been sanctified in his mother’s womb,490 and now he was forbidden to take a wife because the captivity was near. The apostle gives the same counsel in different words. “I think, therefore, that this is good by reason of the present distress, namely that it is good for a man to be as he is.”491 What is this distress which does away with the joys of wedlock? The apostle tells us, in a later verse: “The time is short: it remaineth that those who have wives be as though they had none.”492 Nebuchadnezzar is hard at hand. The lion is bestirring himself from his lair. What good will marriage be to me if it is to end in slavery to the haughtiest of kings? What good will little ones be to me if their lot is to be that which the prophet sadly describes: “The tongue of the sucking child cleaveth to the roof of his mouth for thirst; the young children ask for bread and no man breaketh it unto them”?493 In those days, as I have said, the virtue of continence was found only in men: Eve still continued to travail with children. But now that a virgin has conceived494 in the womb and has borne to us a child of which the prophet says that “Government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called the mighty God, the everlasting Father,”495 now the chain of the curse is broken. Death came through Eve, but life has come through Mary. And thus the gift of virginity has been bestowed most richly upon women, seeing that it has had its beginning from a woman. As soon as the Son of God set foot upon the earth, He formed for Himself a new household there; that, as He was adored by angels in heaven, angels might serve Him also on earth. Then chaste Judith once more cut off the head of Holofernes.496 Then Haman—whose name means iniquity—was once more burned in fire of his own kindling.497 Then James and John forsook father and net and ship and followed the Saviour: neither kinship nor the world’s ties, nor the care of their home could hold them back. Then were the words heard: “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”498 For no soldier goes with a wife to battle. Even when a disciple would have buried his father, the Lord forbade him, and said: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head.”499 So you must not complain if you have but scanty house-room. In the same strain, the apostle writes: “He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: but he that is married careth for the things that are of the world how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married careth for the things of the world how she may please her husband.”500
22. How great inconveniences are involved in wedlock and how many anxieties encompass it I have, I think, described shortly in my treatise—published against Helvidius501 —on the perpetual virginity of the blessed Mary. It would be tedious to go over the same ground now; and any one who pleases may draw from that fountain. But lest I should seem wholly to have passed over the matter, I will just say now that the apostle bids us pray without ceasing,502 and that he who in the married state renders his wife her due503 cannot so pray. Either we pray always and are virgins, or we cease to pray that we may fulfil the claims of marriage. Still he says: “If a virgin marry she hath not sinned. Nevertheless such shall have trouble in the flesh.”504 At the outset I promised that I should say little or nothing of the embarrassments of wedlock, and now I give you notice to the same effect. If you want to know from how many vexations a virgin is free and by how many a wife is fettered you should read Tertullian “to a philosophic friend,”505 and his other treatises on virginity, the blessed Cyprian’s noble volume, the writings of Pope Damasus506 in prose and verse, and the treatises recently written for his sister by our own Ambrose.507 In these he has poured forth his soul with such a flood of eloquence that he has sought out, set forth, and put in order all that bears on the praise of virgins.
23. We must proceed by a different path, for our purpose is not the praise of virginity but its preservation. To know that it is a good thing is not enough: when we have chosen it we must guard it with jealous care. The first only requires judgment, and we share it with many; the second calls for toil, and few compete with us in it. “He that shall endure unto the end,” the Lord says, “the same shall be saved,”508 and “many are called but few are chosen.”509 Therefore I conjure you before God and Jesus Christ and His elect angels to guard that which you have received, not readily exposing to the public gaze the vessels of the Lord’s temple (which only the priests are by right allowed to see), that no profane person may look upon God’s sanctuary. Uzzah, when he touched the ark which it was not lawful to touch, was struck down suddenly by death.510 And assuredly no gold or silver vessel was ever so dear to God as is the temple of a virgin’s body. The shadow went before, but now the reality is come. You indeed may speak in all simplicity, and from motives of amiability may treat with courtesy the veriest strangers, but unchaste eyes see nothing aright. They fail to appreciate the beauty of the soul, and only value that of the body. Hezekiah showed God’s treasure to the Assyrians,511 who ought never to have seen what they were sure to covet. The consequence was that Judaea was torn by continual wars, and that the very first things carried away to Babylon were these vessels of the Lord. We find Belshazzar at his feast and among his concubines (vice always glories in defiling what is noble) drinking out of these sacred cups.512