04 May 2013

On Consecrated Virginity and the Nature of this Espousal

[[ Dear Sister, in writing about the vocation to consecrated virginity one CV argued the following in order to establish the importance of physical virginity. [[Only a virgin can treasure her first experience with her spouse. A non-virgin or a reformed sinner who has regained spiritual virginity – although never second-class in God’s eyes , will never be able to receive that same gift . This could be the reason why Physical virginity is essential for the vocation of Consecrated virgins.]] You wrote that in the early church consecrated virginity was not only associated with physical intactness. Does [the above] argument make sense in light of that? ]]

Well, I do have problems with the quote you provided but it does not have to do with the felt need for physical virginity being required to become a CV per se --- at least not primarily. It has to do with the assertion that only a virgin can "treasure" her first experience with her spouse." In fact this is untrue when we are speaking of Christ as spouse. What is true is that a virgin who is physically virgin can only give herself to another human being (and receive their mutual gift of self) in this particular way (sexually) "for the first time" once. But in this case we are speaking of the risen Christ; a person gives him or herself entirely to Christ, body and soul, heart, mind and spirit, as part of any consecration by God. 

More, one wonders what can be meant by suggesting only a (physical) virgin can treasure her first experience with her spouse when that spouse is the Risen and ascended Christ? What "experience" is being referred to here? Is it the fresh wave of gratitude one feels for being called to serve in this way? After all there is NO competition for one's heart involved, no diminution in giving of self even if the person was married before. (Or are we truly supposed to think that Christ gives himself more fully or more intimately to a woman who is physically virgin than to one who has been married, for instance?) Neither is there a similar physical (or sexual) experience in such giving of self or receiving the Risen/Ascended Christ as spouse "for the first time" despite the erotic imagery some mystical experiences utilize. Despite the common language of betrothal or espousal there are serious qualitative differences between the gift of virginity (or the "experience" of Christ as spouse) in this situation and what occurs in a literal and temporal human marriage. But THIS espousal is an eschatological one; it occurs on a different level than human marriages. We must keep that qualitative distinction very much in mind or theologically we will be spouting romantic or sentimental nonsense which, beautiful as it initially sounds, can only serve to distort and disedify.

Consecration Always Involves the WHOLE Self:

Your related point therefore is a good and important one. The early Church did NOT always require physical intactness in those she considered consecrated virgins (or "virgin martyrs") and she never spoke of these persons as though their experience of Christ was different or somehow less significant or less total than those whose virginity was also physical. I do personally believe that requiring physical virginity today is an important part of the counter-cultural witness of this vocation, especially in a society like our own which often seems sex-saturated and capable only of trivializing sexual love.

Still, this qualitative difference (eschatological betrothal v temporal marriage) is being obscured at points in what you have quoted. For instance, as you noted at another point in your email, the person you cited also wrote: [[The virgin’s body is constituted as sacred /set apart exclusively for Jesus Christ in His divinity and humanity as affirmed by the Fathers of the Church. It is a marriage covenant between Christ and the virgin and is essentially indissoluble and ordered to the spiritual growth of the Church in Christ’s salvific paschal mystery.]] To my mind this reference to the body being constituted as sacred and "set apart entirely for Jesus. . in his humanity," is really problematical not least because again, in any consecration (including the consecration of religious men, women and hermits) it is the WHOLE person who is set aside by God as sacred; there is no dividing body from soul. One could never say, for instance, that a CV's body is sacred while that of a religious (or anyone else for that matter) is not sacred or is less so. Further, one must never engage in the kind of dualism implied here by suggesting something other than the whole person is consecrated in ANY ecclesial profession and/or consecration. A related second problem then, namely, the narrowing of the transcendent and eschatological witness and meaning of espousal which occurs in such dualism, will be discussed below. First, however, we need to make a necessary detour to prepare the way.

Excursus: The Meaning of Being a "Sacred Person"

When we speak of a person becoming a sacred person we are speaking of their lives being made uniquely symbolic or sacramental of the grace (the sacred presence and power) of God. We are also speaking of their obligation to be such a sacramental sign or symbol in an exhaustive way. We are speaking of them being given to the purposes and Gospel of God in a similar way and serving as a paradigm of some dimension of the church and her relation to Christ for others and for the vocation to holiness to which all are called. In other words we are speaking of persons who have been commissioned to SERVE others in unique and visible ways. We are NOT speaking about someone being automatically made subjectively more holy than the next person or who should be treated as though their bodies are objectively more holy than the next person's. While growth in personal holiness (one certainly hopes) should and probably will come in time, and while the reception of God's consecration (God's setting apart in this way) always graces the recipient, being made objectively more holy than the next person is not what consecration or becoming a "sacred person" actually means.

Your question about the comments on the literal bodily/sexual virginity making sense in light of the early Church's varied use of the term "virginity" --- sometimes for a person who has given themselves entirely to Christ even if they have been married and borne children is also a very good one. The early practice of the Church was not univocal and it can help us to avoid the kinds of dualism found in the quotes included here, especially that between body and spirit or soul. It certainly precludes an understanding of a consecrated virgin's experience of Christ's self gift (or his acceptance of her own self gift) as differing qualitatively from another woman's if the CV, unlike this other woman, has never been married or is merely physically intact. Likewise the usage demands we be cautious about certain kinds of literalism  What I mean here is that this practice  of considering women like St Perpetua a "virgin martyr" and image of the consecrated virgin because she gave her entire self to Christ in martyrdom makes it clear that we are dealing with espousal on a whole different level than that of literal human marriage. Our language of espousal is being stretched here to speak to a transcendent and eschatological reality just as is the case in calling the Church the "bride of Christ."

Import of the Narrowing of the Original Meaning of Consecrated Virginity:

Today the Church requires the physical virginity of women being admitted to the consecration of virgins  (except in cases of rape) and this makes sense, especially, as I already noted, in our sex-soaked-and-trivialized culture. The ability to make a life commitment, to love another exhaustively in God, along with the corresponding capacity to wait until one is ready to do this, is critically important to our world. So is responding to the call to give the whole of oneself (not just one's soul or one's body), to stand symbolically or sacramentally for a transcendent and eschatological reality which demands the whole of oneself while also promising complete fulfillment. The associated capacity and commission to remind all persons of their own vocations to a similar and exhaustive holiness is itself hugely important. But this contemporary requirement also represents a narrowing of the early Church's own usage and it has drawbacks and dangers for this reason.

For instance, it currently limits the consecration to women despite the fact that men were similarly consecrated in the early church (they were far fewer and were sometimes called ascetics but they existed nonetheless); it tends therefore to reinforce certain relationships in the church as feminine and certain roles as masculine despite Paul's theology in Galatians 3:26 and the praxis of the early church where both males and females were espoused to Christ and symbolize the whole church as bride. (The idea that a woman images the Church as Bride better than a man does is a serious theological misstep; when carried to its logical conclusion it unravels Paul's theological insight as well an ecclesiology which recognizes and celebrates the fact that the capacity of human beings to be Church is based on our baptism, not on gender.) In the present context it especially draws or tempts some to have their attention drawn away from the transcendent and eschatological nature of the espousal.

When this happens a body/soul dualism, an accent on physicality and gender, along with simplistic or this-worldly notions of marriage (for instance, speaking in ways which focus on a wedding to a temporally delimited Jesus as opposed to an eschatological espousal to a risen AND ascended  or "cosmic" Christ) can supplant the notion of CV as paradigm of the universal call of the whole Church and a Kingdom in which no one will be given or taken in marriage. This, again, is a serious theological misstep and is the second problem I have with the focus of the comments you quoted on "marriage to Jesus in his humanity" and the virgin's "body being made sacred." Meanwhile, the Church has spoken seriously of reprising the vocation for men in some way and this could go a long way in undoing any untoward narrowing or attenuation of the eschatological nature of the vocation.