Orthodox America

  The Spirit of Chastity

I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.  (II Cor. 11:2)

One reads in the best religious papers and journals news of widespread promiscuity, fornication, unnatural vice, abortion and infanticide.  One cannot shop for groceries in this country without evidence of such depravity that the Holy Apostle Paul says, Let it not even be mentioned among you (Eph. 5:3).

Sins of the flesh have plagued man ever since his expulsion from Paradise.  Nevertheless, within the Judeo-Christian culture, the Ten Commandments and later the Gospel served as a restraint.  Today, however, society has lost sight of the virtues of chastity, modesty and virginity; among many they are even scorned.  Somehow the idea is abroad that everyone should be physically, sexually, gratified, and well fed and  comfortable.  To be without every physical gratification (we are told) is wretched.  Even in the face of AIDS, sexual abstinence is virtually ignored in favor of “safe sex”.  Our Lord speaks of those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 19:12), but to many in our society, celibacy as a deliberate choice implies some psychological problem.  How is it that this Gospel of the Antichrist appears to have triumphed?

As Christians we know that the most powerful weapon against the devil is the Cross.  If our witness to the world has grown weak, is it not because we fail to raise high the glorious standard of the Cross?  Our Lord preached the Cross, carried it, ascended it, and left it to us as the mystical key, or way, of glory, of the most intimate communion with Him.  In the words of St. Paul, They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts (Gal. 5:24), and, if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection (Rom. 6:5).  This death that engendereth life is well expressed in the representations of the Lifegiving Cross, bursting into bloom.

The most perfect expression of crucifying the flesh is found in those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, i.e., those who live in virginity, imitating the angels.  These are they, writes St. John the Divine, which follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth…being the firstfruits unto God and the Lamb (Rev. 14:4).  Even outside the Church, Hindus, Buddhists, Essenic Jews, Moslems – all but the most gross heathen recognize the great advantage of virginity in attaining spiritual perfection.  Many of the Holy Fathers have written in praise of virginity, particularly St. Gregory of Nyssa, whose treatise On Virginity affirms that virginity makes the soul the bride of Christ.

It is not given to everyone to be able to live in virginity; St. Paul says it is better to marry than to burn (I Cor. 7:9),  (and Christian marriage is its own form of crucifixion).  Nevertheless, speaking as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful (I Cor. 7:25), the Apostle says, I would that all men were even as I myself (I Cor. 7:7), i.e., unmarried.  Of course, among those who have undertaken to crucify carnal desire and to persevere in virginity, there have been some falls – about which the Evil One never ceases to talk and talk and talk (about sweet repentance, not a word).  But too few young people today even consider this as an option in life – and a desirable option at that.  For the rewards are great indeed.  Here we hasten to add that physical virginity is not meritorious of itself, but if a man or woman strives to achieve virginity in its fullness – in mind, body and spirit – to them will be granted a song which none but they may hear, a joy which none but they may know, which words cannot tell. 

Virginity is highly esteemed because, as Abba Dorotheos explains, it is an offering to God above and beyond the fulfillment of the Law.  With rare exceptions virginity – in this sense of sexual abstinence – applies only to those who are celibate.  However, as St. John Chrysostom points out, “An unmarried life alone does not make a virgin, but purity of heart…”

Purity of heart – at least the struggle to acquire it – is a requisite of all Christians, married and unmarried alike.  The Holy Fathers frequently render this as “chastity”.  During Great Lent the Church calls us repeatedly to pray, in the words of St. Ephraim, for “the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love”.  Although chastity can also mean physical virginity, in the language of the Church it is used more often in this sense of moral purity, without which no one will see God.

The whole subject of chastity is, in the West, one of the most neglected areas of pastoral instruction – and yet it is a very basic spiritual struggle.  As Fr.Yeghia points out, our society is steeped in sex:  some of it is couched in innuendoes but much of it is explicit and even pornographic.  It is a regular feature of movies and television programming, a common subject of bumper stickers and office jokes; it is a pillar of the fashion industry and a major component of popular music.  The innocence of youth is today stained with carnal knowledge.  We are fooling ourselves to think we are unaffected by it or that we can easily turn our backs on it.  St. Mary of Egypt for years in the desert was tormented by the recollection of lewd songs she had learned in the world.

Our struggle should begin with a conscious effort to be modest – in word, dress and behavior; to avert our eyes from what is designed to arouse carnal passion, to avoid sordid conversations and discussions of “so-and-so’s affair”, to be careful in our relations with the opposite sex, refraining from flirtatious gestures or glances.

In Scripture virginity and chastity are often used as symbols of purity and faithfulness to God.  Similarly, St. Gregory Nazianzen writes:  “It is not only bodily sin which is called fornication and adultery, but any sin you have committed, and especially transgression against that which is divine.”

In the service to St. Mary of Egypt the Church praises her exploit:  “Having gone to dwell in the wilderness, thou has blotted out from thy soul the images of sensual passion”.  We can follow her example if we understand “wilderness” as it is often used by the Holy Fathers:  as an image of the renunciation of the world.  Here, then, is a key to the acquisition of chastity – to withdraw from friendship with this world into the solitude of our hearts, not only to deaden our carnal passion and other sinful inclinations, which are signs of our infidelity, but to focus with greater concentration on the things of God and to cultivate a pure heart, that we might present ourselves as chaste virgins before the Lord.

Fr. Yeghia Vardapet (Yenovkian)
Paradise Monastery, Ellisville, Mississippi