States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church/Part 1/Section 1/Article 2/Paragraph I. Celibacy/Chapter 6
CHAPTER VI. IS IT LAWFUL TO EXHORT OTHERS TO THE PRACTICE OF PERFECT CHASTITY OR CELIBACY.Edit
WE can exhort others to what is possible, permitted, and better. Now, with the exception of a few accidental cases, celibacy, which is always possible, is allowed, and is better. Hence, as a general rule, and saving the exceptions, celibacy can be advised. Our Lord did not hesitate to do it. "For fear," says St. Thomas, "that some would not tend, according to their graces, to win the gift of perfect chastity, the Lord gives a general exhortation to it; first, by setting before our eyes the example of those who practise continence : There are eunuchs, etc. ; and next, by holding out to us the reward of chastity for the kingdom of heaven. (Matt, xix, 12.) Lastly, he exhorts to it, when he says : He that can take, let him take it (ibid.), words which are, according to St. Jerome, the voice of Jesus Christ cheering his soldiers and challenging them to merit the palm of chastity. It is as though he were to say : Let him who can combat, enter the lists ; let him conquer and triumph." In imitation of his Master, St. Paul does not hesitate to say to the faithful : "I would wish that all were like myself;" and he portrays for the Corinthians the excellence and profit of virginity. It was in consequence of the exhortations of this great apostle that St. Thecla embraced virginity ; and he himself was put to death by Nero because he wrested from the passions of the tyrant young Christian maidens, whom he consecrated to God, as Cornelius a Lapide relates. St. Matthew, continues the distinguished commentator, persuaded St. Iphigenia, daughter of the King of Ethiopia, to vow her virginity to God.
St. Clement, a relative of the Emperor Domitian, led a life of perpetual virginity. He has left admirable eulogies of that virtue, and taught it to others, as every one can see by reading his letters. His example and advice induced the emperor's niece, Flavia Domitilla, the affianced of Aurelian, to practise faithfully before God the chastity she had vowed to him. The holy pontiff did not hesitate to give her the virgin's veil, though he thereby exposed himself and the Christians to the fury of Domitian. What man of mere worldly prudence, says a Lapide, would not have looked upon such conduct as unwise? But St. Clement, prudent after the manner of God, knew that virginity is of such worth in the eyes of heaven, that it may be purchased even at the cost of martyrdom. He was aware that God watches over his own, and that it is heroism not to give way before threats of death, particularly where there is question of preserving the treasure of virginity. Those who have read the fathers and doctors of the Church, and chiefly SS. Athanasius, Chrysostom, Basil, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Bernard, have not to be taught how much these illustrious men labored to make celibacy and virginity known and loved by mankind. These great sons of holy Church spread their wings in eagle flight, and rose to the noblest heights of eloquence, when descanting on this inspiring theme. St. Ambrose ranks among the foremost, and may justly be called the Doctor of perfect chastity. It was the favorite subject of his sermons. Certain mothers, who, while professing Christianity, retained a coloring of paganism, forbade their daughters to go to hear the eloquent bishop. Matters went so far, that he was even accused of disturbing families, endangering the empire, and drying up human life in its very source.
But Ambrose defended himself in this way : " They say that I preach perfect chastity and counsel it to many. Would to God that facts could convict me of doing what is laid to my charge ! I would be in no fear of the hatred of my assailants, if I saw my words producing any fruit. Shall not those who take a man for their husband be allowed to give the preference to God? Why do to me what is done to no one else, and cast up to me, as a disgrace, that which is the glory of other priests, namely : to scatter in souls the seed of virtue, and entice them to a life of virginity ? "St. Augustine, who was trained in the school of Ambrose, wished such as had tasted the pure joys of chastity to share them with others. He wrote to the widow Juliana and to the virgin Demetrias : " By the pattern of your lives, and by your words of exhortation, draw all that you can to your career" the practice of continence.These lessons did not remain with out echo. A corrupted society was dotted with the glowing flowers of chastity ; and in an atmosphere, thick with the abominations of paganism, the fairest of virtues breathed its perfume.
In the fourth century, according to the testimony of St. Ambrose himself, more virgins gave themselves to God in Africa and the East, than all the men he knew of in Italy.
On one occasion the illustrious bishop consecrated to God as many as eight hundred, and the ceremony lasted three days. We read, in the history of the Church, that in the same century there were in Oxyrinchus, a town of Lower Thebais, as many as twenty thousand virgins. In the middle ages, writes Father Ventura, every family deemed itself honored and happy to give a spouse to Christ. For families having many daughters, it was looked upon as a disgrace and a misfortune not to have one in the holy state of virginity. Fathers and mothers that were without daughters asked them of God only with a view to consecrate them to him. In those days one would imagine that the young girls of every class in society considered virginity as their normal state, so common and, as it were, inborn among them, was the tendency to prefer virginity to marriage. In conclusion, we may say, therefore, that parents do well in inclining their children at an early age to perfect chastity, and in employing for that purpose, not force, which would be very- wrong, but Christian and gentle persuasion. St. Ambrose, in his " Exhortation to Virginity," bestows the highest praise on the widow Juliana, who, he relates, having lost her husband, overcame her grief, and gathering her children around her, said to them : " My dear children, you have lost your father. Faith alone is the inheritance of men, and the dowry of virgins. I advise you to aim at what is loveliest on this earth: be angels among men. I have had experience of the troubles of a married life, and you see me deprived of the support of a husband and of the grace of virginity. My grief will be lighter, if I find in you what I have lost in myself; and if I am the mother of virgin children, I shall almost consider myself as having a claim to the same honor."Her words were not in vain. Her son Lawrence entered the ranks of the clergy, and her daughters, three in number, embraced virginity, and observed it faithfully in their mother's home. They alone will not admire and envy the happiness of this holy widow, who do not understand the beauties of heroism. There are diseased eyes which the light fatigues : a feeble twilight is all that they can bear. So, alas ! there are weak souls who cannot stand the broad effulgence of truth, nor the undimmed splendors of virtue.
- St. Th., opusc. 1 8, c. viii. 1 1 Cor. vii, J.
- In Apoc. xiv, 4, et I Cor. vii, 34.
- In Apoc. 14, et in Isa. Ixvi, 5.
- See his beautiful Life by the Abbe Baunard.
- De virginitate, c. v, nn. 25, 26.
- De bono viduitatis, c. xxviii.
- Amb., De virginitate, c. vii, nn. 35, 36. Ed. Migne. Ventura, Femme Catholique, t. 2, p. 192.
- Darras, vl. 13, p. 452.
- Exhort, virg., c. iii, 4.
- Admonitio inhunc librum. Ed. Migne.