By Elinor Reilly
The modern world has a beef with self-sacrifice. Most things society (and the individuals within it) focuses on every day are centered on how to get ahead financially; how to be sexually active; how to avoid “haters.” Students at Holy Cross understand this intimately. Difficult classes, job fairs, and internships are all intended to prepare us for a good career, while supposedly liberating sexual experiences are bragged about in Kimball Sunday morning. Self-sacrifice enters the mind only fleetingly. We read about, write about, and admiringly quote activists, “men and women for others,” and saints who have given up everything to serve others. We have no desire to imitate them. At best, these people appear distantly noble and selfless; at worst, we see them as repressed and pitiable souls who didn’t get enough of the pleasures in life we know so well.
The greatest pleasure the saints miss out on is sex. This includes people from the earliest Christian martyrs, to Buddhist monastics, to Catholic priests today. They voluntarily give up family, wealth, and sex to follow something else. Clearly, they haven’t received the message. Sex isn’t shameful anymore! We can all freely express our sexuality! We don’t have to get married or “hide” in a monastery! Instead of even attempting to understand this aspect of their lives, we derail the conversation with debates over what exactly counts as sex; how “far” one can go and still be considered a virgin; and other nitpicky minutiae.
And yet many continue to choose to move beyond this and turn away from what the world offers. Early Christian virgin martyrs such as St. Agnes found freedom in professing their virginity and fidelity to Christ. A life of virginity allowed them to follow Christ to the fullest extent possible. The deeply patriarchal society of ancient Rome surprisingly did not embrace this so-called suppression of female sexuality. Rather, men tended to take this perceived rejection quite personally. As in society today, men considered women as valuable for sex, and if they were not acting as sex objects, they were worthless. The virgin saints of history, badass feminists that they were, refused to be objectified. They refused men eager to use their bodies and rejected the idea that they needed sex to get ahead or be happy. Rather, they devoted themselves to something and someone beyond them, a greater cause. In Christian tradition, that greater cause is God, the greatest good, who does not just love but is Love. Virginity has enabled women throughout history to be entirely themselves, not the sex objects men want them to be. Virginity means giving oneself to God—not because sex is bad, but because a life following God enables new horizons and ideals of prayer and service. It’s hard to go wrong with those. A life of celibacy is not defined by its limits, but rather by its new possibilities.
One of the possibilities was the birth of Christ, God incarnate. His birth was prophesied throughout the Hebrew scriptures, including in Isaiah 7:14, where the prophet declares “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” (RSV-2CE). Christians and Muslims honor this virgin, Mary of Nazareth—Christians venerate her as the very Mother of God. Eastern Christianity gave her the title theotokos (literally, God-bearer). No higher honor could be granted to any human. Mary’s life-giving consent to God endowed virginity with additional value. “Virginity becomes a universal gift of God to the Church, fruitful for everyone and deriving from its origin in the Mother,” as the German mystic Adrienne von Speyr notes in one of her writings on the subject. The prophecy became history and then a holy ideal. Why should we not honor Mary’s unwavering example of holiness?
Of course, most of us, while acknowledging the value of a life of celibacy, do not plan on becoming priests or religious. Virginity is mentioned often in the context of marriage; specifically, of not having sex before marriage. It sounds improbable, if not impossible. But many still choose this path. Unfortunately, certain types of fundamentalist Protestantism promote a “purity culture” which has sullied the concept of virginity by attempting to compel women and girls to make sure that men and boys don’t act stupidly. Virginity is about embracing what is beyond us, not nitpicking and controlling ankle-coverage and pretending sex doesn’t exist. “Purity culture” leads to the type of poisonous rhetoric that claims that women are “dirty” for having sex before marriage. This mentality is untrue and dangerous. Explaining and encouraging the virtue of virginity should never make women (or men!) who have had sex feel less valuable. While our choices have consequences, they will never affect Christ’s love, nor should they affect the love of our community.
Choosing to not have sex before marriage is choosing sacrifice. It’s choosing not to give oneself sexually to someone without the commitment of marriage. It means expecting that one’s partner will always be there, in wealth, poverty, unexpected pregnancy, or sudden illness. Is this idealistic? Perhaps. But I’ve never been in the habit of keeping my expectations for people or relationships low. Commitment and love is what women deserve, not merely a boyfriend, friend-with-benefits, or one-night-stand who will pay for an abortion or condoms and profess “love” daily in exchange for commitment-free sex with no concern for how we are affected. Feminist scholar Erika Bachiochi has rightly criticized the tendency to “structure society around the wombless, unencumbered male.” It all too often leads women to believe that sex without liability should be our ideal. Virginity rejects the male-centric demand on our bodies and frees us to follow a higher ideal. Virginity is not a hatred of life; rather, it aims at love, both in this life and the next.
Photograph Credits: Google