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“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.”
—1 Corinthians 7:32–34
People often snicker at biblical passages that refer to virgins. At best, we find it odd that anyone would be referred to by that title. It seems like an embarrassing way to describe someone. At worst, we think not of purity but of prudishness, a fear of sex, or sexual undesirability.
Not long ago the word still carried some of the weight of holiness. Wedding dresses are white by tradition as a symbol of virginity. A young woman boldly wore white on the day of her marriage as a proclamation of her chastity.
Part of the reason for our discomfort with the word is our preoccupation with things sexual. Whereas Jesus spoke parables about the ten virgins, we might feel more comfortable referring to the ten as “the ten single women” or even “the ten coeds.” Characterizing a woman by her lack of sexual experiences makes us uncomfortable. Oddly, we are more comfortable describing a woman as a lesbian than as a virgin. Homosexuality is out of the closet, but virginity remains very private. It is not the badge of honor that it once was.
It is interesting to note that the biblical writers and the Fathers saw virginity differently than we do today. They did not see it as a lack of experience. In the biblical descriptions of virgins made by Jesus and Paul, I can think of only one case where the term was used specifically to address sexual experience, and that involved Jesus’ mother.
Rather, they saw sexual experience as a small part of what it really meant to be a virgin. For example, in commenting on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, John Chrysostom wrote:
Virginity does not simply mean sexual abstinence. She who is anxious about worldly affairs is not really a virgin. In fact, he [Paul] says that this is the chief difference between a wife and a virgin. He doesn’t mention marriage or abstinence, but attachment as opposed to detachment from worldly cares. Sex is not evil, but it is a hindrance to someone who desires to devote all her strength to a life of prayer. (from Homily 19)
To Chrysostom, virginity was something much larger than just an abstinence program. It was a way of life that was free of the cares of the world. It carried with it the requirement of being detached from the world in a profound way, a way that could not be found by those who were married.
This detachment from the world is something all Christians were instructed to do before taking Communion in ancient church services. For example, “ponder nothing earthly minded” is said in the very early Liturgy of St. James, from which we get the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Be Silent.” We need to hear this over and over because we so readily forget it. Those of us who have small children know how difficult it is to spend even a few minutes in church praying without being distracted by the needs of one’s family. We struggle to obtain for a few minutes the virgins’ way of life.
The ability to pray without interruption by the cares of the world, freedom from the anxiety of relationships, the increased opportunity to devote oneself fully to the things of Heaven: These are the characteristics of virginity as described by Chrysostom and Paul and Jesus. Virginity for Christians means something better and more demanding than the negative state we think of today. We need to re-think what it means to be like a virgin.