27 Dec More Than an Empty Bed – Regeneration Quarterly
(meditations on Gregory of Nyssa’s “On Virginity”)
by J. Todd Billings
Regeneration Quarterly, 8:2, Winter 2002
No one actually wants to be a virgin. At least that’s what you’d think from surfing the channels of popular culture. A virgin wandered onto the set of Seinfeld a few years ago, and after getting over her initial shock, Elaine kindly reached out to her over lunch, filling her in on the rules of casual sex.
Virgins are all but silent in the debates of contemporary sexual politics. It is easy to get the sense that just as it is one’s right to drink Pepsi and drive a sleek new car, it is one’s right to get laid every now and then. It’s healthy, isn’t it? Good exercise. Invigorating.
There is, of course, a counter-movement in conservative Protestant churches, led by parachurch bishop Josh McDowell, that aims at convincing teens to wait until marriage for sex. But let’s be clear: McDowell’s message is aimed at teens, who are expected to wait for sex until they get married at the ripe old age of 19 – or maybe 23 if they go to college. There is no such movement among persons in their twenties, thirties, or forties.
Adults are single in greater numbers than ever before, but the singles who usually speak in public discussions are sexually active. Why is it that Christian adults who are single tend to be silent about their virginity? Perhaps it is partly because unless one is in that rare category of being “called to be single” (a phrase that evokes the image of a missionary in a pith helmet), they are very frequently deeply ambivalent about their status. Life is good, but there are many unfulfilled longings. A sense of absence, loss, and shame all come along with virginal sexuality at one time or another.
But is that all there is? Does the church have more positive ways of viewing the increasing phenomenon of single, virginal sexuality?
In the essay On Virginity, by the Greek church father Gregory of Nyssa, it is the virginal body that is productive and fruitful. The virginal life is one of fullness and presence rather than absence. Although Gregory thinks that it is possible to become married and still remain a “virgin” in one’s soul, it is only for those who are especially strong. To be a virgin in one’s soul is to be set apart for God, undistracted by other great passions, which may push aside our passion for God.
Gregory offers an expansive reading of 1 Corinthians 7:25-40, Paul’s famous advice to virgins that “it is well for you to remain as you are.” For Gregory, virginity is not just about abstaining from sex. It’s much harder than that. Virginity is a state in which one seeks not to “attach oneself to anything changeable.” Not that we refuse to love that which is mortal and passing. But our great attachment, our great identity-shaping love, should be for God, to whom we are married as the bride of Christ. With respect to the world and its many gods, the church is called to be like a virgin.
At times Gregory sounds like he has just finished surfing the Internet: writing about a stream of water that is made useless because it is diverted into so many directions, Gregory says, “It seems to be that this is also true with the human mind; if it flows in all directions, it scatters itself by running towards what is pleasing to the senses, and has no worthwhile force for its journey to the really good.” Gregory didn’t have to contend with three-minute songs on the radio, fifteen-second TV ads, or newscasts laden with sound bites, graphics, and “crawl” headlines, but he certainly had the general idea.
Gregory’s vision of virginal life is one of fullness, not absence. “The more we come to know the wealth of virginity the more we have disdain for the other life, having learned from the comparison how many precious things it lacks.” Divided love – non-virginal love – is poor love.
Indeed, while Seinfeld’s Elaine would be horrified at the thought, Gregory calls attention to the “freedom of virginity.” The virginal soul, its attachments rooted in God, has freedom from “greed, anger, hatred, the desire for empty fame and all such things.” Since the virginal soul does not seek after these other loves, it is not a slave to them. It is free to be a bride of Christ.
Further, for Gregory, virginity is not a curse or an accident, but a “gift” with great “grandeur.” It does not result from God’s failing to provide someone to love, but from “grace.” The virgin anticipates the time when there will be “no distance between himself and the presence of God.” To experience a foretaste of eternal life with God is far from an accident.
We have grown accustomed to seeing virginity in terms of lack-an empty bed, a Valentine’s Day spent alone. But Gregory reverses the imagery. Virginity is a special foretaste of the divine presence, an anticipation of the resurrected state where believers are especially suited to experience this presence. Moreover, for Gregory, virginity is an “ally” and a friend. It accompanies us on the Christian path of rejecting the worldly loves that threaten to displace our love for God. For the Christian, virginity is not about loneliness. Indeed, for the Christian, it is impossible to be a virgin alone.
Just as virginity is not the state of being alone, virginity is also not barrenness. Gregory emphasizes that virginity should not be an end in itself, but should act as a “foundation” for all sorts of Christian virtues to grow. “Let eagerness for virginity, then, be put down as the foundation for the life of virtue, but let there be built upon this foundation all the products of virtue.” The life of virginity is fruitful – it produces the fruit of the Spirit.
This is not to say that the Christian virgin should never experience feelings of loneliness and unfulfilled sexual longing. But Gregory helps us put these unfulfilled desires in a theological – and specifically an eschatological – context. Just as no Christian yet experiences the presence of God in its fullness, where there is “no distance between himself and the presence of God,” all Christians have unfulfilled longings until the church’s marriage with Christ is fully consummated. Sexual desires – even frustrated ones – can remind us of our desire for union with God. As Sarah Coakley has written, “we need to turn Freud on his head. Instead of thinking of ‘God’ language as really being about sex (Freud’s reductive ploy), we need to understand sex as really about God, and about the deep desire that we feel for God-the clue that is woven into our existence about the final and ultimate union that we seek.”
Indeed, the Christian claim is that we are bound to feel incomplete in this world of false gods and false promises. In a culture where sex itself is often enthroned as the ultimate saving, healing experience of presence, Christian virgins embody a refusal to make sex the ultimate consummation. Precisely because they are sexual beings, Christian virgins demonstrate that even unfulfilled sexual desires point to another ultimate desire: the desire for God.
At a recent high school reunion, the most outspoken advocate of singleness bragged about her sexual freedom to her married friends. A few courageous Christians countered with stories of how their faith had sustained and enlivened their marriages. But where was the Christian single left? Silent, occupying a position envied by no one. But Gregory provides a reminder that Christian singles are a model for all Christians of the virginal way in which the church should relate to the world. A life devoted to God, free of attachments to other gods – in a word, virginity – is the only fertile and productive life, for the unmarried and married alike.