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“The Ambrosian Virgin”

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by Kelsey Lehman



In the fourth century, the age of the martyrs was over and many Romans were worried about their fate after death. How can one be sure that heaven is in one's own future? According to Ambrose, heaven is easily obtainable by becoming a consecrated virgin.

Ambrose shows deep regard for the consecrated virgin. Ambrose envisions the virgin as the Bride of Christ. As the Bride of Christ, the virgin is deemed a superior individual in comparison to any married woman.[1] Ambrose employs the first book of his writing De Virginibus as a means of explaining the dignity of one who devotes her life to Christ. Ambrose compares the virgin to the Church. The church is the married bride of Christ. If one devotes oneself to the church, one is, in turn, devoting oneself to Christ. By devoting oneself to the church, the virgin becomes the Bride of Christ.[2] According to Kim Power, this symbol of marriage explains why the virgin can anticipate eternal life on earth. Ambrose explains the marriage of the virgin to Christ in De Virginibus:

"Notice another merit of virginity: Christ is the spouse of a virgin and Christ is, one might say, the spouse of virginal chastity. For virginity belongs to Christ, not Christ to virginity. Thus it was a virgin who married, a virgin who carried us in her womb, a virgin who have birth, a virgin who nursed with her own milk." (Ambrose, De Virginibus I. 5.22).

Ambrose goes on to explain that the virgin "...takes thought for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy in body and spirit. For she that is married takes thought for the things of the world, how she may please her husband" (De Virginibus I.5.23). This again creates a concrete image of the virgin as the bride of Christ.

Throughout his text, Ambrose emphasizes the holiness of a consecrated virgin. He elucidates that virgins are of a strong race, that their prudence has overcome the temptation of the flesh and of the rulers of the age (De Virginibus 1.4.19). He even blesses the life of a virgin while addressing widows. He explains that the virginity is the "praise of youth". Virginity "adorns youth, it adds to the dignity of age, and at all ages it has the gray hairs of its righteousness, the ripeness of its gravity, the veil of modesty, which does hinder devotion and increases religion" (Ambrose, De Uiduis I.4.25). He goes on to reveal that the virgin is privileged in that her character, rather than her body, catches the attention of men first (De Uiduis I.4.26).

Another benefit to being a virgin is receiving the gift that the Holy Spirit bestows upon the virgin race. The consecrated virgin will receive royalty because she is wed to a king and because her body does not fall into the traps of pleasure. She will enjoy gold because her body is consecrated by the divine spirit. Lastly, she will receive beauty because she is loved by the king and dedicated to the Lord[3] .

In the second book of De Virginibus, Ambrose outlines his expectations for the virgins' way of life. The lifestyle that Ambrose designs for virgins is actually a very moderate compared to the expectations for virgins of other religious leaders at the time.[4] Ambrose envisions virgins living a life of chastity in mind and body with exhibition of the virtues of temperance, fortitude, modesty, and sobriety. His policy also dictates that the virgins live quietly at home, attend church, and help the needy.[5] Virgins are expected to be cheerful and studious, not somber. Moderation in food and abstinence from wine are also rules that the virgins should obey. Ambrose warns the women of the temptation of talkativeness. He explains that gossip and chatter can lead to bad things.[6] According to Colish, Ambrose stands out among Christian writers addressing this subject because he does not reduce the virtues of courage and moderation exclusively to sexual purity as the gauge of holiness.[7] These guidelines for virgins made those who chose Ambrose's lifestyle seem like major "martyrs" to those who did not practice celibacy. However, these women enjoyed many more freedoms than the haggard, unkempt, and somber virgins that other religious leaders of the time demanded.[8]

Ambrose weighs the advantages and disadvantages of married life to one of virginity. Ambrose does not condemn marriage; he just perceives a life of chastity as a superior option. In his writings for widows, Ambrose specifically proclaims, "Marriage, then is honorable, but chastity is more honorable." (De Uiduis I.12.72) He explains that a married woman has to suffer childbirth, troubles of her children, and has to endure the dangers of illness and pregnancy. The virgin, however, is free from these torments, and for this they gain the "offspring of a pious soul...which knows no death and has many heirs" (De Virginibus I.6.30). Ambrose does not discourage marriage for he says that without it, we would not have the birth of children the human race would be doomed (De Virginibus I.7.34). Ambrose points out that virginity has many advantages over marriage. Again in his writings for widows, Ambrose articulates that the laws binding wives to bear children and be in subjection to her husband are all things that a virgin is free from. Ambrose sees the married woman as hostage to her husband and the law, where the virgin is "moved by counsels, not bound by chains." (De Uiduis I.13.81). He acknowledges that virginity would not exist without marriage, for virginity needs some mode of existence. Ambrose completes this argument by quoting what the Holy Spirit Proclaimed in the book of Wisdom, "Blessed is the barren that is undefiled."(Wisdom 3:13)(De Virginibus I.7.35)

Ambrose began writing about the virgin in around 377 a.d., during his third year as bishop[9]. Within this time period, many people were concerned that the end of the world was near[10]. This constant paranoia within the Roman community created a panic of how one would enter into heaven. During the age of the martyrs, those for whom a place in heaven was guaranteed, people could profess and die for their faith without the worry of the consequence of hell. The conclusion of this age and the infrequency of Christian persecution resulted in the search for a new way of "holy" living.[11] The ascetics seemed to have found a solution in their search. These people gave up all material possession and suffered a "slow martyrdom" to reserve their place in heaven.[12] They required that no one was to have intercourse and that virginity was a must. Some groups of ascetics believed that one should remain celibate even after marriage.[13] The now irrelevant values of the Pagan Roman tradition also contributed to what Cesare Pasini calls a "vacuum of moral conscious and sense of inspiration".[14] Ambrose's views on becoming a consecrated virgin were popular for young women at this time because of the decay of the institution of marriage and the non-influential role of women in society.[15] The option of virginity that Ambrose offered was a way to give women an independent life that was still appreciated by the church and society.

Ambrose's writings and views on a life of virginity are even important to us today. Ambrose offered women a choice, something that was uncommon for them in the fourth century. Ambrose believes that women should have the privilege to choose marriage or a marriage to God. He writes, "For virginity cannot be commanded, but must be wished for, for things which are above us are matters for prayer rather than under mastery." (De Virginibus I.5.23). During this time, however, it was very clear that Ambrose's advocacy of virginity was unpopular in Milan.[16] Ambrose constantly reports complaints of parents who did not approve of their daughters' to adoption of the ascetic lifestyle[17]. Ambrose argues that if these daughters were in love with a man, they could choose whomever they like. That being said, if they are allowed any man, they should have the right to choose God as their spouse (De Virginibus I.11.58). By the time of his death, Ambrose's community accepted young women's right to join a virginal group, as long as their families could still receive honor, merit, and grace.[18] According to Power, Ambrose also argued for the redemption of woman, explaining that men had blamed women for their sins for too long. Ambrose says men should follow the lead of ascetic women who followed the orders of Christ.[19]

Today, following a life of celibacy and virginity is not a popular choice for our society. One may believe that Ambrose's writings on the virgin lifestyle have no relevancy to today's world. One might look at the issue of women and their exclusion from the priesthood to make Ambrose's ideas current. In the Catholic Church, women are not allowed to enter the priesthood; it is an institution reserved only for men. Within De Virginibus, Ambrose sets up gender allegories that we still abide to today. Kim Power writes, "The gender allegories that Ambrose employed to explain both the dynamics within the soul and its relationship to God are intrinsic to Western understandings of sexual difference."[20] Ambrose did not believe that men were superior to women and made that clear throughout his writings. Ambrose believed that feminine virtue was not a result of influence from their husband, but from the reformation of their souls by their divine spouse, who transformed them into his own image.[21] Ambrose also genders the soul as feminine, to indicate the "fragility of the soul" and the "clear subordination of the human soul to its bridegroom".[22] Ambrose also frees women from the idea that they ruined the lives of men with original sin. He states that men needed to do penance and take responsibility for their actions. Power explains, "Referring to the Lord's command to stay awake and pray, he [Ambrose] observed pithily, ""The Lord said it, men heard it, women fulfilled it.""[23] Ambrose also defends women within the hierarchies of gender, where consecrated virgins are superior to sexually active men. He was also opposed to dominance as a husband's defining characteristic. He defends women further where Augustine describes the wife as a slave girl and her husband her lord, Ambrose says, "You not her lord, but her husband. She is not your slave, but your wife."[24] One might say Ambrose was one of the first major advocates for women's rights.

By today's standards, Ambrose would definitely be an advocate for equality in the church. Ambrose is constantly alluding to the importance of women and their rights in society. His gender allegories that put celibate women on a pedestal above men could, in today's world, translate into support for women to enter the priesthood. Why would the most superior of all genders not be suitable to lead others in the praise of God? Ambrose would certainly say that women should have this right. His idea that women are no longer responsible for original sin is also another argument that should allow women into the priesthood. One may say that since women are the root of original sin that they should not be allowed to be priests. However, Ambrose states the sin is not the fault of women and men should do the same amount of penance for their sins. Another area where one can find evidence of the importance of women in Ambrose's mind is through his letters to his sister Marcellina. Within these letters, one can clearly see how important she was to Ambrose[25]. When she decided to become a nun, Ambrose gave her money to start her own convent and continues to support her throughout her life[26]. Certainly with this level of commitment and love towards his sister who chose to live a life of God, one can conclude that if she were to ask for priesthood, Ambrose would be the one to fight for this right.

Ambrose's writings on the virginal lifestyle not only answered pivotal questions regarding humans' entrance to heaven, but also paved the way for women to choose the life they wanted to live. His example of respect toward women is something that we should all acknowledge and be thankful for today.


[1] Kim Power, Ambrose of Milan: Keeper of the Boundaries, p. 22

[2] Power, p. 22

[3] David G. Hunter, The Virgin, the Bride, and the Church: Reading Psalm 45 in Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, page 287

[4]Marcia Colish suggests that Jerome would have wanted the virgins in his sect becoming haggard, confined from public, and remain an unkempt people. Marcia Colish, Ambrose's Patriarchs: Ethics for the Common Man, page 154

[5] Colish p. 154

[6] Ibid. p. 154

[7] Ibid. p. 155

[8] Ibid. p. 155

[9] Ambrose. De Virginibus. trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin & H.T.F. Duckworth. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 10. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co. 1896. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. . Introduction to Ambrose's De Virginibus.

[10] Many Romans believed that the meteor that slammed into the Apennines was a sign of the end of times (Robert Grant, Pontifex, page 298)

[11] Robert Grant, Ambrose of Milan THEO 141, Lecture Notes 9/21

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Cesare Pasini, Ambrogio di Milano: Azione e pernsiero de un vescovo, trans. Robert Grant page 6

[15] Pasini, p. 6

[16] Power, p.23

[17] Hunter, p. 285

[18] Power, p. 23

[19] Power, p. 28

[20] Power, p. 21

[21] Power, p. 23

[22] Ibid. p. 25

[23] Ibid. p. 28

[24] Ibid. p. 29

[25] Robert Grant, Ambrose of Milan THEO 141 Lecture Notes, 12/9

[26] Robert Grant, Ambrose of Milan THEO 141 Lecture Notes, 12/9

 

References

  • Ambrose. De Virginibus. trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin & H.T.F. Duckworth. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 10. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co. 1896. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. .
  • Ambrose. De Uiduis. trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin and H.T.F. Duckworth. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 10. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1896. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. .
  • Colish, M. L. (2005). Ambrose's Patriarchs: Ethics for the Common Man. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. Hunter, D. G. (2000).
  • The virgin, the bride, and the church: Reading Psalm 45 in Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. Church History, 69:2, 281-303. Retrieved November 02, 2010 from ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials database.
  • Grant, R. (2009). Pontifex: A story of IV century Rome. Raleigh, NC: Lulu Press.
  • Pasini, C. trans. R. Grant. (1996). Ambrogio di Milano: Azione e pernsiero de un vescovo. Milan: San Paolo.
  • Power, K. E. (1998). Ambrose of Milan: Keeper of the boundaries. Theology Today, 55, 15-34. Retrieved November 02, 2010 from ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials database.

 

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