Reading this passage, it struck me that some things never change. Concerns about their parents’ reaction STILL present one of the most difficult subjective obstacles for young people in embracing a celibate vocation. Although St. Ambrose here is talking specifically about consecrated virgins, I think his writing on this topic would be equally applicable to a young woman discerning religious life today. (And possibly also to discerning young men—though I think that dealing with parents’ possibly negative reactions presents an especially poignant challenge for women.)
In a nutshell, St. Ambrose’s advice to aspiring consecrated virgins is to be bold in accepting their vocation in the face of parental disapproval, even when this disapproval would have serious negative practical consequences. He points out that, ultimately, a spousal relationship with Christ would more than outweigh the tribulations incurred in even the most catastrophic of parental rejections. He also describes the importance of a consecrated virgin having a truly undivided heart; that is, a consecrated virgin’s affections and resolve should be so totally focused on Christ that nothing—not even her closeness to her parents—should be able to dissuade her from offering herself completely to her Beloved.
Although this line of reasoning may seem a bit extreme or at least one-sided to modern readers, the message St. Ambrose is trying to convey is still valid and important in today’s world. In keeping with the fourth commandment, it has always been important to love, honor, and respect one’s parents. However, St. Ambrose may not have felt the need to emphasize this to his original audience, since the concept of filial reverence was probably more prominent in his native cultural than it is in ours.
And while St. Ambrose may seem to write as if the appropriate level of spiritual detachment from one’s parents is to be expected as a matter of course, I think his writings also reveal an understanding that such a detachment is not easy to achieve. He describes it as a struggle, but makes it clear that a victory in this area is well worth the pain and effort it entails.
To read more of this blog’s commentary on De Virginibus, see here, here, and here. To read De Virginibus in its entirety, go to this page on NewAdvent.org. I have made some slight grammatical changes in the interest of clarity. Emphases, in bold, and commentary, in red, are mine.
It is very desirable that parents should encourage the desire for the virgin life, but more praiseworthy when the love of God draws a maiden even against their will. The violence of parents and the loss of property are not to be feared, and an instance of this is related by St. Ambrose.
62. It is a good thing, then, that the zeal of parents, like favoring gales, should aid a virgin; (I think this even more true after a woman is consecrated than it is while she is still discerning, even though “discernment” seems to be what St. Ambrose is addressing here.) but it is more glorious if the fire of tender age, even without the incitement of those older, bursts forth of its own self into the flame of chastity. Parents will refuse a dowry, but you have a wealthy Spouse, satisfied with Whose treasures you will not miss the revenues of a father’s inheritance. How much are poverty and chastity superior to bridal gifts!
63. And yet of whom have you heard as ever, because of her desire for chastity, having been deprived of her lawful inheritance? Parents speak against her, but are willing to be overcome. (Apparently, then as now, most parents tended eventually to “come around” in accepting their daughter’s vocation.) They resist at first because they are afraid to believe; they often are angry that one may learn to overcome; they threaten to disinherit to try whether one is able not to fear temporal loss; they caress with exquisite allurements to see if one cannot be softened by the inducement of various pleasures. (When St. Ambrose here describes the reasons for parental opposition to a young woman’s choice of a life of consecrated virginity, it occurs to me that noting much has really changed over the centuries—these descriptions could fit many of today’s parents equally well. But I do think that the last two reasons, which involve parents testing their daughter’s resolve, are interesting, since they seem to arise from genuine parental concern for the daughter’s well-being rather than from fear.) You are being exercised, O virgin, while you are being urged. And the anxious entreaties of your parents are your first battles. Conquer your affection first, O maiden. If you conquer your home, you conquer the world.
64. But suppose that the loss of your patrimony awaits you; are not the future realms of heaven a compensation for perishable and frail possessions? (Here I have to point out the seriousness of a loss of patrimony for young women in St. Ambrose’s time; unlike today, women generally depended on their husbands or male relatives for support. Without a patrimony, a consecrated virgin faced the very real threat of grinding poverty. So it seems that St. Ambrose is urging consecrated virgins to a truly heroic level of trust in Providence and hope in the life to come.) For if we believe the heavenly message, there is no one who has forsaken house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God's sake, who shall not receive sevenfold more in this present time, and in the world to come shall have everlasting life. (Luke 18:29-30) Entrust your faith to God; you who would entrust your money to man, lend it to Christ. The faithful keeper of the deposit of your hope pays the talent of your faith with manifold interest. The Truth does not deceive, Justice does not circumvent, Virtue does not deceive. But if you believe not God's word, at least believe instances.
65. Within my memory a girl once noble in the world, now more noble in the sight of God, being urged to a marriage by her parents and kinsfolk, took refuge at the holy altar. To where could a virgin better flee, than to there where the Virgin Sacrifice is offered? Nor was even that the limit of her boldness. She, the oblation of modesty, the victim (i.e., sacrificial offering) of chastity, was standing at the altar of God, now placing upon her head the right hand of the priest, asking his prayers, and now impatient at the righteous delay, placing the top of her head under the altar. (You have to admire this young woman’s nerve!) “Can any better veil,” she said, “cover me better than the altar which consecrates the veils themselves?” Of her, such a bridal veil is most suitable on which Christ, the Head of all, is daily consecrated. (It doesn’t seem that the events narrated in this episode describe the actual reception of the Rite of Consecration by this young woman. While the Rite of Consecration certainly did exist in at least some form by this point in history, I think that this woman’s actions were instead a dramatic but non-liturgical expression of her resolve to receive formal consecration.) “What are you doing, my kinsfolk? Why do you still trouble my mind with seeking marriage? I have long since provided for that. Do you offer me a bridegroom? I have found a better one. Make the most you can of my wealth, boast of his (i.e., the mortal suitor’s) nobility, extol his power, I have Him with Whom no one can compare himself, rich in the world, powerful in empire, noble in heaven. If you have such a one, I do not reject the choice; if you do not find such, you do me not a kindness, my relatives, but an injury.” (The wording in this translation is a bit hard to follow here; but rest assured, the original Latin is probably worse! My thought is that the phrase ending with “…I do not reject the choice” is the young woman trying to express how she wouldn’t deny the natural desirability or good qualities of the potential earthly husband in question. Her objection is not that the marriage planned for her would be something bad, but rather that Christ greatly surpasses even the best of mortal spouses. “If you do not find such…” might mean something like: “If you don’t understand the absolute primacy of Christ the way I do…”)
66. When the others were silent, one burst forth somewhat roughly: “If,” he said, “your father were alive, would he suffer you to remain unmarried?” Then she replied with more religion and more restrained piety: “And perchance he is gone (A clearer translation might read: “And it’s a good think that he is gone…”) that no one may be able to hinder me.” Which answer concerning her father, but warning as to himself (i.e., the one asking her the question), he made good by his own speedy death. (Yikes!) So the others, each of them, fearing the same for himself, began to assist and not to hinder her as before, and her virginity involved not the loss of the property due to her, but also received the reward of her integrity. You see, maidens, the reward of devotion; and do you, parents, be warned by the example of transgression. (For those of you who are young women discerning a vocation against the wishes of your parents: Don’t try this at home! Loudly speculating about how much easier it would be to follow your call if your parents were dead is NOT the way to win them over to your side. St. Ambrose may have meant this story as a cautionary tale of literal dangers, but I think he may have also meant in the subtler sense of an illustration of the gravity of the consequences resulting from a desire to interfere with God’s will for another soul.)
—St. Ambrose, De Virginibus; Book I, chapter 12