Wednesday, September 10, 2008

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

I was pleasantly surprised at Mass this afternoon to see that two of the three readings—1 Corinthians 7:25-31; and Psalm 45:11-12, 14-15, 16-17—are among those listed as options for a Mass of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. (The Beatitudes are also listed for a Consecration Mass, but those are taken from Matthew and not from today’s Gospel, Luke 6:20-26.) It would take more space and time than I have here to reflect on both readings, but I can at least begin the discussion by reprinting the selection of the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians:

Brothers and sisters: In regard to virgins, I have no commandment from the
Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. So
this is what I think best because of the present distress: that it is a good
thing for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek a
separation. Are you free of a wife? Then do not look for a wife. If you marry,
however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but
such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like
to spare you that.

I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those
having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those
rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as
not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away.

This is one of the most frequently cited texts in the New Testament in defense of Christian virginity as a permanent state in life. In it, St. Paul gives us an unambiguous endorsement of celibacy, even while clearly explaining that this recommendation does not now render marriage sinful. (You can see this passage echoed in part of the Consecratory prayer in the Rite of Consecration which states: Among your many gifts you give to some the grace of virginity. Yet the honor of marriage is in no way lessened. As it was in the beginning, your first blessing still remains upon this holy union. Yet your loving wisdom chooses those who make sacrifice of marriage for the sake of the love of which it is the sign.)

I have to admit that I although I have always had respect for this section of Corinthians as the inspired word of God, I never used to find it particularly interesting. From my very subjective perspective as one raised Catholic, it seemed to be stating the obvious. Of course, I was glad that the practice of consecrated celibacy was in Scripture, but it seemed as perfunctory to me as “You shall not kill”—i.e., in the Bible, yet at the same time sort of a theological no-brainer.

But hearing this reading at Mass today, I was struck by the profundity of this epistle. Virginity as a permanent commitment represented a major paradigm shift for the faithful in the ancient world. As Pope Benedict mentioned in his address to consecrated virgins last spring, Christian celibacy was completely novel. In the Judaism of the time, barrenness was seen as a tremendous curse.

Likewise, there were no precedents for a life of virginity in the pagan world. Although the Vestal virgins and the Stoic philosophers are often held to be early precursors to Christian celibacy, these are not truly good comparisons. For the Vestal virgins, virginity was a temporary state, and the Stoic philosophers were celibate in order to maximize their receptivity to natural pleasures—hardly a motivation approximating that of Christianity. My understanding is that even in contemporary Protestantism, life-long celibate chastity is seen as something one endures if Providence does not provide a spouse, as opposed to a way of life which one would freely embrace.

Then and now, consecrated virginity is shocking to natural sensibilities because it strikes at the heart of the deepest and most enduring source of human joy and fulfillment, namely, human love and the family. By presenting virginity as a recommended option, St. Paul was teaching his listeners that they could live for something altogether greater than anything in the created world. Even today this remains an awesome concept, but imagine being among those who were hearing it for the first time in history!

St. Paul elaborates on the eschatological dimension of consecrated life in the famous passage which ends by telling us that “the world in its present form is passing away.” Like the original recipients of this letter, we live in an age which is not prone to rumination on the “last things.”

Yet this is at the core of any consecrated vocation, though perhaps I could say that it finds a particularly striking manifestation in consecrated virginity lived in the world. To use a translation different from what we have here in the Lectionary, saying that “the world as we know it is passing away” serves as a very good explanation of why the consecrated life exits.

The world, as created by God, is not evil—far from it!—but it is temporary and fleeting. We can come to know and love God through the created order, but everything good in the world is there for the purpose of bringing us to the ultimate Good. We come to love created things in order to look beyond them, and we become attached to people only in order that we might one day love them disinterestedly in God.

To put it in broad terms, consecrated people “skip” a lot of the passing beauty and goodness of human life (that is, they are “…using the world as not using it fully…”) because they are already starting to love the Eternal. This is obviously a marvelous thing for consecrated people themselves, but it is not only for them. The presence of consecrated celibate people in our midst should be a chance for all of the faithful to come to a better (albeit never perfect in this life) understanding of what it means to love in heaven.

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