For new readers, De Virginibus is St. Ambrose’s treatise on virginity, which he wrote addressed to his sister who was herself a consecrated virgin. St. Ambrose was Bishop of Milan during the fourth century A.D., a time when the “original” (i.e., pre-Vatican II) Order of Virgins was flourishing. By reading St. Ambrose, we not only get a brilliant Patristic commentary specific to the vocation of consecrated virginity lived “in the world,” but we also find some valuable insight as to the concrete lives of the ancient consecrated virgins.
Whereas in Book I St. Ambrose focused primarily on the theology of consecrated virginity, in the first chapter of Book II he indicates that this coming book will focus more on the formation of consecrated virgins. Though instead of giving us a step-by-step manual on formation (which actually, I sort of wish he had done!), St. Ambrose decides that the best way to treat the subject of formation of consecrated virgins is to present some of the most illustrious examples. And, quite appropriately, in Book II, chapter 2, he begins by discussing the life of Our Lady, the “virgin of virgins.”
You can read De Virginibus in its entirety in the NewAdvent.org “Fathers” section. For more of this blog’s commentary on De Virginibus, see my previous posts: “St. Ambrose on Consecrated Virginity”; “St. Ambrose Writes on Marriage and Virginity”; “Easter Bees”; and “St. Ambrose on Parents and Discernment.”
I have made some very slight grammatical changes in the interest of clarity. Emphases, in bold, and commentary, in red, are mine.
The life of Mary is set before virgins as an example, and her many virtues are dwelt upon, her chastity, humility, hard life, love of retirement, and the like; then her kindness to others, her zeal in learning, and love of frequenting the temple. St. Ambrose then sets forth how she, adorned with all these virtues, will come to meet the numberless bands of virgins and lead them with great triumph to the bridal chamber of the Spouse.
6. Let, then, the life of Mary be as it were virginity itself, set forth in a likeness, from which, as from a mirror, the appearance of chastity and the form of virtue is reflected. From this you may take your pattern of life, showing, as an example, the clear rules of virtue: what you have to correct, to effect, and to hold fast.
7. The first thing which kindles ardor in learning is the greatness of the teacher. What is greater than the Mother of God? What more glorious than she whom Glory Itself chose? What more chaste than she who bore a body without contact with another body? For why should I speak of her other virtues? She was a virgin not only in body but also in mind, who stained the sincerity of its disposition by no guile, who was humble in heart, grave in speech, prudent in mind, sparing of words, studious in reading, (There is some debate over whether or not “the historical Mary” was literate, but it seems that this reference is one of the recurring praises for scholarship or study as a pursuit appropriate to consecrated virgins.) resting her hope not on uncertain riches, but on the prayer of the poor, intent on work, modest in discourse; wont to seek not man but God as the judge of her thoughts, to injure no one, to have goodwill towards all, to rise up before her elders, not to envy her equals, to avoid boastfulness, to follow reason, to love virtue.
When did she pain her parents even by a look? When did she disagree with her neighbors? (I do have somewhat of a hard time believing these last two statements—my thought is that anyone who lives in completely union with God would almost necessarily encounter at least some sort of persecution or misunderstanding. But as Mary would not have been in any way culpable for whatever misunderstanding she might have encountered, perhaps St. Ambrose’s point is that Mary’s kindness would have prevented a lot of the personality conflicts that non-immaculate people often experience.) When did she despise the lowly? When did she avoid the needy? Being wont only to go to such gatherings of men as mercy would not blush at nor modesty pass by, there was nothing gloomy in her eyes, nothing forward in her words, nothing unseemly in her acts, there was not a silly movement, nor unrestrained step, nor was her voice petulant, that the very appearance of her outward being might be the image of her soul, the representation of what is approved. (I think modesty, dignity, and decorum are, in this day and age, much under-rated as specifically feminine virtues. I find it interesting that St. Ambrose would highlight them here.) For a well-ordered house ought to be recognized on the very threshold, and should show at the very first entrance that no darkness is hidden within, as our soul hindered by no restraints of the body may shine abroad like a lamp placed within.
8. Why should I detail her spareness of food, her abundance of services—the one abounding beyond nature, the other almost insufficient for nature? And there were no seasons of slackness, but days of fasting, one upon the other. And if ever the desire for refreshment came, her food was generally what came to hand, taken to keep off death, not to minister to comfort. (Fasting also seems to be mentioned time and time again in Patristic writings as something especially appropriate for consecrated virgins; although, like decorum, fasting is not a popular subject for twenty-first century spiritual reflections. But even while St. Ambrose’s era had its prejudices and “pet” topics just as ours does, I think that the frequency with which fasting is mentioned suggests that we should perhaps give more consideration as to the role of fasting and penance in the spirituality of modern consecrated virgins.) Necessity before inclination caused her to sleep, and yet when her body was sleeping her soul was awake, (I’m sure this is a reference to Song of Songs 5:2) and often in sleep either went again through what had been read, or went on with what had been interrupted by sleep, or carried out what had been designed, or foresaw what was to be carried out. (I think vigil-keeping as a spiritual practice falls into my aforementioned “fasting and penance” category.)
9. She was unaccustomed to go from home, except for divine service, and this with parents or kinsfolk. (Retirement—or, in modern parlance, “not going out much”—is yet another “odd” virtue that the Church Fathers often praise in consecrated virgins. Even though today’s consecrated virgins who live “in the world” are not in any sense cloistered, I still think we should take seriously the attribute of retirement. Basically, my thought is that while modern consecrated virgins should not hesitate to leave home for prayer, for works of charity, or for the sake of their work or apostolate; it might be a good idea to be selective about when, where, and with whom one would go out for purely social or recreational purposes. I think that discretion in this area could help foster a more focused prayer-life.) Busy in private at home, accompanied by others abroad, yet with no better guardian than herself, as she, inspiring respect by her gait and address, progressed not so much by the motion of her feet as by step upon step of virtue. But though the Virgin had other persons who were protectors of her body, she alone guarded her character; she (a consecrated virgin) can learn many points if she (Mary) be her own teacher, who possesses the perfection of all virtues, for whatever she did is a lesson. Mary attended to everything as though she were warned by many, and fulfilled every obligation of virtue as though she were teaching rather than learning. (And so it goes without saying that whenever a consecrated virgin does leave the house, she should behave in a way which befits a public person in the Church!)
10. Such has the Evangelist shown her, such did the angel find her, such did the Holy Spirit choose her. Why delay about details? (Okay, technically, we really don’t know most of the details of Mary’s life, but this might reflect some oral tradition, and I’m willing to suspend disbelief long enough for St. Ambrose to make his point.) How her parents loved her, strangers praised her. How worthy she was that the Son of God should be born of her! She, when the angel entered, was found at home in privacy, without a companion, that no one might interrupt her attention or disturb her; and she did not desire any women as companions, who had the companionship of good thoughts. Moreover, she seemed to herself to be less alone when she was alone. For how should she be alone, who had with her so many books, so many archangels, so many prophets? (Apocryphal details aside, I appreciate the way St. Ambrose describes the spirituality of solitude.)
11. And so, too, when Gabriel visited her (Luke 1:28) did he find her, and Mary trembled, being disturbed, as though at the form of a man, but on hearing his name recognized him as one not unknown to her. And so she was a stranger as to men, but not as to the angel; that we might know that her ears were modest and her eyes bashful. Then when saluted she kept silence, and when addressed she answered, and she whose feelings were first troubled afterwards promised obedience.
12. And holy Scripture points out how modest she was towards her neighbors. For she became more humble when she knew herself to be chosen of God, and went immediately to her kinswoman in the hill country, not in order to gain belief by anything external, for she had believed the word of God. “Blessed,” she (the kinswoman St. Elizabeth) said, “are you who believed.” (Luke 1:56) And she abode with her three months. Now in such an interval of time it is not that faith is being sought for, but kindness which is being shown. And this was after that the child, leaping in his mother's womb, had saluted the mother of the Lord, attaining to reason before birth.
13. And then, in the many subsequent wonders, when the barren bore a son, the virgin conceived, the dumb spoke, the wise men worshipped, Simeon waited, the stars gave notice. Mary, who was moved by the angel’s entrance, was unmoved by the miracles (i.e., because she already had an abundance of faith). Mary, it is said, kept all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:19) Though she was the mother of the Lord, yet she desired to learn the precepts of the Lord, and she who brought forth God, yet desired to know God.
14. And then, how she also went every year to Jerusalem at the solemn day of the Passover, and went with Joseph. Everywhere is modesty the companion of her singular virtues in the Virgin. This, without which virginity cannot exist, must be the inseparable companion of virginity. And so Mary did not go even to the temple without the guardianship of her modesty. (Although I generally think that we should, for the most part, take the Church Fathers “at their word,” I think that this constant need for a chaperone is probably something that was strongly tied to a particular time and culture. That is, I think that a contemporary American woman can live a life of exemplary modesty while regularly traveling or leaving the house by herself. However, common-sense, practical aspect of personal safety should be kept in mind, as well.)
15. This is the likeness of virginity. For Mary was such that her example alone is a lesson for all. If, then, the author displeases us not, let us make trial of the production, that whoever desires its reward for herself may imitate the pattern. How many kinds of virtues shine forth in one Virgin! The secret of modesty, the banner of faith, the service of devotion, the Virgin within the house, the companion for the ministry, the mother at the temple.
16. Oh! How many virgins shall she meet, how many shall she embrace and bring to the Lord, and say: “She has been faithful to her espousal, to my Son; she has kept her bridal couch with spotless modesty.” (My goal is to be one of these virgins!) How shall the Lord Himself commend them to His Father, repeating again those words of His: Holy Father, these are they whom I have kept for You, on whom the Son of Man leant His head and rested; I ask that where I am there they may be with Me. (John 17:24) And if they ought to benefit not themselves only, who lived not for themselves alone, one virgin may redeem her parents, another her brothers. Holy Father, the world has not known Me, but these have known Me, and have willed not to know the world. (John 17:25)
17. What a procession shall that be, what joy of applauding angels when she is found worthy of dwelling in heaven who lived on earth a heavenly life! Then too Mary, taking her timbrel, shall stir up the choirs of virgins, singing to the Lord because they have passed through the sea of this world without suffering from the waves of this world. (Exodus 15:20) Then each shall rejoice, saying: I will go to the altar of God; to God Who makes my youth glad; (I know this is a quotation from the psalms, but I’m wondering if this isn’t also an indication that the Rite of Consecration was bestowed primarily upon younger women in fourth-century Milan.) and, I will offer unto God thanksgiving, and pay my vows unto the Most High.
18. Nor would I hesitate to admit you to the altars of God, whose souls I would without hesitation call altars, on which Christ is daily offered for the redemption of the body. For if the virgin’s body be a temple of God, what is her soul, which, the ashes, as it were, of the body being shaken off, once more uncovered by the hand of the Eternal Priest, exhales the vapor of the divine fire. Blessed virgins, who emit a fragrance through divine grace as gardens do through flowers, temples through religion, altars through the priest.
—St. Ambrose, De Virginibus; Book II, chapter 2