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most attractive power on Christian thought and feeling. Every word that He uttered was to be diligently gathered up and pondered on by His people, and wrought into their life in all succeeding ages. How much more then should this act of virginal purity, extending over all His life, be the seed of countless similar acts in His people ? On this triple fact, accordingly, of Mary's virginal choice, of her Son's virginal conception, and of His own virginal life, rested the honour which was to belong to the Virginal Estate among the Christian people for ever.
It was entirely a new honour. To have children, to have many children, to be renowned for the multitude issuing from them, was the honour which had hitherto been coveted by man. And especially among the chosen race was this feeling strong; for there to be unmarried, not to carry on the house of Israel, to exclude oneself from the possible parentage of “ Him that was to come,” was a reproach. When Mary “raised the standard of Virginity,”* it was a new ensign, which the Father of the age to come was Himself to bear aloft, as the oriflamme denoting the presence of His own sacred Person, around which His body-guard was to rally for ever, in the long battle which He would inaugurate.
But when from the people of Israel we cast our * S. Ambrose, De Institutione Virginis, 35. “Egregia igitur Maria, quæ signum sacræ virginitatis extulit, et intemeratæ integritatis pium Christo vexillum erexit."
eyes on the civilised nations surrounding the Mediterranean, and first and chief upon the Hellenic and the Latin races, nothing can be imagined which was in greater antagonism to their practice and their habits of mind than the virtue which lies at the root of the Virginal Life.* The tide of human sensuality had far over-flooded the confining banks of marriage: it was like an inundation sweeping down on the race of mankind, spurning all restraint, and revelling in gratification of itself to the degree of wasting away the very springs of life. The most civilised, as we have seen, were in this respect the most corrupted. In Greece and Rome the annual increase of the population did not supply the vacancies produced by death, at a time when moral purity was almost unknown. Idolatrous worship was in almost every case linked with degrading and unblushing sensuality: nay, sensuality itself became not merely an imitation of the recorded life of these false gods, but an act of worship to them.
At such a time, in the midst of such races of men, acting upon populations enervated by centuries of refined effeminacy or savage passion, appears the wonder we are noting. “He is born of a Virgin, and becomes the Legislator of Virginity.”+ How did this legislation, which was to plant its law in the innermost freedom of the human will, take effect? After this manner.
* In the Vestal Virgins at Rome, in certain Greek priestesses, in praises of Virginity scattered here and there among the poets, we see the traces of a higher feeling, and of a tradition connecting unsullied purity of life with the service of God.
† S. Greg. Naz. Orat. xliii, 62. tom. i. p. 816 D.
All Christian thought and feeling were concentrated upon His Person. His coming was an era which made all things new. All motives of action started from a new basis in Him, and tended to a new result. But He Himself was not only the Virgin Son of the Virgin Mother. More than that; His virginal birth belonged to His office of Saviour: it was the mode of His assuming the nature which He saved by taking without its sin. It was by human generation that the sin had descended from father to son: it was by a virginal birth that deliverance from it should come to man.
Thus it was from the Annunciation itself, the starting-point of our Lord's human history, that an indescribable glory was shed on the virginal life of Her who bore Him. But when to this was added the whole course of His own life on earth, the example which He gave in this, and which was imitable, * we see at once how Christians from the beginning discerned a special likeness to our Lord and to His Mother in the virginal life. This special likeness was the source of their veneration towards it :
** Christus pro nobis passus est, relinquens nobis exemplum, ut sequamur vestigia ejus. Hunc in eo quisque sequitur, in quo imitatur : non in quantum ille Filius Dei est unus, per quem facta sunt omnia ; sed in quantum Filius hominis, quæ oportebat, in se præbuit imitanda : et multa in illo ad imitandum omnibus proponuntur, virginitas autem carnis non omnibus." S. Aug. tom, vi, 354 B.
this, and nothing else, the spring of their own free choice of it.
It will be well to collect together in a few words the view which all the ancient writers of the Church give us as to the Virginal Life; a view not embraced by one and rejected by others, but universally diffused
among them with a perfect harmony of principles and even identity of expression.*
First of all, and as the root of all, they see in it a special imitation of Christ. And here a martyr in the last of the ten persecutions, St. Methodius, may stand simply as a mouthpiece for the twelve generations of men from the Ascension to St. Augustine. “It may be asked,” says he, “why, when many prophets and just men have taught and done so much that was admirable, did no one either praise or choose virginity? It seems that this mode of life was reserved to be sanctioned by the Lord alone, since by His advent alone He taught men to pass unto God. For it was fitting that One who was Arch-priest, Arch-prophet, and Lord of Angels, should also be called Arch-virgin. In the ancient * Virginity is viewed specially as an imitation of Christ by
S. Clement of Rome, Ep. i. ad Virgines, 8. 6.
606, 527-564, and Orations 38 and 43.
nibus, lib. ii. c. 2, and lib. i. c. 3. S. Jerome, contra Jovin. i. 19; Ep. ad Eustochium, 18 and 21. S. Augustine, de sancta Virginitate, 27-30, 35, 37, 38.
times man was not yet perfect, and therefore had not strength to receive the perfect thing, Virginity. Though he had by birth the image of God, he still needed to recover God's resemblance. And this the Word was sent down into the world to accomplish, and first took upon Him the form of man, punctured as it had been all over by multitudinous sin, in order that we for whom He bore it might be enabled again to take the divine form. And how can a perfect resemblance to God be attained ? Only like skilful portrait-painters by drawing on the easels of our own minds the very lineaments of His human life, pursuing as disciples the path which He opened. It was precisely that we might have before our eyes as drawn upon a tablet a divine ensample of life, in which we might imitate the Artist, that He chose, being God, to put on human flesh. For He did not say one thing and do another, nor give an ideal standard of excellence without teaching it as imitable, but at once taught and did what was useful and beautiful. What then did the Lord, the Light, and the Truth, when He came down into the world, actually carry out? He maintained His flesh in incorruptible virginity, in order that, if we would be like Him, we should honour that life."*
It is but drawing out this principal feature of imitation when we go on to say that they consi
* S. Methodius, Symposium decem Virginum, i, 4, 5. Gallandi, iii, 677, 678.