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which it drank in as the milk of its infancy. Of this number no one can say, I who was first a blasphemer, a persecutor, an evil-doer, but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief: nay, rather what Thou didst not command but only propose as the prize of a willing violence in those words, 'Let him that can receive, receive,' these made their prize, offered their vow, and for the kingdom of heaven shut themselves off from marriage, not through dread of Thy threats, but through love of Thy promises."*
Now these great writers here give what may be termed simply the logical ground and basis of a great historical fact, beginning with our Lord's ascension, and repeated through eighteen centuries in every climate under every condition of society. Let us weigh well the gravity of this fact; its incompatibility with any merely natural principles of human society, its perpetual recurrence and continuity. It is not the result of race, for the most different races, sterile before, produce it as soon as they become Christian ; not of climate, for it flowers alike in scorching Egypt and the frozen north; not of national temperament, for the speculative East and the practical West give it forth in equal abundance; not of riches, for poverty is usually its accompanying mark; not of poverty, for multitudes of the rich embrace it; not of learning, for the simple unlearned form the great mass of its professors; not of ignorance, for among them the Church has ever had its reserves of wisdom, learning, and all human accomplishments, from which have gone forth the maintainers, restorers, and promoters of all learning; not of a barbarous or incipient state of society, for like a flower amid ruins it forces its way to the surface through the middle
* De sancta Virginitate, 35-37.
ages of struggle and warfare, while it blooms no less in the Sybaritic atmosphere of imperial Rome, and among the softest conveniences of modern life. For such a production, so difficult, so unearthly, so precarious, yet so constant, there is but one mother soil, the Church's bosom. And the never-dying root of this flower of all Christian ages and climates is imitation of the Virginal Son of the Virginal Mother, an imitation which can only be fully carried out by itself.
For with one mouth all the ancient Christian writers proclaim the Virginal Life to be the condition of all perfect following of our Lord. This truth both lies in the nature of things, and is deduced directly from the words of Scripture. Thus the Apostle* bids the chief teacher to whom he is writing to labour and endure like a good soldier of his Lord, adding immediately that no one in military service entangles himself in secular business, in order that he may please the commander to whom he has engaged himself. But the most usual image of Christian life represents it as a warfare. And the most complete as well as the most inextricable entanglement in secular business is that which results from marriage and its attendant cares. It is emphatically the dividing of the heart. The thorns which choke the seed in the parable are the cares of this life and the deceitfulness of riches. But the very portion of married life are these cares. Its work lies amid anxieties for this
* 2 Tim. ii. 3, 4.
deceitfulness. On the other hand, the price to be paid for deliverance from these secular cares was a high one, no less than the renunciation of all for which man naturally lives,—wife, children, wealth, prosperity, the prizes, and the human loveliness of life; in one word, that word of mightiest power over man's heart, of fascination all but irresistible, the world. And for what? To make the absolute surrender of body as well as soul to the unseen love of a spiritual object. The youth and the maiden who made this choice rested from that time, and entirely, on the soul's secret espousal with God. The world as a tie, as an enthralment, as a heart-dividing power, was taken away, and for it the Lord of the world in His naked majesty, His supreme loveliness, was substituted. It was a choice which before it was made was perhaps inconceivable to human flesh and blood, to the weakness of the heart, its craving for human sympathy and yearning for human affection. To the heart still filled with these objects it remains inconceivable, an unsolved secret ever misinterpreted, as the love of a heavenly vision which entrances the eye beholding it appears gazing on vacuity or madness to the eye which sees it not. But it was a choice created by the greatest of all wonders, the Incarnation: it was the answer of man's heart to God becoming Man; the answer of human love to the excess of divine love, an earthly copy of creation's Masterpiece. In that very world which had been for ages a prey to all sensual indulgence, among races the most enervated slaves of pleasure, it became a fact of no infrequent occurrence. A great multitude of both sexes renounced that which no Christian precept called upon them to renounce, the state of marriage, and with it all the merely human and natural interests of life, in order to be like their Redeemer and His Mother in that virginal purity which they had introduced. His example and hers, His as the Maker and Spouse of Virgins, hers as their Queen, the plant which had brought forth the Virginal Flower, shone before the two sexes,
produced then, and have produced since, unnumbered imitators. “To follow is to imitate;” and to them is reserved the singular privilege “ of following their Lord whithersoever He goes."* In this passage of the Apocalypse S. Methodiust sees a proof of the great rank and estimation which the virginal life possesses, and of its being a new thing upon the earth. The whole assembly of the redeemed,
* Apocalypse xiv. 4. † S. Method. Conv. dec. Virg. i. 5. Gallandi, iï. 678.
he says, was a multitude which no man could number. But amongst them was a certain determinate number of the highest dignity and without spot, the first-fruits of the earth, those twelve times twelve thousand, the number which indicates created perfection. And they sang a new song before the throne, our Lord appearing as the Leader of the choir. The rest, says St. Augustine, * may follow their Lord in the seven beatitudes : here the married may at least
at least pursue His traces, walking in the same path, though they set not their feet perfectly in His very steps: the rest of that multitude may follow Him every where, except when He walks in the beauty of Virginity; but these follow Him even then. They sing a song in His praise, which the rest may hear, but they alone can utter. Thus, as He is the fountain of prophecy, and the giver of pastoral mission, He is the Leader of the Virginal Band, the Chief Prophet and Chief Shepherd is Chief Virgin.
Such a belief and such alone is competent to produce the fact to which history bears witness. As soon as our Lord had preceded, and drawn in His life the perfect lineaments of virginity, a crowd of souls betrothed and espoused to Him arise all over the earth. It is not a temporary or partial phenomenon, not one to be accounted for by any natural cause. But wherever in time or space the wave of the Christian people spreads itself, in periods of
* S. Aug. de s. Virg. 28.