Detachment. When was the last time your pastor urged you to be “detached”? Despite its present obscurity, the word has a rich history within Christianity. To understand it, one must first understand a whole complex of doctrines about the natures of God and man. Discussing this concept is actually far more daunting than my previous article on virginity.
It is also far more important, as it is to detachment that Gregory of Nyssa primarily refers by his use of the term “virginity.” So let us start with a definition.
Detachment (apatheia) is complete liberty. Detachment is the ability to think, act, and function apart from the demands of our desires and appetites. Detachment is perfect, undivided attention, and total receptivity to divine influence. Therefore, detachment is an integral part of being worked to the image of God and participating in his life. Detachment is not indifference or “otherworldliness” or self-absorption. Detachment is death to self. Detachment is spiritual peace.
At eleven months married, I am hardly an expert on the subject of marriage in general. I think, moreover, that an assessment of my own married experience as compared with Gregory’s terrifying description would miss the point. On the other hand, for me as much as for Gregory, it would seem that virginity is forever beyond my grasp. I am contentedly attached to a wife, and at this point I am considering no career option that would allow me to withdraw wholly from worldly affairs, as desirable as that sounds.
If On Virginity is to apply to me, I must take into account both the distinctions Gregory draws between marriage and virginity and the continuity between them. Though it would be unjust to water down the force of his hard teaching, the “virginity” metaphor is fluid enough that I am not totally excluded. Gregory’s secondary affirmation of a chaste marriage includes both warnings and implicit praise.
But I will return to the subject of marriage. Having admitted that sexual purity is only a part of “virginity,” it nevertheless seems a natural place to start to apply (or dispute) his teaching. And here it seems fair enough to point out, as many others have, the unfortunate status of virginity in evangelical culture.
The Desert Fathers, among students of Christian spiritual literature, have a name for both wisdom and alienness. They were among the earliest Christian monastics, leaving the increasingly secure and prosperous life of Roman Christians for poverty, celibacy, and spiritual warfare in the wildernesses of Egypt. Their most enduring legacy has been a large body of concise but often difficult quotations concerning the spiritual life and the trials of the soul seeking perfection. Today these collected sayings, odd and profound, have received several translations into English.
St. Anthony was among the earliest and greatest of the Desert Fathers, and his biographer was St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius contra mundum, the irascible fourth-century champion of orthodoxy. As the Christian world was troubled by the rise of heresies among the bishops and the often clumsy involvement of the state in doctrinal disputes, Athanasius, possibly during one of his several exiles, wrote eagerly of the holiness and deeds of Anthony as an example of perfect piety not only to the growing monastic movement, but to the whole Church. The Life of Anthony was completed around 360 and was translated into Latin soon after. Athanasius makes good reading; he is concise, engaging, and easy to understand. The Life was a much-read classic throughout late antiquity and the middle ages, inspiring thousands to seek the monastic life. Continue reading →