According to Gregory of Nyssa, virginity is a sign to us of spiritual detachment, which is itself the restoration of the human creature to a state of order, purity, and peace. The goal of detachment is contemplation of the perfect and infinite beauty of God and participation in it.
Evangelicals are not known for their attention to beauty. The other transcendentals, truth and goodness, have a clear place, but at least on a popular level, beauty rarely seems to make an appearance. The reason for this lies to a certain extent in our Protestant heritage. The Reformers were eager to strip away the aura of mystery that seemed to give so much power to the priests. Beauty was regarded by many as suspicious and deceptive, and so it was divided from truth. Today we waver between iconoclasm and spectacle.
Gregory is one of the first and greatest theologians of divine beauty, and perhaps we may look to him to begin to recover a robust doctrine. To discuss the beauty of God is to enter into another theological conversation too vast for me, so I will content myself for the most part with describing Gregory’s use of the language of beauty, as Gregory invokes the very archetype words can never truly capture.
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.
St. Gregory of Nyssa was until recently the least recognized of the three Great Cappadocian theologians. He was not a man of exceptional worldly learning and political acumen like his older brother Basil, nor was his theology as rigorously explored and influential as that of his friend Gregory of Nazianzus. Lately he has received more attention for his influence on the Christian mystical tradition, his total opposition to slavery, and his ambiguous leanings on apokatastasis. But Gregory was much more than these peculiarities.
Gregory came from a distinguished Cappadocian Christian family whose members included not only great scholars and rhetoricians, but saints and martyrs and proto-monks. He was a quiet man but a brilliant thinker, well-versed in Greek philosophy, staunch in his defense of the Nicene formulation of the Trinity. He was deeply influenced by Origen, but rejected heretical Origenism wherever its doctrines contradicted those of the church. His prose is simple and beautiful, typically shunning ornate formulas but showing great literary craft and a gift for analogy. During his lifetime he was widely honored by the orthodox as a champion of the faith; the Second Council of Nicaea (787) later called him “father of fathers.”