Third in a Series on Catholic Marriage and Parenthood
Fr. Thomas J. Gerrard
How is it that nearly the whole of the creative literature of the world has been made to center around the young girl? How is it that love stories about married people, widows, and widowers have such a prosaic savor and so often tend towards degeneracy? It is because there is something mysterious in virginity. There is a power hidden in the virgin mind which can change the destinies of men, of nations, of the race. Shall this power be divided, ministering to the procreation of body and education of soul? Or shall it renounce the carnal part and be devoted exclusively to the care of the spirit?
These questions are very old, perhaps as old as the human race itself; for there is some reason to believe that the sins of our first parents had something to do with the vow of virginity. At any rate, we know that in the earliest Roman times the problem faced the maidens of the family. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth. But family worship was not enough. A special sanctuary was needed where all the citizens of the State could worship as one great family. The goddess was there represented by an eternal fire burning on her hearth or altar. And virgins were set aside to keep alive this fire. The goddess was chaste and pure, as the fire symbolized. The virginity of the priestesses both figured and realized that purity. Thus, even in natural religion virginity was regarded as a higher type of spirit life.
When God became incarnate, He added a higher sanctity to virginity by choosing to be born of a Virgin. By the same act, too, he raised the dignity of motherhood. Both states of life were needed for the perfection of His plans. Some would be called to one state, others to the other. Christ Himself declared that renunciation of marriage was more blessed than fruition, provided it was done for the kingdom of heaven's sake. Not every one could receive that word, but he who could, let him.
St. Paul applied this doctrine when he said:
He that giveth his virgin in marriage doeth well, and he that giveth her not doeth better.
In biblical language the term virgin includes men as well as women. Thus, St. John, in the Apocalypse, says:
These are they who were not defiled with women: for they are virgins.
In modern language we speak of the men as celibates. The Council of Trent uses both words in defining that single blessedness is the higher gift:
If anyone says that the married state is to be placed before that of virginity or celibacy, and that it is not a better and more blessed thing to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in matrimony, let him be anathema.
The virginity or celibacy here spoken of is not necessarily that of the ecclesiastical or religious life. The Church recognizes three normal states of life: marriage, which is good; single blessedness in the world, which is better; single blessedness in religion, which is best.
This does not mean however that the single life is better for everybody, nor that the religious life is the best for everybody. These states are only good, better, and best, when regarded in themselves. If we look at them with regard to particular people, the order of good, better, and best may be reversed. Indeed, for the vast majority of people marriage is by far the best thing. The single life in the world would maim them, and perhaps life in religion would ruin them. Everything depends on the individual's circumstances, his temperament, his health, his ability, his desires, above all his graces. This, then, is the problem with which all young people are confronted: To what state of life am I called?
Let us say at the outset that the solution is love.
But what is love? Its mystic nature defies an exhaustive description. There is, however, a simple definition which may be applied to every kind of love. It is: To will good for some one. This is the essence of love, whether of father, mother, husband, wife, child, friend, or enemy. It may be accompanied by the passion of affection or by the passion of aversion. If I love my mother, affection is also present. If I love my enemy, aversion is probably present. I may feel a dislike to a man, yet at the same time will to do him good.
Further, love may be devoid, or almost devoid, of passion. I may have a love for the religious life, for instance, without having any affection for it. I may see that only by entering religion shall I be able to do the greatest good to my fellow men. Even though I have an aversion for common life and loss of liberty, yet I may see in those things my best chance of salvation and love them accordingly.
In the choice of a state of life, then, the leading question will be: Which state do I really love? Do I want to be married? Do I want to live singly in the world and devote myself to a special profession? Do I want to be a priest? Do I want to be a nun? Above all, is my desire constant, or do I waver between one thing and another, never knowing my own mind?
Marriage will be the choice of most. It is the state for which they are by nature fitted, and for them the highest and most perfect life which they can live.
In most cases, the choice is settled by a chance meeting and by the accident known as falling in love. Mutual passion for each other is the predominant attractive force. If this passion is consonant with reason and revelation, then it is all good and beautiful. If there are impediments to the proposed marriage, then the passion is out of place and must be checked. Passion cannot be good if it has for its object that which tends to the ruin of the end of marriage. But the impediments placed by God and by the Church are all arranged to protect the end of marriage, and therefore passion must never seek to override them.
The case, however, often arises in which only one of the pair feels the passion. What is the other to do? Suppose it to be the girl, and suppose her mind to be expressed by some such saying as this : "I like him, you know, but I cannot say that I am in love with him."
There is need here to distinguish between love and passion. Love is essentially an act of the will; passion is essentially a mere sensation. Let us repeat, though, that the most perfect love for married people is that in which the will is fired by passion and in which the passion is controlled by the will. But let us never forget that the lasting element in such love is that of the will. Passion burns out in time.
The girl, then, who is in every way fitted for marriage receives an offer from a young man who is in many ways suitable. She feels that she can honor and respect him, but hesitates about accepting him because she does not feel in love. If she is young and likely to have other chances, she may wait. But if she is likely to become an old maid then she may fortify herself with the philosophical distinction between love and passion. If she believes that the man will do all he can to make her happy, and she is determined to do all she can to make him happy, she will be well advised to marry him. Good will is the real stuff of which love is made, passion is but an added perfection. Moreover, the good will in such cases invariably rouses the passion before the days of courtship are ended.
On the part of the man the doubt is hardly ever as to whether he is in love or not, nor yet as to whether he is called to marriage or the Church. He usually knows quite well what he wants. He doubts only his power of fulfilling the obligations of the new state of life.
In regard to marriage, he is afraid he cannot afford to keep a wife. The number is growing of those young men who abstain from marriage in order that they may have the pleasure of trifling luxuries. They prefer to be free for the joys of cigarettes and billiards rather than undertake the burden of marriage with its greater joys. Such a choice is nothing but low, unworthy selfishness.
More important, however, is the case where the young man finds the single life a constant temptation to impurity. Then must he seriously turn his attention to marriage as to his salvation. "It is better to marry than to burn." And it is best of all to marry early, before bad habits are formed. The number of unhappy homes, caused through youthful indiscretion before marriage, is appalling. It were better, therefore, to marry, even with poverty in prospect, than to lead a single life continually tempted and perhaps continually falling.
Vocations to the celibate life usually begin to show themselves before the age adapted to marriage. Parents need to know that such a vocation is a special gift of God. Its chief sign is a spontaneous and constant desire. Two dangers are to be avoided. Parents must not force the idea of the priesthood or of the cloister on their children. Nor, on the other hand, must they suppress it when it appears. Indeed, they will be on the lookout for the signs of zeal and piety which accompany the desire, so that the vocation may have every chance of coming to maturity. It is a great privilege to be able to offer a child for the special service of God.
There is a prevalent impression in many Catholic families that there are only two callings for girls, either to get married or to become a nun. Now such is not Catholic teaching. There is an impression, too, that the single state outside marriage or religion is something lower than either. Neither is that Catholic teaching. On this point the Church is in full sympathy with the age. She sanctions and encourages a career for certain women in a life of single blessedness without the cloistral vows. And more, she provides the means in her Sacraments by which such a life is lived to its highest perfection.
I think the origin of confusion in regard to the Church's teaching comes from misunderstanding her practice as to the taking of vows. She strongly discourages the taking of any vow, and especially the vow of virginity, outside a religious order or congregation. There is not the same protection for it in the world as there is in religion. The Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, and the Eucharist are all-powerful against the temptation to incontinency, but they are by no means proof against the desire for the Sacrament of matrimony. The practice of spiritual directors therefore is to recommend not a vow but a resolution.
Thus, if a girl makes a resolution to lead a single life outside religion, and afterwards receives an offer of marriage which she wants to accept, then there is no difficulty whatever in changing her resolution. Whereas, if she were under a vow she would have to make serious efforts to keep the vow, and could only be dispensed from it on the understanding that she could not possibly keep it.
If, however, this single life in the world be adopted, it must be adopted for the kingdom of heaven's sake. Nor does this mean that it must be lived in continuous contemplation, or in continuous slumming. A certain amount of contemplative prayer will be included in it, and, if one has time and opportunity, a certain amount of slumming or similar charitable work will be helpful to it. What is meant, however, is that the life shall be lived at least in a state of grace and that effort shall be made towards spiritual perfection.
The renunciation of marriage implies the power to remain chaste, and involves the duty of availing one's self of the means to do so. Religion is the only reliable help. We carry our treasure in frail vessels. The flesh lusteth against the spirit. Therefore the spirit must be continually strengthened by renewed communion with the spirit world. In marriage, the flesh is to a certain extent satisfied. In virginity and celibacy the flesh is mortified. And this mortification is sustained just in proportion as the spirit satisfies its supernatural longing for God. Regular Confession and Communion therefore are the first normal conditions of a chaste life outside the marriage state.
In the natural order, the normal condition of chastity is work. Rene Bazin, in his exquisite story, Redemption, draws a fine picture of a young milliner who made her occupation a fascinating and consoling joy. But she was an exception, and ended, moreover, by taking the nun's veil. The occupation of women in workshops does not of its nature tend to keep them good. It is drab and uninteresting. Marriage, therefore, is their hope. And if they adopt the single life, either voluntarily or in willing submission to necessity, their hope lies almost solely in the regular use of the other Sacraments.
The single life is more easily chosen by the woman of the middle and upper-middle classes. She can enter the learned professions. An expert authority has said, though the statement has been questioned, that from twenty to thirty percent of women are by temperament adapted to single life in the world. Whatever the exact percentage may be, it would seem to pertain to the normal state of a healthy society that a certain number should be free from the cares of a family so as to be able to take a more active and independent part in the social and spiritual regeneration of the community.
It is well, in these days, to insist upon this phase of the Catholic ideal. Single blessedness, thus sanctified by the Church, has a social as well as an individual value. The restraint practiced in the single life reacts generally on the whole social organism. It reacts particularly on the marriage state, strengthening it and keeping it pure. We are all members one of another. The power of self-conquest which virginity implies is bound to tell in greater or less degree on every member of society.
Let no one, then, despair of being unable to find a vocation. Those who marry do well, for, without them, neither the Church nor the world could continue. Those who marry not do better, for they sacrifice themselves for the whole spiritual kingdom, bearing fruit to the extent of many souls. If they do not choose this state spontaneously, even so they can sanctify it by using it and dlrecting it to the higher claims of the spirit.