Browsing The Northern Cross

Father Nicholas Nelson: Virginity, the more excellent state

The other week while I was on retreat, I came across a collection of letters written either to St. Therese of Lisieux or by her. One in particular really struck me. It was written by Therese when she was already at Carmel to her sister, Celine, who was discerning what vocation she was called to. Therese was encouraging Celine to join her at Carmel. This letter struck me by its appreciation for virginity and a life given totally to God. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

St. Therese wrote, “Celine, let us make of our heart a little garden of delights where Jesus may come to rest, let us plant only lilies in our garden, yes, lilies, and let us allow no other flowers, for other flowers can be cultivated by other souls, but it is virgins alone who can give lilies to Jesus. Virginity is a profound silence from all cares of this earth. Not only from useless cares but from all cares. Since Jesus was born by his will of a Lily, He loves to find Himself in virgin hearts.” 

Marriage is a beautiful vocation. The church needs it. But without diminishing it, I wish to express the church’s appreciation for virginity. Normally the church uses the terms “virgin” regarding women and “celibacy” regarding men. I will use “virginity” and “chaste celibacy” interchangeably to mean a non-married life consecrated to God. 

Jesus speaks of virginity as a great good to be received, if one is called to it. “The disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it’” (Matthew 19:10-12). 

St. Paul praises chaste celibacy. He says, “So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (1 Corinthians 7:38). 

In the 4th century, St. Ambrose spoke so beautifully and highly of virginity that mothers and fathers wouldn’t let their daughters go to hear him preach, because he would undoubtedly convince them to pass on marriage and enter the role of virgins. 

St. Thomas Aquinas held that virginity was preferable to marriage. He wrote, “By the example of Christ, Who both chose a virgin for His mother and remained Himself a virgin, and by the teaching of the Apostle who counsels virginity as the greater good” (II.II.q.52a.4). 

The most authoritative pronouncement comes from the Council of Trent, “If anyone says that the married state excels the state of virginity or celibacy, and that it is better and happier to be united in matrimony than to remain in virginity or celibacy, let him be anathema” (Trent 24.10). 

In 1954, and realizing that chaste celibacy was being more and more forgotten and underappreciated, Pope Pius XII wrote an encyclical specifically on consecrated virginity. He said, “Virginity is preferable to marriage then, as We have said, above all else because it has a higher aim: that is to say, it is a very efficacious means for devoting oneself wholly to the service of God, while the heart of married persons will remain more or less ‘divided’” (Sacra Virginitas). 

While it has been consistently the mind of the Church that virginity is objectively a preferable, higher, more excellent, more perfect state, it doesn’t mean that the individuals living in that state are necessarily better or holier. 

My point in writing this is to say that we only get one life. We only get one opportunity to glorify God in the greatest way. We only get one opportunity to merit the greatest beatitude in heaven, and therefore it’s worth living the Gospel in the most radical way. It makes sense to conform your life as completely as possible to that of Christ’s life, and that includes chaste celibacy. This is on condition that one is being called to this vocation. Because it is Christ himself who said, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.” 

In promoting vocations, we can focus on doing priestly work or doing the work of religious sisters as a motivation. But it’s primarily the call to chaste celibacy that distinguishes these vocations from the married vocation. The longer I am a priest, the more I appreciate having received this calling of chaste celibacy. Marriage and children are so beautiful, and our sexual nature is such an important part of us, that to sacrifice its immediate fulfillment and reorder it towards spiritual fruitfulness is truly special. There is something ennobling and fulfilling knowing that I am totally consecrated to the Lord. 

Let us all appreciate whatever vocation we have been called to, but at the same time encourage our young men and women to consider the priesthood, or religious life, or consecrated virginity. Let us help them realize it is a more excellent state, that it is a more radical way to live, modeled after the life of Christ. It is a vocation that brings a great amount of fulfillment knowing that one belongs entirely to God! 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet and vocations director for the Diocese of Duluth. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]