Translated by W. Moore and H. A. Wilson
A few words are necessary to explain the scope and aim of this remarkable treatise. It is not the work of one who held a brief for monasticism. Gregory deals with the celibate life in a different way from other Catholic writers upon this theme. Athanasius and Basil both saw in it the means of exhibiting to the world the Christian life definitely founded on the orthodox faith; and, for each celibate himself, this visible imitation of Christ would be more concentrated, when secular distractions and dissipations had been put aside for ever. Their aims were entirely moral and ecclesiastical. But Gregory deals with the entire human development in things spiritual. He has given the history of the struggle for moral and intellectual perfection, and the conditions of its success. He had his own inner Christian experience, the result of a recluse youth, on the one hand; he had the systems of heathen and Christian philosophy on the other. The ideal life that he has sketched is as lofty in its aspiration as the latter, and is couched in philosophic rather than in Scriptural language; but its scientific ground-work is entirely peculiar to himself. That groundwork is briefly this; spirit must be freed, so as to be drawn to the Divine Spirit; and to be so freed a "virginity" of the soul is necessary. He comes in this way to blame marriage, because in most of the marriages that he has known, this virginity of the soul is conspicuously absent. But he does not blame the married state in itself; as he himself distinctly tells us. The virginity he seeks may exist even there; and it is not by any means the same thing as celibacy. It is disengagedness of heart; and is, as many passages in this treatise indicate, identical with philosophy, whose higher manifestations had long ago been defined as Love, called forth by the sight of the immaterial Beauty. Where this sight is not interrupted, or not treated with indifference, there Virginity exists. With Gregory philosophy had become Life, and it is virginity that keeps it so, and therein keeps it from being lost. Another word with which Gregory identified virginity is "incorruptibility," in language sometimes which recalls the lines--
"What, what is Virtue, but repose of mind?
A pure ethereal calm that knows no storm,
Above the reach of wild ambition's wind,
Above the passions that this world deform,
And torture man, a proud malignant worm."
Yet no one would imagine that here the poet, any more than S. Paul in Ephes. vi. 24 (see p. 343, note 3), meant celibacy per se. But it may be asked, how came Gregory to use the word Virginity at all for pure disengagement of soul? The answer seems to be, that he was very fond of metaphors and elaborate comparisons, ever since the days that he was a student of Rhetoric; this treatise itself is full of similes from nature, and they are not so much poetry or rhetoric, as necessary means of bringing his meaning vividly before readers. Virginity, then, is one of these bold and telling figures; and in his hands it is a very suggestive metaphor; though certainly at times it runs away with him. The accusation, then, that when he identifies Piety and Virginity, he makes the former consist in a mere externality, is unfounded. He uses the one word for the other without apprising us that it is a metaphor, and he omits to give any dietary rules by which this virginity is secured. Therefore he appears to mean celibacy. But on the other hand no arguments can be drawn from this treatise against the monastic life; only Gregory is busied with other matters. Rather, if the actual marriages of his time are such as he describes, it is a silent witness to the reasonableness, if not to the necessity, of such a life within the church. For this view of virginity as solving the question of Gregory's supposed marriage, see Prolegomena, p. 3.
Reference address : https://www.elpenor.org/nyssa/virginity.asp