In his Hymns on Virginity, Ephrem does more than write about not having sex. He also discusses seemingly tangential things like anointing oil, interpretation of Scripture, the natural world, Baptism, the Eucharist, and the Church. And it’s not like he weaves them into his reflections on virginity with the kind of subtlety that only careful eyes can detect. Actually, the opposite is true – Ephrem spends entire hymns without ever mentioning what he’s ostensibly writing about. Even when he does focus on virginity explicitly, the presence or absence of sexual intercourse is not his main concern.
When we focus on virginity today, it seems like our tendency is to frame things in terms of either morality and delay or social ineptitude and failure. With Christians in particular, the praise given to virginity seems often to revolve around what virginity can offer to married sexuality. Over the years, I’ve heard it regularly claimed that virginity is important because it leads to better married sex and brings less emotional and physical baggage into marriage.
Whether eliciting social shame or spiritual pride, current approaches to virginity seem to center largely on absence, on what virgins don’t have. And for Christians, the posture can often be a defensive one – virginity defends against certain things as it waits for what it lacks.
Not so for Ephrem. Where we think defense, he thinks offense. Even reading Ephrem’s Hymns on Virginity can be offensive to us, since his vision conflicts with any approach to sexuality that revolves around physical gratification or emotional and social fulfillment.
Ephrem’s vision can also be confusing. In the process of writing about virginity, he turns to things that appear to be miscellaneous – the relationship between anointing oil and the Anointed One, the relationship between the old and new covenants, the sacraments, the inclusion of the gentiles, etc.
It’s not insignificant that Ephrem’s Hymns on Virginity has a second, fuller title: Hymns on Virginity and on the Symbols of the Lord. There seems to be a reason that he pairs the two – virginity and the symbols of the Lord – and a reason that he distinguishes them. When Ephrem discusses virginity, he doesn’t focus on delay or the benefits to married sex. Instead, his understanding centers on communion with God.
For Ephrem, the symbols of the Lord constitute the Church’s present experience with her heavenly Bridegroom. They anticipate the wedding supper of the Lamb and offer a taste of the coming consummation between the Bridegroom and his virgin bride.
Marriage between a husband and a wife symbolizes this reality. The role of a husband or wife is to attend to this symbol so that it might be a true sign of the intimacy and love Jesus shares with his beloved. And while marriage can be a bent and distorted sign that mocks the wedding supper of the Lamb, it can also be a true sign that directs the world to its Savior, bearing forth the image of God.
In his Hymns on Virginity, Ephrem praises virginity without disdaining married sex as a result. So he writes:
Therefore, [oil is] like God, Who loves virginity: / the daughter of the symbol of the house of Michael and kinswoman of the house of Gabriel. / [Oil] consoles the barren women like Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel. / It also strengthens those who bring forth [children] / like Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah, since to [oil] marriage is pure, / since [marriage] is a vine planted on earth, and like fruits the babes hang on it. (Hymn 5, p285 in the Classics of Western Spirituality volume)
Ephrem here honors women who are virgins as well as women who aren’t, whether barren or fertile. He doesn’t denounce women for having sex as if he thought it was inherently wrong or morally corrupt; he even calls marriage “pure.” Yet Ephrem still holds virginity in higher regard than marriage. The difference between the two is somewhat subtle, though nonetheless significant.
It seems that marriage involves attending to a symbol while virginity entails communing with the reality itself. A husband is to direct his desire towards his wife and focus on caring for her. A virgin, however, is to direct her desire towards God and focus on receiving God’s care alone. The virgin thus embraces the reality of what marriage symbolizes and seeks satisfaction only in the Church’s Bridegroom, the one who is the true goal of all desire, married or virginal.
For Ephrem, virginity enables one to experience the wedding supper of the Lamb more completely than does marriage. This is why he refers to virginity as “the daughter of the symbol of the house of Michael and kinswoman of the house of Gabriel.” Virginity demonstrates an angelic-like existence that shows forth a life fully consecrated to communion with God, unmoved from the reality and intimate with the Bridegroom alone. So Ephrem writes:
The Anointed enriches the lamps of the virgins espoused to Him. / ……. / Since the time of the Bridegroom is not revealed to us, you virgins have become our Watchers [a Syriac term for angels] / so that your lamps might gladden, and your hosannas might glorify. (Hymn 5, p284)
For Ephrem, the call to virginity is a call to be a Watcher, to watch for the arrival of the Bridegroom and to attend to his coming without distraction. Ephrem writes:
Blessed are you, O bride, espoused to the Living One, / you who do not long for a mortal man. / Foolish is the bride who is proud / of the ephemeral crown that will be gone tomorrow. / Blessed is your heart, captivated by the love / of a beauty portrayed in your mind. / You have exchanged the transitory bridal couch for the bridal couch / whose blessings are unceasing. (Hymn 24, p366)
For Ephrem, the virgin receives the coming of the Bridegroom because she has “exchanged the transitory bridal couch for the bridal couch whose blessings are unceasing.” As a result of exchanging bridal couches, the virgin is able to be captivated exclusively by the love of the beauty of the Living One. Thus Ephrem writes of Mary Magdalene and the prophetess Anna:
Blessed are you if you will be a daughter to Mary [Magdalene] / whose eye scorned all persons. / She turned her face away from everything / to gaze on one beauty alone. / Blessed is her love that was intoxicated, not sober, / so that she sat at His feet to gaze at Him. / Let you also portray the Messiah in your heart / and love Him in your mind. / ……. / Blessed is your beauty – free and not laboring at / the unending service of [your] Betrothed. / You chose the Bridegroom Whose splendor would adorn you / and Whose dew would refresh you. / ……. / Blessed also is that Anna who hated / her house and loved the Temple of her Lord. / She gazed intently at hidden beauty / for eighty years but was not sated. / Blessed is her gaze that she concentrated on the One. (Hymn 24, p367)
Ephrem recognizes in Mary Magdalene and Anna women whose minds and hearts were filled with the presence of Christ and who devoted themselves to the true Bridegroom and directed their desire solely towards him. Husbands and wives are unable to do this, given that their commission is to desire each other, neither of whom are the Lord. Mary and Anna, however, reserve their desire for the Lord alone and so receive its fulfillment more completely and exclusively.
For Ephrem, virgins are called to direct the imagination of the Church to the final consummation of all things, to the Church’s true identity as the pure and spotless virgin bride. And in so doing, virgins make known that human desire is complete only in the wedding supper of the Lamb. The state of virginity then, according to Ephrem, is what we might refer to as an eschatologically advanced calling. And it’s one that’s offensive to say the least.
As we conclude, we should note a few things. First, Ephrem’s vision of virginity incorporates sexual healing. He writes:
O you, virginity, your destruction is simple for all, / but your restoration is easy only for the Lord of all. (Hymn 2, p267)
Whether someone’s virginity is taken or given, Ephrem recognizes that the Lord is able and desirous to restore, purify, and heal.
Second, Ephrem doesn’t think every virgin should refrain from marriage (as some of his contemporaries did) and he’s well aware of the difficulty inherent in remaining a virgin. Thus he writes:
The Evil One stole the weak from marriage in the name of conversion, / ……. / Ashamed to assume the condition of marriage, / they fell into the snares of sin. (Hymn 1, p263)
The desire for marriage isn’t inherently wrong, according to Ephrem. And conversely he isn’t naïve to the struggle of a virginal life.
Third, alongside virginity, Ephrem also praises chaste marriages, wherein husbands and wives refrain permanently from sex – living in marriage, yet functioning sexually as virgins.
Certainly there are resonances between Ephrem’s approach to virginity and Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians. Both consider virginity to be preferable to marriage, yet both think marriage is acceptable in order to avoid what Ephrem calls “the snares of sin.” Although when we get to chaste marriages, there seems to be a conflict. Paul advises married couples to have sexual relations while Ephrem praises those who don’t. If a conflict indeed exists, it’s noteworthy that Paul counsels married couples to refrain from sex during times of prayer and fasting. And according to Ephrem, a life of prayer and fasting is precisely what it means to be a Watcher, attendant to the coming of Christ and sustained by communion with God alone. Thus, following Ephrem, married couples refraining from sex in order to pray and fast would do so for the purpose of directing their desire exclusively to intimate communion with God, a communion that their marriages are called to symbolize.