church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

One is tempted to say that it takes a fair bit of either courage or foolhardiness in our culture to write in praise of virginity.  But virginity is now so misunderstood and undervalued that some words need to be offered to understand it and recognize its proper value.  In our present culture (it was otherwise in the Jurassic days of my youth) virginity in adults is considered comical if not downright pathological.   That is why a comedy can be entitled “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin”, for our culture regards a forty-year-old man who is still a virgin with the same studied incomprehension and disbelief as it would a forty-year-old man who had never worn shoes or who had never spoken on a telephone.  What’s wrong with that guy anyway?  How abnormal!

That is not just because our society is preoccupied with sex.  It is preoccupied with sex, of course, and so regards the sexual drive as irresistible.  We believe that one could no more resist the sexual drive than one could stand upright in the face of a category 5 hurricane.  But preoccupation and obsession are not the only reasons for our conviction that virginity in adults is abnormal, wrong, and a bit sick.  It is also because we have devalued sexual intercourse.

This is more than a bit ironic in a society that is so preoccupied with it, but it is true nonetheless.  Sexual sharing with someone has now not much more relational significance than sharing a meal with someone:  both involve the satisfaction of an appetite with someone else, and the satisfaction of appetite is regarded as all there is to it.  The act of sharing a meal or of sharing bodies might involve deep commitment—or it might not.  The existence of such commitment is entirely dependent upon our choice, but there is nothing in the act itself—either of eating or of intercourse—that demands such commitment.

That is why people can talk about “casual sex”—sex need not of itself involve a deeper or permanent bond than eating at the same table in McDonald’s.  That is also why it is sometimes referred to as “hooking up”—a procedure in my day that described connecting your dysfunctional car to a tow-truck.  After a short ride, you unhooked your car and the tow-truck went on its way.  The driver of the truck did not phone you the next day to ask how your car was doing.  Hooking up had little abiding significance—rather like sexual hooking up now.

Except, of course, that it does have such significance.  When we stop listening to the ceaseless barrage of propaganda coming to us from every movie, book, magazine, and television show, we see that sharing bodies does produce a bond, whether we intend it to or not.  No sex therefore is ever really casual.  We can try to pretend it is casual by ignoring the bond, but this comes at an internal cost as we break the bond time after time with serial partners.  We then find ourselves de-sensitized and coarsened within as we imitate animals with their serial partners and are pushed toward animality ourselves.

It is just here that virginity (aka “self-control”) comes into its own and can be understood.  Virginity—much prized in the ancient world by philosophical pagans as well as Christians—involves two important things:  love and power.

First of all, virginity involves love.  That is, those committed to virginity before marriage believe that offering one’s body to another sexually involves more than a brief bodily experience, but a total self-giving of one’s heart and life to another.  Sexual self-giving is the anatomical way of pledging loyalty, of binding oneself to the beloved for all time.  All lovers, when they are really in love, know this, which is why all love poetry is filled with promises of eternal constancy and undying devotion.  And that is also why, as was once finely said, love is the great conqueror of lust:  the lover desires not a brief physical release, but the eternal and perpetual presence of the beloved.

Once in a very long while such insight even makes it into the movies:  in the film “Secondhand Lions”, the character played by Robert Duvall, after being challenged a young punk who was intent on bullying the much older man, seizes the kid by the throat and explains to the punk who and what he is.  At the conclusion of a long list of his exploits throughout life, Duvall says, “I’ve loved only one woman with a passion a flea like you could never begin to understand”.  That is the voice of devotion and love.  That is true commitment.  That is what sex is all about, and it is why those who understand it preserve their virginity until their love can be given to one person and one person only with a passion that the fleas of the world could never begin to understand.  What is hooking up compared to such fiery nobility of spirit, such depth of devotion, such soaring commitment?

Virginity alone therefore truly understands sex.  Fleas who are merely interested in hooking up are left outside, bewildered by such mysteries.  Such love is strong as death; its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame.  Many waters cannot quench such love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for such love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned (so says Song of Solomon 8:6-7).

Secondly, virginity involves power.  The exercise of self-restraint—self-restraint of any kind, not just sexual self-restraint—increases one’s internal power.  Restraining the appetite for food through fasting produces an interior buildup of spiritual power, as mystics throughout the ages can testify.  One finds that inner resources multiply, that one’s potential to understand and grow and deepen are magnified.  That is why even the pagan philosophers of antiquity practised such sexual restraint.  They did not buy into the lie that such restraint was impossible, but they knew from experience how it enlarged their spiritual power and capacities.  They did not avoid sex because sex was bad (a suggestion that the Church has always condemned as heretical), but because virginity and restraint were the pathway to inner power.

St. Paul expresses the same thing in his commendation of virginity, but he expresses in terms of devotion to Christ:  “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.  And the unmarried woman or virgin is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).  Marriage with its sexual activity is fine, but virginity is better.  Consecrated virginity brings power.

The Church’s commitment to sexual chastity and its requirement that its members confine sexual sharing to one’s marriage partner is now deeply counter-cultural.  Such things could be assumed to be a part of the Church’s teaching and requirements in decades past.  Not so now.  It needs to come to the fore once again.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.