Today is the feast of Saint Agnes, virgin and martyr. Among the treasures the Carthusians sometimes reflect on for this feast is an excerpt from Saint Augustine’s “De Virginitate.” Here is that reflection.
The whole Church itself is a virgin espoused unto one Husband, Christ, as Saint Paul says, of how great honor are its members worthy, who guard this even in the flesh itself, which the whole Church guards in the faith? Imitating the mother of her husband, and her Lord, for the Church also is both a mother and a virgin. For whose virgin purity do we consult, if she is not a virgin? Or whose children do we address, if she is not a mother? Mary bore the Head of this Body after the flesh; the Church bears the members of that Body after the Spirit. In both, virginity does not hinder fruitfulness: in both, fruitfulness does not take virginity. Whereas the whole Church is holy both in body and spirit, and yet the whole is not virgin in body but in spirit; how much more holy is it in these members, wherein it is virgin both in body and spirit?
Go on, Saints of God, boys and girls, males and females, unmarried men and women; go on and persevere unto the end. Praise more sweetly the Lord, Whom you think on more richly: hope more happily in Him, Whom you serve more instantly: love Him more ardently, Whom you please more attentively. With loins girded, and lamps burning, wait for the Lord, when He comes from the marriage. You shall bring unto the marriage of the Lamb a new song, which you shall sing on your harps. Not surely such as the whole earth sings, unto which it is said: Sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord, the whole earth; but such as no one shall be able to utter but you. For there you have seen in the book of Revelation a certain one beloved above others by the Lamb, who desired to lie on His Breast, and who used to drink in, and burst forth, the Word of God above the wonders of heaven.
Wherefore, do this, virgins of God: follow the Lamb, wherever He goes. But first come to Him, Whom you are to follow, and learn, for He is meek and humble of Heart. Come in you lowly wise unto the Lowly, if you love, depart not from Him, lest you fall. For whosoever fears to depart from Him asks and says: Let the foot of pride not come to me. Go on in the way of loftiness with the foot of lowliness; He Himself lifts up those who follow Him in humility, Who thought it not a burden to come down to us in humility. The Lord protects you from committing evil when you hide in the shelter of His protection. Consider the sins you have avoided as possible only by His grace: otherwise you may fool yourself about your justice and begin to act like a Pharisee, without love, full of pride and with ruinous boasting despising the sinners who are humbly beating their breasts.
Beware of concealing that strength of yours which has been tried, so that you may not be puffed up, because you have been able to bear something: but be concerned and pray about that which has not been tried, that you will not be tempted above that which you are able to bear. Believe in secret that some are superior to you, than whom you are openly better. When the good things of others, perhaps unknown to you, are kindly believed by you, your own that are known to you are not lessened by comparison, but strengthened by love: and perhaps as yet are wanting, are by so much the more easily given, by how much they are the more humbly desired.
Let those among your number who persevere be for you an example: but let those who fall increase your fear. Love the virtues and walk on those tracks; mourn over defections, that you be not puffed up. Do not establish your own righteousness; submit yourselves unto God Who justifies you. Pardon the sins of others, pray for your own pardon: future sins shun by vigilance, past sins blot out by confessing. Thus, free from any defect, even the most minor defects, adapt your life to the profession of virginity.
When virgins are adorned with virtues, their lives appear angelic in the eyes of men, their habits resemble those of heaven, their face never shows anger, their eyes are not wandering, their tongues are not unbridled, no petulant laugh, and are dressed modestly. They do not render evil for evil, nor insult for insult, and lastly, they fulfill that love which lays down their life for their brethren. Already you are as such, because that is what you ought to be. But, the measure of your greatness, whosoever of you are so great, is determined by much humbling of yourselves in all things, that you may find grace before God, that He does not resist you because of pride, that He doesn’t humble you because you lifted yourself up, that He doesn’t lead you through straits as being puffed up: although anxiety being unnecessary, because, where Charity glows, humility is not wanting.
Because you have renounced marriage, paternity or maternity, love Him with your whole heart, Who is the fairest among the sons of men. You can devote yourself to Him fully since you are free from the bonds of marriage. Gaze on the Beauty of your Lover: think of Him equal to the Father, made subject also to His Mother: ruling even in the heavens, and serving upon the earth: creating all things, created among all things. That very thing, which in Him the proud mock at, gaze on, how fair it is: with inward eyes gaze on the Wounds of Him hanging, the scars of Him rising again, the Blood of Him dying, the price of him that believes, the gain of Him that redeems. Consider of how great value these are, weigh them in the scales of Charity; and whatever love you could have expended in your marriage, give back to Him.
There is One Who gave you the power to become children of God, O Christian soul, Who seeks your inner beauty, and not a glittery content, but fair conduct. He is not One unto Whom anyone can lie concerning you, and make Him rage through jealousy. See with how great security you love Him, Whom you fear not to offend by false suspicions. Husband and wife love each other, in that they see each other: and what they do not see, they fear between themselves: nor have they sure delight in what is visible, while in what is concealed they usually suspect what is not. You in Him, Whom you see not with the eyes, and behold by faith, neither have what is real to blame, nor fear lest perhaps you offend Him by what is false. If therefore you should owe great love to husbands, Him, for Whose sake you would not have husbands, how greatly ought you to love? Let Him be fixed in your whole heart, Who for you was fixed on the Cross.