In the midst of an era that seeks to legitimize all modes of sexual license, this Lenten time of repentance offers us the distance from worldly passions that can allow us to fully appreciate the Christian virtue of chastity.
As traditional forms of Western Christianity also remember, chastity is closely linked to sexual self-control or moderation (sophrosune). But Orthodoxy has also retained the experience of chastity in its fullness, preserving not only the value of chastity as a moral virtue, but also its radiant beauty that follows from true chastity as entailing a very special kind of purity (hagneia).
Prof. David Bradshaw’s article helps us understand this rich Orthodox teaching concerning the beauty of chastity by elucidating the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, which the Church prescribes for the first five weeks of Lent, and which teaches us how, through the repentance that leads to humility, we can once again approach the beauty of sexual purity that our modern age has not only rejected, but nearly forgotten altogether.
By David Bradshaw
The Difference Between Abstinence and Chastity
Chastity is a term that has almost disappeared from our public discourse. Its place has been taken by abstinence, the avoidance or (if necessary) active refusal of sex outside of marriage. Many schools offer “abstinence education,” and some years ago there was a vogue for abstinence pledges, although I gather that it has waned. Surveys routinely report on the rates of abstinence in various demographic groups, complete with elaborate statistical analysis.
It says much about our society that we prefer to speak about abstinence rather than chastity. Abstinence is, properly speaking, not a virtue at all, but a form of behavior. There can be many reasons for being abstinent, ranging from concerns about health, to the fear of a bad reputation, to simply the lack of the right opportunity. Focusing on abstinence enables us to give what we say a quasi-scientific aura of objectivity while avoiding messy questions about morality, God, and the soul.
Yet a great deal has been lost with the disappearance of chastity. Chastity is unlike abstinence not only in that it is a virtue, but in that it is a positive ideal that can inspire deep and abiding commitment. Its power is evident throughout a great deal of western literature, where it is extolled in the highest terms, even if not always by name. The Arthurian romances turn on the contrast between the adulterous love of Lancelot and Guinevere and the chastity of Sir Galahad, who by his purity attained to the Holy Grail. In another great medieval work, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it is Sir Gawain’s chaste refusal of temptation that saves him from the mysterious power of the Green Knight. Shakespeare abounds in unforgettable characters like Miranda in The Tempest and Desdemona in Othello who move us by their purity and innocence, particularly as we see it threatened by lust (as in The Tempest) or treachery (as in Othello). The great novels of the nineteenth century—those of Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, and others—are likewise full of characters whose chastity we admire, even as we fear for how the world threatens to corrupt them.
By most accounts the common moral vision that informed these works died a century ago, mauled to pieces in the trenches of World War I. Yet the truth is that it survives everywhere that traditional Christianity is still practiced. Christianity is above all the faith of the Resurrection, so perhaps it is fitting that we Christians today often find ourselves in the position of seeking to resurrect pieces of ancient wisdom. There is a great deal of wisdom about chastity to be found within the Christian tradition. Today I wish to focus in particular on Orthodoxy, for it is there, I believe, that ancient Christian wisdom is most fully realized.
The Distinctiveness of Orthodox Sexual Ethics: The Akathist Hymn as Teacher
What is distinctive about Orthodox sexual ethics? Not, for the most part, its content; this we share with the whole Christian tradition. It is rather the way that this ethics is embedded in practices of worship, repentance, forgiveness, and self-denial. These make vividly apparent something that the authors I have mentioned understood well enough, but that we have largely lost sight of today, the beauty of chastity. Such beauty can move the soul far more powerfully than any system of rules or prohibitions. To be Orthodox is, among other things, to be inspired by such beauty, and to find in it a way of dwelling in the presence of God.
One Orthodox service above all seems to me almost a school for teaching how to recognize and make one’s own the beauty of chastity. This is the Akathist to the Theotokos sung on the first five Fridays of Lent in the Greek tradition, and the fifth Friday in the Russian tradition. For the rest of this paper I will focus on the Akathist. Much of what I say could also be illustrated from other services and prayers, as well as the lives of the saints and traditional ascetic practices such as fasting and confession. All of these are integral to the Orthodox way of life, and chastity is ultimately simply one aspect of that broader ethos. However, I will focus on the Akathist because it particularly highlights the beauty of chastity.
The Akathist begins, as do many Orthodox services, with the Small Compline. These initial prayers establish a penitential mood and help acclimate the soul to being in the presence of God.1 The first distinctive element of the service is a hymn that places us at the Annunciation as seen through the eyes of Gabriel. Gabriel is here a dutiful servant obeying the commands of his master. He marvels at the Virgin, not so much because of any trait intrinsic to her, but because of the incredible marvel being wrought within her:
With mystic apprehension of the divine commandment, the bodiless angel quickly appeared in the house of Joseph, and said to the unwedded Virgin: “Lo, He who in His descent bowed the heavens is housed unchanged and whole in thee. As I behold Him in thy womb taking on the form of a servant, I marvel and cry unto thee: Hail, O Bride Unwedded!”2
Beauty is not mentioned here. Nonetheless, what Gabriel describes is profoundly beautiful. Indeed, it is perhaps the highest form of beauty that can be apprehended by the human mind—the unlooked for, undeserved, and deeply mysterious act of God becoming man. Gabriel can only obey in awestruck wonder the command he has been given, marveling all the while at the Virgin in whose womb the eternal God now makes His abode.
The Unfathomable Extremity of Divine Love
Much like Gabriel, we learn much here. We learn the incredible, unfathomable extremity of divine love. We learn the exalted place that this love has given to an otherwise unknown Jewish maiden. And we learn something about the nature of beauty itself: that it consists, not only in the manifestation of the divine nature (as philosophers had long believed), but, more specifically, in the manifestation of divine love. It is for this reason that God’s act itself is a supreme form of beauty. Thus, among the many things that the divine Incarnation revolutionizes, there is our understanding of beauty itself.
The Canon that follows amplifies profusely the marvel of the Virgin who contains God. She is the “mountain of spiritual riches seasoned by the Spirit,” “the ladder elevating all from earth by grace,” the “fiery chariot of the Logos,” the “living paradise, having the Lord, the Tree of Life, in [her] midst.”3 Such imagery brings home vividly that, just as the Temple was sanctified by the presence of God, so—but far more—is the Virgin sanctified by God taking flesh in her womb. As the worshippers listen they may well be looking at an icon that makes the same point visually: the Playtera ton ouranon, “She who is more spacious than the heavens.” This icon, depicting the Theotokos with a young Christ superimposed on her chest, often faces the congregation from the apse above the altar.4
Soon, however, the focus shifts dramatically. At the start of the Seventh Ode the topic shifts suddenly to the three holy youths of the book of Daniel:
The godly-minded youths did not worship the creature instead of the Creator; but valiantly rejecting the threat of the fire, they joyfully sang: “Blessed art Thou, most praised Lord, and God of our fathers.”5
We must wait until the subsequent Ode for an explanation of this shift. There we find it linked to the theophany to Moses at the burning bush:
Verily Moses comprehended in the bush the great mystery of thy birth-giving. The youths prefigured this most clearly, standing in the midst of the fire without being burned, O pure and holy Virgin; wherefore we praise you unto all the ages.6
Much is said here, and even more is implied. The point is not only that the youths in the fire, like the burning bush, prefigured the Theotokos, who contained God in her womb but was not consumed. We must bear in mind as well that the youths were kept safe in the fire only because of their single-minded refusal to surrender to temptation. The youths thus prefigure the Theotokos, not only by the miracle of remaining unburnt in the fire, but by the purity and holiness of their way of life.
Partaking of Purity
Of course, we too face temptation, and we too may someday find ourselves in the situation of the three youths. The hymn thus invites us to see ourselves as called, in our own way, to prefigure the Theotokos—or, perhaps better (since we are subsequent to her in time), to partake of her purity. There is thus now a personal link between us and her. We have moved from marveling at the divine act and the exalted place it has given her, to turning to her as our model and guide. The subsequent hymns make this clear. Above all, there is the magnificent Kontakion addressed to the Theotokos by the imperial city of Constantinople, “To Thee, Our Champion”:
To thee our champion, Queen of war,
The battle trophies won
Thy people rescued by thine aid from peril
Dedicate as our offering of thanksgiving, O Theotokos.
As thou hast might
Which none by war can overcome,
From all forms of danger do thou deliver me,
That I may cry unto thee: Hail, O Bride Unwedded!7
According to tradition this hymn was first sung in the Church of the Theotokos in Constantinople in 626, following the miraculous deliverance of the city from the siege of the Avars. The hymn in effect places us there, as we both give thanks and beseech her further aid.8 But of course, not all enemies are barbarians outside the city gates. The most dangerous are those that lie within: our own gluttony, fear, pride, anger, self-love, and other passions. Against these we fight our most consequential war, for they can destroy not only our lives, but our very souls. And it is above all against these that we seek the aid of our champion, the Queen of war.
Seeing the hymn in this light, one may wonder why it cloaks, as it were, spiritual struggle under the image of the deliverance of the city. But surely the answer is not far to seek. One of the most insidious lies of the devil is that we fight alone. My gluttony, my fear, my pride, my anger—are they not mine alone? What good would it do to speak of them to anyone else? Would it not just bring me shame? The Apostle already provided the answer when he wrote, “there has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man” (I Cor. 10:13). We are all of the same flesh and suffer the same passions. So the hymn places us first of all in the position of the city, seeking a common deliverance from our common enemy.
These thoughts prepare us for the Akathist’s next and most somber lesson. Near the end of the service, following the “Akathist” proper and the second singing of the Kontakion, but before the final hymn of Gabriel, there are five prayers that are addressed alternately to the Theotokos and to Christ. In the Greek practice these are typically read, respectively, by a laywoman before the icon of the Theotokos and a layman before the icon of Christ. I have always been fond of that practice; but in any case, even when they are read by the priest, they present a striking contrast to the wonder and exuberance in the earlier hymns. Here is the beginning of the first prayer:
O spotless, undefiled, incorruptible, pure, and chaste Virgin-Bride of God, who by your wondrous conception united God the Logos with man, and joined our fallen nature with the Heavens; the only hope of the hopeless, and the help of the persecuted; the ever-ready to rescue all that flee to you, and the refuge of all Christians, spurn me not, the branded sinner, who by shameful thoughts, words, and deeds, have made my whole being useless, and through indolence have enslaved my judgement to the pleasures of this life. But as the mother of the merciful God, mercifully show compassion to me, the sinner and prodigal, and accept my supplication which is offered unto you from impure lips.9
Here we no longer imagine ourselves in the place of Gabriel, nor in that of the imperial city. Instead each of us stands alone before the Theotokos as a suppliant, seeking the aid that we desperately need. And we do so now, not with the joy and wonder of the previous hymns, but out of deep contrition, recognizing the contrast between her purity and our own shameful and defiled life.
Recognizing the Real Beauty of the Theotokos
This is the final step in which we learn to recognize the real beauty of the Theotokos—and through her, that of chastity itself. We no longer appreciate this beauty as something from which we stand apart in disinterested admiration. It is worthy of admiration, to be sure, but we now recognize in it that which we desperately need. Likewise, we recognize in the Theotokos our only help. Not, of course, that there is not help in Christ, to whom we also pray, and in God, whose boundless love worked the Incarnation. But she is the loving mother who especially hears us in our need. We turn to her knowing that a mother shows compassion even on those who deserve none.
Although I have hit only a few of the service’s high points, I hope they are enough to give a sense of the process of education through which the Akathist leads us. Now at last, at the end of that process, we are ready to hear and appropriate as our own the final hymn of Gabriel. Here all the strands we have traced come together. We now find Gabriel marveling, not only in awe at what God has done, but in humble adoration of the transcendent beauty of the Theotokos. I give the hymn here with some of the Greek terms, since they are of particular importance:
Astounded by the comeliness (ὡραιότητα) of your virginity, and the exceeding splendor of your purity (τὸ ὑπερλαμπρὸν τὸ τῆς ἁγνείας σου), Gabriel cried out to you, O Theotokos: “What hymn of praise is fitting for me to present to you? What name shall I give you? I am lost and stand in wonder. Wherefore, as I was commanded, I cry to you: Hail, O Bride Unwedded!”
The term translated “comeliness” is horaiotes, the beauty of one who is horaios, in the bloom of life. Unlike other terms that can be translated as beauty (such as kallos and kallone), it refers not simply to that which is pleasing to the eye, but to internal soundness and vigor as they are externally manifest. It is the beauty that the old admire in the young, and the sick in the healthy. It is striking, then, to find that an angel, who is himself possessed of heavenly radiance, marvels at the horaiotes of the Theotokos.
Ritual Purity and Moral Purity
The other key term is “purity,” hagneia. Originally this meant ritual purity. In the Old Testament it is used of the purity of one who has taken the vows of a Nazarite and of one who is authorized to enter the sanctuary, as well as that of the sanctuary itself.10 From ritual purity it is a short step to moral purity, including chastity. Hence it is not surprising that hagneia soon acquired this further sense. St. Paul speaks of his desire to present the Corinthian church to Christ as a chaste virgin (παρθένον ἁγνήν, II Cor. 11:2), and he urges Timothy to be a model of purity (ἁγνείᾳ, I Tim. 4:12) and to address young women “as sisters, with all purity” (ἐν πάσῃ ἁγνείᾳ, 5:2).
The Latin equivalent of hagneia is castitas, the source of “chastity” in English. Thus the ideal of moral purity is one root of our concept of chastity. However, it is not the only one. Another term that is often translated as “chastity,” particularly in patristic literature, is sophrosune.11 This is the virtue of temperance or self-control, one of the traditional four cardinal virtues. By the Imperial era its most common meaning had narrowed to sexual temperance or self-control, or, in other words, chastity. Although hagneia and sophrosune often overlapped in Christian usage, they retained distinctive connotations. Hagneia indicates the purity of a way of life that is set apart from that of the world, particularly that of consecrated virgins, widows, and monastics, as well as that of the Church itself. Sophrosune indicates the habit of sexual self-control that is expected of everyone, although the form it takes varies depending on one’s station and walk of life.12
This is a helpful distinction in thinking about the beauty of chastity. Sophrosune is beautiful in the way that any virtue is beautiful. It is one of the qualities that St. John Chrysostom advises a wise husband to praise in his bride, along with her propriety, gentleness, discretion, openness, and piety.13 Good though it is, it has no distinctive beauty that is not also possessed by these other virtues. Hagneia is different. It possesses a very distinctive kind of beauty, one that had to be discovered, so to speak, in the course of Christian experience. This is the beauty of that which is holy, pure, dedicated to God—and, in the case of a human being, so dedicated by virtue of moral purity and integrity. The Theotokos, who was sanctified by the living presence of God in her womb, is the supreme exemplar of hagneia. The Akathist leads us through the process by which we come to revere and desire to make our own such beauty.
Is Chastity an Impossible Ideal?
In closing, let me address an objection. Many would say that chastity is an impossible ideal. One of the reasons that our society turned against this ideal is precisely that it came to be seen as naïve and unrealistic.14 Countless stories, from The Scarlet Letter to Animal House, have taught us to think that anyone who aspires to sexual purity must be a prude or a hypocrite, or both. Perhaps such a perception was inevitable once chastity was removed from the way of life in which it is naturally at home. At any rate, things appear very different from within the ethos of Orthodoxy.
Perhaps the simplest way to bring this out is to return for a moment to the prayer of repentance—which of course is only one of many such prayers informing Orthodox worship, especially during Lent. This prayer leads us to reflect critically on our own lives. If it is uttered sincerely, it leads us to repent in humility, not just of particular wrongs we have done, but of our whole shameful and degraded state of being. One might think that to repent in this way would be debilitating. But on the contrary, it brings a new kind of strength. As regards sexual sin, in particular, we must remember that such sin is never merely sexual. It always has motives that are rooted in the passions—whether the need to be loved, or the lust for domination, or the desire to prove oneself attractive, or any of a dozen other motives that come readily to mind. Nothing more fully deflates such passions than the humility of the penitent. The penitent recognizes that he is not worthy to be loved, has no right to domination, and, if truth be known, is deeply and shamefully ugly. He seeks not self-gratification, but forgiveness and healing.
It is rare to achieve such penitence through one’s whole being, and rarer still to remain within it. Most of us oscillate between partial repentance and a return to the passions that at other times we loathe. Orthodoxy is a way of life that constantly summons us, through example, precept, and the rhythm of worship, to a deeper and truer repentance. Granted that not all Orthodox are saints; far from it. Even so, to the extent that one enters into the Orthodox way of life, chastity becomes realistic, because it is the natural concomitant of everything else that one does.
Above all it is the Theotokos who shows us the true meaning of chastity, and so teaches us to love its resplendent beauty. May her prayers be with us as we each seek to make that beauty our own.
- Specifically, the prayers include the Trisagion, Psalms 51, 70, and 143 (50, 69, 142 LXX), the Doxology, the Creed, and the hymn to the Theotokos, “It is truly meet.”
- For the Greek text see The Akathist Hymn, ed. and trans. Father George Papadeas (Athens, Greece: Patmos Press, 1972). Many translations can be found on-line. Most of those that follow are taken from Papadeas, but for that of the opening hymn I have preferred http://ww1.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/sacred_music/Trop%20-%20Akathist-With%20mystic.pdf, since it is more literal.
- Akathist Hymn, Troparia of the Fourth and Fifth Odes.
- Examples can be found by searching a phrase such as “platytera icon.”
- Akathist Hymn, Eirmos of the Seventh Ode.
- Akathist Hymn, Troparia of the Eighth Ode.
- Akathist Hymn, Kontakion.
- It is worth remembering that the emperor and the army were still away from the city fighting the Persians; further danger could descend at any time.
- Akathist Hymn, First Prayer to the Theotokos.
- See Num. 6:2, 21, II Chron. 30:19, I Macc. 14:36 in the Septuagint; cf. Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), vol. 1, 122-24.
- For example, this is the term rendered as chastity in the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian.
- See the entries for the relevant terms in G.W.H. Lampe, ed., A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961); also Helen North, Sophrosyne: Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966), 328-53.
- John Chrysostom, Homilies on Ephesians 20.8 (PG 62 146).
- For how this process occurred in England see Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex: The First Sexual Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). An Orthodox reader cannot help but be struck by how quickly in England, as a Protestant country, the choices narrowed to either sexual license or the imposition of discipline through coercive measures.
Author’s note: This is a much revised version of a talk given at a conference on “Chastity, Purity, Integrity: Orthodox Anthropology and Secular Culture in the 21st Century,” Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary, Jordanville, New York, March 7-9, 2019.
About the Author
David Bradshaw (PhD University of Texas, Austin) is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He specializes in ancient and medieval philosophy, philosophy of religion, and the interactions of theology and philosophy.
He is a contributor to Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith (ed. Rico Vitz; St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012), which also features Richard Swinburne, Terence Cuneo, and H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. He is also the author of Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom and is editor of Philosophical Theology and the Christian Tradition: Russian and Western Perspectives and Ethics and the Challenge of Secularism: Russian and Western Perspectives.