Story type: Essay
The writings of the Fathers once formed the studies of the learned. These labours abound with that subtilty of argument which will repay the industry of the inquisitive, and the antiquary may turn them over for pictures of the manners of the age. A favourite subject with Saint Ambrose was that of Virginity, on which he has several works; and perhaps he wished to revive the order of the vestals of ancient Rome, which afterwards produced the institution of Nuns. From his “Treatise on Virgins,” written in the fourth century, we learn the lively impressions his exhortations had made on the minds and hearts of girls, not less in the most distant provinces, than in the neighbourhood of Milan, where he resided. The Virgins of Bologna, amounting only, it appears, to the number of twenty, performed all kinds of needlework, not merely to gain their livelihood, but also to be enabled to perform acts of liberality, and exerted their industry to allure other girls to join the holy profession of VIRGINITY. He exhorts daughters, in spite of their parents, and even their lovers, to consecrate themselves. “I do not blame marriage,” he says, “I only show the advantages of VIRGINITY.”
He composed this book in so florid a style, that he considered it required some apology. A Religious of the Benedictines published a translation in 1689.
So sensible was St. Ambrose of the rarity of the profession he would establish, that he thus combats his adversaries: “They complain that human nature will be exhausted; but I ask, who has ever sought to marry without finding women enough from amongst whom he might choose? What murder, or what war, has ever been occasioned for a virgin? It is one of the consequences of marriage to kill the adulterer, and to war with the ravisher.”
He wrote another treatise On the perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God. He attacks Bonosius on this subject, and defends her virginity, which was indeed greatly suspected by Bonosius, who, however, incurred by this bold suspicion the anathema of Heresy. A third treatise was entitled Exhortation to Virginity; a fourth, On the Fate of a Virgin, is more curious. He relates the misfortunes of one Susannah, who was by no means a companion for her namesake; for having made a vow of virginity, and taken the veil, she afterwards endeavoured to conceal her shame, but the precaution only tended to render her more culpable. Her behaviour, indeed, had long afforded ample food for the sarcasms of the Jews and Pagans. Saint Ambrose compelled her to perform public penance, and after having declaimed on her double crime, gave her hopes of pardon, if, like “Soeur Jeanne,” this early nun would sincerely repent: to complete her chastisement, he ordered her every day to recite the fiftieth psalm.