In continuing my study of Saint Hildegard, Mary Queen of Heaven, and the Catholic Church – and admittedly I am not an adherent of this particular faith – I find the complexity of the story fascinating, and its changes from century to century mind-boggling, to say the least.
Most students of history will attest to the fact that, in ancient times of the word’s origin (it’s concept), the word “virgin” defined a woman who was, in essence, self-contained — it did not mean a woman who had not had sexual intercourse.
This ties in with a beautifully written paragraph – about Eve and Mary – in Barbara Newman’s book Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, which states that:
“No theme of Mariology is older or more universal than the contrast of Eve and Mary, a topos that dates back to the second century. Irenaeus, one of the first theologians to develop this theme, observed that ‘the former was beguiled into fleeing God, the latter was persuaded to obey God, that the Virgin Mary might become an advocate for the virgin Eve. Through a virgin, mankind came under the bondage of death; so also through a Virgin the bonds were loosed, and a virginal disobedience was balanced by a Virgin’s obedience.’ For the Greek father, the contrast between the two virgins had as yet no sexual connotations.”
This is pretty powerful stuff when putting history in context. It means that in the century when Christianity was being birthed as a religion, virginity was not a sexual term. So, Mary could simply have been a strong, independent, self-contained young woman whose belief in her spiritual path led her to accept the prophetic vision of becoming the mother of a son who many believed would be the incarnation of the Jewish God.
Newman continues the above paragraph with:
“But the Augustinian ethos, linking original sin with concupiscence, led to a practical redefinition of ‘obedience’ and ‘disobedience’ in terms of chastity and lust.”
So it wasn’t until the 4th Century that the reformed Augustine, later canonized (having lived the first part of his life loosely, including “parties, entertainment, and worldly ambitions”), began to assist in shifting the term “virgin” around within Christianity.
Imagine what it must have been like for Mary, imagine the pressure she was under.
Thankfully, there is a lot of research now to turn to that addresses the cultural lives of women in history (and in prehistory), which is marvelous.