I confess that have no experience at all with Christianity, its teachings, or the Bible (the story of Adam and Eve is the extent of my knowledge about Christianity). I apologize if some of the things that I conjecture aren’t correct. I also confess that Christianity is really confusing to me.

In On the Training of Nuns and Contempt for the Other World, the merits of being a nun and remaining a virgin are discussed. The text says that it is impossible to focus full on God while burdened with human matters and other obligations. Because virginity was given by the Lord, by remaining a virgin until death, after death can nuns attain the reward of virginity. Throughout this text, as in the Boswell, there seems to be an inherent idea of the woman as inferior. Women are promised the rewards of virginity because “dearest sister…from all that rotates over the face of the earth, we have found nothing worthy for you to be enriched, we must ask the heavens above” (65). Specifically addressing the women with “dearest sister” seems to imply that men are exempt from this remark, that there are things on this earth that can enrich men. Later, the text even states that the female sex is the “weak sex”, which can only be strengthened with virtue (80).

Furthermore, the argument made is that because virginity is a gift bestowed from the heavens, it is only through virginity that one can find reward and patrimony. This argument itself is not specific to women, however; why are men not admonished to remain virgins as well? Were men even considered to have virginity? (Hm yeah, this is probably why only women were nuns, right?) But later the text describes the corruption done by lust, and men certainly can’t be exempt from that. Yet men are still perceived as the masters, and women as servants, who are subject to men because of the law of nature (80).

Implicitly, this just means that women are seen as fallible and that it is in their nature to be corruptible. This hearkens back to the Bible, in which it was the woman Eve who was tempted by the serpent and fell from grace. Man, who had done no wrong, and subsequent innocent generations, had to bear the burden of her corruption. Interestingly though, the text indicates that the first sin of the human race was that Adam and Eve “did not want to be as they had been created”, meaning virgins (70). Thus nuns are encouraged to be virgins in order to preserve the condition of virginity that the first humans lost in paradise. I think it’s interesting that the text refers to this sin as one done by “the first parents”, by both Adam and Eve. I would have thought the text would admonish Eve for not resisting the temptation, but instead it confers equal blame to both.

But in the end, it’s still the woman who is the scapegoat and taking the blame, because she is the offering to God. If she stays a virgin, then the whole Church wins the name of virginity. I guess she is the better for having devoted the chastity of her soul to Christ, but that sounds like a consolation prize, especially when the text literally says that so long as she pleases Christ, a brother’s guilty deeds can be  looked over. It doesn’t stop with brothers either; virgins also safeguard their mothers, who sinned for being brides. And this is where I get really confused, because the text both states that a married woman is corrupted, and that God instituted marriages (purportedly so that virginity might be born), but what’s the point of producing more virgins if you had to corrupt yourself through marriage first? Would the text go so far as to suggest that the ultimate sacrifice to God would be if women ceased reproducing altogether and the human race died out? Then everyone would be a virgin and accept the gift that the Lord gave them!

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11 thoughts on “

  1. I was also interested in the idea of the woman as the scapegoat, particularly the bits about women wearing makeup and jewelry to attract men. For the most part, I found this text to be very illogical and outdated- I’d feel hard-pressed to find someone in my life who actually believes most of what was written. However, this notion that women dress up to provoke young men and “please strangers’ eyes” feels relevant in a very bad way. A man, according to this text and much of pop culture, can’t be held accountable for his desire. It is the woman, the seductress, who is behaving like a “prostitute”. Male sexuality is projected onto women, turning us into scapegoats by coding our modes of self expression as inherently sexual.

    On another note, I’m also confused by what St. Leander believes is the ideal. I find it hard to believe that he wants the human race to die out, but virginity is unsustainable.

    • The parts about women wearing makeup made me so angry! Isn’t it sort of a male-biased idea to assume that women are wearing makeup in order to impress men? Is it so outrageous for a woman to express herself through her makeup, or to present herself in a way that she finds attractive? I frequent an online forum about makeup, where women post pictures of themselves for critique and sometimes just to feel pretty. Overall, it’s a great and accepting community. Every once in a while someone (a man) will post something like, “You would look better without makeup” or “I don’t like when my girlfriend wears makeup”. The comment is always followed by a deluge of comments about how she is not wearing makeup for anyone other than herself, least of all a man who seeks to claim some measure of control over her appearance.

    • I had a thought on the sustainability of virginity. The way that he framed the redemption of the mothers by their production of virgins, it seems like he might be proposing a model of reproduction. A few women must fall in order that they may multiply the number of virgins on earth. This strategy depends upon the overwhelming majority of children growing up in chastity, but perhaps that’s why he spends so much time talking about it!

  2. I think it’s really interesting that you describe the sister as the scapegoat and inferior. While I agree that the brother is very vehement in his campaign to convince his sister to become and/or accept becoming a nun, it seems like he is doing just that – he has to convince her, in a way because she is holding the power in the relationship. She has the key to his salvation, and he spends several pages explaining how her virginity is the key to all of this. It’s implied that it’s too late for him, but her preservation of her virginity will also be enough to get his sins pardons, and so he is dependent on her, in a way, for that chance at salvation. This goes back to what we’ve been talking about regarding women and men both being submitted to systems of power hierarchies even if they might be placed asymmetrically within them.

    • Hm, I hadn’t thought about the woman actually being the one in power. I wonder why it is “too late” for the brother – has he already committed atrocious sin? If there was a point in which he changes from innocent to sinful, then the church should also advocate men from reaching this point.

      In my mind, technically it should be the woman who committed the original sin and should need to atone and thus achieve salvation. I’d almost say that for her, it is “too late”, because Eve has already committed the original sin.

      • In any discussion of original sin, especially a context like this, I am reminded of the ‘Paradise Lost’ version of the tale. In this story, Eve is tempted by the serpent and elects to partake in the fruit, but after her fall she returns to Adam to tell him what she has done. Adam then chooses to eat the apple as well so that he can follow Eve wherever she goes because his lust and desire for her is greater than even the imminent loss of paradise. Eve was tricked and lied to (which does not negate her sin, but perhaps qualifies it in some sense) whereas Adam knowingly disobeyed God in order to satiate his lust.
        Just a version of the story worth thinking about.

  3. What’s so interesting here is that it seems like women need to purify themselves because of what Eve did. Women are still trying to redeem themselves from what happened. Although men bear the burden of her crime, it is women who must try to change themselves in order to not be grouped with other hedonistic women like Eve.

    • Yes, I noticed that too. The virginal nuns are defined against-and even glorified as intercessors between the general population and Christ- women who have had sex, married or not. One of my main issues with “purity culture,” which is still alive and well in conservative Christian communities in the US, for instance, is that it is built on ideas which shame women for any premarital sexual intercourse, often leaving little or no room for acceptance of sexual assault survivors, among others, and ignoring pressing issues of sex ed or discussions on consent. And the Madonna-whore complex or continuum reproduced in “On the Teaching of Nuns” is prevalent today-even in popular culture. I only recently noticed that Taylor Swift’s music video, You Belong With Me, which has 274 million+ views, reproduces this same idea, where the girl-next-door blonde character in the white dress wins the male love interest at the end, after public shaming of the “sluttier” black haired girl in the tight red dress.

  4. You’re right in saying that men can’t become nuns. However, men can become monks in Christianity, which is similar in the sense that they also take a vow of celibacy. But I wonder about mens’ intentions and reasons for becoming monks and how others might push them into that decision.

    I think you’re definitely right in questioning the idea that this woman will save others by becoming a nun and labeling them as scapegoats for others. I’ve never really heard of monks saving others through their own vows to God. I’ve always viewed becoming a monk as a decision to remain pure, and thus lead a good life in the eyes of God. (Similar to what Gandhi suggests about celibacy). It would be interesting to read something about a person becoming a monk and taking their vows in comparison to a woman becoming a nun. What would others say they are gaining? Would others gain anything from their decision? Am I even right in equating becoming a nun to becoming a monk?

    • Super interesting…I definitely agree with you. I think for the public at large, nuns and monks are equivalent (only different words to denote men and women), but I think this text can at least hint at a potential inequality in their perceived roles. While both nuns and monks have an incentive to remain pure in order to better devote their lives to serving God, reading the text made me feel like nuns felt an inordinate pressure to do so. Almost as though if they did not decide to become nuns, they would be blamed for the downfall of their brothers, their mothers, and the church.

      • “I think this text can at least hint at a potential inequality in their perceived roles.”

        ^I think you hit the nail on the head. This is definitely how I read the text.

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