By DANIEL A. LORD, S.J.
Australian Catholic Truth Society 1950
Whatever literature may say about spinsters, and however much history may ignore them – except for outstanding spinsters like Elizabeth of England – the Church’s attitude toward unmarried women has been, from the first, one of reverence.
This I came to know when my faith emerged from mere youthful practice to intelligent study and appreciation. Among the Jews a spinster was merely an unfortunate girl not lucky enough to have won a husband for herself. Among the pagans she was usually the slave or bondmaiden, the grudgingly tolerated hanger-on in the house of her parents or her luckier married sisters.
With St. Paul all that was changed. He loved virginity, and he turned to the ministrations and loyalty – as many a parish has done since – of the splendid young and older unmarried women of his time. The legends of St. Paul and St. Tecla – whose name was the Greek word for pearl – are many and beautiful. Phoebe, to whom Paul sends affectionate messages, seems to have been one of the first consecrated Catholic virgins.
ST. PAUL SPEAKS
It was left for the great St. Paul, who could find for marriage no more appropriate comparison than that of the love which Christ bears for His Church (see Ephesians 5: 21-32), to speak almost the first words in praise of those who deliberately did not marry or who, for any good reasons, remained unmarried.
“But,” he wrote to the Corinthians, “I say to the unmarried and to widows, it is good for them if they so remain, even as I.” (1 Cor 7: 8)
Then he directs to men who remain unmarried and cherish their virginity strong praise that quite clearly he means for both men and women. For he continues: “I would have you free from care. He who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please God.
Whereas he who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife; and he is divided. And the unmarried woman, and the virgin, thinks about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy in body and in spirit. Whereas she who is married thinks about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.” (1 Cor 7: 32-34)
This was an astonishing teaching to people who had regarded virginity as rather a futile thing and the unmarried girl as the object of a none too gentle pity. Yet instantly the early Church, which loved the virgin Christ and the Virgin Mary and the beloved virgin John, took to heart the good advice. It is noteworthy that the virgin martyrs of those early days were not nuns in any modern sense. They had in some cases taken the veil of virginity at the hands of Peter or of Paul, but they lived at home, served the poor in the big cities, and, save for their intense concentration on the love of God and their neighbors, lived, as we would say, in the world.
Such was the young Agnes, the older Agatha, Cecilia, and half a dozen others forced into marriage against their will and carrying to God through martyrdom the glory of their virginity. They had detached themselves from the love of any man to give their whole love to the greatest of the sons of men.
They cared for their houses and were devoted to their parents. They ministered to the poor and at dawn or at dusk went to the catacombs for Mass and prayer. They were saintly spinsters, if you wish, or spinster saints. True, the pagan world regarded them as abnormal and queer and fit only for death. The Christians loved them unforgettably.
Their contribution to the early Church is beyond computation. They lived the purity that was supposed to characterize the religion of the Savior. They did the good works that He had listed as sign and proof of His followers.
They were personally the great correctives for the abuses of marriage and for the corruption of morals. They demonstrated with shining and spectacular force that it was possible for married couples to remain faithful since normal girls with all the normal desires and impulses could remain pure while unmarried.
They led along paths of maidenly modesty other girls who could not accept a lifetime of virginity, until premarital purity made them worthy to be mothers of the little sons and daughters of our God and Father.
The Church has never forgotten those first unmarried saints, the models of the millions who were to be the most distinctive and unique contribution of Christianity to world morality. Christian marriage would never have been possible without them. Christian virginity got its pattern from their unforgettable acceptance of Christ’s new purity.
It is not at all an exaggeration to say that the unmarried Catholic woman of the present can look upon herself as the legitimate successor to these virgins and martyrs of earliest Christian times. She may be proud of that association and conscious of the possibility within her to repeat in our generation their great contribution to life, love, and the decencies.
No doubt about it, the unmarried woman has the chance to win a reward exceeding great.
She is able daily to offer to God the beautiful perfume that is her virginal innocence. God loves her for that and honors her with the same kind of reverence that is due Mary. So do those of His followers who see life and measure values with a Christ-like eye.
If the cup of cold water given in Christ’s name wins eternal reward, what of the food and drink and clothes and housing that are provided by these generous women again and again and again?
May this saintly woman come very close to God. For there is no interfering love in her life. Those she loves, she loves unselfishly, almost without human reward but in the calm certainly that God is pleased by her life. “Whatsoever you do for the least of these my little ones, you do for me.”
The words of the Savior, tremendously reassuring, never fitted anyone more perfectly than they do Catholic teachers, Catholic nurses, Catholic businesswomen, and those sisters, daughters, and aunts who do and do and do – endlessly and without probability of repayment – for the sons and daughters of others – and of God.
The fine Catholic example of this kind of women has far more influence than she herself dreams.
Her laborious unselfishness is a constant rebuke to the greed and self-indulgence of the world. She is one of those unrecognized heroines whose work is never properly praised but is always effective to a degree that will be measured by celestial weights and measures.
She is a not unworthy successor of the holy women of the primitive Church who, with the Apostles and the doctors of the Church, taught a new way of life to humanity.
Nor can we forget the bright and inspiring vision of St. John. There upon the mount that is Sion he saw the Lamb of God surrounded by the specially honored one hundred and forty-four thousand, a mystical number embracing the vast host of those who will be nearest the Savior in eternity. Their closeness to the Savior, Saint John explains by one simple statement: “For they are virgins.” (See Rev 14:4)
Lift up your eyes, you heroines called spinsters! The Savior of the world loves you most especially and has a place for you in eternity in His own immediate company. It is a glorious certainty.
And if a certain group of spinsters will permit me to bring them back from those sublime heights to a more immediately grateful person . . . I thank you . . . and you . . . and you . . . and you . . . and all you others with whom it has been my happy privilege to be associated in a common enterprise during these many years. I know your holiness. I have felt your unselfishness. I know your shining beauty.
Surely my life has been made rich and full by the fact that I have counted you among my friends and partners in a work for the unmarried Christ and the Virgin Mary.