Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. V:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Ascetic and Moral Treatises.: Chapter VIII
Let no one think however that herein we depreciate marriage as an institution. We are well aware that it is not a stranger to Gods blessing. But since the common instincts of mankind can plead sufficiently on its behalf, instincts which prompt by a spontaneous bias to take the high road of marriage for the procreation of children, whereas Virginity in a way thwarts this natural impulse, it is a superfluous task to compose formally an Exhortation to marriage. We put forward the pleasure of it instead, as a most doughty champion on its behalf. It may be however, notwithstanding this, that there is some need of such a treatise, occasioned by those who travesty the teaching of the Church. Such persons 1379 “have their conscience seared with a hot iron,” as the Apostle expresses it; and very truly too, considering that, deserting the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the “doctrines of devils,” they have some ulcers and blisters stamped upon their hearts, abominating Gods creatures, and calling them “foul,” “seducing,” “mischievous,” and so on. “But what have I to do to judge them that are without 1380 ?” asks the Apostle. Truly those persons are outside the Court in which the words of our mysteries are spoken; they are not installed under Gods roof, but in the monastery of the Evil One. They “are taken captive by him at his will 1381 .” They therefore do not understand that all virtue is found in moderation, and that any declension to either side 1382 of it becomes a vice. He, in fact, who grasps the middle point between doing too little and doing too much has hit the distinction between vice and virtue. Instances will make this clearer. Cowardice and audacity are two recognized vices opposed to each other; the one the defect, the other the excess of confidence; between them lies courage. Again, piety is neither atheism nor superstition; it is equally impious to deny a God and to believe in many gods. Is there need of more examples to bring this principle home? The man who avoids both meanness and prodigality will by this shunning of extremes form the moral habit of liberality; for liberality is the thing which is neither inclined to spend at random vast and useless sums, nor yet to be closely calculating in necessary expenses. We need not go into details in the case of all good qualities. Reason, in all of them, has established virtue to be a middle state between two extremes. Sobriety itself therefore is a middle state, and manifestly involves the two declensions on either side towards vice; he, that is, who is wanting in firmness of soul, and is so easily worsted in the combat with pleasure as never even to have approached the path of a virtuous and sober life, slides into shameful indulgence; while he who goes beyond the safe ground of sobriety and overshoots the moderation of this virtue, falls as it were p. 353 from a precipice into the “doctrines of devils,” “having his conscience seared with a hot iron.” In declaring marriage abominable he brands himself with such reproaches; for “if the tree is corrupt” (as the Gospel says), “the fruit also of the tree will be like it 1383 ”; if a man is the shoot and fruitage of the tree of marriage, reproaches cast on that turn upon him who casts them 1384 . These persons, then, are like branded criminals already; their conscience is covered with the stripes of this unnatural teaching. But our view of marriage is this; that, while the pursuit of heavenly things should be a mans first care, yet if he can use the advantages of marriage with sobriety and moderation, he need not despise this way of serving the state. An example might be found in the patriarch Isaac. He married Rebecca when he was past the flower of his age and his prime was well-nigh spent, so that his marriage was not the deed of passion, but because of Gods blessing that should be upon his seed. He cohabited with her till the birth of her only children 1385 , and then, closing the channels of the senses, lived wholly for the Unseen; for this is what seems to be meant by the mention in his history of the dimness of the Patriarchs eyes. But let that be as those think who are skilled in reading these meanings, and let us proceed with the continuity of our discourse. What then, were we saying? That in the cases where it is possible at once to be true to the diviner love, and to embrace wedlock, there is no reason for setting aside this dispensation of nature and misrepresenting as abominable that which is honourable. Let us take again our illustration of the water and the spring. Whenever the husbandman, in order to irrigate a particular spot, is bringing the stream thither, but there is need before it gets there of a small outlet, he will allow only so much to escape into that outlet as is adequate to supply the demand, and can then easily be blended again with the main stream. If, as an inexperienced and easy-going steward, he opens too wide a channel, there will be danger of the whole stream quitting its direct bed and pouring itself sideways. In the same way, if (as life does need a mutual succession) a man so treats this need as to give spiritual things the first thought, and because of the shortness 1386 of the time indulges but sparingly the sexual passion and keeps it under restraint, that man would realize the character of the prudent husband man to which the Apostle exhorts us. About the details of paying these trifling debts of nature he will not be over-calculating, but the long hours of his prayers 1387 will secure the purity which is the key-note of his life. He will always fear lest by this kind of indulgence he may become nothing but flesh and blood; for in them Gods Spirit does not dwell. He who is of so weak a character that he cannot make a manful stand against natures impulse had better 1388 keep himself very far away from such temptations, rather than descend into a combat which is above his strength. There is no small danger for him lest, cajoled in the valuation of pleasure, he should think that there exists no other good but that which is enjoyed along with some sensual emotion, and, turning altogether from the love of immaterial delights, should become entirely of the flesh, seeking always his pleasure only there, so that his character will be a Pleasure-lover, not a God-lover. It is not every mans gift, owing to weakness of nature, to hit the due proportion in these matters; there is a danger of being carried far beyond it, and “sticking fast in the deep mire 1389 ,” to use the Psalmists words. It would therefore be for our interest, as our discourse has been suggesting, to pass through life without a trial of these temptations, lest under cover of the excuse of lawful indulgence passion should gain an entrance into the citadel of the soul.
1 Tim. iv. 2.352:1380
1 Cor. v. 12.352:1381
2 Tim. ii. 16.352:1382
ἐπὶ τὰ παρακείμενα. Galesinius wrongly renders “in contrarias partes.” Cf. Arist. Eth. ii. 5.353:1383
Cf. S. Matt. vii. 18; from which it will be seen that Gregory confirms the Vulgate “malum” for σαπρόν, since he quotes it as κακὸν here.353:1384
τοῦ προφέροντος; not “of their Creator,” or “of their father” (Livineius).353:1385
μέχρι μιᾶς ὠδῖνος. So perhaps Rom. ix. 10: ῾Ρεβέκκα ἐξ ἑνὸς κοίτην ἔχουσα, i.e. ex uno concubitu. Below, c. 9 (p. 139, c. 11), Gregory uses the same expression of one birth.353:1386
τὴν ἐκ συμφώνου καθαρότητα τῇ σχολῇ τῶν προσευχῶν ἀφορίζων, “durch häufiges Gebet die innige Reinheit festzustellen sucht,” J. Rupp. The Latin fails to give the full force, “ex convenientia quadam munditiam animi in orationum studio constituit:” σχολὴ is abundant time from the business of life.353:1388
κρείττων, κ. τ. λ., “melius” (Livineius), not “validior.”353:1389
ἰλύν, a better reading than ὕλην. Cf. Ps. lxix. 2, “the mire of depth” (ἰλὺν βυθοῦ).
Next: Chapter IX
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