As I gazed on that luminous Madonna I made contact not only with something beautiful, but with Beauty. It was also an astoundingly intimate experience of purity and power. For a moment I caught a glimpse of a kind of purity which was both as soft as moonlight and as hard as diamonds.
I suddenly realized that purity, like all things beautiful and refined, is an acquired taste. Like the fragile beauty of a Mozart aria, or the calm, exquisite beauty of a Chinese vase, purity can only be fully sensed by those who pursue purity themselves, and this realization made my own sordid and tepid life seem small. While looking at the naked child and the Madonna’s subtle smile I also realized that purity is a hidden and subtle virtue—available only to those who have been given the eyes to see.
But as soon as I speak the word “purity” I am aware of a certain sang froid. Don’t you curl up a little at the word “purity”. I do. Like most people, I am embarrassed and confused by the concept. I find that the mere word conjures up images of the “pure” girls of my youth who were all long skirts, buckteeth and big Bibles.
The Raphael Madonna stunned me with real purity, and I realized we are confused about purity because we have been blinded by false images of purity. We confuse purity with naivete. We are amused and embarrassed by a kind of “aw shucks” purity which consists of grinning boys with Brylcreamed hair, girls in bobby sox, bubble gum and “Let’s go out to the ballgame.” We are rightly embarrassed by a false vision of purity that is the product of black and white TV programs where the married couples sleep in twin beds. This is not purity in all its magnificent power. It is Pollyanna purity.
If we confuse purity with wholesome naiveté we also confuse it with grim puritanism. The word “purity” summons up the images of hatchet-faced nuns stalking the corridors of concentration camp convent schools. When we hear “purity” we think of a squeaky clean fundamentalist college with a sincere, but sinister agenda. The word “purity” gives us nightmares of the black and white world of the Puritans with their big black hats, big black books and big black witch-hunts. This kind of “purity” points an accusing claw at all those sordid “sins against purity” which haunt the adolescent conscience. So “purity” instead of being an image of shallow goodness, has been hi-jacked and twisted to become a tool of repression, guilt and sour religion.
We also confuse purity with celestial otherworldliness. We think of Botticelli angels and cultivate a vague notion of a lofty, unstained realm of existence where the saints and angels sit together in unimaginable and somewhat boring bliss on a pink cloud. If we’re really unlucky our false religion mixes all three false images so that the cruelty of puritanism has a gloss of grinning pollyanna along with the sentimentality of pink angels.
It doesn’t take long to realize that the concept of purity has been so twisted in our modern minds that it almost doesn’t exist. And yet, when we say in the creed that Jesus Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary” we are saying that he came into the world through a stupendous kind of purity that makes all our shallow concepts of purity look puerile. When we say in the creed that Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary” we embrace the fact that in a Jewish girl in Nazareth two thousand years ago there existed a new matrix of purity and power the like of which had not been seen in the world since the dawn of time.
Mary the mother of Jesus is an icon of beauty and purity because she is a virgin. But I am aware that this term too, has been misunderstood and maligned. We think of a virgin simply as a person who has not had sexual intercourse. This is the shallowest of definitions. Defining a “virgin” as someone who has not had sexual intercourse is like defining a person from Iowa as someone who has never been to Paris. It may be true that most Iowans have not been to Paris, but to define an untravelled Iowan by that simple negative definition is too small. Even the most stay at home hayseed from Iowa is bigger than a negative definition.
When the early Christians venerated the Virgin Mary they were venerating far more than the biological fact that a girl was intact. For them the Virgin was not just an untouched maid. Her physical virginity was a sign of something far more. It was an indication of her whole character. In her they sensed a virginity that was a positive and powerful virtue, not simply a negative naiveté. Mary represented all that was real, whole, and simple. She stood for everything that was natural, that was infinite, that was “yes”. Mary was a virgin in the same way that we call a forest “virgin.” A virgin forest is fresh and natural, majestic and mysterious. Mary’s virginity was not simply the natural beauty and innocence of a teenage girl. It held the primeval purity of Eden and the awesome innocence of Eve.
Email me if you would like to read the whole chapter. Better yet, go to my website to order a copy of Adventures in Orthodoxy.