Cover the Soul in Virtue

Cover the Soul in Virtue December 30, 2019
Kreepz: I have waited / flickr

Scripture, when read with an extremely literal hermeneutic, will have its readers baffled with all the logical contradictions which could be deduced from such a reading. Obviously, some of the difficulties which emerge will be able to be explained away, especially if the interpreter suggests that some texts were written for particular circumstances and so could not be easily universalized. Thus, it is possible to say that Scripture shows us the development of God’s relationship with humanity up to the incarnation, so what was needed in one time or place was not needed and would be abrogated at another time.

But it seems that such development should have ended with the incarnation.  And yet, when we read the New Testament, study the teachings of Jesus found within the Gospels, and compare them to other New Testament texts, a literal hermeneutic will end up providing the reader several contradictions which they have to explain. An example of this can be found in the way clothing is treated in the New Testament, especially for women.

In the Gospels, we learn that Jesus was not concerned with what people wore, finding it rather unimportant:

 Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  (Matt. 6:25 RSV).

Is not life more… than clothing? For those who were highly concerned about outward appearances, this message was repeated several times and in several fashions within the New Testament, such as we find in First Peter:

Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious (1Ptr. 3:3-4 RSV).

The text above was written for some women who were interested in the way their fashion seemed to make them superior to others; they were needed to be reminded that as Christians, as folowers of Jesus, they were not to be concerned with such externals.  Rather, they should be concerned about their own spiritual character, their internal disposition. Indeed, one’s virtue can be said to be one’s proper adornment. And obviously, this greater truth is important, not just for a few upper class women in the first century,  but for all. Thus, Paul, writing to the Colossians, suggested: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12 RSV). Similarly, we read in First Timothy:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling;  also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire  but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion  (1Tim. 2:8-10 RSV).

Our focus should be on our deeds, and the development of a right spiritual character. Focusing on hair, focusing on clothing, such as what covers the head of a woman, would be focusing on externals, and so would lead those overly concerned about such astray. Obviously what one wears might help us with our social status, but Christians should not be focused on social status as much as their spiritual status. They should not worry about what they wear. Indeed, Scripture hints at a connection between clothing, and a concern about what we wear, with the fall (cf. Gen. 3:21). Because of this, some saints have suggested that a purified Christian life is one so unconcerned with and unfocused about clothing, holy ones can be without it and not notice that there is anything odd about such behavior (and various saints also are said to have lived this out as, for example, we find in the life of St. Symeon the Holy Fool).

This deemphasis on clothing, however, seems to be ignored when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, for he famously said to them that “…. a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10b RSV). From this statement, and the argument surrounding it (Christ is the head of the church, so the husband is the head of the wife, and God is to Christ), he said women should not go around praying or prophesying with their head uncovered:

For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man (1. Cor. 11:6-7 RSV).

Reading this on the literal level, which many have done through the centuries, we end up with a stark contradiction in the New Testament. Are we to be unconcerned about what we wear, and the social status associated with our clothing? How can it be disgraceful for a woman to go with their head uncovered (or even, to have their hair shaved off), if women are not to be concerned about their adornment?

There is something very odd about Paul’s statement in First Corinthians, especially in the way people have read into it. If God is said to be the head of Christ as a way to represent the relationship between husbands and wives, what does this headship mean? It cannot, as some try to suggest, indicate that a woman is inferior to a man, that a wife is inferior to her husband. Why? Because if we follow through with such an interpretation, we would end up with a heretical suggestion indicating that the Son of God is inferior to God the Father. St. John Chrysostom got a sense of this problem (though he did not follow through with it in his commentary, and so did go astray after relating it) when he wrote:

For should they not grant this, many absurdities will follow. As thus; “the head of Christ is God:” and, “Christ is the head of the man, and he of the woman.” Therefore if we choose to take the term, “head,” in the like sense in all the clauses, the Son will be as far removed from the Father as we are from Him. Nay, and the woman will be as far removed from us as we are from the Word of God. And what the Son is to the Father, this both we are to the Son and the woman again to the man. And who will endure this?[1]

Likewise, Chrysostom continued, there is a danger in reading the text as indicating some sort of subjugation of women intended by Paul:

For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection, as you say, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master. For what if the wife be under subjection to us? It is as a wife, as free, as equal in honor. And the Son also, though He did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God, it was as God. [2]

But, after noting this as a way to deal with Arians who interpreted the text as a way to suggest that Christ was inferior to the Father, Chrysostom went against his own assertions, and took on the traditional theme that the fall of Eve led to the need for women to be subjugated. Despite this problem, the initial insight Chrysostom offered gives us a foundation by which we can overturn the way the passage has been used to suggest the subjugation of women by noting that the equality of the Son and Father means there must be a equality between husband and wife implied in the passage. There must, therefore, be something else involved with this passage, something which goes beyond the first, simple literal reading of the text, otherwise Trinitarian theology is undermined, just as Christ’s admonitions against concern for clothing would seem to be rejected.

It is here that an insight from St. Ambrose can be helpful. Scripture is full of symbolic mysteries, and much of the text is meant to be properly understood by the spiritual types being promoted by it. That is, the letter of the text is not the point, and sometimes goes astray (the letter kills), but the spirit of the text, when properly examined and understood, will give us the wisdom we need in order to find beatitude. Ambrose, following Origen, often interpreted Scripture to show us the symbols being represented in the text, giving us what is often said to be a spiritual or allegorical reading of it.  In one of his discussions on Scripture, Ambrose pointed out that the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca is to be understood as the relationship between the church (and soul) with Christ, so that what we see stated and done by Rebecca is to be understood symbolically as to what we should do in our relationship with Christ:

Rebecca, when she knew that Isaac was coming to meet her, dismounted from her camel and covered herself with a mantle. Just so this soul anticipated the mark of the wedding garment, so that she might not be cast out as one not having a wedding garment, or else worse it to cover her hard on account of the angels. But the watchmen struck her so that she might be tested the more, for souls are tried by temptations. They took the mantle from her, for they were searching whether she bore the true beauty of naked virtue, or else because everyone ought to eventer the celestial kingdom without clothing and not bring any covering of deceit with him. There are also those who demand that no soul carry with herself the remnants of carnal delight and the concupiscence of the body. She is tripped of the robe when her conscience is revealed. But there is also the soul which is stripped with good intent, the soul which is allowed to imitate Christ when he says, “The prince of this world is coming, and in me he will find nothing.” True, because he finds nothing only in him who did not sin. Blessed is the soul in whom he does not find grave sins, or many, but on her he finds the cloak of faith and the rule of wisdom.[3]

Ambrose, in this interpretation, connected the mantle (or veil) of Rebecca with Paul’s exhortation for women to veil “because of angels,” and with it, also, with the “wedding garment” which Jesus said was needed to enter the eschatological banquet with God (cf. Matt. 22:1-14). But he made it clear, this mantle or veil, this wedding garment, is to be placed over the soul; the concern is not for some outward garment, for the soul itself does not wear a literal mantle, but rather the concern should be about the character of the soul, so that the soul can be said to be properly clothed by virtues.  Virtue, then, is the covering which is needed, and it is not just for women, but for all Christians, as their souls can be and should be equated as a wife to Christ. By adorning themselves with virtue, Christians become ready for the wedding banquet, and not just any wedding banquet, but the eschatological banquet in which they are a part of the bride of Christ. Thus, if read with an understanding of the symbolism which connects Christ and the church together, so that Christ is the bridegroom to the church, and each soul is united with the church finding itself wed to Christ, it is then possible to understand that it is a spiritual veil, not a literal covering, which is key, a veil sewed together by our own virtues which then allows us to be seen and understood based upon the quality and character of the virtues we placed over us in our life.[4]

Likewise, when trying to understand the headship involved in the Pauline text, we must understand it in relation to how we are united with God through the God-man, Jesus Christ. He is the head because he leads us to the Father. Certainly, Jesus in his humanity is consubstantial with us, our equals, even as in his divinity he is consubstantial and equal to the Father. He brings us together as one (in the church), united in him as he then is united to the Father in and through his divinity. But it is through the divinity that the humanity is elevated and deified, so in Christ, his divinity leads and directs his humanity, even as he, the God-man, leads and directs us so that we can truly become partakers of the divine nature and experience the glory of the divine life.

It is for this reason, when some try to suggest a legalistic attitude towards veils for women, they seem to ignore the greater symbolic significance of Paul’s texts, and in doing so, find themselves ignoring the disposition towards clothing which Christ promoted. The Christian in the world is not to be concerned with making cultural norms as legalistic necessity: when such necessity was promoted in the first century, Paul was the first to denounce it in the name of Christian freedom. But such freedom should parallel God’s freedom, a freedom which is not bound by necessity, but rather acts out of love, and in doing so, is able to fulfill and engage a variety of cultural forms while being bound by none. This is what Paul meant when he said Christians should avoid making stumbling blocks for others (cf. Rom. 14:13-21), even as he said he would be all things for all people:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.  To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law — though not being myself under the law — that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (1Cor. 9:19 – 23 RSV).

This would be impossible if Paul felt it necessary to bind Christians to cultural expectations (such as the cultural understanding of veils in his time and place). Christians can and should adapt themselves to the cultures they find themselves living in. Such an adaptation allows them to create and find new symbols in order to demonstrate the truth of the Gospel, a truth which is not bound by any culture but finds a way to use the culture Christians are in to express it. This is exactly what Paul was doing with his discussion of women covering their heads. He knew the expectations of his time, and he used it to represent a higher truth, but he didn’t feel bound but the cultural expression, which is why he said Christians should see themselves beyond such bondage. If what he wrote was interpreted as a literal, and absolute, expectation for all women, in all time and in every place, Paul would have contradicted himself. But since he had no problem engaging the culture, he left it for his readers to understand the higher, spiritual truth which was implied with his words; he knew his audience understood Christian liberty as well as the spiritual need to clothe oneself in virtues. This how and why the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, in the text, Inter Insigniores, could state that various ancient customs, such as veiling by women, were not universal obligations and could be dispensed with:

But it must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head (1 Cor 11:2-16); such requirements no longer have a normative value.[5]

To truly understand Scripture, we must look beyond the letter of the text. If we do not, we end up finding Scripture contradicts itself. Christians are not to be concerned about clothing. They are to engage the culture they live in, and embrace it as far as they can, as a way to present the higher truths of the Christian faith. When culture changes, Christians are not expected to hold on to and follow what is no longer a living tradition. But this does not mean what is no longer culturally relevant in Scripture means nothing to us today. There is a great wealth of meaning to the text beyond the letter. When we read Paul telling women to keep their heads covered, we must not read it as Paul affirming the universal validity of his cultural norm, requiring Christians today to follow it. Instead, we must look beyond the letter, to the spirit of the text, and when we do so, we find it is not about externals, but how we clothe our soul with virtue.


[1] St. John Chrysostom, “Homilies on First Corinthians” in NPNF2(12): 150.

[2] St. John Chrysostom, “Homilies on First Corinthians,” 150.

[3] St. Ambrose, “Isaac, Or, the Soul” in Saint Ambrose: Seven Exegetical Works. Trans. Michael P. McHugh (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1972), 45.

[4] While we are concerned about veiling and the symbolic meaning of veiling here, it is important to point out that the uncovering of Rebecca, on the other hand, can be interpreted as the removal of all barriers between the soul and God, which of course, is necessary for the soul to find itself in true union with God.

[5] Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, “Inter Insigniores.” Vatican translation. ¶ 4.

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