The City of God: Book 1: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter 28

Let not your life, then, O faithful followers of Christ be a burden to you in case your chastity was made the sport of enemies. You have ample and genuine assurance on that point so long as your conscience assures you that you gave no consent to the sins of those who were allowed the liberty of committing them against you. If you ask me why they were allowed the liberty, the answer is that the providence of the Creator and Ruler of the world transcends human reckoning, and that ‘incomprehensible are His judgments and … unsearchable His ways.’ Nevertheless, carefully scrutinize your own souls and see whether you were not unduly puffed up about your virtue of purity, or continence, or chastity, and whether you have not been led to envy others by reason of the human praise bestowed on them for these virtues.

I make no accusation about what I do not know, nor do I hear what answer your consciences make to the questions you ask. But, if they reply that the case is as I have supposed it might be, then do not wonder that you have lost that chastity which you displayed to win men’s praises and retained that love of chastity which cannot be displayed before men’s eyes. If you did not yield consent to the sin of your oppressors, it was because God’s grace came to your aid that you might not lose it, whereas shame before men followed the praise of men in order that your heart might not pour itself out on this. In either case you may find solace, faint-hearted ones, tested as you have been by the one experience, and chastened by the other.

Then, there are those faithful women whose consciences, when interrogated, reply that they have never been puffed up with pride by reason of their virginity or continence or conjugal chastity, but that ‘consenting to the humble,’ that is, in a spirit of humility, they rejoiced with fear and trembling in the gift of God and envied no one who enjoyed the treasure of like holiness and chastity. Far from that, they held in little regard that human praise which, as a rule, is lavished in greater measure the rarer the virtue that elicits the applause. They desired that the number of the pure should increase rather than that they themselves should stand out as more conspicuous among the few. Even those virtuous women who are both chaste and unenvious, if they have been outraged by the barbarians, must not complain that this was allowed; nor must they think that God is indifferent to such outrages because He permits to happen what no man can commit without punishment.

For, like an avalanche, some evil desires are let loose by the secret judgment of God on earth, and are reserved for His final and open judgment. Moreover, as regards those Christian women whose conscience assures them that they were not puffed up by their virtue of chastity, and who, nevertheless, had suffered the enemy’s outrages in their flesh, it may possibly be that they had in them some latent weakness which could have swollen to overwhelming pride had they escaped this humiliation in the sack of the city. Hence, just as death snatched some away, ‘lest wickedness should alter their understanding,’ so violence snatched something away from them lest prosperity should endanger their chastity.

Hence, neither the women who were already puffed up because they had suffered no immodest contact, nor those who might possibly have been puffed up had not contact been forced on them by the enemy, were robbed of their chastity, but they learned humility. The former were delivered from a pride that had already overtaken them; the latter, from a pride that threatened them.

There is yet another point I should not fail to mention. Some who suffered violence to their chastity might conceive of this virtue as belonging to these qualities of the body which endure so long as the body remains inviolate. Others might think that sanctity of body and soul does not depend solely on strength of will sustained by God’s help. Still others might conclude that it is not a blessing which cannot be taken away from a person against his will. From such an error they are probably now delivered. For, when they reflect on how conscientiously they have served God, and when with unshaken faith they believe that He would by no means abandon those who have served Him and invoked His aid so faithfully, and when they further consider how pleasing is chastity in His sight, then they can draw only one conclusion: that He would never have permitted these evils if they could destroy in His saints that purity of soul which He had bestowed on them and delights to see in them.

Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII

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