Virgins and Ascetics
Around the fourth century there arose two divergent “lifestyles” for women. Certain Christian women elected to stay unmarried and chaste, considering themselves brides of Christ (e.g., St. Agnes and St. Lucy). Choosing to remain virgins caused problems for many women, especially if they were not in Christian families. Even Christian parents often gave their daughters a difficult time about the decision, especially if a proper marriage was needed to improve the family fortunes.
Not everybody who admitted to being a Christian during this time was killed for his faith. Men and women who had the good fortune to live through their ordeals or court trials were called confessors. They might have suffered a good deal in prison and may even have endured exile, but they survived. After their death they were accorded the same honor that went to martyrs.
These women usually entered a religious order. For many of them, remaining a virgin and becoming religious was a declaration of independence — the only way out of leading a life traditionally imposed on them. While their motives were almost certainly piety and a desire to commit their lives to God, no doubt there were women who just did not want to marry or who did not want to marry the man chosen for them.
In religious life, too, a woman could learn, sometimes rising to the position of superior in her convent. The convent was not always a cloistered life of prayer: some women taught, some wrote, and some did works of charity outside the convent walls.
Christian men, especially monks, chose the path of the ascetic. A monk, or even a man affiliated with no religious order, would walk off into the desert or woods, existing on food he could pick from the vegitation. He spent his time in prayer and contemplation — and sometimes self-flagellation and other extreme mortifications. All of this was done to become closer to God. The hermitlike, celibate existence was difficult and, when taken to an extreme, was similar to a slow martyrdom.
Ascetics sometimes viewed this way of life as a temporary measure to atone for a sin or crime or to plead a favor with God. For example, Joachim, father of Mary, went into the desert and fasted and prayed for forty days (see Chapter 2). Usually this was a choice for a longer period, sometimes even the remainder of a man's life.