Did you know that "spiritual brides" lived and snuggled with early Christian holy men, such as (possibly) St. Paul?1 They were known as the "agapetae,"2 based on the Greek word agape. Agape is defined as "spiritual, selfless, chaste love" - in contrast with eros or "sexual love." "Agapetae" is most often translated as "the beloveds." The most famous was Paul's companion, Thecla, although her existence may have been apocryphal. Nevertheless, she is commemorated in the chapel pictured here. Legend has it that she was nearly roasted for renouncing her fiancee in order to follow Paul.
The agapetae are sometimes lumped together with women known as 'subintroductae.' This may have been a "spiritual marriage" practice where the man placed his penis between the woman's labia, against her hymen, without forcing entry, as a way of uniting without surrendering to the drive to orgasm. (As an aside, in 2019 a young researcher found that de-emphasis on orgasm was linked to greater relationship satisfaction: "Development and Validation of a Tantric Sex Scale: Sexual-Mindfulness, Spiritual Purpose, and Genital/orgasm De-emphasis.")
As for the practice of a chaste man and woman living together in a spiritual marriage, it was widely adopted in early Christianity:
Nor was syneisaktism [sacred marriage] a phenomenon peculiar to one locality; it can be found in Ireland, Syria, North Africa, and many other centers of Christianity. [Elizbeth A. Clark, John Chrysostom and the Subintroductae, Church History, 46 (1977), p. 173]
Of one thing we can be sure: there was hardly a church province in ancient Christianity in which spiritual marriages were unknown. [Roland H. Seboldt, Spiritual Marriage in the Early Church: A Suggested Interpretation of Cor. 7:36-38, part 2, Concordia Theological Monthly, Volume: 30 Number 3 (1959) pp. 176-189]
Eventually, the 'subintroductae' label was also given to priests' wives/housekeepers - who were closer to servants or wives, and certainly not spiritual equals in the sense that early agapetae were.
As the Catholic Church moved away from the tenets of early Christianity (and rejected the gnostic viewpoint), it championed unrestrained procreation (within marriage) as God's will. However, it's worth noting that priests' children were so common that in some regions there were even legal mechanisms by which priests could pass on an inheritance to their children. This changed around the end of the first millennium when the practice of priests openly keeping mates was forbidden, perhaps influenced by the purity of the Cathars.
The Cathars, however, seemed to follow a practice that was much closer to the agapetae concept, where men and women lived together but did not seek to procreate. For this view, among others, thousands of them were burned alive. For a century or so, in other corners of the Catholic world, priests continued to keep mistresses. In fact, priests fathering children were so common that the German word for "pastor's son" (Pfaffenkind) was synonymous with "bastard."3
4 Agapetae, in contrast to the (ultimate) subintroductae, apparently had an otherworldly, spiritual function. There is an allusion to the agapetae in the New Testament:
1 Corinthians 7:36 - But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry. 37 Nevertheless he that standeth steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well.
We know few details, and most of those come from polemics against the agapetae custom. However, it appears that the practice of a man and woman sleeping together in a lust-free manner represented practical application of one of Christianity's loftiest aims — overcoming lust and thereby freeing oneself of the pull of earthly desires. This discipline was apparently employed widely until at least the middle of the 3rd century. According to modern observer Andrew Moore,5
There was something [unusually] profound about male female 'companionship' in the primitive Church - it is the missing piece of the puzzle - ignored by both the establishment and gnostics alike. Mary Magdalene was perhaps the first agapetae.
As he says, the agapetae
were not a short-term or small-scale aberration in the first several centuries of the Christian Church. The whole dynamic of both nakedness and the [agapetae] centered around the understanding of body beyond lust and the desires of the flesh, and without a dualistic divide. When it was all finally suppressed and expunged from the official history, the space was filled by asceticism and monasticism.
More Evidence of the Practice
Known as one of the four great doctors of the Church, St. John Chrysostom ("golden-mouthed") 6 wrote a polemic against this practice called, Against Those Who Keep Virgins in their Houses. Here 19th century writer, Havelock Ellis7 (who eloquently argued for restraint in marriage), describes St. Chrysostom’s rant:
"Our fathers," Chrysostom begins, "only knew two forms of sexual intimacy, marriage and fornication. Now a third form has appeared: men introduce young girls into their houses and kept them there permanently, respecting their virginity." "What," Chrysostom asks, "is the reason? It seems to me that life in common with a woman is sweet, even outside conjugal union and fleshly commerce. That is my feeling; and perhaps it is not my feeling alone; it may also be that of these men. They would not hold their honor so cheap nor give rise to such scandals if this pleasure were not violent and tyrannical... That there should really be a pleasure in this which produces a love more ardent than conjugal union may surprise you at first. But when I give you the proofs you will agree that it is so. The absence of restraint to desire in marriage, often leads to speedy disgust, and even apart from this, sexual intercourse, pregnancy, delivery, lactation, the bringing up of children, and all the pains and anxieties that accompany these things, soon destroy youth and dull the point of pleasure. The virgin is free from these burdens. She retains her vigor and her youthfulness, and even at the age of forty may rival the young nubile girl. A double ardour thus burns in the heart of him who lives with her, and the gratification of desire never extinguishes the bright flame which ever continues to increase in strength." Chrysostom describes minutely all the little cares and attentions which the … girls of his time required, and which these men delighted to expend on their virginal sweethearts whether in public or in private.
This refinement of tender chastity, which was to arise again in the middle ages (perhaps via the Cathars) in the form of courtly love, was apparently widespread among early Christians. Desert ascetic St. Jerome,8 writing to Eustochium, comments:
I blush to speak of it, it is so shocking; yet though sad, it is true. How comes this plague of the agapetae to be in the church? Whence come these unwedded wives, these novel concubines, these harlots, so I will call them, though they cling to a single partner? One house holds them and one chamber. They often occupy the same bed, and yet they call us suspicious if we fancy anything amiss. … Both alike profess to have but one object, to find spiritual consolation from those not of their kin; but their real aim is to indulge in sexual intercourse. It is on such that Solomon in the book of proverbs heaps his scorn. "Can a man take fire in his bosom," he says, "and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals and his feet not be burned?"
Similarly Cyprian9 (Epistola 62) is unable to approve those men of whom he hears - and one a deacon! - who live in familiar intercourse with virgins, even sleeping in the same bed with them. Early Church father Hermas is said to have "spent the night with the unclad virtues." An editor commenting in the 19th Century Translation of 'The Early Church Fathers' added:
To live as brothers and sisters in the family of Christ, was a daring experiment; …The sun-clad power of chastity," which Hermas means to depict, was no doubt gloriously exemplified among holy men and women, in those heroic ages. The power of the Holy Ghost demonstrated, in many instances, how true it is, that, "to the pure, all things are pure." But the Gospel proscribes everything like presumption and "leading into temptation."
Ultimately, the Church feared scandal so much that it presumed no such lust-free union served any spiritual purpose, and prohibited any arrangement where 'tempting' women lived with priests. Thereafter, celibacy, rather than chaste union, was considered proof of conquering lust. Recent events in the Church suggest that celibacy has not entirely succeeded as a strategy for overcoming lust. And recent events pale next to the alarming hysteria that followed the rigid sexual suppression the Church finally managed to achieve in the middle ages.10
it hardly seems too much to say … that the Church's code of repression produced, throughout Western Europe, over a period of four or five centuries, an outbreak of mass psychosis for which there are few parallels in history. Perhaps only the Aztec passion for blood sacrifice provides a comparable case. [Ultimately it fueled countless murders in the name of witchcraft.]
The agapetae practice was very likely a far wiser, safer trajectory - even apart from its spiritual potential (see below). In the earliest days of the Christian church, a man and woman apparently did live together in the same house in perfect love and perfect chastity.11
Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber
It is unknown whether there was a direct connection between the agapetae tradition and a similar practice mentioned in several of the Nag Hammadi gnostic gospels.12 However, it seems possible that there was. These gospels speak of a Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber.
Seek the experience of the pure embrace [translated from the Coptic word koinonia, which is defined as 'marital fellowship']; it has great power.13
Some form of the "bridal chamber" ritual appears to have made it as far as the Rhone Valley. We know because self-appointed "heretic buster" Irenaeus14 accused the prophet Marcus, who headed a popular spiritual movement, of practicing ritual sex with numerous women who were seduced into joining his cult. The Marcosians evidently observed a rite called the "bridal chamber" in which they entered a "spiritual marriage."15 However, there was no evidence that Irenaeus' accusations of wanton behavior were true, and Gnostic scholar Michael Allen Williams discounts them entirely.16
In any case, the sacrament of the bridal chamber was vigorously expunged from mainstream Catholicism. It is only by the grace of the recovery of the Nag Hammadi texts that we know that this sacrament also called for union of male and female in a lust-free embrace. The Gospel of Philip describes the sacrament of the bridal chamber as the 'holy of holies,' the way in which couples cans awaken spiritually. Together they can enter into a mystery, thereby giving birth to a spiritual child of light (not a physical child). The Gospel of Philip also implies that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' consort:
The companion of the Son is Miriam of Magdala. The Teacher loved her more than all the disciples; he often kissed her on the [mouth].17
Williams18 believes the sacrament of the bridal chamber probably didn't involve intercourse - perhaps because lust-free intercourse is an inconceivable concept for anyone who has not experimented with sacred sexuality. Notwithstanding mainstream scholars' skepticism, however, a number of the Nag Hammadi documents appear to be speaking of actual intercourse:
All those who practice the sacred embrace will kindle the light; they will not beget as people do in ordinary marriages, which take place in darkness.19
Those who are to have intercourse with one another will be satisfied with the intercourse. And as if it were a burden, they leave behind them the annoyance of physical desire and they do not separate from each other. They become a single life….For they were originally joined to one another when they were with God. This marriage brings them back together again.20
What is the bridal chamber, if not the place of trust and consciousness in the embrace? It is an icon of Union, beyond all forms of possession; here is where the veil is torn from top to bottom; here is where some arise and awaken.21
At least one of the Nag Hammadi documents, the Gospel of Thomas, contains content that predates the canonical gospels in the New Testament. The Gospel of Thomas speaks of the mystery of "entering the kingdom of heaven when male and female become one."22 The Gospel of Philip says the sacrament is for "virgins." However, it is not clear if it meant physical virgins, or simply women who had purified themselves via this sacrament. The agapetae were also described as 'virgins.' Yet, in those days "virgin" did not necessarily mean "physical virgin." It sometimes meant "(respected) woman who is not a wife."
Was the sacrament of the bridal chamber but another form of the widespread agapetae practice? Was this mystery of male/female union part of Christ's original teachings despite the efforts of the Church to eradicate it? As scholar Charles Williams23 observed, the suppression of this phenomenon by the Church means that we unfortunately know nothing of the cases in which this attempt to overcome lust with chaste union succeeded. The synod of Elvira (305) and the Council of Nicea (325) forbade it altogether.
The great experiment had to be abandoned because of Scandal….. It was one of the earliest triumphs of "the weaker brethren," those innocent sheep who by mere volume of imbecility have trampled over many delicate flowers in Christendom.
- 1. The heart-wrenching story of Paul and his virgin Thecla was once a very popular religious novel.
- 2. The word agapetae was also the name of a branch of the Gnostics in 395, whose tenet was that the relations of the sexes were purified of impropriety if the mind was pure.
- 4. See Sex in History
- 5. See his webpage on this subject.
- 6. born in 347 in Antioch, Syria.
- 7. Vol. 6, Sex and Society, 1913
- 8. Born at Stridon, a town on the confines of Dalmatia and Pannonia, about the year 340-2; died at Bethlehem, 30 September, 420.
- 9. Bishop and martyr. The date of the saint's birth and his early life are unknown. Converted to Christianity around 246.
- 10. For a hair-raising account of that period, have a look at Mediaeval Sexual Behaviour, a chapter from Sex in History by the late journalist/historian Gordon Rattray Taylor. He writes:
- 11. Gordon Rattray Taylor. See Sex in History
- 12. Ancient texts found in Upper Egypt only 60 years ago.
- 13. Gospel of Philip, trans. Jean-Yves Leloup, L.60.
- 14. Irenaeus (c. 130—202) was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is now Lyon, France.
- 15. Adversus Haereses 1.13.4, 21.3
- 16. Rethinking 'Gnosticism', Princeton University Press, 1996. pp. 174-5
- 17. Gospel of Philip, trans. Jean-Yves Leloup, L. 55.
- 18. Rethinking 'Gnosticism', pp. 147-49
- 19. Gospel of Philip, trans. Jean-Yves Leloup, L.126.
- 20. Exegesis on the Soul, The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. James M. Robinson.
- 21. Gospel of Philip, trans. Jean-Yves Leloup, L.76.
- 22. See Gnostic Christianity: Did Jesus Teach Sacred Union of the Sexes?
- 23. in Descent of the Spirit (Williams was a colleague of C.S. Lewis)