Friday, April 13, 2012

The Contradictions of Damian

On Wednesday in class we discussed how odd it was that Peter Damian, the architect behind the celibacy of the clergy, would include stories of forgiven sinners of the flesh.  Through an examination of his selected letters it appears to me that the letters themselves are split on the issue.  To a certain degree his arguments supporting the Office of the Virgin Mary and those discussing the need for chastity contradict each other.  Damian sets Mary up as some sort of a loophole to salvation making his ideas about chastity seem superfluous when it comes to gaining entrance into Heaven.

Damian advocates chastity because it will separate monks from the laity, “Therefore, we must destroy avarice if we would live at peace and be independent of laymen.  We must curb gluttony if we are to be distinguished by the true splendor of chastity” (Letter, 142, 138).  This notion of the clergy making themselves distinct from the lay population seems to stand in opposition to the teachings of Damian about the Virgin Mary.  In those stories Damian illustrates how the Virgin intercedes on behalf of both clerical and lay sinners alike.  In Letter 17, Damian discusses “a certain clerk who was guilty of many sins, especially defiled himself with sins of the flesh” (Letter 17, 157) but who found salvation through the Mother of God because he prayed to her seven times a day (Letter 17, 157).  Then in Letter 106 he tells the story of a Burgundian who was supposed to go to Hell “For the law of the flesh always held the upper hand in him, but the law of the spirit he totally ignored” (Letter 106, 178) but was saved at the last minute by the Virgin because he had fought for her previously.  Both of these men, clerk and layman, appear to have committed the same sins and receive the same forgiveness.  With these stories Damian promotes the idea that all are equal in the eyes of the Virgin and thus all equally worthy of being saved by her intercession.  According to these stories it appears that devotion is much more important to at least the Virgin than any notions of chastity that Damian might endorse.

Returning to the crimes perpetrated, with his discussion of the importance of the Virgin’s office he makes the sins of the flesh seem light.  In Letter 142 he is advocating chastity concerning food, drink, and wealth stating, “This sin of the first man, my brothers-if I may speak with your leave-you have not failed to repeat down to this very day if from desire of sensual allurements you taste of that which was forbidden you” (Letter 142, 130).  Thus in his fervor for notions of sensual chastity Damian likens a monk eating a hot dish for the evening meal as tantamount to original sin and “That which was good by nature became evil by the sin of disobedience” (Letter 142, 130).  This straight-laced by-the-book attitude appears absent in his arguments for the Office of the Virgin Mary.  I have already mentioned the clerk from Letter 17 who was guilty of sins of the flesh and the Burgundian of Letter 106 who was also a sinner.  In Letter 106 there is another layman by the name of Marinus who also gained salvation through the Virgin despite his having “miserably and unhappily offended you by the obscene and foul use of my body, and I have violated my bodily integrity of which you are the mother and author” (Letter 106, 183).  These three examples lived a life of carnal sins with most only asking for forgiveness on their deathbeds with no promises to mend their ways.  When the Virgin herself appears she does not lecture the sinners on the merits of chastity or even mention the penalties of carnal misdeeds.  All the examples within Damian’s stories found redemption in the eyes of the Lord despite their having perpetrated sins of the flesh.  If this is the case, does chastity have any appeal when one can simply pray for forgiveness at the end of life and receive the same reward?

Damian lessens his own claims about the importance of chastity and obedience by creating a type of “Get Out of Jail Free” card with the Virgin Mary.  By stating all these instances of the Mother of God saving sinners he counteracts the incentives of chastity.  In Letter 142 he tries to promote chastity by saying that submission to sins of the flesh only “torture yourselves with the bitter pangs of worldly desire, deprive both yourselves and your posterity of the sweetness of an unencumbered life” (Letter 142, 130).  In the same paragraph he strengthens this admonition with a verse from Timothy, “But those who seek to become rich fall into the snares of the devil and into temptation and into many useless and harmful desires, which plunge men into destruction and damnation” (1 Tim 6:8-9) but he previously gave examples of sinners escaping the just deserts of their misdeeds making this warning seem superfluous.  He tries to support his arguments for chastity by saying that it will help people avoid damnation in one letter and then gives examples of gross crimes of the flesh being forgiven in another letter without even claims to future chastity.

Damian works hard to promote chastity especially in Letter 142 but manages to damage his own argument when he delves into the topic of the Virgin Mary and her office.  He states that chastity will set the clergy apart in the eyes of God but then narrates them as equals before Mary, he chastises monks for straying from the restrictions of their order then tells how similar wayward priests gained salvation.  Damian is trying to sell the clergy on the idea of chastity as a way of life but contradicts his own sales pitch with his stories of the Mother of God as the intercessor for humans to God.  While trying to prove the importance and power of Mary Damian inadvertently makes chastity appear unimportant and superfluous.



  1. I'm not sure Peter is actually setting up a "get out of jail free" card or a loophole. He seems to be thinking of the words of Paul, "where sin abounded, grace did much more abound." He sets up the greatest, foulest sinners he can think up as contrasts for the abundance of grace of the Virgin. Which is to say: the stories are not about sin at all, but about grace. In addition, devotion to the Virgin is not "free." The saying of the little office and the self-flagellation which Peter describes are similar actions to those he prescribes elsewhere, for sinners not turning to the Virgin for succor, though perhaps a little less burdensome or extreme, due to Mary's incredible mercy. The fellow who died in his sin, for example, was not forgiven on the spot, but he rose to confess his sins and his brothers had to perform his penance. What I find most striking is that Mary plays the role, for Peter, that Christ plays for many Christians today--the merciful protector against God's wrath who steps in to save us from our deserved punishment. While he does not explicitly say it in these letters, it seems to be that Mary is intervening in the sinners' behalf before an implacable and inimitable Christ.


  2. Actually, I wonder if this isn't a more helpful way of thinking of it. Early on the day of a dinner party for which you are cooking and serving the food, you get your hands dirty. You know that you will take a shower at the end of the day that will make your hands clean, but in the meantime you will cook food and serve it with filthy hands and risk getting your guests sick. So, naturally, you decide to wash your hands (at least) before you prepare the food. So, at very least, the unchaste priest whose hands are unclean for handling the church's supper should repent and perform penance, even if he knows that at the end of the day his devotion to Mary will cleanse him. Of course, it would have been better for that priest never to have gotten dirty at all, since his filth takes much more than soap and water to remove.


  3. I agree with RCH's suggestions about how to think about Peter's apparent contradictions, but you are entirely right to point to the difficulty that there seems to be between the demands of discipline (chastity) and the effects of devotion (forgiveness). We will be seeing further examples of the Virgin's (apparent) capriciousness in the miracle stories we read for next week. The question as I see it is whether mercy is ever *not* capricious, whether offered by God or through the intercession of Mary.


  4. MAM: Nice analysis of these themes in Peter Damian’s letters. I wonder if there is something of Paul’s idea of grace abounding more where there is more sin in Peter Damian’s logic of the eternally chaste Mary interceding on behalf of unchaste clergy. That is, in an “economy” of sin and redemption, is Mary is *precisely* the being to intercede for unchaste clergy because of the nature of the sin and the station of the sinner? Is Peter Damian encouraging special devotion to Mary in the clergy by *both* insisting on stringent chastity *and* presenting Mary as disposed to given to intervening on behalf of unchaste clergy? Rather than all being “equal in the eyes of the Virgin,” is it more like Christ’s parable of the forgiven debtor: Two debtors are forgiven, one for a much larger debt than the other. Which of the two will be more grateful?

    In short: What if Peter Damian’s real goal is to encourage clerical devotion to the Virgin, and the special emphasis on chastity is a “stick” to help bring it about?