IN MEMORIAM: ERIC J. ILIFF by Giacomo Sanfilippo

Eric Iliff took his life eleven years ago today. I wrote this tribute under my previous name a month after his death. Until now it has only been shared on my now defunct Yahoo! group, of which he had been a member, and my now defunct personal blog. His mother left a heart-rending note of thanks on the blog at that time.

eric

In Memoriam 

Eric J. Iliff 

October 11, 1981 ~ March 13, 2007 

by 

Peter J. SanFilippo

On March 13 of this year, Eric J. Iliff took his life at the age of twenty-five. 

Not until a month later did the news reach me like a thunderclap. Eric’s mother wrote on April 7—the day before Easter [Pascha], paradoxically, the Christian celebration of the victory of life over death—to the Homosexuality and Christianity Yahoo! Group that I moderate. She asked that her son’s name be removed from our distribution list because he was dead. 

A week later, my mind still reels through a fog of incomprehension, my heart paralyzed by disbelief. A beautiful young man, enormously gifted, with a love of God and of the Orthodox Church that he had hoped to serve one day as a priest, at one time Eric must have foreseen his future shining brilliantly with promise. How can the Church have lost such a priceless son? How can the world have lost Eric? 

Eric and I never met in person. Nearly a year before his death, when he was twenty-four, I briefly joined a gay Orthodox Yahoo! Group of which he was already a member. In my initial post to the group, I introduced myself as an alumnus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, a former priest and current communicant of the Orthodox Church, the divorced father of five, and an openly gay man who had recently finished the rough draft of a small book, A Bed Undefiled: An Orthodox Theological and Pastoral Approach to Same-Sex Love. Eric e-mailed me privately soon afterward and introduced himself. He had graduated just weeks before from the same seminary I had attended. He had demonstrated what I considered to be tremendous courage—for a student of an Orthodox theological school—in submitting a master’s thesis suggesting an Orthodox reappraisal of the question of homosexuality. He grappled with the reality that, because of his own sexual orientation, his priestly vocation might never materialize.   

At my invitation, Eric joined my gay Christian Yahoo! Group. He e-mailed me his thesis for my comments. He was delighted when I returned the favor by sharing the rough draft of my book with him. We discussed the possibility of collaborating in some fashion. Quickly, despite the limitations of Internet contact, Eric emerged in my estimation as a human being of uncommon love, gentleness, compassion, decency, and moral stature for a man so young.

Shortly after our correspondence began, Eric started to share with me some glimpses into his personal underworld of suffering. His interior struggle to reconcile being gay with being an Orthodox Christian was taking its toll on him. The support and understanding he had received from his thesis advisor, Father John Behr [correction: Father Behr proposed the thesis topic, while Dr. Peter Bouteneff served as advisor], could hardly compete with the endless flow of shrill invective from Orthodox authorities around the globe on the subject of homosexuality in recent years. In the end, his battle turned into a mortal combat.

There was more that dragged him under, though. When Eric felt he had reached a sufficient level of trust with me, he related to me the basic outline of a drama that had unfolded and drawn him inexorably into its vortex while he was at the seminary. Only after his death did I discover the full details. At the suggestion of a fellow seminarian, Eric had approached a particular priest on the seminary’s staff to seek counselling on certain residual issues from childhood. Over a period of time, the priest “groomed” Eric, forcing the conversation to matters of sexuality, and getting Eric to admit his own homosexuality to him. With that door nudged open, the priest began to describe his own sexual history and preferred sexual practices. Eventually, having succeeded in dismantling all barriers, he persuaded Eric to engage in mutual naked massage with him, fondling of one another’s genitalia, and ultimately mutual masturbation. These sessions continued over the course of two years, in the priest’s office and in Eric’s dormitory room, both located on the seminary campus. Finally, in the late spring of 2005, Eric could take no more and reported the priest to the seminary authorities. To the Church’s credit, the priest was quickly suspended and shortly thereafter defrocked. Eric was not disciplined. He returned in the fall of 2005 to complete his final year of theological studies, and was awarded the Master of Divinity degree in May 2006.

~           

St. Vladimir’s Seminary sits like a jewel among jewels on several rolling acres, bisected by a creek with a waterfall, on a sleepy, winding road in Crestwood, New York, a hamlet of elegant homes and ancient trees wedged in between Scarsdale, Tuckahoe, and Yonkers a few miles up the Bronx River Parkway from New York City. The chapel, a contemporary version of the wooden church architecture typical of the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine and Romania, dominates the campus from atop a knoll, its single cupola outlined against the sky and its golden cross flashing in the sunlight. For students, faculty, and staff alike, the chapel functions as the heart of the community as of a living organism. The pulse of seminary life follows the tranquil, steady rhythm of daily liturgical worship. Morning and evening, day by day—surrounded by the brilliant colors and ascetic lines of Byzantine icons, by hanging vigil lamps and flickering beeswax tapers, by aromatic clouds of incense—dozens of voices rise up in sacred harmony in the ageless, unaccompanied chants of the Christian East, whereby earth ascends to heaven and heaven descends to earth in a cosmic union where every boundary between time and eternity fades away.

An invisible light, as it were, emanates from the chapel and diffuses itself upon the whole of seminary life. In the classroom or in the library, in the refectory or in the dormitory, strolling across campus to the accompaniment of smiles and laughter or passionately immersed in the discussion of doctrine, one senses the pervasive presence of sanctity throughout the daily comings and goings of the community. This is not the sanctimony associated with the more extremist and narrow-minded manifestations of Christianity in America, which constricts and stifles the human spirit. This is genuine holiness, which nourishes and inspires. People go to St. Vladimir’s not so much to study theology as a scholastic endeavor as to be exposed to its transformative power. Despite whatever baggage people bring individually when they come, as a community they reflect a refreshingly wholesome cleanness, an indomitable joy, an earnest desire to leave at the end of their studies as persons transfigured.

Eric was robbed of this. He entrusted himself to a man who he presumed would guide him along the path to spiritual wholeness, who would help him attain to all that life at the seminary promised. What this priest saw in Eric, however, was not a person but an object, a conduit for his appetites, a set of genitals to grope and a pair of hands to grope his own. Eric went to the seminary seeking holiness. He went there believing that love between two men could be as worthy and as holy as that between a man and a woman. Instead, he found a predator who took advantage of his vulnerability and dragged him along a downward spiral of loveless orgasms. Knowing his youthful idealism, his love for God and Church, the affection in which his superiors and peers alike held him, one can scarcely imagine the growing depth of Eric’s interior hell as, with increasing frequency, he was forced to face his fellows mere moments after a “session” in his dormitory room or his counselor’s office. In the end, the world was robbed of Eric.

In January 2005 and again in late May—just weeks before he reported his sexual abuse to the administration—the seminary’s travelling mixed chorale, of which Eric was a member, set out on a tour of parishes, first in Florida and later in his native Midwest. As part of the itinerary of their visit to each parish, the singers took turns addressing the congregation on their experience of seminary life. The conflict that rent Eric inwardly as his lips smiled and uttered one thing in his public comments, while his mind fastened inevitably on another, must have intensified all the more his struggle to make sense of what was happening to him, to block visions of his nightmare from his inner eye, to see his life at the seminary, and ultimately himself, as fundamentally good. 

The photographs from those tours possess a haunting quality. Eric’s smile, his enchanting eyes, his arms draped around his brother and sister choristers in a gesture of easy camaraderie … and what demons must have roiled turbulently beneath the surface. One aches for him, looking at these pictures.

From my perspective as a correspondent, confidant, and sometime advisor of Eric’s, the last several months of his life were marked by an escalating sense of indecision as he strove to restore equilibrium, meaning, and direction to his life. One moment, he wrote of presenting himself to a certain gay-friendly, schismatic Orthodox bishop for ordination. Another moment, he wondered if he should abandon the Orthodox faith altogether. He mentioned possibly enrolling in a doctoral program. He went for secular counselling. He made a retreat at a monastery. He spoke of hoping to find a lifelong male partner with whom to share his life and grow in Christ. He hinted that he and I should meet to see if we were compatible, and then dropped out of sight for weeks. He posted a prayer request to my Yahoo! Group for strength in his struggles against suicide. At one point, he wrote to ask my opinion of a lawsuit he was considering filing against the seminary. I urged him at length not to proceed, advising that he needed to find inner peace above all else. I told him he would not find it in a lawsuit.

In early December, Eric wrote to me in state of near euphoria to announce his newly discovered, divinely appointed vocation to start an orphanage in a Third World country. He created a new Yahoo! Group for likeminded people and asked me to join. Although I had no plans to start an orphanage, I subscribed to his group as a support to him. In his own words, “I personally choose to start with the poorest of the poor and work from there. This was Mother Teresa’s mission and I certainly don’t expect to be more successful than her, merely faithful to what I hear God calling me to do on a daily basis.” 

After December 10, less than a week after starting his new Yahoo! Group, Eric stopped welcoming new members, posting messages, adding files to the group’s homepage, or engaging in any other discernible moderatorial activity. I later learned that, on December 26, his attorney filed a motion for a ten million dollar lawsuit, against the seminary and against the ruling bishop of the Orthodox Church in America, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Around this same time, I began to grow concerned about his absence from his own group and tried to contact him. He never replied. Less than three months after his lawsuit was filed, Eric was dead. He never found the peace for which he so ardently longed.

On the basis of what Eric shared with me over the course of several months, I believe the factors leading to his death were more complex than the single fact of his sexual abuse. It seems to me the fundamental issue for him was one of reconciling what he believed was the goodness of same-sex love with the almost universally negative verdict of Orthodox commentators. He shared the dilemma of all self-accepting gay and lesbian Orthodox believers: the Church you love as your mother, and for which you would gladly lay down your life, ultimately rejects you. The Church’s acceptance of you hinges entirely on your loathing of what you know experientially is natural, good, God-given, redeemable by grace. The ignominy of Eric’s past relations with his priest-counselor all but sealed his ultimate failure to come to terms with himself, his faith, and his sexuality.

Suicide is one of those few gray areas in which there is little consensus in the Orthodox Church. Some bishops and priests deny an Orthodox burial to a person who ends his own life. Eric’s parish priest, Father John Dickson Brown of Holy Apostles Church in Normal, Illinois, must be a man who radiates mercy, for he gave Eric a full Orthodox burial from the church. Eric’s fellow seminary alumni and alumnae showed up in carloads. The exquisite icon of the face of Christ that Eric himself had painted as a younger man gazed down from its place behind the altar table as the beloved son, grandson, brother, friend, iconographer, singer, and lover of God was laid to his untimely rest.

Three months before Eric died, he wrote the following credo to the members of the Homosexuality and Christianity Yahoo! Group.  It rings authentic precisely because it is so unpolished, so obviously the spontaneous outpouring of a pure heart:

[Chastity] is a much more subtle concept [than celibacy], I believe.  It denotes continence within one’s life, which involves the moral lifestyle within which one lives … Celibacy as a gay Christian is a choice …  BUT, but, but, chastity should be what ALL Christians strive for and ultimately all fall short of, because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Chastity would involve directing one’s heart towards God with all one’s senses, not just the genitals.  One’s eyes, hands, mouth … would all be involved in chastity.  It involves “holy aloneness” before God, and isn’t to be despised.  [Chastity] is a universal calling for all Christians, gay or straight, while [celibacy] is a more specific calling of a few.  Some other Christians would disagree with what I’ve said, saying ALL gay Christians must be celibate … I don’t advocate that, nor do I think Peter [the author of the present article] was, in fact I’m sure he doesn’t … Many gay persons have been burnt by the universal call to celibacy, and feel that this is as unnatural as their homosexuality is believed to be … Human beings, good ol’ homo sapiens, need human companionship, whether gay, straight, or anything else.  They react with some level of, and sometimes total, moral ambiguity about holiness or chastity within gay relationships for reasons we may not agree with, but certainly can try and understand and empathize with … It is darn difficult to sort through these issues of celibacy, chastity, and much moreover, just what does chastity mean within a gay relationship?  These processes, for lack of a better term, I believe are at the core of why so many formerly churched and believing Christians leave their churches, and worse, leave their faith in Jesus Christ, when they come to terms with their homosexuality.  We must attempt to understand as best we can why these things happen, and empathize with Christian love, thereby sending the message that the gay Christian is still loved by God and loved by his fellow Christians, gay or straight.

May the voice of this gentle and unobtrusive young man be heard even from the grave. May he not have lived and died in vain.  And may his memory be eternal.

End

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Eric died in a motel room by shotgun in the mouth, surrounded by his icons, prayer book, and Bible.

The Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and St. Vladimir’s Seminary had his lawsuit dismissed after he died. 

For the PDF of Eric’s MDiv thesis, “Homosexuality and the Eastern Orthodox Christian Tradition,” email us at editors@orthodoxyindialogue.com.

The icon that Eric painted and the full text of his email on same-sex love, from which the above excerpt is taken, can be viewed here.

The author of this tribute dedicated his MA in Theology thesis to Eric’s memory. See both the Acknowledgments and the Dedication here.