ON CHASTITY: TWO LETTERS TO A STRUGGLING MONK by Giacomo Sanfilippo

quietMy brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Church who excoriate my attempts to develop a theological and spiritual vision of same-sex love accuse me of promoting sexual promiscuity and rejecting the ascetical nature of our common life in Christ.

In August 2016 I announced on Facebook that I was about to begin doctoral studies in Orthodox theology, sexuality, and gender. Between then and now, a growing number of Orthodox Christians in the US and Canada who identify somewhere along the LGBTQ spectrum—or their parents, in some instances—have reached out to me for emotional and spiritual support. The pace of these contacts quickened after the publication of my “Conjugal Friendship” on Public Orthodoxy in May 2017, followed three months later by the launch of Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

These men and women of all ages contacted me because they trusted no priest to hear them without judging them. Case in point: An Orthodox individual in a committed same-sex relationship assured his priest that the relationship was fully celibate. The priest responded I don’t believe you and excommunicated the man. 

In October 2016 a monk wrote to me, a convert with a devotion to St. Benedict and some Western forms of monastic prayer. He called himself “a proud gay man.” He was indulging compulsively in internet porn and—when away from the monastery on assigned business—frequent encounters for anonymous sex. He had a pseudonymous Facebook account where he posted things related to sex. While he loved his life in the monastery, he struggled with temptations to abandon it to find himself a boyfriend. He had reached the very threshold of giving up. He was justifying his sexual immorality to himself.

It was at this point that he reached out to me. 

He has now given Orthodoxy in Dialogue permission to publish the following two letters from me to him. In consenting to their publication he wrote: “You can also add, if you like, that [your] letters helped me to step back from the brink of almost certain spiritual ruin. For that I am very grateful.”

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Since I am neither your father confessor nor your spiritual director, but a fellow struggler in the arena, I can do no more than offer randomly ordered insights for you to pray and reflect upon. There is no need to tell me how you react to each one, unless you think it would be helpful to yourself to do so.

1. Deactivate your anonymous Facebook account immediately, once and for all. It serves no purpose at all in the work of your salvation.

2. How often, and to whom, do you confess? How thorough are your confessions? What you call your “raging libido” is simply the passion of lust—concupiscence, in some of the older literature—against which you are neither the first nor the last to struggle. Neither are you the first or the last in whom it “rages.” The first human step in taming it is to confess it mercilessly and often. I say “human step” because you are not waging the battle alone: “Where sin increased, there grace abounded all the more.” Divine grace is with you at all times, ready to do the heavy lifting, even though it feels to us that we have to do “so much.”

3. The gendered object of our lusting is irrelevant: lust is lust. You know from the Desert Fathers that monks were almost as apt to lust after each other, and certainly after beardless youths, as they were to lust after women. The desire for “gay sex” does not come with a set of different, easier rules.

4. If you cannot swear off internet porn, get rid of the device(s) with which you access it. Cut off porn immediately and irrevocably, as a diseased limb, for “if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light.” Also, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they [alone] shall see God.” The Lord who loves you so tenderly, so sweetly, who never judges you, stands knocking at the door of your heart; only you can open the door and hold it continually open, but He does all the rest. He even helps you with the door, if He detects but a glimmer of desire in you to open to Him. He runs to meet you not halfway down the road, but at the very first sign of your very first partial step homeward.

5. You say you are at a crossroads. Every moment of our life is a crossroads. “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways. The way of life is this. First of all, you shall love God who made you; secondly, your neighbour as yourself. And do nothing to another that you would not have befall yourself. Now of these words the doctrine is this. Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies and fast for those who persecute you; for what merit is it, if you love those who love you? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and bodily lusts.”

6. You say “…my determination to persevere and redouble my efforts at living in the way the Church requires of me.” This is the wrong way to think about it. Ask yourself rather what love requires of you, Christ’s love for you and your love for Him; for “we love, because He first loved us.” He who said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him,” and finally “I will run in the way of Thy commandments!” commanded this: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Dear brother, you know without my telling you that this commandment goes much deeper than the renunciation of material possessions, and that to “follow” Christ has a much deeper meaning than the outward circumstances of our life (coenobitic living, wearing the same habit every day, early morning worship, etc.), but that we follow Him first and foremost along the path of purity through the terrain of our own heart.

7. Use the Jesus prayer constantly; or, if you prefer something more Western, “O God, come to my aid! O Lord, make haste to help me!” Believe me, dear brother, the raging ceases for a time, or at least rages less powerfully. “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you; He will never permit the righteous to be moved.” And again, “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.” Inscribe Psalm 91 in the flesh of your heart: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High…[Who] will give His angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

8. Stop calling yourself and thinking of yourself as “a proud gay man.” You are a monk. The sexual orientation of your lusts and temptations is irrelevant, certainly nothing to be “proud” of. (I would say the same thing to a heterosexual monk, such as St. Silouan the Athonite apparently was.) But do not misunderstand me: the erotic principle in man, whether directed towards the opposite gender or one’s own, most definitely reflects the divine image, most definitely participates in the gradual acquisition of the divine likeness through repentance. Yet a monk aspires to live by divine grace like the angels in heaven, who neither marry nor are given in marriage. In the monk—indeed, in the Christian—eros is not obliterated (for then we would not be human), but purified after the likeness of divine eros.

Forgive me. I am sure this is much too long. But I will leave everything as is, in the hope that at least one sentence or phrase leaps off the page and speaks to your soul.

With brotherly love in Christ,

Giacomo

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St. Benedict has been one of my dearest friends in heaven since I was nine years old and acquired his vita written for young people. My own children grew up hearing me read it to them from time to time. When I purchased St. Gregory’s Dialogues earlier this year, I was delighted by how closely and accurately the children’s version had followed the original.

So I read in Chapter 67 of the Rule: “The brothers returning from a journey, on the very day they come back, lying prostrate on the floor of the oratory when the Work of God is completed at all regular hours, should seek the prayers of all for their transgressions, in case along the way the sight or sound of something wicked or idle talk has stolen in among them.” I will pray to my beloved friend and father Benedict and yours, that he strengthen us, and that he flood our hearts with such an overwhelming, palpable sense of Christ’s love that we are driven to amend our lives day by day not because we fear Him, but because we love Him.

I have counseled men who thought of leaving their wives and children to find themselves a boyfriend. “And if you don’t find one?” I ask. “Then what? You’ve destroyed your life and the lives of your wife and children for nothing.”

And if we can’t live as Christians in the monastery, with the divine office and all the other supports of coenobitic life, by what ruse does the father of lies convince us that we can live as Christians in the world? If we won’t even make the effort to be faithful to our heavenly Bridegroom, the most beautiful of the sons of men—if we leave our conjugal home on errands planning to cheat on Him—by what self-deception do we imagine we can be chaste and pure and faithful towards an earthly bridegroom, or that we can even be worthy of an earthly one? What will we do if our good Christian partner, for physical or emotional reasons, becomes sexually incapacitated?

If the monk is one who falls down and gets up, falls down and gets up, falls down and gets up, as one of the Desert Fathers has taught us, what hope is there if we fall down and don’t want to get up, or worse still, throw ourselves down without even waiting to fall?

The big picture can be so overwhelming for us: How can I possibly practice chastity for the rest of my life when my desires are so overpowering? So let us break it down into individual frames: Can I with God’s help remain chaste this day? If that’s too much to think about, then: Can I with God’s help remain chaste this hour?

The Physician of our souls and bodies healed the woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years when she but touched the hem of His garment. Yet we receive His whole Body and Blood. How much more can He heal us of our lifelong wounds, both self-inflicted and inflicted by others, if we but let Him, in His sweetness and tenderness and love for us. Quietly He stoops down over us as we lie half dead along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, binds up our wounds, pours upon our battered souls and bodies the wine of His most precious Blood and the oil of His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit.

Dearest brother, I write to you about your puddle of sins when I drown in a sea of my own. Yet I take heart in knowing that the sea of divine mercy is infinitely deeper.

Pray for me!

Giacomo

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