ORTHODOXY AND MASCULINITY by Pavel Florensky

FlorenskyFather Pavel Florensky (1882-1937)—widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s foremost Orthodox theologians, and best known for his 1914 The Pillar and Ground of the Truth—wrestled spiritually, theologically, and academically with the same questions of sexuality and gender that comprise an important focus of Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s work a hundred years later.

Florensky never wrote anything entitled “Orthodoxy and Masculinity.” What follows, rather, is a small selection of representative extracts from a few sources which fall under this rubric. What motivates us is our continuing concern for a frankly bizarre “Orthodoxy-is-not-for-sissies” discourse and “Orthodox machismo” recently  perpetuated, of all places, on Ancient Faith Ministries, a department of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. (See Orthodoxy, Sissies, and the Performance of Masculinity: Part One, Giacomo Sanfilippo’s response to Father John Guy Winfrey’s glorification of John Wayne, Steve McQueen, and assault weapon ownership as paradigms for Orthodox Christian masculinity. We have just now discovered that both his blog and podcast seem to have been taken down from the AFM website after the publicity generated by Sanfilippo’s article.)  

From Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius, Avril Pyman

Pavel, moreover, as he grew from babyhood to boyhood, had discovered a fundamental grudge against human life. He was not a girl…and all the pretty things he coveted, the floating silks and chiffons, the complex pleats and delicate, pastel colours, the flowery scents and opalescent jewellery, and the dazzling prospect, when grown up, of a hat with a humming-bird—were to fall to the lot of his younger Luisa (short for Julia), who had not fine feeling for such things. Boys were not supposed to be interested in ‘glad rags’…. (P. 6) 

Deeply concerned, El’chaninov [known to us as the author of Diary of a Russian Priest] had broached the question of homosexuality or, as he put it less clinically in his diary of 7 July 1909, ‘Pavliusha’s indifference to ladies and frequent falling in love with young men.’ He writes:

For a long time we muddled along in search of explanations, then P[avel] stumbled upon the following hypothesis. A man seeks an object sufficiently passive to receive his energy. For the majority of men, such objects are women. There are insufficiently masculine natures who seek their complement in masculine men, but there are also hyper-masculine men, for whom the feminine is too yielding, as yielding as a cushion, for instance, to a steel blade. That kind seeks and loves simply men, or insufficiently masculine men. (Pp. 70-71)

From “Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love,” The Wheel 13/14, Giacomo Sanfilippo

During this period [late 19th-early 20th centuries] Vasily Rozanov stands out as one of the more controversial religious philosophers to grapple with the problem of sex. He further developed the idea of “universal bisexuality” put forth by such German authorities in the nascent field of sexuality studies as Richard Kraft-Ebing, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Otto Weininger. They applied the term not so much to sexual orientation as to the male and female aspects of which every person was presumed to be constituted. Without the postmodern concept of a spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity in their lexicon, these men felt that one’s relative degree of masculinity or femininity determined the gender to which one would be principally attracted.

Rozanov’s importance for this essay lies in the extent to which Florensky agreed with his ideas in an exchange of letters after his marriage, the birth of his frst child, and his ordination to the priesthood. In a long missive to Rozanov from November 17–21, 1912, Florensky considers it indisputable that gender exists in a fuid state and there can be no question of concrete gender. Three years earlier, in a conversation not long before his surprise marriage [the one quoted above in Elchaninov’s diary], Florensky had posited the absence of an essential correlation between gender and biological sex to account for his own predilection for men and lack of interest in women. Rozanov, Florensky, and their German predecessors anticipate by nearly a century and more Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble and the ongoing development of gender theory in our own day. (P. 66)

From “The Salt of the Earth,” Pavel Florensky
In Pavel Florensky: Early Religious Writings 1903-1909, trans. Boris Jakim

(“The Salt of the Earth” is a tribute to Father Isidore, Pavel Florensky and Sergei Troitsky’s “gentle Elder” [Pillar and Ground, p. 12] during their relationship. We include this excerpt to demonstrate the stark contrast between Father Winfrey’s Waynesque ideal of Christian masculinity—for instance, where he writes that men “should not be collecting clothes for young kids…[nor] necessarily creating a soup kitchen”—and the saintly Father Isidore.)

To manifest love for people—for rich or poor, for noble or peasant, for those of high rank or low, for pure (if there are any who are pure) or sinful, for Orthodox or non-Orthodox, even for non-Christians and pagans—was, for Father Isidore, just as necessary as, and even more necessary than, breathing. He did good works right and left, without thinking about it, simply and naturally—as if not suspecting that he was doing anything special, anything exceptional or unique. (P. 175)

Knowing that [Father Isidore] would give everything away, the authorities at the Skete stopped issuing him new clothing. (P. 176)

It often happened that he’d feed someone for a prolonged period of time, sharing his own meals with him. There was one man he fed for an entire winter…. (P. 178)

In the same way, for about three years, right up to his death, [Father Isidore] took care of  worker who had lost his arm in a machine accident. Father Isidore called him the “one-armed man.” He fed the “one-armed man” with a spoon, dressed and undressed him, gave him money, and repeatedly prevented his attempts at suicide. (P. 178)

Father Isidore showed kindness toward all living beings, and even toward unintelligent creatures…. He cared for and fed beats and birds; he even took care of reptiles, frogs, mice, and rats…. Even just before his death, he asked members of a family he knew about the health of their cat…. It happened sometimes that a cat would injure a bird, and the injured bird would be lying on the road. Father Isidore would bend down with difficulty and pick up the injured bird. And so, a little sparrow with an injured wing would live in the Starets’s cell until it was healed. (P. 179)

The Starets had a special love for plants, for grasses, for flowers, for everything growing in the earth. He sees a weed that has been plucked out, and he picks it up and plants it…in a little box or in a sardine can that he found somewhere along the road. (P. 180)

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