FROM THE FATHERS: THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS LIKE…TWO MEN IN BED TOGETHER? by Giacomo Sanfilippo

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Despite endless iterations by churchmen who possess no intellectual curiosity—indeed, no sense of pastoral responsibility—to become familiar with scientific advances and the helpful insights of queer theory in our understanding of sexual diversity in human nature, the piously stentorian proclamation that HOLY TRADITION HAS ALWAYS CONDEMNED HOMOSEXUALITY! fails the test of truth on two counts.

First, neither the awkwardly Greco-Latin neologism homosexual, nor the presumed psychopathology that it was intended to signify, existed prior to the 1850s. Its adoption in certain 20th-century English versions of the New Testament not only raises questions about the agenda of their editors, but violates the original spirit of the word itself. In pathologizing same-sex desire as a disorder which an individual has no power to choose or not to choose, the nascent field of 19th-century psychology sought to remove it and its erotic enactment from the realms of criminality and hamartiology. Thus when biblical editors attribute to St. Paul the notion that “homosexuals…will [not] inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10 NKJV), they commit an egregious philological and conceptual anachronism—with a result no less absurd than consigning everyone with bipolar disorder to eternal damnation. In her 1983 Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic, Orthodox author and therapist Elizabeth Moberly argued for approaching “the homosexual condition” not as a moral failing to be condemned, but as an emotional deficit from early childhood to be treated through a long course of Freudian psychoanalysis.

Yet the challenges in translating μαλακοὶ and ἀρσενοκοῖται from 1 Cor 6:9 with both semantic and theological integrity fall outside the scope of this brief essay. Nor will I address the universally debunked theory which posits same-sex desire as a mental illness to be “cured” through the sometimes fatal torture of “conversion therapy.” Here I have wished simply to point out that no two people mean exactly the same thing when they use the word homosexuality.

The completely arbitrary use of the word from one speaker to another acquires a sense of extreme pastoral urgency when we consider that children start to become aware of their romantic interest in their own gender at a very early age, long before they can envision—let alone pursue—its sexual enactment. In today’s social context these young children now possess the vocabulary to name their innocent same-sex desire and to “come out” to their family and friends, if and when they choose to do so. What must it do to a child of 6 or 7 or 10 or 12 who suddenly learns in the middle of the Sunday Epistle reading that he or she is destined for hell? The correlation between religious faith and suicidal ideation for LGBTQ persons is real.

Second, if some people reduce homosexuality to engaging in same-sex sex (of course, sexual orientation—whether for one’s own, the opposite, or both genders—subsumes much more than just “having sex”), the presence of male-male conjugal intimacy in our patristic tradition as a symbol of the mystical and eucharistic union of Christ with the individual male believer nullifies the irrational idée fixe of those Orthodox churchmen who insist that the Holy Fathers abhorred the mere thought of same-sex eroticism. In my Conjugal Friendship at Public Orthodoxy two years ago I noted the following: “Implicitly in St. Maximus the Confessor and explicitly in St. Symeon the New Theologian, we find the use of male-male intimacy as a metaphor for the union of Christ with the male believer in the Eucharist and the vision of uncreated light.”

How could it be otherwise? The fact should give pause to those who subscribe to an inflexibly heterosexist reading of Scripture that the metaphorically male God of the Old Testament—who later becomes biologically male in the New Testament—lures an eponymously male bride named Israel into the desert to seduce him/her (Hos 2:14ff).

If this seems like a stretch, we do well to observe that the Holy Fathers knew nothing of the taxonomies of love enunciated by the Anglican C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves and repeated as gospel by nearly everyone in the intervening sixty years. In the patristic tradition of the Orthodox Church, God’s love for us and our love for Him is no less “erotic” than “agapic.” For certain of the Fathers—here I have in mind especially St. Maximus the Confessor—divine eros for man and human eros for God captures most expressively the mutual yearning of God and man to become ecstatically “one flesh” and “one soul” with each other through the reciprocal movement of incarnation and deification, mysteriously prefigured from the very moment of our creation (Gen 2:24), and later in that great love—“more wondrous than the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26)—which “knit” David and Jonathan spontaneously into one as soon as they laid eyes on each other (1 Sam 18:1-4). Reading the narrative of their love in the Septuagint, the Greek Fathers could not have but pictured our two young men, alone in a field, kissing passionately for a very long time before bidding one another a tearful farewell (…καὶ κατεφίλησεν ἕκαστος τὸν πλησίον αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἔκλαυσεν ἕκαστος τῷ πλησίον αὐτοῦ ἕως συντελείας μεγάλης. 1 Sam 20:41; 1 Kg 20:41 in the LXX).

Again, if this seems like a stretch, the awkward fact remains that the Holy Fathers spoke of the conjugal union of Christ and the Church, Bridegroom and Bride, Husband and Wife, not as a poetic abstraction offered solely to the Church corporately, but as a profoundly real and personal experience of divine and human eros, mystically exchanged between Christ and each individual believer in the depths of his or her body and soul. Christ the Bridegroom “marries”—and takes into His marriage bed—not only the Church, but each of us individually; and not only each woman and girl, but also each man and boy.

So we read in chapter sixteen of St. Maximus’ First Century on Theology:

He who believes [Ὁ πιστεύων, in the masculine], fears; he who fears, grows humble; he who is humble, grows gentle, having acquired a character state that is not made active by the movements of anger and desire that are against nature; and he who is gentle, observes the commandments; and he who observes the commandments, is purified; and he who has been purified, is illuminated; and he who has been illuminated is made worthy to lie with the Bridegroom Word in the chamber of the mysteries [ἐν τῷ ταμιείῳ τῶν μυστηρίων ἀξιοῦται τῷ νυμφίῳ Λόγῳ συγκοιτασθῆναι: literally, “in the chamber of the mysteries is made worthy to get in bed with the Bridegroom Word”].

Of course, a bridegroom’s bed consists neither of two camp cots side by side with a suitable gap between them, nor of separate bunks, but of a marriage bed. In St. Maximus’ telling, two male-bodied persons—One divine, the other human—enter mystically into a conjugal embrace for the consummation of their union in the Holy Eucharist.

Centuries later, St. Symeon takes up the same theme—with his startling propensity for graphic detail—in a brief parable of his own composition where he seems to conflate elements of the Prodigal Son and the Song of Songs. We read in his Tenth Ethical Discourse:

A certain man was serving a rebel, an opponent and enemy of the King of the Christians. He accomplished many victories and acts of courage against the [King’s] servants. While he was held in great honour by the tyrant and his troops, he received messages on several occasions from the King of the Christians that he should come to Him, and be with Him, and be honoured with great gifts and reign with Him. He, however, for some years did not want to do so and increased his warfare against Him still more fiercely. One day, though, when he had come to doubt himself and had become sorrowful, he decided to take flight and go alone to the King…. When he approached the King and embraced His feet, he wept and asked for forgiveness. Seized by unexpected joy, that good King immediately accepted him, wondering at his conversion and humility. […] Raising him up, the King “fell upon his neck and kissed him” [Lk 15:20] all over his eyes which had been weeping for many hours. […] …[H]e Himself clothed His former enemy and rival, and in no way reproached him for anything. And this is not the whole tale, but day and night He rejoices and is glad with him, embracing him and kissing his mouth with His own. So much does He love him exceedingly that He is not separated from him even in sleep, but lies together with him embracing him on His bed, and covers him all about with His own cloak, and places His face upon all his [bodily] members.

“Such,” Symeon concludes his astonishing narrative to his audience of male monastics, “is also our own situation with respect to God, and I know that it is in just such a manner that the beneficent God welcomes and kisses those who repent, who, fleeing an illusory world and its rule, strip themselves naked of the affairs of this life in order to approach Him as King and God.”     

St. John Chrysostom offers us a metric or canon, as it were, for discerning the innate beauty of any human impulse or activity: a thing cannot be evil in its essence if it serves as a worthy allegory of divine-human communion. He writes:

See how [God] does not despise physical unity but uses spiritual unity to illustrate it! How foolish are those who belittle marriage! If marriage were something to be condemned, Paul would never call Christ a bridegroom and the Church a bride, and then say this is an illustration of a man leaving his father and his mother, and again refer to Christ and the Church.

St. Maximus goes further when he insists that “nothing created and given existence by God is evil;” and again, “there is nothing evil in creatures except misuse, which stems from the mind’s negligence in its natural cultivation.” Indeed, “neither are the demons evil by nature; rather they have become evil through the misuse of their natural faculties.”

In this context it seems all the more significant to ask why, in neither St. Maximus’ more subtle nor St. Symeon’s more explicit use of male-male love-making as a worthy simile for the Kingdom of God, those scriptural passages on which modern churchmen fixate every single time the subject of same-sex love is raised—Gen 19, Lev 18:22 and 20:13, Rom 1:26-27, 1 Cor 6:9-10—presented no deterrent whatever to these two Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church. Can we perhaps reasonably infer that, for Maximus and Symeon—indeed, for Holy Tradition as a whole, including the canonical tradition—there really does exist a profound distinction, waiting to be explored and articulated more fully in our time, between the dead end of same-sex lust, no different from opposite-sex lust, and the illimitable spiritual fruitfulness of same-sex love, no different from opposite-sex love?

Committed, monogamous, Christian same-sex couples—and those hoping to find a beloved partner with whom to form such a union—simply do not recognize themselves, their life of shared joys and sorrows, their love for God and the Church and each other and the hungry and the homeless and all God’s creatures great and small, in the passages used perpetually as a billy club against them. The time has come to listen to their testimony.

Some of my readers will pounce predictably on “waiting to be explored and articulated more fully in our time.” While there is most certainly a legitimate sense in which we Orthodox insist that doctrine does not “develop” and the Church does not “change,” St. Maximus himself acknowledged another sense in which—by divine providence—each generation of the Church receives the grace to discover new meanings that had lain undetected by previous generations. This only makes sense: each generation brings its own questions to the Church. Thus a perhaps necessary tension resides in the dialectic between the Church’s changelessness and her unending discovery of new meanings—both one and the other a function of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who guides the Church into all truth, and guarantees the inner continuity of the Church’s doctrine and praxis, within the specific social time and space occupied by each successive generation.

If we cannot agree, at the very least, that Holy Tradition does not consist of an ossified repository of ancient texts containing ready-made answers to every possible question until the end of time (a positon which apparently none of the Holy Fathers even imagined), it may in fact be true that dialogue has become impossible and we condemn ourselves to an endless shouting match between competing monologues.

If every attempt to grapple constructively with the questions of our time surrounding sexuality and gender provokes panicked shrieks of The gay agenda! Liberal propaganda! That dumpster fire at Orthodoxy in Dialogue! Sodomites! It’s always Pride Month at Orthodoxy in Dialogue! Bring out the millstones and drown them! Those homofascists and tolerance tyrants! That lavender Mafia! then yes, dialogue becomes impossible, and the shouting match between monologues rages on.

Won’t you be part of the dialogue?  

See Same-Sex Love = Child Rape? Yes, Father Lawrence Farley Went There.

See the Fifty Years after Stonewall and extensive Sexuality and Gender sections in our Archives by Author & Subject.
Download the author’s MA thesis, A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same Sex Love.
See the author’s Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love at The Wheel. This introduces his future doctoral dissertation.
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A more complete bio than usual to spare my detractors the hard work: Giacomo Sanfilippo (aka Peter J. SanFilippo) is an Orthodox Christian, divorced father of five, grandfather of two, and deposed (“defrocked”) priest. After his divorce he experienced same-sex promiscuity and a committed same-sex relationship. He remains open to the possibility of another, hopefully lifelong same-sex relationship. In addition, he is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue, writer of religious commentary at the Kyiv Post, habitual almsgiver, shoulder to lean on, ear to listen, and keeper of confidences. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College, both in Toronto, and is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Earlier in life he completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.  

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