AN ALTERNATIVE TO DRAG QUEENS, VAMPIRES, PROVOCATEURS, DESECRATED ICONS, BLASPHEMY, AND PRIESTS-I’D-LIKE-TO-F*CK PORN by Giacomo Sanfilippo

nikicon
Self-proclaimed drag queen, vampire, provocateur, and Eastern Orthodox theologian, Nik Jovčić-Sas, carries a desecrated icon at Belgrade Pride 2019. His February 2018 article for Orthodoxy in Dialogue was deleted when we discovered that he was openly promoting the blasphemous “Romanian Orthodox” Priests I’d Like to F*ck pornographic calendar series on his Orthodox Provocateur Facebook page. He was invited to present a paper in August 2019 at the Bridging Voices conference on Orthodoxy, sexuality, and gender at Oxford University. 

The following MA in Theology thesis (2015) offers a somewhat different vision for the sanctification of same-sex love in the Orthodox Church.

A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love

by Giacomo Sanfilippo (Peter J. SanFilippo)

Introduction
Sexual Love and the Ascesis of Orthodox Life

After many centuries of a predominant monastic preoccupation with complete sexual abstinence in the theological and spiritual literature of the Orthodox Church—even while the ordination of married men to the priesthood and the permanent diaconate as the norm for parish ministry underwent no decline—the modern and postmodern eras have witnessed a felicitous reclamation of erotic love in the writings of non-monastic Orthodox theologians, both ordained and lay. Apart from the recurrent theme of human eros as a metaphor worthy of God’s love for mankind in both the Old and New Testaments, this development traces its roots at least as far back as the preaching of John Chrysostom on marriage. A late 4th/early 5th-century contemporary of Augustine and celibate himself, Chrysostom astonishes modern readers who encounter for the first time his positive valuation of human sexuality independent of its procreative function.

This in no way posits an artificial dichotomy between monastic and non-monastic life. The one embodies complementarily with the other an indivisible ecclesial life animated by the Gospel addressed in its plenitude to all alike, and by the outpouring of uncreated grace in its plenitude upon all alike. The unity of life of the Orthodox monk or nun in the monastery and the believer in the world derives not only from their immersion in the same liturgical tradition and their participation in the same holy mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharist, but also from the ascetical character of life in Christ for all. This bears immeasurable importance for our topic. Any discussion of sexuality in the Orthodox Church misses the mark from the outset that fails to account for the intrinsically ascetical nature of the Christian’s daily striving for mystical union with God, and for the corollary centrality of a continuous cultivation of chastity in a life receptive to the deifying action of divine grace. The ascesis of Orthodox life for men and women living in the world differs from that of the monk or nun perhaps in degrees of intensity, certainly in some of the details of its bodily performance, but nowise in its inner essence. This constitutes an indispensable subtext throughout this thesis.

While the articulation of a positive theology of sexuality remedies a longstanding lacuna in Orthodox thought, the Church’s work in this area remains far from complete. Our renewed focus on the beauty of erotic love, coupled with a concurrent flowering of Orthodox theological insight into the radical alterity of each human person, suggests avenues of exploration rich with possibilities for a more nuanced approach to the ubiquitous phenomenon of sexual and gender variance in human nature. My thesis represents, on a topic whose pastoral urgency we can hardly exaggerate in today’s social environment, an appeal from within the Orthodox Church for a dialogue of fraternal charity in which we no longer silence by threat of ecclesiastical censure the voices of our brothers and sisters most directly affected by its outcome. In a manner at once faithful to the spirit of Holy Tradition and attentive to the testimony of human persons to the reality of their lived experience, I seek to sketch some general contours within which we might begin to envision a more encompassing doctrine of human sexuality, one that recognizes the innate holiness and redemptive potentiality of same-sex love. I also hope to offer a framework to Christian communities and individuals outside of the canonical bounds of the Orthodox Church who value a more traditional basis for their reflections on this subject than a facile correlationist approach to theology and culture can provide: our task is not to festoon our churches with rainbow buntings and away we go to the Pride parade, but prayerfully and soberly to plumb the depths of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Tradition for what it may yet reveal to us in this time and in this place.

The irreplicable mystery of each human person’s innermost self, known to God alone and unveiled by degrees through the gradual acquisition of the Holy Spirit[1] in the Church’s liturgical, mysterial,[2] and ascetical life, can never be distilled to one’s sexual identity. Yet the erotic power embedded as a mark of the divine image within the deepest recesses of a person’s psychosomatic being, latently germinal from his or her earliest innocent memories, represents an unquantifiably  momentous determinant of human nature and personhood created by God as “very beautiful.”[3] Both the ontological roots and eschatological end of human sexual desire, however marred by sin in its fallen state, reside in the divine impetus eternally to consummate the ecstatic union of love within the Trinity of uncreated divine Persons, and likewise in the impetus of this triune God to seduce the innumerable multiplicity of created human persons into that same uncreated union of joyous love.[4] Insofar as human nature in general and its erotic aspect in particular, mysteriously resemblant to divine nature and divine love in their creation and teleological vocation, never subsist in abstracto—anterior to or apart from their specific, multiple, individual, concrete enhypostasizations—a person’s sexual orientation, wherever it manifests along the spectrum between exclusively opposite-sex and exclusively same-sex,[5] whether one becomes sexually active or remains abstinent by free choice or compulsion, comprises from the earliest stages of life a singularly formative dimension of personal identity in the vast range of conscious and unconscious influences it exerts on one’s self-knowledge from early childhood to the end of life. Irreducible to a catalogue of verboten carnal “acts”—acts which very young children incipiently aware of their attraction to their own gender cannot even begin to imagine—same-sex orientation subsumes, qualitatively no less than opposite-sex orientation, a person’s entire capacity to grow spiritually, socially, intellectually, psychologically, emotionally, sexually, and soteriologically into authentic personhood, “to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”[6]

The Ascesis of Erotic Love

Joyful asceticism as the defining paradigm of Orthodox life[7] assumes a variety of outward forms contingent upon and appropriate to the particularities of each person’s unique circumstances. Yet Justin Popovich—priest, monk, recently canonized saint—enumerates five “ascetic virtues” for which the inward struggle must remain common to all in the Church, whether monastic or parochial, partnered or single, cleric or lay: first, “the effort of faith,” through which one is “given up to Christ as having no reservations and being without compromises,” knowing “that for someone to believe in Christ entails their [sic] waiting on Christ, and only on Christ, with every event of their lives [sic];”[8] second, “prayer and fasting” performed “for everyone and everything (‘in all and for all’[9])…for friends and for enemies, for those who persecute us and those who put us to death;”[10] third, the “love which knows no bounds, which does not question who is worthy and who is not, but loves them all; loving friends and enemies, loving sinners and evildoers;”[11] fourth, “meekness and humility,” which constitutes “the obligation of every truthful Christian…when he turns his heart of hearts [to] the Lord Jesus, humble and meek;”[12] and fifth, “patience and humility: [w]hich is to say, to endure ill-use, not to render evil for evil, to forgive in total compassion all assault, slander, and hurt.”[13]

Tito Colliander for his part names “the cleansing of the heart;”[14] the “transfer of love from the self to Christ;”[15] obedience as “the grave of your own will;”[16] fasting “neither above nor below your ability…[as] an expression of love and devotion;”[17] care to avoid “extravagant” feats of asceticism, “quietly taking into account one’s own resources of strength;”[18] and a reverence for and proper use of the materiality of creation and our own corporeality: in a passage of sheer poeticism he moves seamlessly from white snow, blue skies, and “the jewelled eye of the fly” to the eucharist, Scripture, icons, flickering tapers, incense, and the voices of liturgical singing among the innumerable material bearers of immaterial grace to assist in the Christian’s unceasing reorientation towards God.[19]

Here we have no desiccated, spiritually vacuous bourgeois moralism—of interest to no sentient human being in a postmodern world grown weary of Christian conventionalism—no religious gloss of social respectability on an otherwise egocentric and consumeristic existence masquerading as evangelical life; but rather, a blueprint for the complete transfiguration of the inner person into a “new creation”[20] after the likeness of the crucified and glorified God-man Jesus Christ. “It is by the ascesis of faith,” Popovich explains, “that a man conquers egotism, steps beyond the bounds of self, and enters into a new, transcendent reality…led and guided by prayer; he feels, thinks, and lives by prayer.”[21] Theophan the Recluse counsels, “Think as little as possible about external ascetic feats. Although they are necessary, they are nothing but a scaffolding inside which the building is erected. They are not the building itself; the building is in the heart. Turn all your attention, then, on what is to be done in the heart.”[22] In this we hear an echo of Maximus the Confessor: “Do not devote all your time to your body but apply to it a measure of asceticism appropriate to its strength, and then turn all your intellect to what is within.”[23] The Christian soul feels deeply with Augustine that her heart can find no peace until she rests at last in God. “My soul yearns after the Lord,” weeps Silouan the Athonite, “and I seek Him in tears. How could I do other than seek Thee, for Thou didst first seek and find me…and my soul fell to loving Thee.”[24] If we sometimes speak of life in Christ as our “Christian walk,” the spiritual fathers and mothers of Orthodox Christianity teach with one voice that this “walk” leads us not outward, but ever more inward, into the interior hermitage of our own heart—a heart “full of worship, of concern for others”[25]—where the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit come to take up Their abode.[26] Nicholas Cabasilas observes, “Yet the Lord did not promise merely to be present with the saints, but to abide with them—nay, more than this, to make His abode in them.”[27] Slowly purified of all dross through ascetical collaboration with divine grace in the crucible of the heart, the Christian becomes by corresponding degrees a bit of salt, a hidden leavening, an ember of divine love[28] shimmering subtly unto the transformation of the little patch of earth allotted to each of us by God for the place of our communion with Him and with our fellow sojourners. The ascetic struggler practices the “art of being precisely in one’s place”[29]—whether in the monastery, the desert, the parish, the family home, the shopping mall, the workplace, the sickroom, the street corners of the homeless, the prison, the virtual spaces of social media, the undefiled bed of nuptial embrace.

For two united in Christ, the ascesis of erotic love both subsumes and resignifies the external behavioural restraint—the “morality,” so to speak—commanded by the Law: Do not commit adultery.[30] With the intuition of the rich young ruler we perceive that the life of “grace upon grace,”[31] offered to us in the Church by Christ through the Holy Spirit, utterly eclipses mere morals and good behaviour: “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?[32] In reply the Lord’s voice beckons, If you would be perfect…. The “perfection” to which the Gospel invites us—τελείωσις—“even as your heavenly Father is perfect,”[33] signals not the achievement of a morally upstanding life (a category absurdly inapplicable to God), but an infinite progression of theandric collaboration, a mystically synergistic dynamism through which the human person moves continuously by grace towards the greater existential and ontological completion of personal being—“even as” God actualizes without beginning or end the completeness of His tri-personal being. Teleiosis—“even like God’s”—conveys a dimension of theosis, our endowment through the deifying operation of the Holy Spirit with all that the Son possesses by reason of His divine and human natures immiscibly united. This pneumatizing force,[34] never imposing itself on the unwilling or uncooperative, permeates in the Church’s mystical life everything proper to human nature, including our sexuality.

The perfectibility of sexual desire, by creation reflective of the divine image and by redemption acquisitive of the divine likeness, resides in its capacity to be purified of all carnality through the co-ascesis of equally yoked partners[35] and returned to them, sanctified and ever fresh, as the divine gift of eros. In the voluntary nailing of carnal passion to the joyful cross of asceticism,[36] holy eros springs to life and flourishes in the hearts and bodies of the two. The very physicality of their relationship transforms itself, both for the couple and prophetically for the whole body of the Church, from a mark of egocentric gratification, sin, and death into a life-giving sacrament, a sign and foretaste of the future aeon, a holy mystery through which created human love becomes truly pleasurable for body and soul, luminous with the interpenetration of uncreated divine love; and truly unitive, not of mere bodies (as postmodern thought would have it), but of embodied persons. The boundless range of tactile and psychic intelligibility proper to sexual love, communicated in a language known only to the two—and inviolable to the voyeuristic intrusion of regulatory scrutiny by any “authority”—itself undergoes by grace a transformative refinement the more each partner perceives in the other no longer an object for mutual gratification, but a subject in whose spiritual beauty the face of Christ reveals itself more radiantly day by day.  

Anthony Ugolnik writes, “We must not hesitate to characterize sex theologically.”[37] In order to nurture the theological characterization of same-sex desire and the formulation of a spiritual vision for its purification by grace—no different from the need of opposite-sex desire to be continuously purified—the Orthodox Church’s same-sex oriented children implore their archpastors and pastors, shepherds after the likeness of Him who left the ninety-nine in search of the one, to make the Church a safe space for this dialogue to unfold. Same-sex orientation differs from no other dimension of natural human life either in its susceptibility to sin or in its inherent receptivity to grace. The inexhaustible spiritual potentiality of same-sex love to reflect and participate in divine love, like that of all human love, opens the door to the full inclusion of persons of same-sex orientation in the Church’s life and to the sanctification of their faithful relationships in grace and truth.[38] Orthodox Christians of same-sex orientation—youths as well as adults, lovers of Christ and of their mother the Church—seek ways to work out their salvation honourably that cohere with the ascetical ethos of Orthodox life and the spirit of Holy Tradition, and just as crucially, that ring true in the depths of their hearts.

Olivier Clément remarks that “the Christian message…is not a law that is imposed but something attractive that is proposed”:

But more needs to be said. Even to her own children, the Church must be a merciful mother, not an impersonal juridical power. Her teachings about human love must be adapted, with immense care, to the circumstances of each person [emphasis mine], by ‘spiritual fathers’ and bishops with the gift of discerning spirits. Among Eastern Christians this merciful adaptation, called ‘economy,’ is actually a basic principle in the regular life of the Church.[39]

My prayer is that the following pages be accepted as a humble offering by our merciful mother, and as an attractive proposal by her same-sex oriented sons and daughters, who are infinitely precious in the Lord’s eyes. Once this manuscript leaves my hands it belongs no longer to me but to the Church, and to God, to do with it as “seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” May our holy Church in her compassionate exercise of Christ’s loving economy lay upon no child of hers a burden greater than necessary, greater than he or she can bear.[40]

To continue reading download the PDF free of charge here.
See also A Bed Undefiled: A Partial Retraction.
A brief summary of the author’s upcoming doctoral dissertation on Father Pavel Florensky’s 1914 theology of same-sex love can be read here
See the extensive Sexuality and Gender section in our Archives.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian, PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, writer of religious commentary at the Kyiv Post, and former priest. 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. He has five adult children and two granddaughters. He tweets @GiacoSanfilippo.

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[1] “St. Seraphim of Sarov’s Conversation with Nicholas Motovilov,” Orthodox Christian Information Center, accessed April 23, 2014, http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/wonderful.aspx.

[2] Because of the range of meanings of “mysterious” and “mystical” in English, in order to avoid ambiguity I reintroduce the somewhat obsolete mysterial (see Oxford English Dictionary) as a direct synonym for the adjective “sacramental.”

[3] Gen 1:31 (LXX): “…καὶ εἶδεν ὁ θεὸς τὰ πάντα, ὅσα ἐποίησεν, καὶ ἰδοὺ καλὰ λίαν.”

[4] Hos 2:14-16; Jn 17:21-26.

[5] “Kinsey’s Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale,” The Kinsey Institute, accessed April 28, 2015, http://www.kinseyinstitute.org/research/ak-hhscale.html. This scale was developed in 1948 and subsequently modified by the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid and the Storms Scale, among many others.  See “Selected References on Other Measures of Sexual Orientation” at the bottom of the web page referenced here.

[6] Eph 4:13.

[7] “Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat,” the Church sings on the eve of Great Lent, the most ascetical period of the liturgical year. See Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware, trans., The Lenten Triodion (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1978), 181. (Cf. “For behold, through the cross joy has come into all the world” [from matins of Pascha and every Sunday of the year].)

[8] Father Justin Popovich, Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, trans. Asterios Gerostergios, et al., 3rd printing (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 2005), 26.

[9] Intoned by the bishop or presbyter at the elevation of the gifts immediately prior to the epiclesis in the Byzantine anaphora: “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all [men] and for all [things]” in the Slavonic recension of the Liturgy known to St. Justin.

[10] Popovich, 26-27.

[11] Ibid., 27.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 28.

[14] Tito Colliander, Way of the Ascetics: The Ancient Tradition of Discipline and Inner Growth, trans. Katherine Ferré (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1985), 12.

[15] Ibid., 20.

[16] Ibid., 42.

[17] Ibid., 75-76.

[18] Ibid., 78.

[19] Ibid., 81-82.

[20] 2 Cor 5:17.

[21] Popovich, 127.

[22] Igumen Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, trans. E. Kadloubovsky and E.M. Palmer (New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 1966), 238.

[23] St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware, Volume Two (New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 1990), 108.

[24] Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 269.

[25] Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, Living Prayer (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1966), 89.

[26] Jn 1:14, 14:16-17, 23; Rev 3:20.

[27] Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, trans. Carmino J. deCatanzaro (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), 45.  

[28] Cf. Mt 5:13; Mt 13:33; Mt 5:16.

[29] Paul Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love: The Nuptial Mystery in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel and Victoria Steadman (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 80.

[30] Ex 20:14.

[31] Jn 1:16.

[32] Mt 19:20.

[33] Mt 5:48.

[34] I am grateful to Dumitru Stăniloae for his introduction of the word pneumatize in his writings, semantically more explicit as a reference to the work of the Holy Spirit than the more generic spiritualize. If others have used the word theologically before Stăniloae, I am not aware of it.

[35] 2 Cor 6:14.

[36] Cf. Gal 5:24-25.

[37] Anthony Ugolnik, “Living in Skin: Sex, Spirituality, and the Christian Male,” in Windows to the East: Eastern Christians in a Dialogue of Charity, eds. Jaroslav Z. Skira and Myroslaw I. Tataryn (Ottawa, ON: Novalis, 2001), 308.

[38] Jn 1:17.

[39] Olivier Clément, On Human Being: A Spiritual Anthropology, trans. Jeremy Hummerstone (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 85.

[40] Cf. Acts 15:28.