(Frontispiece from Priest Pavel Florensky, 1914, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth)
It is necessary not only to “love” one another but also to be close together, to attempt, as much as possible, to come closer and closer to one another. But when are friends closest to each other, if not when kissing?
Priest Pavel Florensky, 1914, “Friendship,” The Pillar and Ground of the Truth
On the feast of the Meeting of the Lord two weeks later, [Florensky] composed the poem “Two Knights” [for Sergei Troitsky]. It depicts a scene in which the knights have removed their armour and laid it under an aspen tree, where resin drips on it from a quivering leaf.
The knights kiss on the mouth, embrace tightly “like brothers,” and “break their spears” with each other.
Even the sun undresses as it sets amidst fiery clouds. Tears flow in almost every stanza.
Giacomo Sanfilippo, 2018, “Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love,” The Wheel
The following reflection is conceived primarily as an engagement with Father Aaron Warwick’s Pastoring LGBTQ Individuals in the Orthodox Church, and secondarily with the responses by “an American LGBTQ Christian” and Joshua Rainwater; the insights of Their Eminences, Metropolitan Kallistos and Metropolitan Nathanael; the use of male-male conjugal intimacy by SS. Maximus the Confessor and Symeon the New Theologian as a metaphor for the monk’s personal experience of union with Christ in the Holy Mysteries and in the vision of uncreated light; Protodeacon Theodore Feldman’s brief piece; and lastly, the discussion of morality vs. ethics — misguided in its shared premises, I believe — which seems to have taken place between Aristotle Papanikolaou’s recent Bridging Voices article and Father Andrew Damick’s implicit response — in which the latter coyly declines to name names, but refers to us as “Orthodox” in scare quotes (always a sign of a mature debater) — bearing the most bizarre title ever affixed to an Orthodox essay. (In connection with this, Father Hans Jacobse’s equally bizarre invention of “the moral tradition of the Orthodox Church” also comes to mind.)
This is not to say that I quote or refer directly to most of the above individuals in what follows. Yet each, in his own way and to his own degree, has helped to shape my thoughts as I attempt to articulate them below.
In the Orthodox Church Father Warwick is not alone in his pastoral approach to persons who embody the sexual diversity inherent in human nature. Both prior to the appearance of his article and in reaction to it, I have heard from numerous Orthodox hierarchs and priests from around the globe whose quiet ministry to those who identify as same-sex oriented is identical or very similar to Father Warwick’s. These archpastors and pastors have all conveyed to me their admiration for his courage in going public in an ecclesial climate where certain priests travel the world with ecclesiastical impunity — in person and by internet — to hurl condemnations against the Church’s same-sex oriented children, teenagers, women, and men and our allies. All of my correspondents are assessing when and how to express their agreement with him publicly. (For now, see Father Timothy Cremeens’ letter to the editors of December 23, 2019, and the messages of support from Archbishop Lazar [Puhalo] and Deacon Gary and Melissa Braun.)
Indeed I suspect that time will show Father Warwick to have done more single-handedly to advance this conversation than anyone else in any other online or scholarly forum. My gratitude to him, and for him, is profound.
No less profound is my gratitude to and for our bishops, priests, and deacons who support and minister to us in a more hidden way. May grace divine bless and strengthen them all in their holy labour of love.
When same-sex oriented Orthodox Christians read what is written to advocate pastorally for us by our brothers and sisters in the Church who presumably do not share our orientation, we feel enormously grateful for their support. Yet at the same time we recognize that they do not — because they cannot — write from personal experience of same-sex love and intimacy. The non-experiential character of their writing manifests itself in the almost uniformly sombre tone in which we, our monogamous relationships, and the sexual expression of our love are either “tolerated” by “economia” as a “lesser evil” than sleeping around, or dissected clinically in ways to which even promiscuous opposite-sex behaviour is never subjected, or debated endlessly under the rubric of “morality” and “ethics,” or finally, pitied as poor unfortunates who are “less than the ideal” and “not as God intended us.”
Absent from most ecclesial treatises written about us — even by our brothers and sisters in the Church who support us the most — is any sense of our joy: our joy in the divine gift of our lives and our own selves; the joy of loving and being loved, of self-giving to our beloved and receiving his or her self-gift in return; the joy of beholding the physical and spiritual beauty of others of our own gender; the joy of our shared Orthodox faith, of praying together, receiving the Holy Mysteries together, giving alms together, serving God and His Church and our fellow human creatures together, sharing our time and resources with those in any kind of emotional, spiritual, or material need as with Christ Himself; the joy of pursuing holiness and chastity, peace and repentance, in a co-ascetical partnership of love; the joy of discovering the completion of our persons in our “other I” (as Father Pavel Florensky would have it); the joy of knowing that our beloved will be there at our side, and we at his or her side, through every difficulty and every happiness; the joy of growing old together, of serving our extended families together, of making supper together, of doing the dishes together, of walking hand in hand on a moonlit beach and sharing a kiss under all the heavenly bodies of the cosmos; the joy of falling asleep in each other’s arms and waking through the night to find him or her still there; and yes — (are you ready for it?) — the joy of sex.
At its best, sexual intimacy between two persons in love is joyful, playful, tender, holy, mysterious…and mystically unitive on a level of shared heart and soul that utterly transcends the bodily acts which symbolize the couple’s spiritual union. (Here I mean symbol not as pointing to something extraneous to itself, but in the sacramental sense of physical matter bearing within itself the spiritual reality signified.)
To counsel “pastorally” that monogamous Christian same-sex couples should set for themselves the “spiritual goal” of one day abandoning sexual intimacy — however sincere the suggestion — betrays a dismaying inability or unwillingness on the part of archpastors and pastors to discern the innate beauty and holiness of same-sex love and its erotic consummation, and its capacity to be transfigured by a synergy of uncreated grace and human asceticism into the more perfect image and likeness of God.
At this point, I would ask my readers to return for a moment to my On Chastity: Two Letters to a Struggling Monk and David Ford’s letter to the editors dated March 29, 2018, where he writes:
And I think [the letters to the monk] do help to counter the impression that everyone who endorses same-sex relationships must also endorse sexual promiscuity.
(Never mind that Dr. Ford subsequently went on to applaud Father John Parker’s call for me to be drowned and fed to sharks — both the one and the other outdoing Father Damick as mature debaters.)
Here I got several paragraphs into an excursus on celibacy and committed celibate unions when I realized that the subject requires an article of its own. Suffice it to note three things for now:
- The Orthodox Church’s theological and pastoral vision for same-sex love must provide a safe spiritual home for monogamous couples to choose for themselves whether their union will express itself, or not, in some form of sexual intimacy. It is not a pastor’s place to pronounce on the “moral” or “ethical” superiority of one mode of monogamous love over the other. (More on “sexual morality” and “sexual ethics” below.)
- Orthodox Christians — regardless of orientation — strive to remain sexually abstinent outside of a monogamous commitment to a lifelong partner. From a properly Orthodox perspective, this has rather little to do with “moral achievement,” and rather more with an indispensable element (one among many others!) of a person’s humble, ascetical path to God. In no way does the “struggle with same-sex attraction” differ from the “struggle with opposite-sex attraction.” We all labour, with the help of divine grace, to acquire the purity of heart which alone enables us on earth to sing and glorify the resurrection of Christ our Saviour with the angels in heaven, and to see God face to face at last.
- The growing phenomenon of virtue-signaling among those same-sex oriented Christians who make public declarations of their “celibate gay” status in their Facebook and Twitter bios — with its implicit subtext of I’m a good (and therefore “acceptable”) gay Christian, not like those bad (and therefore “unacceptable”) ones — is, spiritually and pastorally, extremely problematic on several levels.
I hope to address these observations more adequately in a future article.
It seems to me that Orthodox disputants on both sides of the question of same-sex love miss the mark entirely when they frame their arguments in reductionist terms of “morality,” “ethics,” or worse, moralism.
For one thing, every modern Orthodox theologian of note — from the dawn of the 20th century to the present, from Father Pavel Florensky to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew — has articulated an Orthodox vision of life in Christ diametrically opposed to moralism. How could it be otherwise? I’m already a moral person, to paraphrase the rich young man in the Gospel. What more do I lack? Is this not the fundamental question for each of us personally, standing before God as the first among sinners, no matter how “moral” or “ethical” we manage outwardly to appear? What more do I lack?
For another, the distinction between morality and ethics, moral and ethical, is too fine for my unclever mind — (not to mention the Oxford English Dictionary) — to detect. A rose by any other name is still a rose, no?
However, I believe that we can talk about our Orthodox ethos — “the characteristic spirit of a people, community, culture, or era as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations; the prevailing character of an institution or system” (OED) — an ethos fundamentally, predominantly, dare we say exclusively, joyfully and peacefully ascetical. (Let us enter upon the season of the Fast with joy! [from the Lenten Triodion] and, That we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance, let us ask of the Lord [from literally every Orthodox liturgical service ever].)
In this light, the monogamy of both Christian marriage and what I have called Christian conjugal friendship comprises not so much a moral imperative as the necessary ascetical matrix out of which the two are reborn by divine grace as one in Christ, to grow day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, ever more perfectly into one, in Christ and for Christ, in the Church and for the Church. Where there is love — true, sacrificial love “unto death,” at the centre of which stands the Cross through which “joy has come into all the world” — what relevance can “morality” and “ethics” possibly have?
In A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love, I have written (pp. 7-9):
The ascetic struggler practices the “art of being precisely in one’s place” — 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.
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 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, 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.
No one with a shred of understanding of Orthodox theology, anthropology, soteriology, scriptural exegesis, even the daily prayers in our prayer book, denies the fallenness of everything human — including (perhaps especially, in some sense) the fall of human eros, the created image of uncreated love, into human sexuality, a cacophony of lusts, appetites, passions, desires, and preferences dispersed in every direction:
If conceived as indiscriminate carnal desire for members of the opposite, one’s own, or both genders [I write in Conjugal Friendship], all sexual orientations originate in the fall of human love from its primeval capacity to reflect and participate in the ecstasy of divine eros.
Yet to posit same-sex orientation and love as somehow “more fallen” than opposite-sex orientation and love — or worse, same-sex oriented persons as “more fallen” than opposite-sex oriented — is theologically, spiritually, and pastorally absurd, O reader who stand before God as yourself the first among sinners.
To object that the Church cannot possibly bless relationships in which sins will be committed — especially sexual sins — is likewise theologically, spiritually, and pastorally absurd, because we bless them all the time: they’re called “marriage.”
The Church’s sacramental “blessing” of a relationship signifies less an act of “approving” or “condoning,” and much, much more an act of sanctifying, of both making the union holy and proclaiming it as already holy; and finally, an act of imparting to the couple the grace divine to heal what is infirm and complete what is lacking in their love and in their frail co-ascetical efforts, unto the full flowering of their shared life to the glory of God and as a sign of the age to come in the midst of the Church.
Beloved Masters, Fathers, Mothers, brothers, and sisters in Christ: We dare to approach our Lord Jesus Christ and His one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in our unworthiness, not to be “tolerated,” not to be “pitied,” but that our joy may be complete — in Him and with all of you.
See the Fifty Years after Stonewall, Sexuality and Gender, and Bridging Voices sections in our Archives 2017-19, and the Sexuality and Gender and Bridging Voices sections and Warwick Files in our Archives 2020. See also Giacomo Sanfilippo’s PhD thesis proposal, “Conjugal Friendship and the Sacrament of Love: Father Pavel Florensky’s Orthodox Theology of Same-Sex Love.”
Giacomo Sanfilippo (formerly Peter J. SanFilippo) is an Orthodox Christian, PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, former priest, father of five, and grandfather of two. 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, is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, and completed the course requirements for the MDiv earlier in life at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. For a more complete overview of his theological approach to same-sex love see his Conjugal Friendship, Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love, A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love, and A Bed Undefiled: A Partial Retraction. Follow him on Twitter @GiacoSanfilippo.
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