Further Email Conversations on Sexuality

Dear Simeon:
I appreciate your friend's interest in Orthodoxy and the arena that it offers for him to struggle with his sexuality. We need to proceed carefully, I believe, so as not to burn any bridges before he has a chance to cross.

The traditional position of the Orthodox Church is clear and needs no repeating here. Needless to say, I uphold that position, but I would also say that it is a mistake to begin by asking what kinds of sex are "permitted" in the Church; that is putting the cart before the horse. Put that way, the question has a legal tenor, when (as I have argued before) the issue is not or should not be a matter of legality at all.

After all, chaste sexuality within marriage on one hand, and chaste celibacy on the other are and should be the fruits of a relationship of love with Christ, and not some kind of legal requirement that puts us in good standing with God and the community. We are not Christians because we observe the moral code of the Christians. Rather, we behave morally as Christians because we are Christians. The distinction is subtle but important. Our Christ-like ontological state--formed in Baptism and sustained in the Eucharistic life of the Church--yields a Christ-like attitude and behavior, and not vice versa. To put it another way, we are like Christ because we are in Christ.

So rather than beginning by asking what sorts of behavior are permitted, we must rather begin by asking another more important question: who is Jesus Christ? We need to focus whoever comes to the Church, in whatever sexual state, on the Person of Christ, on the encounter with Him in the Church's rich and varied liturgical and sacramental life, before we can hope to communicate the meaning of sexuality to them. The reason is, of course, that sexuality is a part of personhood and real personhood can only be understood in relation to Christ.

When a person comes to the Church from outside (or at least, from a distance) he or she has not fully experienced this relation, even if he or she is a Christian of one sort or another, since the fullness of Christ is revealed in the tradition that Orthodoxy has maintained intact since the beginning. The newcomer, then, is not able to fully articulate the meaning of his or her personhood in every dimension of his or her life. Until he or she is able to do this--has the sacramental vocabulary to do so--it makes no sense to even begin the conversation about sexual practices.

So I would begin by inviting your friend to come and see Christ, to meet and begin to encounter His Presence in the liturgy--all without expectations that he adopt celibacy or any other sexual way of life.

As time goes on, and the Spirit draws your friend closer to Christ, then (and only then) can he begin to realize that our purpose as Christians is to articulate Christ--who is the incarnation of God's divine love--in every dimension of our existence, sexuality included. This means that not only must all of our life begin to move towards speaking of divine love--the self-emptying, co-suffering with the Other--but also that all of our life must begin to move away from obsession with self, which I would simply define as lust.

Eventually, then, by God's grace, your friend will gravitate towards chastity, which I would define as the quality of a life devoted to speaking of divine love as it is revealed in Christ. At that point, he can choose how that chastity will express itself physically, either in a passion that is unmediated and directed solely at God, or else mediated through union with another, a union whose purpose it is to articulate the love of the divine Bridegroom for His created Bride.

As you can see, this process is not merely for newcomers in the Church. To the extent that anyone in the Church--married or single, gay or straight or whatever--is caught up in self, we need to seek to be purified of lust and endowed with chastity above all. The heterosexual married man in the Church is not "safe" by virtue of his canonical status. He may be in as much need of this process of purification as the faithful, monogamous same-sex partner seeking a closer experience of truth.

Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that a heterosexual marriage in which lust is prevalent (such as, for example, when the use of pornography is involved) is more questionable than a same-sex relationship where the partners' eyes and bodies belong only to one another. In other words, I would be more likely to uphold the fidelity of the latter, which is truer to the nature of authentic love, over the canonical correctness of the former, in which adultery has already been conceived.

My point is, we must first seek Christ and chastity--a single and total devotion to Him--before we can come to articulate Him properly in our sexuality. The Church rightly offers only two fruits of chastity--celibacy and heterosexual, monogamous marriage--but they are better seen as two destinations, two branches in the movement towards chastity. One person may be 'closer' to either one of these destinations, but none of us has arrived. The fact is, we are all along the same path somewhere on a journey towards authentic humanity (and thus authentic sexuality) that will not end until the age to come.

I hope I haven't caused confusion or stumbling. Please let me know if I have.
Love in Christ, Fr. Richard


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