The Borders of Our Lives

Dirty_gray_city_by_NastyaSunYears ago, as a young seminarian, I wanted to paint icons. I knew nothing about icons, only that I liked them and that they were holy. The vast wealth of books and materials on their meaning and even on the technique of painting them simply did not exist. My knowledge of painting was also non-existent. But rushing in like a fool, I bought materials (none of which were correct) and stretched a large canvas on the inner front door of my apartment. There I began painting an icon of Christ Pantocrator. I had no training and I used no model. I just painted. The effort lasted for better than a month. When I finally reached a point that I called “finished,” I asked a friend, a fellow seminarian who was an artist, to come see my work. He did. And he laughed.

“Do you know who it looks like?” he asked.

“Christ?” I said hopefully.

“No. It looks like you!” And he explained to me something known to artists. If you paint without a model, there is a very good chance that you’ll unconsciously paint yourself. The Icon as “selfie.”

I have often thought about this incident (and written about it previously). There is a spiritual lesson hidden within it. To paint without a model, directly from the imagination, is to paint without boundaries. The only thing that exists without boundaries is my ego, my imagined self. My “icon” of Christ represented the ideal representation of sin: the ego as God.

How do we distinguish the ego from the Other? The only means is to recognize boundaries – that there is a line, a place, a fence, that separates me from the Other. Love does not cross the boundary nor seek to blur it. Love requires a limitation on the self and the projected ego. Your life is not about me.

Boundaries take many forms. They may be the concerns, point-of-view, needs, fears, of another person. Those psychological characteristics do not have to be absolute in order to be boundaries. As the borders of another life, they are not me. I stop where you begin.

Our egos, which I am distinguishing from the true self, have great difficulty with boundaries. The ego is a narrative of our lives that is our own creation. It is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. It is often how we make sense of things and sort things out. This is a process that is under constant revision. It pushes us to criticize and judge, to weigh and compare. Archm. Meletios Webber describes this process as the working of the mind (in contrast to the heart):

In order to be right about anything, the mind has the need to find someone or something that is wrong. In a sense, the mind is always looking for an enemy (the person who is “wrong”), since without an enemy, the mind is not quite sure of its own identity. When it has an enemy, it is able to be more confident about itself. Since the mind also continually seeks for certainty, which is a by-product of the desire to be right, the process of finding and defining enemies is an ongoing struggle for survival. Declaring enemies is, for the mind, not an unfortunate character flaw, but an essential and necessary task…. Unfortunately, being right is not what people really need, even though a great deal of their lives may be taken up in its pursuit. Defense of the ego is almost always a matter of trying to be right. (In Bread and Water, Wine and Oil)

Strangely, this process creates false boundaries – borders that mark the ego’s own definitions. As such, it is an inherently narcissistic view of the world – the world according to me. In our encounter of true boundaries we find the limits of the self, and therefore begin to find the true self. The nature of the heart (and the true self) does not define itself by its enemies, or the one who is wrong. It is accepting rather than judging. It is quiet rather than noisy. The encounter of its boundaries does not produce the need to probe, define and argue.

The ego’s search for God is deeply frustrated by His silence. The boundaries of silence, darkness and hiddenness with which God most often surrounds Himself are met with frustration, argument, anger or even rejection. The ego frequently substitutes the products of the mind for the truth of God. God as idea is the God who is most suited to the needs of the ego. Such a God will, end the end, be an icon of the ego itself. We inevitably become like that which we worship.

When I was in the years of my serious inquiry into Orthodoxy, I was drawn to the God I could not have. I understood the eucharistic discipline of Orthodoxy and that there were things I was not yet able to eat or drink and places I could not go. My spiritual journey outside of Orthodoxy had presented no boundaries – I could go anywhere, say anything, eat or drink, commune at will. And with every effort of the ego, I was confronted only with my own ego. The Sunday services I conducted as an Anglican priest were the product of massive negotiations (my ego versus the egos of others who wanted something else). Worship was an uncomfortable peace, this week’s exercise in partisan warfare. My last parish had three masses each Sunday, the work of three distinct communities – that often did not like each other.

The modern cultus of seeker-friendly Church is the logical end of a market oriented life. But it can never heal the sickness that most infects us. Jesus did not die in order to rescue the ego: He died in order to put the ego to death. When I converted to Orthodoxy, a friend, nurtured in modern liberalism, opined, “Stephen became Orthodox because he was afraid of change.” In truth, I became Orthodox because I was afraid there would be no change – just more of the same negotiations year after year.

The ego constructs a gray city, populated with negotiated buildings and ever-shifting streets. There can be no value there because there is no reality. Only the borders of our lives reveal who we are. I am not God.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



167 responses to “The Borders of Our Lives”

  1. known to God Avatar
    known to God

    Dear brother in Jesus our Saviour,
    you published your writing at the same time i was reading some interesting topics on this blog and while i was reading it i reminded my self of some verses i wrote when boundaries of the self and unity in Christ are concerned…

    , and when i think or not think at all
    that i reasonably ignore
    i in fact reject the Love of my heart
    staying and crying in the mud.

    in Christ we meet,
    in Christ all our journeys end,
    in Christ with His and our own strength
    alone, but together we stand.

    i sense loving in His embrace as sharing the love towards Him with all my brothers and sisters and enjoying every moment of it, as my soul through the verses speaks.

  2. Dino Avatar

    This is an outstanding lesson for us all…

  3. María Gutiérrez Avatar
    María Gutiérrez

    I am more grateful than I can say.

  4. meshell Avatar

    “Since the mind also continually seeks for certainty, which is a by-product of the desire to be right, the process of finding and defining enemies is an ongoing struggle for survival. ”

    I recently became Orthodox because I was searching for certainty of who God is. I’m still searching for certainty of who God is. Is this a by-product of my desiring to be right, or am I desiring to know the Truth?

    To be honest, a sizable part of me is afraid of truly, truly knowing God’s character, because I may find something about His character that I’m not particularly fond of. I want to know Him, but once I actually truly know Him I’m afraid my ego will reject Him. I’m afraid I won’t reject my own ego.
    People do this all the time, they start making up lies about what scripture tell us about God to suit their beliefs, hence women pastors and acceptance of homosexual relationships. For these people it would seem cruel of God to call these things abominable sins. For me personally it’s hard to accept that God allows horrific events to occur; for example I was watching the news about the disaster in the Philippines and learned of a young mother who lost five of her children. I don’t know what my ego would make of God’s goodness if I had to watch my children drown. I believe in God’s love for me, because the alternative is unbearable. But I’m having trouble putting my own ego to death.

  5. Dino Avatar

    If we had to watch our children drown, we would make of God’s goodness what the Mother of God made of God’s goodness watching her Son being Crucified: the route to salvation involves the Cross. Let us cultivate the faith that the Glorious Cross and the Resurrection are inseparable though, through Orthodox ascesis and healthy self-denial because it takes hundreds of years to build such an Ark in preparation for the ‘great storm’. We must, (how do I put this…) see, even our children, with the eyes and the love of God, not with the eyes and the love of our own.

  6. Andrew Avatar

    Christ says some remarkable things about the “who” of the kingdom:

    “And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:10)

    And also on the “how”:

    “Their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 18:10)

  7. meshell Avatar

    Thank you Dino. These are encouraging words.

  8. AR Avatar

    Meshell, some of the better Orthodox reading assures us that God is not in this sort of evil or calamity. He goes there to meet us, to be sure. He can replace whatever the locusts have eaten and bind up the wounded in spirit. He does not quench the smoking wick or break the bruised reed. The winds are his servants, the rain is his servant – he is never absent – but horror and unbearable fear and shame are not the tools he uses on his children. Occasionally something painful will happen in a mystery but actually, he delivers us out of danger far more often than he allows us to undergo it. The saints, as I understand it, constantly deliver the world, through their prayers, from all sorts of calamities that human evil would load it with.

    I can’t be as certain as the Psalmist that “I have never seen the righteous or his offspring begging for bread,” but I do know that as we grow in the Church – as the Church grows in us, rather – things do not happen to us in the same way as they happen to those who leave themselves without the protection of the Mother of God and of the communion of God – even though we know that God loves them, as well. We pray that through the common humanity they share with the saints and the faithful, those outside will also be saved.

    It’s all right to pray that God will save us from senseless horror, just as it’s all right – commanded even – to pray that God preserves us from temptation and from the evil one.
    The Lord is full of tender pity for us and our children. We ought to pray that His Love has its way with us, instead of the evil swirling around in the human world having its way with us.

    You are terrified to find out what God is actually like, what he might actually do to you. I know what that feels like. People who grew up Orthodox often do NOT know what that feels like. They were never physically and/or spiritually abused in the Lord’s name. I am certain that the Lord is compassionate with those of us who experienced this. I’ve been Orthodox around five years now, and I… begin… to believe that if we could just see it, the Lord’s will is the gentle, protected path for most of us and that closing ourselves off from him is what causes us to experience life as fearful and full of horror.

    The answer is NOT to practice depriving ourselves so we’ll be ready in a million years for God to tear our hearts out. Natural love is not evil – it, too, is a grace. We can progress easily from natural to divine love if God blesses. As Fr. Seraphim Rose said, if you fast without being first given the grace to fast, you create a spiritual vacuum in yourself and all sorts of bad things happen. (Ascesis without obedience is self-will.) It’s true that the martyrs bore unspeakable tortures, but we are told that like the three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace, they did not feel their pain because the Lord succored them. Some of the martyrs were children. I don’t think they were made ready for martyrdom by ascesis. I think the Lord was simply with them. This we DO commemorate.

    On the other hand, most of us aren’t destined for that kind of glory. As the Lord tells us in the beatitudes, if we want to enter his kingdom we begin with the receptive and passive virtues. Spiritual poverty – coming to God and relinquishing all the things we thought we had to offer him or that we thought he wanted from us – even our words; even our imagined worst-case scenarios – and just being his creature, looking to his hand like the dependent babies we are – is far better than adding a few more spiritual disciplines to our lists.

    This is especially true for females: where the men often need an activity, a form of giving or outpouring, to help them arrive at the feminine virtues of receptivity and openness, women often spend their lives at the beck and call of others, ready to do the most menial tasks for the benefit of people they care for, so practicing acceptance is nearly always an immediate opportunity. So often what the Lord brings to us is not a challenge or call to greater self-sacrifice, but healing and comfort and the gentle path of free grace. His word is discerning and can pierce even to that point at which the soul is joined to the spirit, but human advisors usually cannot, unless they have the grace of the confessor. Moreover, even confessors vary in the level of tenderness that they are able to bring to the sacrament.

    To each of us, the Lord gives what is lacking.

    A gentle and trusting and confiding spirit is worth more than years of ascesis and I dare say one cheerful changing of a diaper is worth more for our benefit than a thousand prostrations – especially if we don’t insist on the diaper (or the prostrations) as our form of generosity with God, but rather, just take whatever he puts in our path and practice attributing it to God’s goodness. “Lord, thank you for this child and thank you for directing me to care for him as an echo and emissary or your love.”

    In God’s way, in His time, I feel that He will show us all His love and how gentle and merciful he is and he’ll give us the liberty and warmth to naturally and freely make an offering of thanksgiving in return.

    I’ve written with some heat, which I hope is the warmth of zeal and fraternal affection. If there is any offence, please forgive me, everyone.

  9. Karen Avatar

    Meshell, your struggle is often mine as well. If you’ve never read David Bentley Hart’s little book, The Doors of the Sea, which addresses the NT understanding of God in the face of evil and suffering (like that in the Philippines about which you wrote), I recommend it enthusiastically.

    AR, those encouraging words are welcome. Thanks!

  10. Dino Avatar

    I believe you have slightly misunderstood my admonition towards ascesis; perhaps as a preparation for a westernised self-mortification or perhaps a far-eastern type of admonition. it is nothing of the sort.
    It is, (as Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra loved to remind us) the language par excellence, available to humans to express our love towards God. It must be in obedience and first of all joyful. It could be as little as finding yourself enjoying the Church’s fasts (not adding anything extra) as advised by one’s spiritual Father. It could be rushing to do the cleaning up first or to close one’s mouth when tired, sick and hearing a negative remark from one’s partner.
    It proves that one has the desire to live as Christ (wants), and it shows clearly when the motives are different.

  11. meshell Avatar

    Thank you, AR. Your comment is blessing to me in my struggle. I needed to hear this.

    And thank you, Karen. I will definitely check out that book.

    I am grateful for the love and concern of everyone here, thank you again.

  12. AR Avatar

    Karen and Meshell, thanks for your encouragement.

    No one is misunderstanding you, Dino. We’re just having some girl talk here. Meshell is wondering how to “put her ego to death.” As a man you want to recommend these active forms of self-sacrifice that are so fruitful for you but as a woman I am saying no, the passive forms are better for us – and not only that but the need for the death of the ego may not be the real problem here, even if Meshell is willing to suspect herself of egotism. When someone thinks they have offended the Lord, there is always the possibility of false self-accusation, especially with women. When that happens, ascetical acts can quickly increase the spiritual asphyxiation resulting from false self-accusation. Even rushing to clear the table first, at the wrong moment, can have this bad effect. Sometimes it really is better to ask for help – it’s more humble to ask for help – for the greater necessarily blesses the lesser. If you are young and strong and full of the joy of the Lord, by all means clear the table before your mother rises from her after-dinner conversation, and may you and she both have joy of it. I hope my son is like you when he grows a little more.

    Can I explain this better? Women are designed to have a strong desire to please others. This can create huge problems when inexperienced people are giving them advice. For instance, someone gives a woman the impression that the Lord wants this or that from her (“you should be willing for God to drown your children before your eyes”) – so, she does what we do all day long, digs a little deeper and tries to cough it up. (I’m not saying this is Meshell’s response, but that I saw the possibility of it.) But, this is not the physical world. This is the spiritual world. If we try to give what we haven’t first been given, we commit violence against our spiritual self (what is wedded to the Heavenly King) because we are replacing grace with coercion, which is self-will. God is not actually proposing to drown her children – just asking her to relax and trust him with them – and therefore he is not giving her the grace he would give a woman whose children are downing before her eyes. So, she struggles needlessly and fruitlessly and her soul plungers into bewilderment and guilt. The lights of the soul grow dim because of the turbulence of its depths. Suddenly it begins to seem as if God is a spectre of evil whom she can never please when actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Adding active ascesis at this moment could be very dangerous because it stirs things up even more, when what is actually needed is to be quiet and let the soul become clear again so that the Lord can speak to it from the heart – some silent word of power, of command, of creation and restoration. At this moment there is a profound need to receive, not to give – and to do so with a willing, trusting attitude is far more pleasing to God than sacrifices. Perhaps I am betraying myself here. Perhaps this is only true for one person in the world, but even then, it’s worth it to me to make the protest.

    How much better, then, to simply say, “may you find yourself able to accept whatever he brings to you, and leave the rest of it for those to whom it is given.” Anything further, I think, should just be encouragement that what He brings is so often much kindlier and gentler and more gracious and edifying and delightful than whatever we have been led to expect in the twilight of heterodoxy. At least, that is the only sort of advice I ever benefited from, much of it on this very blog.

    But I do assert that regular old Orthodox ascesis can be damning just as easily as it can be saving – depending on how it’s done. I reject the idea that you can easily tell when it’s done for the wrong motives and I reject even more firmly the idea that motive is the only place where ascesis can go wrong. If it’s working for you, great. That’s the Lord’s goodness. But remember the former conversations about becoming human before becoming divine? That is applicable here. Knowing that God loves us is essential to a normal human experience.

    Both the active and the passive approaches include many of the same actions along the way: the closed mouth or the changed diaper or the clearing-up or the fast or falling down at the Lord’s feet. But the approach is different. You men give in order to receive; we women receive in order to give. (This distinction is almost the definition of human sexuality.)

    All too often the men have the final say in how to proceed spiritually. But, the virtues described in the Beatitudes are curiously passive. I like to think that the Lord was describing the receptive virtues that he saw in his holy mother. “Blessed,” he says, which is almost her name. After all, every soul is feminine in relation to God. I really do believe that approaching God in the character of a spiritual pauper (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”) is far more helpful than approaching him with a gift. Whatever the elders and saints may have said to the spiritually mature and the psychologically healthy – those bursting with his grace, who need an outlet for it, who feel they need to adore God or they will explode – the Lord told us where to begin when we are broken and wretched and weary and empty and distracted and bewildered. Then we must come to him as someone broken, wretched, weary, empty, distracted, and bewildered, not as those in the early chapters of Revelation who thought they were rich when they were really poor, blind, and naked.

    Once we progress and the fullness comes, then we will have a gift that we can give him without creating that spiritual vacuum – safely, knowing that whatever we give him came from him in the first place and is therefore not a temptation to pride. Then we can begin to approach the most highly blessed state of giving in addition to receiving. Then we can begin to learn the first syllables of the “language par excellence.”

    But anyone who is struggling with whether or not God really loves her in a way that she can recognize as love does not need to hear about more self-sacrifice and obedience. She certainly does not need to hear that God wants her to waste time and emotional energy getting ready for him to possibly drown her children.

    Is it perhaps you who is misunderstanding, my dear? After all, you know what light the saints’ words have shed in your own life but you do not understand those words as a saint understands them. You know what you have struggled with, and with what ease the Lord has overcome it for you and in what form that victory came. You know what you are capable of – perhaps not even aware that your very capability is a gift of all the grace that was folded into your upbringing, and of which others have been sadly deprived. Surely you do not know what light the Lord wants to shed in someone else’s life. His Word lights up our next step – not the whole path. And most people’s next step is going to be different from whatever step you just took.

    I know a little of what it’s like to be where Meshell is at, even though I must presume that vast swathes of her experience are wholly closed to me. I stepped in because I thought that someone ought to express an understanding of where she was at, perhaps some delight in the humility of her admission, and some encouragement that her true complaint has an answer: Yes, God does love us very, very much and no, he does not want to hurt us or our children, and no, it is not evil that we don’t want him to hurt our children, either.

    And to do that I had to contradict you. I’m sorry you felt misunderstood. I don’t know if you and I will ever communicate well. But I really do rejoice in the very healthy joy you seem to have in giving yourself to the Lord. May his peace and blessing go with you.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    I appreciate the insights here – and your particularly sensitive understanding of how women and men frequently experience these things differently. There are reasons why bulimia is primarily (not exclusively) a disorder suffered by women, as are many things endured by men. There are reasons why priests are chosen from among men and not among women – not because of anything better, but because of something different. But I am deeply grateful for the wisdom of women, and that I am married to a wise woman.

  14. AR Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you. My debt both to you and your wife, and many others, is evident to me.

    I said, “All too often the men have the final say in how to proceed spiritually,” and I guess that was not very well said. It’s due to the Lord’s wisdom that men who have been given that grace are the spiritual directors within the Church’s experience. Of course, an open discussion between lay people is a little different and what I really meant to say is that the masculine experience sometimes gets inadvertently imposed on women (not to belabor the point any further.)

    I like the way you said it about priests being chosen from among men. My heart sinks at the idea of ever having to approach another woman as a priest. Exalted as she is, even the Theotokos relates to us differently than priests do. The priesthood and the grace of the confessor are very precious gifts to those of us who benefit from them, and not something to be viewed with envy.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    AR, what a wonderful statement. I have a question about your use of the word passive. The sacrifice of men is innate in us but I find the innate ability of women to “magnify the Lord” to give life to the seed to be anything but passive (children and other blessings). Receptive and creative yes but not passive.

    I suspect that the Greek verbs and voice used in the Beaitudes are rather more active than they appear in English.

    Am I missing something?

  16. AR Avatar

    Michael, I had to think about it, but I think ‘passive’ fits just in the sense of “being acted upon.” The ability to be acted upon and to receive this action with profound and even vigorous acceptance is innate in women, to create a parallel statement to yours about men and sacrifice. If someone is being acted on, that doesn’t imply she is doing nothing at the time or even that the action will be any good without her cooperation. Just that the main event is being done to her, not by her. Even though women are actually quite involved and science has shown us that physically, a lot is going on in both bodies, traditionally, the husband is the farmer and the wife the field; the husband begets and the wife bears. I picked this up in Barfield’s ‘History in English Words’ which is an excellent little book.

    A pregnant woman does much better if she is unstressed, quiet, and comfortable, because what she is doing she can only do passively – she cannot grow the child by willing it to grow, but only by loving it, nurturing herself, and letting nature take its course.

    I know that the passive voice in English writing practice has a bad name and that a passive partner (in the sense of an uninvolved or disinterested partner) is not attractive. But this term can be fruitful spiritually. Whether striving toward God with all our might or waiting for him with all our concentration, when God’s will is conceived in the soul the difference between what he is doing and what we are doing should be so apparent that ‘passive,’ can, hm, be colored in a positive way? Language has to stretch so much for these discussions. A distinction like active vs. passive that is absolute in one setting can be adopted in another setting to hint, not at absolute distinction, but at profound difference of an infinite sort.

    As for the beatitudes, I don’t see much passive voice there even in English. I’m just reading it into the adjectives. Meekness and spiritual poverty require an ability to be acted upon, thus can be seen as “a passive way of acting,” if you will. My understanding is that meekness pictures a tame horse that is used to the hand of its master. Purity of heart is a free gift of grace and not something that we can do to ourselves – like the pregnant woman who wants her child to grow. And so forth. Only “those who are persecuted” is in a passive voice, and paradoxically this is the most active virtue, the virtue of self-sacrifice (but one arrives at it by acceptance.) Voice, tense, and so forth don’t usually make good sermons, which is something I learned in Bible college. 🙂

    Another thing that may help is to reflect on the relationship between ‘passive’ and ‘passion’ (as in ‘the passion of the Christ.’) Both speak of undergoing or “passing through” an experience with meekness and acceptance, of receiving an action in one’s body or self, of endurance, even. This is a wonderful deposit of meaning in our language but one that secular thinking has nearly destroyed.

    However, if ‘passive’ is not working for you then it’s an easy enough term to discard. Not something I’d want to insist on. I think most women want to respond, profoundly, to something profound – to enfold a kindly invasion.

    One addition to the discussion: some female saints who are ascetics are praised for having masculine virtues. Interesting, right?

  17. Dino Avatar

    i see the point you make more clearly now – a very valid point indeed, especially in a personal 1-2-1 discussion which requires far more sensitive discernment and listening. I am obviously not doing that ‘discussion’ here, as the platform is naturally a ‘general’ one, and I mainly love to remind myself and others of the joyous element (even as a ‘potential’ which is easily forgotten) of Christianity -especially its locus of the Cross- a joy that mustn’t be lost in the face of adversities. (the main advertisement of proper Christianity is this joy – as historically proven by the martyrs)
    Concerning the last point of the masculine virtues in female Saints, (which often exceed many of the most unbelievable ascetics – and unfortunately these are often ‘unknowns’ in the west but Greece and Russia were adorned by them), I believe that this is because those Saints were not at the stages where we can analyse the differences between man and woman anymore, but the glorified stages “where there is no male or female”.

  18. Jane Avatar

    “My heart sinks at the idea of ever having to approach another woman as a priest.”

    Hmm, not trying to open a minefield here, but I wondered if you would be willing to expound on that thought a little?

    I’m asking as someone who has been slowly journeying to Orthodoxy over the course of some years. I find myself drawn primarily by the theology as well as the beauty of the Liturgy. Frankly, I do worry about gender issues. I’ve been around plenty of religious misogyny in my fundamentalist past life. It’s not something I want to have anything to do with anymore, and just on an emotional level– I’m sure I would be fine with a female priest, probably more comfortable in fact. I’ve even considered that perhaps I should swing Episcopal for this reason (not that I want to). However, I’m willing to concede that spiritual damage may be distorting my view.

  19. Margaret Avatar

    This is also part of the reason I came to the Orthodox Church from Anglicanism: “In truth, I became Orthodox because I was afraid there would be no change – just more of the same negotiations year after year.

    The ego constructs a gray city, populated with negotiated buildings and ever-shifting streets. There can be no value there because there is no reality.”

    The last part of this quote really reminds me of the city in CS Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” which book has been a great help to my mind and heart.

  20. meshell Avatar

    “Yes, God does love us very, very much and no, he does not want to hurt us or our children, and no, it is not evil that we don’t want him to hurt our children, either.”

    AR, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

  21. AR Avatar

    Dino, perhaps you are right about those female ascetics… I wouldn’t really know. I guess I just assumed they had a different calling and were given the grace for that calling and it came out as virtues that are more often attributed to men.

  22. AR Avatar

    Meshell, you are most welcome… just passing along what others have passed to me.

  23. fje Avatar

    AR your insights reminded me of the words of the great ascetic Elder Ephraim of Katounakia regarding his mother and the grace she received. She became a nun only in her final illness. Writing to his sister on their mother’s death Elder Ephraim said: My dear little sister, I cannot write to you in detail what it is I feel in my prayer for our Mother – just this one thing I’ll say: I cannot call myself her child!!! And that soul my Mother. No -no. All the years that I have been sitting on these rocks in the desert have been for what I ask myself? I go to pray for her and my soul fills with joy: I forget all the sorrow that I have for her. I see her in infinite light, in joy – in delight. My soul leaps for joy’ . At her funeral sweet-smelling myrrh like beads of sweat emanated from her body . Elder Ephraim confessed ‘Yes that is what happened and I felt I fell into a kind of resentment. There, I am confessing it. A woman, I am telling you, a peasant woman, illiterate, look where she reached! When I prayed for her I received, I didn’t give!..Many times [in my prayer] I saw that my mother is Elder Joseph, and Elder Joseph my mother. The two of them as one…. I saw that she had reached the same spiritual state as Elder Joseph’ . And he goes on: ‘My mother had no example to follow; she was alone; she endured afflictions with patience’.

  24. Karen Avatar

    AR, thank you for sharing all those wise insights. Very helpful to me!

    fje, wow! What a beautiful and encouraging testimony from Elder Ephraim about his mother. It gives me great hope that even outside a monastery and without the physical presence of an Elder or Eldress (though we are all surrounded by that great “cloud of witnesses”), one can still make great progress in repentance by God’s grace through a humble dependence upon Him.

  25. AR Avatar

    Dear Jane, I am struggling to speak from the heart on this issue, instead of generating pages and pages of theory. I think what I have to give you, to describe my repugnance toward the idea of a female as priest, is the mental picture of an icon that has been mostly scratched out and then childishly re-drawn by an angry and vengeful adolescent. I used to be intimately acquainted with the adolescent but I try to ignore her now. The icon I don’t hang on the walls of my mind, or contemplate.

    But this refers to the priest as the provider of Christ’s sacramental presence. In terms of spiritual parenthood or healing, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t visit with an Orthodox spiritual mother if you are more comfortable with that. But the healing of the sacrament of confession is just different. It doesn’t come from the priest. It comes from the person of the Lord standing there in the person of the priest and this is something you just don’t mess with. *Sigh.* I wish I could say it properly. I’m out of my depth. I don’t want Christ to be a woman.

    I can’t give you what I really have… which is my direct experience of the priesthood (the sacramental fatherhood that the church brings to us) and my resulting reluctance to change anything about it! Spiritual motherhood is everywhere here in the Church. It drenches one’s spirit when one walks in the church door. The Church herself is feminine and nurtures and produces the priesthood. The Theotokos grows them by the thousand in her monkish garden, while priest’s wives also have their hidden role of nurturing toward the non-monastic priest. Spiritual motherhood nurtures the priesthood and the sacramental experience in many different ways.

    It’s just that, like Levi was present in Abraham’s loins when Abraham venerated Melchizedek, and like all of us were present in Adam when he sinned, and like all of us were present in Christ when he rose from the dead, so we are all represented by masculine priests because maleness has this capacity for intrinsic inclusiveness and representation – for good or for bad.

    Christ came as a man, not a woman. I think it was so that as the senior member of the human race (by virtue of his Godhood) he could make use of this masculine capacity for representation and inclusion, and glorify it through his High Priesthood. In other words, he could carry us all with him when he died and rose again. Now we are all in Him, ready to be begotten again by Him, and born again and nurtured within His Bride, the Church.

    Those who join him in the order of Melchizedek need to share his maleness. Orthodoxy does not forget the body and what it means.

    Sometimes I put it like this: men are the mirror in which women find their humanness, and women are the mirror in which men find their maleness. If a woman’s relationship with men has been damaging, then she may find her sense of her own humanity (and thus her equality with men) threatened. The true cure is to find a full-fledged man of God and discover what God meant by the way he created things. However, sometimes we don’t know how to do this. So we try to fill in what is missing or damaged in an inverted way – by trying to become what we actually need to encounter. Men who try to remedy their own troubled masculinity by mating with men make the same mistake – the mistake is the same not morally but intellectually. I would be extremely troubled concerning the psychological and spiritual state of a female who wanted to be a priest. As if she were saying that she wanted to be a father.

    However, it may not be spiritual damage that prevents you from “getting it.” It may be simple inexperience – you can’t know whether women can be priests unless you find out what priesthood is.

    Orthodoxy smells good, but it tastes better.

    All the best.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    AR this is perhaps the best straightforward explication of male priesthood that I’ve seen. Thanks.

  27. Dino Avatar

    I don’t know haw important this is, but the Greek language also naturally supports this point you make here very well.
    Eg: The words Creation, Soul, Humanity, Church are all female.
    Equally the words, God, Creator, Heaven, are male…

  28. AR Avatar

    fje, the elder’s mother is a very good example of the “feminine virtues” I was talking about and I’m very encouraged by this story of the Lord’s mercy and how he came to her in this way. May we all be so blessed. Thank you for bringing this story to us.

  29. AR Avatar

    Karen, you are very welcome.

    Fr. Stephen, someone must be praying for me. Thanks for letting me know that I said the right thing. If you have anything to add, I’d love to read it. I feel that this is a very important subject that has the potential to heal something very wounded in our society. Also if you could delete my duplicate comment (2:10)

    Dino, I think that is very beautiful.

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Thomas Hopko has said that the problem of women’s ordination would become as problematic in our time as Arianism was in the 4th century. He also noted the problem surrounding the fact that we have no clear articulation on the matter. It is quite clear, however, that the unbroken practice of ordaining only men to the priesthood and episcopacy is, for the Orthodox, even more authoritative than the canons of ecumenical councils. Such universal practice through time is irrefutable. Nor could (or should) the Church buy into the revisionist arguments that this practice was merely a result of cultural prejudice. It flies in the face of so many facts that only a terribly politicized reading of history could argue otherwise.

    More important, I think, however, is the reflection on the reality that has been given to us. And not just reflection, but theoria. For I think this is the right description for the sort of theological reflection on experience that you offered. We reflect on our sober, informed experience and begin to draw some conclusions which we tentatively share for the judgment of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

    As an Anglican, I served with women priests (same staff). I even hired them when I was a Rector. I had my private reservations, but obeyed the practice of my bishop. It was not my finest hour – truth told – I did some damage to my conscience which is continuing to need repair in this aging soul of mine. Only after becoming Orthodox and living in the context of the fullness of faith and practice have I begun to understand and tentatively be able to articulate my problems and misgivings – even my existential certainty that there can be no women priests in the Church.

    For one thing, I don’t think anyone can begin to understand this rightly without the full measure of Orthodox veneration of icons and especially of the Theotokos. Thus, I don’t think that Orthodox arguments will ever be persuasive to the non-Orthodox. I’m saddened about that, but not actually surprised. I have come to realize that the veneration of the Theotokos is an utterly seamless part of the kerygma of the gospel – and not a mere accessory. No one can rightly confess Jesus as the Christ if he does not also confess Mary as the Theotokos. Nor can he rightly and truly offer worship to the God/Man if he does not also venerate the Mother of God. That doesn’t mean that I despise or deny the Christianity of those who don’t – only that I am articulating one of the aspects that makes that Christianity unOrthodox.

    You gave voice to some of this in a wonderful way. My wife and I have been discussing this topic privately of late. I read your comment to her while we were sitting in my doctor’s office today (good reports by the way). We enjoyed them. She is particularly pleased to see your comments again – she enjoys them.

    Hopko noted that one of the great difficulties for us today will be finding ways to express what has not been expressed. Just as homoousious had to be pressed into service – so will other things today. Those (and they are many) who reject the “iconic” argument against women’s ordination often have no experience of the veneration of icons, or a fairly distorted experience.

    It was being immersed in the theology of icons when I was in the doctoral program at Duke that finally convinced me that I could no longer remain outside the Orthodox Church. Icons are not accessories either. They are utterly necessary to the fullness of the faith. To diminish the icons is to diminish the faith. To diminish the iconic character of the priesthood is to have something less than the priesthood. We don’t need less…we need more.

    Thanks again.

  31. Jane Avatar

    Dear AR,
    Oh, thank you so much for this kind and thought out reply and for taking me seriously. I was beginning to worry that my question was a bit out of place here.

    The vision of the Church you painted was very attractive and it is one I have contemplated myself, but with some fears and misgivings. If I raise a few of those in reply, I hope you won’t think it’s that I’m trying to debate you. My questions are simply the fruit of my own struggling for clarity.

    There are virtues which are archetypally feminine and others which are archetypally masculine. You seem to have a sensitive and poetic grasp of this nuance, which makes your writings here a pleasure to read! However, I wondered about this, “we try to fill in what is missing or damaged in an inverted way – by trying to become what we actually need to encounter.”

    Perhaps we need to encounter something before we can even begin to become it, however, it would seem evident that for a human soul to be complete it would need to integrate *all* of the virtues, both the archetypally feminine and the archetypally masculine. Perhaps the end result, where in Christ there is neither male nor female, is the culmination of the soul’s journey. Maybe it is better to view it as such than to strive to make it a reality at the onset by tampering with ecclesial roles and their inherent symbolism. I *can* see the poetry and the symbolism in the Church as you describe, and even see how, if one oriented oneself towards the totality in a healthy way it could be a kind of ladder of ascent of it’s own, for the integration and healing of the soul, for theosis.

    However, I worry about a “men are this, women are that” literalism. . . when it comes to the essence of a person and to their potentials for daily life. I’ve seen it applied in destructive ways and struggle to define something healthier without becoming an angry adolescent scribbling over icons (nice image, btw, I think I’ll keep it). Well, perhaps being embodied since the fall has never been easy for anyone! There are gender differences, I suppose, beyond the physical, but maybe an apophatic approach to understanding them is best? Things can easily become so limiting and oppressive. If actual women are identified with and limited to archetypally feminine qualities and their expression, doesn’t that lead to social results like nursing, teaching, or secretarial work being considered the “acceptable” careers for women, for example? Is it possible to be part of a church with an all male clergy without contributing to that mindset? These are the questions that go round in my head.

    I’m thinking out loud here in response to your very thought provoking reply, but don’t want you or anyone to feel you have to answer all of this or invest your time in my questions more than you feel moved to. Just throwing out some more thoughts. 🙂

    P.S. I have come across the terms “archetype” and “integration” in some Orthodox writings. . . I have to admit I am uncertain of the theological underpinnings in that context and am using them myself in a sense loosely inspired by Jungian psychology– hope it translates.

  32. kay Avatar

    Thank you AR for your posts…. am lacking adequate words to express how badly my need was/is to see this wisdom expressed. Bless you! Bless the people who passed along this widsom to you! Thanks to all.

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    AR. Truly beautiful. Much to contemplate.

    When I first started to become Christian some 40 years ago I was moved to find out what it meant to be a Christian man. I’m still learning but you comments about men being inclusive is something I’ve not considered before. Much to contemplate there.

    My dear wife who suffered much at the hands of perverted and weak men before we met puts it this way in her simple yet rarely simplistic understanding: the Orthodox Church allows men to be men and women to be women. She says she feels a freedom she had not known before.

    It is quite clear Biblically that a husband is required to care for his wife as Jesus cares for the Church, to recognize and strengthen her beauty, grace and creative capacity–to present her to the Lord for sanctification. To protect her and keep her without defilement.

    I fail daily but I work at it daily as well.

    The priest, IMO, acts in a similar manner for all of us.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I believe it was St. Isaac the Syrian who observed that since the unity of man and woman was destroyed by the sin in the Garden to return the unity would have to be restored.

    Of course certain of that comes as we struggle for holiness but the marks of disunity must be put aside consciously IMO.

    Usurping each others duties; oppressing and/or tempting one another; refusing to see the humanity of each other are a few.

    Many days I am ashamed to be a man. We fall so far short of our responsibilities and so often use and abuse women so many come to expect nothing more.

    Forgive me a sinner.

  35. FJE Avatar

    Thank you AR and Karen! and all for your sharing. I receive so much more than I give in the comments.

    Michael, I read a published talk of a Priest in Greece at a clergy synaxis I think, where he discussed what went wrong in the relationship between Adam and Eve for the devil to find them weak and take advantage of the situation to destroy their bond with one another and with God and made notes. It went like this: While Adam and Eve should have had the same will and energy in the image of the Trinity the story of the Fall indicates this was not the case. Eve acts autonomously from Adam finding communion not with her man but with the snake giving herself over to the devil’s words and the sight of the tree. She advances on her own, separate from Adam and separate from God to the experience of the fruit of the forbidden tree as means of provoking the interest of Adam. She then returns to Adam as his leader and teacher saying, in effect, follow me and do as I do, which Adam does demonstrating he has lost God as his head. Adam in turn, for Eve to make her way on her own, did not love her properly, and starving her of communication, made her insecure. His negative attitude to her comes through his words to God ‘The woman you gave me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat’. Adam gave in easily to Eve’s suggestion that he eat also of the forbidden fruit showing passivity and powerlessness to resist and was duly deceived by his own wife and not a third party. So Adam and Eve lost one another because Adam took a step back and Eve took two steps forward. The reverse has to take place for man and woman to find each another again. Hence St Paul’s particular admonition to women to be subject to their husbands, and particular admonition to men to love their wives.

  36. Jane Sz Avatar
    Jane Sz

    Beautiful and helpful, particularly about the priesthood, and the thought that “the church allows men to be men and women to be women.” Thank you to Fr Stephen and all who have commented!

  37. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    AR said …
    “Sometimes I put it like this: men are the mirror in which women find their humanness, and women are the mirror in which men find their maleness.”

    I sometimes think the expansive integrating power of an accepting and quietly affirming wife is entirely unknown in our culture. All the gender-war stuff shows how deviant we’ve become.

    If husbands “find their maleness” in their wives it must include a safe psychic unlocking and re-integration that he can only find in her. It’s not a matter of taming a beast, rather, she can encircle him and expand emotionally to accept all his unified powers without breaking. Some married men may know the emotional freedom they have in marriage that nothing else in this world gives. A holy wife allows a holy husband to image God who reveals Himself in all His powers only in the embrace of His holy human wife, the church.

    This is a subtle mystery beyond my understanding but, I believe, the church contains a healing balm that our culture cannot enjoy without returning to her because she is where awesome divine power, peace, fruition and tears are together, united and blessed to be home.

  38. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Interesting how the topic took a turn to the meaning of gender. This has been a very difficult road for me to navigate, mostly before but also since I came into the Church. I read the comments last night and decided to “sleep on it” before I added mine.

    The whole men/women issue was a deal-breaker for me when I was considering even becoming Orthodox. I had to pray for wisdom, consider what the priesthood of the OT was, digest some of the work of Margaret Barker, listen to Orthodox voices like Fr Stephen, and observe Orthodox life “on the ground” in my parish. I found C. Yannaras’ book “Freedom of Morality”, in which is articulated an iconic view of gendered humanity, especially in worship, as a representation of the Incarnation, the union of heaven and earth/the immaterial and the material, in a way that made sense to me and did not denigrate women. This took several months. It was SERIOUS STUFF for me (don’t mean to shout, only to emphasize its importance). I appreciate Alana’s comments, and find much which rings True in that which presses into an iconic view, esp wrt the priesthood of Christ.

    I want to make clear that I do not believe gender is interchangeable or does not matter or should be erased, or that women should be fathers or men mothers, or that women should be priests. I do have a number of years of experience in a sector of Protestantism that holds a view of gender essentialism: “all men are …. (” fill in the blank with “masculine qualities”) and “all women are ….” (fill in the blank with “feminine qualities). In a sincere effort to be “biblical” and please God, a theology has developed among “conservative” Protestants, the logical end of which is that women are seen as so much Other that they become beings that are less than human. This is death-dealing to women; I cannot say it any other way. I don’t want to take up the amount of space on Fr Stephen’s blog that would be necessary to articulate how that is arrived at. I simply want to say that a discussion of “masculine qualities” and “feminine qualities” makes me twitch. Some Protestants are attracted to Orthodoxy because it is “traditional” and “conservative,” and many of those so attracted come from that sector of Protestantism – interestingly, one that is greatly influenced nowadays by Neo-Calvinism – and believe that Orthodoxy says the same things about men and women. If I believed that were so, I would have never come into the Church.

    I wonder, exactly which virtues are “masculine” and which are “feminine”? Isn’t virtue simply virtue? What is it about being a male that intrinsically promotes representation and inclusion? I do actually believe that about our Lord, and that his being male was important and necessary. My starting place was and is that Jesus taught and the Church teaches that only men should be ordained, and in light of what I came to know of iconicity and Christ as representative of all humanity, that became more than good enough. But gender essentialist talk will scare away a lot of women, precisely because women (and men) have been hurt by the trampling of boundaries – and by Christians taking up secular paradigms (girl in a skimpy dress sells muscle car – movies portray “strong women” as liable to kill the men around them) and expressing them in “Christianese” as somehow God-ordained. Don’t know if I’m being clear here, but non-Personal gender stereotyping seems to me to be just another aspect of functional atheism taken up into some forms of Christianity. Not saying anyone here is doing that that, just that talk like this sets off a bunch of red flags for me. Orthodoxy has to be different than the culture if it is the True Faith.

    Fr Stephen’s remarks on iconicity are more than pertinent, Jane’s questions at Nov 25/6:07 are crucial, and Fr T. Hopko’s insight is critical, especially wrt to this issue. Orthodox have to be able to talk about this – and live it without it being simply another aspect of the “gender wars” in our culture – or a reflection of an idealized way of life in “the old country” – or using gender stereotypes in attempts at humor – in a way that opens the door to healing, not perpetuating the hurt.

    The mirroring of each other in love as Persons is reality and constitutes us as human beings, no matter which sex we are. We can’t know one another as essentially “masculine” or “feminine,” just like we can’t know the essence of the Godhead. We can only know one another as particular Persons, in an encounter in relationship in which there are, yes, boundaries; it is not loving to colonize the other, imposing our egos on anyone. Genderedness is an important part of that encounter between Persons, but the ability to physically become a father or mother can’t be the sole definition of Personhood. I am so honored to be a mother and wouldn’t trade it for anything; and as a Person I am more than that. And so are those, like many saints, who never produce offspring.

    I don’t know St Maximus well, but one thing I do know is that he understood that the deepest divide in humanity is between men and women, and that it’s the first thing that needs to be healed. In the comment at Nov 24/1:27, Alana outlines some characteristics she seems to believe are intrinsically feminine. I would say that a significant amount of these are culturally defined, and outside Orthodoxy are a symptom of division and a type of scientism that is one of the fruits of Enlightenment Rationalism, no matter how much Christian vocabulary is used. Emphasizing the division by means of gender essentialism will never bring healing. The point is union; there can’t be union without difference, but the differences are those that differentiate Persons, and the point is still union.

    So I hold on to St Maximus, and to St Gregory the Theologian, who wrote regarding the capability of women to practice(!) asceticism: “…if there is a difference between the sexes it is visible only in that men have a stronger, more vigorous body. As for the rest, the cultivation of virtue is the same; they march TOGETHER (my emphasis) on the road leading to life eternal, and in this no one has anything more than the other except the difference of his merit and his toil…” I hold on to Fr John Behr’s explanations and conclusions in the talk he gave at the Women Disciples of the Lord conference, available on AFR, wrt what it means to become human beings (as men and women).

    Forgive me, a sinner.


  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    Good reflection. It is interesting that this developed in the comments. I would be almost fearful to address it straight on in an article, though these thoughts have emboldened me.

    I think you’re very right about certain characteristics being male or female. I think it can distract ultimately from iconicity.

    A example to promote thought: The 7th Council declared that although there was a strong tradition of depicting Christ as a Lamb (indeed the Scriptures do so), nevertheless, because of the Incarnation, they declared that it would no longer be appropriate. Since then, Christ is not depicted as a Lamb (unless the specific passage in Revelation is being painted).

    It’s not exactly wrong – but a Lamb cannot do iconically what the image of the God/Man Himself does. Thus, just because an image could be used doesn’t mean it should be used. It is certainly true that some men embody certain characteristics that we associate with Christ, and some women as well. But not all men, for a wide variety of reasons, are appointed to that place in the Liturgy. And when one is actually appointed to that place, there are strict rules and boundaries surrounding them. Apparently, this same mechanism (if I can use such a word in association with iconicity) precludes women from such a place in the Liturgy.

    Ultimately, everything in the Liturgy (and the whole Church) is for our salvation. The particular roles to which we are appointed are not our salvation. No one “needs” to be ordained to the priesthood. There is clearly nothing within the nature of a person that requires priesthood in order to be fulfilled. It is not any individual’s priesthood – it is Christ’s priesthood. Carrying that image is a great burden. It makes saints of some, and nearly destroys others (sometimes the Church doesn’t ordain wisely). But ordination, again, is not about the person being ordained. It is part of the life of the whole Church. That life of the whole Church is for our salvation – and the image of that salvation depicted in the iconic life of the Church is deeply important.

    We are living at a time where there is a deep, deep crisis in the human family. The “paradigm” of individualism, self-fulfillment, consumerism, vocationalism, etc., is simply not true. It is a paradigm that deeply underwrites the assumptions of a deeply flawed economic model and culture. And it is a deeply engrained paradigm. It is so deeply engrained that many aspects of it simply “feel right,” to many people. We are currently trying to explain human sexuality in terms of this paradigm. I think it is deeply mistaken and will prevent many people from a greater self-understanding and complicate the process of becoming fully human that God intends for us all. The self-fulfilled individual consumer pursuing his/her vocation is not what it means to be fully human. Neither is the model of equality and democracy generated by this paradigm the model of a just society (though we feel deeply that it does).

    But, if we are to be able to come to our senses, we will have to think long and hard, and listen very carefully to the icons which Christ has ordained in our midst. They will, in time, reveal to us their meaning, and our own meaning. They are one of the means given to us by which we behold the glory of God shining forth from the face of Jesus Christ.

  40. Dino Avatar

    It is quite apparent to me that our talk of differences between man and woman are on the perceptional basis of ‘the fallen’ – the divided.
    The greatest (even greater) division since the Fall (since you mentioned St Maximus, Dana) is actually the one between the ‘Nous’ (the noetic faculty – a male in the original Greek) and the ‘Heart’ (a female in the original Greek).
    If we now see Male (and ‘Nous’) as” actively desiring” after something (or whatever other quality we might focus on as one of their primary characteristics) and the Female (and the Heart) as “passively” desiring to be desired (etc etc); as astute as these perceptions might be, they are, to a large extent, of ‘the fallen’ creation. Of course, virtuous characteristics (like nobleness, valour, magnanimousness etc, for males or humility, demureness, etc) might not be, however, their compartmentalisation is!
    I am thinking of St John the Theologian or St Silouan the Athonite or Saint Catherine or even the All Holy Theotokos – they have no virtues that can be compartmentalised in this manner – no?

  41. Laura Avatar

    Fr. Stephen/AR/et al.,
    Thank you so much for this conversation. It is very helpful for me, too, as I have struggled many years with feeling devalued because of my sex.
    I can accept your reasoning on the male priesthood without reservation; however, I am curious as to what your opinions might be on ordaining women to the diaconate? From what I understand, there is some early church witness to this practice, and I honestly think most of the arguments that I’ve heard *against* the practice ultimately appeal to gender superiority arguments. Not that all women are called to be deacons, but that some women who do have a talent for teaching or ministry might find a good fit. I just can’t accept the old fundamentalist argument that women aren’t allowed to teach men– it makes no sense to me.

    Anyway, I am not trying to start an argument by any stretch of the imagination. I would just appreciate the opinions of those whom I respect.

  42. Dino Avatar

    It does strike me as significantly rudimentary and true, that, (from a traditional Orthodox perspective), unity will never be achieved, (whether we are talking of denominations, gender, mind/heart etc) while ‘modern Christianity’ keeps brushing aside traditional Orthodox asceticism with such ease.

  43. Dino Avatar

    I believe that this might be a possibility if ever the ‘need’ arises, but only then. It doesn’t now. And, let us not forget that even the desire (as opposed to the calling and obedience to this dreadfully responsible ministry) to be a priest (φιλοιερατία) is considered -traditionally- a ‘sinful passion’…! (admittedly this comes from the monastic phronema).

  44. Brian Avatar

    AR’s comments about the iconic nature of the priesthood and about feminine spirituality in general are deeply appreciated. These are extremely difficult aspects of Orthodox Christianity to articulate in the context of our iconoclastic modern culture.

    We all know that this subject of the male-only priesthood has never been dogmatized by the Church although it stands in universal agreement in terms of the Tradition. Thankfully, the Church has never found it necessary to dogmatize this aspect of her life, as the need to dogmatize represents something of a scandal. I sense that the Church strongly prefers not to dogmatize that which should instead remain a mystery to be lived and contemplated. I share the following thoughts as a minor contribution on the subject.

    Although it may not be obvious on the surface, even the Scriptures that modernists are most prone to ascribe to ignorant patriarchal prejudice actually reveal the profound beauty and mystery of the iconic nature of our creation as male and female. Even if we edit out the specific words about what many consider the culturally contextual issue of head covering, St. Paul provides a glimpse into the essential iconic understanding of our being that shaped the mind of the Church:

    “…for he (man) is the image [icon] and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man. For man is not from the woman, but the woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but the woman for man… Nevertheless, neither is man independent of the woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.”

    When understood as the Church understands it, this language is far removed from male domination, superiority, or misogyny. For if one contemplates the hymnography of the Church, one begins to see the beauty and significance of the typological link between Adam and Christ (man) and Eve and the Theotokos (and in her the Church [woman]). This typological link is expressed in many ways throughout the Tradition, including the Scriptures. Thus, when these words of St. Paul’s Epistle are understood from within the context of the link between Adam and Christ (the New Adam [man]) and between Eve and the Blessed Virgin Mary (the New Eve, “the mother of all the living”: the Church [woman]) they take on a much deeper significance; and the iconic nature of what is unique to male and female comes into view:

    ‘…for Christ is the image (icon) and glory of God, but the Theotokos (the icon and personification of the Church) is the glory of Christ. For Christ did not originate from the Theotokos, but the Theotokos from Christ. Nor was Christ made for the Theotokos, but the Theotokos for Christ … Nevertheless, neither is Christ independent of the Theotokos, nor the Theotokos independent of Christ… For as the Theotokos came from Christ, even so Christ also was incarnate through her; but all things are from God.’

    I am the first to admit that this is not an easy thing to articulate, but I am of the opinion that the ‘answer’ is to be found in this iconic understanding of male and female. It is less a prescription for what is proper for the respective sexes (although it encompasses that as well) than it is an expression of the mystery of who we are as male and female.

  45. Laura Avatar


    Yes, I do think that is a wonderful way to put it: “The desire to be a priest is a sinful passion.” Many people I’ve known over the years who wanted to become ministers were much too ego-inflated to properly care for the souls of others.

    What makes you think a female diaconate is not needed? (I’m just being curious, not argumentative.) Part of me thinks that one could make the argument that making it permissible and viable would be a valid *Orthodox* Christian witness to the gender role problem. Let me be clear, I certainly don’t think that every- or anyone who wants to be a deacon (or a priest) should be one. Another part of me thinks that there might be souls out there for whom the ministry of God through a female deacon might be good medicine.

    Thank you for your thoughts. They are so appreciated!

  46. Dino Avatar

    I admit this is one of the few times I appreciated such an ‘alteration’ to scripture even more than the original…

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Laura unfortunately real discernment on the need and function of women deacons is deeply clouded by the agenda of some to use such an office as a stepping stone to a female priesthood.

    If one were to uncouple any liturgical function from the female diaconate as was apparently the case with the few ancient one I’ll bet a lot of support for the office would disappear.

    What function do you see them serving that would require laying on of hands or tounsuring?

  48. fatherstephen Avatar

    The primary (and the only known) liturgical function of women deacons in the early Church was the baptizing of adult women (since all baptisms were done in the nude). Today we only baptize infants naked. Everyone else wears something.

    Also, there was a ministry requirement within the culture for women to enter the home of widows and single women (men would not have done so). Thus caring for the sick, taking them communion, etc. would have likely been a role of women deacons, though this is not really clear.

    It is not clear at present that there is a particular need, other than the present gender politics of the culture. But the possibility remains should the Church see the need.

  49. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dana it is not in my approach to say that certain characteristics are male and others are female except for the most obvious: only women can be mothers and only men can be fathers (relates to the priesthood I think)

    While we all strive for the same holiness such holiness has a different quality in a man than it does in a woman, most of the time.

    If I may be so bold male virtue, as AR pointed out, tends to be more focused on offering for all–even to death while women’s is more specific or tends to be. The is something personally intimate in a woman as a child is conceived and born than in man’s self-sacrifice for others in general, in war, in the priesthood, or even for one’s family.

    Random thought: we begin to love only when we act with no expectation or desire for pleasurable feedback. The example that came to mind was of one spouse caring for the other with patience when the other can no longer communicate or “love back”

  50. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Michael, I totally agree with you about the nature of real love, and that only men can be fathers and only women can be mothers.

    I think it’s quite possible for a woman to sacrifice herself for the benefit of others. I think it actually happens a lot. I think the quality of holiness has to do with the whole of a given Person, not, underneath everything, entirely on whether that Person is a male or female.

    I’ve read enough of your writing to know that we will not agree on this, and that’s okay with me. I pay attention because you obviously strive to love, and you have been in the Church much longer than I. I won’t gainsay your experience. It’s wonderful that you and your wife have the relationship that you do. May the Lord continue to strengthen it, and both of you.


  51. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Of course women sacrifice themselves for others! Too much sometimes. But a woman’s sacrifice has a different tone to it than a man’s.

    I am blessed by my wife. She not only allows me to be a man, she draws it out of me even when I am selfishly reluctant.

    She knows the Lord in a simple, direct way I can only hope to attain someday.

    I love hearing women speaking about being a woman in the Church. It helps me stay in balance.

    Thank you.

    I think one of the first things men have to do is learn to like women. Jesus certainly does. He demonstrates it time and time again.

    Maybe if we learn to simply like each other, the rest will follow.

  52. AR Avatar

    No, Michael is not saying that women can’t sacrifice self; he is saying that a woman’s self-sacrifice is more intimate than a man’s self-sacrifice. It has a different quality. And that of course is true. Unfortunately, societal conditioning often prevents people from seeing those completely lovely sorts of distinctions.

  53. AR Avatar

    I wish I could reply to everyone who addressed me or my comments individually… Kay, thank you for your blessings. Michael, thanks for your sensitivity to women. Every man should be so generous. Brian, a lovely reading of that passage – I agree we need to find ways to dispel the fear of the scriptural teaching on this subject. Laura, thank you. Dana, I’m glad you’re here; your comments were challenging in a way that helped me sharpen my ideas.

    Fr. Stephen, I’m hoarding everything you said. You are welcome, and thank you in turn for this ministry of yours. Yes, I’ll accept the description of theoria for what I am doing.

    Jane, to you I will say in brief that first, you are not out of place and I am pleased to talk with you. I don’t think anyone should try to join the Orthodox Church until they are satisfied in their mind and heart, not that the Church is “right” in her teachings but that she is “trustworthy” in them. It’s a case of recognizing one’s mother. In my case, I had to give up Calvinism in deference to the Church’s teachings, and Calvinism was a huge part of my identity back then. I trusted the Church (after a lot of initial misgivings and discomfort.)

    The other issue you brought up has been brought up by everyone else, as well, more or less, so I’m going to try to address some comments to everyone in general.

    First, I think we can all agree that in trying to understand the difference between men and women we are looking for some explanation more satisfying than two cluster of psychological characteristics, which is what I think some of you mean by virtues. Some others of you mean by virtues, good character qualities. I agree that these can be shared between men and women who are completed in grace. For instance, Fr. Stephen said a while back that modesty and chastity are the most important feminine virtues. Yet men should also be modest and chaste. Likewise the female ascetics that have been made so much of in this conversation were being praised, as far as I can tell, for physical courage which is more typically found in men than in women. (Women usually excel at physical endurance rather than physical courage in my observation.)

    There are other ways to use the word ‘virtue.’ When the hemorrhaging woman touched him, Jesus felt virtue going out of him. This use of the word, albeit rather archaic, means “power.”

    Virtue, used this way, implies a power that is proper to the definition of something, and not just accidentally attached to it. For instance, the particular virtue of a lawn mower is its swath-skimming/cutting action – this is the power that makes it a lawn mower. Sometimes virtue, used in the same sense, refers to a capacity. The virtue of a spoon is its concavity extended to a safe distance from the hand. This virtue can’t exactly be considered a power or action. Capacity can be power in stillness – passive power. The spoon has the power to hold soup because of its “still” virtue of concavity extended to a distance from the hand.
    I will return to virtues in a bit.

    First, a syllogism.

    1) Sex, marriage, and childbearing will pass away in the Resurrection according to the words of Christ in Matt 22:30

    2) Christ is still masculine though resurrected;

    3) Therefore gender (masculine vs. feminine) does not end with sex (male vs. female.) The latter is temporary but the former is permanent and already glorified.

    Lewis also insists on this conclusion in ‘Perelandra’ though he uses a mythopoeic reasoning and not my syllogistic reasoning here.

    What unites all the opinions expressed here is a very strong feeling that if gender is at all important (as it would be if permanent and glorified) then as Orthodox Christians we need to understand it through some typically Orthodox profundity, not through something needlessly limiting, humiliating, or puerile. Either as mystery or as icon, most likely. When St. Paul talks about marriage, he says “This is a great mystery, but I am speaking of Christ and the Church.”

    So when I said to Jane, “we mistakenly try to become what we need to encounter,” I wasn’t referring to masculine virtues as what we need to encounter. I was referring to the need to encounter an actual man – the sanctified and anointed man of God – in order to be healed of the damage inflicted by incomplete and sinful men.

    Of course, I think that an encounter with a man of God will necessarily be an encounter with masculine virtue. But I do not mean that it will be an encounter with “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” type psychological characteristics. Nor am I talking about character qualities like physical courage or rationality. (As a female INTP I feel I am far more rational when I want to be than most men I’ve ever met.)

    No… I am talking about an encounter with that precise power that makes a man a man – that spiritual power which belongs properly to man and not to woman – his peculiar virtue, what “goes out from him” spiritually, his particular glory as a masculine human being. Because it is mystery, it cannot be named. Psychological characteristics sketchily and fallibly suggest it – king, priest, warrior, father, watchman, husband.

    Moreover, because in a sanctified human being the spirit governs the soul which governs the body, I am going to assert that psychological gender characteristics, as well as the ability of the body to convey gender, are going to deepen and regularize, not disappear, with the advent of grace. To be unable to see femininity in St. Catherine would be sad indeed.

    (However, this is a completely different discussion than the one I started with a few days ago, regarding the fact that married women often experience the spiritual path with characteristically different problems and solutions than men. Where St. Maximus emphasizes the sameness, I emphasized the differentness and I think that was within my right.)

    So the question remains to be asked: Can we approach the mystery of gender in some way that doesn’t try to force the mystery into false expression but at the same time gives us some firm ground to stand on?

    What follows is more tentative than my previous reasoning, which I’ve tried to keep fairly tight.

    The pattern of reasoning I’ve chosen to imitate is that which finds a distinction within a unity. I much prefer this to Dino’s “division” theory, not only because it’s a classical approach to a number of different theological questions, but also since the scriptures show woman being taken from man only to be reunited to him, before the fall and without any sense of division.

    The unity is the human race as a body, united by a common nature, a single common ancestor, and of course, by Christ. The distinction is this differentiation of the race into two genders (and two sexes, as well) – without either confusion or separation.

    As a result, there’s this concern all throughout scripture and history to not confuse the two sexes, and at the same time, to not separate or divide them from one another in their joint humannness. This will stand us in good stead, I think, as we continue to talk about women and men in church.

    So if human nature is the unity, the one-ness, then gender is the two-ness. What is the character of this “two-ness?” I think it is the image of those who face one another, each of which is or has that which answers the other. The biological description of sex as “complementary” certainly hints at this once we see sex as a physical icon for gender. But it’s more than that. Any biblical theology that’s not completely driven by gender-envy or its answering guilt in men must acknowledge that the two-ness is hierarchical – just as the three-ness of the Holy Trinity is hierarchical. If the latter is permanent, I am convinced the former is as well. And if the latter involves no domineering or envy, neither should the latter.

    People in republican and democratic countries usually don’t understand that a monarch rules alongside his peers, not over them. This is the pattern of husband and wife – the monarch and his peer.

    We can begin to talk about what the masculine virtue is and what the feminine virtue is. Reviewing Perelandra, I see that Lewis has described an outgoing virtue and an inward-facing virtue, which is something like what I said. Although I’d read his words before, I actually posited this based on my reading of icons.

    “A lady sits in a garden and gazes
    within herself and without herself
    and the same sight is granted her in both directions.”

    He also mentions solidity vs. fluidity and motion vs. stillness. Knowing Lewis these were not just things he made up on the spur of the moment, but are probably classical and mythological. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this as a starting place.

    Add to this the consideration that all virtue is love. And the suggestion arises that the feminine virtue is the feminine sort of love and the masculine virtue is the masculine sort of love.

    As a result, I begin to feel that a man loves by going out of himself toward something, while a woman loves by engulfing or enfolding or taking into her heart, her inner space (her silence.) I am talking here merely of psychological and spiritual gestures.

    And since these two sorts of love perfectly answer one another, the only way to re-unite man and woman fully is for them to fully regain their femininity and their masculinity – that is, their capacity to love in these non-redundant ways. So white-lighting gender is not the answer.

    So I think it may be time to understand the scriptural instructions for feminine silence as trying to lead women toward their proper sacramental role in the Church by the maturation and activation of the feminine virtue. The Church already has a theology of silence as the holy of holies; I don’t think it should be that hard. I think one could also look at silence as a sort of womb.

    If one wanted to imagine a sacramental motherhood (as priesthood is a sacramental fatherhood) then it would be repugnant to imagine a woman merely dressed up in a man’s robes, walking the steps men have already walked. Rather we would want to see a woman’s own glory and virtue at work – that without which the church is incomplete. Because of my faith in this Church, I can only conclude that if this is true, right, and desirable, then something like this already exists in the Church. Is what we object to, then, the hiddenness of it? Do we loathe the veil that is the honored symbol of the very power and virtue of our Heavenly Mother?

    To those who fear that gender somehow detracts from person: there are many different distinctions within a human being that could appear on a kind of ontological map. Within the body, organs; within the soul, energies; within the spirit, oneness. Body, soul, and spirit. Person vs. Nature. Consciousness, self, and ego. Mind vs. Heart. And so on. Where is gender on this map, then? I think it must form some of those borders that Fr. Stephen talked about in the original post. Borders create form, and without form, you get leakage. In order to be a vessel of grace, the form must be intact. Attributing essence and solid reality and permanence to gender does not mean that a person becomes all border and no content. Indeed, a person with all content and no border is just a puddle and we know what happens to puddles.

    Finally, obedience is joy – rushing, giddy, glorious joy. True story.

  54. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini

    Meshell, your words give this young Orthodox-convert woman a lot to ponder. I thank you for them. It’s good to hear a discussion of gender that is without fear but not confrontational; that addresses the malaise felt by both men and women without falling into rigid fundamentalism or loosey-goosey permissiveness. Sometimes the Church is wiser in her actions–the way of life we people are asked to follow–than in her words.

    A friend of mine once suggested that I become a deaconess, which made me recoil at first. We haven’t had deaconesses for over a thousand years now, I said. He said, what’s wrong with bringing them back? Women can and should use their gifts to serve the brotherhood of God’s people.

    I’d be very uncomfortable to see a female deacon trying to carry out a liturgical role–doing a litany or carrying the holy Gifts in procession. It’s just not the right place. But if women can be missionaries, give spiritual counsel, lead monastic communities, organize service projects, help with the parish administration, teach Sunday school–then there may be scope for women to do such things as deacons.

    Of course, there is also a need for more male deacons. Here in New England, most of the churches are goarch, and almost none have a deacon. Priests tend to be overworked and overstressed. Having a deacon would share the load not only liturgically but also administratively and pastorally.

    As an aside, this same friend of mine commented that he doesn’t have a problem with evangelicals ordaining women pastors–first of all, because it’s not his business, no longer being an evangelical, but really because what a pastor does for the evangelicals is primarily teach the Scriptures, counsel the people, and administer the “parish.” These are things that women can do quite well. In other words, their primary role is not to be the spiritual head of the community that offers the Eucharist. So really, he said, pastors are more like deacons than priests.

    Forgive me if I’ve spoken out of turn.

  55. EPG Avatar

    AR — Thank you very much for your addition to this thread, especially the recent post in the early hours of this morning. As an Episcopalian coming of age in the late 1970’s, I unquestioningly accepted the move to women’s ordination. And, even as I became less and less comfortable with much about the direction of the Episcopal Church, I did not think much about the issue of women in the clergy. That changed with an epiphany one Christmas Eve (I will spare you the details), but, as I glanced at the (pleasant and dignified) woman presiding over the celebration, the thought came, unbidden, “Women are not priests.” As a man, however, I have had a hard time explaining that epiphany to my wife and daughters. And I am not sure that your musings on the subject would satisfy them. But you have articulated, with far greater clarity than I could have mustered, much of what I felt as intuition that Christmas Eve.

  56. fatherstephen Avatar

    Very helpful continuing thoughts. I’m glad that the conversation is allowing this to go forward. It’s quite fruitful.

    I would like to inject another bit of helpful language. Your comment on the virtues as “precise power” something that belongs properly to a man or a woman is quite correct. It’s far more accurate and suggestive than the psychological characteristics that are most often being referenced when people say “virtue.” Stanley Hauerwas at Duke has probably done some of the best work on “virtue-based” ethics – a lot of which follows Aristotle (and thus follows much patristic thought). His mature use of the term is much closer to the manner you are using the term.

    The words I want to suggest are energies and mode. St. Maximus, in one of the few patristic references that actually suggests what male and female might be, describes them as “energies” of the person. That is close to calling them a “mode of existence.”

    For its obvious that we share one common human nature, and that, properly, a person is unique and thus terms such as “male and female,” being common terms, do not aptly apply to the person as such.

    But as energies of the person – male and female have something to do with how the person is expressed, or encountered. It becomes a lens through which I perceive. The lens is not the thing itself, but the thing itself cannot be seen but through a lens. I cannot encounter anyone apart from their gender – it is a mode of existence for the person, no matter uniqueness.

    I found the phrase “encounter an actual man” to have tremendous potential. It made me think of Lewis – particularly his That Hideous Strength. The characters, Jane and Mark Studdock have lost their way in their lives. Both have been carried away by career and the wounds inflicted by our disordered world. They are very powerful characters, if for no other reason than that they are so prosaic. They are common and normal folk, thrust into this archetype-laden narrative of heavenly warfare. As such, they become modern everyman/woman.

    The character, Ransom, something of a Christ figure, presents the possibility of encountering an “actual man.” He is transformative – particularly for Jane.

    I found myself thinking over the course of my life for encounters with an “actual man.” I was struck by their rarity. Most often I have been led astray by merely charismatic personalities, people who always turn out to be caricatures of virtue and deep disappointments.

    Christ, of course, is the only true “actual man,” or, at least, the first true actual man. Thus, the rarity of these encounters should not have been surprising to me. I suspect as well that in our present culture, the number of actual men, or persons even approaching such, are becoming yet more rare.

    I think it is also possible to speak of an “actual woman.” This, for various reasons, was very absent in my life. My relationship with the Theotokos has been extremely important for me, even stretching back into my early Anglican years. But that encounter has been long and slow, revealing itself to me only over a many years.

    A caveat that I offer to readers. This is a topic that is filled with land-mines. We all have a deeply enmeshed experience of gender, and it is almost always one of the most wounded places in our lives. We live in one of the most deeply disordered periods in human history in this regard. We have incredible power associated with gender equality at the very same time that we have incredible power associated with sexual exploitation. This is not surprising – for both are symptoms of disorder. We have a very, very difficult time sorting through all of this. I have seen people lose their way down alleys of sexual temptation as they explored some of this. These temptations are some of the greatest of the land mines.

    It is an area ultimately to be explored by the most mature – those bordering on the “actual.” Thus we are almost without leadership in this regard. The sexual discipline of chastity, practiced by monastics, offers hope that actual men and women can supply us with direction.

    That women monastics are perhaps the least in favor of women’s ordination in Orthodoxy says much. That the loudest supporters of women’s ordination in Rome are often women monastics (or “religious”) is also quite telling. But I’ll not draw conclusions.

    An ideal within the Church, one which explains the shape of the canons on ordination, is that the office of bishop should be filled with an “actual man.” Some 5 or 6 years ago, I sat in the council of deans with my late Archbishop. There was much about him that was “actual.” He was laying out the task of finding a successor to him as he was entering retirement. Ultimately the Holy Synod has that responsibility, but the deans, at that time, had a very strong role in identifying and proposing candidates. His first words continue to ring in my ears:

    “First, he should be a man.”

    There was no humor in the suggestion. The word should have been capitalized if the conversation were transcribed. My prayer ever since has been that God would send us a man – the right man – one who fulfills everything that my beloved Vladyka intended.

  57. Dino Avatar

    I actually vastly favour your pattern of reasoning AR, to my “division” theory you mentioned. 🙂 Especially since I haven’t really got one, it is just a matter of slightly dour “semantics”.
    As Father Stephen also pointed out, I too was struck by the Maximian compatibility of your particular description of ‘virtues’- especially the compatibility with St Maximus’ specific notions of ‘energies’ and ‘mode of existence’.
    I would be keen on adding that the glorified ‘true’ men and women, [well the ones (the men) I think I have been lucky to encounter (on Mt Athos) and the one woman I know of (an Abess)], share a common trait in the way they relate to the opposite gender:
    They see no difference from their point of view! (or so it seems…) They see ‘a soul of infinite value’, and, overwhelmed by their love of God, they are energized by a boundless, unconditional love and respect for each and every person (so profound this is sometimes, that every now and then they see ‘a Christ’ in front of them), and all this, only because it is God who loves each and every person as His creature called to be what Christ is in His humanity.
    Perhaps it is because they are all monastics who have renounced all ‘loves’ to attain this total Love? I don’t think so. They combine this complete lack of cheap sentimental attachment (that often passes for love in the world), with that Christ-like absolute (loving) consideration towards every man and woman which (at the same time) has no sway or power of becoming a ‘distraction’ to them (!), a distraction from their core impetus of love of God -and God’s…

    Furthermore, the removing of sexualized ‘reading’ of gender of a Saint does eliminate a great deal of the differences between genders in their personal perception.

    What I am really concentrating a little more on, and trying to state is that, in the experience of God’s glory, man and woman both “become Light”. They do become a far more ‘true’ man, and ‘true’ woman when they return back down to the ‘stage’ of illumination (I am using the classic purification, illumination, glorification stages here), but, when encountering God’s Uncreated Light the overwhelming perception is that ‘there is no male and female’. God’s energies have become theirs. Whether man or woman, the overarching characteristic is:
    1) of seeing “Christ alone” [Matthew 17:8]
    2) that of being ‘cosmic’
    3) of love that seeks not its own.

    Back to the practicalities of daily life, the astute observations on gender (in the Orthodox manner elucidated in the comments above) are particularly valuable.
    However, one becomes a ‘truer man and woman’ by following the ‘guiding star’ which is “seeing as Christ and the Theotokos sees” us: at a far deeper level. (I like the phrase we use for this in Greek -“seeing man and woman as souls“).

  58. Brian Avatar


    The comment you made earlier today appears to have been moderated (wisely so, in my opinion). This is more a question that a comment, but I sometimes wonder how helpful such knowledge is.

    What you have shared is probably true – every bit as true as the fact that in Christ there is neither male nor female, neither slave nor free. Yet experience would seem to show that this knowledge can puff up (I’m not speaking of you) and lead to a sort of fornication when shared prematurely, as it were. Yes it is true, but few are prepared for it through obedience and love. Otherwise, the many commands that relate specifically to men and to women don’t make sense. While there is, in fact, neither male nor female in Christ; yet husbands are enjoined to love their wives as their own bodies and to live with them in an understanding manner, wives likewise to submit themselves to their own husbands as unto the Lord. And while, again in Christ, there is neither slave nor free, servants are nevertheless commanded to be obedient to their masters and masters to forbear threatening, bear in mind their essential equality before God, etc.

    I wonder whether what you have shared can hope to be attained without their first being faithfulness in what is, whether it is possible to transcend the divisions of our alienated nature without near absolute faithfulness to nature.

  59. Laura Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen. Your description of the actual role of the female diaconate was very helpful… in one way, it can be seen as a positive change, in which there is no longer a cultural proscription against a priest entering the home of a sick woman.
    Michael, it’s not so much that I want to argue for a female diaconate, or that I see an immediate need for a female deacon. It’s mostly that I find the traditionalist/egalitarian dichotomy to be less than helpful, and since I sympathize more with the traditionalist line of thinking, that’s the one I pick on the most. As a former low-church evangelical, I’ve encountered a dismaying number of male-superior Christians, and although I dearly love Christ and His Church, I am disheartened that that attitude also exists in some Orthodox circles.
    The comments and discussion here, particularly AR’s mini-thesis and the works of St. Maximos, seem to me to be SO important. The female virtue of silence in holiness is quite different from ‘sit down and shut up’.

  60. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    This is an excellent discussion and AR’s contributions are especially appreciated.

    I am holding my own thoughts for now but, AR, I would find it helpful if you might delineate further the distinction you are making between male/female and masculine/feminine. (If I have missed this, please direct me to the comment.)

    While I know that male and masculine (and female and feminine) are not synonymous, I find it difficult to articulate the difference in a way that does not limit itself to psychological traits or traditional role stereotyping. Would you (or anyone else) help in articulating this distinction? Words fail me when I try.

  61. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Laura, personally I think the male superiority you have witnessed is the result of misinterpretation of the Holy Scripture. Seems to me they read “…man is head of the woman…” and stop. Protestants of this ilk have no idea of what the Church nor a proper understanding of Christ’s headship.

    The hierarchy of Christ-man-woman is one of energy not of power. I can only be head of my wife if I submit to the love of Christ in obedience which means going to the Cross for her, with her and by her prayers.

    In the same way ordained service in the Church is not about power and position, although it is often seen that way, wrongly IMO.

    Neither is a woman’s submission to her husband but to Christ in her husband.

    Women have a remarkable gift: the ability to draw out of the men they live what is best most virtuous and most holy. That gift can be misused to go in the opposite direction.

    This synergy we have is a mystery but has an incredible fecundity inherent in it. That, in our fallen state can easily be twisted in sex or worse. One reason Fr Stephen cautions us to tread lightly.

    The simple fact is if I want to be a man I have to lift up my wife in thanksgiving every day; to present her to God for transformation and sanctification. I am required by Scripture to recognize her unique and special beauty and gifts and support her in the fulfilment of those gifts.

    I fail in this daily and wretchedly so in the past; but it is what I must continue in as a husband and a father and God is merciful.

    We all struggle with our own and each other’s brokenness. Genuine forgiveness is the healing balm.

    Forgive me, a sinner.

  62. AR Avatar

    EPG, you’re welcome. Thank you for sharing that experience. I think those intuitive flashes are really important because they either partake of or resemble a more direct way of knowing that I think St. John must have been referring to when he said something like, “But you don’t need anyone to teach you, for you all know.” This comes with a prayer for you and your family.

  63. AR Avatar

    Father, thank you for this reflection. I don’t have anything further to add myself but I especially appreciate the way that you’ve distinguished the person and the gender. True – if it’s common then it cannot be or belong to the person. In this case it belongs to nature – am I correct? I recall a discussion a good while back about freedom – something to the effect that freedom means transcending nature. I never really grasped it, but if this is so then it may explain what Dino is witnessing to here.

    Reflecting on this is very healing because if my gender is a mode in which I as a person, (God’s unique creation) am appointed to live, then “being a woman” (or man) falls under the purview of Christian obedience: something that can be offered to God as a gift of acceptance and love, by a free self who is other than the gift. I’m not sure why that is important, but it feels important. We talk about offering oneself but… my gender is not myself. This is clear now. Thank you. So, I can realize that he knows me as I truly am – that He sees Me, and does not confuse me with this… dress I am wearing. Even if the dress is lovely to him.

    Perhaps too much shame is resulting from wearing one’s gender like a yellow star instead of like a crown. No one can bear the idea of there being something intrinsically wrong with or inferior about one’s self, as you mentioned elsewhere, but no sane person would get overwrought over a mere matter of rank, especially when you’re living in a kingdom where the highest constantly descends to the lowest and the last become first.


    I have come to love ‘That Hideous Strength’ but only since being married. As a teenager I found it far too dark to bear. Now that you remind me, I do recall that relationship between Jane and Ransom and I think that’s sort of the imaginative pattern in my mind for such an encounter as I spoke of. Probably for our culture, image and story are the best ways of communicating healing truth to those whose religious views won’t allow them to accept it in didactic form.

    I’ll join you, if I may, in that prayer. I think we should also pray for true woman, because I think that though the men are more reticent about complaining, there is just as much if not more wounded masculinity going around needing to be healed, as American society becomes more and more matriarchal. You have men who have been domineered by their mothers and teachers and found their fathers powerless and… to try out the new terminology… had their masculine energy dammed up or chanelled in the wrong direction. But it’s got to go somewhere and so there’s this sense of desperation that leads to various forms of abuse of self and others by men who really don’t want to be that way. I think you are right to point us to Christ and the Theotokos but I know what you mean about the slowness – the greatest prize requires the longest, most careful training, and that’s following all the operations and therapy and you’re declared fit for normal exercise.

    *Heh* Yes, when I have something to say I write a mini-thesis (thank you for that, Laura :)) and when I have nothing to say, I only write six paragraphs.

  64. AR Avatar

    Dino, I want to thank you for everything you said. Taken with Fr. Stephen’s comment it opened things up for me. Particularly your description of the monastics you’ve encountered and how they look at people. When I read it I felt as if I’d been looked at that way by someone somewhere, and had forgotten it till now.

  65. AR Avatar

    Laura, there are a couple of scripture verses that I use to help me think about silence. Here’s “bad silence,”

    Psalm 39:2
    I was mute with silence,
    I held my peace even from good;
    And my sorrow was stirred up.
    My heart was hot within me;
    While I was musing, the fire burned.
    Then I spoke with my tongue.

    And here’s good silence:

    Luke 2:19
    But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

    And here’s the femininity of creation and something that feels to me like an image of silence even though the word isn’t mentioned.

    Psalm 109:3
    I have begotten you
    from the womb
    before the morning star.

  66. AR Avatar

    Mary, that’s a hard question to answer as it’s really what we are trying to figure out here. I can definitely say that by male/female I mean what’s biological or physical. The reproductive capacity and all its related characteristics. Maybe some of the psychological characteristics really belong to this as well.

    But gender as something that stays around after this present biological nature is changed and gone, is mysterious to us. As a characteristic of the race (and of other things in nature, too) it’s an image of God’s relationship to creation and to the human soul, with the masculine resembling something about God while the feminine resembles something about creation, or Church, or soul. As Fr. Stephen says, within the individual it’s an energy – there’s a feminine energy and a masculine energy.

    I think the best thing I can do is recommend that you read C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.) Perelandra in particular goes into some detail over this distinction. I plan to look into the other, Orthodox, reading material mentioned by others in this conversation. You may wish to do so as well.

  67. Jane Avatar

    Hi AR (and everyone),
    Wanted to say thanks again for the further elaboration of your perspective. I liked what you said about approaching gender as icon and mystery. Perhaps the best response to mystery is contemplation, awe, and thanksgiving (fitting for today) :). Perhaps to define is in some measure to control and objectify and this is partially what I bristle against.

    Looked at in this way, feminine energy as iconically represented in the Liturgy as holy silence is appealing, only I still wonder where it ends. How does this kind of theology of gender (if that is the right term) work itself out socially?

  68. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Jane I would say that the Church’s understanding of gender since it is revealed truth is a radical and uncompromising witness against the corruption, concupiscence and lust of this age.

    As such most will be uncomfortable with it even poorly practiced.

    The more fully we embody the truth in the world one of two things will occur: cultural transformation or persecution. Or both: transformation following persecution.

    Which occurs is not up to us. I would that the cup of persecution would pass from us but God’s will in any case.

    Thanksgiving for all His mercies.

  69. AR Avatar

    Jane, in Byzantium there were no Ecumenical Matriarchs – but there were Empresses.

    Michael, I wanted to thank you for your reminder of the function of husbands and wives to assist one another in sanctification. Those are helpful thoughts.

  70. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I appreciate the rich perspectives shared here and I am not wise enough to disagree with any of them. Yet I will offer what has been given to me.

    We must be careful, I believe, in talking about God’s energy as masculine (I’m not sure if that was what was being said here) because that would imply an incompleteness in God that certainly cannot be. God does not need the soul/Church, as masculine needs feminine.

    God, as Trinity, is love and unity and therefore must encompass all of what we (in the weakness of our language-bound humanity) label masculine and feminine. This is further understood in our understanding of God as dynamic rather than static love.

    Our words are only our best attempt to conceptualize that which is beyond our conceptualization. Part of the truth we are seeking to articulate is, I believe, that there is difference and that difference complements and enhances. And as we learn that, it draws us closer to our in-the-image-of-God-made-selves.

    I would also venture to say that masculinity is not the sole domain of males nor is femininity the sole domain of females. With all of the confusion in our culture, we might prefer to keep this very black-and-white, so as not to be drawn into that quagmire.

    However, it seems that God has made each of us unique reflections of Himself, each in His image, yet each somewhat different from one another. The gifts (“masculine”, “feminine”) He implants in each individual to varying degrees is subject to corruption, of course, and we can only discern how to best use them in the context of the Church, its prayer, Sacraments and Tradition.

    We rely on the same context and discernment when it comes to understanding how to best allow others to use the gifts they have been given. This is particularly difficult because it is often our tendency to see others’ desire to express their gifts as ego-driven (as they may or may not be) and our as not (but they may or may not be).

    I was recently talking with a friend of mine, a nun, about ministries and gender. Her comment was that we must look to what serves the Gospel. A simple truth – but one not easily discerned by sinners like ourselves, trying to navigate in a culture that has totally lost its way.

  71. Laura Avatar


    You’ve done a much better job at articulating my own reticence than I gave done, particularly with discerning others’ use of their gifts. For lack of a better ready example, I think of the argument that a woman’s place is in the home; yet I have encountered individual women for whom that would not have been the right use of their gift. For one, my midwife has worked as a midwife throughout her adult life, even while raising children, and has been a truly Christian blessing to the community that she serves.

    I guess that points to another area of tension I find within the gender argument: that of the tension between the individual and the group. After all, how much in common does the group “all women” really share? Or the group “all men”?

    There does appear to be a difference between the cultural construct of gender, which can be confining, and the spiritual construct of gender, which appears to be illuminating. I think it is the latter which we must be talking about here, but where the line is drawn between the spiritual and the cultural, I am not sure.

    Indeed, what best serves the Gospel. Forgive me, too, for my weaknesses and sins.

  72. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Laura and Mary re your reticence:

    It takes constant vigilance to avoid falling into various ideologies of gender given the confusion, hurt, politics and temptation that surrounds the understanding of gender.

    Stereotyping is not Christian but it is an issue of fallen humanity and the more specific we attempt to become the more our own hurts, biases and blindness takes hold.

    One reason perhaps that it is a mystery that can only be penetrated by grace.

  73. Karen Avatar

    AR, writes, “*Heh* Yes, when I have something to say I write a mini-thesis (thank you for that, Laura ) and when I have nothing to say, I only write six paragraphs.”

    Alana, that’s because you’re Orthodox, where (as I believe Fr. Stephen has written somewhere), “more is more!” LOL! I’m also relating to your tendency to be rather more expansive than concise in your thoughts and writing, because when I’m reflecting deeply on the various mysteries of life, I quickly do the same thing (only I think with more redundancy and less illumination than you!). Well, we are the beneficiaries of the gifts God has given you (and others, too, in this thread).

  74. Dino Avatar

    Karen & Alana,
    my mind went to a certain ‘gender related’ story from my Spiritual Father after this comment:
    before the brotherhood of Simonopetra and the sisterhood of Ormylia were formed, their spiritual Father (Aimilianos) would arrange their confessions (all mixed together which was a first in Greece – in the 60’s) in the hundreds.
    His timings (spot the difference) were thus:
    George 10:00 -10:15
    Maria 10-15 -10:45
    Dimitri 10:45 -11:00
    Sophia 11:00 -11:30
    Alexander 11:30 -11:45
    Irene 11:45 -12:15

    etc. etc.

  75. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, when Archimandrite Zacharias spoke to my parish several years ago, the issue of men and women came up. As an experienced spiritual father, he said that both men and women are capable of reaching the same level of holiness, but they take different routes. Women typically start off more rapidly and then plateau for a while. Men start more slowly but do not plateau in quite the same way.

    Didn’t go into any detail, just an observation.

  76. AR Avatar

    Dino, that’s a wonderful holy joke!

    Michael, I wish there were an elaboration on that. Why does it happen, and can one avoid it, in particular! Perhaps it’s because as soon as a woman starts to make progress she wants to share with others and is liable to neglect her secret life or dissipate the grace she’s being given.

    Archmandrite Zacharias also said in his book “Enlargement of the Heart” that women locate more of their experience in the psychological level, as opposed to men who locate more of it in the spiritual level. As a result, he said, women are more liable to mistake psychological experience for spiritual experience.

    This was very helpful for me for a while. Now I feel, in addition, that one must allow and expect one’s soul to experience grace as well – it also needs healing – but the point I guess is not to mistake this for “the descent into the heart.”

    Karen, your comment made me smile. Yes, it’s the SUBJECT that’s to blame! It’s actually true, though. I’m still generating pages of writing on this subject.

    Last night during our holiday after-dinner conversation, my sister told us that our priest had explained to her that one doesn’t analyze, measure, or even think about one’s spiritual progress and whether one is making any. We reflected on the difference between this and our experience as Baptists. (Anyone remember “testimony meeting?”)

    This morning I was reflecting on this further and I realized there is a corollary difference. Among the Baptists you weren’t supposed to believe that you had any gifts as this was seen as pride. So an awareness of one’s gifts was cause for shame. (I think that without the sacraments it may have been wise of them to leave that subject alone.) But here in the Church, it would seem, one must eventually face up to one’s gifts and understand that something has been left with one for the benefit of others. This is really, really hard for me. I’d much rather be laughing at myself with my siblings (whether biological or spiritual.) I guess just as I said “I am not my gender” I have to say “I am not my gifts.”

  77. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I have been reflecting a bit more, if all of you can indulge me.

    My life is different than that of most women, given that I have never married or had children. I did not refuse marriage or children but believe that celibacy was given to me as a gift. (It enables me to fall in love with everyone, but with a different manner of expression.)

    This always creates an interesting dynamic for me in discussions such as this one because I naturally approach gender experience differently because of this perspective. Not better, not worse, just differently.

    While many women experience their “feminine” gifts through marriage and/or motherhood, I experience mine through being a psychologist. The therapist role especially is one of receptivity, nurturing and healing — traits are often considered feminine.

    On the other hand, engaging in assessment or research as a psychologist might seem to draw more on the “masculine” traits of analysis and objectivity. I have been told that I also perform these tasks well.

    In addition, the right – or rather privilege – of being a psychologist was once culturally considered a “male” profession where it has now shifted to being mixed or even a predominantly female profession.

    Because, for many years, men held more societal “power”, women who wanted to share their gifts in male-dominated roles (like psychologist) were often denied this – or had to exercise more “masculine” traits (e.g. aggressiveness) in order to be given the opportunity, thus contributing to the stereotype of the strident feminist who “wants to be a man” or to steal from men their rightful roles.

    (To avoid renewing an old discussion from this blog, I will concede that there have been women who have gone to excess in this regard and have brought the stereotype upon themselves. But not all women have. Many women have simply wanted to share their gifts.)

    I am not trying to launch an argument here for women priests – nor am I comparing my psychologist role to the priesthood (though to me, there is a “sacramental” aspect to what I do).

    However, I am trying to trigger some fruitful reflection on where our beliefs about gender develop – and change or do not change when it comes to the roles people occupy in Church/society. So I ask…

    Although I do not personally have the religious training, could someone like me be a confessor, for example? I am not saying I want that role (I believe that I am in the role for which God made me) but I am raising the question of whether a particular mix of feminine/masculine traits, gifted to a female, could serve the Gospel in this way.

    While some might raise the question of “why”, when having male confessors works just fine. While confession demands humility of everyone who approaches it, I believe that, for some women, confessing to a man may feel akin to having to go “nude” (as alluded to by Fr. Stephen, regarding early Church baptismal practices). It may keep some women away from Church or sacrament.

    If you find yourself objecting to the “nude” metaphor, please ask yourself: am I a woman? Even if the answer is yes, ask then, can I speak for all women? (I personally feel a preference for a male confessor and would likely choose one, even if able to choose a female – but not all women would.)

    I have had female patients who would never feel able to tell a man some of the “sins” they have confessed to me – often because there is a tie to earlier abuse. Maybe “never” is too strong of a word – but they might need to talk to a woman a long, long time before they could talk to a man. What if the availability of a female confessor could help bring them to God sooner rather than later?

    Again, I’m not trying to make an argument. Just stretching our thinking…

  78. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary Benton, in monastic settings particular women monastics the confessor is divided between the a spiritual mother who hears and guides and a priest who does the sacramental absolution.

    These women are tonsured as nuns. They do what they do because they have a chrism for it.

    BTW not all gifts are natural to us. Sometimes we start doing something out of obedience and just grow into it. We are graft onto it by the grace of God.

    Alana, the presentation Archimandrite Zacharias gave at my parish is a portion of The Enlargement of the Heart. His observation was just that not meant as a criticism at all.

  79. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary Benton. Nude is an apt metaphor. Confession is quite intimate.

    Orthodox priests begin by reminding “know that you confess not to me, a sinner, but to Christ Himself”.

    Since Christ is present where two or more are gathered in His name, much can be accomplished without a priest. All but the absolution; the “have no further care for the sins you have confessed” part I think.

  80. […] are the tools of those who lack the imagination and patience to find the truth. The recent conversation about male and female within the comments section has been an outstanding example of paying […]

  81. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thanks, Michael. That is interesting for this RC to know. Is the spiritual mother only available to guide those in a monastic setting or do they guide others as well?

  82. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In this country with so few monasteries it can be a bit of a problem to have a lay monastic be a spiritual mother/father and the parish priest the one who does the absolution but it is done from time to time.

    Certainly on a pilgrimage or visit to a woman’s monastery one might partake of their counsel.

    It needs to be very clear and everyone involved needs to be in agreement.

    One of the big difference between the RCC and we Orthodox is the nature and understanding of the sacrament of confession.

    As AR noted: spiritual motherhood is everywhere in the Orthodox Church. I’m not sure one can be comfortable in the OC and not be comfortable with spiritual motherhood at least on some level.

  83. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary Benton, et al,
    It is impossible to overstate the spiritual role of women in the Orthodox world. Fr. Thomas Hopko has spoken before on this and noted that he could not think of a single great male saint for whom there was not a powerful female in their life. St. Seraphim’s mother, St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa’s older sister St. Macrina, St. John Chrysostom’s closest friend, the Deaconess, Olympias, etc. We are created male and female and are not whole one without the other. Sex is not required, but the other is.

    It is also important to note that there is a 2000 year-old tradition of married priests in the parish community. The role of the priest’s wife (“Presbytera” is her title in the Greek) varies from person to person, but she is generally not just an appendage in the shadows. She has a place of honor in the parish. When we first became Orthodox and I was being ordained to the priesthood, my wife was told by a senior priest, “Your role is like the Theotokos.” He did not explain it (I don’t think there are words for it), but I know that the Theotokos has helped me better see and understand my wife, and my wife has helped me better see and understand the Theotokos. Having been an Anglican minister for 18 years before all that, I can say that the married clergy experience in Protestantism is nothing like it. There is no Theotokos there, and no understanding of the spiritual nature of that role. A priest’s wife seemed more like a “corporate spouse” in that setting. I can’t generalize too much from my limited experience – but I know that in Orthodoxy my wife finally found her true self.

    In present RC experience, my few married friends that I’ve known who converted and werevordained have had just the opposite experience. RC instinct for a celibate priesthood (which I think is very different from Orthodox experience with monastics), frankly has no place for his wife and often tolerates her at best. I am of the deep opinion that Rome’s handling of celibacy through the centuries has been one of the more disastrous innovations within the Church.

  84. AR Avatar

    Michael, I didn’t take it negatively! I am always of the opinion it’s better to know. Forewarned is forearmed, etc.

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for those healing words.

    Reflecting further today on those scripture passages about women and silence… I’ve come to suspect that the emphasis and consequence of those passages is different than I thought. The form of the passages themselves emphasizes church order, not sacramental depth. The picture given in 1 Cor. is of church services that were very extemporaneous. In this setting, a woman getting up and teaching or praying publicly and extemporaneously – from her own mind – might be exercising spiritual authority over the men in the congregation. I have no doubt that the apostle loved women and men alike and that he was seeing spiritual problems result from this and that his concern stemmed from this.

    But the passages reflect a transitional time in church history – just as the N.T. tendency to use “elder” and “bishop” interchangeably reflected a situation where the church was small enough that each congregation was likely to have its own bishop who also functioned as elder in most cases.

    Public confession, which eventually caused problems in church life (sin being shared instead of put away) is another example – St. Paul says simply “confess your sins one to another.”

    So my current feeling about the passages telling women to be silent is that the church couldn’t ultimately bear this or any of the other situations related to extemporaneous services and as a result the formal Liturgy was devised. Now women can be as loud as they want to in praise of Christ and in prayer and in the reciting of doctrinal statements, because everyone, from priest to baby, who helps celebrate the Liturgy does so “in subjection.” We all obey the Church. And this is much better for everyone. The energies are flowing the right way, without our having to silence anyone.

    Not to completely retract my holy silence theory but… I do feel that this is better and healthier.

    What does everyone else think?

  85. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Rarely in the Church is there an either/or situation. Both/and is far more common. It is not male authority or female authority it is both in proper order each having its own chrism and each bearing its own fruit.

    A note, in the Roman world the pagan cults led by women often had an element of sexuality about. I wonder if that might play a part in St. Paul’s admonition. Any one know?

    Yes Father “Sex is not required, but the other is”. The male-female synergy is cosmic in its essence. First started thinking about that after reading the book “Mr. God, this is Anna”.

  86. Mary Laura Avatar

    As I am catching up today, reading this conversation, I am overwhelmed by two thoughts:

    First, I am so grateful for the beautiful articulation of these concepts in relation to gender that I have struggled to understand. I am only just beginning to understand the harm done to me by my denominational upbringing – and the distinction of how women and men might approach ascesis was something I didn’t know I needed to hear (thank you, Alana!). But also the clarification on the genders is so pertinent to so many in my life who struggle with sexuality or female ordinations, etc. I have read many things stating the iconicity of genders, but nothing that explains it so clearly.

    Second, I am despairing that there is no easy way to share this comment thread with the people in my life who need it! If these things can be put more clearly into words (as they have here so eloquently by Alana, Fr. Stephen and others) why aren’t they being taught more clearly and openly? Aren’t we all in need of this understanding? Or perhaps there are easier resources available, and I’m just unaware?

  87. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary Laura, if there is an easier source, I don’t know of it.

    However it is not quite accurate to say it is not taught. It is revealed in every Divine Liturgy and other liturgical service and every icon of the Church. Those with ears and eyes see and hear.

    We do need to share more about it as it is critical in our time in a way it has not been before.

    It needs men and women working together to articulate the vision synergistically in the context of Holy Tradition. That is what has begun to happen on this thread.

    “The Joys of Gender” is a book that needs writing and needs homilizing. Brave and foolhardy is the man who would venture on such ground alone.

  88. Mary Laura Avatar

    ah, yes, of course you’re right about that, Michael. I suppose I meant, why isn’t the Church catering to my blindness! Forgive me.

  89. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    We are all blind to the wonders that surround us as we celebrate the Divine Liturgy but these things take a lot of preparation on our part.

    The divide between men and women is deep and especially in our culture used incessantly by the evil one. Our silence with each other out of fear and arrogance merely allows it to get worse.

    I genuinely like women. Always have. I am genuinely disgusted by the vileness that passes for manliness in so many, especially those who should know better and even worse in my own heart.

    Men are always prone to the twin vices of lust and the attitude behind Adam’s statement: “This woman YOU gave me……”

    God forgive me.

  90. AR Avatar

    Mary Laura, thank you for your kind words. I’m glad that something I said was helpful to you. I don’t think there was anything wrong with your question (and I’m sure Michael didn’t take it amiss either.) These are things that are not easy to articulate and although as Michael said they are present in the Liturgy and so forth, they are a sort of hidden deposit there. A lot of even what we said here is very tentative. Better ways may yet be found to say all this and all the other things that need to be said.

    I think that the gender-blindness we suffer from as a society is fairly new in human history. There may have been injustice at certain other times, but I don’t think that people in other times would have had to ask, as we do, “But what IS a women? What IS a man?” We are the first ones to need it articulated this badly because of the bald attacks we’ve suffered on this ground over the last century. Therefore many of us are coming to feel that we have to take this particular treasure – the Orthodox understanding of gender – out of our hidden treasury and bring it in to the open. While we are waiting for that to happen, there’s definitely suffering that’s occurring.

    Even the tension that sometimes occurs in church between women who “cover” and women who don’t is something that I hope will be healed in my lifetime. The fact that this confusion is there, even among the most charitable, tells me that we Orthodox are living with a certain amount of our society’s gender-related blindness within our own Church life.

    I’m sure it’s easier for Fr. Stephen than for me but I only spoke because my heart was overflowing. I have my reasons for why I’ve put so much effort into understanding this subject over the years. Even so, I had to labor for hours over every comment and there’s still an inadequacy about what I said – a lot more work needs to be done. There’s also the fact that I lack authority when I speak of these things. I’m only 31. I’ve been Orthodox for merely five years. I don’t have a college degree; my husband is not even a reader. I’ve tried to talk about these things on my own blog but gotten nowhere – I think Fr. Stephen’s blessing and the honesty and heart of the other participants is what made it go.

    So, it’s a slow process but I join Michael in the hope that this conversation is just the first spark and that others will join in and that perhaps a book will eventually be written full of helpful things that can be taught in churches.

    But yes, the Church does minister to our blindness. That’s partly what it’s there for. When Christ saw the blind, he didn’t condemn or despise them. He healed them. I think that what we want is to constantly show our blindness to Christ. Like his mother at the wedding in Cana. She doesn’t say, “Could you make some wine, please?” She just says, “See, they have no wine.” And every day we say, “O God who sees me as I am, see, I have no sight.”

    All the best.

  91. AR Avatar

    Dear Jane, (if you are still here)

    I have been mulling over how best to answer your question at more length. It’s basically impossible for me to go back into the frame of mind in which I was viewing the Church in light of the culture and judging her. Now that I see culture (even religious culture) by the Church’s light it’s a different world. How can I sit in judgment on whether my religious inheritance is having a positive or negative effect on society, when it is the Church herself which enlightens me as to what is evil and good in society? I no longer believe that I have any personal source of wisdom with which to approach anything on my own.

    I recall that when I was twenty years old, attending a Baptist Bible College, that on one spring break I was sitting in the living room of my family’s hotel suite alone, studying Greek, and musing within myself. I was losing weight at an alarming rate; I had racked up something like 160 demerits and was in danger of expulsion; I had been disappointed in love; and some grace that I had been given (and that I had come to consider as the foundation of my being) had left me because of some folly of mine. I went within myself for a moment and found myself slipping on the edge of a black abyss. Some knowledge told me that if I simply let myself go I would fall in and die some death right there and then. There is an Orthodox hymn which says that Christ was not tempted by Hell. This is not a distinction I could claim for myself. I fondled the idea for a while. I was very, very tired.

    At some point I simply knew I wasn’t going to do it, whatever it was. I drew back and plodded on with my life. At the first chance I got (almost as soon as I was engaged to be married) I dropped out of college.

    My Church teaches me that we are created out of nothing and that we slide back toward nothingness to the extent that we lose touch with God’s grace. His grace (energies), we are taught, is to him (his essence) as the rays of the sun are to the sun itself. What is unapproachable by us, approaches us in our measure and creates us, sustains us, fills us, and enlightens us. This – communion with God – is what constitutes our nature and our being and our true self.

    In every generation there are Orthodox Christians, usually monastic elders, who travel the full length of the road of sanctification while still in the body, and return, fresh witnesses from the fields of glory, to tell us that these things are so and to share their grace with us. Because of my experiences with depression and the devastating loss of grace I also feel that I have witnessed my own fall toward nothingness and I fervently believe that the Church’s witness is true. Nothing works for me unless God’s grace is added to me. I have experienced myself as clumsy, futile, and slow-witted for most of my life. I know that when some holy person is near me (whether by physical nearness or the nearness of prayer) some light is injected into me and then I become more whole for a time and what I could not otherwise do, I find myself doing.

    So this is my relation to the Church – it is the body of my Savior. In her arms I am consoled and healed. This happens daily despite certain negative experiences I have had in Church life. More on that in a bit.

    To tell the truth, I was somewhat disturbed (please don’t feel that you did anything wrong) by your statement that I made the Church seem appealing and attractive. When you said that I thought, “Ah, I’ve failed her.” The first time I attended an Orthodox Liturgy, I walked out halfway through. Sometimes I feel like saying to inquirers, “Hi, we’re the Orthodox Christians. Come be offended with us!” This is because of this holy repulsion that one feels at times. I consider it a normal part of the conversion process.

    Another story from my life, if you’ll indulge me. When I was twelve years old, my family left the small country church where I grew up and went to a larger church in the city. The first time I walked into that church, on a Wednesday night, I saw the enormous auditorium and plush pews and the pastor’s children and their friends playing stringed instruments in a way that seemed virtuosic to me. I was filled with enthusiasm and admiration. The following Sunday as I sat in the auditorium with my parents, the lights went dim and 1,000 people rose suddenly to their feet. The pastor lifted his arms and the 100-person choir thundered forth some stirring anthem, surrounded by a large orchestra. I thought to myself, “so this is the beauty of holiness.”

    We stayed at that Church for four years, a smaller amount of time I have been Orthodox. By the time we left I was deeply disillusioned. The pastor was never less than pitch-perfect in the way he presented everything. But underneath there was a deep corruption. Not only misogyny but child abuse and many other forms of evil were covered up. Abusers were recycled in a “repentance fast-track” and then put in charge of ministries, while children who were deemed “bad kids” and girls who committed innocent indiscretions were rejected permanently from church society. My heart was broken, and I wasn’t alone. In the following ten years, the turnover from the original membership of that congregation was nearly 100%.

    In that congregation, the beauty and the holiness was all on the surface, and the offence was all underneath.

    I think that in a true Church, the opposite would be true. The offence would be on the surface and it should constitute merely a challenge to repentance. (As the Lord said, it’s better to fall on him in surrender and be broken, then to wait for him to fall on you, which leaves you ground to dust.) Underneath the offence, one should find a fountain of health.

    And this description exactly matches my experience of Orthodoxy so far and it explains (I hope) why your question is difficult to me.

    So I’ll back up even more and talk about what is more difficult – the times in which not the Church herself, but Church life, has held some negative experience for me. It is true that parishes exist – and even cities exist – where there’s an overall toxicity to parish life. No one denies that this happens. I spent some time in a city where negativity and anger saturated the whole culture. The numerous parishes had allowed themselves to participate in this in various ways and to various extents. Despite the nourishment I received from the sacraments, eventually some poison of rage invaded me that made it impossible for me to continue growing. A mild attitude of misogyny on the part of one person was certainly contributing to this. This person was a convert from Roman Catholicism and was not married, and I think it’s becoming apparent even through the current conversation on this blog how deeply disturbed the RC community is on the subject of women. They can’t even venerate the Mother of God without theorizing that she was never really one of us normal human women, born with the necessity to wrestle with Eve’s inheritance: according to them she was born different, not really partaking of our nasty feminine tendencies and THAT’s why she’s so special.

    Witness, in contradiction, the (to me) amazing courtesy, gentleness, and respect with which I and the other ladies in this conversation have been treated by all the men in the conversation. As Fr. Stephen explained, the Orthodox Church has a unique understanding of the Virgin Mary and this is the source of its attitude toward all women.

    So, I’ve had bad experiences here but they haven’t disillusioned me because 1) they aren’t universal 2) they don’t systematically pop up as a result of something intrinsic to the way the Church is constituted and 3) there’s something very powerful working against evil.

    Anyway, at the point when I couldn’t see straight anymore, the Lord peremptorily moved my family to a friendlier city where grace and light have been my constant companions and I’ve made a swift recovery.

    However, even in that toxic city with its troubled parishes, I never saw anyone express an attitude like that which you are concerned about. No one came up with theories about which occupations were suitable for women. In fact, even though I felt that there was a bit of mysogyny in the parish I was part of, they still made me choir director!

    And why? Because Orthodox Christians who benefit from the priesthood that we have here are aware that the priesthood is not a profession, an occupation, or a job. It involves a job to some extent. But the priesthood itself – the grace of it, the sacramental function of it – is something entirely unique. It is otherworldly. You simply cannot draw a parallel between the priesthood and any occupation and therefore you would not say something like, “If women can’t be priests, maybe they shouldn’t be doing all these other things either.”

    I personally have female friends and relatives doing many different things. My best friend is a musical performer and I could not be more proud of her. One of my sisters is in the army. Another sister is a carpenter with her husband. Another sister is transitioning out of sales to have her first baby. My mom owned her own shop. I take delight in all these things and I don’t find any sense of tension or contradiction between the fact that I’m in a Church that has all-male clergy and that I am proud of my female loved ones for what they do in this world.

    The only remaining objection I can see, then, is that for those outside, those who don’t understand the Orthodox Christian priesthood the way we do on the inside, we might SEEM to be limiting women and therefore our Christian witness might contribute to an overall attitude in society of limiting women. To this I will say first, that fundamentalism attributes authority only to itself anyway and pays no attention to us, and that the rest of society is quite intent right now on opening up all occupations to women, so that I simply don’t see any real danger.

    Secondly I will say that I really don’t see any truth in the feminist analysis of culture. What I mean is that, when you talk to someone with a feminist mindset, the explanation they will offer for some problem in society is always the same – it can always be reduced to a style of thinking, a “prevailing cultural attitude,” and its accompanying language. You never see any of them wondering whether it goes deeper – whether spiritual problems create thought-problems. I am coming to believe that the spirit is where everything begins. By the time a spiritual problem makes its way out into the visible world of language, it’s gone through any number of reactions to disguise itself.
    So when it comes to the health and wellbeing of the human spirit, I’m back where I began. If the Church cannot be trusted, who can?

    And on this topic of female priesthood all churches agree. Even the Episcopal. The witness of the Episcopal communion is clearly that women are not priests. What they are doing, they do in contradiction to the whole history and teaching of their own church. And if they’ve thrown away their own spiritual authority, how can they direct the spiritual lives of others?

    All the best.

  92. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    To indicate the depth of arrogance and confusion: I read an article about a small women’s college on the west coast that has an orientation each year in which the students declare what pronoun they wish to be referenced by. In addition to he and she there are about 5 or 6 others that refer to various states of “a gender”, “fluid gender” etc. Apparently a few of the women prefer being called he.

  93. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Other borders worth discussing: the border between sin and virtue.

  94. Dino Avatar

    I think that perhaps it would be worth ruminating on the ‘distance’ between us (my sin, or even one’s supposed virtue) and Christ. I find it interesting that both men and women reach humility – the humility of the Saints that is bestowed through the Holy Spirit after encountering the Lord’s glory- by comparing themselves (“marveling at the distance”) to Christ. Even the Theotokos more or less did this type of thing when naming herself a ‘servant’, ‘ignoring’ the salutation of the Archangel.

  95. AR Avatar

    Dino, I agree. It seems that thinking about one’s sin is actually counterproductive.

  96. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    AR –

    I find much of your sharing positive and helpful. However, I found what you wrote here off the mark, if I might be so bold:

    “They can’t even venerate the Mother of God without theorizing that she was never really one of us normal human women, born with the necessity to wrestle with Eve’s inheritance: according to them she was born different, not really partaking of our nasty feminine tendencies and THAT’s why she’s so special.”

    It is fine if you do not accept the idea of the Immaculate Conception but I think this is a serious misrepresentation of the teaching. In the RC church, Mary is considered to have been “full of grace” from the moment of her conception. She still had to struggle with normal human temptations and decisions – as did her Son.

    Do we deny Jesus as true man because he was “born different”?

    I am not trying to convert you to believing in the Immaculate Conception but am asking that you be respectful of other sincere believers. (Forgive me, I am a sinner.)

  97. AR Avatar

    Sorry, Mary, but I’m not interested in having that conversation.

  98. AR Avatar

    Or rather, to the extent that my comment was pointed at people rather than at the misfortunes which afflict them, I’m deeply sorry.

  99. AR Avatar

    I suppose I should apologize to everyone. I’ve offered a lot of thoughts in the past week… fairly flooded the place with them… and with my immature or patchy discernment at the helm, the wrong sorts of ideas or expressions must have slipped through quite a bit. I think you all are lovely people to have put up with and encouraged me thus far.

  100. fatherstephen Avatar

    Nonsense, if I may be so bold. The thoughts have been helpful and have been an important part of one of the better conversations on the blog in quite a while. Let me be the judge. I like to be the judge!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Matthew, Christ said, “…For indeed the kingdom of God is within you”. (Luke 17:21 We don’t bring it on. We…

  2. Fr. Stephen … I want to better understand the kingdom of God … what exactly it is, has it already…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast