How Should We Then Live?

The recent debate surrounding the essay “Conjugal Friendship” by Giacomo Sanfilippo has yet again reminded me of a the importance of dialogue surrounding sexual minorities in the Orthodox Church. I’m not an expert in the theology of Florensky so I will leave the theological particulars to Sanfilippo and other theologians. I do have experience though in how the Church discusses sexual minorities and interacts with the LGBT community. I have read a few critiques and seen several posts by Orthodox writers and clergy reacting to the post on “Conjugal Friendship.” Most seem to be reading into his essay or assuming the worst about it and lamenting what they see as just another attack on the Church’s steadfast commitment to the traditional sacrament of marriage. I would like to take this opportunity to offer a few reflections on how we as a Church can better discuss the various paths available to sexual minorities within the Church rather than Sanfilippo’s specific content or that of his critics.

   ©️ 2017 Gregg Webb

What I took away from Sanfilippo’s essay was less the specific arguments or case he makes for developing an Orthodox theology of Same-Sex love, and more the fact that he is attempting to find paths of living for sexual minorities within the church. As both a gay man and an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I wrestle daily to try and figure out what I am called by my church to surrender and to give up. I am constantly reminded of all that I am asked to forsake at the Church’s request of fidelity to its, and my own, understanding of same-sex sexual expressions. I don’t need to be reminded that the path my heart most naturally is inclined towards, that of pursuing a husband and a family in a same-sex partnership, is not available to me. I don’t need to be reminded that I am called daily towards chastity and celibacy and to remain steadfast in following all that the Church teaches related to sexual intimacy. I know these things all too well and those battles within my heart rage continually. I need no reminders of these battles or allegiances. Continue reading

What Language Shall I Borrow to Thank Thee, Dearest Friend?

“Greater love has no man than this: that He lay down his life for His friends.” John 15:13.

Crucifixion

One of the most beautiful of the Good Friday hymns is “O Sacred Head now Wounded.” It is often attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, but was more likely written by another Cistercian named Arnulf of Leuven (c. 1200–1250). The English translation below was done in 1830 by James Waddel Alexander (1804-1859).

The words of the hymn remind us not only of the depth of Christ’s love, but also that He suffers because of our sins.

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”

And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43).

Continue reading

Gregory of Nyssa on Friendship with God

Transfiguration of Jesus – Carl Heinrich Bloch

At the conclusion of his treatise on The Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa wrote:

These things concerning the perfection of the virtuous life, O Caesarius, man of God, we have briefly written for you, tracing in outline like a pattern of beauty the life of the great Moses, so that each one of us might copy the image of the beauty which has been shown to us by imitating his way of life. What more trustworthy witness of the fact that Moses did attain the perfection which was possible would be found than the divine voice which said to him: “I have known you more than all others” [Exod. 33:17, 12]? It is also shown in the fact that he is named the “friend of God” [33:11] by God himself, and by preferring to perish with all the rest if the Divine One did not through his goodwill forgive their errors, he stayed God’s wrath against the Israelites. God averted judgment so as not to grieve his friend. All such things are a clear testimony and demonstration of the fact that the life of Moses did ascend the highest mount of perfection.

Since the goal of the virtuous way of life was the very thing we have been seeking, and this goal has been found in what we have said, it is time for you, noble friend, to look to that example and, by transferring to your own life what is contemplated through spiritual interpretation of the things spoken literally, to be known by God and to become his friend. This is true perfection: not to avoid a wicked life because, like slaves, we servilely fear punishment, nor to do good because we hope for rewards, as if cashing in on the virtuous life by some businesslike and contractual arrangement. On the contrary, disregarding all those things for which we hope and which have been reserved by promise, we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire. This, as I have said, is the perfection of life.

Source: Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (pp. 131-132).

“Jigs for Marriage and Celibacy”

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers! I know I speak for Ron and all the other contributors too when I say that we are so grateful to be in this virtual community with you all, and we’re thankful for every interaction we’ve had with you here.

Just today, Comment magazine unlocked a piece I wrote for their latest print issue on “how to die in marriage and celibacy.” An excerpt:

… Jesus goes on to discuss the matter of singleness, on which topic he is equally stringent. Don’t make the mistake, he seems to say to his followers, of thinking that if you opt out of marriage, you are thereby exempted from martyrdom. Whether one is unmarried due to a biological incapacity for spousal union or prevented from it by circumstances or embracing that state voluntarily, Jesus imagines the unwed as those whose lives are to be lived “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12). Christian singleness too, like Christian marriage, is not about “brief joy and long sadness,” to return to Luther’s quote above. It is instead one more way in which we begin to unlearn selfishness, to embrace a kind of spiritual martyrdom, and find our desires redirected toward the city of God. Singleness too is about holy dying, about the sanctifying transformation of desire and belonging.

The whole piece is about how, whatever vocation we’re led into, it’s going to be a pathway of dying to our “old selves” and embracing our new life in Christ. As C. S. Lewis memorably put it, “Die before you die. There is no chance after.”

Maybe it’s an odd thought for Thanksgiving Day, but I hope that it’s an encouraging one in a roundabout way. So many of you who stop by here to read and think with us are living this life of daily death-and-resurrection, and it inspires me to no end.

A high school “AP Friendship” class?

Rat and Mole with Dragonfly

My first earnest prayer was for a good friend.

At eight years old, I developed a haunting sense that I didn’t fit in anywhere, and that insecurity only grew more intense through high school and into college. But what I discovered there floored me and, no, it wasn’t just the friendly people.

In an honors Great Books program characterized just as much by intellectual joy as by rigor, students of all majors were mixed together and plunged into the most influential texts and the biggest questions of Western history. And after discussing enough modern epistemology, epic poetry, mystical theology, and Victorian literature in a room of political science, viola, anthropology, and business majors, I discovered the biggest idea I’ve ever seen.

Our best discussions have been the ones in which we got to know the author, cared about what he or she cared about, and tried to discern the truth they communicated. My best job interviews have been the ones in which I have gotten to know the company, articulate my understanding of what they care about, and discussed how I could help them love what they care about.

To read a book, have difficult conversations, and get a fitting job, all require that I become a good friend: to care about the other person, care about what they care about, and seek their good and the good of whatever they love. True friendship binds all things together.

My most earnest prayer today is that I would continue to become a good friend.

Today, I am a high school teacher, and it is my job to commission students to faithfully enter whatever comes next. But marriage is not a universal calling, nor is college. Nor is church ministry or a traditional job? So to what can I commission my students?

To friendship with God and man. 

Continue reading

The Desires of the Heart

Today’s Office of Readings includes a meditation from St. Augustine on Jesus’ saying that “No one can come to me, unless the Father draw him” (John 6:44). Augustine thinks that we are not drawn to God by necessity or under compulsion, but by love, even by desire: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).

Augustine reminds his readers of how lavishly the Scripture appeals to our sense of delight: “How precious is thy steadfast love, O God! The children of men take refuge in the shadow of thy wings. They feast on the abundance of thy house, and thou givest them drink from the river of thy delights. For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light do we see light” (Psalm 36:7-9).

And this of course echoes what may be his most famous saying, found in the Confessions: “You have made us for Yourself, oh God, and our hearts are ever restless until they find rest in You.” The Confessions are an extended meditation on desire, on the many false objects of desire that Augustine pursued until he discovered that they could not truly satisfy the desire of his heart.

*               *               *

Continue reading

Bearing One Another’s Burdens

What should the Church’s message to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people be?

Typically, this question is quickly framed in terms of sexual ethics: should the Church bless same-sex marriage? Framed in this way the traditional answer—which I fully believe—is that the Church cannot bless same sex marriage, because both Old and New Testaments teach that gay sex is contrary both to God’s plan in creation and to His revealed law. I have written tens of thousands of words and participated in numerous public debates defending this position and responding to various revisionist arguments.

But there is a danger here. In today’s Gospel reading, Christ says, “But woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). Again, He says, “Woe to you lawyers also! for you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46).

Continue reading

On Pilgrimage

on-pilgrimage

In yesterday’s post, I alluded to a pilgrimage to France with my friend Steve in October of 2002. Today, I want to reflect more deeply on that experience.

On the morning of September 17, 2002, Steve had checked into Swedish hospital in Seattle with stomach pain. That afternoon, following a wide array of tests, an oncologist broke the news that he had pancreatic cancer, and had as little as three months to live.

Later that week, I received a cryptic phone call, asking if we could meet to talk. We met at a Vietnamese restaurant, and over enormous bowls of Pho soup, Steve asked if I would be available to accompany him on a pilgrimage to Europe. He wanted to bathe in the healing waters of Lourdes, and if his time on earth was to be limited, he wanted to use some of it seeing some of Europe’s great pilgrimage sites.

I had a conference to attend in San Diego in early October, and another in New York in early November. But if we spent the last three weeks of October, I could do it. We hastily booked plane tickets, and sketched out an itinerary.

Continue reading

The Forgotten Side of the Mountain

Over the last few days, I’ve been attending a private retreat for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians. Sunday evening, I was asked to offer a few words of reflection for the group. This is a rough transcript of what I said. 

come-to-me-jesuit-retreat-center

Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you.

A retreat is an opportunity for refreshment. We leave behind the troubles of our everyday lives, and come here to spend a few days seeking God together.

Each of us comes from a different place. Some of us bring joy and hope to the retreat, others come burdened by grief and anxiety: struggles in prayer, struggles with loneliness, struggles with sin that you may feel mired in. Some had travel problems, unexpected traffic, airport delays, etc. And some bring more serious issues like depression.

Most of the people in this community originally met through online forums. This weekend, we’ve deepened our friendships face-to-face. The conversations this weekend are a reminder that we are really made to know each other face-to-face. It’s far more affirming to sit with a group of friends and talk than it is to exchange messages online—though it’s wonderful to be able to keep in touch with distant friends in a way that was impossible in the past.

But as wonderful as face-to-face contact can be, we are returning home tomorrow. I’d like to reflect a bit on how to move forward.

Continue reading

“The Birth Pangs of This Present Age”

Yesterday I spoke in chapel at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Here’s what I said:

In a few more weeks, at the end of November, those of us who worship in more high church or liturgical traditions will be starting our new church year. While the rest of the world celebrates the start of the New Year on January 1st, we’ll celebrate the start of the new Christian year on the first Sunday of Advent, the season that will lead us up to the first great feast of the Christian year, Christmas.

The word advent is a word that means arrival or appearing or coming. It’s the time of the year when we wait, once again, for the arrival of Jesus, for him to be born of Mary and laid in the manger and worshiped by angels and shepherds and kings. It’s a time of year when the church remembers that we have to be a patient and expectant and hopeful, pilgrim people. We have to look and long for the coming of the Messiah. And so we wait on tiptoe for several weeks, with hunger and yearning, for the shining feast of Christmas.

Advent may be my favorite time of the Christian calendar. Almost every year, I feel like I stagger into it with relief. After a long summer filled with all sorts of activities and travels, and usually, for me, a more chaotic schedule, I stumble into Advent and breathe a little more deeply and rest a little more easily. Advent reminds me of who I am, of Whom I’m waiting for, and what story I’m a part of.

Continue reading