Dr. Philip Mamalakis - Gender as Icon and Vocation
November 02, 2012 Length: 71:01Dr. Mamalakis teaches pastoral care at Holy Cross, and is Director of the Field Education program. He speaks about gender vocations (Priest, King, and Prophet) and their practical implications on marriage, family life, and sexual orientation.
My name is Dr. Philip Mamalakis. I’m the assistant professor of pastoral care at Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. What I’d like to talk about today is: How do we respond as Orthodox to the changing cultural perceptions of gender, sexuality, and marriage? How are we to understand and respond to those who change their sexual identity or claim that it’s unfair to deprive some people of marriage just because they are “gay”? How do we equip our children to navigate these issues and the world they live in with compassion and faith?
What we do is we turn to the Church, to our living tradition, to help us understand what it means to be male and female, what it means to be married; to help us understand to those who struggle with same-sex attraction, and how to respond to those who want to know why does the Church not bless same-sex unions. Dr. Peter Bouteneff last night identified that we have a common theological understanding of life beginning at conception, and really the issue with abortion is pastorally how we navigate with the state. I wish I could say that were the case with these issues, but in some ways, it’s not so clear what our perspective is on these issues.
What I would like to discuss is specifically how to respond to those who come to us who are struggling with same-sex attraction, and how we respond from an Orthodox perspective. I’m not prepared to discuss how the Church should position herself in the political arena and in what’s going on [in what] we might call this fight that’s happening, because I’m not sure that as a Church we’re necessarily looking for a fight on these issues.
However, we do need to remain firm in our beliefs. We cannot acquiesce or change what we believe based on any sort of external pressures. We cannot abandon what we believe to be true and real, which means I am specifically interested in discussing how to respond to our sons and our daughters who come to us with these particular struggles, who are confused about the presence of these struggles, and who aren’t finding clear answers, either from the political right or the left, on how to address this.
And I suggest a gentle approach to these topics. For those who might equate a gentle approach to this sensitive topic as somehow wishy-washy or betraying the faith, my intent is to articulate my understanding of our Orthodox faith on these issues. I do believe that the firmness of our faith comes forth more clearly when we present it in its beauty and its love, and clarity is what’s required on this issue.
So I’d like to begin by offering my understanding of how the Church understands gender and marriage based on the work that I’ve been doing over the past two years with Andrew Williams, a graduate student of Holy Cross, and my colleague, Dr. Tim Patitsas, the professor of ethics at Holy Cross, and also Georgia Williams, another graduate student. We spent several years researching, studying, and praying about these issues that’s compiled in a program called “Freedom to Live in the Image of God.” I add these thoughts and these ideas to what I see as the necessary theological discussions and conversations that we need to have as a Church in discerning and navigating how to respond.
So: understanding gender. It is clear in Genesis that God created male and female. There are two distinct genders. Any confusion of this distinction between the two would undermine that truth that’s revealed to us. What is less clear, apart from the biological distinctions, is what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. On the surface, it’s hard to argue the fact that boys and girls are different. That seems simple enough, and many parents notice when they have sons and daughters that boys are different [from] girls.
In my family, we had four daughters, and then we had three boys. So we have accumulated a long list of what we call “things our daughters never did,” including, but not limited to: how they interact, how they play, how they fight, how they break things… In fact, I know therapists who promote the idea that gender is just a social construct that limits children—until they have their own children, and their boys wrestle and demand trucks, and their daughters prefer to play quietly with dolls.
Trying to construct some sort of neutral gender-norms doesn’t work. It doesn’t match with the reality we see. However, trying to define what it means to be male and female is not so simple. There’s a danger in drawing too hard and fast a distinction or a separation between the two genders, because if we look closely at the genders and gender roles, the distinctions don’t hold up so tightly. Many of our gender-norms are cultural, and they vary between cultures. That is to say, any way we try and define what it means to be a man or a male and what it means to be a female seems to fall short of describing what we really see.
We may say things like, “Boys are strong, aggressive, and courageous, and girls are passive and gentle and sensitive,” right? Yet anyone who’s married knows that aggression and passivity don’t make for a good marriage, and in fact in order to have a successful marriage, men need to be gentle and sensitive, and women need to also be strong and courageous. Parents also know that not all boys are alike and not all girls are alike. I have a beautiful niece the same age as my boys who plays much more like a boy than like a girl. She likes to play aggressively. She loves to wrestle and is very physical. And parents report to me that they have sons who don’t play like normal boys. They might be more gentle, less aggressive.
So it seems as though masculine and feminine are not so clearly two separate things, but they seem to exist in men and in women, in both genders. In fact, the first human was created male and female in Genesis 1:27, and according to St. Ephrem the Syrian, Eve was already inside of Adam. The first person was separated into man and woman. In the second chapter of Genesis, woman was taken out of man, and when Adam saw Eve, he recognized her as similar to himself: “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” In fact, men and women share the same human nature. Each of us as male and female came from the union of a man and a woman. We see aspects of masculine and feminine in both sexes. Each of us, male and female, is in the image of God, and each male and female is considered an icon of Christ. Christ was a man, yet he saved all of humanity, men and women, by taking on human nature as a male.
When we look at the models of Christian life, men and women saints, sharp gender distinctions and gender roles don’t hold up so tightly either. It seems as though in our tradition men and women share the same spiritual nature. We don’t have “men’s spirituality” and “women’s spirituality.” We share the same path to salvation. The fruits of the Spirit, which we are all called to acquire, they show no gender distinction. Exhortations for holiness and acquiring the virtues are the same for men and for women.
In fact, St. Maximus the Confessor refers to the masculine and feminine powers of the soul within each one of us. The irascible passions, or the drive, are considered male, while the appetitive or concupiscent passions of desire are considered female. In Greek, the word for anger is a masculine noun, and the word for desire is a feminine noun. St. Maximus the Confessor interprets St. Paul’s statement that “in heaven there is no male or female” to mean that there is no anger or desire. St. John Chrysostom writes, “The wrestlings are varied, but the crown is one. The contests are manifold; the prize is the same,” when speaking about the salvation of both genders. “Here, since the contest is wholly concerning the soul, the lists are open to each sex.”
What do we see in the Lives of the saints? Well, we see all the virtues in both genders. We see strong, courageous, gentle, and sensitive men and women, Christ-like servants who are very clearly male and female, but who don’t fit into narrow stereotypes of gender. But there’s no gender confusion, either. Christ himself, a real man, revealed to us that to be king of the universe meant to get down on your knees and wash the feet of his disciples, and ultimately, to suffer being mocked and crucified, laying down his life. And the mother of God, a real woman, we call the champion general. In fact, do you know who the patron saint of the all-male peninsula of Mount Athos is? A female. She’s in charge!
So we see in the saints both men and women have the same masculine and feminine attributes and virtues, in harmony, within men and women. In fact, often when you see a happily married older couple, rather than clear gender stereotypes, you will often witness a mutual care and a mutual service and deferring to each other. Now, does this mean that I’m blurring the distinctions between male and female? Well, no. It just means this is the reality that we see, and as Orthodox we don’t need to fear the reality; we need to understand and interpret this reality from within our tradition, which means that this reality I’ve described needs to guide our thinking about what it means to be male and female.
So I suggest that my niece, although she prefers the rough and tumble play with my boys, is still a girl. But what does that mean, to be a girl? We are tempted either to blend genders and call them interchangeable—it doesn’t matter—or, on the other extreme, to define and describe male and female according to distinct stereotypes and behaviors and then get my niece to fit into that role of being a girl. However narrow or rigid, gender stereotypes restrict our freedom of growth in Christ. Rigid stereotypes dictate the way I must act, the way I must think, or the way I must be.
When adults try to act the part of male and female according to these stereotypes, or more destructively, when parents judge or condemn or try and form these kids according to these stereotypes at the expense of respecting their uniqueness, the children are harmed, because our goals as parents is not to raise up children who conform to some stereotypes or who are confused about their gender. Our goal is to raise up men and women saints, and I suggest that if we are unclear as adults about what it means to be a man or a woman or expect our kids to conform to some models, we will set them up for some real confusion about their own gender, and we’ll discuss why in a moment.
Based on what we’ve said, men and women are clearly similar, but also different, and somehow related. We can’t reduce gender to any behaviors or attributes, but we cannot blur the boundaries between male and female. So what distinction do we see right from the very first chapters of Genesis and throughout the writings of our Fathers? It’s in the relationship between men and women. Right away, we see that men are called to be the head, and women are called to be helpmate.
But this distinction is a relational term. In Genesis 2:18, we see that God made Adam and gave him dominion over all creation, and then made for Adam a helpmate, a woman. In Ephesians we read, “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church.” And so St. John Chrysostom writes, “Let us take as our fundamental position that the husband occupies the place of the head, and the wife the place of the body.” It seems that the key to understanding gender, then, is in relationship and in icon. That is to say, there is no way to define one sex or gender without the other, because I can’t be the head unless I have a body; that the head is a relational term referring to the presence of a body or someone to lead. And my wife is a helpmate only in relationship to a head.
Being the head, as man, can only happen in relationship to a body, and to be a helpmate can only happen in relationship to a head, and this relationship is an icon of Christ and the Church. Rather than thinking of male and female in terms of some abstract, static characteristics or definitions, the more useful expression of gender that I think reflects how I understand our Orthodox tradition is to think of gender in terms of icon and vocation, or calling. That is to say, our gender, male or female, is something we are called to become in relationships in Christ, that my calling to be a man, the head, and my wife’s calling to be the woman, a helpmate, is fulfilled in our calling to be united with Christ, and we see in this a reconciliation of the division of the genders that happened initially.
To understand the Church’s ideas about gender, we need to understand that each one of us, male and female, is an icon of Christ. We are image-bearers and microcosms. Women and men are both icons of Christ, and through our baptisms, we participate in Christ’s vocation, as the fulfillment of the Old Testament offices of priest, king, and prophet. Christ calls each of us, male and female, as children of God to take on his three vocations: priest, king, and prophet.
We are not all called to be ordained priests, but through our baptisms we become part of a holy priesthood, a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:5). We know that every man and woman is united to Christ through our baptisms, and our vocations as Christians, men and women alike, are to be priests by offering ourselves wholly to God and to others in service as an icon of Christ’s self-offering and self-emptying on the Cross.
In Revelation 1:6, we read, “And he had made us kings and priests to God and his Father—to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” And again in Revelation 20:6: “They shall be priests of God and of Christ and shall reign with him a thousand years.” The call to be a king is the call to headship. In Acts we read, quoting Joel 2:28-32:
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; your young men shall see visions; your old men shall dream dreams. And on my menservants and on my maidservants I shall pour out my Spirit in those days, and they shall prophesy.
The call to prophecy is the call to speak the word of God.
Just as these three vocations—priest, king, and prophet—are each held by Christ, each of us is called to hold these three vocations: to become priest, king, and prophet. However, because the priority is for each one of us to be priests and because the king has a masculine character and the prophet a feminine character, that in general terms, a man, while principally a priest, is also king first and then prophet. And a woman, while principally a priest, is then prophet first, and then king. That is to say, the priority of vocation will be different for the different sexes.
Dr. Tim Patitsas writes, “That which [differentiates] women and men from each other is the sequence according to which Christ intends them to fulfill the personal offices of kingship and prophecy.” So each of us is called to become [a priest], but for men the greater weight initially is in our call to kingship, while for women the greater weight initially is to their calling of prophecy. Our primary gender vocation for each one of us, male or female, is priest—to sacrifice ourselves. Both men and women are called to take up our crosses by loving God and others sacrificially, men as priestly kings, and women as priestly prophets.
The gender vocations of king and prophet separate the genders, yet it’s the priestly vocation that unites them. According to Dr. Patitsas, the priestly office is not a third office, but it’s the way a man takes up his kingship and the way a woman takes up her prophetic vocation. But as men and women, we don’t focus on how to be a king and how to be a prophet; we focus our lives on self-offering, and in that self-offering, we are made king and prophet. Men don’t need to act like kings. They need to offer themselves as priests to become priestly kings. Women don’t need to act like prophets. They need to offer themselves as priests to become priestly prophets. Because king and prophet are in our nature. Our choice is to be either a priestly or a non-priestly king, or a priestly or non-priestly prophet.
It’s the priestly aspect of gender that transforms stereotypes and enables a real union of the sexes, yet how is it that the man becomes priest-king and then prophet, and how is it that the woman becomes priest-prophet and then king? Well, the fulfillment of all three vocations requires that men and women be in relationship. The principal icon for all humanity, male and female, is priest. And notice: Christ was king and prophet, but these were ultimately fulfilled in his vocation as priest, to lay down his life in self-offering, his self-emptying on the Cross.
With the shared, common, priestly vocation, men and women enter into a relationship of self-offering that becomes chiastic; that is, each person then reflects or adopts the characteristics of the other. That is to say, when the priestly king enters into the relationship with the priestly prophet, he takes on the attributes of the prophet; and the priestly prophet takes on the attributes of the king. In this way, the relationship becomes one of positive, life-giving, mutual transformation.
The way to understand the fullness of gender, then, is in and through these relationships. That is, the king is called to offer himself to his people. The king is called to listen to the prophet and to serve the best interest of the people, and when he does that, he becomes an image or an icon of the wise sage. The prophet is called to offer her wisdom to the king, and when she does that, she becomes an image or an icon of the king herself.
The fullness of the true image of God in humanity is seen in Christ, the one who gave himself up voluntarily for the life of the world, and at the center of Orthodox anthropology is the idea that I can only find my true self by giving it away. Self-offering is what joins me in loving communion with others and God, and it is through this loving communion that I can be known. As I am being known, as I am known, I find out for myself who I am, and it is only then, as a whole person, that I can experience true freedom.
Self-giving is the pattern of God’s life for all creation, but only we as human beings can freely offer ourselves after the pattern of Christ’s voluntary sacrifice. It is only self-giving that is really fruitful. So for me to understand what it means to be a real man requires that I give myself. The fullness of kingship is only present when I become priest and prophet, and the true prophet is also a priest and a king, which means that masculine requires the response of feminine, and vice versa. Because a king cannot lead without prophetic perception and discernment; otherwise, it leads to domination and control. The prophet needs the king to heed the prophetic voice so that the king can bring prophetic words into action. There needs to be a mutual sacrificial relationship with the other.
All this language of “priest, king, and prophet”—pretty theological, can be a little confusing. Allow me to use a more contemporary example. Marriage, like a journey, can be compared to a road trip. What I understand is revealed to us is that on this road trip, to be a man means to be driving the car, and to be a woman is to be the one who’s reading the map. That is to say, in order to navigate successfully toward the kingdom, what needs to happen? They need to offer themselves to the other. The driver must listen to the navigator, and the navigator offers her direction to the driver. As the driver offers himself and listens, he learns the way to go, and as the navigator offers her wisdom to the driver, she assents [and] shares control over where the car is going, that they share a common destination, a common humanity, and they are dependent on each other to be both person, driver, and navigator. In this way, the journey becomes one of union.
To be male is not to be king; it’s to be priestly king and then prophet. The vocation of the female is not to be prophet, but to be priestly prophet and then become king. So each of us, male and female, we focus on being priests, and then we acquire or become an icon of priest, king, and prophet, and prophet, king, and priest, through the ongoing exchange of selfless love, reuniting the division of the sexes through this self-giving love. If the king refuses to offer himself, he becomes a despot, cut off from everyone. If the prophet uses her wisdom to serve herself or to cut down the king, fulfilling her own desires, she is cut off.
When we turn away from our priestly vocation, refusing to offer ourselves to Christ, we fall into a type of false self: false male and false female. Stereotypes: the cowboy, who is fiercely independent and strong and needs nobody, and the princess, helplessly self-absorbed. These are roles and caricatures, and when we try to put on a role, whether it’s acting like a man or acting like a woman, we’re doing just that: we’re acting. To be a true male and true female is to offer ourselves to Christ, to embrace our vocations of priestly king and priestly prophet, and, by offering ourselves to Christ, we reflect or become an image of a priest, king, and prophet, and priest, prophet, and king.
We actually become an image of our spouse and an image of Christ in this mutual exchange. We see this in healthy marriages. Over many years, you see the husband reflecting the wife and taking on her attributes and acting like her, and you see the wife has kind of acquired the attributes of her husband in this mutual exchange, yet all the time they remain male and they remain female.
So the healthy, true king focuses on self-sacrifice and listens to the prophet. This is a man who understands that his wife is not there to meet his needs or do his biddings, but is there for him to share himself with, allowing her to influence him, and making decisions together. Sacrificing his life for his wife is not a ball and chain, and it doesn’t just mean providing physical comfort, but rather it means allowing himself to be known and making decisions that will help her thrive physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. It means setting a pattern for the family, to sacrifice together for the good of others within and outside the family, and it certainly means getting rid of any vanity, pride, or self-image posited by being the boss or getting what I want. The father who sacrifices himself for his wife and children acquires the gifts of the prophet and is no less intuitive than a woman because of his sacrificial leadership.
The healthy, true prophet offers her knowledge and fruits of her perception and discernment for use by the king. This is a woman who understands that submitting herself to her husband does not mean mindlessly doing whatever he says or whatever makes him happy. Rather, it means searching out and persistently working to help her husband overcome his faults and his weaknesses. This could, for instance, mean laying aside her own pursuits in order to support her husband’s efforts, by laboring physically, mentally, or in prayer. And it certainly means getting rid of any vanity or pride bound up with her physical appearance, or materialism or being smarter or wiser than her husband. A wife who seeks to know Christ and her husband deeply will become the truest symbol of wisdom and peace. And a prophet who offers up her wisdom in service to others is held up to be a brave leader and in this way becomes no less an authority than the king.
Dr. John Gottman, a marriage researcher, who observed couples for thirty years, reports that he could tell if a couple’s discussions would end successfully within the very first moments of the conversation if two things occur. He reports that if the person who brings up the issue—which is usually which person? the prophet—he says in a gentle way—in a what kind of way? self-offering; in a priestly way—and if the husband, the king, listens—the priestly king—the conversation would end successfully. In this way, the priestly vocation, each one serving the other, serves as the context for the mutual exchange of gifts.
He just described the process without using those particular words. He just described reality as he sees it and as the Church reveals it to us. This is why the Theotokos, who offered herself in service to Christ—“I am the handmaid of the Lord”—acquires the attributes of the king and is called champion leader. This is why all the saints possess all the attributes of priest, prophet, and king. In each case, they were primarily priests, offering themselves in relationship with Christ, and then they acquire these characteristics of king and prophet, all the while still being men and women. We come to know who we are as men and women, relationally, as icon and vocation. Ephesians 5:1:
Therefore be imitators of God as dear children and walk in love as Christ also has loved us and given himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.
We can see our male and female vocations as characterized by the powers of the soul. The masculine drive or incensive power is that of king, leading and empowering, and the feminine appetitive desire is that of the prophet, discerning and knowing. In Christ, these two powers or vocations are in harmony when they are properly ordered by the rational power that submits itself entirely to God sacrificially as priest. To be fully human is to have these powers mutually interacting and supporting each other toward union with God.
Monastics will develop their kingly and [prophetic] vocations in the context of their spiritual life, their community, their family, and other relationships.
Since each of us is unique, the outworkings of these three vocations will be different for us. We don’t need to play predetermined roles of male and female, but we do need to accept our priestly vocation, to sacrifice our whole selves—our needs, our desires, our hurts, our emotions, everything, our confusion about these roles—to Christ before we can become adopted and become truly king and prophet.
Now I’d like to say: Isn’t that a beautiful process I’m describing? My wife and I, just mutually submitting to each other constantly? Well, that’s not exactly how it happens, right? We know that it’s natural for there to be a tension between husband and wife, yet, as each one of us embraces the priestly self-offering and self-sacrifice, that very tension between my wife and [me] becomes creative and transformative. All marriages have tension, but in self-giving marriages, that tension becomes the means of growth and healing.
Most couples who come to me in my office as a therapist will complain that: we are so different; we can’t possibly be married! My wife and I are equally different, but after 20 years of dying to our selfish needs and desires, people just tell us how well our differences complement each other in relationship. So, do differences destroy or do they mutually enhance? Well, marriage gives us the possibility to unite and transform such that these differences enhance. That is, as each one of us becomes, dies, embraces our priestly vocation, I become increasingly a man—gentle, strong, tender, courageous, patient, caring, and wise—through dying to my wife, and she becomes a woman—gentle, strong, tender, courageous, patient, caring, and wise—as she dies to me.
There’s a tension in each one of us, there’s a tension within myself as I struggle to become who I’m called to be, like we beautifully heard last night, that who I’m called to become is in tension with who I am right now. And there’s a tension between my wife and [me], so there is no magic formula to eliminate the tension, only an invitation that within this tension we are transformed.
When we turn away from our first vocation of priest, gender identity becomes self-focused rather than other-focused. It becomes a false image, fake, and unable to have real communion with God and others. Acting like a king is a type of mask or false self, and anyone who’s married to someone who acts like a king knows how bad that can be. It’s pseudo-masculinity or pseudo-femininity as I try to fit into a mold and act like a man or a woman. These marriages can’t last, because there’s no real union or communion.
It’s not strange that we should notice and compare patterns that emerge when men and women abdicate their priestly calling. There are patterns for how this may typically look for a man and a woman, and they’re expressed as these caricatures. The cowboy is 100% drive, and the mindless, high-maintenance princess is 100% desire. Both those roles are self-centered and make for terrible spouses. Expecting, or even worse, glorifying, these stereotypes is deadly, and marks the end of a transformative relating between the sexes as the priestly aspect is not only lost, but it’s not even missed.
If we remove this priestly vocation, from either the king or the prophet, we lose the self-sacrificial character of love. The sexual differentiations of humanity into male and female become a division because of a lost priesthood and a lost mutual transformation, and that easily becomes these gender wars: “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. You can’t live with ‘em; you can’t live without ‘em.” We fall into stereotypes and roles, which makes relationships, intimacy, growth, and creative love impossible. This is what happened to Adam and Eve as they chose, each one of them, to serve themselves, rather than offer themselves to each other.
Any attempt at gender equality by sameness, making men the same as women, will not heal this division. The true healing of gender comes by each one, each person, embracing their vocation, first as priest. Attempts at uniting the gender through equality is like these 50-50 marriages. We try and be exactly the same, each person doing 50-50. Do you see what’s lost in that? What’s lost is the 100% I sacrifice to my [spouse], and the 100% you sacrifice to me. It’s the priestly vocation.
I don’t want to criticize cowboys and princesses too much, because I will say this: It’s okay to marry a cowboy if the cowboy is not only willing to die for you and protect you from, you know, gunshots, but can listen to you, can open his heart and be vulnerable to you, can allow you to influence him, essentially to become a priestly cowboy. And it’s great to marry a diva or a princess only if she’s prepared to offer herself and to give wisdom and to be on the path of wisdom. So we see in many ways the priestly vocation works with these gender stereotypes to transform them into this relationship of mutual exchange. That’s the nature of marriage.
“Marriage is an image of the presence of Christ,” writes St. John Chrysostom. Marriage is the reunion of the sexes which were made distinct and through sin became division. Woman was created, if you recall, by being separated from man, and because of the Fall, this separation was cemented into division and opposition and conflict. Marriage is given to us to restore the union of male and female. Only priestly kings and priestly prophets can solve the gender wars. Marriage is an icon of a heavenly reality: the union of all that is with Christ, the ultimate union of the diverse in one perfect love and communion.
We hear in the epistle reading for the wedding, in Ephesians that Paul reveals the priestly nature of marriage for both husband and wife with a slight gender distinction. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves; women are to obey as unto the Lord. And what is he really talking about? Well, he says, “This is a great mystery”—I am referring to Christ and the Church. That is to say, this self-giving becomes an icon of the perfect example of the Bridegroom Christ the King who lays down his life for his bride, the Church, who is the pillar and ground of truth. And we know that the crowns of marriage are those of king and queen as well as martyrdom, the priestly vocation at the center of marriage.
Heterosexual, monogamous marriage is the context within which we find an understanding of sex and gender. This union of the genders is manifested and expressed itself ultimately in the birth of a child, where we see the two sexes coming together in a new person who will either be male or female and will manifest both masculine and feminine characteristics.
Male and female are not the same, and they’re not mutually exclusive, but they’re reflective of each other in this transformative relationship, this chiasm or mutual transformation, and this applies equally to married, single, or celibate people. So we want to raise children to embrace their priestly vocation, as priestly kings and priestly prophets, in self-giving relationships. We want to raise children to give themselves completely to Christ, and they will be clear about their gender. More accurately, they will become a person—a man or a woman—as they are called to grow in Christ.
How we parent? I’m going to talk about tomorrow in the parenting [session], but I want to take a moment and describe how this comes about. Where do we come from? Well, on one hand, we all know where we come from, right? We come from God, but it’s helpful to take a moment and describe how this happens. That is to say, God has ordained that each one of us comes from a man and a woman.
How do we begin our lives? Well, we each begin our lives as part of our mother. Each one of us began life completely connected to our mothers. In fact, from our perspective in our womb, we were indistinguishable from our mothers. We are formed inside of her. We are created to be nurtured and cared for, selflessly, by a mother. As we grow, what happens to us? We separate from our mothers. Our becoming a person is a process of separating from our mothers.
We were created to be loved selflessly by a father, someone different and separate from our mother, but someone who, all the same, loves us selflessly and intimately, and loves our mother selflessly and intimately. This selfless love from our father calls us out from our mother, but not from [out of being] within this communion of love. We are formed by being called out and cared for by loving fathers.
So this process of becoming persons is a process of separating from our mothers through love so we can engage in a real communion of loving persons. Only when we separate from our mothers are we able then in turn to love our mother and our father in this communion of love. It is within this communion of love that we are formed, within this loving union of a man and a woman, and we are called to grow by being selflessly loved by both of them, who in turn love each other selflessly.
As persons we are wired to receive love. We instinctively long to be known, to be cherished, to be cared for, and to be loved fully. We learn who we are—someone to be loved—and we learn what love is—selfless giving and knowing—as we relate to the selfless love of a father who is the icon of father and the selfless love of a mother who is the icon of mother. We acquire masculine and feminine attributes from our mother and our father in the context of this communion of selfless, self-giving love, whether we are a boy or a girl. We learn what it means to be male and female and how to relate to men and women through these relationships. A relationship to the masculine and the feminine within each of us is formed by our relationship to the icons of father and mother we see in our mother and father.
From the beginning of our lives, then, we are initiated into cultural models, expectations, roles, and icons of the sexes and our sexual nature. In adulthood, we continue to be surrounded by these models and roles as well as ideologies of gender and sex differentiation or anti-differentiation. However, our mother and father serve as icons of father and mother, and we carry these images or icons into adulthood and into adult relationships.
Healthy identities, then, are formed as we respond uniquely as children to the selfless communion of love that exists between our parents, by a tender father who calls us out of a tender mother who nurtures us. We learn how to relate to women and men and what it means to be a man or a woman by how we experience this love. We develop our masculine and feminine attributes as we engage in these intimate relationships. This separation is created and it forms a child, yet no child is alike, even within a family, because each child has a unique response to this process, but if it is a communion of selfless love, they develop a real and true sense of who they are—icons of Christ—and they go out in the world and carry this identity and develop it in the world.
What’s striking is that the secular research is clear: fathers and mothers actually parent differently, and that children acquire different abilities and attributes from each parent. Children do best when they have a close, caring relationship with both parents. That is to say, it’s in the best interest of children to be raised by loving, engaged mother and father in a loving union. What this means is that for children to form fully as men or women require an intimate and nurturing mother and an intimate and nurturing father. For good or for bad, our identities are shaped by mother and father, and even when both love selflessly, they do so differently. Notice: healthy persons are formed in a communion with a priestly king-prophet and a priestly prophet-king in a sacrificial relationship with each other, in Christ.
A healthy, Christ-like father nurtures a healthy relationship in the child with the masculine aspects of the child, and a Christ-like relationship with a Christ-like mother nurtures a healthy relationship with the feminine aspects of the child, whether boy or girl. Essentially what this means as parents is that we don’t need to parent our children differently or form our kids into men or women. Intimate and nurturing selfless father and mother in an intimate marriage will form healthy girls and boys clear about their identities as strong, courageous, gentle, and sensitive men and women, equipped to enter into the intimacy of marriage.
The types of boys and girls they become will depend on their own unique responses to this environment. Boys and girls will not be the same; they will be different, but they each will possess a healthy identity and a healthy relationship with both the masculine and the feminine, which means fathers should not hesitate to be tender and cuddle with their children. You don’t have to fear that he’s going to grow up to be weak or confused about what it means to be a man. In fact, it’s the opposite: if the father remains cold and distant, it’s likely that the girl or boy will be raised with the confusion, either a rejection of the masculine or a longing for the masculine.
It’s very important for dads to kiss and cuddle and don’t pick up your children when they fall, for they learn to be strong, whether they’re boys or girls. You kiss both of them, you cuddle both of them, and don’t pick up either one when they fall! If mother and father both do the same thing, it’ll still be done in a different way, and they’ll form healthy kids with healthy relationships to both masculine and feminine.
However, does this process describe any family you’ve ever seen? Does this describe the parents you grew up with or the types of parent I am? Not so much. In my case, I don’t love selflessly. So guess what my children don’t receive; they don’t receive selfless love. What kind of love do my children experience? Fallen, selfish love, a broken love of a father, and a broken love of a mother. Why is that? Because only the perfect person with a perfect conscience, a perfect mind, and perfect power can have perfect love, and that person is our God.
An absent or distant father distorts the child’s sense of masculine and relationship with masculine, which can result in a longing to connect with the masculine or a rejection of the masculine, whether in a boy or in a girl. Being raised by a selfish or destructive mother distorts the child’s relationship with and sense of feminine, which can result in a longing for or a rejection of the feminine in the boy and/or the girl in future relationships.
But children experience this distorted, selfish love, tainted by sin, as pain, as they come into the world completely unprotected and completely vulnerable, to be formed by whatever they encounter. Selfish love is always a betrayal of the child’s natural longing to be loved selflessly, and it’s always associated with pain.
Children internalize destructive ideas about themselves as they experience selfish love. “I am unlovable. I am ugly or bad. I will be rejected.” It’s sometimes accompanied with a self-loathing. “There’s something wrong with me.” They develop destructive ideas about love. “Love is manipulative. Love is selfish and is painful.” Children develop protective mechanisms around their true selves. They create false selves, like masks, to protect themselves from being vulnerable and hurt. Distorted love, selfish love, creates confusion in terms of a child’s self-identity and image, a distortion of masculine and feminine, and a disabled capacity to relate as a true self to both the masculine and the feminine. This sets a child on a trajectory of life with fear, self-loathing, confusion, and a distorted sense of self, a mask unto the world.
As a child goes out into the world with a false self or a mask, a confused identity, peer relationships can reinforce these destructive patterns about the self and the world. They can reinforce the mask. As a child enters puberty, these distortions of self and love play out sexually. Longings and rejections of the masculine and feminine become sexualized. Longing for intimacy becomes sexualized as adolescents experience the deep desire to be known, a deep desire for intimacy.
Sex, given to us by God as a deep means of connecting intimacy and knowing, becomes a quick and easy way to feel connected, to feel intimate, and to feel known, to escape the pain in a type of pseudo-intimacy, because we cannot have real intimacy unless we offer up our true self. Although the intense physical and emotional feelings associated with sexual encounters and relating through masks is really powerful, as adolescents engage in distorted expressions of intimacy sexually, through pornography, masturbation, casual sexual encounters with either sex, habits and patterns of attraction and affection form. Lost in sin, we quickly become ensnared and enslaved to our passions and desires.
Social scientists have debated for years about what role our biological inheritance and our environment play in the formation of persons. Well, the debate is over, actually, and the answer is clear: both have important affect on persons. Who we are today is a product of our biological inheritance and the environment in which we grew up. Children will not all react in the same way to selfish, distorted love, but each child will have a reaction to the distortions of self, because we need perfect love to become perfect (Matthew 5:48).
What I’m suggesting is, lacking proper formative relationships or experiencing severely broken or distorted formative relationships—absence, abuse, [manipulation]—can damage the formation of me as a person. And broken formative relationships set me on a path, not towards life and communion, but towards death and unpersonhood, making it harder for my subsequent relationships to be real, because if I don’t have a proper sense of myself or if I have a deep self-loathing, I make my own self, my own fate, false self, a type of mask, sometimes subconsciously, that I’m not even aware of. The true self is formed in selfless communion. The false self is formed in a false, pseudo-communion, by self-love.
These false masks or images I create about myself restrict my freedom. These false masks I put on dictate the way I must act, the way I must think, the way I must be. It prevents real communion, and therefore prevents my growth as a person. You might say that the cowboy is afraid to take off the mask of being tough and independent, and as long as he’s afraid of letting go of the tough, the act, he’s not going to be able to be in real communion. And the same for the princess, who may take on the helpless act, and until she’s ready to allow herself to be known, there can’t be real communion.
Masks end up enslaving me to sin, that my identity becomes defined by the sinfulness of a fallen world, and my false image is in fact designed to protect me from the sinfulness of the world, but we cannot associate who we are with this false image that we create for ourselves. Sexual identities of any kind—homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual—are all false images. I cannot base my identity on my desires. My sexual orientation must only be toward my wife, because the other problem with sexual identity or sexual orientation is that it defines the object of my desires as a thing, not a person, and if the object of my desire is a thing, that’s called a fetish.
The sexual orientation that the Church is endorses, according to my understanding, is toward my spouse. What does it mean to be a person? Well, who I am as a person is an eschatological reality. Again, we heard that last night, that we are all becoming who we are called to be. That is to say, I am formed by past relationships, but this formation is the beginning of an eternal reality, the meaning only found in the end. Who God created me to be and become: a saint, an icon, because what’s portrayed in the icon is how this person is, not in their fallen state, but in the resurrected state. Icons reveal what’s true; masks hide what’s true.
To be fully persons is to be fully united with Christ. However, often we’re tempted to define ourselves by our passions or desires. We hear people say, “I’m just an angry person; I’m just impatient,” yet we only see who we really are when we’re healed from our anger or healed from our impatience. This only happens with union in Christ. That is to say, we always live with this internal tension of who I am and who I am called to be in Christ. Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”
When my gender identity becomes a false image or a mask, when it ceases to be focused on my priestly vocation, and becomes self-focused, the outer false image, the passions intensify and affect this false image in my soul, again becoming slave to worldly patterns. So what are the effects of this false self? It’s a rejection of the kingly or of the [prophetic] vocation. For a variety of reasons, men and women might reject their [priestly] vocations. In the interest of time, I’m not going to go into some of these details, but what ends up happening, if we reject our priestly vocation, we have confused relationships with masculine or feminine, and if our connection to the male and female is distorted, we end up relating to the masculine and feminine in distorted ways.
Since we generally seek comfort or soothing in our distorted ways of relating, that’s the opposite of relating to the other through selfless offering and the Cross. We end up with neurotic or destructive ways of filling these needs. That is to say, instead of offering my true self, sacrificially, to acquire the attributes of the other, in my false self I try and get them, falsely. I might attempt to connect with the opposite sex through cross-dressing, putting on a “she” instead of putting on Christ with the priestly vocation. Transsexuality: rejecting my own sex, in the favor of the other. Hypermasculinity: seeking to affirm my masculine by emphasizing all these masculine attributes. Pseudo-femininity: playing the dumb blonde. Pseudo-masculinity or -femininity of the opposite sex: the effeminate man or a butch woman. Sexual addiction: promiscuity as an attempt to make connections with the opposite sex. And pornography, which can function as a virtual version of any of the above.
The lost priesthood and the lost exchange between priestly king and priestly prophet, combined with hatred, rejection, and fear of one of the sexes or genders—it results in men who can’t lead or live in fear of women, men who can’t listen or exhibit a pattern of dominating women. Women without discernment who compete with men, or women who can’t stand on their own and define themselves apart from a man. Rejection and fear, whether of the feminine or the masculine, contribute to sexual disfunction and affect both sexes.
A child might learn to hate men or hate women from their experiences of these primary relationships. They can learn to hate or reject, or they can [hate or reject], while they still hold a type of longing for, [be ambivalent]. This ambivalence is when desire for and hatred of men and women coexist, and this manifests itself in patterns of idolizing women, and then using them for your own desires, or in a contempt for masculinity with a sexual attraction to men. Again, we see patterns of this false image that’s really intended to protect my true self from being known, exposed, and vulnerable. As my false image takes over reality, lie replaces truth, and communion becomes impossible.
Consider that my false image is designed for my safety, my self-protection, predictability and control. That’s the opposite of the pattern of Christian life. A refusal or inability to expose my real self with its vulnerabilities is a refusal for communion, because protecting myself has the effect of protecting myself from being known, and the Christ-like pattern is that I have to be willing to lose my life in order to save it, and a refusal to be vulnerable is a refusal of the Cross, which then prevents resurrection, which only comes through death, because Christ’s weakness, his exposure and vulnerability, were prerequisites for the Resurrection. This is the nature of reality.
To follow Christ is to take up my cross, and this is the only path to resurrection and glory. So I want to say, I want to wrap up, I want to talk just briefly about what we do about this, because I found two things in my work and study of same-sex attraction and gender identity confusion, and that is, number one, it’s real, and people struggle with this, but it doesn’t necessarily have one specific cause or origin. Some people are born, it seems, with a predisposition toward same-sex attraction. Some of these people thrive, living full lives in Christ, becoming whole, pursuing chastity. Others have confused identities and become enslaved to these passions. Some people’s identities and desires are affected by trauma or sexual abuse, which destroys—you can see how that destroys—a healthy relationship with either the masculine or the feminine. Others are reacting to what I describe as acute confused relationship with masculine and feminine in myself and the other.
What is clear [is] that we are shaped by both our nature and what we’re exposed to, so we can’t overestimate the profound effects of early caretaking relationships. We can’t overstate it, but we can overemphasize it. That is to say, we all have our where we come from, but really what’s open to us is our future. Rather than fighting as a Church against homosexuality, we need to preach Christ crucified to everyone. Overcoming fear and rejection of either gender is resolved by accepting one’s priestly vocation of king and prophet, of self-offering. Allowing our true broken selves to be known is the cross of self-offering, and in Christ, it makes this relationship transformative.
The difficulty a person has in accepting their true identity might be because they’re approaching this from the wrong way. They might be thinking, “Gee, I don’t fit into gender roles, so there’s something wrong with me.” To which we say, “No, there’s nothing wrong with you. The goal is not to fit into gender roles. There’s nothing wrong with my niece. The goal is to offer yourself completely to Christ in relationship and allow God to reveal to you your unique path as a man or as a woman. So in part our ministry is to help people understand what our goal is.
The Cross is where fear and rejection is overcome, is overcome through participating, sacramentally, in the priestly sacrifice of the self that is the icon of Christ, the High Priest. It’s through loving communion within the sacramental life of the Church that I can be known, and, being known, I can find out who I am for myself, and it is only then, as a whole person, that I can experience true freedom. It is at the foot of the Cross that I must deny my false self, reject acting out of my desires, deny even the ways I’ve come to know myself that are false, and walk in righteousness that offers real communion. Romans 8:2: “For the way of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.”
In the interest of time, let me just say that it is the whole of the spiritual life that Christ offers to us as this path of new life. The treatment for all that ails us—because it’s impossible to talk about every aspect of the sacramental life, the spiritual life, spiritual warfare including the centrality of the spirit of prayer, the spiritual father, worship, fasting, vigils—but it’s clear, through allowing ourselves to be known, which is confession, through entering into relationships, which is communion, and through taking up our cross, which is living in this tension between what I struggle with and who I’m called to become, that we encounter Christ, encounter real relationships, and understand what it means to be male or female. In Christ, we then become free to live in the image of God. Thank you very much.
"Circumstances meant that I would take up residency in North Carolina but miles from any local parishes. Thanks be to God I discovered that I can bring the beautiful sounds of Orthodoxy right into my home any time at all, and hear the voices of a few old dear friends too."