MARRIAGE, GRACE AND THE LAW
Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely hind, a graceful doe. Let her affection fill you at all times with delight, be infatuated always with her love…
In three things was I [Wisdom] beautified, and stood up beautiful both before God and man: the unity of brethren, the love of neighbours, and a man and wife ravished with each other…
Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled.
Introduction. The history of the Church demonstrates that there are two perennial and opposite temptations with regard to the Orthodox teaching on marriage and monasticism. The one is to regard marriage and monasticism as equal in value; whereas the Orthodox Church unequivocally teaches that monasticism is higher. The other is to regard marriage in the full sense – that is, union in one flesh – as in some way sinful, incompatible with the life of grace, and characteristic of Old Testament rather than New Testament spirituality.
A recent book by Hieromonk Gregory (Lurye), The Calling of Abraham (St. Petersburg: Aletheia, 2000) tends towards the latter temptation. Its subject is the idea of monasticism and its incarnation in Egypt; and for those interested in Egyptian monasticism there is much that is valuable here, especially since Fr. Gregory brings to his them a formidable learning and intellectual power. Unfortunately, the genuine qualities of this book as a scientific monograph may make the mistakes it contains as a theological declaration more plausible and more harmful than they would be coming from the pen of a less talented writer.
Fr. Gregory’s thesis is that abstention from sexual relations is a necessary condition of the life of grace, the life of the New Testament, whereas the married state, while permissible for Christians, is nevertheless characteristic of the Law, of the Old Testament. His secondary thesis, which is closely bound up with the first, is that any expression of sexual passion, even in marriage, is sinful; so that a sinless marriage, for him, can only be a virginal marriage. As he writes: “The Christian ideal of the virginal life is not ‘monasticism’, but the New Testament. Therefore there is no need to worry about it; it will find fitting forms for itself under any circumstance of Christian life. But it is necessary to call those who cannot ‘accommodate’ this to Christian marriage – there is no argument about that; only to a marriage that is Christian, and not to fornication under a crown” (p. 171).
The problem is that it is very difficult to see how, for Fr. Gregory, any sexual relations in marriage can be anything but “fornication under a crown”...
1. Divorce for the sake of abstinence. Let us begin with Fr. Gregory’s discussion of the canons of the Council of Gangra (c. 343):
“9. If anyone shall remain virgin, or observe continence, abstaining from marriage because he abhors it, and not on account of the beauty and holiness of virginity itself, let him be anathema.
“10. If anyone of those who are living a virginal life for the Lord’s sake shall treat arrogantly the married, let him be anathema.
“14. If any woman shall forsake her husband, and resolve to depart from him because she abhors marriage, let her be anathema.”
Fr. Gregory quotes these canons, but minimizes their significance: “Who is going to define where ‘abhorrence’ and ‘arrogance’ begin? No-one could have had any doubt that both the one and the other are sinful passions, but the conciliar canons are a juridical document, and so it is always dangerous to allow too much leeway for their interpretation. From the literal meaning of the canons one could form the impression that marriage and virginity were equal in honour (we are talking about the principles of the one and the other, which is not to be confused with the equality in honour of all Christians in general) and even that it was impermissible to dissolve a marriage for the sake of abstinence.” (p. 21)
However, there is no hint in these canons – which have been accepted as authoritative by the Ecumenical Church - that marriage and virginity are to be considered equal in honour, only that marriage should not be dishonoured by being considered to be sinful. As for the idea that marriage should not be broken for the sake of abstinence, unless it be with the mutual consent of the partners, this is nothing more nor less than the teaching of the Church! The canons specifically forbid clergy to put away their wives “under pretext of religion” (Apostolic Canon 5), “lest we should affect injuriously marriage constituted by God and blessed by His presence, as the Gospel saith: ‘What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder’; and the Apostle saith, ‘Marriage is honourable and the bed undefiled’; and again, ‘Art thou bound to a wife? Seek not to be loosed” (Sixth Ecumenical Council, Canon 13).
This point is well illustrated by a recently-discovered life of the British saint, Monk-Martyr Nectan of Hartland (+c. 500). St. Nectan’s father, Brychan, was a local prince who left his wife to practise the ascetic life in Ireland. After several years of asceticism, he returned to his native land, and there, finding his wife still alive, “although he had not proposed any such thing himself”, he had relations with her and begat several sons and daughters – one for each year of his unlawful abstinence. Brychan recognised his fault, saying: “Now has God punished me for vainly intending to act contrary to His will.” Brychan and his children, all of whom became monastic missionaries in south-west England, are counted among the saints of the British Church – a happy ending which would not have come to pass if he had continued his unlawful asceticism to the end of his life…
But the permissibility of a man leaving his wife without her agreement is a favourite thesis of Fr. Gregory, which he has argued for not only in this, but also in other works of his. Thus he continues the theme in the critical section of his work entitled “From the law of marriage to the grace of virginity – in one individual life”, which consists of a detailed analysis of a story related in the 21st of St. John Cassian’s Conferences. The story concerns a married layman, Theonas, who, under the influence of the teaching of Abba John, began to try and persuade his wife that they should henceforth abandon sexual relations. “But in vain. We cannot say that the wife found no arguments at all in favour of the opposite point of view. She ‘… said that she was in the flower of her youth and could not completely abstain from marital consolation, and so if she was left by him she would commit some vice — which would have to be laid at the door rather of him who dissolved the bonds of the marriage...' (p. 111). However, Theonas said that he would not leave his wife only if they “avoided the torments of gehenna” by avoiding sexual relations (p. 116) – a sentiment expressly condemned by the first canon of the Council of Gangra: “If anyone shall condemn marriage, or abominate and condemn a woman who is a believer and devout, and sleeps with her own husband, as though she could not enter the Kingdom [of heaven], let him be anathema…”
Every rule has its exceptions, and it may be that in this particular case the breaking of the rule that the agreement of both partners to abstain is necessary was blessed by God. But it is very dangerous to build any kind of theological argument on exceptions to the rule, otherwise the rule itself is seen to be despised and will be abandoned. We do not know what happened to the woman in this case. Perhaps she bore her forced separation from her husband with fortitude, and remained chaste for the rest of her life. But if she did not, then the responsibility for her fall fell in the first place on her over-zealous husband – and it was precisely to prevent such falls that marriage was instituted, and the rule that spouses should separate only by mutual agreement was established.
As Fr. Gregory admits, the extremist viewpoint expressed above by Abba Theonas and St. John Cassian was rejected by two of the greatest Fathers of the Church - St. John Chrysostom and St. Barsanuphius the Great (pp. 112-113). But Fr. Gregory shrugs off this fact on the grounds that the question of leaving one’s wife without her consent is only a “pastoral” problem, about which it is possible to disagree “without falling away from the Church”. However, with regard to the wider questions of the role of sexual relations in marriage and the nature of sexuality in general, Fr. Gregory claims that St. Chrysostom shared “the general patristic conviction” - which, without detailed argumentation, Fr. Gregory identifies with the position of the Egyptian monks just cited. Where there appears to be a divergence, he argues, this is either because St. Chrysostom was talking to a significantly less pious and monastically oriented audience (the laity of Antioch and Constantinople, as opposed to the laity of Egypt), or because the holy hierarch “sugared the pill” of his harder statements, hiding them in the sub-text of his sermons…
2. The “temperate” use of marriage. Is Fr. Gregory right? Let us approach this question by re-examining one of Fr. Gregory’s quotations from St. John Chrysostom: “Use marriage temperately, and you will be the first in the Kingdom of heaven and be counted worthy of all its blessings” (Homilies of Hebrews, VII, 4). The question here is: what is the meaning of “temperately”?
Fr. Gregory argues that “temperately” means “virginally”, insofar as “the meaning and aim of Christian marriage… does not differ in any way from the celibate life” (p. 132). But what does the saint say? “It is possible, very possible, also for those who have wives to be virtuous, if they wish. How? If they, while having wives, shall be as though they had them not, if they will not rejoice in acquisitions, if they will use the world as if not using it (I Corinthians 7.29-31). But if some have found marriage an obstacle, let them know that it is not marriage that serves as an obstacle, but self-indulgence ill-using marriage, just as wine does not produce drunkenness, but evil self-indulgence and its intemperate use. Use marriage in a temperate way, and you will be the first in the Heavenly Kingdom and will taste all its blessings, which may we all be worthy of through the grace and love for man of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
The critical comparison here is between wine and sexual relations. Just as it is possible to drink wine sparingly without getting drunk, so it is possible to have sexual relations in marriage “in a temperate manner”, without it serving as an impediment to the spiritual life. Complete abstinence from sexual relations is definitely not indicated. If it were, then the saint would have said that one must not drink wine even in small quantities because even the smallest consumption leads to drunkenness. But the whole point of the comparison is that in wine-drinking, as in marital relations, small, “measured” use is not harmful. For, as St. John Chrysostom writes, commenting on St. Paul's phrase "sold under sin": "Desire is not sin; but when it becomes extravagant, and breaks the bonds of lawful marriage, and springs even upon other men's wives, it becomes thereafter adultery - not, however, because of the desire, but because of the lack of moderation." So there is no evidence either that St. John Chrysostom meant by “temperance” “complete abstinence”.
3. The Status of Pleasure and Desire
Why this emphasis on complete abstinence? Because for Fr. Gregory, it would appear, the physical pleasure of intimate relations, even in marriage, is sinful, albeit not to such a degree, of course, as intimate relations outside marriage. True, Fr. Gregory nowhere states this clearly and categorically, and prefers to develop the argument (which we shall come to later) that virginity is of the New Testament whereas marriage is of the Old. However, from a reading of the whole of his book it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that this is in fact his position. Therefore it will not be out of place at this point briefly to expound the patristic position on this subject.
It is especially certain Western Fathers, and specifically Blessed Augustine, who stress that sexual pleasure in marriage is sinful. Thus for Augustine the “sin” of sexual pleasure in marriage is “covered” only by the good intention to produce children. However, the Eastern Fathers make a distinction between “lawful” or “natural” and “unlawful” or “unnatural” pleasures and desires or passions. A natural passion is an impulse that is in accordance with nature as God originally created it; while a culpable passion is, in St. Maximus' words, "an impulse of the soul that is contrary to nature." Culpable passions feed on natural ones like parasites: the culpable passion of gluttony - on the natural passion to satisfy hunger, the culpable passion of indolence - on the natural desire to rest weary limbs, the culpable passion of lust - on the natural passion of sexual desire. Some culpable passions have no natural counterpart, like avarice, which St. John Chrysostom contrasts with sexual passion in this respect.
St. John of Damascus divides pleasures into three categories: (1) natural and necessary, (2) natural and unnecessary, and (3) unnatural and unnecessary. “Some pleasures are true, others false. And the exclusively intellectual pleasures consist in knowledge and contemplation, while the pleasures of the body depend upon sensation. Further, of bodily pleasures, some are both natural and necessary, in the absence of which life is impossible, for example the pleasures of food which replenishes waste, and the pleasures of necessary clothing. Others are natural but not necessary, as the pleasures of natural and lawful intercourse (Greek: a i k a t a f u s i n k a i k a t a n o m o n m i x e i V ). For though the function that these perform is to secure the permanence of the race as a whole, it is still possible to live a virgin life apart from them. Others, however, are neither natural nor necessary, such as drunkenness, lust (l a g n e i a ) and surfeiting to excess. For these contribute neither to the maintenance of our own lives nor to the succession of the race, but on the contrary, are rather even a hindrance. He therefore that would live a life acceptable to God must follow after those pleasures which are both natural and necessary: and must give a secondary place to those which are natural but not necessary, and enjoy them only in fitting season, and manner, and measure; while the others must be altogether renounced.
“Those then are to be considered good (k a l e V ) pleasures which are not bound up with pain, and bring no cause for repentance, and result in no other harm and keep within the bounds of moderation, and do not draw us far away from serious occupations, nor make slaves of us.”
Important here is the last phrase: “making slaves of us”. Almost all the Holy Fathers agree that pleasure in itself is not sinful, although the vicious cycle of human enslavement to pleasure, leading to pain and death, is undoubtedly sinful. Sin consists rather in the enslavement to pleasure than in pleasure itself. For, as the Apostle Paul writes: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient. All things are lawful for me, but I will not brought under the power of any” (I Corinthians 6.12). In the same way desire in itself is not sinful (as St. Chrysostom writes, “desire is not sin”): the threat to our salvation is the corruption of desire, which is expressed in its lack of control and moderation.
Of course, since our natures are fallen, too much indulgence, even in lawful pleasure, has the tendency to lead to enslavement to that pleasure. Hence the need for moderation at all times and in all contexts: even married couples must fast and abstain from pleasure at certain times. Christianity remains an ascetic faith for all, and not only for monastics – in this we may fully agree with Fr. Gregory.
However, the basic distinction between lawful and unlawful pleasure remains valid and important. Thus St. Photius the Great explicitly states that sexual pleasure in marriage is “lawful”, while at the same time explaining why there could be no pleasure (or pain) at the conception and nativity of Christ: "It was needful that a mother should be prepared down below for the Creator, for the recreation of shattered humanity, and she a virgin, in order that, just as the first man had been formed of virgin earth, so the re-creation, too, should be carried out through a virgin womb, and that no transitory pleasure, even lawful, should be so much as imagined in the Creator's birth: since a captive of pleasure was he, for whose deliverance the Lord suffered to be born."
Now let us turn to what Fr. Gregory writes: “pleasure… from sexual relations is recognised [by the Holy Fathers] as the sign of illness, the inevitable result of which is physical death…” (p. 135). This, of course, is perfectly Orthodox; it is a re-statement of the teaching of St. Maximus the Confessor: "pleasure… was introduced into nature in a manner contrary to reason", bringing in its wake, as its natural consequence and punishment – pain, specifically the pain of child-bearing, and death. The question is: is there a contradiction here between the saying of St. Maximus that pleasure was introduced into our nature as a result of the fall, and the saying of SS. John Chrysostom, John of Damascus and Photius the Great that pleasure in marriage is nevertheless lawful?
There is no contradiction between these holy fathers. Pleasure and pain were introduced into our nature as a result of the fall into sin; but neither pleasure nor pain is sinful in itself: it is the enslavement to pleasure (and to the fear of pain) that is sin. The sinful passions – that is, those which enslave us, being like parasites or cancers on the innocent, natural passions – must be rooted out. How are culpable passions extirpated? By fasting and prayer and good works, by all those practices that draw the Holy Spirit into our souls. Not by extirpating those natural and innocent passions on which they feed. In any case, it is impossible to extirpate the natural passions. To do so we would have to becoming like inanimate logs, abstaining from all thoughts and desires whatsoever – an ideal closer to the Buddhist nirvana than to the Christian apatheia.
Not only are the natural passions not sinful in themselves: they are necessary for the fulfilment of the commandments. Thus St. Isaiah the Solitary writes on the natural passion of anger: "There is among the passions an anger of the intellect, and this anger is in accordance with nature. Without anger a man cannot attain purity; he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy." And if anger is necessary in order to hate evil (“Be angry, and sin not”, says David (Psalm 4.5), then sexual passion, purified of all unnatural, sinful elements, can aid the love of the good, the good being perceived as beauty. For as Solomon says of Wisdom: “I loved her from my youth, and I desired to take her for my bride, and I became a lover (Gk: e r a s t h V ) of her beauty” (Wisdom 8.2).
Again, the first and greatest commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” presupposes, according to Blessed Theophylact, the participation of the the passions of anger and desire. “He teaches that we ought not to love God partially, but to give all of ourselves to God. For we perceive these three distinctions of the human soul: the vegetative, the animal, and the rational. When the soul grows and is nourished and beget what is like unto it, it resembles the plants; when it experiences anger or desire, it is like the animals; when it understands, it is called rational. See, then, how these three facets are indicated here. ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart’ – this is the animal part of man; ‘and with all thy soul [or life]’ – this is the vegetative part of a man, for plants are alive and animate; ‘and with all thy mind’ – this is the rational.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa’s development of this point is particularly interesting. He admits that the love of pleasure was in man as he was originally created, being the essence of that irrational, animal-like part of our nature whose seat is the body. “Our love of pleasure took its beginning from our being made like to the irrational creation”, he writes. It was then exacerbated by the fall, “becoming the parent of so many varieties of sins arising from pleasure”. This dual composition of man appears to be a matter of regret for St. Gregory; it is the reason why, for him, man was made “a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8.5), possessing a part of his nature, his reason, that is made in the image of God, and another part, his animal nature, which is not; “for the likeness of man to God is not found in anger, nor is pleasure a mark of the superior nature”. However, St. Gregory believes we can make a virtue of this unfortunate necessity, our animal nature: if we use our reason aright “to assume sway over our emotions, each of them is transmuted to a form of virtue; for anger produces courage, hatred - aversion from vice, the power of love - the desire for what is truly beautiful…”
Clearly St. Gregory, in spite of the strongly ascetic tendency of his thought, would not have agreed with Fr. Gregory’s mocking the idea that “’sensual desire’ must somehow be subjected to rational forces, but at the same time not disappear (what then is the aim of this subjection?)” (p. 130), or that “one’s sexual energies can be directed toward God in an acceptable spiritual way” (p. 135, note 236). The passions can be transmuted into something higher – “sublimated”, to use the modern secular term.
It follows that the chaste man is not the man who has no sexual desire, but the man whose desire has been purified of all parasitic, downward-looking tendencies towards "strange flesh" (Jude 7). If he is married, his desire will be restricted to his wife, whose body, through the sacrament of marriage, is not another's, but his own. As Alexis Khomyakov put it, "for the husband, his companion is not just one of many women, but the woman; and her mate is not one of many men, but the man. For both of them the rest of the race has no sex."
But this is only the first stage: to the degree that a man is purified, his desire penetrates the veil of the flesh, seeing it as an icon, a window or door into a higher, supersensual world: first, the soul of his wife, created in the image of God (for as St. John Chrysostom writes, “rightly directed eros [is directed to] the beauty of the soul, and not of the body.”); then the beautiful, rational order revealed by true science and art and reflecting the Mind of the Creator; and finally the invisible, uncreated Beauty of God Himself. In this way, to use the language of Platonic philosophy, his "vulgar Eros" is changed into "heavenly Eros", on whose wings he ascends into the world of supersensual, unchanging reality. Then he will be able to say, as did St. Ignatius the Godbearer on his way to martyrdom in Rome: "My Eros is crucified" - put to death so as to rise again in a new, incorruptible form.
St. John Climacus gives an example of crucified and resurrected Eros: "Someone told me of an extraordinarily high degree of purity. He said: 'A certain man, on seeing a beautiful woman, thereupon glorified the Creator; and from that one look, he was moved to the love of God and a fountain of tears. And it was wonderful to see how what would have been a cause of destruction for one was for another the supernatural cause of a crown.' If such a person always feels and behaves in the same way on similar occasions, then he has risen immortal before the general resurrection."
Fr. Gregory mocks the idea that “one’s sexual energies can be directed toward God in an acceptable spiritual way” (p. 135, note 236). However, let us consider the words of St. Gregory Palamas: "Not only hast Thou made the passionate part of my soul entirely Thine, but if there is a spark of desire in my body, it has returned to its source, and has thereby become elevated and united to Thee." And again: "Impassibility does not consist in mortifying the passionate part of the soul, but in removing it from evil to good, and directing its energies towards divine things... Through the passionate part of the soul which has been orientated towards the end for which God created it, one will practise the corresponding virtues: with the concupiscent appetite, one will embrace charity, and with the irascible, one will practise patience. It is thus not the man who has killed the passionate part of the soul who has the pre-eminence, for such a one would have no momentum or activity to acquire a divine state and right disposition and relationship with God; but rather, the prize goes to him who has put that part of his soul under subjection, so that by its obedience to the mind, which is by nature appointed to rule, it may ever tend towards God, as is right, by the uninterrupted remembrance of Him... Thus one must offer to God the passionate part of the soul, alive and active, that it may be a living sacrifice. As the Apostle said of our bodies, 'I exhort you, by the mercy of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God' (Romans 12.1)." “Therefore those who love the Good (o i e r a s t a i t w n k a l w n ) carry out a transposition (m e t a q e s i n ) of this faculty and do not make it die; they do not such it into themselves without letting it move, but they show it to be active in love towards God and neighbour”.
At this point, some who are not familiar with this patristic teaching may object that it smacks of romanticism, of the “lyrical Orthodoxy” of the heretical Paris school, that it invites the indulgence of fallen passions rather than their control and suppression. But this is a misunderstanding based on a confusion between means and ends. The end of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and the resurrection, through the Spirit, of the fallen nature of man. The means towards this end is the crucifixion of the fallen passions by all the practices of the ascetic life: participation in the sacraments, prayer, fasting, abstinence (although not necessarily, as we have seen, complete abstinence), good works of every kind: “Give your blood and receive the Spirit.”
Sexual passion is no exception to this rule; it, too, must be subject to the discipline of the ascetic life. For it contains the seeds of death as well as of life, and its pleasures, like all carnal pleasures, are bound up with pain and corruption. But the point being made here – the point that is missing from Fr. Gregory’s account – is that that which is fallen can be raised, that which is crucified for Christ’s sake and in Christ will be resurrected in and with Christ. For Christ did not come to destroy human nature, or “swallow it up”, as the Monophysites think, in the blinding glory of His Divinity. He came to save it and resurrect it and transfigure it – all of it.
4. The Origin of Sexuality. The possibility of the resurrection and transfiguration of the whole of human nature is based on the fact that human nature in the beginning was “very good”, containing not even a shadow of evil. However, Fr. Gregory denies that sexuality – with the exception of the simple physiological differentiation of the sexes – formed part of this originally good creation. For him, the difference between man and woman in the beginning was superficial and was created only in prevision of the fall; it involved no sexual attraction, no sexual union and no sexual reproduction. He considers the idea that sexual desire can be in any way good or part of the original creation as “a very crude theological mistake. According to the patristic viewpoint on human nature – western no less than eastern, - no ‘sexual desire’ is inherent in it; ‘natural sexual desire’ appears only after the fall” (p. 134, note 233).
We can agree with this up to a point. We can agree that sexuality, in the form in which we know it now, did not exist in Paradise; and if sexual desire in its present form is what we define as “natural”, then this “natural” desire appeared only after the fall. Moreover, we are agreed that neither sexual union nor sexual reproduction as we know it took place in Paradise – as St. John of the Ladder says, “if [Adam] had not been overcome by his stomach, he would not have known what a wife was.”
Nevertheless, it is also an Orthodox teaching that marriage was created in Paradise, with Adam and Eve. This thought is contained both in the marriage service itself, and in the Holy Scriptures. As Tobit says on his wedding night: Thus Tobias on his wedding-night specifically denied that his feeling for his wife was lust: "Thou madest Adam, and gavest him Eve as his wife for an helper and stay: of them came mankind: Thou hast said, It is not good that man should be alone; let us make unto him an aid like unto himself. And now, O Lord, I take not this my sister for lust, but uprightly: therefore mercifully ordain that we may become aged together..." (Tobit 8.6-7). Therefore that sexuality even in an unfallen form had no part at all in the original plan of God for man is a much more dubious proposition. And even if we accept that certain secondary sexual characteristics were created in prevision of the fall, it by no means follows that for man as he was originally created his sexuality was purely incidental...
In this connection, it is perhaps significant that so many of the so-called "advances" in the modern science of man have been made in the sphere of sexuality, and not only in order to make sexual immorality easier and freer from all unwanted consequences (the contraceptive pill), but also in order to abolish sexuality altogether. Thus the scientists, the high priests of the new religion of ecumenist humanism (or, as Fr. Seraphim Rose would say, sub-humanism), claim to be able to make men into women and women into men, to create babies outside the womb and even without any sexual act by cloning, and even to create hybrid, half-human species. All this would seem to imply that sexuality is indeed a superficial and mutable aspect of human nature.
Moreover, at first sight there would seem to be scriptural support for such a view. After all, did not the apostle say that in Christ there is "neither male nor female" (Galatians 3.28)? And did not the Lord Himself say that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22.30)?
On the other hand, is it conceivable that Christ should ever be anything other than male in His humanity? Or the Mother of God female? And is not the very idea of a change of sex repugnant to us, which implies that there is something deeper to sexuality than meets the eye, something more than merely a set of biological differences.
Let us then consider the question: what is the significance of sexual differentiation?
Genetics tells us that the essential difference between men and women consists in the possession by men of one X and one Y chromosome, whereas women possess two X chromosomes. This might at first suggest that men have something "extra" which women do not have. However, neither biology nor theology has ever pinpointed what that something "extra" might be. Nor is it at all clear, of course, that the interaction of one X and one Y chromosome makes for a superior creature to the product of the interaction of two X chromosomes. In any case, genetics, like all the sciences, studies nature after the Fall, and cannot tell us anything directly about nature before the Fall, still less what the deeper purpose of sexual differences might be in Divine Providence.
Nevertheless, it can provide some intriguing pointers; and the biological evidence suggests that sexual differences are deep in some respects and superficial in others. Thus chromosomal masculinity or femininity appears to be present at birth and relatively immutable. On the other hand, many sexual differences can be changed and even reversed from one gender to the other by hormone therapy and surgery - but without changing the patient's feeling of who, sexually speaking, he or she really is.
Could this contrast between "deep" and "superficial" sexual differences reflect a contrast between sexual differences before the Fall and sexual differences after the Fall? Again: was there ever a time when human nature was not differentiated into sexes? In other words, was there ever a time when Adam was man in a generic sense, and not male as opposed to female?
St. Ephraim the Syrian writes: "Adam was both one and two; one in that he was man [adam], two in that he was created male and female". But was Adam one also in the sense of being a monad? In a sense, yes; for, as St. Ambrose of Milan points out, only the woman was created in Paradise, while Adam was created before the planting of Paradise in Eden. Thus we can speak about three stages in the history of Adam: (i) before Paradise, when he was alone, without Eve, (ii) in Paradise with Eve, and (iii) after Paradise, when they were together, not in innocent joy, but in the sorrow of sin and death.
The first, monadic stage in Adam’s life is important as providing an historical and ontological basis for the pre-eminence of virginity over marriage, and for its naturalness as part of the original creation. Thus monasticism as “the angelic state” in which there is no marriage or giving in marriage, and in which sexual differentiation is simply irrelevant, is firmly based in the original creation of man. Through monasticism, men and women enter, as it were, as virginal monads into the Heaven that existed even before and above Paradise, into the relationship with God that Adam had before the separate creation of Eve.
But this is not to say that man was ever, at any time, “angelic” in the sense of being entirely sexless. Thus there is no evidence that Adam changed from being a kind of sexless androgyne to being a male of the species when he entered Paradise and Eve was formed from his side. Nor was the transition from being a monad before Paradise to being a dyad in Paradise in any sense a kind of Origenistic fall before the fall. Everything in Paradise was still “very good” and completely free from sin. But it was a sinless state in which sexuality now played an important part – not in the sense that fallen sexual passion now intruded into the picture, but in the sense that the differences between the sexes were now relevant and important.
In what way were they relevant and important? The Holy Scriptures provide the answer in the reason God gave for creating Eve “it is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper like unto him” (Genesis 2.18). In other words, Adam, though sinless and unfallen, was nevertheless incomplete on his own. Nor was this incompleteness due simply to a lack of rational (non-animal) company, otherwise God could simply have sent him an angel, or another man, to supply his lack. No: Adam needed a companion who would help him, and who would be like him without being too similar to him.
What could this help be? Clearly not, as some have suggested, a help in the procreation of other human beings. There is no hint of that at this stage in the discourse – and in any case, procreation could have been through a process of sexless cloning, or, as St. Gregory of Nyssa suggests, in the same manner as the angels multiplied, rather than sexual reproduction. No: Adam needed a deeper kind of help, a help linked, not to his incapacity to reproduce on his own, but to some incompleteness in his inner nature. He needed not a physical mate, but a soulmate.
St. John Chrysostom writes: “How great the power of God, the master craftsman, making a likeness of those limbs from that tiny part [the rib of Adam], creating such wonderful senses and preparing a creature complete, entire and perfect, capable both of speaking and of providing much comfort to man by a sharing of her being. For it was for the consolation of this man that this woman was created. Hence Paul also said, ‘Man was not created for the woman, but woman for the man’ (I Corinthians 11.9).”
Again, the holy new Martyr-Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow writes: "Without a helpmate the very bliss of paradise was not perfect for Adam: endowed with the gift of thought, speech, and love, the first man seeks with his thought another thinking being; his speech sounds lonely and the dead echo alone answers him; his heart, full of love, seeks another heart that would be close and equal to him; all his being longs for another being analogous to him, but there is none; the creatures of the visible world around him are below him and are not fit to be his mates; and as to the beings of the invisible spiritual world they are above. Then the bountiful God, anxious for the happiness of man, satisfies his wants and creates a mate for him - a wife. But if a mate was necessary for man in paradise, in the region of bliss, the mate became much more necessary for him after the fall, in the vale of tears and sorrow. The wise man of antiquity spoke justly: 'two are better than one, for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up' (Ecclesiasticus 4.9-10). But few people are capable of enduring the strain of moral loneliness, it can be accomplished only by effort, and truly 'all men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given' (Matthew 19.11), and as for the rest - 'it is not good for a man to be alone', without a mate."
We may approach this question from the point of view of the image of God in man: if the “aloneness” of Adam before Paradise is an image of the unity of the Divine nature, then his “togetherness” with Eve in Paradise is an image of the multiplicity of the Divine Hypostases. As Protopriest Lev Lebedev writes: “Why is it ‘not good’ for man to be alone? The answer is quite clear: because God, ‘in the image’ of Whom man is created is a Trinity!... His nature experiences a natural need for this, that is, he is oppressed, as it were, within the bounds of one person, or, in any case, he potentially contains within himself the capability and striving to belong to some multiplicity of persons, but without dividing (for division and schism is contrary to nature). From this point of view it becomes clear why a ‘help’ for Adam is created not from the earth again (and not from water and not from someone else), but from Adam himself!”
Men and women were created from the beginning, before the fall, with a natural, unfallen need for each other, a need that was primarily psychological, though there is no reason to believe that it did not also contain a physical element. The difference between this unfallen need and the fallen need that manifested itself after the fall was that the unfallen need did not tyrannise Adam. There can be no doubt that the closeness of Adam and Eve in Paradise had certain forms of expression more perfect than what we now recognise as the sexual act or “platonic love”. It was expressed primarily on the psychological level, but there is no reason to suppose that there was not also a physiological element in it. Thus St. Cyril of Alexandria writes of Adam's body before the fall: "It had indeed innate appetites, appetites for food and procreation, but his mind was not tyrannized by these tendencies." And St. Gregory Palamas writes that while “natural impulses towards procreation mark [even] babies at the breast,… they are not signs of a sick soul”, since the natural passions are blameless, being created by the good God “in order that through them we might walk in good works”.
It may be objected at this point that Adam’s need cannot have been so deep or serious, because monks and nuns live as monads even while contending with a fallen nature that Adam did not have. This is indeed a paradox: that Adam, though unfallen, needed a mate, whereas fallen monks and nuns can do without one. But this indicates, not the illusoriness of Adam’s need (for the Word of God is quite specific about it), but rather the supernatural, charismatic quality of virginity. For virginity is a gift of God that carries human nature, not only above the fallen state, but even higher than the original, unfallen state of Adam in Paradise. So great is this gift that it is revealed only in very few of the righteous of the Old Testament (the Prophets Elijah and Jeremiah, St. John the Baptist), and is revealed in its full glory only in the New Testament.
Let us continue our examination of the creation narrative: "And the Lord God brought a deep sleep (Greek: e k s t a s i V , literally “ecstasy”) on Adam; and while he was asleep, he took one of his ribs, and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man He made into a woman and brought her to the man" (Genesis 2.21-22). The great Serbian Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich (+1956) writes about this event: “This is the foundation of, and the reason for, the mysterious and attraction and union between man and woman” – a foundation laid, it should be noted once more, already in Paradise.
The narrative continues: "“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one” (2.24). These words, whose authority was confirmed by Christ Himself (Matthew 19.6), as well as by the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 5.31), make clear that the physical union of man and woman was in the original plan of God for mankind; for there can be no other interpretation of the word “cleave” (or “cling”). And yet this law of physical attraction and union is described by St. Paul as “a great mystery” (Ephesians 5.31).
The question is: how can that which, to the materialists, seems a purely biological phenomenon, a manifestation of man’s kinship with the animals rather than with God, be considered a great mystery?
At the deepest level, as the apostle goes on to explain, the marriage of male and female is a great mystery because it was created to symbolise a still greater mystery, the mystery of the union of Christ and the Church. And this is the explanation for the phenomenon of sexual differentiation, attraction and union which is such a problem for evolutionary biology. God planted sexuality in the midst of His creation so that men, by pondering on this lower mystery, should by analogy come to a deeper understanding of the higher mystery of God’s love for mankind and His union with her in the Incarnation.
But even in its own terms sexual love leading to marriage is a great mystery. For, as St. John Chrysostom writes, “the girl who has always been kept at home and has never seen the bridegroom, from the first day loves and cherishes him as her own body. Again, the husband, who has never seen her, never shared even the fellowship of speech with her, from the first day prefers her to everyone, to his friends, his relatives, even his parents. The parents in turn, if they are deprived of their money for another reason, will complain, grieve, and take the perpetrators to court. Yet they entrust to a man, whom often they have never even seen before…, both their own daughter and a large sum as dowry. They rejoice as they do this and they do not consider it a loss. As they see their daughter led away, they do not bring to mind their closeness, they do not grieve or complain, but instead they give thanks. They consider it an answer to their prayers when they see their daughter led away from their home taking a large sum of money with her. Paul had all this in mind: how the couple leave their parents and bind themselves to each other, and how the new relationship becomes more powerful than the long-established familiarity. He saw that this was not a human accomplishment. It is God Who sows these loves in men and women. He caused both those who give in marriage and those who are married to do this with joy. Therefore Paul said, ‘This is a great mystery’.”
Another aspect of this mystery is that from the union of the two a third is brought into being. One divides into two, then the two reunite to form, not one only, and not three only, but three-in-one! As St. John Chrysostom writes: “A man leaves his parents, who gave him life, and is joined to his wife, and one flesh – father, mother, and child – results from the commingling of the two. The child is born from the union of their seed, so the three become one flesh.” And again, still more clearly: “They come to be made into one body. See the mystery of love! If the two do not become one, they cannot increase; they can increase only by decreasing! How great is the strength of unity! God’s ingenuity in the beginning divided one flesh into two; but he wanted to show that it remained one even after its division, so He made it impossible for either half to procreate without the other. Now do you see how great a mystery marriage is! From one man, Adam, He made Eve, then He reunited these two into one, so that their children would be produced from a single source. Likewise, husband and wife are not two, but one; if he is the head and she is the body, how can they be two? She was made from his side; so they are two halves of one organism. God calls her a ‘helper’ to demonstrate their unity, and He honors the unity of husband and wife above that of child and parents. A father rejoices to see his son or daughter marry; it is as if his child’s body is becoming complete. Even though he spends so much money for his daughter’s wedding, he would rather do that than see her remain unmarried, since then she would seem to be deprived of her own flesh. We are not sufficient unto ourselves in this life. How do they become one flesh? As if she were gold receiving the purest of gold, the woman receives the man’s seed with rich pleasure, and within her it is nourished, cherished, and refined. It is mingled with her own substance and she then returns it as a child! The child is a bridge connecting mother to father, so the three become one flesh… That is why the Scripture does not say, ‘They shall be one flesh’, but that they shall be joined together ‘into one flesh’, namely the child. But supposing there is no child, do they then remain two and not one? No, their intercourse effects the joining of their bodies and they are made one, just as when perfume is mixed with ointment.”
Thus the mystery of the union of man and woman in marriage, which reflects the union of God and man in the God-man, gives birth to the mystery of the union of father, mother and child in the family, which in turn reflects the Holy Trinity-in-Unity of God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Both mysteries may be said to be aspects of the image of God in man. For the image is imprinted not only on man and woman as individuals, but also on their sexual relationship with each other, and on the whole family of men they were called to create through this union. Thus St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “Adam, not having a created cause and being unbegotten, is an example and image of the uncaused God the Father, the Almighty and Cause of all things; while Eve, who proceeded from Adam (but is not born from him) signifies the Hypostasis of the Holy Spirit proceeding.” And St. Anastasius of Sinai writes: "Adam is the type and image of the Unoriginate Almighty God, the Cause of all; the son born of him manifests the image of the Begotten Son and Word of God; and Eve, who proceeded from Adam, signifies the proceeding Hypostasis of the Holy Spirit. This is why God did not breathe in her the breath of life: she was already the type of the breathing and life of the Holy Spirit."
It seems hardly necessary to emphasise the fact that the love between a husband and wife is indeed love, and not something else. As the love-stories of every nation testify, for the sake of his beloved a genuine lover is prepared to suffer any privation. This love is genuinely self-sacrificial and therefore it is genuinely love, not lust, even if it contains a physical element. In the Holy Scriptures God very often compares himself to a bridegroom (Hosea 2.19-20; Song of Songs; Isaiah 54.5, 61.10, 62.5; Ezekiel 16.8; Matthew 22.1-14, 25.1-13; John 3.29; Ephesians 5.32; II Corinthians 11.2; Revelation 19.7, 21.2). For, far from sexual love being the opposite of true love, it is in fact the closest image on earth of God’s heavenly love for man…
5. The Purposes of Marriage. The purpose of marriage, in traditional Orthodox thinking, has been twofold: the bearing of children, and the restraint of desire. In the West, following St. Augustine, the accent has been on child-bearing. In the East, by contrast, the emphasis has been on the restraint of desire; for while the procreation of children is clearly a purpose of marriage – for, as the apostle says: the woman “will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love and holiness with self-control” (I Timothy 2.15), – it can no longer be primary now that the earth has been filled with men. A third purpose, discussed less often in the Fathers, but linked to the first two and going beyond them, is the general help that the spouses give to each other in their ascent towards salvation and deification.
The critical passages on the purposes of marriage are to be found in the Apostle Paul. Its chief purpose, according to the apostle, is "on account of (i.e. to avoid) fornications". “It is better to marry than to burn"; so if a man marries in order to control his burning desire "he does not sin" (I Corinthians 7.2,9,28,36). St. John Chrysostom follows directly in this tradition, writing: "What then is the reason for marriage, and why did God give it to us? Listen to what Paul says: 'Because of the temptation to immorality let each man have his own wife.' He does not say, 'Because of the relief from poverty', or 'Because of the acquisition of wealth', but what? In order that we may avoid fornication, restrain our desire, practise chastity, and be well pleasing to God by being satisfied with our own wife."
St. Ignatius the Godbearer writes: "Speak to my sisters that they love the Lord, and be satisfied with their husbands in flesh and in spirit. In the same way enjoin on my brothers in the name of Jesus Christ 'to love their wives as the Lord loved the Church'.. It is right for men and women who marry to be united with the consent of the bishop, that the marriage may be according to the Lord and not according to lust." Here there is a frank admission that marriage is designed to satisfy certain natural needs, both fleshly and spiritual. But the satisfaction of these needs is “not according to lust [Gk. e p i q u m i a ]”, but “according to the Lord” if it is done with the blessing of the bishop – that is, with the grace of God imparted through the sacrament of marriage. Thus there is no prudery, no attempt to deny the satisfactions of marriage; for the result of that, among fallen men and women, would be that they would seek satisfaction outside marriage, and the first purpose of marriage, to avoid fornication, would be frustrated. This is not hedonism, but realism…
St. Gregory the Theologian evinces the same realism, but goes further to speak of the more general purpose: “For man and wife the union of wedlock is a bolted door securing chastity and restraining desire. And it is a seal of natural affection. They possess the loving colt which cheers the heart by gamboling, and a single drink from their private fountain untasted by strangers, which neither flows outwards, nor gathers its waters from without. Wholly united in the flesh, concordant in spirit, by love, they sharpen in one another a like spur to piety…”
The Latin view, as expressed, for example, in Augustine’s The Good of Marriage, is based on the premise that sexual desire and pleasure are inherently sinful, even in marriage. Therefore marriage can be justified, and the sinfulness of its pleasures forgiven, only if the aim is child-bearing. Fr. Gregory shares this basic premise of the Latins, even if he refrains from drawing the conclusion about child-bearing…
The fruits of this sombre Latin view of marriage have been unequivocably bad. Thus the idea that a married couple can achieve sexual stability while believing that the very means to this end, marital relations, is inherently sinful, has led, directly or indirectly, to a large proportion of the heresies and perversions that have bedevilled the history of Western Christianity: the enforced celibacy of Catholic priests, the "immaculate conception" of the Virgin by her parents Joachim and Anna, the profoundly adulterous "chastity" of the troubadors, the definitely sensual "mysticism" of Teresa of Avila and other Latin "saints", the ban on all marriage by the Shakers and other Protestant sects, the sexual hypocrisy of the Victorians, and, as a long-delayed and therefore enormously exaggerated reaction to all this blasphemy against the goodness of God’s original creation, the general permissiveness towards all kinds of truly sinful acts in the twentieth century.
However, lest we think that the Western view was always Augustinian, let us consider an episode from the Life of perhaps the greatest woman saint of the West, the fifth-century St. Brigit of Ireland: “A certain man of Kells… whom his wife hated, came to Brigit for help. Brigit blessed some water. He took it with him and, his wife having been sprinkled [therewith], she straightway loved him passionately.” Thus the grace of God worked here to liberate, rather than suppress desire – because within marriage it has its proper place, it is indeed desirable.
Again, from the Life of St. Columba, Abbot of Iona and Apostle of Scotland (+597): “Another time, when the saint was living on the Rechrena island, a certain man of humble birth came to him and complained of his wife, who, as he said, so hated him, that she would on no account allow him to come near her for marriage rights. The saint on hearing this, sent for the wife, and, so far as he could, began to reprove her on that account, saying: ‘Why, O woman, dost thou endeavour to withdraw thy flesh from thyself, while the Lord says, ‘They shall be two in one flesh’? Wherefore the flesh of thy husband is they flesh.’ She answered and said, ‘Whatever thou shalt require of me I am ready to do, however hard it may be, with this single exception, that thou dost not urge me in any way to sleep in one bed with Lugne. I do not refuse to perform every duty at home, or, if thou dost command me, even to pass over the seas, or to live in some monastery for women.’ The saint then said, ‘What thou dost propose cannot lawfully be done, for thou art bound by the law of the husband as long as thy husband liveth, for it would be impious to separate those whom God has lawfully joined together.’ Immediately after these words he added: ‘This day let us three, namely, the husband and his wife and myself, join in prayer to the Lord and in fasting.’ But the woman replied: ‘I know it is not impossible for thee to obtain from God, when thou askest them, those things that seem to us either difficult, or even impossible.’ It is unnecessary to say more. The husband and wife agreed to fast with the saint that day, and the following night the saint spent sleepless in prayer for them. Next day he thus addressed the wife in presence of her husband, and said to her: ‘O woman, art thou still ready today, as thou saidst yesterday, to go away to a convent of women?’ ‘I know now,’ she answered, ‘that thy prayer to God for me hath been heard; for that man whom I hated yesterday, I love today; for my heart hath been changed last night in some unknown way – from hatred to love.’ Why need we linger over it? From that day to the hour of death, the soul of the wife was firmly cemented in affection to her husband, so that she no longer refused those mutual matrimonial rights which she was formerly unwilling to allow.”
This shows that sexuality within the one-flesh relationship of marriage is not simply a means to another end, procreation (although it is that), and not simply a concession to weakness (although it is that, too), but the completely natural and lawful expression of that relationship as such. It shows that, given the existence of such a one-flesh relationship, the attempt to break it up by denying or disparaging the sexual element in it, is itself unlawful. Adultery is a reason for divorce precisely because it destroys the “one-flesh” relationship between man and wife and causes the one who is divorced to commit adultery (Matthew 5.32).
Very apt in this connection are the words of holy New Hieromartyr Gregory (Lebedev), Bishop of Schlisselburg: “'And they two shall be one flesh, so that they are no longer two, but one flesh' (Matthew 19.6), that is, the people have ceased to exist separately even in the physical sense. They have become one physical body, 'one flesh'. That is what the fulfilment of the will of God has done... It has not only completed and broadened their souls in a mutual intermingling, it has changed their physical nature and out of two physical existences it has made one whole existence. That is the mystery of marriage”
Thus marriage is not primarily procreation, but creation; it creates an ontological change in the persons being married: they are no longer two, but one flesh. Within this one flesh there can be no such thing as fornication; and the very idea of “fornication under a crown” (blud pod ventsom) must be categorically rejected as a contradiction in terms. For the Russian word for fornication, blud, suggests the idea of wandering, “the wandering of concupiscence” (Wisdom 4.12), whereas it is impossible to “wander” in relation to one’s own flesh.
Of course, the sexual passions of the man and the woman remain fallen; but the expression of these passions within the marriage is not sinful, just as eating food after a blessing is not sinful. On the contrary, the abstaining from intercourse on a permanent basis is sinful, because it denies the “one-flesh” basis of the marriage and creates conditions under which one or other of the partners may indeed by tempted to “wander”. That is why the Apostle Paul says: “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (I Corinthians 7.5) – whose meaning is quite clear in spite of Fr. Gregory’s unconvincing assertion that “in both of Chrysostom’s interpretations of Paul, ‘Do not deprive’ has turned out to be only a form of ‘Deprive’ for tender ears” (p. 146).
At the same time, the grace of marriage works within the one-flesh relationship to purify and transfigure the passions. For marriage is not simply a permit to sin in a small way so as to avoid sinning in a large way. No: marriage is a sacrament which communicates grace; and as such it changes that which it touches - so long as it is received in the proper manner, as part of the Christian life as a whole. It changes two bodies into one, and lust into chastity.
In this connection, the words of Archbishop Theophanes of Poltava are especially relevant: “People in recent times have forgotten that the grace of God is communicated in the sacrament of marriage. One must always remember this grace, stir it up and live in its spirit. Then the love of the man for the woman and of the woman for the man will be pure, deep and a source of happiness for them.”
Let us recall the words of St. John Chrysostom: “It is God Who sows these loves in men and women.” A love that is sown in man by God cannot be of the fall, even if the earth into which it is sown is fallen. True marriages are made in heaven, even if the spouses are sinful and earthly. Indeed, their marriage is the means for transforming their sinful earthiness into heaven; it is a seed of grace sown in their fallen nature, which, if they cooperate with it through all the regular practices of the Christian life – measured abstinence, prayer, good works – produces the fruit of true chastity. That is why “marriage is honourable in all” (Hebrews 13.4) – “in all”, according to Blessed Theophylact, “means ‘in every way’ and ‘in every season’” – “and the bed is undefiled” - “because,” as St. John Chrysostom comments, “it preserves the believer in chastity.”
And then, preserved in this way in chastity, other virtues may begin to flower in the married man or woman. Thus Metropolitan Anastasy (Gribanovsky), whose most striking virtue, according to Bishop Gregory (Grabbe) was an angelic chastity, writes:“There exists a common conviction that only woes lead people to God, and that happiness rather ties them to the earth and makes them forget about Heaven. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Pirogov writes in his autobiography that the first days of his married life were filled with such a lofty blessedness that his soul as it were melted and was purified under the breath of this blessedness, and he who before had suffered from the infirmity of little faith saw God in the radiance of his pure familial joy.”
6. Marriage and Monasticism. We have already discussed the status of sexual pleasure and desire. The patristic consensus is that pleasure is not sinful in itself, although the vicious cycle of man’s enslavement to pleasure, leading to pain and death, is certainly a product of the fall. It is in the enslavement to pleasure, rather than the pleasure itself, that the sin consists. Similarly, desire is not sinful in itself: it is the corruption of desire, leading to its uncontrolled and immoderate expression, that makes it a threat to our salvation.
Both marriage and monasticism are designed to liberate man from enslavement to pleasure and desire through a transfiguration of his sexual nature, by changing the desire itself. Both are paths leading to the same summit, which is chastity. It is entirely illegitimate to identify one of the means, virginity, with the end of both, chastity.
Marriage is the easier path; it takes the longer and gentler route up the mountain. Monasticism is the more difficult path; it takes the shorter but steeper route. Each path has its dangers. The danger inherent in monasticism is obvious: the climb may be too steep for the climber, and he may fall headlong into the abyss. The dangers inherent in marriage are more subtle, but no less great: the climber may become distracted by the view on the way to the summit, may relax too much, may forget that he has to reach the summit, may forget the entire purpose of the ascent…
It is important to understand why monasticism is considered higher than marriage. St. Paul writes: "I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is a difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your own profit, not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction" (I Corinthians 7.32-35).
The delicacy, lack of fanaticism and inspired common sense of this explanation is striking. Sexuality comes into it not at all. Virginity is preferable to marriage, not because it involves no sexuality, but because it involves less distraction from the "one thing necessary" (Luke 10.42), less of all those cares and tribulations and "trouble in the flesh" (I Corinthians 7.28) that are an inescapable part of married life and which cool the ardour of the spirit in its ascent to God. Especially interesting is the reference to the necessity of pleasing one's wife. It was Adam's fear of offending his wife that led to his fall in Eden...
Far from virginity being preferable to marriage because it involves less sexuality, St. Paul infers that it involves more sexuality, in the sense of a greater struggle with sexual thoughts and fantasies, than the less arduous path of marriage, with its built-in sexual release. Paradoxically, therefore, it is marriage that is preferable to virginity from the point of view of sexual distraction - "it is better to marry than to burn" (I Corinthians 7.9). Virginity reveals its superiority only in the context of the Christian life taken as a whole: at the price of a sharper struggle with sexual temptation, the virgin can devote herself more single-mindedly to the service of God alone, "that she may be holy both in body and in spirit" (I Corinthians 7.34).
The Church teaches that there is a special reward for the great exploit (podvig) of monasticism. As Archbishop Theophanes of Poltava writes, “with the blessedness of the virgins nothing can be compared, neither in heaven nor on earth..." True monastics attain in this life to the condition of the life to come, in which "they neither marry nor are given in marriage... for they are equal to the angels" (Luke 20.35, 36). This is sufficient reason for St. Paul to say: "I would that all men were even as myself [i.e. virgins]...” (I Corinthians 7.7)… But he immediately goes on to say: “Every man hath his proper charisma, one after this manner, and another after that" (I Corinthians. 7.7).
That marriage is truly a charisma, partaking of the grace of Christ’s love for the Church, and made pure by this grace, is made clear from the marriage service itself. Thus in the ninth century, according to the witness of St. Theodore the Studite, the bishop read the following prayer: “O Master, send down Thy hand from Thy holy dwelling place and unite these Thy servant and Thy handmaid. And give to those whom Thou unitest harmony of minds; crown them into one flesh; make their marriage honourable; keep their bed undefiled; deign to make their common life blameless.” Again, the blessing from the contemporary Syrian rite of crowning reads: "May Christ the true Bridegroom seal your marriage in the truth of His love. As He finds joy in His Church, so may you find your happiness in one another, that your union may abound in love, and your coming together in purity..."
At this point we come to an important thesis of Fr. Gregory’s book, which comes down to a rejection of the view that marriage and monasticism are simply two different charismata, albeit one higher than the other. For him, marriage belongs to the Old Testament, the realm of law, and monasticism to the New Testament, the realm of grace; so only the latter can be a charisma. His working out of this thesis is paradoxical, for several Old Testament saints, such as Abraham, Moses and David, who practised marriage (and even, in some cases, concubinage) are admitted by Fr. Gregory, following his Egyptian sources, to the ranks of the New Testament saints; whereas New Testament Christians who partake of all the sacraments of the New Testament Church are relegated to the ranks of the Old Testament for no other reason that that they did not free themselves in time from what are, in Fr. Gregory’s opinion, the defiling pleasures of marriage.
Let us consider two test-cases. First, in the life of the English saint, Wulfhilda of Barking (+c. 1000), we read that for eighteen years before the conception of Wulfhilda, her pious parents, who had already had several children, had been living as brother and sister so as to give themselves up more completely to prayer and fasting. “One night, however, an angel appeared to each of them separately three times, and told them that they should come together so as to beget a daughter who would become a bride of Christ. The next morning they told each other the vision, and discovered that it had been identical for the two of them. So they accepted it as having come from God. Thus was the saint conceived and born…”
This is a difficult case to explain according to Fr. Gregory’s schema. For clearly here God called two people living the New Testament life of grace to return to the Old Testament life of the law, in Fr. Gregory’s terms. They returned, in his words, to “marital satisfaction”, “that is, “the satisfaction of the passion of lust, albeit to a limited degree” (p. 117) – for, of course, even if the purpose of the act, as here, is solely child-bearing, it is psychologically and physiologically impossible (unless we are talking about a rape, which is out of the question here) to accomplish this purpose without the experience of pleasure, which Fr. Gregory says is sinful and leads to death. But would God ever call anyone to satisfy a sinful lust? Or to return from the life of grace to the life of the law? Of course not! The only conclusion must be, therefore, that sexual relations in a Christian marriage in no way impede the life of grace.
A second test-case: the holy Tsar-Martyr Nicholas and his spouse, the Tsaritsa-Martyr Alexandra. Anyone who has read the diaries of these saints will know that their love was far from platonic, and by no means without passion. And yet nobody has suggested that their love for each other, being “fallen”, was an impediment to their holiness. On the contrary, as the Fr. Sergius Furmanov has said, “The family of the Tsar was an icon of the family… The holy royal couple, who constructed their family happiness on a love that was in no way darkened in the course of 24 years of marriage, shows the path to young people, that they may with prayer to God for help seek for partners in life.”
Now there can be no doubt that the royal couple were willing, if necessity demanded, to give up the married life that brought them so much consolation and strength (the Tsar even offered, after the birth of the Tsarevich, to become a monk and become patriarch). And God Who knows all things knew of this willingness of theirs. And yet He did not require this sacrifice of them; such a sacrifice was not pleasing to Him. Their path to holiness lay in and through marriage; as St. Gregory put it, “wholly united in the flesh, concordant in spirit, by love, they sharpened in one another a like spur to piety”. He loved her as Christ loved the Church, and he loved his nation as a father loves his children; while she was a “help like” him in everything…
For the majority of men, then, including some of the greatest saints of the Church, chastity is attained through the charisma of marriage combined with the measured rhythm of coming together and abstinence in sexual relations, and all the trials and tribulations, the responsibilities and obediences of married life. To the few, however, another, higher charisma is given: that of monasticism, which is combined in them with a more direct assault on the fallen passions. These are they who earn their reward "in the burden and heat of the day" (Matthew 20.12), without seeking a respite in the shady cool of marriage. Some have even chosen this path at the outset of married life, living as brother and sister with their wives, so that their eventual union with their beloved may be in the Kingdom of God, with the infinitely greater intensity and joy that comes from complete freedom from passion. For, as St. John Chrysostom says, "if we are counted worthy by having pleased God to exchange this life for that one, then shall we ever be both with Christ and with each other, with more abundant pleasure".
But not only are marriage and monasticism compatible in this way: "the many-coloured wisdom of God" (Ephesians 3.10) has placed them in a relationship of mutual dependence, each order gaining in humility from contemplating the feats of the other. Thus the married man will ponder deeply on the fact that the vast majority of non-martyr saints have been monastics. Beholding their feats of self-denial, he will remember that the Kingdom of Heaven is won by those who take up the cross and deny themselves, doing violence to their fallen nature (Matthew 10.38, 11.12). If he has read something about the true monk's inner life, even if he cannot understand it from experience, he will nevertheless realise that the true monk suffers from such assaults of the flesh and the devil as he, the married man, can hardly conceive. He will realise that, even when his life is peaceful, this is probably because the passions are still dormant in him, for he has never really entered into battle with them; and that, if he is to fulfil his own vocation in the world, he, too, must become something of a monk - internally, at any rate. For there is no other way than that of the Cross, and, as St. John Chrysostom points out, the commandments are the same for monks and laymen with the single exception of the prohibition on marriage and possessions for the former. The monk, on the other hand, having turned his back on Egypt for ever, will nevertheless admire those who remain pure amid its fleshpots, fulfilling the commandments while encumbered with wives, children, possessions, cares, honours and responsibilities. If he is beginning to pride himself on his asceticism, he will have cause to humble himself on beholding the "crowned icon" of a truly Christian marriage.
Understood in this way, there can be no opposition between the two charismata; for they both help man to fulfil the commandments, the one - to love God above all, and the other - to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Only monasticism must be accorded the higher place - and this not only because the love of God is higher than the love of man. For if, as St. Macarius says, it is impossible to love one's neighbour with a pure heart unless one has first come to love God, it follows that, in a sense, married people must first acquire the virginal love of God before they can fully appropriate the grace of marriage. They must master the art of monastic monasticism - of self-discipline and self-renunciation - if they are to achieve a perfect union with each other. For, as Vladimir Lossky writes, "our fallen condition always endures, demanding for the accomplishing of our human vocation not only the integrating chastity of marriage but also, and perhaps primarily, the sublimating chastity of monasticism.” This "sublimating chastity of monasticism" is necessary even for the married because, as St. Maximus says, "it is impossible for those who have not first cloven singlemindedly to God to harmonise with each other in their mutual tendencies." For a marriage can only be as good as the spouses who compose it. From this point of view, monasticism is a more natural and appropriate state for fallen man, insofar as the attainment of unity within the monad, the celibate man or woman, must precede the attainment of unity and harmony within the dyad, the married couple. However, for most people this "direct" approach is too dangerous – primarily because of the danger of falling into fornication. But there may be other reasons. Because, for example, there are no good monastic leaders. Or because a man has other passions to be mastered, pride as well as lust, anger as well as desire - and marriage is, for him, the best arena in which all these passions can be mastered. That is why God has blessed marriage, not only as an end in itself, the restoration of the fallen unity of Adam and Eve in Paradise, but also as a means, an arena of struggle and self-perfection that is the best for the great majority of men.
That which is less than the ideal, or, as here, the lesser ideal, is not necessarily sinful: this obvious, but often neglected fact needs to be emphasised especially in the context of marriage and monasticism. Just as “one star differs from another in glory” (I Corinthians 15.41) without any of the stars being anything but full of light, so one condition of the Christian life can differ from another in glory without either being sinful or in any way not pleasing to God. Monasticism is higher than marriage because it involves the greater struggle, the least distraction and the greatest concentration on the highest Object of desire – God Himself. But it is not the case that all virgins or monastics sin less than married people, even sexually (let us remember that lusting only in one’s heart is adultery, according to the word of the Lord (Matthew 5.28)). Many married people have reached high levels of chastity and sanctity, while many foolish virgins have failed to enter the marriage-chamber of the Lamb. Thus it is not the path to the end, but the end itself which matters in the long run. And that end is attainable by both. For, as St. Macarius the Great said: "In truth there is neither virgin nor married, neither monk nor secular. But God seeks only the intention of each, and gives the Spirit of life to all."
Conclusion: Marriage and Heresy. Is there any link between the views criticised in this review and any of the major heresies that held sway in the time of early Egyptian monasticism? Extremist views on marriage have traditionally been linked to the heresy of Manichaeism, which taught that matter, including the body, was evil. It is known, for example, that Blessed Augustine was a Manichaean in his youth, and some have suspected that Augustine’s sombre view of marriage, and in particular his opinion that sexual pleasure, even in marriage, is a sin, was a product of his Manichaean background.
Manichaeism is specifically declared by St. John Chrysostom to have been the target of St. Paul’s prophecy: “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of demons; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving” (I Timothy 4.1-4).
Manichaeism and its related teachings are demonic, explains St. John, because they condemn as evil those things, such as marriage and certain foods, which are not evil in themselves, but only if taken in excess. For “good things are created to be received… But if it is good, why is it ‘sanctified by the word of God and prayers’? For it must be unclean, if it is to be sanctified? Not so, here he is speaking to those who thought that some of these things were common; therefore he lays down two positions: first, that no creature of God is unclean; and secondly, that if it has become so, you have a remedy: seal it [with the sign of the cross], give thanks, and glorify God, and all the uncleanness passes away.”
However, Manichaeism is less likely to have influenced the environment of Egyptian monasticism than that specifically Egyptian heresy, Origenism, which maintained that the soul pre-existed the body, to which it was assigned as a penalty for its sins. This teaching was anathematised at the Fifth Ecumenical Council. We may recall that Origen himself castrated himself, a way of delivering oneself from sexual temptation which the Church has condemned, insofar as the body was made good in all its parts by God and is not to be mutilated in any way…
Or could it be that the influence was in the reverse direction? That is: could it be that the extremist views on marriage held by some Egyptian monks and described by Fr. Gregory influenced, and contributed to the rise of, the Monophysite heresy, which by the second half of the fifth century had become entrenched in this very same milieu of Egyptian monasticism? After all, not all the monks of Egypt were of the stature of Saints Anthony or Macarius; and some of them did succumb to heresy. Thus “by the time of the Third Ecumenical Council [in 431], a significant part of Egyptian monasticism became the avant-garde of Monophysite Christology, supporting the Monophysite hierarchy against the Chalcedonian. Traditions do not arise on empty soil; they are formed as part of a process of evolution…”
Whether or not a historical, causative link can be proved between the extremist intellectual environment of a part of Egyptian monasticism and the emergence of Monophysitism (let those who have a better historical knowledge than the present writer decide that), there is clearly a logical connection between Monophysite Christology and what we may call a quasi-Monophysite anthropology. Monophysite Christology, as is well known, teaches that through the Incarnation the human nature of Christ was as it were “swallowed up” by His Divine nature, so that it no longer existed in “unconfused” form as a real, concrete entity. Logically, such a Christology entails a corresponding anthropology, according to which, through union with Christ by grace, a man’s specifically human nature – the natural desires and appetites planted in him from the beginning - is destroyed or “swallowed up”. Such an anthropology has the further moral and pastoral consequence that any manifestation of this “unswallowed up” nature is sinful; so that sexual relations in marriage, for example, are a sign of imperfection, of a soul still subject to the passions and therefore bound by the law, a stranger to the life of grace that must be considered to be synonymous with the virginal life.
According to Orthodox anthropology, however, “nothing human is alien” to the deified man, except sin, so that the natural desires and appetites are not destroyed or swallowed up, but purified and transfigured, “sublimated” and redirected. Consequently, the definition of what is sinful and not sinful is much more subtle and nuanced in Orthodox anthropology. The manifestation of sexual feeling is not ipso facto sinful: it all depends on the context, and the individual, and the particular charisma that the individual has been given.
For since the pattern of men’s fallenness is very varied, God devises very varied paths to the overcoming of that fallenness, and different charismata for different men. For one man, virginity would lead to salvation, while marriage would lead to damnation. For another man the reverse is true: if he became a monk, no matter how hard he tried, he would fail.
For it is not only man’s will that matters but also God’s – and God’s choice for each individual cannot be defied, even for the best of motives, without sin and tragedy. That is why St. Seraphim advised one woman who wanted to marry to become a nun, and another who wanted to become a nun – to marry.
In this connection, we may note another heresy that is relevant to our discussion, and which was raging in the West at just the time that Monophysitism was beginning in the East: Pelagianism. Pelagius was a British monk who taught that man can attain salvation by the exercise of his free will alone. The grace of God was necessary primarily in providing knowledge of the commandments. Now Pelagius was reacting against the corruption of Christian morals that he saw around him (Rome in the early fifth century). He therefore chose to emphasise the fact that man can overcome sin by exercising his free will. His Orthodox opponents responded by pointing out that grace is required not only in order to know the commandments of God, but also in order to carry them out. Indeed, without His grace, we could not even make a beginning of good, as the apostle says. Therefore in order, for example, for a man to remain a true virgin it is not enough for him simply to will it with his fallen human will: the Will of God must be joined to the will of man. And if God does not will it – if, for example, He wills rather that the man should marry – then no amount of striving will make him a true virgin or monk.
Both Pelagianism and Monophysitism, we may hypothesise, arose in reaction to the corruption of the Roman empire in the fifth century. Both exhibited a zeal not according to reason, a striving for the heights that took too little account of the limitations of human nature, that was too impatient with its infirmities. Both arose in monastic communities – and there is considerable evidence to suppose that the Celtic monastic communities in the West, in which Pelagianism arose, were strongly influenced in many ways by the Coptic monastic communities in the East, in which Monophysitism arose. The tragedy was that while Pelagianism was conquered in the West, - which victory gave birth to the great flourishing of Celtic monasticism, of which Saints Columba and Brigit (quoted above) were two of the greatest lights - Monophysitism triumphed in the Coptic and Semitic East. The lesson for our times, whose corruption probably greatly exceeds that of the fifth-century Roman empire, is that we cannot prevail against this corruption by a zeal not according to reason, by devaluing one of the major means that God has given us to overcome corruption – the sacrament of marriage.
Finally, let us return to the central antithesis in Fr. Gregory’s book: between the life of grace, or the New Testament, or monasticism (the terms are equivalent for Fr. Gregory), and the life under the law, or the Old Testament, or the married state. The question is: is such a distinction viable?
It goes without saying that the main difference between the Old and the New Testaments does not lie in the difference between the monastic and the married states, but in the fact that the New Testament Christian, whether married or unmarried, is able, through faith in Christ and the grace received through the sacraments of the Church, to escape sin, death and the devil and enter into the Kingdom of heaven – a possibility that was denied to the Old Testament believer, no matter how pious he was. Thus although the Lord said of St. John the Baptist that he was “the greatest born of women” (Matthew 11.11; Luke 7.28), He immediately added: “but he who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. In other words, he who is less than the Baptist in his personal striving for holiness is nevertheless more holy than he insofar as he partakes of that Holiness which is the Holy One Himself – which Holiness could not be communicated before the Redeeming Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the founding of the New Testament Church. Through Christ, we, the members of the New Testament Church – and only we – have become “partakers in the Divine nature” (II Peter 1.4). The righteous men of the Old Testament had to wait, in Hades, for the Coming of Christ in the flesh before they could partake of this blessing, “God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us” (Hebrews 11.40).
Now the present reviewer does not believe for a moment that such an accomplished theologian as Fr. Gregory is unaware of this. He must surely understand that while the superiority of monasticism to marriage may be compared, in certain patristic texts, to the superiority of the New Testament to the Old, this is only an analogy, which cannot possibly be taken to define the difference between the New Testaments. And yet nowhere in his book is this elementary, but terribly important point made – and this must be considered to be a major defect in it.
Fr. Gregory emphasises the fact that monasticism can only be advised, or recommended – and recommended, we would add, only for some, on an individual basis. But if it is only a recommendation for some, then it cannot be a commandment for all. And if it is not a commandment for all, then it is not part of the New Testament, which consists of the fulfilment of certain commandments on the part of men, all men, and the corresponding fulfilment of certain promises on the part of God.
One of the very greatest saints, a virgin who even during his life on earth ascended to the third heaven and heard words that it is not lawful for man to utter, said: “We do not have authority to lead about a wife who is a sister in the Lord, as also the rest of the apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas, do we?” (I Corinthians 9.5). The irony in his words indicated that, of course, he, though an apostle carrying out the highest ministry in the Church of Christ, was not forbidden to have a wife; it was not incompatible with his grace-filled ministry of the New Testament. True, he did not in fact take a wife; for “all things are lawful to me, but all things are not expedient” (I Corinthians 6.12; cf. 10.23). But he could have – and there is no indication whatsoever that for St. Paul, who polemicised more than any apostle with those who would confuse the grace of the New Testament with the law of the Old, the married state was incompatible with the life of grace.
“For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2.8).
December 9/22, 2000.
Conception by St. Anna of the Most Holy Mother of God.
Icon of the Most Holy Mother of God “Unexpected Joy”.