Male and Female – Part Two

virginmarykievThe truth of our existence is largely hidden. Much of what we do know is fleeting, restricted to the surface of our lives and subject to constant revision. Both St. Paul and St. John reflect this reality in their writings:

Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col 3:2-4)


Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1Jo 3:1-2)

This hiddenness is the truth of our existence. In my previous article, I wrote on the “binary” character of that existence. Humanity is spoken of in terms of male and female from the very beginning. I noted that St. Maximus described male and female as “energies” of our human nature. I also noted that the imagery of male and female is part of the very grammar of the Christian story of salvation.

But what does it mean to say that?

This is where the mystery begins. For declaring that we are male or female does not suddenly mean that we have said something that we fully understand. Obviously gendered existence is related to procreation – but it extends well beyond that. Procreation itself participates in the mystery of our being.

In the quotes from Sts. Paul and John, the hiddenness of our existence is primary. And in both cases, what is hidden remains hidden until the appearing of Christ Himself. We are created in the image and likeness of God, but the truth of the image is found not in us, but in Christ Himself. In some manner we have to confess that even the gendered quality of our lives will not be clear until we see it in Christ.

As the years have gone by, I have become increasingly aware of how much I am “like” my family. I see my father’s face looking at me in the mirror (and it is the face of an old man). I also see aspects of his story reflected in my own, as though my life were only a continuation of his (despite my best efforts). And I see the same thing as I look at my brothers, and my children. We are unmistakably related.

I see this primarily in the three generations with which I am most familiar. But I could well imagine that what I see in three generations would equally be true of four or five, or even the whole stretch of my family tree. We are fractals of one another – we are not duplicates, but our lives rhyme. And we will not understand the rhyming unless and until we hear the first Word spoken.

This mystery extends to the whole of our lives – even to our sin. For we do not sin like a tree (I have no idea what the sin of a tree would look like). When we sin, it is a very human thing. And though our sin is a brokenness, a disruption within the fractal pattern, it is nevertheless related toFractal-Pictures-3 the pattern. I have often noticed that the very things I do not like within myself (they form the patterns of my shame) are, in their root, very good things. For example, I talk too much – as did my mother. But the problem is also related to a gift. It sometimes distorts the gift, but the distortion could not occur were not the gift present in the first place.

This is also part of our male and female, gendered being. What we experience as male and female is itself a fractal of something else, Male and Female, we could perhaps call them. C.S. Lewis once wrote that “with regard to God, we are all female.” That may well be so – Lewis seems to have thought a great deal about the topic – particularly for someone who is not part of our present cultural conversation (he died in 1963).

It has been noted that even in same-sex relationships, there is commonly a differentiation, a “male and femaleness” that goes by other names. It seems that even when we depart from the pattern, we do not leave the pattern behind. We do not thus have “same-sex” so much as other expressions of male and female. We have no other grammar for the sex of our being.

I’ll ignore the rightness of wrongness of all of this. It is easy in the details of our cultural debate to lose sight of what lies hidden beneath it all. All of us, regardless of how we experience ourselves, are still seeking a hidden male or a hidden female: we do not transcend gender. We must also recognize that the search is deeply troubling for some and not at all clear for others.

I often think of people as being very much like Middle-Schoolers (adolescents). Their world is a very bumpy, irregular world, full of experiment and failure, triumph and shame. It is very much related to identity. Childhood is being left behind and adulthood approaches – and the journey is surrounded by bullies and cliques and every choice seems wrong. I cringe in public when I see a young man making the same mistakes (or similar mistakes) to my own adolescence. Some deep sympathy wants to take him aside and reassure him that it will turn out fine and that he need not try so hard. I’m sure such advice fell on my deaf ears from time to time.

But what is given us in the body of the Tradition is a revelation, an icon and a trumpet, announcing the prototype and true Image of our existence. The fractals that are our lives are a very long way removed from the original. Lewis occasionally ventured to imagine what it would be like to stand before the Original. It is marked both with recognition and with awe. A true Woman is a “terrible” thing to behold (in the original sense of the word). When Pontius Pilate uttered his, “Behold the Man,” he said more than he knew. The Original Man stood in his presence, or rather Pilate stood in the Presence. What was it like? That Man made Pilate’s every pretense of power and authority wither. In the end, he could only wash his hands, hoping to remove the fear of what he had seen. But he saw what no one can forget: the Man.

Orthodox and Catholics are often accused of worshipping the Virgin Mary. It is not true, but I understand the complaint. In the first place, we dare to look at her. And as we look at her, we find that her words become true: “All generations will call me blessed.” And we bless her, discovering that we cannot take our eyes away from her. She is the mother of us all.

The truth of our existence will not be found in cultural arguments or legal pronouncements. Everyone of us, regardless of our life experience, is estranged from the truth of our being. It remains “hidden with Christ in God,” and waiting for His appearing. Only when Christ appears (and He will appear with His mother) will we see what until then has been hidden.

In this life, we are given things that point us in the right direction. Sacraments and icons abound, and each one partakes and makes present the Prototype of our lives. I cannot know myself as a man (male) until I see it in the Man (Christ). A woman will know herself as woman (female) as she comes to see it in the Woman (Mary). And this is true as it goes deeper. The less deeply it is examined, the less clearly it will be seen. But one day, it all will be seen. Be patient.


  1. “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is”.

    “Be patient”.

    Thank you Father Stephen. This is one of your most beautiful posts.

  2. Fr. Stephen, I just want to say I love your choice for pictures for these two articles – any lesser preacher would have had naked/fig-leafed Adam and Eve, but with clothed, redeemed A&E at Pascha and a photorealistic icon of the Theotokos you immediately illustrate how this is pervasive throughout the Tradition before one even reads your actual words!

    For declaring that we are male or female does not suddenly mean that we have said something that we fully understand.

    I don’t think this has been stressed nearly enough for either side of this, and the lack of understanding of that lack of understanding has been a stumbling block for so many.

  3. Matt,
    I think it is incumbent on us to be clear that we’re not trying to restore some sort of once-upon-a-time civilization. The male and female of the Church and the Scriptures is transcendent in some manner. Something that has been lost and distorted.

    Charles Williams, CS Lewis, or Tolkien had a deep sense of all of this – something that I would suggest is a profound aspect of the writings of the Inklings (Barfield, too, in his own way). I feel at a loss when writing about this – particularly when I write about Mary to the non-Orthodox. They simply do not know what I mean and too easily imagine that I mean something that I do not.

    The Mary-less versions of Christianity have truly been lacking in something – and their cultures echo that lack. I can say that within Orthodox cultures, men and women have varied cultural expressions, but women as weak, or oppressed, or “the weaker sex,” etc., flies in the face of a thorough-going place of the Mother of God within the psyche of the nation.

    For Russia, she is repeatedly their intercessor, and even the one who defeats their enemies. The place this holds within the heart is completely opaque in the Protestant West. All that is left in the West is not a glorification of the feminine, but the desire of the feminine to ape the masculine, for it’s the only image that is given value. It is not a binary understanding – but quite singular. It is deeply flawed.

  4. Dear Father: This is a really tough problem! It is not only the sinfulness of homosexuality that must be considered, but the chemistry of instinct and revulsion. Normal people find its ambiance and ethos as something approaching necromancy, especially young people. I’ll never forget being picked up hitch-hiking at thirteen by such a fellow! In Russian this proclivity is called ‘nenormalnii’, I don’t know how to translate that word. I am grateful that we have wonderful Priests and genuine love. They have to be helped somehow.

  5. Our moments flee away-
    and where is it that they go?
    Moments of reflection,
    moments of connection,
    moments of frail confidence
    in who we are
    in You.

    Lord of Eternity,
    above and beyond
    time & space,
    Lord of Heaven
    calling in whispers
    to our hearts & minds.

    How is it that you see us
    in the day that to us is night?
    & how your heart must grieve
    yet long
    for us
    who say we see
    yet have no sight –
    caught up in all our grand existence
    far from light.

  6. Could we say Women discover true Womanhood in Mary because Mary discovered her true identity as a Woman in who Christ was?

  7. Mark,

    This is absolutely beautiful. I will take this poem with me from this blog. A heart felt “Thank you. It will remind me often. God bless you!

  8. Fr. Stephen,

    “We are fractals of one another – we are not duplicates, but our lives rhyme. And we will not understand the rhyming unless and until we hear the first Word spoken.”

    This post is very helpful for me. The image of fractals speaks strongly to me.

    Thank you, again!

  9. I take back what I said about the disappearance of Freud and Jung from our cultural conversation. This idea of the deeply implanted anima and animus, which we find our true individuation in relation to as we slough off the vestiges of the inauthentic self, very much resonates here. I don’t believe in worshipping at the altar of Jung and Freud as many do (believe me, there are still millions of them out there among the new agers) but I do think there many be common ground here we Orthodox can use to speak truth to darkness.

    Listen to Adam Phillips (a brilliant Freudian) trash Richard Dawkins’ style thinking in a way that resonates deeply with what might say

  10. Simeon Richard

    ‘nenormalnii’ (ненормальный) – literally means ‘not normal’
    In everyday language is used to describe somebody not rational, crazy, creepy, deviant, not in his right mind and it depend on situation very much. Also this particular form is masculine, there are of course feminine and neutral forms, as well.

  11. I’m making a list of the pictures used in this series for my own blog post and I’d just like to add that the fractal image is Flowers for You by an artist who goes by SuicideBySafetyPin on deviantArt. Just thought I’d mention that since the source if you try Google Image Search is rather tragically buried on page 6 under a pile of clipart/wallpaper aggregator sites (and even that is itself a link to another fractal by another artist).

  12. @Fr. Stephen:

    You’ve been bringing up St. Maximus the Confessor, so I thought I’d read more about him, and I ran across a summary of his Life of the Virgin. There was a lot I’d never heard or thought about before, like the active role Mary played in Christ’s earthly ministry, or witnessing the Resurrection. The local college library has a copy, so I’m going to have to go take a closer look at it.

    So thanks for pointing me in that direction.

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