The 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 to 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.
“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”.
Thank you Father Stephen. This is one of your most beautiful posts.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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
who say we see
yet have no sight –
caught up in all our grand existence
far from light.
Could we say Women discover true Womanhood in Mary because Mary discovered her true identity as a Woman in who Christ was?
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!
“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!
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
‘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.
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).
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.
If women are to be saved surely their identity (like the identity of men) is rooted in Christ rather than in the simple binary of Christ/Men and Mary/Women. If women cannot image Christ or the Divine, there is no point in them following Christ as he cannot be their Saviour. It is possible to go too far down the Christ/Mary binary and in so doing excluding women from being divine image bearers and thus shut out from Salvation.
I think it is indeed possible to make too much of the Christ/Men, Mary/Women binary. We are not describing that which is essential, but that which represents a sort of form and shape which we do not escape in the particularity of existence. As for what Christ can or cannot save – He is the cosmic savior of the whole universe. He saves rocks, trees, grass, the dirt, etc., while not being a rock, a tree, grass or dirt. Mary is what she is because of Christ. She is Christ-Saved Woman – not Self-Saved Woman. Christ alone is the salvation of each and all. We may point to Mary as an example of what Christ-Saved Woman looks like. She is conformed to His image as self-emptying love – but expressed as Mary, not as Jesus. That same self-emptying love, conformity to His image, is uniquely expressed in each, fulfilling who and what they are in the truth of their existence. Mary is a woman and would be distorted were the truth of her existence were somehow neutered or made to disappear in some genderless version of humanity. We have no experience whatsoever of a gender-free human existence.
Can there be a gender free human existence? We are created male and female and that goes much deeper than any modern concept of gender. It is a primary ontological component of who we are.
Risking coming off as reductionist, this binary aspect is a characteristic observable down to our chromosomes.
But I love very much what Fr Stephen mentions above, that we do not describe what is essential but the form and shape in the particularity of our existence.
Thank you for your explanation Fr Stephen and for these words:
‘Christ is the cosmic Savior of the whole universe’ . Such beautiful words and so true.
Some interesting points here but I’m not sure how a Christ-Saved woman would manifest in reality as opposed to a Christ-Saved man. What would be the difference, if any? Mary is a difficult example to cite in relation to women. A virgin mother which from a Freudian perspective we understand represents the ultimate male fantasy is a deeply mixed role model for women and one that we simply cannot follow. When you write of us not having a gender-free experience of course that is correct but gender is not the same as biological sex. There is a binary in terms of male and female mammals based on reproductive function (apart from the relatively few individuals who are intersex) i.e. the male generates and the female generates, gestates and births. Being male or female is set out in our DNA. Gender on the other hand is a set of behaviours and social roles expected on the basis of sex. Gendered behaviours i.e. masculine and feminine (as opposed to male and female) differ between societies and can change over time. A simple example, in the West traditional feminine hairstyles involve having long hair, in other parts of the world e.g. among the Samburu the women have shaved heads while young men have long hair elaborately styled. In past centuries in Europe wealthy men wore as much lace, perfume and rouge as their female counterparts and no one batted an eyelid. Moreover, men and women as individuals have their own personalities which may not fit societal prescribed gender characteristics such as a woman who is not keen on children or makeup or the sensitive man. A likeness I see between the conservative churches (including EO) and the transgender community is a focus on gender identity that overrides everything else often in depressingly stereotypical ways such as when Caitlin Jenner is reported to have said that the hardest part of being a woman was deciding what to wear. If in the transgender community ‘feeling like a woman’ lipstick and stilettos are key to a woman’s identity so head coverings, silence in Churches, not presuming to teach one’s betters and generally simpering about the place is critical to a woman’s gendered identity in conservative Christianity. While I agree with you that when we talk of the Christ/men, Mary/women binary we are not describing anything essential but is part and parcel of embodied living. However, the Church by prescribing roles and characteristics based on particular beliefs about gender and as such, going beyond the mere fact of biological sex, undermines the universal message of Christ and the individual’s response to that message irrespective of their sex.
I cannot imagine a human individual “irrespective of their sex.” This is an idealized notion of our humanity that is modern in origin. I have no defense for the nonsense of conservative Christianity. I can only speak to Orthodox teaching and practice. Over time, a fundamental part of our salvation is learning that it is God who is God and not we ourselves. That is a slow thing. But much that we encounter today is simply passion-driven individualism that is a manifestation of the manifold character of our sin.
I agree 100% with your observation that the puerile obsessions of the “conservative churches” and the “transgender community” are just two sides of the same coin. I hope more people start noticing this!
Speaking only as someone who has cared about, prayed about, read about and talked about sex and gender in the Church for as long as I have not been a nihilist, I offer you my assurance that the Orthodox Church does not fit into the stereotype of American conservative Christian churches. Sure, some people do– but you find them everywhere, regardless of faith or experience or anything else.
There are some surface similarities between the Orthodox church and others— the male priesthood being the obvious example. But the theological framework that supports what the Church does is a completely different animal than the toxic reasoning that prevails elsewhere. If it were not so, if Orthodoxy were just another misogynist wolf in sheep’s clothing, then most of us could not and would not bear it.
Hi Fr Steven. Is the ultimate ideal form for man and women not husband and wife but mother and son? Somebody brought up Freud…how does mother-son relationship relate to marriage? Maybe there is some connection with the wedding at Cana?
I don’t think mother-son would be the ideal form. First – there are daughters. Second – there are no sons without husbands. Scripturally, the pattern is man/woman as husband/wife.
Tess, I have long said that anyone who thinks being Orthodox requires a woman to be subservient has never met an Orthodox woman. A quote I like from the Russian tradition: “Bishops die, Babushkas live forever”
If we still had coffee hour I would invite you to come and visit. You would see a plethora of “Christ saved women” including my wife. They come in all ages, sizes, socio-economic status, physical appearance, marriage status. But somehow each and everyone of them is clearly identifiable to the most casual observer as a woman and most as a Lover of Christ.
As a Christian man, it is wonderful to experience. Challenging, invigorating and usually quite joyful. It allows men to fulfill our headship role without worrying about being in control or worrying about the outcome. Sin still intervenes but there is an answer for that too: repent.
It is really quite simple. Modernity complicates everything.
As far as Freud is concerned I always felt this song was quite apt: