Mt. Athos, in popular treatments, is often described as a “male enclave,” a place where no woman has set foot in a thousand years (this is not actually true). The exclusion of women from the Holy Mountain is deeply offensive to some (cf. European Union) and is imagined as a bastion of machismo in a cassock. It is therefore strange to discover, when you visit the Holy Mountain, that the central figure in its life is a woman: the Mother of God. She is described as the “Abbess of the Holy Mountain.” It is her icon, Axion Estin, that has the place of central honor in the course of the year (she is carried from the Protaton Church to visit the surrounding monasteries on Bright Monday). Indeed, I believe the Holy Mountain would be a place of deep distortion were the Theotokos not given such prominence. There is no wholeness for human beings that is not also a wholeness of male and female: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Gen. 2:18).
I have seen some recent conversations (and heard presentations at conferences) that ponder the influx of young men into Orthodox Churches in America. Spiritual pundits draw various conclusions about the phenomenon (some even suggesting that credit should be given to podcasters and bloggers!). I give credit to the providence of God that is always at work in all things drawing all things together into one (Eph. 1:10). But, of the things that God means to draw together into one, I take it to be pre-eminent that the union of male and female is chief among them.
One conversation that I’ve heard has asked the question, “What do young men need to learn?” It is, unfortunately, only half the question. We cannot teach men apart from women. If masculinity is disordered, femininity will be distorted as well. The destruction of men and women has been a constant by-product of the sexual revolution of the past century and the present. It only ever asked half a question and offered answers that destroyed the very context of our existence. We are a deeply disordered society – and this at the most fundamental levels.
The sexual revolution was constructed with the dynamics of criticism. What had gone before had flaws, injustice, unaddressed oppressions, and foundations in a variety of false narratives. To point out the flaws and deconstruct the edifice is easy work. To build something better, something true, something whole, is hard work, indeed, and it has received almost no attention. Building a civilization is among the hardest tasks that human beings ever undertake. Destoying them can be the work of an evening.
Karl Stern, in his classic work, The Flight from Woman (1965), spends time discussing the difference between scientific knowledge and poetic knowledge. There are many ways to frame this distinction. “Scientific knowledge” describes knowledge that is “outside” of us: such as objective, verifiable, experimental results. “Poetic knowledge” (by far the harder to describe) refers to the knowledge we have from the “inside.” It is what we know because it is us, or because we have a participation in its life. Scientific knowledge gives us an ability to master and control the world around us. It also gives us a knowledge that is “alien” to us.
…poetic knowledge is acquired by union with and attachment to the object; scientific knowledge is acquired by distance and detachment from the object. (p. 74)
Living in a world of machines can be wonderfully abundant but lonely and isolating. Even when we study other humans, with scientific knowledge we place them in a category that we loathe: that of objects.
Poetic knowledge is a reality seeking for a name. Its difficulty in finding an apropos name is itself indicative of its very nature. We all have it, we cannot live without it, and we have a hard time describing it or defending the conclusions that it presses on our reality.
We want to live in a beautiful world while finding ourselves in a world designed for profit and manageability. We want empathy from the people around us, but discover that having to explain what we mean (much less to actually ask for that quality) defeats the very purpose of our desire. The machines in our world will not try harder simply because we are having a bad day.
I suggest Stern’s book to anyone wanting to explore this distinction further. Fr. Tom Hopko held it in great regard and recommended it.
But all of this brings me back to the problem of male and female in the life of the world and in the life of the Church. Hopko once opined that issues surrounding male and female would be a profound source of heresy in this century – one that would mark our time the way Arianism marked the 4th century. His words were prescient. I believe that the problem is compounded by the fact that we are considering something that is largely rooted in “poetic knowledge.” Though it is certainly the case that there is a fairly straight-forward biological definition of male and female (despite the present confusion maintained by some), stating a biological fact doesn’t even begin to address the mystery.
We are embodied beings and we cannot experience the world in a disembodied form. To describe our bodies from the outside (scientific knowledge) says nothing about what it is like to actually be that embodied person. This becomes yet more complex when the reality of who and what we are extends beyond my body and encompasses the bodies that are around me. For the terms “male” and “female” have no meaning in and of themselves – they are relational terms. Thus it is true that men cannot know what it is to be male without, in some manner, knowing what it is to be male-in-relation-to-female. The same is true of women. In perhaps the most tortured passage in all of St. Paul’s writings he says (profoundly):
… man [is not] independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman is from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God. (1 Cor. 11:12)
Poetic knowledge comes in a patient act of listening and reflection. It is often spoken in signs and symbols. In the life of the Church the story of Adam and Eve are profoundly intertwined with the story of salvation itself. Male and female are not just bits of biological necessity – they are sacramental elements in the wonder of theosis.
Modern Christianity has largely followed the lead of the culture. We have listened uncritically to the messaging of what it means to be male and female (largely derived from concepts grounded in consumerist and modern philosophies) while ignoring the poetic knowledge of the tradition. Thus, we have a genderless Jesus saving men and women as though they were genderless drones (which is pretty much what the world wants – “worker bees”). Modern theologies treat the mother of God and the entire drama of Christ’s nativity as nothing more than an “arrival” story, without any consideration for the full nature of what is taking place.
Mary’s conception of Christ is first foretold in Genesis: “And your seed will bruise his head” (Gen. 3:15). The coming of the Messiah, as prophesied in Isaiah, is specifically told in terms that engage human sexuality: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a child” (Is. 7:14). These, and other such references, are not incidental, but integral to our salvation.
By the same token, our own humanity (how is this not obvious?) is the story of generations of conceptions and births. We do not exist as genderless worker bees, but as embodied, engendered human beings, male and female, and the mystery of who we are cannot be spoken without uttering that very same mystery.
It is not accident, nor a product of some historical prejudice, that the priesthood of the Church is borne by men (and only a very few men, at that). Neither is it an accident that the Mother of God holds such a central place in the liturgies and piety of the Church. The poetic reality of our being, particularly our being as justified, sanctified, deified human beings, is drawn forth in the poetic imagery and speech of the Church. It speaks to the heart when the heart can hear it.
What shall we do with young men? What shall we do with young women? What shall we do with the rest of us as well? We must sing the Lord’s song, and sing it well, until the generations of the moment and of the years to come can begin to hear that it is the song of their true lives. It is God’s love song to us all, sung in a human key. It is also the key of the Divine, but only the most silent hearts can hear that.
I have more to say on this, but it will have to wait.