St. Gregory Palamas in his homily to the people of Thessaloniki on the day of Pentecost ends with a warning. It seems the “Barbarian” Serbian army was threatening the city of Thessaloniki at the time, and according to St. Gregory, deliverance from God would come only if the people repented. The people were to repent particularly from four sins that St. Gregory names: fornication, adultery, effeminate homosexuality and aggressive homosexuality (the last two Greek terms have no exact translation into English, but refer to two contexts in which one might engage in homosexual immorality, much as the first two terms refer to two contexts in which one might engage in heterosexual immorality.)
Two things in this warning seem significant to me for the Church in North America today. The first is that St. Gregory makes no significant distinction between homosexual and heterosexual immorality. One is not more heinous than the other. One is not more “natural” than the other–at least not for a Christian. For the Christian, what is according to nature is not determined by biology–as though it were our likeness to horses that determined what natural behaviour is for us. For the Christian, what is according to nature is determined by the image of God, Jesus Christ, the very image in which we were created, the very image to which we are being restored. To deviate from this image is to be unnatural.
In ancient Greek culture homosexuality did not carry the cultural taboo that has developed in North America over the last couple of hundred years. For St. Gregory, there was no cultural reason why he could not group together these four types of sexual immorality. Even in the context of a sermon on the day of Pentecost, St. Gregory could publicly exhort the people of Thessaloniki to repent of these specific forms of immorality. It was not in the closet–or if it was, St. Gregory didn’t allow it to stay there. He publicly urged his people to repent of sexual sin. Without self-righteousness and without arrogance, with no grandstanding and with humble compassion, St. Gregory did not allow sexual immorality to remain hidden or unnamed.
The second aspect of this warning that strikes me as significant is that St. Gregory ties the repentance from sexual immorality to deliverance from Barbarian invasion.
More than a few times, I have heard from a young man or woman in confession regarding their sexual behaviour, “It’s not a big deal.” It seems we have been almost completely deluded by our culture, by our media rubbing our face in it all the time, by our technology enabling us to manage unpleasant biological consequences. We have forgotten the image of God. We have forgotten the God who loves His bride faithfully. We have forgotten, it seems, whose children we are, whose image we are to grow into.
Perhaps it is the job of the Barbarians, the terrorists, the atheists and the like to remind us that our behaviour actually is a big deal.
There are many kinds of martyrdom. Perhaps the martyrdom (the witness for Christ) of our time and culture is not to shed our blood publicly. Perhaps the martyrdom of our time is to endure for Christ’s sake in chastity and faithfulness, even when everyone else, it seems, doesn’t.
The suffering one endures to control his passions is just as real as the suffering endured in the Roman arena. To be torn by wild beasts is preferable, it may seem sometimes, to the lonely enduring for Christ’s sake of burning desire. It is martyrdom, only not before the crowds of jeering pagans, but before the crowds of heaven encouraging us to bear suffering for Christ’s sake, encouraging us not to deny Him in the midst of our personal tribulation.
And what of the Barbarians at the gate? God is not mocked. What is hidden will be revealed. However, my job (and the job of every Christian) is not to reveal what others may have hidden in darkness. The wheat and the tares are already growing in God’s field, we cannot separate them. Our job is to bring light to our own darkness. I only can repent. Only the goodness of God, according to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, can lead others to repentance. May God grant us such goodness.
Father bless. I am an Orthodox teenager struggling continuously with the lustful sin of sexual immorality. For years now I have fought vigorously with temptation, but I always seem to fall back into the same sin from which I have been trying to escape. I am constantly sickened by the world's advertisement of sex as a pleasurable shameless ordeal, yet when the time of temptation comes, I myself fall victim to it. Thank you for your encouraging words, for you provided a sense of hope and courage for me just as I was getting discouraged. Please pray for me as I work to overcome this demon, and ask that God may grant me strength to face temptation, along with remission of sins and life everlasting. Amen.
I posted some time ago about my struggle with lustful passions. Shortly thereafter, I felt that I had managed to control my sin with myself, for I abstained from such sins for months. However, a single inappropriate text that was not even supposed to be sent to me reintroduced the temptation to my heart. Since then I have struggled again with the sin, this time perhaps being worse than my first struggle. For a few weeks I confessed the same sin week after week, for I kept committing it, but now I fear inconveniencing my priest with the constant fall back into sin. I feel like he would think I am not trying to repent and follow his council. I wish that I could stop this, and I am filled with regret every time I fail at my resolve, but within a short time my repentant spirit is put aside and I fall back into the same sin. I am beginning to become discouraged, for I have prayed for God's help and strength, but I have not felt it strengthen me, even when I try to push myself away from the sin. I do not know how to keep myself from sinning in the same way over and over again, but I want to end it so desperately.
Dear Anonymous struggler,
I do pray for you. Struggle with sexual sins is a furnace that burns away pride and forges humility. Our deliverance only comes from God as we guard our eyes and heart, attend to our thoughts, and resist physically. The struggle itself reveals to us our brokenness and our dependance on God for salvation. When we see ourselves as weak, then we see God as strong. Keep confessing—it is your priest's job to hear you and pray for you. Your struggles are similar to the struggles everyone experiences. For some people the struggle is sex, for others it is food or alcohol or drugs or arrogance or depression or any of a hundred possible passions. We are broken, and our struggle is how we find healing in this fallen world. God is with us even, maybe especially, when we fail. God came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. I know what you are going through. If you fall, get back up again.
Dear Fr.Michael, thank you for this post.I was wondering what sexual actions are considered sexual immorality in marriage?Are you allowed to do anything as long as you are married?And how did married saints have an active sex life and at the same time a pure heart without lustful feelings?How can you make love with your spouse if there is no desire?I think you get the point of my question.Thank you!