In homily 15, St. Isaac The Syrian speaks of the importance of avoiding monks who are lax and negligent. This laxity, according to St. Isaac, is manifest chiefly in talkativeness and gluttony. However, between his discussion of these two passions and the need to avoid monks who are captivated by them, St. Isaac mentions those monks who have a “special affection for youths.”
To be clear, St. Isaac says that such “special affection…is abominable fornication before God.” However, what strikes me as particularly interesting and potentially helpful for those who struggle with this passion is that for him sexual attraction to persons of the same sex is nothing more than a passion similar to (and perhaps fuelled by) talkativeness and gluttony. Certainly, talkativeness and gluttony are terrible passions and can be for many of us a life-long struggle. But in the Orthodox Tradition, talkativeness and gluttony are not identities.
Someone is not a glutton so long as they are struggling against the passion. They are as every other faithful believer who struggles against passions, and all Christians struggle against passions. And even if someone has given themselves completely over to gluttony, “glutton” is not who they are. Who they are is hidden in Christ even though they have become a slave to a passion. Furthermore, repentance and humility are still possible. That is, by hating the passion and calling to God for mercy and grace, repentance is still possible—even at the last moment of life in this world. The humility and tears that come from the painful struggle against the passions are much more precious to God than the stench of pride that may come from apparently conquering the passion.
For St. Isaac, young monks need to guard themselves from monks with “a special affection for youths” in the same way they also guard themselves from monks who talk too much and eat too much. For St. Isaac, same-sex attraction is not a matter of identity, but of passion, passion like talking and eating too much. It is a passion that can be controlled and in some few cases eventually silenced. However, and this is very important, a lifetime of struggle against the passions is not a failure, but a victory. It is not a failure to fall, but it is a failure not to get back up again. It is not a failure to be tempted every day of your life, but it is a failure to tell yourself it doesn’t matter and to come to love your sin. But even then, failure is not the end, for even a very big fall, a fall that has lasted many years, can be repented of. God is always seeking the one sheep that has gone astray.
St. Isaac is not the only monastic father who looks at same-sex attraction as a passion like other passions and not as something unusual. In the letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John (252 – 338), St. Barsanuphius writes to his spiritual son, the future St. Dorotheos of Gaza. Even before Dorotheos confesses his struggle with “the brother regarding whom I am tempted,” St. Barsanuphius, being clairvoyant, encourages Dorotheos saying, “learn what the adulterous woman did: in her tears she washed the feet of the Master.” Perhaps it was this encouragement that gave Dorotheos the courage in his next letter to confess explicitly that he was “greatly tormented by the thoughts of fornication, cowardice, and despondency [related to] the brother regarding whom I am tempted.”
St. Barsanuphius responds by encouraging Dorotheos to stand strong in his resistance to this temptation telling him that he, himself, St. Barsanuphius, also had a daily five-year struggle with the demon (thoughts) of fornication. He overcame the demon (thoughts of fornication) through unceasing prayer and tears—like the adulterous woman at Jesus’ feet. Then St. Barsanuphius gives Dorotheos some practical advice in his struggle against this passion. He says, “distract your glance from him with fear and firmness, and do not release your hearing toward his voice. Even if this brother, of his own accord, unknowingly speaks to or sits beside you, remove yourself discreetly and modestly without any sudden movement.”
This is pretty much the same practical advice any spiritual father or mother gives to anyone struggling with any passion: gently and discreetly avoid the triggers for the passion. Does a certain place trigger your desire to fornicate or eat and drink inappropriately? Avoid it. Does a certain person arouse lustful desires or talkativeness in you, avoid them. But, you may ask, “what if I offend them by avoiding them?” It is better to offend them a little by avoiding them, than to offend them even more greatly by leading them into sin through talkativeness, fornication or gluttony.
We live in a generation that has been taught to tie their personal identity to their imagined sexual preferences. Consequently, it is difficult to help people who struggle with sexual passions to find hope and repentance. However, the teaching of holy fathers such as St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Barsanuphius of Gaza provide a very helpful alternative to the world’s way of thinking about such passions. For these saints, same-sex attraction is a passion like any other. It is not part of one’s identity, but is a parasitical passion, resisted and struggled against as all other passions are.