WHEN I ENTERED the Church in 2002 my Spiritual Father, Victor Sokolov (may his memory be eternal!) heard my life confession which included my sexual past. He didn’t ask questions as I read off several pages of text I had written up for this. I followed a preparation for confession that I found online, drawn up by St Cosmas Aitolos, a Greek Monk who died in 1779. I remember it mostly because it asks (among all the other questions), “Did I smoke too much?” It seemed funny to me, an ex-smoker, that there must be smoking not-too-much. It’s that question, though, that we’ll keep coming back to. Did I smoke too much? I had been a pack-a-day smoker in college. Although by this time I was pretty much done, sorta, with smoking. When the Confession was over, Father pointed to the pages and said, “Now, burn those and forget that ever happened.” Would that it was that easy for smoking or any of the other sins on the list.
A Spiritual Father (in the Eastern Church) is rather like a Spiritual Director in the west: someone who shines a light on the way, who taps you on the shoulder and calmly suggests another way to proceed. There are some who seem to think they must require “obedience” of their spiritual children, but that’s an unhealthy bond. Fr V told me one “I’m no starets. If you want one of those, go to a monastery.” Starets means “Elder”. What he was, though, was a Father to me who (like all good fathers) was able to let one make mistakes in order to learn how not to make them any more.
My experience over the last 20 years (thank God for his patience) has been that a couple of sins have come back over and over. Smoking is one – although that’s more of a class of sins: damaging the temple of the body that God gave me: bad stewardship of a generous gift. I’ve gone from over-indulgence to judgmentalism and scrupulosity on this, back and forth across a spectrum until I have reached a place where my conscience is at peace both with those who smoke and with the occasional pipe or cigar on my own part: all God’s gifts are good, when used as they should be. Addiction is not using a gift as it should be used. It’s letting passion take over. We cannot heal that, cannot return the gift to its rightful place until we let reason take over our passions and let the virtue of temperance be inculcated in our heart by the Holy Spirit.
The close reader will notice that I used language from the Catechism there. All of our falls from grace function the same way: a good gift from God is used in ways that it should not be, doing so inflames our passions, and quickly the misuse of the gift becomes an addiction. The Catechism uses this language, speaking of Temperance, in ¶2341 while discussing Chastity.
¶2339 Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. the alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end.”
¶2340 Whoever wants to remain faithful to his baptismal promises and resist temptations will want to adopt the means for doing so: self-knowledge, practice of an ascesis adapted to the situations that confront him, obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, and fidelity to prayer. “Indeed it is through chastity that we are gathered together and led back to the unity from which we were fragmented into multiplicity.”
¶2341 The virtue of chastity comes under the cardinal virtue of temperance, which seeks to permeate the passions and appetites of the senses with reason.
¶2342 Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.
¶2343 Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection and too often by sin. “Man . . . day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.”
¶2344 Chastity represents an eminently personal task; it also involves a cultural effort, for there is “an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.” Chastity presupposes respect for the rights of the person, in particular the right to receive information and an education that respect the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life.
¶2345 Chastity is a moral virtue. It is also a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort. The Holy Spirit enables one whom the water of Baptism has regenerated to imitate the purity of Christ.
Rather than rules, the discussion is one of growth, of acquisition of virtue, and of respect for the process working out in the person’s life.
Such sins are another that haunt me. Within a year of confessing to Fr Victor I was living with a partner and had come to terms with the mental and theological gymnastics it took to make that happen. Then I said to Fr Victor I had to leave SF: because this part of my past kept calling me back. Notice please that I didn’t feel a need to do anything except to move away to fix the issue. For a very long time (several years) I was pretty safe in the Mountain Fastness I had selected (Asheville, NC) but the Internet was also getting more and more social. Eventually, I “met” someone online and the whole game was once again afoot.
The life of Saint Mary of Egypt (d. AD 522) is read as part of Matins in the Byzantine and Orthodox churches on Thursday of the 5th week of Lent. Her life was written down by St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (634–638), from older stories passed down in his monastic community. The original reporter was the monastic elder, St Zosimas, who heard the story from the Saint’s own lips. What follows is not the liturgical text – available online in many places. This is my own retelling. It’s ingrained in my heart.
Saint Mary was born sometime in the early to mid 5th century. We know nothing of her family or background. I imagine that she was poor because she is not averse to manual labor. She busied herself with spinning flax, basket weaving, and other such jobs. She says at the age of 12 she discovered sex: Mary went off to the big city of Alexandria and began to enjoy herself. At this time and culture marriage often took place at the same age, and in those days life expectancy was not then what it is now. Mary is not a child here. She is a girl in her sexual prime doing what youth often do.
In telling the story, Mary was at pains to say she was not a prostitute. She did not want to sell what she enjoyed as she did not think it was fair to be paid for it. She lived this life for 17 years in Alexandria. “This was life to me,” she says. “Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.”
One day Mary saw a group of young men getting ready to get on a boat. In response to her questions about where they were going and why, the men explained that they were going to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, which happens in mid September. Mary asked to go with them not for any pious pursuit, implying rather that it seemed like a fun idea to be the only woman on a boat filled with young men. On the boat ride and during their time in the city of Jerusalem leading up to the feast day, there was nothing she didn’t do. She says that sometimes she even had sex with the young men when they were not willing to do so.
Then came the feast. With all of her new friends-with-benefits, she went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. No matter how many times she tried to get in, she was prevented from entering the church. It was not that the crowds prevented her: she would shove along with everybody else. Yet each time approaching the door she found force holding her back and pushing her off to the side until finally she was alone on the porch of the church, looking at the open door, unable to enter.
Then she turned and saw an icon of Mary the Mother of God. She realized she was not alone and grace cause it to dawn on her why she could not enter. So she prayed and asked the Blessed Virgin to help her enter the church. If she could but enter the church and venerate the Holy Cross, she prayed, she would make amends and change her life, embarking on the path of repentance for the rest of her days. Then, in her greatest Act of Faith, she turned and walked into the church – and she was not held back. She knelt and kissed the holy wood whereupon hung the price of all of our lives and souls and, most dearly, hers.
As she left the church, someone thought she was a beggar and gave her coins, which she used to buy a small amount of food. Then, hearing a voice promise her comfort, she went to the Jordan River and crossed it into the desert, which for the next 17 years became the arena of the Angelic Conquest of her passions.
Mary reports that emotions would sometimes stir her; sometimes lust would catch hold of her, sometimes her cravings for food would drive her wild, and sometimes she would find herself singing songs that she used to sing about sex and vulgarity. At these times she would throw herself on the ground and beg for God’s mercy where she would wrestle with the demons that tormented her. There she would beg to be freed from her passion. After her long battle, one day there came from God an inner peace.
She had lived alone for another 40 or so years when she met Fr Zosima, a priest from a monastery on the Jerusalem side of the Jordan River. He was wandering through the Jordan desert on his Lenten fast.
The priest reported that when he begged her to pray for the Church and she hovered above the sandy floor of the wasteland while praying. She was illiterate and had never been taught scripture yet she could quote it fluently. From her inner sight, she knew Fr Zosima’s name and that he was a priest. She had won her struggle, receiving so much grace from God that she lived in this world partly as the Angels do in the next. She had grown – over decades – into Self Mastery.
She asked the priest to meet her after Easter with the Holy Eucharist. As he came to her from his monastery, he saw her walk across the Jordan to receive the Eucharist from him and then walk back across the water.
A year later, when he went to find her, he found her body lying on the sand. Unable to dig into the hard ground to bury her, he prayed. A lion came and helped him dig.
The Golden Legend is a collection of the Lives of the Saints, compiled around 1260 by Jacobus de Voragine, a priest from Genoa. In it are hundreds of stories collected from around the Church. The entry on St Mary the Egyptian closes with these words:
And Zosimus returned to his abbey and recounted to his brethren the conversation of this holy woman Mary. And Zosimus lived an hundred years in holy life, and gave laud to God of all his gifts, and his goodness that he receiveth sinners to mercy, which with good heart turn to him, and promiseth to them the joy of heaven.
Then let us pray to this holy Mary the Egyptian that we may be here so penitent that we may come thither.
Every year during Orthodox Lent, when the Life of St Mary of Egypt would be read in liturgy, I was moved to tears. I saw in her so much of my own journey: the discovery of sex, the enjoyment of sex, and the life of someone devoted to finding “every kind of abuse of nature”. This was life to me: in fact I identified “myself” as this very thing. Her story had always told me there was hope, a way out, there was not only the chance of change but also the grace-filled reality of it. Then, one year, doing the liturgical service of a lector, I came to the part where she said, “I am amazed, Abba… that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him.” And it hit me that I was speaking for myself. I was unable to finish my reading and a friend seeing my distress stepped in while I went to the corner and wept.
Had I really gone (at that point) nearly 15 years since entering the Church without realizing my sins were selfish, causing the fall of others as well as myself?
Was God really merciful, desiring not the death of a sinner but his conversion?
Yes. And more.
The Church recognizes that to cut someone off from her sacraments because they are not pure enough is to desire the death of sinner as certainly as it would be to bless them in their sins. Both are taking the easy way out, failing to believe in and support the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those he seeks to convert. Beginning with Fr Victor, no priest has ever sent me away: each instead has called me to conversion in love – even when I refused to understand or pretended to be ignorant of what that conversion meant. This is how Fr V and so many other priests have accompanied me on my journey: carefully making sure I stayed on my journey, although I am no where near finished. They call me to
Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life… though self-knowledge, practice of an ascesis adapted to the situations that confront him, obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, and fidelity to prayer.
There are those in the Church who respond to sexual sins in one of two ways: they either ignore these sins by condoning them or they demand instant resolution and purity. Either these sins do not matter, or else they matter too much. We want someone to be “fixed” before they enter the Church, or we say such language is outdated and must be changed. We want to refuse admittance to those who do not fully understand the consequences of their reception. We deny the power of the sacraments, of Christ himself, working in the lives of the persons so rejected. And we refuse to see the working out of salvation, wanting people to be cured before they ever enter the hospital. Both of these groups are afraid of risk.
Those who fit into the first group often want to justify other things as well: their own sins or other changes to doctrine and tradition. They may disguise it as a need for “justice” but what they want is to be Anglicans who can pick and choose from a list of doctrines as they would from a buffet table at the Golden Corral. They may even want to pick things up for now but put them back later ad libitum. They are afraid to risk the possibility that the ancient ways might be truth – that they may, themselves, be required to follow them. They also fear our secular world’s confusion of “tough love” with hate. Those in the second group are afraid that they will be contaminated by impurity. They are also afraid that by letting in “Those People” the church will be made to change her teaching – as if that was possible at all. They are afraid they will be damned for loving too much as if there was such a thing. For love – real Love – can never be “too much”. Both groups, in their risk aversion, will only love so much: only to a point. Both groups trip up the weaker brother who need conversion and can only get there by love.
We need Christians that will love so much that they teach what the Church teaches, and are not afraid either to say those teachings out loud. Nor are they afraid to forgive those who do not yet fully embody those teachings. We need Spiritual Fathers and Mothers, elder Brother and Sisters in the faith. This is real accompaniment: to walk with, equally guiding and guarding in love, bringing the Christian to self-mastery.