A reflection by Sarah
This post is long overdue, and for more than one reason. Much has happened since Lindsey wrote our last post while sitting beside my hospital bed two months ago. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for all the support our readers have extended to Lindsey and me throughout my illness. You folks and our local friends have done so much to keep our hope alive at times when we’ve barely been hanging onto it.
To bring those who don’t know up to speed, after more than a year of being seriously ill with Ménière’s disease I underwent a vestibular neurectomy in July. This turned quickly into three separate surgeries after the initial procedure failed due to my neuroanatomy having some unusual features. I needed a second procedure to repair a leak after cerebrospinal fluid started gushing out of my nose and head, and a third procedure requiring a different entry point to my skull finally brought a successful result. It goes without saying that July was a stressful month for us. I spent three times as many days in ICU as what we had anticipated. These days I’m feeling much better, thank God. I wouldn’t wish what I went through this summer upon anyone, but my days in the hospital were transformative for Lindsey and me in ways we are still sorting out and probably will be for some time. I’ve been trying to find the right words to describe the experience for the past two months, but I can’t. I’m still thinking on it, and I’m sure I’ll be writing more on this in the future.
One thing I can say for certain is that I was reminded of how important it is to recognize within myself the image and likeness of God, and to see the same in others even though none of us ever live fully into being icons as we were created to be. If I’m going to make any attempt at living into this calling, I have to be authentically me regardless of where I am spiritually. I can’t hide behind fear of what others will think of me once they see how imperfect a Christian I am. That’s why today, it’s time for another “coming out” of sorts.
When Lindsey and I began writing here at AQC, we intended to make our writings as accessible as possible to readers across a variety of Christian traditions and theological viewpoints. That remains a goal of ours, but it’s time to be more authentic. Lindsey and I are members of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. We never had any illusions that our readers would fail to see this in our posts. We’re probably more aware than anyone of how painfully obvious it is and has been since the beginning of our writing project. By this point, we’ve received hundreds of requests from readers that we state the name of our tradition publicly. The time for that is long overdue, and I’m ashamed to admit how much of our hesitation to do so has come from fear of excommunication, of creating a difficult situation for our priest and parish, and of Orthodox internet trolls who are priests more often than not. Today, I’m throwing caution to the wind because someone has to have the courage to speak out. I feel that I’ve waited long enough for a priest or someone with authority to begin this conversation, and that doesn’t seem to be happening.
The state of affairs in American Orthodoxy, especially since the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage, is troubling. It’s beyond troubling, and I would go so far as to call it scandalous.
When I converted to Orthodoxy, I thought I was signing on for a spiritually challenging journey in the ancient faith, where every person would be treated with care and respect because we are all made in God’s image. I thought I was joining a tradition that pushes each person to be asking always, “What is the cost of following Christ? Am I willing to pay that cost? How can I submit myself more fully to God so that I become increasingly willing to follow Christ wherever he leads?” I thought I was becoming part of a Church where I would find what I saw as lacking in my previous Christian tradition (Catholicism). I saw evidence of all these things during my period as an inquirer and catechumen, but soon after my conversion I began to notice that when rubber meets the road, Orthodox Christians are not treated as though we all have the same level of dignity.
I have found myself within a tradition where people are so obsessed with marriage that they cannot offer guidance to LGBTQ people beyond, “Don’t have sex. Don’t get married. We don’t perform gay marriages. Oh, and by the way, don’t use words like ‘gay’ because 99% of people who use that label are sexually active outside of marriage.” I receive these messages and start to wonder what planet their giver has been living on for the past two decades or more, because that last statement is blatantly false and the other statements are just plain unhelpful to someone making an honest effort at living fully into the Orthodox tradition. I grow weary of attempting to explain that many people see sexual orientation as something mysterious that involves significantly more than desiring sex. I grow weary of receiving generic answers to questions about sexual orientation, or answers that sound more like lines from a 1970s psychology text than legitimate spiritual direction. I grow weariest of hearing from LGBTQ Orthodox friends who are trying their very best to do what is asked of them only to be told that they are not fit for any vocation, ought to live as a hermit on the outskirts of a monastery to avoid interaction with either men or women, and should stop talking to the faithful who attend Divine Liturgy.
As Lindsey and I have stated before, the aftermath of Obergefell vs. Hodges has been particularly difficult for us. Had it not been for Lindsey’s ability to add me to employer-sponsored health insurance as a domestic partner, my health problems would be bankrupting us. This would be the case even if I had health insurance through an exchange, and it would certainly be the case for me as an individual if the two of us were doing life separately. Now that Lindsey no longer has this job and it is unclear whether other places of employment will offer domestic partner benefits, we face a new challenge. We’re terrified of the possibility that one of us might not be able to care for the other at a time when it’s needed most, and few people (liberal or conservative) seem to care very much about this issue. To be clear, neither of us is advocating for the Orthodox Church to change its teachings on marriage and sexuality. Neither of us wants to be married to the other. Even if we were Episcopalian (which is apparently the worst of insults according to many American Orthodox), we would never consider our relationship a marriage. Aside from describing it as an odd combination of skete monasticism and partners living life in service to others in the world, I’m not sure if any word in English is fitting for our arrangement.
Fortunately, we have two spiritual fathers who are willing to journey with us through figuring out what it means to live an unusual vocation. However, it’s troubling that almost every bit of support we receive from within our tradition is private. American Orthodox are so concerned with keeping up appearances and not rocking the boat that we end up forcing anyone with a seemingly unusual problem to stuff all the real human emotions that he or she experiences relative to said problem. “Don’t tell anyone besides your spiritual father. I know you’re doing your best to be faithful, but no one really needs to know that much about you. Your needs are too great. Bear your cross in silence.” These admonishments have been the story of my life since becoming Orthodox. Then when trying to explain that I don’t see my sexual orientation as a cross and I rarely experience sexual desire in the first place…well…I’ll not even go there. Material for another post. Anonymous friends of friends (some of whom are priests) who have encouraged Lindsey and me to get married civilly and either hide it or lie about it so the bishops will never have to think about how to handle our situation…yeah…that’s another blog post as well. If you’re reading this as an Orthodox person and don’t find any of it disconcerting, maybe it’s time to rethink some of your assumptions about people who are different from you.
Lest any of our readers think I am suggesting that LGBTQ people are the only groups of Orthodox Christians who receive these sorts of damaging messages, I have to say that my experience in Orthodoxy has made me aware of all kinds of situations where people who don’t fit the box are dismissed as problems who aren’t the Church’s responsibility. It grieves my heart when an Orthodox friend with a severe disability tells me that his priest will not help him solve a problem because he’s supposedly mooching off the parish’s working members whose taxes pay for his disability check. It grieves me equally when a friend who was born and raised in the Orthodox faith is advised to ignore a mental health diagnosis and “suck it up” in order to avoid the passion of despondency. It adds to my own depression when I observe Orthodox Christians ranting about how stewardship of the earth is nothing more than liberalism akin to support for gay marriage.
Somehow, we in the American context have become okay with dismissing real world problems that don’t impact us personally, and by extension making it taboo to talk about those topics at all. I’ve known Orthodox priests who have told me that racism doesn’t exist when I’ve raised issues of concern for my friends who are black or Hispanic. I have been told by priests that there is nothing good about deafness, and I should not view my hearing loss as linked to any sort of positive cultural identity…so Russians can identify with Russian expressions of faith, Romanians can identify with Romanian expressions of faith, but apparently there’s no way a legitimate expression of faith could emerge from the Deaf community. I once knew a priest who refused to wear an FM system to help me hear on the grounds that it would give me an unfair advantage over everyone else who can’t hear what is being said in the altar.
What troubles me most is that I’ve never seen any purveyors of these messages being challenged to reconsider their beliefs. I’m constantly being asked to reconsider mine simply because I’m a celibate person who uses LGBTQ language. As a Church (at least in America), we allow certain heresies to slide because they aren’t as bad as others. We excuse a person who holds heretical views relative to care for God’s creation and care for the least of these, but we can’t even throw a bone to a person who serves unwillingly as the parish’s symbolic reminder that society at large accepts gay marriage.
I refuse to believe that Lindsey and I are the only two Orthodox Christians who see these problems as the Church’s failure to be Christ to others. Again for clarity, I wrote this post not to complain about a mean, man-made religion that can do nothing but oppress and abuse people. I wrote this because I would like to believe that all of us can do better. The way American Orthodox Christians have been behaving since the Supreme Court decision is but one example of how desire to serve as Tradition Keeper can harm our witness. I want to believe again in an Orthodox Church where every person is treated with the same care and regard we give our icons every Sunday. It was not my intention to join the church of the white, wealthy, able-bodied, educated, straight, cisgender republican, and I’m not any more interested in the church of the [insert appropriate adjectives here] democrat. I’m interested in being part of the Church with the whole messy bunch of us as we journey together toward theosis. Sometimes I ask myself, “Where did it go? I thought it was here somewhere.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking back to my first communion as a Catholic. I was so excited to encounter Christ in the Eucharist that I nearly ran up to the altar, and I probably would have if I hadn’t been slowed down by a nun. I wonder, where is the Christ I sprinted toward as a young Catholic? He’s certainly not the person whose message I see being preached in a number of American Orthodox parishes. We can do better. I can do better. I’m sure I’ve written at least one piece of accidental heresy at some point, so I’m no more above reproach than those with the attitudes I’m calling out today. Brothers and sisters, please show me the Church again and I’ll try to do the same for you again. Otherwise, I just don’t know how long I’ll last.
(I expect this post will get lots of comments, and at least some of those will be from people who are eager to tell me how wrong I am about everything I’ve said here and elsewhere on the blog. I’ll engage in honest intellectual dialogue with any reader who is seeking such whether he or she considers me a heretic or not. Here’s your reminder to read our comment policy. We will not allow our comments section to become just another vitriolic place on the Orthodox internet. If the only thing you feel inclined to tell me is that people like me are attempting to destroy the Church, it is probably better for your salvation and mine if you refrain from commenting.)
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