The Hardest Question

A reflection by Lindsey

We’ve been at this blog for a while, and a lot of people send us questions. I’m a person who freezes when faced with an uncomfortable question as much as I want to be a person who lives out a vocation categorized by radical hospitality and vulnerability. I believe that every person is invited into a vocation of manifesting God’s kingdom in the world. As an Orthodox Christian, I rejoice to be a part of a church where I can see people from seemingly every tribe, tongue, and nation coming together during weekly liturgies. I am amazed during services like Agape Vespers and Pentecost when people proclaim the Gospel in their native languages. I love how the Orthodox Church maintains that there is only one liturgy where sometimes I’ve seen four generations of people approaching the chalice together. There is something inspiring and amazing about watching an infant carried to the cup in the arms of his or her great-grandparent. In the Orthodox Church, I’ve seen arguably the clearest picture of what it means to be united into one faith. I love the Orthodox tradition, and I’ve come to rejoice in being a child of the Church. However, even standing in full appreciation of everything I’ve learned as an Orthodox Christian, one question that we get frequently as we blog stops me in my tracks.

How has your Christian tradition supported and encouraged you as you live out your vocation?

I’ve avoided answering this question for quite some time because, when I answer it honestly, the answer is “We haven’t received much support when it comes to living out our vocation.”

Like Sarah, I’m a convert to Orthodoxy. My journey to Orthodoxy started in 2007. By that point, I had already discerned that I am not called to biological parenting so I was eagerly exploring celibate ways of life. Additionally, I also knew that I was somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum regarding how I experienced my sexuality and gender identity. Somewhat ironically, my first serious invitation to explore the Orthodox tradition came from a person I met through the Gay Christian Network. I wasn’t a stranger to the challenges associated with being a LGBTQ Christian, and I investigated how the Orthodox tradition approached walking with LGBTQ folks. The resources were incredibly scant. One could argue that the most thorough discussion on the topic is the late Fr. Thomas Hopko’s book Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections. All along the way, I received assurance that the Orthodox Church approached these matters pastorally.

Pastorally can be a tricky word in the Orthodox tradition. In its ideal form, pastoral matters are worked out by talking with a priest you consider your spiritual father who knows you and your situation intimately well. Additionally, it is hard to experience pastoral care before one is received fully into the tradition because receiving pastoral care is connected to participating in the sacraments. In the Orthodox Church as found in the United States, it is common to discuss pastoral matters of spiritual direction in the context of sacramental confession. While the structure has definite perks, it also comes with a serious drawback that one’s priest is already thinking in terms of sin and repentance when approached with questions about vocation. One can’t assume that one’s local parish priest will be able to serve as a good confessor, even for rather routine discussions of sin and repentance. Many Orthodox Christians have shared with me about their challenges of finding a good confessor. It’s not terribly uncommon to drive an hour or more to meet with one’s confessor. Furthermore, a parish priest might not be the best person to talk with about the particulars of one’s vocation. Through a series of fits and starts, many priests started to recommend that I talk with monastics about how to live a celibate life.

I love meeting monastics. It can be amazing to witness the diversity of monastic life. I’ve had the privilege of meeting monastics living in three countries–the United States, the United Kingdom, and Romania. I’ve met monastics living in small communities of five to twelve monastics, in large communities of as many as 500 monastics, in sketes where two monastics live together, and living alone while attached to a parish. Over the years, my heart has done backflips of joy as I’ve seen yet another celibate way of living out faith. I’ve devoured works like Letters to a Beginner by Abbess Thaisia, Encounter by Metropolitian Anthony Bloom, and collected essays by Mother Maria of Paris. I have been inspired by monastics, living and reposed. I want to see celibate ways of life flourish as I believe the Church needs both married and celibate vocations to thrive.

The challenge is finding support to live out a celibate vocation in an American context dedicated to defending marriage. I’d go so far to say that marriage is not the problem but that homophobia and concerns about keeping up appearances are. The dominant reaction I have experienced in trying to explore what celibacy looks like in my life has been cautioning about sin. I’ve been consistently discouraged from using LGBTQ language even in the context of private conversations with people I trust. I have been encouraged to avoid cultivating close relationships lest I cause scandal. In a word, these reactions are confusing. I’m not talking about skete monasticism in an effort to excuse sin. I’m not reading monastic writers because I want to avoid repentance. I am looking at models of living a celibate life because I know I am called to a celibate vocation. I will gladly sit down with anyone who wants to read through an Orthodox marriage service. I can explain why it’s absolutely beautiful while at the same time articulating why I know it does not describe a kind of life that I’m called to. Chances are excellent I’d feel the same way about reading an ordination service. I would imagine that the ordination service is an incredible articulation of what it means to be a priest which contains many pointers as to why I, personally, would make a terrible priest. Defending ordination and marriage does little to help me discern what God would have me to in order to live my life faithfully.

I would love to see serious conversation in the Orthodox tradition, and in other Christian traditions, about what celibate vocations can and do look like. I would love to have retreats and books dedicated to meaningful celibacy. I cannot begin to tell you what it would mean for me, personally, to be able to commit to my celibate vocation in the context of witnesses gathered in a parish community. At the same time, I sit at the uneasy intersection of knowing that time has not come yet. It is the time of the pastoral. I long for the day when recognizing that situations need to be treated pastorally comes with widespread awareness of the need for both humility and compassion.

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11 thoughts on “The Hardest Question

  1. I sympathize with your frustration and have no doubt that your arguments are valid.
    I want to promote my frustration for the lack of evangelism to our Hispanic and African American populations. What’s with that? I’m always defending the needs of people with invisible disabilities. How hard Is it to swap florescent bulbs for LED so that people like me and those with seizures and migraines can get through liturgy without getting sick?
    21 years! 21 years of bugging Priests, Deacons, Parish Counsels and writing on blogs like yours.
    The process is that I have seen change…but we are banana slug slow! My frustration is not useful. Plodding along in love…realizing that the salvation of the World and loving all people is the big picture keeps me steady.
    We ask ourselves, what if nobody changes or listens?
    If Christ so loved us when He was abandoned by almost everyone at the cross…then we must love if abandoned also.
    What a great cross! What a privilege to enter into Christ! (You know that I don’t speak of this lightly without experience of abuse and terrors.)
    God Bless You Both.
    Your fellow celibate sister.
    Forgive me a sinner.

    • Hey Photoni, I’m sorry it’s taken me ages to get back to your comment here. It really bothers me that you can’t get rid of florescent bulbs in church. That shouldn’t be a fight you need to fight. Is there a way we can meaningfully signal boost how churches can improve their lighting to alleviate this issue? -Lindsey

  2. I would also love to see the Church have retreats and books dedicated to celibacy. I remember when I was in seminary, and we had a seminar for married couples. Because all the married people were in that seminar, we also had a singles seminar. That day consisted of people writing down and contemplating how sad they were that they weren’t married. It was pretty awful to be a part of as someone who doesn’t think that marriage is something she is called to. Marriage is wonderful. I can see how happy and fulfilled my sister is with her husband, but I can list the reasons why it is not something that I feel is right for my life. Thank you for your opinion, and maybe, the clergy can find ways to do better with people’s lives that have been entrusted to their care in this matter.

  3. Hi Lindsey, I was interested in your statement, “. . . marriage is not the problem but that homophobia and concerns about keeping up appearances are.” I know those two issues are relevant, but I still think it is reasonable to see them as separate them from the same sex marriage controversy, which to me goes much deeper – – both culturally and theologically – – than fear and collective vanity. Regarding a possible connection between celibacy and sin, whoever is sending that message completely ignores the universal impulses toward sexual pleasure. I suspect that we are all challenged by these, no matter our age or state in life. It is sad that you have been treated as if your situation is any different from that of priests and monks, married and singles, lovers and (for lack of a better phrase) chaste beloveds. My suggestion is not original, but seems to have worked in the greatest of storms, and works for me now as I struggle with same-church (as yours) attraction : “Keep calm, and carry on.” That little messages carries a smile, which may be even more telling than the words.

    • I think its exceptionally problematic when LGBTQ people are greeted from the starting point that there’s no way we can possibly live holy lives. I can’t tell you how encouraged I’ve been by clergy who have been willing to tell me, “I trust God can lead you towards a life that is pleasing to Him, and I’m willing to walk alongside you as you go with Christ.”

    • Generally speaking, I think that Fr Hopko’s book considers the question of “How should the Orthodox Church respond to secular LGBT people?” When I read it, I didn’t see much that could apply to the situation of LGBTQ Orthodox Christians which was unfortunate. We might consider reviewing Fr Hopko’s book at length in a future post.

  4. Hi! I’m a cradle Orthodox Christian, who, though straight, sees herself as an ally to LGBTQ people, and thus struggles with the Church’s position on these issues. Your stories only make matters worse, because you’re actually trying with all your hearts to follow the Church’s teachings on this, and yet you’re still not receiving adequate support!

    First, do you think it would help you two if the Orthodox Church had monastic orders that live in and serve the world, just as some Catholic monastic orders do? I went to a Catholic school, and ever since I found out that some Catholic monks and nuns live their lives in this way, I’ve been confused about why we Orthodox don’t offer this option.

    Second, you write, “I will gladly sit down with anyone who wants to read through an Orthodox marriage service. I can explain why it’s absolutely beautiful while at the same time articulating why I know it does not describe a kind of life that I’m called to.” I suspect this is becoming true for more and more people today. The Orthodox marriage service focuses heavily on the procreation of children, which is definitely a good and beautiful thing. But more and more people are choosing not to have children, even if they’re married, and I feel the Church should validate this option; in an overpopulated world, encouraging absolutely everyone except those called to celibacy to “be fruitful and multiply” is not only unrealistic, but actually irresponsible and unsustainable. There *should* be an option for those who want to “do life together”, as you put it for your arrangement, but who do *not* wish to have children. This can include not just LGBTQ couples, but also hetero couples too old to bear children or who for whatever reason choose not to have biological children. We have to start to accept that in today’s world, there’s more than one legitimate way to structure a loving family. These alternative families yearn for acceptance and for legitimate blessing from the Church. I think we need a *new* tradition to deal with this. 🙂 What do you think?

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