Gifts from Orthodoxy

A reflection by Lindsey

My previous post has generated a lot of conversation. I’ve learned about a lot of these conversations second- and third-hand, but I would like to offer some clarifications.

I am not abandoning the spirituality I found in the Orthodox Church. It’s hard to say that I have left when I have yet to find an alternate place to go. I remember having an in-between season after I realized that I no longer believed in the efficacy of sola Scriptura. I knew I couldn’t continue to be a Protestant, but I didn’t know where that conclusion would take me. On a theological level, nothing in particular has changed for me. I did my best to bring everything I could from my past as an Evangelical Protestant with me when I became Orthodox. I’ve received many gifts from the Orthodox tradition that I intend on keeping with me permanently, but I don’t know where I’ll be able to settle. I wasn’t looking to leave the Orthodox Church, but things have happened where I don’t see a way to stay.

I am profoundly grateful to the Orthodox tradition for giving me many gifts. I first started seeking Christ in the Orthodox Church in 2008, and my journey in Orthodoxy has had lasting effects on my spirituality. I am profoundly and eternally grateful to the Orthodox tradition. I have done my best to cling to what is good, and I will maintain forever that the Orthodox Tradition can be a wellspring of life.

The Orthodox Church taught me about how prayer shapes beliefs. Within the context of the Orthodox Church, I learned the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi. I loved the services of the church. Chanting the service made it so much easier for me to remember and reflect on various parts of the service during the rest of the week. I experienced the services of the Orthodox Church as a kind of atlas to the rest of Scriptures. If I had a question like, “What do the Scriptures say about the Mother of God?” I would look at all of the readings associated with feasts dedicated to Mary. I had never considered that the Burning Bush or Jacob’s Ladder were intended to point towards Christ Himself. Interpreting the Bible using typology literally blew my mind wide open so many times. Reading the marriage service of the Orthodox Church, and investigating all of the Scriptures referenced by this service to the best of my ability, gave me a profound vantage point to see that true Christian marriage is exceptionally rare and spurred me on towards redoubling my prayers for all married people I knew. It seemed to me that the Orthodox tradition supported the life of people married in the Church in countless ways, while also providing pastorally for people with failed marriages.

The Orthodox Church also challenged my understandings of pastoral care. Many discussions I had with people about sensitive pastoral matters included references to oikonomia. I understood oikonomia as trying to balance the principles of truth and mercy. Too much strictness could crush a person; too much laxness could stunt a person’s spiritual growth. Exercising oikonomia rightly is a fearsome task, with the burden falling almost entirely on priests providing spiritual care. I prayed, and prayed and prayed some more, for priests. I adopted the practice of praying for specific priests I knew while also praying for any other priest who bore the same name. Praying for all priests named Gregory or John asks that God guides a ton of people. I did my best to seek confessors with whom I could share my life, my heart, my journey, and my questions. I discussed particular matters with my closest friends, allowing them to call me out when something simply was not bearing good fruit in my life.

The Orthodox Church opened to me a deeper understanding of celibacy. My spiritual journey is a bit complicated, but before becoming Orthodox, I had an extremely limited understanding of celibacy. I thought it was a Catholic thing that nuns and priests did. I knew that there were male religious orders in the Catholic Church, but I tended to view them as a way of forming men who were eventually going to become priests. In the context of the Orthodox Church, I met many female and male monastics living in a range of situations. I saw monastic families in action when I visited small communities housing between 6 and 12 nuns. I recognized possibilities for celibate people living in the world when I met monastics who were attached to a local parish while working in the community. I learned about how monastics shared life together, especially as it relates to dimensions of caregiving and the daily routines of doing life. Being encouraged by an abbess of an Orthodox monastery to do my best to put the monastic life into practice as much as I could was instrumental in helping me define celibacy. Orthodoxy introduced me to the concept of skete monasticism, where sketes tend to be small communities of 2 or 3 celibate people committed to sharing life together.

I am incredibly grateful to people who opened up diverse spiritual truths to me while I was in the Orthodox Church. One of my favorite priests was known for encouraging people with “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” I believe that God’s grace can reach each and every person striving to follow Christ to the best of their ability. One of my favorite icons in the Church is St John Climacus and the Ladder of Divine Ascent. Everyone on the ladder has their eyes fixed on Christ, and I like to think that Christ will reach much further down the ladder than we will ever succeed at climbing. The parable of the Prodigal Son convinces me that the Father will run towards his children who want to find His house.

The Orthodox Church challenged me to think sacramentally. What did it mean that God found it fit to dwell within our humble offerings of water, oil, bread, and wine? How could we offer God our hearts in addition to the work of our hands? My sense of spirituality has been forever changed by the idea that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ where He desires to unite His flesh with ours. I never want to regard participating in this mystery as an automatically conferred right, and I do not want to be a person who willfully neglects the teachings of the bishop responsible for overseeing the life of the church. I have deep and profound respect for the way various archdioceses of the Orthodox Church work together to teach people about Orthodoxy, especially as it relates to the canonical situation found in the Orthodox Church in the United States. I have always found the idea that an Orthodox Christian separated from communing in one archdiocese can go to another archdiocese exceptionally problematic, even though I have understood that people need to respect the particular communion discipline of the place where they are communing.

I started attending the Orthodox Church in 2008. I came into the church knowing full well that the Orthodox Church could never bless same-sex marriages. I spent time as a catechumen studying the marriage service to understand what the church taught about marriage. I read the Scriptures referenced by the marriage service and came to the conclusion that a marriage within the Orthodox Church has four requisite components: a man, a woman, an eternal commitment, and an openness to life. I developed the analogy that marriage is to relationships what the Eucharist is to food. It was possible to affirm many different kinds of relationships as gifts given to us by God, even if these relationships were not treated sacramentally. The Eucharist is real food, but the Orthodox Church also encourages us to bless every morsel of food that comes into our body. I took it as a simple truth that God would give me a vast array of meaningful relationships because I am a human being created in the image of a triune God. I knew full well that I did not have a vocation to marriage. I visited various monastic communities with an attitude of discernment towards a monastic vocation, but it seemed abundantly clear to me and everyone around me that God had plans for me that included living in the world. I threw myself, as best as I could, in the general direction of God’s merciful kindness, hoping that the Church would exercise oikonomia to help me along my way.

Many people in my life have recognized the value in the life I share with Sarah. Clergy intimately aware of my life story and situation have told me, “Sarah is a gift, given to you by God, for your salvation.” I believe this to be abundantly true, especially as we have continued to discern our way of life as a celibate partnership. We’ve cared for each other in times of illness and distress. I have lost count of the number of hours I have spent keeping vigil while Sarah has endured the ravages of Meniere’s disease. We share the same pool of financial resources. We support one another emotionally and spiritually. We have encouraged one another as we have sought to love and serve those we come into contact with in the world around us. We have navigated job loss and career transitions together. I believe earnestly with every fiber in my being that God is calling Sarah towards changing to a career in audiology, and so I am busying myself in an effort to meet the challenges associated with supporting Sarah going to audiology school next fall. My life and future is tied up with what God will call Sarah to do just as Sarah’s life and future is tied up with what God will call me to do. I’ve opted in 100% and I’m eager to see what God has for us. I can’t look at the life I share with Sarah without seeing how God has challenged me to grow towards Christ. We remain resolutely committed to celibacy, even though we don’t see any clear legal pathways forward. A friend recently suggested that we might consider moving to Canada where domestic partnerships still exist and universal health care coverage is a thing. I am a bit ashamed to admit how seriously I have considered exploring this option, especially because I know American Sign Language is used in Canada.

When I read a sentence like “The Orthodox Church cannot and will not condone or bless ‘same-sex unions’ of any degree” I am left feeling like the Church has changed the goal posts. I respect the teaching authority of the bishops to draw the lines however they see fit, but in my heart I don’t see any space within the Orthodox Church left for a person in my situation. I did not go seeking out this statement from the Antiochian Archdiocese. I only read it because a friend praised it for its clarity and compassion. I thought that perhaps the Church gathered at the convention had authored a statement which maintained the delicate balance between truth and mercy. But as I read the statement, I came to an unshakable opinion that American Orthodox Christians had built a wall of truth around the Church where I found myself outside of its limits. I tested that opinion by seeking guidance from my confessor and my parish priest. I understood why they were reluctant to comment on the statement because neither of them are priests in the Antiochian Archdiocese. So I sought clarification from people I know who were likely to have attended the convention. It’s also worth stating that there are bishops within that archdiocese who had known of Sarah’s and my situation. The best critique I had of the statement was that “It seems like it’s clumsily worded, but they are simply reiterating what the Church has always taught.” However, another member of the clergy told me that I had interpreted the statement correctly, and it is binding for the entire Orthodox Church regardless of which jurisdiction authored the statement. When even members of the clergy have such differing interpretations of this statement, it should be no surprise that people like Sarah and me feel caught in the middle of an impossible situation.

I’ve always considered the Orthodox Church to be like a house celebrating Christmas. There is a roaring fire in the fireplace and a well-lit tree. I considered myself extremely fortunate to be able to be inside, joining in the celebrations to the best of my ability. I’ve never been the keeper of the house, and I never expected to be asked for my opinion if remodeling was necessary. I do know that I was doing my best to stand in identically one spot, but unfortunately all I can see now is that wall. When I look up, I don’t see a roof over my head. But it’s Christmas time, which means that it’s winter. It strikes me as unwise to try to drill through a brick wall of what the Church has always taught. So I’m out trying to enjoy the snow and hoping that God, in His mercy, provides me with shelter soon.

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18 thoughts on “Gifts from Orthodoxy

  1. i’m consistently grateful for the thought and kindness with which you both write. i’m sorry you came to the heartbreak of realizing this wouldn’t be your earthly home. (i hope i find a shelter in the winter too.)

  2. I do hope that someone from the Antiochian diocese (other than myself) is able to reach out to you both concerning the statement. Consider that in every liturgy we pray for “the union of all men.” It is fair to ask what “union” means here, and how it differs from there.

    I wonder how many monastics in U.S. monasteries also do not have health coverage, and often have quite debilitating illnesses. What can be done for them? The “civil union” could not be applied there, could it?

    Forgive me. You are in my prayers.

    • Hi Mary, thanks for your comments and your sentiments here. I appreciate it. Your comments point to the reality that the same word can have multiple meanings, and it’s important to specify which meaning you’re using. At this point, I’m sad to say that I’ve received many comments about how I simply didn’t try hard enough or that I am asking the Church to condone sin.

      I’ve actually asked the question about monastics many times to both priests and bishops. I haven’t found anyone who has managed to answer the questions about how monasteries short their legal affairs.

      Thank you for your prayers. I will keep you in mine as well. -Lindsey

  3. I hope some guide who has wisdom, love, and common sense can reveal a space for you and Sarah to thrive. May Christ himself continue to bless and keep you. And… why be ashamed for considering the great land of Canada? I trust that Christ has prepared a place for you two, spiritually and in body.

    • Michael, thank you for the well wishes. Honestly the reason why I’m ashamed of how much I’ve considered Canada is that “moving to a different country” seems like an incredibly extreme option to sort our legal affairs. …surely we could figure something out in the States… -Lindsey

  4. Thanks for shraing how God is working in your lives !

    I recall the priest who taught us spritual formation also teaching us to “pray as you are able to”.

    I expect the statement from the Orthodox synod about blessing same sex unions is understood by the Orthodox to be neither infallible, irreformable, universally binding, or even expressed with much theological precision (cf MYSTERIUM ECCLESIAE on the historical conditioning of Catholic doctrinal statements http://www.cin.org/docs/myseccl.html). If we can bless cars and homes and even warships, we can certainly bless two people in a loving relationship that is not marriage.

    FWIW, in the Catholic Church we can and we do bless same sex couples.

    God Bless

    • Hi Chris, authority is understood a bit differently in the Orthodox Church. What made the Antiochian statement so particularly troublesome was that it was the Church gathered during a convention. To be sure, a convention doesn’t have the same weight as a synod or council, but this convention of the Church claimed to speak the mind of the Orthodox Church on this matter. It’s a lot to anticipate the upcoming Great and Holy Council next year where some of these issues will likely be discussed, especially when you consider that the Antiochian Archdiocese has generally been regarded as a very moderate voice and all of the statements coming from Russian bishops about related concerns. I’m not entirely sure I agree with the statement that the Catholic Church does bless same sex couples, but I’ve also never been Catholic. -Lindsey

    • As an Independent Catholic priest I have been privileged to bless and marry same sex couples but to the best of my knowledge the Roman Catholic church does not do this even if they are celibate at the present time. Can you share more about your experience and knowledge on the subject please? I would love to know if there is something I am missing.

    • Mother Laura,

      Thank you for your ministry and blessings !

      Catholic priests and deacons regularly bless items of devotion, cars, houses, individuals and couples. There is no theological reason that those blessings should not extend to same sex couples, and I know of at least one case in which it has. We are talking about private blessings here, not public ceremonies like marriage.

      Catholic attitudes are changing rapidly, this poll indicates 70% of U.S. Catholics now accept homosexuality.

      https://newwaysministryblog.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/70-of-u-s-catholics-accept-homosexuality-says-survey-millennials-ensure-future-growth/

      In Catholic theology, the teaching on homosexuality is of a very low status, not traceable to Christ, not clear in scripture, not infallibly defined and not even defined in any papal encyclical. What is taught is historically conditioned as the SCDF document Mysterium Ecclesiae taught. We need to be sufficiently theologically humble to admit this.

      http://www.cin.org/docs/myseccl.html

      Blessings

      • You are so welcome, Chris, and thank you for your kind affirmation as well as clarification. I agree and rejoice with you that the sensus fidelium has most lay Catholics now seeing a place for holy and committed non-celibate LGBT relationships as well as beautiful celibate ones like Sarah and Lindsey’s. The hierarchy and conservative folks would disagree on it–and the related non-procreative sexual issues like family planning and self-pleasure–being low status or not definitively taught. And they have a point on form though I would disagree on content. I recently returned to blogging as a Catholic feminist perspective dancing the balance between the two communities I love and learn from which often challenge each other and would welcome your insights especially on my latest post today on transgender/feminist dialogue specifically about the transgirl athlete locker room case. Just click on my name if interested.

        • Lindsey I originally came over both to say that I am praying for you to find the right faith community as well as the two of you to sort out all the large logistical challenges you face. …And that you might wish to blog, if you have the time and energy, on the case I mention. Some Catholic bloggers are taking a pretty hurtful tone and I think a more traditional approach than mine in your characteristic loving and respectful voice would be a real contribution to the discussion. I flagged it for Melinda Selmys too.

  5. You and Sarah inspire me every time you write. I pray you find a new home. I remember reading “generous orthodoxy” years ago. It is not a great book as great books go…but yet, it is one I have internalized over the course of my life. And in some ways, it has shaped my own theology more than any other book I’ve ever read. I have felt since your last post that I should mention this book to you…so, for what it’s worth, there it is. 🙂 May God bless your journey.

    • Hi Eva, thanks for your comment here and for your prayers. I have read bits of “Generous Orthodoxy” and would agree that it’s not a great book as far as great books go, but I think it boils down to the challenge of playing with a lot of different ideas in a single work. May God continue to journey with you as well! -Lindsey

  6. There is so much to learn, and I am one (of many!) grateful for the gifts that you’ve received and share, and for the example that you’re setting of looking upon difficulties with a gratitude that’s borne by grace.

    We’ll talk… very soon.

  7. I’m struck by your love for the whole body of Christ… reading the marriage service making you pray so much for married couples… and praying for leaders.

    There’s loveliness, even amid the ashes.

    Leaving a Christian community that has been home like this is… ugghhh, yeah. :-/
    Christ bless you both.

  8. Thank you for this, Lindsey. Someone on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship email list posted a link to your blog. I appreciate the depth of your reflections. I am a deacon in a Ukrainian Catholic Church in Toronto. So I’m Canadian, born and bred, though of Cuban and French background. Lovely country though I’ll admit it’s a bit chilly. (Universal healthcare is a big plus.)

    In my depths I see that we all suffer, with no exceptions, from that great exile from Paradise that C.S. Lewis called the Great Divorce. I call it the Wound to Love. We all come from God who is Divine Love, but Love is wounded in us. Divine Love creates us but we are born into this world from the union of our father and mother. And how wounded that union can be and often is! The wound to Love is played out most intimately and with the most disastrous effects in the relationship between Man and Woman. From the most wonderful intimacy can come betrayal and enmity. How is this possible? How did we lose our communion with our God who is the very source of our being? And from there are communion with everyone else? Genesis hints at it, but it’s clear that the immediate fruit is a profound division between the first man and woman.

    Would homosexuality exist in a world without this Wound to Love? Why would Divine Love create us in our bodily reality to be that way? My intuition is that homosexuality in its full expression is somehow an expression of that profound wound that exists between Man and Woman originating with our first forefather and mother . Nonetheless, I agree with those above who say why not bless the union of two men or two women who care deeply for one another, but I would add with the assumption that they are committed to celibacy. After my parents separated in my late teens, a few years later my mother moved in with a friend and they lived together and shared everything for nearly 30 years until that friend’s sudden death in 2004. They shared everything except sexual intimacy. My mother never regarded herself as gay though her companion might have if she had grown up in our era .

    Myself I have tried to live celibately since the failure of my marriage 13 years ago as a poor sign of my continuing commitment to its eternal reality. (And believe me, I never, ever wanted to live celibately!)

    All the best to both of you as you contemplate your next steps.

  9. Lindsey,

    My wife and I are currently experiencing a similar heartache of recently feeling pushed out of our Orthodox faith.

    When I came out as transgender, after decades of wrestling with who I am, our priest basically gave us a sermon, refused to discuss our concerns and prayed an exorcism.

    We’ve been faithful and active parishioners for many years — he knows us well, yet we feel completely rejected now.

    Even the priest at a neighboring town says we’re in sin and will refuse to commune either of us… I’m feeling just crushed and heartbroken. What can we do now?

    Jess /

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