Russian Orthodox and Queer: A Testimonial in the Form of a Letter on the Feast of the Apostles, 29 June 2010

A prominent faculty member at S. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, a friend of friends, and a colleague of the Oxford don who taught me my Byzantine church history, once asked me: When would I be coming to S. Vlad’s, not as an occasional visitor, but as a student, in order to study for the priesthood?

We were standing in S. Paul’s (Roman Catholic) Basilica in Toronto, and had finished listening to a performance, by the S. Michael’s Choir School, of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s sublime Matthew Passion.  Alfeyev, at that time still the Russian church’s bishop in Vienna, and a brief candidate for the metropolitan primacy of the Orthodox Church in America, doubles as a classical composer of considerable sensitivity; his Matthew Passion, musically inspired of course by Bach, is inspired liturgically by the service of the Twelve Passion Gospels on the eve of Good Friday, perhaps my very favorite of all the Church’s liturgies.

I chose not to answer the question I had just been asked, partly from fear, mostly from the sense that answering would have been futile.  But if I had answered honestly, I would have said: When you are willing to see me, and not the ghost (capable at least of masquerading as straight) for which I am commonly mistaken.

Approximately a year and a half earlier, a gay seminarian from S. Vladimir’s, Eric Kokosinski Iliff, had committed suicide.  Sadly I never did make his acquaintance, though I might have.  This death, extremely traumatic for Vlad’s, seems, alarmingly, to have met only silence in the Orthodox Church in America as a whole.  But Julia at Flakedoves reports this very interesting anecdote, from his funeral:

A member of [his] parish told another interesting story about Eric.  She said that she and he had worked together at painting the rooms in the fellowship hall (where we were gathered), and at one point before they began painting a room he took his brush and painted a large cross on the wall.  He let it dry a little and then they eventually painted over it in the same color.  At first you could still see where it was underneath, but it gradually faded and blended in.  She said to him, “Oh, the cross is gone.”  And he replied, “That’s the point: you can’t see it, but it’s still there.”

That apophthegm, it seems to me, is worthy of inclusion in some future American Patericon.

Christians, especially Christians of orthodox and catholic profession, who also take a humane interest in gay issues despite the official hostility of the hierarchy, enjoy few resources.  In the Eastern churches in particular silence dominates, where there ought to be public conversation; I know more than one priest who, on point of pseudo-pastoral principle, refuses to discuss homosexuality in any context at all, other than that of confession (of sins).  Therefore there is real need for a forum such as this.  But I would first like to say something about my own individual history as a part of wider queer history, so that readers may understand my own motives.

The Meaning of Love

My freshman year at Georgetown, I read a little book, The Meaning of Love, by the late nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox philosopher V.S. Soloviev.  (Little known outside of specialist circles, Soloviev’s “skill in the technique of integrating all partial truths in one vision”—just to quote von Balthasar—“makes him perhaps second only to Thomas Aquinas as the greatest artist of order and organization in the history of thought.” [1])  Thinking back, however, on my seventeen-year-old, Russian Orthodox, freshman gay self, at the time of its own “first encounter” with Soloviev—unconvincingly closeted, as it was, behind fat-frame clear-plastic spectacles; gripping a maroon Washington-Post purse from the early ‘80’s, when my mother was working for Kay Graham—it seems only natural that I began crushing on Soloviev from the first page.  The young Soloviev, too, gave his satchel a name: “Gregory.”  His pencil was an “Andrew.”  In a manner suggestive of Dante and Beatrice, Soloviev fell in love at the age of nine, with a girl of his parish seen at Divine Liturgy on the feast-day of the Assumption; whom in consequence he afterwards associated with his vision of the Mother of God.  Reading about this first stirring of love and jealousy recalled to me my own first romantic attachment, likewise pre-erotic and to a female, a sort of queer inverse of the more-familiar schoolboy bromance.  Later, Soloviev the man proved to be unfortunate in matters of love, as he loved an older woman, coincidentally married, and unavailable to him.  He remained a lay celibate.  Despite, or perhaps because of, his aristocratic and intellectual upbringing, he was rarely found with excess money on his person; he habitually gave it all away, to friends as well as to strangers. [2] Of course I loved him.

So, again quite naturally, I wrote a bad freshman paper about him, and about his book with the then-irresistible title, The Meaning of Love.  Looking now at what I wrote in that paper, I find that I did manage to pick out from amongst Soloviev’s arguments the following hypothesis, though I cannot clearly imagine the impression it made on me then.  It does strike me now, as it must originally have struck me, that in his discussion of “psychopathia sexualis,” Soloviev omits to mention sodomy alongside the other perversions which he does name (fetishism, necrophilia, prostitution, sex addiction).  And if his discussion of love does consistently presume conventional male-female pairings, he also specifically rejects procreation as a norm of sexual ethics.   On the contrary:

…  the unrepressed conscience and the un-calloused aesthetic sense condemn every sexual attitude based on the separation and isolation of the lower animal sphere of the human essence from the higher.  And outside of this principle, it is impossible to find any firm criterion for a distinction between what is normal and what is abnormal in the sexual realm. [3] (my emphasis)

Human, erotic love, Soloviev argues, whether it be expressed in the sexual act or not (stated explicitly), or whether it be of a male for a female or of a male for another male (subtly implied), is ultimately intelligible only in the light of divine love—of which our human, erotic love is the principal type in the realm of experience available to us.  The human, erotic sacrifice of self to other, is, in the language of the Orthodox marriage ceremony, a martyrial sacrifice “crowned with glory and honor”; and it is the subject of the Bible’s profoundest mystical doctrine, as taught in Jacob’s love for Rachel in Genesis, in Christ’s love for the Church in Ephesians, and throughout the Canticle of Canticles and the other Wisdom literature.

As a straight friend once put this argument to me, more simply, approximately three years after I first encountered it: “the ancient Greeks, if they weren’t right, at least weren’t wrong.”  We were, appropriately, drunk, and sitting in the North Quad of Pembroke College, Oxford—the spirit of Metropolitan Kallistos perchance protecting us.

Sin Clamoring Unto Heaven

I grew up an ordinary Orthodox boy, no more subject to Satanic deception, one supposes, than the next.  I was baptized and chrismated at the canonical age of six weeks, in an ordinary community of the Russian Orthodox – Greek Catholic diaspora, in Cleveland, Ohio.  (So ordinary a community, in fact, and so assimilated to mainstream American culture, that before having gained his notoriety Elvis Presley once performed in the old parish hall, with Fr. Prislopsky’s blessing, in 1955.)

In contrast to Soloviev’s merciful attitude toward the range and scope of human love, I had many years before that found the following word written in the pages of the Duchnovitch prayer-book (from which I learned my Orthodoxy), listed under the heading of “the four sins clamoring unto heaven”: sodomy.  Second after willful murder, and before the oppression of orphans and widows and depriving a laborer of his just wages.  No discussion was necessary to show me in my adolescence that my desire was monstrously “wrong”—its wrongness having been merely obvious—and indeed there was none.  On the other hand, right-wing politics were much-discussed.  For twelve years an angry, graffitied block of Berlin Wall stared down at me from its perch on my parents’ desk, and thus imbued with the holy faith of anti-communism, I joined the Republican party.

A long time was required for me, therefore, to admit that “the Greeks weren’t wrong.”

And all that long while the same prayer-book pled, in Fr. Duchnovitch’s Slavonic:

Joanna Apostola i Lazarja druha Tvojeho pače vsich vozl’ubil jesi! prosti i mni milostive Hospodne druha mojeho bol’še pol’ubiti

“John the Apostle and Lazarus, Thy friend, Thou hast loved above all others; grant unto me, mercifully O Lord, that I may love more my friend”

Queering Russian Orthodoxy

What finally tipped the balance in my own mind was not so much the ubiquity of same-sex coupling in the “Book of Nature,” now recognized by biologists and psychologists (though that certainly contributed).  Rather the decisive factor was the slowly-dawning consciousness that Christian tradition owes so much of its proper richness precisely to its so-called sodomites—to concrete, historical persons of living Christian faith, who just so happened to be homosexual or gender-queer.  That is partly why, maybe, Soloviev could recognize, in his thirteenth Sunday Letter on “The Question of Women’s Rights,” that compulsory celibacy is no less a demon than free love. [4] Indeed the entire Russian Religious Renaissance (a movement analogous to, and perhaps ultimately much more significant than, the Oxford Movement in England), was queer, empurpled from top to bottom by homoerotic and homosocial sentiments.

Nikolai Gogol (d. 1852), Russia’s first great novelist, a pious Orthodox Christian, and a formative influence on Dostoevsky, was a repressed homosexual; he succumbed finally to depression, and was buried, face down, at the Danilov Monastery.  Ignatius Brianchaninov (d. 1867), bishop of the Caucasus and the Black Sea, the author of two popular treatises on prayer and the ascetic life, and a saint canonized in 1988, sublimated his own authentic sexuality in the aesthetic consolations of beautiful liturgical worship.  The radical tsarist and polemicist K.N. Leontiev (d. 1891), who at the end of his life received tonsure as a monk at the Holy Trinity & S. Sergius Monastery, was semi-openly bisexual.  The composer Tchaikovsky (d. 1893), who wrote admirable music for the Divine Liturgy and Vespers and various hymns, was homosexual.   Soloviev (d. 1900), Dostoevsky’s chief disciple and “the Orthodox Aquinas,” elevated androgyny, and the cultivation of androgyny, to an aesthetic, ethical, and mystical principle of the highest order.  P.A. Florenksy (d. 1937), the last and most fascinating figure of the Russian Religious Renaissance, a priest, and a martyr of Stalin’s purges, wrote with “a decided homophilic, if not homoerotic, tinge….  Florensky’s … is the first Christian theology to place same-sex relationship at the center of its vision.” [5]

Is it really probable that all these men, the Russian church’s faithful sons, were abominations in God’s sight?

The Rock of Faith

I have taken the pseudonym, which is also a nom de guerre, and hopefully a nom de paix, Victor de Villa Lapidis.  The villa lapidis, or “house of rock”—or Petri villa—is the Latin name of a fourteenth-century village in the Carpathian Mountains, in the old county Szepes of the Kingdom of Hungary, in what is present-day northeastern Slovakia.  The inhabitants were Orthodox Slavs, Byzantine-rite “Carpatho-Russians” who had been driven west and south across the mountains by the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century.  In the local Slavic languages the place is called Kamjonka or Kamienka, kamen being the Slavic root-word for “rock.”  The village’s patrons, naturally, are SS. Peter and Paul, and it was there, under the patronage of the Princes of the Apostles, that four of my great-grandparents were born, reared, and catechized.  So it is fitting that on this, the apostles’ feast-day, I remember them, and in a fashion connected with the cause of the Church, against which (we are promised) not even the gates of Hades shall prevail.

S. Leo the Great, pope of Rome, and author of the Tomus accepted in the Orthodox churches as one of the universal Church’s instruments of infallibility, preaches in his Sermon 82, on the Apostles’ Feast, June 29:

To this city [Rome] then, most blessed Apostle Peter, you dost not fear to come, and … entered this forest of roaring beasts, this deep, stormy ocean with greater boldness than when you walked upon the sea.  And you who had been frightened by the high priest’s maid in the house of Caiaphas, had no fear of Rome the mistress of the world.  Was there any less power in Claudius, any less cruelty in Nero than in the judgment of Pilate … ?  So then it was the force of love that conquered the reasons for fear: and you did not think those to be feared whom you had undertaken to love.

For those of us who are queer, who are self-accepting, and who continue to profess the dogmas of the apostolic faith unaltered and undivided: we have undertaken to love, and to attempt to rationally persuade, our persecutors, wherever they may be found, both in the ecclesiastical hierarchy and in those countries (not excluding the United States) which have yet to be improved by humane legislation concerning the status of homosexuals.   And as Leo reminds us this day, in imitation of the rock of faith, we need not fear.

If Christ raised Lazarus his friend, may he not raise us also, modern Lazaruses?  And will not this, the faith of the apostles, be proclaimed to the ends of the earth?

S prazdnikom!  Happy feast!

vozradujemsja

Victor de Villa Lapidis


[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, trans. Andrew Louth et. al., vol. 3 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 284.

 

[2] For appreciative introductions to Soloviev’s life and thought, see N.O. Lossky, The History of Russian Philosophy (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952), pp. 81-133, and von Balthasar, Glory, vol. 3, pp. 279-352.

[3] The Heart of Reality: Essays on Beauty, Love, and Ethics by V.S. Soloviev, trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), p. 112.

[4] Politics, Law, Morality: Essays by V.S. Soloviev, trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 98.

[5] Richard F. Gustafson, “Introduction,” The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. xx.  From what I can tell, little work has been done on Russian queer history, and very little indeed from an Orthodox Christian perspective.  But for a sense of what work has been done, see also: Simon Karlinsky, The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976); Olga Matich, “Androgyny and the Russian Silver Age,” Pacific Coast Philology 14 (1979): pp. 42-50; Evgenii Bershtein, “The Russian Myth of Oscar Wilde,” Self and Story in Russian History, ed. Laura Engelstein and Stephanie Sandler (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 168-88; and Rebecca Friedman, “Romantic Friendship in the Nicholaevan University,” Russian Review 62, no. 2 (2003): pp. 262-80.

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