Phronema II: Sexuality in its proper context

From Phronema is a Greek term that is used in Orthodox theology to refer to mindset or outlook; it is the Orthodox mind. The attaining of phronema is a matter of practicing the correct faith (orthodoxia) in the correct manner (orthopraxia).”

– From Celibacy in Context by Maximos Davies in First Things, December 2002:  Simply put, every single Christian who is capable of love is called to discipline that love through the asceticism of celibacy. Just as every Christian is called to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, so also every Christian is called to be celibate. Seen in its true context of asceticism, celibacy ceases to be a legal requirement for a small section of the Christian faithful and is revealed instead as an aspect of the universal vocation of all believers. 

Maximos Davies is a monk of Holy Resurrection Monastery, a monastic community under the jurisdiction of the Byzantine Catholic (Ruthenian) Eparchy of Van Nuys, California. He penned this wonderful short essay that explains a piece of the Eastern Christian phronema, the mindset of Eastern Christianity. As a monk, he is celibate, yet in spite of this ( or is it because of this?) he understands the right thinking of the Eastern Church on the expression of sexuality that has been largely forgotten in modern society, even among some of the most recognized class of celibates, the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Here we come to another important insight within the pastoral tradition of Eastern Christianity. Celibacy is not primarily an individual calling. In the first place it is a vocation for the whole Church. Only secondarily is this vocation realized in individual lives. It follows that celibacy cannot be authentic if it is attempted individually. Celibacy can only be lived in a real way if it is seen as a shared way of life. For the Christian East, celibacy is lived corporately and within the context of communal asceticism.

This is the real meaning behind the combined tradition of married clergy and celibate monastics in the Eastern Churches. The proper place for radical celibacy is a life of radical asceticism within that tradition of mutual support provided within the monastic milieu. For parish clergy, such radicalism is seen as out of place—neither improper nor impossible, but immensely difficult. This assessment in no way makes the life of the parish priest somehow inferior to that of the monk. Both are called to the same ascetical program, but in different degrees. The tradition simply recognizes that each must put this program into effect in the real world he inhabits. Each must rely on the other to supply that kind of holiness in the other’s own life that he cannot produce in his own. The Church needs both the holiness of marriage and the holiness of radical celibacy in equal measure.

But as you read this piece, don’t think that it’s at root a piece about married vs. celibate clergy or about happy worldly folk against ‘sour ascetics.’ It’s about the proper expression of sexuality in our lives:

Seen in the light of eternity, marriage is revealed as having no meaning in itself. Marriage is honorable not because it “joins two hearts as one,” nor because through it new life comes into the world, nor because it provides for a life of comfort and security. Marriage is worthy of reverence only because the two hearts fall into a sacramental embrace with a Third, only because the children born of the union are born again through baptism into a new life, only because together the couple apply to their comforts the balm of asceticism that gives their possessions true and sacramental meaning …

To underline this, the canonical tradition of the Eastern Churches even encourages married couples to regulate their sexual appetites by fasting from conjugal relations before Holy Communion, for example, and during Lent. This makes it clear in the most practical way imaginable that both monk and married person are engaged together in the same ascetical labor.

“Seen in light of eternity …” he says, “seen in light of eternity …” 

There is therefore something deeply tragic in the way the contemporary Church has gradually stripped itself of much of its traditional asceticism, leaving only a few craggy remnants of this vanished culture silhouetted against the sky. 

Structured patterns of fasting, self-denial, repentance, sacrificial giving of self to a beloved in a sacramentally sanctified marriage with the intent of moving towards God together – these ways have ALWAYS existed within apostolic Christianity and still exist today within the Churches of Eastern orientation, in ways dismissed for generations in the Western Christian mindset. These communal practices exist to help us, not enter the gates of Heaven by virtue of “works”, but to align us with the life of Godhead, His life in this world, our lives seen in light of eternity.

Seen in light of eternity, it is a poverty to allow ourselves to be defined by our sexuality, or by our possessions, or by our worldly habits and interests and enthusiasms. These things are all part of what we are, yes, of course; but we are best defined relationally- in relation to the light of eternity, in the gradual rediscovery of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of the Triune God.

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