Sunday, March 21, 2010

St. Mary of Egypt

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, dedicated to the remembrance of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt. Mary’s story is certainly one of extremes. As a young woman she lived a life of horrible promiscuity. When a mystical encounter with an icon of the Theotokos brought her to understand the evil of her choices, she entered into a life of repentance that was equal in its extremity to the sins of her former life. Leaving all human company behind, she fled into the desert to survive in complete solitude for 48 years. Only after this time did she finally see another person, the priest Zosimas of Palestine, who discovered her while on a lenten pilgrimage into that same desert. Zosimas was amazed at the sight of this spiritual athlete, and even more amazed as she related her life story. Had it not been for this divinely-guided meeting, we would never have known of Mary, and would not have this incredible example of Christian repentance which the Church puts before us each lent.

Unfortunately, Mary’s former life of immorality, once seen as so shocking, has become rather more common in our society. We’re always hearing that America is “Victorian” and “repressed” in its attitudes toward sex, but it’s hard to imagine how anything could be further from the truth. We’ve become a culture obsessed with sex in even the most unnatural forms, and are on the verge of making Sodom and Gomorrah seem like a moral paradise by comparison. Mankind has always had a tendency to pervert sexuality, but I’m of the opinion that our culture took a sharp turn in this direction in the early 1960’s with the advent of the birth-control pill. Perhaps more than anything else, this one invention changed the way that Americans began to have sex, and changed our fundamental attitudes toward sex as well. These changes have had an incredibly negative impact on our culture.

Once upon a time, sexual activity tended to result in the production of noisy little things called babies believe it or not, and thus it not only served society better if sex were restricted to marriage, but married couples themselves tended to practice it more carefully, less frequently, and with a very wholesome understanding and acceptance that children would eventually result from the practice. Sex was completely linked with baby-making in the minds of most people, but the advent of “The Pill” quickly began to change all that.

With such a reliable and easy-to-use contraceptive at their disposal, married couples could now engage in much more frequent and casual sex without any concern of pregnancy. For the first time, people actually began to expect sex not to produce children! The sexual act very quickly became disassociated from procreation to become more a matter of recreation. Almost immediately, we lost any sense of sex as a sacred action connected with God’s blessing of the marital union, and reduced it to a function of mere pleasure-taking.

As soon as this change in perspective began to occur, the national divorce rate also started to rise alarmingly. There are many reasons for this, but one of these surely must be that as couples began to see the sexual union less as a matter of procreation--a view which automatically orients toward commitment and sacrifice for the benefit of family--and chose to see it in terms of personal gratification and fulfillment--an essentially self-centered perspective--it became easy to apply this latter, selfish standard to every aspect of the relationship and find it wanting in some way or another. We began to be more concerned with having our own needs met than with meeting the needs of our spouses or families and this became our undoing.

An increasing number of couples began to forego marriage entirely, as the sexual union no longer carried an implication of children or commitment, but the simple enjoying of a partner. Couples cohabiting without the benefit of marriage--a relationship that society once termed “living in sin”--became more accepted and today might even be the norm. [Perhaps some will remember that as recently as the mid-1970’s, many landlords still refused to rent apartments to unmarried couples on a moral basis. Such a thing seems almost unbelievable today!]

With procreation psychologically detached from sex, pregnancy began to be viewed as an “accident” and abortion moved from the back alleys to become a legal and lucrative industry. Jesus has warned that in the last days, most people’s love would grow cold, even to the point that mothers would lose a natural love for their own children. We suspect we are in those days when a living, healthy baby in the womb is often described as an “unwanted pregnancy” and the heartless murder of it, “a woman’s right to choose”.

Our linking of sex to pleasure exclusively has led to a change in attitudes toward explicit pornography, prostitution, and masturbation as well. Once seen as vile and shameful, these are now promoted as healthy outlets. Promiscuity itself has become more culturally accepted, leading to the invention of a myth called “safe sex;” a term that concerns itself only with any physical repercussions, and never with the emotional or spiritual ones.

With pleasure-taking now understood as the primary purpose of a sexual encounter, it no longer seems to matter if the couple is even of the opposite sex. The growing acceptance of homosexuality and the rapid move toward same-sex unions is merely the latest logical and predictable manifestation of the redefining of sex as pleasure over procreation that all began with the broad acceptance and use of easy contraceptives within otherwise traditional marriages not so very long ago.

Now this might sound as if I’m preaching against the use of contraceptives but please understand that this is not my point. There are many methods which of course should never be used because they can cause spontaneous abortions or lead to health or long-term fertility problems. But there are other methods which can be approved for limited use if a couple has a proper understanding of what the Church teaches concerning the sacrament of marriage. Couples considering birth-control methods should seek the guidance of their father-confessor and not rely solely on opinions or teachings of others on the matter.

My true purpose for giving this admittedly simplified history was to show that our society’s rampant sexual confusion and immorality didn’t just appear out of nowhere one day last week. It is rooted in the gradual distortion of our understanding of the purpose of sex itself; a distortion that modern reproductive science, unleashed within an amoral secular culture, certainly helped to accelerate. The result is that our society’s distorted views on sex have affected us all, some of us adversely. Many of us need a miracle akin to Mother Mary’s of Egypt to set us back on a path of healing.

When it was revealed to Mary that her impurity had separated her from God, she undertook an extreme repentance to correct her life. Our repentance may not involve desert wandering, but in the eyes of the world, the actions we must take for our own recovery might seem nearly as extreme. It comes down to the fact that we need to learn to take sex seriously once again, recognizing it as a sacred action which God has blessed for marriage alone.

All single people and unmarried couples must practice absolute and total celibacy, without exception. Dating couples need to enter into covered relationships and strictly follow the rules given to them by their priest to preserve their purity. Married people must be monogamous and work harmoniously together for their mutual salvation. If they are using contraceptives, they must make certain that they are using acceptable types and in a manner that is not to simply maintain a double-income, no-kids lifestyle indefinitely. We should also say that any people troubled by a same-sex attraction must not follow this impulse, but learn how to live in purity through the sacrament of confession. All of us must labor to be chaste in thought and deed, avoiding pornography, indecent entertainment, and every unclean action done in secret. We must resist the secular notion that we have some inherent “right” to give in to our passions and indulge in whatever form of sexual pleasure-taking we enjoy. This is not what God created us for.

In today’s world, such steps might seem nearly as extreme as desert monasticism. But our culture has become hostile to sexual purity and we must oppose this trend in our hearts and in our lives. In essence, we must take sex back from a culture that has utterly trivialized it and learn to regard it as something sacred once again. Since sexuality is integral to our humanity as God created it, any perversion of our sexual practices or attitudes leads invariably to the deconstruction of our humanity itself. This is exactly what we are witnessing taking place in our society, and perhaps in our lives as well.

Through the prayers of our righteous Mother Mary and of all the saints, may God help us to reverse this trend and find healing through a diligent and careful repentance.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 3/21/2010 5:04 PM , Blogger Gabriel said...

Father Michael, bless,
Thank you for talking about this controversial subject. A very recent history of shifting attitudes within the Orthodox Church can be found by comparing editions of the famous book The Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware. From the original 1963 printing:
"Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church."

From the 2nd edition:
"The use of contraceptives and other devices for birth control is on the whole strongly discouraged in the Orthodox Church. Some bishops and theologians altogether condemn the employment of such methods. Others, however, have recently begun to adopt a less strict position, and urge that the question is best left to the discretion of each individual couple, in consultation with the spiritual father."

From the most recent edition:
"Concerning contraceptives and other forms of birth control, differing opinions exist within the Orthodox Church. In the past birth control was in general strongly condemned, but today a less strict view is coming to prevail, not only in the west but in traditional Orthodox countries. Many Orthodox theologians and spiritual fathers consider that the responsible use of contraception within marriage is not in itself sinful. In their view, the question of how many children a couple should have, and at what intervals, is best decided by the partners themselves, according to the guidance of their own consciences."

This begs the question: why such a sharp change in attitude on this subject in such a short period of time?

At 3/21/2010 5:15 PM , Blogger Gabriel said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3/21/2010 6:22 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

The change you mention reflects the Orthodox "pastoral" response to the issue. Unlike some churches that might take a strict, legalistic stance--thus either driving folks out of communion or else putting them in a conscience-destroying position of ignoring their church--Orthodoxy would rather "bend" its own rules to some extent to allow their people to remain connected to their father-confessor and the communion of the church in the hope that they will eventually come around to the Church's perspective and voluntarily submit their will to the ecclesiastical wisdom.

We might say that the Church always promotes the ideal, but is also willing to meet people where they "are at" in order to lead them toward that which is more perfect. Doesn't God do the same with each of us in our Christian life?

At 3/21/2010 9:04 PM , Blogger Erica said...

I love this talk and I second Gabriel's comment. (I have read that many times too)

Thank you for your answer btw.

I do wonder though...contraception has always in the Orthodox Church been condemned. I have tried to find church fathers who help promote the use of contraception and I have had no luck. This makes me wonder why so many people (even priests) okay the use of contraception. Not to say that there shouldn't be dispensations, I think there should be. I just wonder with such a strong stance against contraception, why dispensations are given out so freely...

Also, I struggle because pills prevent implantation of a fertilized egg and this is a moral issue for me. The medical community doesn't consider it to be abortive unless the egg has already implanted in the endometrial wall. I've even called pharmaceutical companies and asked them straight out if a common pill that is not considered abortifacient prevented implantation and they told me "yes." But this is because, as I said before, the medical community doesn't label preventing implantation of an already conceived human being as abortion.

I just...wonder why all this is.

Please forgive me for anything I've said to offend. This is just a topic I've thought a lot about.

At 3/21/2010 9:06 PM , Blogger Erica said...

Btw, i brought up the moral issue with hormonal contraceptives because I kind of wonder why it is ever considered okay to bless the use of pills that could kill a human being.

Once again, forgive me.

At 3/22/2010 9:03 AM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Erica, personally I no longer recommend the "Pill" for the very reason you mention. I realize that there is enough debate within the medical community on whether the pill actually functions as an final-stage abortifacient that even staunch pro-life physicians still prescribe it. Most pro-life websites ignore this debate and often present exaggerated statistics as "fact". Nevertheless, if there is even a possibility of this happening, I can no longer in good conscience bless its use.

Why do some priests give their blessing? Perhaps they are better informed than I am on this issue, or less informed--I can't say. Perhaps our faithful should make the latest and best information available to the clergy in a respectful manner to help guide them in their pastoral duties.

I do know that we live at a time when many of the canons are "relaxed" to help save our people. For example, one canon requires any woman who has had an abortion to be excommunicated for life, only to receive it on her deathbed. If we enforced that canon strictly in these days of fainthearted faith, many would despair of salvation and leave the Church. The priest must often walk a fine line between the perfection of the Church and the frailty of Her people to save as many as possible.

Thus, some contraceptive measures--such as the "barrier" devices which simply block fertilization, or vasectomies for older couples who have had the number of children they desire--might be approved for couples who feel they require birth-control. This may be a bending of the ancient rules, but one that is necessary in our day. The Church must have the freedom to adjust, not to the whims of the people, but to their true needs.

"Man was not made for the Sabbath (or canon), but the Sabbath (or canon) was made for man".

At 3/22/2010 9:03 PM , Blogger Rik said...

Father Michael,

When you busted out this homily on the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, I was blown away! The example of St. Mary's conversion from one extreme to another is an absolute inspiration and hope for all who wish to turn from the lasciviousness that has become the norm in modern society. We have become so de-sensitized by the media and the general attitude toward sex that it becomes a normal thought pattern for people (even christians) that sex is for pleasure and self-gratification.

The other day, I was watching a popular television show with my wife, and we were both shocked and disgusted when one of the characters said to another "Oh yeah, the third date is the sex date". This is a prime time show that I can guarantee teenagers are watching and this is the message they are sending.

It saddens me that our society is inundated with this level of immorality and that it comes across so it's no big deal. I wish there was a way to reverse this vicious cylcle - to restore our nation to it's Christian roots, but it seems as though we are too far gone.

How can we as individuals get to the desert of dispassion and purity?

Theophilus Rik

At 3/28/2010 5:02 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Father, This homily was so gripping and wonderful. Your thoughts here are dead on in my view. It is always interesting for me when I come in contact with those coming to an Orthodox service for the first time. Often people will stumble over "the ever virginity of Mary", Many times they will even snicker. In this sexually charged climate any thoughts of chastity are viewed as ridiculous. We have all become warped sexually to a large degree from the media filth we live in. Our sexual views in or out of marriage seem to have become sick don't you think?

This homily shows this brilliantly, and I thank you for it!



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home