Fully knowing oneself is a greater miracle than raising the dead. — unknown (to me) Orthodox saint by way of Fr. John
The other day I was reading the First Things article Christianity Lite at my father’s recommendation. The author may well be right about the connection between Christian sexual ethics and the ability to maintain doctrinal foundations about the virgin birth, the resurrection, the Trinity, and so on. But I was struck that Orthodox have a great deal of doctrinal solidity and talk relatively little about sex. If I were to posit a reason for this it would be that whereas other churches tend to take chastity as their major arena of self-denial, Orthodox more often take on gluttony. Which is to say we fast. And the experience of the monastics is that those who can successfully hold out against gluttony will have a much better chance against lust. I am unable to articulate at this time why that is the case, or what the connection is — the desert fathers found a closer connection between the two kinds of abstentions than I ever have — but at the very least one is less likely to make the mistake of equating this particular desire one is facing at the moment for something essential about one’s person if he’s lusting after roast beef rather than after another person.
The main reason, however, why I can’t quite articulate the connection is because I can’t quite articulate Orthodox psychology (the traditional rather than the modern kind). It’s important to note that when I say “psychology” in an Orthodox sense it isn’t just about the brain, though it includes that, but is about also the heart and body and their own disorders in relation to the mind. Because this same way of looking at the human person declares the mind to be as much a matter of heart as brain (if I haven’t written on that remind me to do so sometime). Anyway, the way Fr. John represents it, one begins by postulating that every disorder between mind and body is an affect of our having lost communion with God (and, tangentially, each other). Most desires of fallen man are more or less disordered not in the sense of being unreal, but in no longer ordering themselves toward God. Thus, lust is the disordered desire for union — with another person, but ultimately with God — which is disordered because it ends up using the other person rather than loving them (it aims to take rather than offer). The cure is to go before God in confession (admit the facts of the case) and repentance (willingness to do otherwise), and ask for grace. Gluttony is in several ways similar — it’s also a disordered desire for communion. I can’t very well articulate why; it’s one of the bits of Orthodoxy that’s important but very far from modern culture. Strictly speaking, it is a very disordered thing to be eating all the time alone, in a hurry, in front of the TV, from a feeling of habit and necessity, to forget lonelyness, and so on. If you’re interested, try reading For the Life of the World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann. It’s because, as Bishop Anthony Bloom said, “food is God’s love made edible” — and there’s a way in which the Tree of Life that we were to eat from is God, uncreated energy, made edible; a way in which the rock that followed the Israelites in the desert was God made drinkable. There’s also a reason other than mere physical health — related, but not reductionisticly — why God is so concerned in the Old Testament with what his people are eating, how they’re eating it, who they’re eating with, and so on. Because a meal is not only about a biological necessity for usable energy any more than sex is only about a biological necessity for the continuation of the species. I remember reading once an argument on a message board where several people were saying that a certain disordered sexual practice was simply the filling of a biological need, just as one might fill a biological need for sweetness and calories by eating chocolate ice cream. At the time I supposed that must mean that there’s something wrong with the ice cream addiction, and still hold that to be the case. All this theologically comes from and goes back to the sacrament of Communion — we eat God? Really? Yeah.
Getting back to Christianity Lite, I would posit that the reason for the connection between maintaining some expectation of chastity and doctrinal solidity has to do with the way in which how we look for union with each other either comes from or tries to replace how we look for union with God. The author of that article mentioned divorce and contraception being also related, and it’s not surprising they would be: it’s not without reason Scripture likens man’s relationship with God to a marriage, and us to harlots. We fall in and out of love with God as well — so when things are hard, it’s taking all the energy we have to love God, and even then we feel like it’s not working, like he’s not responding, like we’re “not getting much out of it,” like his will isn’t aligning very well with our will; what are we going to do? Leave the Church, file for a theological divorce, have an affair with money, parties, excitement, whatever? Are we willing to admit absolute contingence in creation, understanding, hunger, lodging, anything? Orthodox tend to start with “man does not live by bread alone,” among other reasons (hinted at above), because, noticing that one hasn’t eaten one’s favorite foods in two months, and that it’s OK, and has not in fact made one miserable; that it may have made one rather joyful, that it’s given back at Pascha in freedom rather than necessity (“my happiness is not dependent on eating a steak every week, but a steak is offered on this occasion, so thanks be to God!”), teaches one how to have a Christian kind of hope and a Christian kind of freedom.