The Sacrament of Love: A Preliminary Review

This certainly is an extraordinary book. Honestly, I don’t know how far it’s right or wrong, and still have much musing and digesting to do; I just know that it’s very different to any book I have ever read before on Christian marriage and theology of sex and gender.

Evdokimov seems to be critiquing a substantial strand of patristic tradition, and the majority of western Christian standpoints on marriage and femininity. This makes me uneasy, as I wonder if he is departing too far from the consensus patrem and the traditions of the Church; frustratingly, I am not learned enough in the teachings of the Church Fathers and the traditions of the [Orthodox] Church to judge this. Much of what he says is challenging to the mindset that is shared, and largely unquestioned, by conservative Christians across denominational divides – it seems often to be seen as a hallmark of being a conservative Christian, and yet Evdokimov’s book makes me question whether that is right. What he says is uncomfortable, and yet it is striking too. It certainly makes one pause for thought.

This is not a book I, or most people, could fruitfully read fast. The deep ideas need to be carefully considered and appraised. And the writing style is admittedly very hard to understand, indeed there are numerous passages and phrases which I can’t completely understand even after some consideration.

But the ideas are worthy of widespread consideration, whether they are ultimately largely to be accepted or dismissed. I think that they would hold considerable appeal and interest to feminists and liberals as well as conservatives and traditionals within Christianity, and that is a rare quality!

And for all these reasons, although I have only read the lengthy introduction, I have decided already to post the most striking and thought-provoking passages here. I usually finish the whole book, and then post a few passages that give a flavour of it, but I think Evdokimov’s theology deserves more deep consideration than that. So, the highlights so far:

  • ‘The one who is spiritual in his sex becomes sexual even in his spirit. Stopping halfway is a failure that cannot be overlooked and produces the monstrous disorders of a mystic eroticism or of the spirit become flesh.’ [p. 20]
  • The Bible exalts woman as the instrument of spiritual receptivity in human nature. Indeed, the promise of salvation has been given to woman: it is she who receives the Annunciation, it is she to whom the Resurrected Christ first appears, it is the woman adorned with the sun who represents the Church and the Heavenly City in Revelation. Likewise, it is the image of the Bride and of the Betrothed that God has chosen above all others to express His love toward man and the nuptial nature of His communion. And what is ultimately most decisive, the Incarnation is accomplished in the feminine being of the Virgin who gives to it her flesh and blood. // To the divine fatherhood as qualifying the being of God corresponds directly the motherhood of woman as the distinctive religious quality of human nature, its capacity to receive the divine. The aim of the Christian life is to make of every human being a mother, predestined for the mystery of birth, “in order that Christ be formed in you.” Sanctification is the action of the Spirit who brings about the miraculous birth of Christ in the depth of the soul.’ [p. 35]
  • ‘The man Jesus knew no human father, but He knows His mother; His relationship is son-mother, His bond with humanity is through maternity. The Eastern Church cherishes the word of the Lord to John, “This is your mother,” and sees in it the completion of Eve; Mary is “Mother of the living,” a figure of the Church in her fundamental truth of motherly protection.’ [p. 38]
  • ‘The salvation of civilization depends upon the “eternal motherly.” One understands its saving power if one realizes that it is not as “the weaker sex” that Eve has been tempted. On the contrary, she has been seduced because it is she who represents the principle of religious integrity in human nature: wounded in her heart, she immediately succumbs. Adam meekly follows her: “The woman gave me this fruit.”’ [p. 39]
  • ‘If the nature of man is to act, that of woman is to be – and this is the preeminent religious state … United to Christ the Priest, man penetrates into the elements of this world sacramentally; he consecrates and transforms the world into the Kingdom. Violent, he takes hold of the Kingdom. However, this treasure is made up of every manifestation of the sacred, of holiness of being, and it is woman who represents this. The woman wounds the dragon at the head, not through her activity, but through her very being, her purity. For the demons, it is this holiness of being that is mortally unbearable.’ [p. 39-40]
  • ‘It is only by rising above the philosophy of the “common good” that one can grasp the singular worth of those who love each other. It is the hidden and intimate element that is consecrated in the sacrament, it is love that constitutes its matter and receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, the nuptial Pentecost. Society knows but the surface. Between the two lovers there is only God who is the third term; this is why the meaning of marriage is taken precisely in this dual and direct relationship to God.’ [p. 42]
  • ‘V. Soloviev, in The Meaning of Love, which is perhaps the most perceptive of his writings, reconnects love not to the species, but to the whole person. Procreation fragments the person, love makes him whole. Soloviev shows that in lower organisms, there is at once great reproductive power and a complete absence of sexual attraction, from the very fact that the sexes are not differentiated. With more advanced organisms, the sexual attraction increases as the reproductive force diminishes, until, at the summit, with man, the strongest sexual love becomes visible, even in the case of a total absence of reproduction. And thus, if at the two extremes of animal life we find, on the one hand, reproduction without sexual love, and, on the other, sexual love without reproduction, it is apparent that these two phenomena are not indissolubly linked, that each one has its own significance and that reproduction does not emerge as the essential aim of the sexual life in its higher forms. In man the sexual differentiation finds it meaning independent of the species, of society, and of the common good. Indeed, between sexuality and procreation there is a direct physical link; it conditions the sexual attraction that is most often instinctive, impersonal, and common to the entire animal kingdom. This power of the species over the individual reduces the persons to a simple, specific function, compatible with innumerable substitutions. On this level, sexual life visibly bears the mark of man’s Fall. Both the preservation of the species and selfish sexual pleasure reduce the partner to a mere tool and destroy his dignity. Love alone bestows a spiritual meaning upon marriage, and justifies it by elevating it to perceive the countenance of the beloved in God, to the level of the one and only icon.’ [p. 42-43]
  • ‘Man and woman move toward one another by “mutually getting to know each other,” by revealing themselves to each other for a shared ascent; nothing comes to ennoble or legitimize, still less to “pardon” this meaning that royally imposes itself before, or even independent of, procreation. // It is from this overflowing fullness that the child can come as fruit, but it is not procreation that determines and establishes the value of marriage.’ [p. 45]
  • St John Chrysostom “Two souls so united have nothing to fear. With harmony, peace and mutual love, man and woman own all possessions. They can live in peace behind the impregnable wall that protects them, which is love according to God. By love’s grace, they are harder than diamond and stronger than iron, they sail in abundance, steer a course toward eternal glory and attract more and more grace from God.” Homily XXXVIII on Genesis 7. [p. 45]
  • ‘All the contradictions of human nature are manifested in sexual life, for it is there that human nature is most vulnerable and carries a deep wound. When the sexual attraction is impersonal, it is the source of the most odious profanations and of the most humiliating enslavement of the human spirit. It is not the unique, but the anatomy and the moment and the “brief eternity of pleasure” that are sought and desired. Freed from sexual taboos, perfected techniques sharpen the perverted senses of eroticism and descend below the animal and man drinks his shame and his sickness.’ [p. 46]
  • ‘The entire dignity of marriage… is revealed only at the appointed time, for it demands a great maturity of spirit and ascetic mastery of the Last days. The alpha always carries its omega: “Behold I make the last things as the first,” [Epistle of Barnabas 13] but the end transcends the beginning, because it fulfills it. This is why the return to the sources of Truth takes place by going backward, but especially by going forward: “We remember that which is to come.” This amazing paradox of St Gregory of Nyssa corresponds to the liturgy, which “recalls the Parousia.” St Maximus the Confessor explains it impact well: “One should not seek the principle by moving backward, but one should contemplate the goal that is ahead, in order to know in the end the principle that has been left behind: in this end which man was unable to know from the beginning.” [PG 40:631D] Love is precisely this crucial point where the original fullness invokes the fullness to come.’ [p. 46-7]
  • ‘The marriage-procreation concept of old was functional, subordinated to the cycles of generations and tending toward the coming of the Messiah. The nuptial marriage-priesthood is ontological, the new creation that saturates human time with eternity. Like monasticism, marriage is eschatological; it is the mystery of the “eighth day” and the prophetic figure of the Kingdom. Monastic asceticism and nuptial asceticism meet: “The one who has received the Spirit and is purified… breathes the divine life.” [St Gregory of Sinai, On the Contemplative Life] The Spirit causes the priestly love of husbands and the maternal tenderness of women to germinate and also opens them to the world in order to set free every neighbor and lead them back to God.’ [p. 47-8]
  • ‘”Woman will be saved by childbearing” (1 Tim 2:15). One must hear the hidden message of this utterance: the bringing to birth of a new aeon [‘The Greek word aion means “perpetuity,” “an age,” “the world” (in a spatial sense), “the cycle” (an unbroken age).] beyond all biological fertility. This word refers before all else to the Nativity that inaugurates the aeon of the Incarnation; it also commends chastity as a universal value that ushers in the aeon of eschatological holiness.’ [p. 48]

[Paul Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel and Victoria Steadman (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminar Press, 1985

More information on the author can be found here: http://orthodoxoasis.com/files/vitamins/Paul%20Evdokimov%20-%20General%20Thoughts.pdf ]

 

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