Conjugal Friendship

by Giacomo Sanfilippo

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One of the more useful insights of postmodernism, so self-evident that it hardly needs to be said, is that reframing one’s fundamental question will produce a different answer. To the question, “Can two persons of the same gender ‘have sex’ with each other?” we hear from Holy Tradition a resounding no. Yet if we ask, “Can two persons of the same gender form a bond in which ‘the two become one?’” the scales begin to fall from our eyes. Holy Tradition possesses in germinal form everything necessary to articulate, thoughtfully and cautiously, an Orthodox theology and spirituality of what we now call same-sex love, adequate to the pastoral needs of the 21st century and fully consistent with the ascetical ethos of Orthodox life for all.

florensky and troitsky
Florensky and Troitsky, 1906

Father Pavel Florensky, in his 1914 essay “Friendship,” was the first in all Christendom to attempt such an articulation in modern times. His biographers identify his beloved dedicatee and addressee in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, in which “Friendship” figures as Letter Eleven and the thematic culmination of the book, with the deceased Sergei Troitsky. Florensky and Troitsky had shared a dormitory room at the Moscow Theological Academy, and planned to spend the rest of their life together in an izba deep in the forests of Kostroma after completion of their studies. “Friendship” stands as a perpetual testimony to their relationship, its nuptial language and playfully homo-romantic emblem all the more remarkable if we consider that Florensky was a married priest and father of his first child when he prepared Pillar and Ground for publication.

Florensky’s ideal of friendship as constitutive of “one soul in two bodies,” making of a man’s unique Friend his “other I,” has its roots in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. He traces this theme like a golden thread through Holy Tradition, from David and Jonathan to Christ and John, the pairing of the apostles, the pairing of saints in hagiography and liturgy, the prevalence of monks living in twos in Byzantine and Coptic monasticism, patristic encomiums to friendship that have an almost romantic quality about them, and finally—evolving out of monastic practice and adapted to lay needs—a fully developed rite of brother-making that precedes by a century or two that of marriage.

Implicitly in St. Maximus the Confessor and explicitly in St. Symeon the New Theologian, we find the use of male-male intimacy as a metaphor for the union of Christ with the male believer in the Eucharist and the vision of uncreated light. St. Symeon Metaphrastes, a near contemporary of the New Theologian, introduces erotic language into his account of SS. Sergius and Bacchus, read in whole or in part as the synaxarion for their annual commemoration. A 14th-century mural icon in Macedonia’s Holy Transfiguration Monastery, perched on the edge of a cliff high above the town of Zrze and the Pelagonian Plain, depicts SS. Theodore of Tyre and Theodore Stratelates in military attire holding hands like any modern couple.

Yet to project “sexual orientation” anachronistically onto a time and place where such a thing was unknown as a marker of personal identity is historically inaccurate and theologically unhelpful. If conceived as indiscriminate carnal desire for members of the opposite, one’s own, or both genders, all sexual orientations originate in the fall of human love from its primeval capacity to reflect and participate in the ecstasy of divine eros. The genius of Florensky, who wrote at a time when the idea of sexual orientation had already gained widespread currency in Russian society, resides in his transformation of the concept into a radiant vision of the spiritual orientation of one person to another. When the attraction is reciprocal, each Friend yearns to step outside of himself to enter into the very being of the other, and to receive the other into his own being, that the two might become more perfectly a single I. Thus begins their joyful but arduous task of lifelong co-ascesis towards “preliminary consubstantiality,” grounded in their frequent co-partaking of the Holy Mysteries. Florensky affirms the couple’s natural need to express their love through some form of bodily intimacy: we see this in David and Jonathan’s kisses, in Christ and John’s embrace in icons of the Mystical Supper.

In building upon the foundation laid by Florensky, I introduce conjugal friendship as a theological substitute for “same-sex union.” This allays any ambiguity concerning the kind of friendship that Florensky envisions as an exclusive union between two men, differing from marriage in no way except for procreation. It harks back to the original meaning of the Latin conjugalis as co-yoked, of which the Greek equivalent, σύζυγος (syzygos), applies to a range of male partnerships in classical, scriptural, and monastic usage in addition to its marital connotation. Despite the androcentrism of Florensky’s essay and the traditional sources upon which he relies, he sets forth a method that lends itself equally well to a theology and spirituality of same-sex love that includes female couples no less than male couples.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College, University of Toronto. He has his BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and his MA in Theology from Regis College. He also completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He is the founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

Photo Credits:

Christopher Walter, “The Sts. Theodore holding hands. Zrze, Macedonia,” Plate 41, in The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003): between pp. 144-45.

Игумен Андроник (Трубачев) [Igumen Andronik (Trubachev)], “П. Флоренский и С. Троицкий во дворе МДА, 1906 [P. Florensky and S. Troitsky in the courtyard of the Moscow Theological Academy, 1906],” Plate 42, in Путь к Богу: Личность, жизнь и творчество священника Павла Флоренского [The Way to God: The Person, Life, and Work of the Priest Pavel Florensky], книга вторая [vol. II] (Сергиев Посад: Фонд науки и православной культуры священника Павла Флоренского, 2015 [Sergiev Posad: Priest Pavel Florensky Foundation for Science and Orthodox Culture, 2015]): between pp. 416-17. Igumen Andronik is Florensky’s grandson.