Death, and Beer and Cigarettes: A Story About the Church

A Facebook friend, Gregory Tillett, posted a story that I wanted to share. The following words are his and are posted with his permission. –David

I admit that I have a distinctly perverted sense of humour, but I was challenged to suppress it recently when I had to choose between hysterical laughter, or vomiting, or flying into a rage.

The young man was dying. He was connected to an array of medical devices, and being given every possible treatment (contrary to his very clear and explicit instructions) that might keep him barely alive for as long as possible.

His family, who clearly believed that his impending death was nothing to do with him, but entirely a matter for them, had finally resolved a massive conflict by bringing together a “non-denominational grief minister” who also described herself as a “death midwife” (his mother’s choice) and an Orthodox Priest (his father’s choice). Oh, and me! I was the choice of the young man’s girlfriend (expressed to her by him). Her role was, of course, problematic. They had been living together (“in sin”?) for four years or more, but were not married. So, as the young man’s parents repeatedly declared, she had no “rights”. Alas, he had also never prepared a Will or any enduring Powers of Attorney, so, legally, she was something of a “stranger”.

The “death midwife” rambled on about nothing in particular. The Orthodox Priest, in obviously grave discomfort and very much out of his depth, recited set prayers and talked about the serious dangers of dying without confession and absolution, and the probable risks of hell-fire and damnation. Someone, finally, suggested that I might offer a prayer, which I did, noting that the young man seemed to be smiling at me as I did so.

Thus the anticipatory mourners departed. While I was waiting for the others to depart, the girlfriend asked me if I would go back into the young man’s room.

As I bent over to listen to him, he said: “Do I have put up with all this crap?” It took me a while to understand what he was saying. When I assured him that he didn’t have to “put up with anything”, he said: “You know, the only thing that I really want is to have a beer and a cigarette with [he named his girlfriend] in the fresh air.” He seemed gratefully amused when I laughed. “I’ll see what I can do”, I said.

I found the oldest female nurse I could. Long experience has taught me that older women are almost always more sympathetic and more pastorally practical than men. I told her what the young man wanted. She remained completely silent. I asked her: “Would a beer and a cigarette in the fresh air make any difference to his condition?” Her expression did not change. “Wait here,” she said. It was not a request. She returned in a few minutes with a young doctor who turned out to be an oncologist, and, silently, ushered us both into an empty room and closed the door. She had obviously told the young doctor about my question. He assured me that the young man was close to death, and neither beer nor cigarettes, nor fresh air, could have the slightest effect on that. “But,” said the nurse (showing not the slightest emotion), “it would be completely against the rules and the law for alcohol or cigarettes to be brought into the hospital, let alone consumed here.”

I knew instinctively that I had to remain silent. She thanked the doctor and, giving me a knowing smile, he departed. “Perhaps,” the nurse said, “Mr X might like to sit for a brief time on the balcony where he could see the outside world and smell the fresh air. That can probably be arranged in, say, half an hour….in case there’s anything you need to do in the meanwhile.” She departed.

The girlfriend offered to “go shopping”, but obviously did not want to leave her partner. I suspect that the man in the nearby bottle shop was not accustomed to selling beer, cigarettes and a lighter to men in Priest’s robes, but he managed to be completely professional, even to asking: “Would you prefer a bag without our logo on it?”

Two older wardsmen appeared, and gently moved the young man in his bed out onto the balcony, supervised by the nurse. “You will obviously need privacy, Father” she said. “I’ll place a notice on the door so that no-one will come in without consulting me first.” She left.

The sun was shining, the air was fresh – well, a little polluted by cigarette smoke and the slight fragrance of beer. The young couple held hands, drank what was to be their last beer together, and smoked their last cigarette. I went back inside the room to leave them alone.

The nurse reappeared. “Have you finished hearing his Confession, Father?” she asked quite loudly, presumably for the benefit of any staff outside the room. The wardsmen returned and the room was returned to its normal order. As I was leaving, the young woman handed me the bag (with no logo) containing a few cans of beer and the pack of cigarettes. “You keep it,” I said. She looked at me with tears in her eyes: “For later, when….” she said. I bent down to say goodbye to the young man, and to bless him. It took me some time to understand what he was saying. “You do……pretty…cool….last rites…Father.” He smiled. And so did I.

Going down in the elevator, two young nurses were talking, obviously about the older nurse who had assisted me. “Hard-faced bitch,” one said. “Yeah,” said the other, “you couldn’t expect human feeling from her.” I smiled again. The older nurse not only did not practice her righteousness in front of others to be seen by them [Matthew 6:1], but carefully concealed it by giving the appearance of being hard-hearted. When, on another day, I attempted to thank her for her kindness, she seemed positively indignant: “I was only doing my job, Father.” A “job”, of course, which she did not define by the bureaucratic rules of the hospital, and which was largely possible because of the image of a tyrant she projected.

The young man died early the following morning.

I often have occasion to give thanks for the “parish” I have been given. My parishioners are those who have been thrown out of, forced out of, alienated from, relegated to second-class status in, or made to feel unwelcome in any conventional parish. They’re the people who may need “really cool Last Rites” involving beer and cigarettes, fresh air and sunshine, and the comforting hand of someone they love but with whom they are not in a “legitimate” relationship.

That right there— That is what it should mean to be the church. We are a people of second-class status, alienated and sinful, unwelcome, but made into a family—the body of Christ—to bring a little life into those spaces where death continues to reign, even if only for a few moments. –David

Further thoughts on Conjugal Friendship: A Response to Siewers

When an Orthodox Christian brings up the church’s teachings about sexuality…critics respond more to what they perceive to be the agenda of the author than the substance of the argument.

Ancient Faith’s “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” blog recently featured a guest post by Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers, responding to Giacomo Sanfilippo’s recent article on Conjugal Friendship in Public Orthodoxy. Sanfilippo deserves praise for broaching a topic that puts a bullseye on his back, and Siewers deserves praise for his thoughtful and measured response. These two articles, together, exemplify a spirit of dialog over an issue that needs to be fully and reasonably considered, but which often generates more heat than light. That said, Siewers seems to be countering a set of arguments that Sanfilippo simply does not make. Continue reading “Further thoughts on Conjugal Friendship: A Response to Siewers”

Some Thoughts About “Conjugal Friendship”

This model of friendship, in which two people become one soul, sharing life together in all ways but procreation, has roots in Scripture and other holy writings. We see examples of it in David and Jonathan or the saints Sergius and Bacchus. Conjugal friendship has such deep roots in the church that it actually predates the rite of marriage, or so the author claims.

Public Orthodoxy recently posted an article by Giacomo Sanfilippo on “Conjugal Friendship,” which he puts out there as a kind of alternate way of beginning to think about same-sex marriage from an Orthodox theological perspective.

Sanfilippo uses the Russian theologian and polymath, Pavel Florensky, as a kind of case study in conjugal friendship. (Pyman’s Quiet Genius is a superb introduction to Florensky.) Florensky, the author claims, was the first theologian to articulate such a theology in modern times. This model of friendship, in which two people become one soul, sharing life together in all ways but procreation, has roots in Scripture and other holy writings. We see examples of it in David and Jonathan or the saints Sergius and Bacchus. Conjugal friendship has such deep roots in the church that it actually predates the rite of marriage, or so the author claims.

Holding HandsDespite whatever one might be inclined to read between the lines here, it does need to be acknowledged that the modern idea of a macho, tough-guy who only grunts around other men is a historical aberration. There are multiple examples from history of deep friendships between members of the same sex. We would be inclined to see these as “gay” today, but maybe not. Masculinity today is a reaction to perceived threats of feminism, and thus men, at least in the time and place where I live, are not inclined to do things like kiss or hold hands, even though such displays of affection are common in many other parts of the world.

Sanfilippo’s article needs to be read…twice. And then read again. I am still processing a great deal of it. I have plans to look through his original sources. I recommend the same for all of his readers, especially those who were convinced of its errors before ever setting eyes on it. That said, there was one statement he made that raised some immediate questions.

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.

I would like Sanfilippo to elaborate on this statement a bit more. What does he mean by it? On the one hand, it seems to suggest that all sexuality is a result of the fall. This would make all sexual desire and sexual pleasure sinful. Is this something the author himself agrees with? Or is his point more nuanced? Is it possible for sexual desire and pleasure to be experienced as a kind of ecstasy in divine eros?

It is the second possibility that fascinates me. I have blogged about this before when thinking through the theological anthropologies of St Augustine and St Gregory of Nyssa (and their implications). Augustine has a reputation for being anti-sex, but I actually think the evidence has it the other way around. Augustine sees sex and procreation as being part of God’s plan before the Fall. For Nyssen, it was a result of the Fall. So for Augustine, sexual desire post-Fall is disordered desire because it cannot fully escape selfishness, but in theory, absent the constraints of original sin, this leaves open the possibility of a kind of theology of redeemed intercourse. For Nyssen, on the other hand, that is never really a possibility. Sex is just there, temporarily, to continue the human species. In essence, sexual differentiation and sexuality are just not part of who we are. That is not necessarily the case for Augustine. One might say that for Gregory of Nyssa it is a necessary evil while for Augustine sex is a disordered good.

I realize at this point that I am beginning to sound like one of those people at academic conferences that pretends to have a question but really just wants to talk at length about what interests them. That is not my intent. What I am curious about is which of the two options does Sanfilippo think is most compatible with his argument. If we are to have conjugal friendship, then is it better for us to be without sex or gender in essence, as Gregory of Nyssa thought? Or does the physical affection that he says comes with conjugal friendship necessitate an anthropology more along Augustinian lines, wherein we are bodies that demonstrate affection for each other, and that affection can, at least in theory, be holy?

Or to put it another way, from the perspective of Sanfilippo’s argument, does conjugal friendship have the potential to be a rightly ordered good, or can it only ever be a necessary evil? 

Did Sergei Bulgakov Read Søren Kierkegaard?

This morning I was looking up a passage from Bulgakov’s 1917 foray into theology, The Unfading Lightwhen I happened upon the following passage:

Moreover, religion, which some wish to reduce entirely to ethics, in its integrity is higher than ethics and hence free from it: ethics exists for the human being in certain bounds such as law, but the human being must be able to rise above even ethics. Let them ponder the sense of those stories of the Bible when God, for the purposes of religious economy, or for testing faith, permitted or even ordered acts that wittingly contradict morality: the sacrifice of an only son, the bloody extermination of whole nations, deceit, and theft.

What Bulgakov says here about ethics, and mention of the sacrifice of Isaac, should raise the eyebrows of anyone who has read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Did Bulgakov get this from Kierkegaard? Or did he stumble into the teleological suspension of the ethical by accident? This is more than a point of curiosity for me. Those of us who try to figure out what dead people were thinking benefit greatly from knowing who they were reading. Unfortunately, Orthodox theologians in the past did not always cite their western sources, and even more unfortunately, most of what Bulgakov did footnote, Eerdman’s publishing decided wasn’t worth printing. But don’t get me started on that.

I really would like this question answered. So “Like” this post and share it with all your Russian friends.

Follow me at @DrDavidJDunn.

Real Life: The Great New Board Game Nobody’s Talking About

I just had a great idea for a new board game. It would be called “Real Life.” It would be kind of like Monopoly, except instead of starting from the same place with the same resources, players would draw Birth cards that would determine the circumstances of their birth. Then a set of Parent cards would determine players’ first 18 moves. After that, they get to use whatever educational and financial resources they have so far accumulated to make decisions about the spaces they land on. The last player left alive wins.

Naturally, to keep it real, the vast majority of the Birth cards would involve lack of food, clean water, medical care, and adequate education. So unlike Monopoly, Real Life would be a very short game.

If this is your idea of justice, you’re a terrible person.

UPDATE: After writing this post, I discovered that this game actually exists. Next time, I will Google first. There goes my retirement plan.