In his latest Bible study at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Jonah teaches from 1 Corinthians 7. He touches on the subjects of spiritual and bodily freedom from and slavery to the passions, the decline of societal understanding of the family as a sacramental community, marriage as an ascetic vocation of mutual devotion and self-sacrifice, sexual life within marriage, and ascetic struggle against the passions.
Metropolitan Jonah opens the January 17 Bible study at St John the Baptist Cathedral with everyone together singing the prayer “O Heavenly King”.
Among many of his memorable quotes are these:
1) On the mutuality of spiritual freedom and bodily slavery and spiritual slavery and bodily freedom:
“The bodily state of earthly captivity doesn’t really matter if one is inwardly spiritually free. Just as the state of external freedom doesn’t matter if one is inwardly bound by one’s passions and by one’s sins. That state of [being in] slavery doesn’t necessarily mean that a person has to be enslaved in spirit. We can be free [in body] and be completely enslaved to our passions. And so to be free from our passions and free from slavery to sin is the real freedom, and not simply socio-political freedom.”
2) Internal freedom and spiritual agency expressed and fulfilled in the mastery over one’s passions and temptations Faithful marriages are a Church-sanctioned vocation for those not wishing to live in lifelong celibacy, but marriages must be monogamous:
“To be spiritually free, and I think this is really the whole point of so much of this epistle, is to have that absolute internal freedom, which is that one is in complete control of oneself, that we’re not enslaved to any of our passions or our sins, we’re not under compulsion to do any kind of [immoral] behavior or any kind of activity, we can control ourselves completely. That’s certainly the context of St. Paul’s teaching on marriage and celibacy, that it’s better to remain celibate if you can control yourself, and if you can’t control yourself, you can marry, but you have to remain faithful within marriage, you can’t be unfaithful on the side.”
“And that’s part of this inward freedom, whether it’s the more radical form of celibacy or the slightly less radical form of a chaste marriage where the husband and the wife are there solely for one another and not for anyone else. Both are ascetic forms of life. Both are a context for self-denial [of self-gratification or pleasure-focused lust]. It’s through that denial that that inner freedom comes, so that, for example, a person isn’t driven to be unfaithful, but has self-control.”
3) On the moral decline in society and the dissolution of traditional family life due to people giving into temptations:
“One of the biggest problems that the Church faces, and that society faces, is the dissolution of the family. Divorce and remarriage, or of people simply living together without any kind of blessing on their relationship, which usually also translates into no real commitment, and therefore no real accountability for the relationship. When you’re married in church, there’s accountability for the relationship, right?
“Ultimately, you’ve not only had all these people come and witness that you’ve had these prayers said over you, the marriage has been crowned, it’s been brought into the Kingdom [of heaven], that it’s something to last forever, and on and on, and that means, essentially, that you’re accountable, you’re accountable to your bridesmaids and groomsmen, who are not just there to look pretty, they’re not just there to hold up the crown and bonk the couple on the head once in awhile, but these people are your sponsors in marriage, the bridesmaids and the groomsmen.”
“A lot of these things [having sponsors at one’s wedding to serve as reminders that one is pledging to live a married life of mutual commitment and loving sacrifice with one’s spouse] have become kinds of cultural relics. These [practices] were incredibly important in keeping and maintaining the marriage within the community of the Church, and within the greater local community. The same thing applies to godparents.”
4) Marriage as an icon of the relationship between Christ and the Church, and healthy family life as a model for healthy community life within parishes:
“As St. Paul teaches elsewhere, marriage is an image of the whole community, it’s an image of the Church, it’s an icon, it’s a sacrament of the Church, it’s a sacramental presence of the Church. Everybody needs a sacramental community to which to belong. One either belongs in the exclusive relationship with one other person, one’s spouse, in marriage, or in the inclusive relationship of a greater community in a monastery.”
“Now St. Paul doesn’t teach specifically about monasticism because it was only nascent at the time, in the communities of widows and virgins, you can see from the texts already existed. But everybody needs to belong to that sacramental community. Marriage and family is one of those communities, and that’s why it’s also important to maintain that structure within the community of the Church, of a parish as a community of sacramental communities, a community of families where the family is that unit which has been sanctified.”
“The parish itself is a place where people come and go, it’s not sanctified in and of itself, but it’s a community of sacramental communities, each of which manifests and reveals the unity of Christ and the Church. The unity of husband and wife, which then is a fruitful union bringing forth children just as the union of Christ and the Church is a fruitful union bringing forth spiritual children.”
5) Marriage is understood as a divinely sanctioned relationship based on ascetic self-sacrifice and mutual striving in devotion, in which the couple works out their salvation together, building each other up and bearing each other’s burdens. Asceticism in life in general, and marriage in particular, is foreign to most non-Orthodox, especially Calvinist Protestants and those with a post-modern liberal worldview:
“St Paul is trying to show that marriage is an important way for people to work out their salvation. . . [He] is emphasizing an ascetic vision of life. The Lord emphasized an ascetic vision of life. Orthodox Christianity is about an ascetic vision of life. That’s what differentiates Orthodoxy from non-Orthodox, because most non-Orthodox churches, the Protestants in particular, have definitively rejected asceticism as having any value. If you get into a Calvinist system, it doesn’t make any sense [to have asceticism]; if you’re [predestined to be] damned, there’s nothing you can do about it. We reject that definitively.”
“This ascetic approach is equally important both for those who dedicate the totality of their lives to that asceticism, in other word the single [celibate] man or woman as one who need only care for the things of the Lord, whereas, the reality is, if you’re married you have to worry about your spouse and your children, you have to worry about not only feeding yourself and putting a roof over your head, but also about feeding your family and keeping a roof over their heads, and God knows all of the other kinds of distractions. But there’s still an ascetic component to it [marriage]. Those who reject this in favor of a kind of late 20th century anti-asceticism, in other words, who hold to a liberal worldview, can’t understand a passage like this, it would make no sense to them [in their worldview].”
6) On sexual relations and mutual understanding within marriage:
“Remember that one of the things that [St. Paul] emphasizes is that you should abstain together by mutual consent, and then come together by mutual consent. Now, that’s a whole lot different from any ideas of subjection or subjugation. It’s all about mutual consent. Here again, St. Paul is very balanced in his teaching; it’s all about mutuality and the relationship of marriage. I think that’s the real core of the Christian ideal and certainly of Scriptural teaching on marriage.”
7) On the true meaning of asceticism as a means of pursuing inner spiritual discipline and maintaining the purity of the soul:
“As St. Paul says, there is a certain value in learning how to master oneself, and there is a value, which the Church teaches, to modifying our diet and doing various kinds of things and not doing other kinds of things at certain times of the year. But that’s ultimately not really what asceticism is about, that’s kind of a side thing. Real asceticism, my own synthesis of the Fathers, is not about what you eat or don’t eat, but about whether or not you watch your thoughts, and give into your thoughts, and whether you cut off evil, sinful judgmental and hateful thoughts, and thereby maintain inner purity.”
“That’s the kind of asceticism that really enables you to cast off everything and go and follow Christ, because you’re not attached to anything, but detached from all the passions, in a healthy way. I think that’s the real asceticism up which ultimately we are called to work up to. Living the Church’s rules is a valuable thing, but that’s not the goal in and of itself.”
“The rules are a means to helping us bring ourselves under control, and a means reminding us to try to sanctify our lives. That’s why the Fathers teach that while it’s important to obey the rules, you find out what works best for you. So, for example, if you’re a nursing mother, you’re forbidden from fasting; you’ve got a different kind of asceticism. If you’re old and weak, you’re forbidden from fasting. But if you’re young and strong and full of passions, you better fast, really hard! (laughs).”
“Each person needs to find out what works for him or her to bring them into deeper and deeper communion with God, because some things do and other things don’t, and each person is uniquely given a different gift. As St. Paul says, to some is given the gift of chastity, to some is given the gift of marriage, and the reality is that one is not higher than the other, except for the person to whom that gift has been given.”
Metropolitan Jonah laughing with the study group on Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green’s observation that the Orthodox are the only Christian group which still needs to write bass parts for its church music.