By Fr. Robert Lachanodrakon
It is melancholy to modern souls who traverse Orthodox Christian writings, from diverse centuries, languages, and lands, to countenance such unity of thought, such devotion to Tradition, such a yearning for sacred purity that transcends any worldly culture. One might think that the Truth really was handed down once for all by the Apostles; that the unchanging message was never to be improved; that self-styled Orthodox are impervious to the mores of this age.
But behold, new, courageous voices emerge, such as expressed in this essay, which, penned by an prominent Orthodox clergyman who has no fear of Fathers, Confessors, or Bishops, living or dead, fell into my hands. A similar essay by a namesake, published two years prior, will strike not a few readers as some sort of coincidence, although what exactly I shall not speculate. Both arguments, however, aligned in learning, logic, and clarity, will no doubt bring much comfort and boldness to those who love our present culture above all others. —Ivan Swift, Jan. 2013
Is the legalization of public nudity a threat to the Orthodox Church’s stance on decorum? This question is again becoming the focus of many Orthodox Christians in light of the recent passage by numerous state legislatures to legalize nudity, as a first-amendment right, in all public places.
As a priest in a state where nudity has been legal for some time, the law of the land has never intruded upon my ministry nor has it sought to alter the Church’s vision and theology of dress. That some Orthodox Christians feel obliged to voice their opposition to public nudity for fear that the Church will inevitably be coerced to comply and therefore oblige the public with nudist-friendly liturgies seems premature. On the one hand, civil law does not and will not become the standard for what takes place within the precincts of the Church. (Please do not recall the Ottoman era, the Soviet period, etc. Encroachments such as happened then are by definition impossible in our land of liberty.) On the other hand, the legalizing of nudity in some of our states offers the faithful the opportunity to reflect on the long and complex history of clothing within the Church.
Beginning with our Lord’s public ministry, the Gospel accounts reveal that what he understood clothing to be was not quite in tune with that of the Pharisees. This is especially clear in discussion about vestments. The Pharisees justified their clothing based on the authority of Scripture in the person of Moses. Christ responds: “They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” (Mt. 23:5) In the same Gospel an additional detail is contained in Jesus’ response: “And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?”(Mt. 6:28-30)
While the Pharisees and Sadducees argued with Christ over the nature of clothing, in the case of the Matthew the discussion focuses on the worthiness of those that by are by nature disposed not to adorn themselves with clothes. The Pauline letters indicate that the great missionary grappled with issues relative to nudity in light of what he anticipated to be the imminent second coming of our Lord. Combing the Pauline corpus regarding garments one is struck by the inconsistency of the missionary’s message. For example, was the raiment on a woman’s head to be encouraged or discouraged? (1 Cor. 11) St. Paul is silent on clothing when he discusses how the Christian should be armored for spiritual warfare, an odd omission. (Eph. 6) He seems to be of two minds about clothing when he meditates on the Resurrection, eagerly anticipating heavenly clothing, but holding out as a possibility not to be discounted the desirability of an unclothed state in this life: “For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Cor. 5:1-4)
St. Paul is, typically, confusing and unclear. Because he was a missionary his approach (or approaches) to clothing should not be perceived as a systematic treatment of the subject. As the Apostle to the Gentiles, he was encountering the new and unexpected not as a Jew but as a Jewish Christian newly converted to the crucified and risen Lord. Over the course of centuries the Church continued to face new and unexpected challenges. The canons of our Church attest to this fact especially when it comes to clothing. Once the symphonia between Church and State was established the ideal of dress would eventually be undermined not from without but from within the confines of the Church.
In spite of the many holy traditions and examples seeking to strike a balance between degrees of dress and which sought to protect underdressed and less-clothed laity and clergy (e.g. the Baptism of Christ, St. Mary of Egypt, both of which attest to early proclivities to public nudity) from abundantly clothed extremists, the balance inevitably tipped toward the latter. A striking example of this imbalance are the many-layered, complex elements of the Bishop’s vesting ceremony that creeped into the Liturgy. The superiority of vestments over less-cumbersome, secular clothing for clergy continues to be a prevailing ethos for many in the Orthodox Church.
Dress was not the only challenge the Church would have to face with regards to the place of clothing in society. The issue of slavery also drew the Church and Christian State into new waters. While Christianity contributed to a more humane treatment of slaves, slavery remained an established institution which, for the most part, was necessary for maintaining the natural order. From a Christian perspective this meant that slavery was a social phenomenon established by God. The Letter to the Colossians helps to make this point. St. Paul implicitly states that the relationship between slave and master is just as important as the relationship between wives and husbands, children and parents. (3:18-25) Slavery was a cornerstone in the foundation of a well ordered society. That St. Paul returns the runaway slave Onesimus to his owner – presumably Philemon a “fellow worker” in the Gospel – also shows that slavery as an institution was not to be tampered with. (Philemon 8ff) Parenthetically, one has to ask how the return of Onesimus to his owner stands in relation to Deuteronomic teaching: “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you…”(23:15)
By the 4th century slavery as a component of natural law began to be articulated in the writings of the Church Fathers. Yet, with regards to slavery, natural law was understood as a product of sin. As such, slavery was sustained by God’s will as punishment due to human folly and transgression. As Chrysostom misguidedly stressed, from the beginning God created all men free but because of sin, war and greed slavery ensued. (Eph. Hom. 24)
As the Fathers, both East and West, stumbled blindly, trying to figure out the nature and source of slavery the slave continued to hold the legal and social status as a non-person. Among other things, this meant that slaves could not marry. While St. Gregory of Nazianzus condemned slavery he remained a slave owner who, in his will, offered them their freedom and personhood. St. Basil the Great saw slavery as a necessary evil. St. Theodore of Studios forbade monks to possess slaves and yet slave holding monasteries were not unknown. Canon 3 of the Council of Gangra anathematized those who encouraged slaves to flee their masters. What idiots.
The slave as a non-person also comes across in various hagiographies. In these accounts the freeing of slaves owned by a holy person was not first and foremost an act of charity but a way to dispose of property. (cf. the hagiographies of St. Melania the Younger and St. Symeon the Fool) It would take a period of about a thousand years before civil and ecclesiastical law, adopting principles rooted in the non-Christian, secular axioms of the Enlightenment, would bestow upon slaves the status of person, which in turn allowed them to marry in the Church. Indeed, when God so wills the natural order is overcome. Or so we must conclude, now that we realize that the Fathers, typically unreliable, fundamentally screwed up one of the most basic, obvious teachings about human nature.
Given our Church’s biblical, patristic, liturgical and canonical sources, conflicting and benighted, one eventually detects that there is no universally consistent and accepted teaching on clothing as to its origin, purpose and goal. Is it prelapsarian or postlapsarian? Is it eternal or temporal? Is it dissoluble or indissoluble? Is it legally binding, ecclesiastically or civilly, to wear clothes? Are they an accommodation to human passion — a form of legalized window-shopping — and therefore subordinate to the nudity of the holy fool, or are they gates of the Kingdom, leading to salvation? Each question has been answered in two ways, yes and no.
If the Church is going to respond to the legalization of nudity it seems that it should begin by considering how to minister to those people who, recognizing that they cannot change their natural disposition to public nudity, knock on the doors of our parishes seeking Christ. Do we ignore them? Do we, prima facie, turn them away? Do we, under the rubric of repentance, force them or other non-Christian nudists in their family to clothe? Or, do we offer them, as we offer anyone desiring Christ, pastoral care, love and a spiritual home?
Indeed, the Church has never sailed these uncharted waters. But our history teaches us that what is new need not compromise Christ who is the “same yesterday, today and forever.”
©2013 Father Robert Lachanodrakon