I was just barely a teenager and the product of a broken home with a father who had left us a few years before. He simply couldn’t shoulder the responsibilities of being a dad to me and my little brother and so my mom had to pick up the slack.
During my teenage years, we lived with my stepfather in Central Florida, and I would go to a local Pentecostal church with our neighbors. The assistant pastor of this mega-church was very involved with the youth ministry, especially the boys. He was a pedophile.
At 13 or 14 years of age, I found myself being groomed to be molested by this man. He had already attempted some inappropriate touching and had even taken me to his secret apartment in town away from his wife and three sons to get me “use” to the place. What I didn’t know till later was that this pastor would be dismissed from this church because he had been caught molesting other boys in the community. Had it not been for my stepfather and a man who worked at the airport ticket counter and attended the church where this pastor worked, I would have been put on a plane to go visit this man and his family in their new home in Tennessee and most likely would have been molested there.
Now in my late 50’s as I look at the recent revelations of sexual misconduct being reported in the news I’m struck by the amount of surprise. I’m convinced it isn’t a surprise that abuse happens, but it is a surprise that finally some are being held accountable. As we watch high profile men being accused and shamed for bad behavior, I also see other signs that scream for some timeless wisdom instead of the equal and opposite reactions of vengeance and “payback.”
By the way, my potential molester was one of three brothers, all in some form of clergy service and all pedophiles who had been molested as young men themselves. All three men have served prison time for their crimes.
I remember the feelings of hunger for a male role model, the void of a missing father in my life. I remember the confused feeling of having this prominent man show me attention and then watch as I discovered that his intentions were evil. I remember the confusion, the shame, and the anger. I remember thinking “What’s wrong with me?”
It would be years later that I discovered that nothing was wrong with me, except what was broken in us all: Untamed passions take advantage of fears, hungers, fantasies, and imaginations.
Of course, this is, unfortunately, nothing new. That doesn’t excuse it, nor is it a reason to ignore such confusion and misuse of power dynamics. However, it seems we humans are a stubborn lot and even revenge, punishment, shame, and imprisonment doesn’t cure this brokenness. As a former police officer, I remember my training concerning sex crimes and how psychologists struggle to treat people who can’t seem to control their impulses.
It is no wonder all religions cage the sexual drive in approved societal constructs for the protection of the community. It seems we’ve learned that sexual desire has to have clear boundaries if it isn’t to become a wildfire that consumes.
Nevertheless, all the passions have that very same potential for slavery or service.
What struck me as I journeyed into the Orthodox Church was the wisdom of the Church in teaching the taming of the passions with the disciplines of the Faith. Here I found at least a way to begin making sense of my desires, not as some evil, “bad” choices, but as passions that enslave instead of serve. That slavery is destructive to society as a whole, not just my own life!
And this is where I find the current uproar concerning the horrible behaviors of some that are now splashed across the Internet and TV and newspapers running the risk of missing the point.
If we, as a society, find it so easy to dismiss timeless wisdom, we shouldn’t be surprised when lesser “controls” fail us and our society. To be so willing to throw away ancient mores for untried and novel notions of human relationships and behaviors is to court reckless consequences. To reduce human society to mere morality is to invite the chaos we see all around us today. To be sure, our history is awash in traditions and structures that were horrific and unacceptable. The remedy to these human failings isn’t the wholesale abandonment of everything we perceive as “old fashioned.”
The Christian message of morality isn’t based on being “good” people as much as it is based on a miracle that transforms humanity and elevates humans to become persons. It is only through this miracle that we will ever be strong enough to warrant the energy we humans will have to engage in every day to embrace the paradox of freedom through obedience and the eternal reality of Faith. We will misunderstand both freedom and obedience and abandon both! The miracle of the Incarnation leads us to the why behind the taming of our undisciplined passions.
Here is the motivation for the three, basic, spiritual disciplines of the Orthodox Christian Faith: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. If God, Himself has come among us as One of us, then that’s the most important information we humans have ever received. And if He came among us to recapitulate all of human life within Himself and accomplish all human purpose in His physical life, then even entering into mortality and destroy it for our sake, well, then embracing this invitation to an ontological union with this Creator becomes the highest goal of any sane human.
Sadly, we humans are a stubborn lot, and we all live in a world where it is easy to forget this wisdom and hard to consistently embrace it. Therefore, the Church gives us tools and wisdom to reorient our daily lives to that higher purpose. She does this through Her divine mysteries and Her lifestyle directions to tame our unruly desires so that they stop being destructive to us and become our servants.
As the lizard and the man learned in C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce, killing the cancer of untamed passions doesn’t extinguish them, but does transfigure both!
Fr. Barnabas Powell is the priest at Sts. Raphael, Nicholas, and Irene Greek Orthodox Church in Cumming, Georgia.
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.