Near the beginning of his Life of St. Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa hesitates over a seemingly self-evident fact about the blessed life of his late sister. “[She] was a woman,” he writes, then reverses himself: “If indeed she was a woman, for I am not sure it is right to refer to someone by their sex when she had transcended her sex.”
Grievances against orthodox Christian teaching on gender and sexuality abound in our time. When the progressive Christian friends I left behind in California voice feminist objections on such matters, I try to turn the tables. “I pray for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin every day,” I remind them. “Doesn’t that dignify femininity? Isn’t that anti-patriarchal? Isn’t that enough?” Of course it is not enough. My reply is unsatisfying because it is a reply, where only affirmation was wanted.
Since arriving at First Things as a junior fellow, I have come to see more clearly what is at stake in these debates. Today’s iconoclasts are not heretical, but faithless. They do not long to step outside themselves, to sit at the feet of the Teacher. They do not see how futile is their attempt to negotiate with God about the narrative of the story He has written, in which they are merely dramatis personae. And they will not cease clamoring for recognition and redress until they are shown why (to put it mildly) their bargaining position lacks leverage.
The paradoxes of the Gospels—wealth in poverty, power in weakness, life in death—demand a degree of humility and self-abandonment before divine mystery that most today find repulsive. But in that humility is our reward. In a passage resembling St. Augustine’s mystical dialogue with Monica from Book IX of the Confessions, Gregory recounts how his sister and mother dedicated themselves together to a life of holy self-denial:
Their self-indulgence was to be self-disciplined; their fame was to remain unknown; their wealth was to be poor and to shake off from their bodies all material abundance as if it were dust. . . . What human words could adequately describe such a way of life, lived by people existing on the borders between human and corporeal nature? The fact that they had freed their nature from human feeling made them superhuman, but on the other hand the fact that they appeared in bodies and were encased in human form, equipped with sense organs, meant that they had a nature lower than the incorporeal nature of the angels. One might dare to say that the difference was minimal because living in the flesh in the likeness of incorporeal powers they were not weighed down by the burden of the body; instead their life was sublime and uplifted, walking on high with the heavenly powers.
Our therapeutic age will stop at nothing to prevent us from following St. Macrina up the ladder of divine ascent. The spirit of our times presents itself as an instrument of emancipation, when really, it is a prison sentence—permanent solitary confinement in our own desires, our own minds, our all-too-mortal souls. The possibility of transcendence—not only of sex, but of everything else that weighs us down in this earthly life—is all but denied.
“It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” says St. Paul—a fitting message of hope for navel-gazers like us, and one that First Things will continue to proclaim with vigor and enthusiasm in the public square. We need your help—to support the junior fellows program, which brought me to New York; to host our lectures and intellectual retreats, where lovers of wisdom seek it with humility; and to publish the magazine, in which our writers proclaim truth with confidence. Our spring campaign concludes soon. Please contribute.
Connor Grubaugh is a junior fellow at First Things.