There is too much of everything in Orthodox churches, as if all things under heaven had been summoned, and all of it arrived. They seem to abhor blank space; the ceilings and walls are painted with icons of holy people and biblical history, urging the eye to look anywhere but at the tiny pulpit. To someone who is not Orthodox, this might seem like a faulty hierarchy of design, and perhaps of divinity: behind the altar and pulpit that offer the body, blood, and word of God, it isn’t Christ who dominates the sanctuary. Instead, enthroned in the church’s most sacred place is his mother, the tiny savior set like a pearl inside her. Did she eat him?
To an outsider, she may as well have. Instead of this most visible of spaces being dedicated to Christ, his icon is painted in the higher but visually inconvenient central dome. To see him there requires a backward tilt of the head, breaking the spell of the liturgical pageant (and for anxious little boys, earning a parent’s reprimanding pinch on the neck). It’s easier to look straight ahead. But stare long enough and the face of God one imagines during prayer ceases to resemble Christ Pantokrator, glowering and bearded in his dome; instead, it begins to resemble the Virgin Mary behind the altar, in the place where no woman is permitted, towering in the concave icon called Platytera ton Ouranon, or “[She who is] more spacious than the heavens.”
And why should it not? His body and blood were always, and only, hers.
My ancestral religion relishes paradox, delights in beauty, and in its hymns, iconography, and theology, it is fecund, grotesque, pretty, fabulous, mystical, and feminine. It is a faith fitting the Byzantium from which it emerged. But I love it like family, bitterly: I can’t avoid it and it always disappoints.
For a queer person who wants to believe in God, there are less painful options. Orthodox churches have, after all, become known for their fascists and militant homophobes; like swishy boys beaten into toughness by embarrassed fathers, Orthodox churches can be caricatures of the worst kind of masculinity. Once a source of its dignity, Orthodoxy’s antiquity has now become the weapon of an angry minority of believers against modernity, feminism, and queer people, one that longs for a past when a certain kind of man was king of castles real or imagined. They don’t even let us be queer people; we are just men or women (and only men or women) “struggling with same-sex attraction.”
And yet to leave Orthodoxy is not just to murder my faith: it is to murder my history. My universe was built with Sundays spent looking at the Platytera, oblivious to the possibility that this religion, which could articulate the phrase “more spacious than the heavens,” would be unwilling to make space for me. Before I would let my own history be taken away from me, I dove into the archive of Orthodoxy’s—a long, messy, incomplete story of humans working out the meaning of “right belief,” especially about the Mother of God, who anchors me to this faith.
“The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary. / Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls,” writes Sylvia Plath in “The Moon and the Yew Tree.”
I resent these lines. My Mary is not sweet mother Mary, draped in blue. Instead, she is the Theotokos—birthgiver of God—and robed in the blood red of divine life, “beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim,” angels so near the presence of God that they are perpetually aflame.
She doesn’t rise out of the ashes if she desires to eat men like air; she can’t be burned in the first place.
I saw the Platytera for the first time when I was five, already older than our brand-new church. Inside was bare and white, all empty space, except for the Platytera, its scarlet Theotokos vivid and immediate against a starless indigo sky. It was newly painted, for some reason, one of the first orders of business for this church still under construction. As a child, I was struck by the odd configuration of the icon, old and holy and secret: her arms were outstretched either to pull down heaven or to hold it up; her halo sliced the nighttime behind her. On either side, cherubim buckled under adoration or intimidation. Like those angels, I perhaps thought at the time: “I am struck with amazement and fear.”
As I grew older and away from a religion that I increasingly considered a superstitious excuse for Greek national pride, I wondered why we should call out to a woman whose power was her submission to authority. If we invoked her to bear us up in our pain, why was her own body obscured by iconographers who—terrified of their own desires—flattened and rolled her out along the curve of a dome? My own desires had stopped terrifying me by 16, when I let other terrors take their place. I had stopped going to church; I stopped praying and exiled the church and the Platytera to my childhood memories, safely beautiful. Part of me is still there.
And yet: I confess, I am more loyal to the Theotokos than I am to my religion. My personal convictions are not theological, and not what the Orthodox churches profess or should profess. My loyalty to her is not something I arrived at after raiding the archives of Orthodox history; like most Orthodox children, my introduction to the Theotokos came early in life, not only from the iconography of the church, but also from the grandmother who prayed to her.
Using the more devotional term, Panagia, my grandmother invoked the “All Holy One” to fill the space left by joys that exceeded language or pains that destroyed it. “Christos” she only uttered when someone sneezed, having little use for the Word when all words failed. Christ’s icons depict him with his open book, their secrets bare, but Panagia spoke in silences, in images and things that could be felt more than they could be explained.
I felt I was different and didn’t know why; Panagia didn’t expect me to.
Christians have been at pains to explain the Theotokos for two millennia and have yet to determine what, exactly, we should make of her. But lay believers have made much more of her than clergy would like; you can find reminders of this fact, hidden in plain sight, in Orthodox hymnography. Her marquee hymn, Axion Estin, begins: “Truly it is right to call thee blest, O Theotokos, the ever-blessed and all immaculate,” as if to reassure hesitant believers and cause assured believers to hesitate. Less duplicitous is a line in the evening service called Small Compline, which amends its Marian invocation with the postscript: “through the grace and love for man of thy only begotten son . . . to whom is due all glory, honor, and worship,” etc. These finger-wags against excessive Marian veneration are cosmetic at best, easily overlooked and not particularly persuasive.
Such toothless warnings speak to Orthodoxy’s “preference for a lack of incorrectness,” as scholars Andreas Bandak and Tom Boylston slyly point out about this religion that some call the “timeless faith of the Fathers.” The Fathers include St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, and other mostly Greek-speaking scholars and ecclesial hierarchs whose commentary on scripture and suggestions for Christian living came to define the components of the “right belief.” Despite this translation, Orthodoxy has historically permitted the scope of what’s theologically correct to spread much wider than one might expect. Paranoia and permissiveness exist side by side in Orthodoxy, a space of contradiction the Theotokos opens.
According to historian Stephen J. Shoemaker’s book Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, the cult of the Virgin emerged in the first three centuries after Christ from lay beliefs and practices that were only reluctantly incorporated into what is now considered Orthodox Christianity. The earliest church fathers do not discuss the Theotokos at length, and the Gospels appear to explicitly minimize her importance in Christ’s earthly ministry. “Much of the earliest evidence for devotion to Mary comes from texts whose understanding of Christianity differs significantly from the emergent proto-orthodoxy that was the early church fathers’ calling card,” Shoemaker writes.
It’s unclear exactly why. Perhaps it was the popularity of Mary among heterodox Christian sects who envisioned her as the master of her son’s cosmic mysteries, esoterica through which souls could attain enlightenment. Or perhaps Marian devotion simply evolved faster and more messily among the unlearned faithful, waiting for the lettered Fathers to catch up.
In either case, the “timeless faith of the Fathers” arrived rather late to the veneration of the Mother of God, and only after a push by an empire devoted to her and the empress who seemed to embody her. In AD 431, the Council of Ephesus was convened in the city that was once the heart of the cult of the Virgin Huntress, Artemis, and there the ecclesia enshrined Theotokos as orthodox. The machinations of the life-long virgin Empress Aelia Pulcheria, who consecrated herself to the Theotokos at 15—a queer choice for one of the Augustae—underpinned this monumental event.
Unsurprisingly, she is not considered a “Father” of the church.
The first liturgy I attend after a 15-year lapse in church attendance could have been beautiful. It is early in August during the fast leading up to the feast of the Dormition (or Assumption) of the Theotokos. I’m at a “pan-Orthodox” parish, which serves a blended congregation of Russians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Palestinians, and other traditionally Orthodox ethnic groups, and the naveof the tiny church is filled with a refreshingly diverse array of complexions.
I sit in the back, alone, except for the Platytera, whom I greet from across the church with the awkwardness of someone who left without saying goodbye. The liturgy begins. My body remembers everything: the junctures when one crosses oneself or bows one’s head, the emotional topography of the hymns. We recite the Lord’s Prayer, first in English, then in each language spoken in this congregation. A woman in a headscarf, flanked by two little boys, is the last to recite the prayer aloud, slowly and softly speaking it in Arabic. The priest doesn’t hear her and proceeds with the liturgy, cutting her off. Maybe he hears her and doesn’t care. I don’t want to think that and can’t help it and I think it and I hate him.
Later, he starts the sermon. Matthew, chapter eight, verses 28 through 34. Demons, he says, possess us unwillingly and force us to do what we know God doesn’t want us to do. Demons are careers, pleasures, cultural opinions. I don’t mean to get political, he says, but it’s a thing: In California, our courts have ruled that so-called gay marriage is acceptable. He warns the parishioners to guard their children against the tolerance of gay people. He actually says the word tolerance. No one sets off wanting to be possessed by demons, he says.
I leave. A straight couple around my age leaves. The church is much older now. In the parking lot, the man asks me, Had enough, too? I nod. Fucked up, man, he says.
It was stupid of me to imagine my church would be above the kind of fearmongering about queer people I remembered from suburban Florida. Years of estrangement from my religion had encouraged me to imagine it as proudly outside of history, a living relic trapped in nostalgia whose stasis was both comforting and frustrating. If that is true, the price is that Orthodoxy’s commitment to tradition has tickled the fancy of Christians who consider themselves victims of secular persecution, and their particular animus toward queer people has asserted itself aggressively among American Orthodox laity and clergy.
It is absolutely no coincidence, for example, that Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option—a treatise calling on “orthodox” Christians to live apart in religious communities—is an enthusiastic Orthodox convert. Dreher is not representative of most Orthodox Christians, of course. But he accurately represents a certain kind of person who sees Orthodoxy as the antithesis to modernity, a manly religion of kings that has not been “feminized” like the rest of Christianity.
Who can blame them? With its bearded monks and hierarchs, exclusively male priesthood, and emphasis on spiritual disciplines like fasting, Orthodoxy telegraphs an androcentric spirituality to those who are looking for it. It’s a superficial assessment of the religion and one that compels only men who, despite all evidence to the contrary, consider discipline and self-sacrifice to be masculine attributes. But these are the kind of men who would say things like “the Orthodox are like the Navy SEALs of Christianity.” I heard a priest say that once.
It comes as no surprise, then, that at this point of flux in gender and sexuality, the subversive Theotokos has become a flashpoint. In 2016, the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians instructed all church choirs that “the Υπέρ Αγία Θεοτόκε σωσον ημας (Most Holy Theotokos save us) intonation is eliminated completely [sic]” from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. That emphasis was in the original, but not in the result. It didn’t happen.
“It was essentially the yia yias who stopped it,” explained Dr. Katherine Kelaidis, a scholar of Orthodoxy in traditionally non-Orthodox countries. I tried to confirm that the pious yia yias, or grandmothers, of Orthodox parishes around America had managed to kibosh this archdiocesan directive, but I wasn’t able to; in at least some cases, it may simply have been that choirs failed to get the memo, quite literally. And yet I have no doubt that Kelaidis is right. It feels right.
In Orthodoxy, elderly women are the de facto guardians of the faith, more so than its bearded priests. Enter any Orthodox church and you’ll see old women managing the parishioners, cleaning the icons, and cuing clueless parishioners to sit and to stand during the frequently confusing Sunday liturgies. During Stalin’s persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, “the babushkas devotedly stood guard over decaying churches, lighting candles amid the dilapidation and ruin,” as Walter Rodgers put it. But it has always been that way, persecution or not. The template for miracles in Orthodoxy, if such a template could be said to exist, is “my yia yia prayed to Panagia and X happened,” Kelaidis says.
It stands to reason, then, that what provoked this directive in the first place was the same beardly anxiety as it always is. Since the fifth century, the impassioned arguments for and against the veneration of the Theotokos have amounted to a conflict of canon vs. apocrypha, scripture vs. tradition, logos vs. nomos, word vs. image. “She is both human and associated with the divine,” said Dr. Miri Rubin, who is Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary University of London and author of Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary. “She is both Jew and Christian. She is both fleshly—a mother who gave birth—and utterly pure. She totally inhabits the realm of non-binary fixity.”
The caricature of Orthodoxy that’s taken hold of the most conservative believers—an ahistorical facsimile that Haralambos Ventis calls “Orthodoxism”—cannot countenance the ambiguity, perhaps even the queerness of the Mother of God. Everything old is new again.
A few apostasies later, I still call myself Orthodox. While other denominations of Christianity have made strides toward being more open and affirming, the extent to which any queer Orthodox person can be out within their church, let alone active in parish affairs and eligible to receive the sacraments, depends almost entirely on their priest. The situation can be beneficial, but is unsustainable for queer people: priests move, or retire, or die. Ministering to us is not exactly an ecclesiastical priority, however: efforts within the church to open up space for this discussion bring swift censure, as if talking about queer people is itself spiritually toxic.
No one seems to be allowed to start these discussions—not even the world’s foremost English-speaking Orthodox theologian, Kallistos Ware, who recently called for a shift in how Orthodox churches address queer people. His statements were virtually nuclear among Orthodox blogs and social networks, which passed rapid judgment on this, the very writer who introduced many of them to Orthodoxy, some insinuating heresy, all in the midst of sometimes homophobic dialogue. I would say it was a nadir for queer Orthodox discourse, but . . . I’ve been wrong on that account before.
I perhaps take too much hope from the long history of Marian devotion, which tends to follow the will of the faithful, more and more of whom want the “Lady of All People” and her son’s church to be true to these words. It gives the lie to the claim that this faith was defined once and for all in late antiquity, and that there is no space inside of it to reconsider whose sexuality can be sacred and whose cannot. In the Theotokos, the history of Orthodoxy—a history of eruptions and evolution, not away from “right belief” but closer toward it—rises up to meet its present, an icon of what it has been and what its future can be.
Her cult is one of “extraordinary capaciousness,” as Dame Averil Cameron writes, testament to an Orthodoxy that lives, evolves, erupts, and expands—one that can be wide enough for queer people, and perhaps is already. Her presence embodies for me the capaciousness of Orthodoxy, a messiness that is at risk of perishing under the sterile legalism that so often plagues Christianity. To remain Orthodox—in the face of its frequent hostility to me as queer person of faith—is not exactly an act of resistance nor an expression of paralyzed despondency. Rather, it’s an act of committed witness to Orthodoxy’s—to Christianity’s—vital polyvalence, ambiguity, fecundity, and propensity to evolve.
“The church is big,” as a monastic once told me, “and big things move slowly.”