Though we scarcely mention them in public discourse, we Christians have a language for talking about sexual transitions quite apart from popular culture. When I first read of Bruce Jenner’s sexual transition, I thought of Saint Pelagia. Those familiar with the life of the saint might raise a brow. How could a third century saint known for extreme virtue have anything to do with an athlete parading in sexualized underthings on magazine covers? Quite a lot, actually, because they point in opposite directions.
Saint Pelagia was a decadent, wealthy actress and prostitute who heard the preaching of Bishop Nonnos and repented. She took on the clothing of a monk and lived in the desert as a spiritual athlete, excelling in virtue. Upon her death, those who buried her discovered that she was a woman. Bruce Jenner was a wealthy athlete who lived his life to the beginning of old age, then went about in public with the clothes and shallow interests that thoughtful women might associate with a prostitute and told people he was a woman. Mr. Jenner bears witness to the brokenness of our society by characterizing femininity solely in terms of sexually alluring clothing and cosmetics. Saint Pelagia bore witness to God by laying aside the same false characterization of what it means to be a woman.
What this means for the Church is that we already have an example of how apparent sexual transitions might function to aid us in the journey into holiness. We must not abandon our traditions and language to engage the conversation about transsexuality on the culture’s terms. Doing so will only lead to us bickering over matters of degrees, in part because those terms have been co-opted from our own tradition. It’s not wrong to say that gender is socially constructed, but by that we mean that we know God made gender as part of the blessing of society, making us “not alone.” Just because gender is a social construct does not mean that it is unreal or unrelated to our sexed bodies; in our faith, reality comes from God who made us persons in gendered bodies so that we would not be alone. God also made sexuality for God’s glory.
We see this most clearly when the fathers evoke the Resurrection in order to explore ideas about what it means to be male or female. For instance, in Book XXII, section 17 of The City of God, St. Augustine points out that women’s bodies in the resurrection will be purposed “to a new beauty, which, so far from inciting lust, which no longer exists, will move us to praise the wisdom and clemency of God, Who both made what was not and redeemed from corruption what He made” (R.W. Dyson translation). Saint Augustine comes out against the contemporary idea that women are defective men in this passage, and he makes a deeper point: it is our tendency to sin, our lust, that blinds us to the beauty for which God created sexed human bodies. The way that Christians have attempted to fight the tendency to sin is to enter into disciplines of monasticism or marriage. The life of angels is the model of monasticism, and it is this life that tells us most about how we ought to understand sexual liminality.
Jesus modeled the turn toward the resurrected body as a way to interpret our present life when he spoke about marriage. In the life to come, they “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30, KJV). Jesus’ speech on the subject continues with an admonition that the questioners have erred and a reminder that God is the God of the living. Since the original question was about whose wife a woman would be, Jesus’ answer ought to also be applied to her. This woman over whom the questioners were bickering as property, is actually a person alive to God. And how is she, and the various husbands, alive to God? They live the life of angels.
The life of angels is the model for life lived in full service and praise to God. It is this life of angels that countless monastics imitate in their prayerful devotion. Saint Pelagia is only one of several holy women the Church remembers for rejecting the lustful narratives of womanhood to which they were in thrall and taking up the monastic habit. In so doing, they were not pretending to be men, but they were imitating the angels in praising God with their entire attention. They disciplined their bodies so that their sexuality was in the service of God, for God’s glory alone.
I am a Greek Orthodox Christian. When we Orthodox Christians marry, we are crowned with a crown of martyrdom. We are martyrs because we bear witness to the mystical union of Christ and the Church, but we also undertake the martyrdom (death) to selfishness that is necessary for a union of love. In the case of married Christians as in the case of monks, sexuality is for the purpose of bearing witness to God.
That is why the conversation should not be dictated by volleys about details in Bruce Jenner’s public transition to Caitlin Jenner. Rather, let this be an occasion to bear witness to the purpose of sexuality. Why is Saint Pelagia a saint if she cross-dressed? Because she was not primarily making a statement about the value of one sex over another; she was bearing witness to the Resurrection reality, when the purpose of human sexuality is revealed in the new beauty for which God both created and redeemed us.
Let’s look back at Bruce/Caitlin Jenner in the light of this understanding of sexual transition. Was Mr. Jenner’s transition, like Pelagia’s, a move toward a Resurrection view of bodily sanctity? Was the goal of transition to give glory to God? Dedication to a discipline of praising God? Does Jenner’s focus on hair, nail polish, and facile small talk show us femininity apart from its marketability? Or is Jenner’s language reinforcing the idea of women as property, not persons? Does the seductive clothing, like Pelagia’s monastic habit, draw one’s gaze to God instead of a body for sale? Certainly the magazine cover featuring Jenner’s sexual transition is beautiful, but is it a new beauty?
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