Death of a Matushka

November 3, 2013

A matushka[1] died.  While on vacation I went to Divine Liturgy at a local Russian Orthodox Church.  On this particular sunny Sunday morning, the small church was full of people. It had a mixture of recent immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, those that had been in the US for many years, a nice smattering of young adults and children and, as I later learned, even a few converts to the Orthodox Church.  During the sermon the priest spoke of his wife – his matushka, the parish matushka, – who had recently died and was buried within the last week.  Also serving the Liturgy was the dean of priests of the area. The dean had come to help the pastor with the celebration of the divine services, knowing that it might be difficult for the pastor emotionally, as well as physically, considering that he had buried his wife only a few days earlier.

The matushka is not only the priest’s wife, but in many Orthodox churches, she is also seen as the mother of the entire parish. On this particular Sunday, Father prayed for his wife during the Liturgy, reminisced about her during his sermon and then celebrated the memorial service being held on the 9th day[2] of her repose. Father thanked the dean for being present and asked that his gratitude be extended to the other priests of the deanery who had come to the funeral of his beloved matushka. This particular priest’s wife was remembered as a good wife, an exceptional mother, and an important leading member of the parish who taught Sunday school classes, worked in the parish kitchen, planted flowers around the church, and directed the choir at Vespers and on feast days.

It struck me that I was moved by the emotions expressed and sincere words and gestures offered for a woman that I had never known.  However, what really ate at me was the thought that had I remained an active priest, and had lost my own spouse, my husband, I would have never been able to openly grieve or receive so much support from fellow priests and members of my congregation. My only real choice would have been to grieve in complete silence. Not able to share my heart wrenching emotions and feelings of loss, I would have had to lie about why I was so emotional all of a sudden. Perhaps I would have been able to pass it off as grieving the death of a “close friend”.

There are priests, Orthodox and Catholic, who are gay and are involved in long term relationships with another man. These priests find themselves in a difficult and soul-shaking situation. Many of them have contacted this website looking for solace and advice. Do they leave the sacred office to which they believe God called them, the priesthood, or do they leave the man whom they love, receive love and support from, and with whom they have entered a sacred union? Very few men, called to the priesthood, are also called to celibacy and chastity. We must then ask the question, does God call gay men to the priesthood? Yes! So why does He not also give them the gift of chastity and purity? A married heterosexual priest clings to his wife and shares with her the fullness of life as well as his priesthood.  He is not asked to choose between the priesthood and the woman he loves.  And yet the gay priest is required to make an impossible choice. Does he lead a double life, does he leave the active priesthood or does he never discuss his spouse with his parish family.

There is another possibility – to be open, truthful, and honest. Tell the congregation that my spouse – the one that they never heard about – had passed away and I was in deep mourning.  What would the reaction be?  Would there be people who would walk out of church?  Surely, there would be people who would say something – under their breath or even out loud.  And yet ultimately whose fault would it be that they knew nothing about my marriage?  Whose fault would it be that they did not know about the man who sustained me and supported me and loved me and enabled me to be a good priest for so many years? It would have been my fault.  It would be my lack of honesty with my people.  God would have known, and yet, I did not allow His people to know.

It is also the fault of the hierarchy of the Church, the bishops, who enforce and impose centuries old laws, which when created, had no basis in modern biology and psychology. Some of these bishops frequently live outside of these rules themselves. Hypocrisy!  Many of these men became bishops[3] simply because they are homosexuals and were not called to marry women, and now they sit in judgment of seminarians and priests who happen to be gay. How many of my fellow priests were in love with another man and yet were forced to marry women in order to be ordained? Many of these are good priests, called by Christ to serve His Church – forced to be silent, in a hypocritical system. Is it better to be honest and suffer the consequences or live a lie? “The truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32)

 



[1] Matushka – the wife of a priest as the title is used in the Russian Church, literally means “little mother”. It directly corresponds to Batushka, or “little father” which is what many Russians call their parish priest. Presbyteria is used among the Greeks and has direct connection to the Greek word for priest. Pani Matka or Dobrodiyka is used among the Ukrainians. These two names literally mean misses mother and “the one that does good”. Other national Orthodox Churches have different titles and names of endearment for the wife of a priest.

[2] In the Orthodox Church, it is customary to hold memorial services for the repose of the departed on the 3rd, 9th, and 40th day after death, as well as a yearly memorial.

[3] The Orthodox Church does not currently permit a married episcopate and so bishops are either unmarried priests or widowers. 

  1. Rachel Said,

    Another beautiful article, thank you. I love coming here and reading what you have to say. Gives me so much to think about.

    I haven’t attended Liturgy since Easter, and I really miss it. I’ve still been contemplating attending another Orthodox parish but have been having issues with transport. On top of that, I’m pretty nervous considering what happened last time.
    I want very, very much to be chrismated.

    God bless you,
    Rachel

  2. andre Said,

    Rachel,
    Thank you for your very kind comment. It makes me happy that you find some solace in the writing that I publish. I am sorry that you have not been able to attend Divine Liturgy since Easter. I do hope that you will be able to solve the problem of transport and get to a different Orthodox Church soon, because I know that your heart desires it so much. Perhaps asking a friend, doing one kindness for another to borrow a car or get a ride. A chance to be at Liturgy at a different parish could bring you some hope and peace.
    Please know that you are in my prayers.
    I do wish you well and bid you peace and much true joy.
    Andriy

  3. Noel Warren Said,

    Very poignant !. So many ordinary people can relate to what you say even if they require a bit of reflection first. Somehow the bishops mostly fail to have that basic humanity. Yet they claim apostolic succession. I wonder how it is possible to be an apostle of Jesus and hate gay and lesbian people.
    I think the Church should be happy to bless all loving committed relationships when the partners ask for it in sincerity and good faith. It should not just be resticted to the sacrament of marriage. Keep this sacrament separate for lifelong committments if you wish. The Church should also be humane enough to understand that these relationships can form,grow and sometimes fall apart. The Church should be there for them at this time as well, acknowledging, offering love, healing ,and encouagement to all those involved.
    Noel.

  4. andre Said,

    Noel,
    Thank you so much for your kind words and support. I do not defend the bishops who make statements against gay and lesbian people, but I think that there are two problems that they face. I am sure that many Orthodox bishops are gay and they have been erroneously taught – by the Church, society, and their family, that being born gay and loving someone of the same sex, is an evil to be hated and combatted. This is what they learn and therefore, live. When they are ordained to the episcopacy they join other men who were taught the same things. As they mature or live amongst their people, they may no longer believe this, but they are now part of an earthly institution which has made opposing gay people one of its calling cards. They say the words that they have not examined – because it maybe too close to them – or they say words they themselves no longer believe in – or they say the words which they contradict by their own actions and lives.

    Numerous Orthodox people live in holy, loving and nurturing Christ centered relationships. The Church has in the past and in a few instances even now, blesses them. God willing, the Church will one day accept and bless our unions openly.
    Andriy

  5. Anonymous Said,

    All is in the love of the Holy Spirit

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