Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | December 25, 2010

A New Year’s Challenge on the Bonds of Marriage

In “Remember Thy First Love”, the reader is struck by Archimandrite Zacharias’s gentleness. He recalls a time when “Father Sophrony was speaking about monasticism, and forgot that the lady sitting next to him, who was in that first state of grace (described as the first love”.. the love of God with an intensity beyond words frequently found in  the newly illumined) was married. She began to weep because she was not free to follow the monastic way, to run the way of the commandments. God had enlarged her heart, but because she was bound by a sacred bond which she could not break, it was impossible for her to become a nun. To her credit, however, she preserved her zeal so that it bore abundant fruit in her married life.”

Marriage is indeed a mystery so profound in its possibilities that my own sense is that far too often we think it comes naturally, or allow its dismissal with, “Well it’s a concession for those living in the world… so what of it?” But I think it is meant to be far more than this., and there is surely a reason the first miracle of the Bridegroom’s ministry occurs at a wedding – and it’s not simply a one-up on a card trick.

I’ve yet to stumble on much written about it as a path to salvation, and instead a little put off by the frequency with which our married saints seem to mutually agree to dissolve their marriages and enter monasteries. Huh? So I’m thinking the record here must be  incomplete.

Perhaps there is simply a sense of envy or befuddlement that conflates a couple’s living together in marriage with self-satisfaction rather than holy restraint, self-sacrifice, generosity, charity, and love, and that finds wonder, sacrifice and salvation each in the other as an undeserved gift from heaven. Or perhaps it is that somehow their living this sort of life is simply not seen as giving to God and to each of us in the ways that it is – for I think surely it must be as it contributes to the peace and fruitfulness of the whole world.

So we collapse our understanding, we allow ourselves to be talked into marriage as a concession to our weaknesses, and sadly, often allow ourselves or our friends and family members to live down to these expectations. Fairly, of course, though not every monk makes his or her way into sainthood with a capital S, that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize and honor the tonsure of their efforts. The puzzle is not why this is so, but why the equivalent “not-quite a big S saint married person” doesn’t merit the same consideration. Do we really so intend to demean the lay person’s life?

And thus one of the quixotic wonders of our era may be how it is that the whole same-sex marriage crowd seems to see marriage as an apogee of sorts while we don’t accord it the same. And isn’t it funny how this  leaves us amazed at “them” rather than at ourselves. I’m not suggesting that a perspective on marriage as an “apogee” in this manner necessarily gets it any more right than we do… only that it attests to a level of acceptance and fitting in we’ve found naturally and others have not and sought in an institution so many now seem to disdain.  But a christian marriage is and should remain a high honor… not a cheap certificate, but a martyrdom as the church teaches. Would it not be odd were heterosexual couples to deny it this, and the would-be couples so many fear… find its greater meaning? Got some living up to it to do? Surely. I’m a traditionalist, so I’m not advocating change – except within ourselves and along a course into the fullness of our tradition… but surely we all can see these simple puzzles are beyond the language we tend to use in shoehorning them into the convenient boxes we would wish to contain them.

And so I find Archimandrite Meletios Webber’s comments from his lecture on “Life as a Mystery” intriguing: “I have been a marriage counsellor all of my life. Goodness knows why anyone in their right mind would go to a monk to ask about marriage guidance, but it does happen, I’m afraid it happens. And my wisdom about marriage is all from books. I can only guess what it’s like. I have a great feeling that if God isn’t present in a marriage, then the marriage isn’t going to work very well, I sort of get that.sort of hint, and that it is tough sometimes. The monastic profession is also tough sometimes, but I think marriage is probably tougher.”

By contrast, I have been married all my life. Thirty years. And it remains as puzzling to me today as it did that first day. I have no idea why anyone would possibly want to live with me. And yet as readily as we move from “…And now we are three”, we step into the marriage, and suddenly find our kids are grown and we’re poised on the brink of another cycle. And so we wonder where lie the books of our married saints, the accounts of those who like Bishop Brianchaninov’s “The Arena” offer a suitably insightful guide into the course of the married life and it’s path to sanctity. Surely there is a need.

Just a thought for the new year.


  1. It is true there isn’t a lot of “monastic literature” on the married life. Unfortunately most of the “spiritual life” texts that seem to be translated for us are by monastics who, of course, would not comment on married life. Abbott Meletios at least has the humility to admit he cannot comment on it except in theory. Those who do, like St. John Chrysostom, acknowledge it to be an equal or even superior path to salvation to monasticism. Personally I think the glamorization/hyper-spiritualization of monasticism is a convert malady in our context. But that might be because I know too many monks too well and have been married 38 years (not in a row). The view of marriage as a “condescension to human weakness” is a theologumena of a slice of a slice of Orthodoxy but it seems to be the only one that gets translated for us and gives us a skewed understanding of marriage.

    • I think you’re right or at least on the right track. I think much as “your cell will teach you” business is true for monks, for us… our children and our wives teach us more than we can imagine.
      They even teach us some measure of humility… whether we seek it or not.

      I understand the monastic tradition in the history of the church, and how so many hagiographies are written by fellow monks. I also understand that if we’re looking for our kids to write our hagiographies… we might be in trouble. So the scales for others knowing the spiritual pathways of the married folk tend to be tipped against us. But just as in Zen there were two paths, I think here there are two as well. One’s called a “vocation”, the other a blessing. But I saw the other day that the stats are that 30% of all folks will likely never marry. That’s statistically huge, and speaks to marriage as indeed a gift given to fewer and fewer than we would have thought.

      Blessings to you and yours for the Feast! THanks for stopping by!

  2. If our kids write our hagiography I am indeed in deep trouble too.

    One of the benefits of being in a parish with some history is that we get some of these stories from the oral tradition. And, of course, there are older people in the parish who are living witnesses. It certainly isn’t perfect and I too would love some books married Orthodox Christians – saints or not.

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