Reflection on the Christian Family

While in the Orthodox Tradition, the family is often considered to be “the little church” in which we live and practice our Orthodox Faith, the family as a social unit has not gotten the attention in our spiritual tradition that one can find for monks and nuns.

Be that as it may, most of us spend at least part of our lives in families and there we do have to consider how to be Christian.  In the modern age we see some attempts to write about the family from an Orthodox perspective, including trying to emphasize married saints of the Church.  This literature though gives witness to the dearth of writings on family in the mostly monastic spirituality of Orthodoxy.  Even in the New Testament, depending on what English translation you read, the word “family” only occurs 5-20 times, and even there gives almost no instruction on what Christian family might look like.

In addition to temptations from the evil one, Starets Macarius  [19th Century, Russian] gives several other important causes for family problems. To one correspondent he writes: ‘It is this growing indifference to His Word, and our consequent refusal to examine our hearts-where we could find both the peace He bequeathed us and the insight into our lack of love of Him and of our neighbor-which brings in its wake this punishment, this disruption of the home.’  He also says that this is due to our failure to see Christ in others. He reminds us that when we mistreat others, we are in a real sense mistreating Christ. So he tells us, ‘Remember that you are pupils of Christ-of Christ who teaches us to love not only our friends but even our enemies, and to …  forgive all who trespass against us. “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses’”Matt. 6:15). What a frightful prospect!’

Along these same lines, he tells a correspondent that while it is good that she has a long prayer rule and often reads the Church Fathers, ‘remember that love of the neighbor is the first work you must strive for. And you do not even have to leave your house to find that neighbor: your husband is that neighbor; your mother is that neighbor; and so are your children.’ To another spiritual child, he says that the ‘poison’ in the family cannot be cast out of their home ‘unless you promptly cease condemning each other. You clearly think you are always in the right; she, of course thinks she is. You heap on her a multitude of grave or petty accusations. She does the same to you. Where will this all end?’  Then he points out that the chief things the husband accuses his wife are actually the same faults he has. The Elder concludes:

All this financial trouble between you comes of your having completely forgotten that yours is a Christian home, or should be. A home is a Christian one when all the members of the household bear each other’s burdens, and when each condemns only himself. You have forgotten this, both of you. And so every word of hers pieces you, like an arrow dipped in poison. And your words, likewise, pierce her.

Ponder the truth of Christian marriage: man and wife are one flesh! Does it not follow that they must share all their possessions? And yet you two haggle over this property! And why? Because of words!

Unless you promptly strive for and achieve a loving peace between you, it is hopeless to try to bring tidiness and fairness into your business dealings with one another. Humble yourself, not her. Love her, not yourself.”

 (David and Mary Ford, Marriage as a Path to Holiness, p. xlvi-xlvii).


Christian Marriage: A Sign of Christ’s Presence

“It is an adulteration of marriage for us to think that is is a road to happiness, as if it were a denial of the cross. The joy of marriage is for husband and wife to put their shoulders to the wheel and together go forward on the uphill road of life. “You haven’t suffered? Then you haven’t love,” says a certain poet. Only those who suffer can really love. And that’s why sadness is a necessary feature of marriage. “Marriage,” in the words of an ancient philosopher, “is a world made beautiful by hope and strengthened by misfortune.” Just as steel is fashioned in a furnace, just so is a person proved in marriage, in the fire of difficulties. When you see your marriage from a distance, everything seems wonderful. But when you get closer, you’ll see just how many difficult moments it has.

We often speak of seven “mysteries,” or sacraments. In this regard, a “mystery” is the sign of the mystical presence of some true person or event. An icon, for instance is a mystery. When we venerate it, we are not venerating wood or paint but Christ, or the Theotokos, or the saint who is mystically depicted. The Holy Cross is a symbol of Christ, containing his mystical presence. Marriage, too, is a mystery, a mystical presence not unlike these. Christ says, “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am among them” (Mt 18.20). And whenever two people are married in the name of Christ, they become the sign which contains and expresses Christ himself. When you see a couple who are conscious of this, it is as if you are seeing Christ. Together they are a theophany.”   (Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Church at Prayer, pp. 95-96, 98)

Love Another Language


fiddler-on-the-roofIn THE FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, the beleaguered family patriarch Tevye finds his thinking on marriage to be challenged in different ways by each of his daughters.  While the usual way of marriage for the villagers is an arranged marriage by the parents of the bride and the groom, Tevye is confronted with a new idea: people choosing to be married based on their love for one another.  Tevye asks his wife if she loves him.  She is struck by the question:  after 25 years of her raising their children, washing his clothes, cooking his meals, why would he even ask, isn’t it obvious?  An issue is raised, do we by our behavior speak love to our spouses in a way that they can understand and feel loved?

five-love-languagesI read Gary Chapman”s book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, and found it an interesting read and a potential tool to help couples strengthen their marriages.  The book and the tools it offers help people gain self knowledge and also to gain understanding of others.  This can help people overcome stumbling blocks in their relationships.  Here are a few quotes from the book:

Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving.  (Kindle  Location 310-312)

Chapman argues that love is a form of language.  Humans have different love languages – some behaviors from family and friend make us feel more loved than other behaviors even if all the behaviors are shown to us in love.  If I am feeling like a failure, offering me cookies might be comforting, but praising me for deeds I’ve done might be the thing that makes me feel loved.

Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a commitment. It is a choice to show mercy, not to hold the offense up against the offender. Forgiveness is an expression of love. “I love you. I care about you, and I choose to forgive you. Even though my feelings of hurt may linger, I will not allow what has happened to come between us. I hope that we can learn from this experience. You are not a failure because you have failed. You are my spouse, and together we will go on from here.” Those are the words of affirmation expressed in the dialect of kind words.  (Kindle  Location 463-467)

Forgiveness is central to our Christian lives.  Chapman reminds us that forgiving a loved one who has hurt or offended you is an act of love.  It is one way we do show love to another.

We forget that marriage is a relationship, not a project to be completed or a problem to solve. A relationship calls for sympathetic listening with a view to understanding the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and desires.  (Kindle  Location 686-688)

A good reminder for any couples who are struggling – your marriage is not a problem to be solved, but a relationship which requires us to listen and to speak.

But I vacuum our house now, and I vacuum it regularly. There is only one reason I vacuum our house. Love. You couldn’t pay me enough to vacuum a house, but I do it for love. You see, when an action doesn’t come naturally to you, it is a greater expression of love. My wife knows that when I vacuum the house, it’s nothing but 100 percent pure, unadulterated love, and I get credit for the whole thing!  (Kindle  Location 1613-1616)

We show love in many ways.  The issue is that not everyone sees our behavior in the same way.  Doing acts of kindness are a form of love, but some people need to be held and touched gently before they feel loved.  We can learn the love language of those around us.  We can learn the love language we like to speak.  We can learn how to love people so that they feel loved.

We both knew it was the choice to love. We had realized that if we continued our pattern of demanding and condemning, we would destroy our marriage. Fortunately over a period of about a year, we had learned how to discuss our differences without condemning each other, how to make decisions without destroying our unity, how to give constructive suggestions without being demanding, and eventually how to speak each other’s primary love language.  (Kindle  Location 1731-1734)

There is hope.  We are able to learn and change and improve our relationships!

Marriage: Helping Your Partner Attain Heaven

“…The primary purpose of marriage in the Orthodox Tradition: that the married couple may aid one another in their journey towards eternal salvation. They, and any children God may give, are to be ‘glad with the joy’ of the Lord’s ‘countenance’, as the Psalm says. In other words, they are to be in His presence – to behold Him. We know from the Beatitudes that to see God requires purity of heart (Matt. 5.8), and this implies holiness of life. Clearly, by chanting of this beautiful Psalm in the marriage service, the couple is summoned to help each other towards holiness, so that they may abide in the presence of the Lord, both now and forever.” (David and Mary Ford, Marriage As a Path to Holiness: Lives of the Married Saints, p xxix)

Marriage as Christian Vocation

“Accordingly, Orthodox Christianity views marriage as essentially a Christian vocation, a union in and with Christ. The ultimate end of that vocation is the same as that of monasticism: theosis or eternal participation in the life of God. Like monasticism, Christian marriage requires a continual askesis: a spiritual struggle, grounded in ongoing repentance. In Yannaras’s words, ‘True virginity and true marriage are reached by a common road: the self-denial of the cross, and ascetic self-offering.’ This Way of the Cross is symbolized in the Orthodox marriage ceremony by the nuptial crowns, which are crowns of victory but also crowns of martyrdom, of saving witness one to the other and to the world. ‘O Holy Martyrs,’ the Church sings during the nuptial procession, ‘who have fought the good fight and have received your crowns, entreat ye the Lord that he will have mercy on our souls!’  […]

Ultimately its purpose is to lead beyond the experience of the flesh and to center wholly on God. Erotic love has as it telos, its end and fulfillment, the love of genuine eros. This is a love no less passionate, yet no less self-denying and self-transcending, than human conjugal love at its most pure and most perfect. It is a love that responds to God’s prior love (cf. 1 Jn 4:10). It is the deepest movement of the soul, impossible for us to produce or sustain. Rather, it is initiated and maintained by the passionate love of God, acting within the human soul or totality of the human person. ‘God is love,’ the apostle declares.” (John Breck, The Sacred Gift of Life, pp 69, 74)

Sts. Joachim & Anna

Tertullian on Christian Marriage

“How sweet the yoke that joins two of the faithful in the same hope, the same law, the same service! Both are brethren in the service of the same Lord.

They are truly two in one and the same flesh. And where the flesh is one, the spirit is one. Together they pray…instructing, encouraging and supporting each other in turn. They are equal in the Church of God, equal at God’s banquet, they share equally troubles, persecutions, and consolations. They hide nothing from each other, they never avoid each other’s company, they never cause each other pain… Christ rejoices to see such a couple and he gives them peace. Where they are, there he is himself.” (Tertullian in The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Oliver Clément, p 291)

Marriage: To Help Your Spouse Grow

“Because marriage is such a wonderful type of relationship, confrontation within the marital relationship is very important. You are a central delivery system for grace and truth in your spouse’s life and vice versa. You have a responsibility to both care for and confront one another. You are an agent for change and growth in each other. Love does not blind either of you to the other’s problems; in fact, love demands that you pay attention to them so that you can help resolve them. Who is better qualified to understand and speak to someone about a problem than the person who is living life right next to him? You are intimately involved with him. You see the real person, imperfections and all. His ways and actions affect you; you are not dispassionate about him.

More than anyone, a spouse should be able to see what her partner’s true problems are. This idea, however, is foreign to some people. They have the notion that their spouse’s job is to make them happy. Then when they are not happy, they think their spouse is not doing what he should be doing. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Marriage is not about making each other happy; it is about growing and helping one’s spouse to grow. Good marriages are a large part of how the body of Christ ‘grows and builds itself up in love’ (Eph. 4:16). Happiness can and does come to a good marriage. Happiness, however, is a byproduct of growth and life. It is not the goal.” (Dr. Henry Cloud, Boundaries Face to Face, pp 192-193)

Maintaining our Marriages

Defending marriage should mean for us helping couples learn how to strengthen the marital bond and the unity and concord between the husband and wife.  Repentance, forgiveness, humility, love, putting the other first and wisdom are all virtues needed for a marriage to prosper and for both the husband and wife to grow  in Christ.   Philip Mamalakis talking about marriage and couple’s therapy writes,

“We cannot solve our spouse’s sins, but we can learn to love our spouse.”   

Here is the context in which he makes that comment:

“Within the mystery of marriage, this call to love becomes a call to take responsibility for our own inadequacies and to confess to each other (Js. 5:16) where we have failed. This included asking each other for forgiveness for specific failings to love, shifting how couples interact with each other. In additions, for Orthodox couples, this process finds its fulfillment as couples actively participate in the sacrament of confession. If it were not for the divine mandate to love, the natural conclusion when faced with the impossible task of loving would be to abandon the process. However, the inescapable nature of a monogamous marriage provides the crucible for God’s transforming grace to work. Couples therapy can best be summed up as a process of each person taking responsibility for his or her inability to love as he or she is called to love. Therapy oriented towards pursuing perfect love results in a movement towards mutual confession. This maintains a couple within the context to love and creates a process of mutual vulnerability and intimacy in addressing the sins or restraints of each person. Rather than attacking each other, couples work towards supporting each other in the mutual struggle with each person’s own fallenness, fostering mutual vulnerability and intimacy. Couples develop coping strategies together instead of criticizing each other. Once one person takes responsibility for his problem, it can then become the couple’s problem as they learn to work together to support each other. Rather than criticizing, blaming, judging, mocking, or distancing, each person is called to love and to pray for the other in his/her struggle. By the grace of God, within the mystery of marriage, as we pursue patience and learn to pray for the sins of our spouse, we actively participate in our own transformation.

Without this orientation towards acquiring divine love within marriage therapy, the resources of contemporary psychology and couples counseling can be used to promote self-love. Identifying restraints can exacerbate the problems and sense of separation for a couple. Within the context of the journey towards acquiring perfect love, however, marriage therapy reorients a couple towards the Kingdom of God. Within this approach, the therapist shifts the conversation of a couple and situates the daily struggle of life in the context of this process of becoming Christlike, holding clients in their brokenness. We cannot solve our spouse’s sins, but we can learn to love our spouse.” (in Raising Lazarus: Integral Healing in Orthodox Christianity, edited by Stephen Muse, 226-227)

The Holiness of Marriage: Love Your Wife

“Saint Paul goes on to speak of the oneness of Christ with His Body, the Church, and of the endless sacrificial love which Christ has for His Bride, the Church. Every married couple is called to live in such a perfect union and harmony that their relationship reflects the relationship of Christ and His Church: ‘For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church’ (Eph. 5:23). But this passage as a whole provides the proper understanding of the headship of the husband, which is based on Christ’s teaching about leaders being self-sacrificing servants (Mark 10:44). This means that the husband has the responsibility to love and serve his wife as Christ loves and serves the Church. For Saint Paul goes on immediately to say: ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.’ The natural response of the wife to a husband who lives with authentic Christ-like love for her will be to cooperate with him (hence, this is not a response that has to be forced from her). The headship of the husband is intended to be a source of unity and harmony in the family – not the source of oppression and division.”   (David and Mary Ford, Marriage as a Path to Holiness: Lives of Married Saints, pgs. XXIV-XXXI)

Pledging and Stewardship As Spiritual Asceticism

Sometimes people ask why during our Lenten seasons is there such total emphasis on food fasting and little emphasis on loving others or giving to charity.   All the rules and the calendars seem to deal with food.  I will venture one opinion:  Our fasting rules for Lent were developed in monasteries.  Basically the Christian monastics already have given up all personal possessions in order to follow Christ.  As such they don’t possess disposable wealth any longer to give to the poor.   However, there is still one thing they have – a dependency on something other than God – that is  the need and appetite for food.  Since they have already given up claims to private property, they are free to struggle with their personal appetites.  Thus in monasteries there is not a reason to constantly push people to be charitable to the poor through giving material wealth, but rather there is much focus on fasting from food.

But those of us who aren’t monks and who have not renounced all claims to life in the world, who have families for whom we are responsible to feed, clothe and house, and income to meet these needs, we do have a responsibility not to limit Lent to rules about food fasting, but especially to apply ourselves to self denial in another way by giving to the poor – sharing our resources with those in need.  This is an essential part of Lent for us, but doesn’t much apply to monks who have no wealth or property to share with others in need.

St. Simeon the New Theologian once famously noted that if the Matthew 25 passage on the Last Judgment is literally true, monks will not fare well since they have no food, clothes, or shelter to share with the needy.  (I intend to deal with his comments in another blog).  From his comments we can see that the monastic way is decidedly a different way to follow Christ than it is for those of us who have food, clothes and shelter to share with the needy (the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters), and who can visit the sick and the imprisoned (the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters).

Elizabeth Theokritoff writes about this in her book:

“There is one sacramental service where we are reminded in a particular explicit way that whatever we have over and above our basic needs is actually given to us for the benefit of others. In the wedding service, the priest prays for the couple: ‘Fill their houses with wheat, wine and oil, and with ever beneficence, that they may bestow in turn upon the needy.’ In a certain sense, marriage may be thought of as an ordination to Christian life ‘in the world,’ as opposed to monastic life. Whereas the monastic has given up all possessions, the Christian in the world characteristically ‘owns’ money and material goods – in other words, he or she is not called to eschew these things altogether, but to administer them for the good of others. It is here that the overused notion of ‘stewardship’ has a legitimate place: it applies precisely to those things that in legal terms we ‘own’, and to the way we use ‘our’ money, goods, and land. Because financial stewardship is often associated with ideas such as tithing, it may be useful to remind ourselves that we are stewards primarily not of what we give away, but of what we keep to use for our own purposes.”  (Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology, pg. 202)