Traditional marriage almost seems scandalous these days. We watch Hollywood couples move in together and have children, then get married. We have friends in committed long-term relationships who are afraid that getting married would change things. We see the alarming statistics about divorce in our country. Thus, we are amazed by couples who have been together for years and years.
In the Orthodox Church, marriage is a sacrament. The marriage service starts like a liturgy does: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” There are no vows, for marriage is not about promises to each other, it’s about seeking out salvation together. There are crowns, placed on the heads of the bride and the groom, which have a twofold meaning: anticipation for our crowns of glory in heaven, and strangely enough, martyrdom.
I probably speak for plenty of other married people when I say that marriage does feel like martyrdom sometimes. The thing, is, I don’t feel like I’m allowed to say that. The church – whether Orthodox, Protestant, or Catholic – encourages loving, faithful marriages and discourages divorces. However, does the church allow us married folks to honestly say, “Hey! This sucks! Help me!” I pass plenty of church billboards announcing “Divorce Care,” but who’s offering “Marriage Care?” Don’t get me wrong: I know that plenty of churches offer marriage retreats and the like.
But overall, I think that the church – for me, both Orthodox and Protestant churches (sorry – never have been Catholic so I don’t know) – fails to engage in honest discussion about the difficulties of marriage and how to deal with them in the light of both the Christian faith and today’s society. In fact, in the Orthodox Prayer of Married Persons, there is this line: “Grant us thy blessings, that we may stand before our fellows and in thy sight as an ideal family.” I don’t know who wrote that line, but I don’t like it. It makes me feel like I must make a false presentation, that my husband and I have to look like we’re well-adjusted, eternally happy, and selfless all the time.
We are not. We put ourselves first, we argue, we yell, we have to have the last word. We disagree and can’t reach compromise, we discipline differently, we clam up in silence, we let it all out in tears. There are times when our marriage is more easy and joyful and enjoyable, and times when our marriage is more hard and frustrating and broken. The latter is when I am afraid to even tell a close Orthodox friend the truth, because I will be telling her I have failed. If I’ve failed in my marriage, I’ve also failed spiritually – I’ve failed God and the Church.
I don’t think churches should suddenly turn into counseling centers, but the pressure to be perfect needs to dissipate. Just as the stories of the saints confirm how they struggled through countless physical, emotional and spiritual challenges (some even to their death), we need the freedom to share our own marital challenges and know that we will receive acceptance, encouragement, forgiveness, prayer, and helpful teaching, not judgement.
When I became Orthodox, I chose St. Nonna as my saint. She is not a particularly well-known saint, but she is the mother of a church father: St. Gregory of Nazianzus. What drew me to her was that she was a wife and mother, and that through her prayers she converted her husband to Christianity, and he, too became a saint. Her son praised her for her faithfulness both to her family and to God, even comparing his parents’ marriage to that of Abraham and Sarah. He said that they were, “of one honor, of one mind, of one soul, yoked in the pursuit of virtue and of fellowship with God.” Isn’t this the goal of Orthodox marriage: to become one in the pursuit of God?
Even so, I bet St. Nonna has some stories to tell – maybe about how St. Gregory never took out the trash when it was full or spent too much time at work or rarely said thank you. Or how she brought up old griefs or kept the van too messy or gave Greg the silent treatment. I’d kinda love to hear those. I’d feel a little better about my marriage.