A crowning at an Orthodox wedding ceremony. (Image from Gladsome Light Dialogues)
A crowning at an Orthodox wedding ceremony. (Image from Gladsome Light Dialogues)

Marriage and The Church: Can Honesty Be the Best Policy?

This is the icon of the conception of Mary - a beautiful depiction of the marriage of Joachim and Anna.

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.

A crowning at an Orthodox wedding ceremony. (Image from Gladsome Light Dialogues)

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.

Saint Nonna - Simple looking woman, pretty awesome story.

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.

 

12 comments

  1. I chuckled at that last part, simply because it made me think of my grandparents. I called them on the 5th, their 60th anniversary, and they spoke of how in awe of all the attention they were. All the cards, well wishes, celebrations. My grandmother, in true Kh. Mary Sue fashion, said “I’m not sure they’re talking about US.”

    To those on the outside, their marriage looks amazing. It IS amazing- what they have lived through in these incredible 60 years. But they still argue over simple things like the shopping list for the grocery store. They are, after 60 years together, two very different people.

    I wish there were more resources for Orthodox married couples. Like you, I long for the place where we can speak freely about what we deal with. If we had the chance to open up, admit mistakes, I truly believe we could grow so much stronger with each other as spouses, friends, and brothers and sisters in Christ. At Jack Larrison’s baptism Fr. Stephen said that the spiritual health of one affects the entire church, the health of the church affects the one. In that line, our struggles in all aspects of life are spiritually based, and the more we struggle, the more those around us struggle.

    In our Faith we’re taught that when we fall down we ask for forgiveness, get back up, and try again. I don’t believe we should aim for anything more in our marriages or other relationships.

    Always know that I am one you can talk to- I won’t think less of you for your human nature. A few conversations and you’ll learn how fallen I am, too. :) (((HUGS)))

    • kksorrell says:

      Cassie, I am sure your grandparents have had many fights and disagreements like any other couple! I am glad to have them as an example to look at, though – the good and the bad! :) I am grateful for confession – that of course, is part of the acceptance, forgiveness, and encouragement part of the church. And thanks for your available listening ear. :)

  2. Crystal Larrison says:

    Do I have some stories to tell about my hubby and our fights and flaws (I guess we all do) but I am not going to turn your message board into a venting board :) In my old Methodist church, we had Stephen Ministers. They were made up of congregation members who were trained in Christ-centered counseling and would meet with other members of the congregation who seeked them out for help. I think that is a really good idea as we all need that someone to talk to honestly about our problems without the fear of being judged. My mom is my closest friend but I don’t want to drag her into all of our problems and have her worry. I’m here to lend an ear if needed…

    • kksorrell says:

      Crystal, I’m glad I’m not the only one! Marriage can be such a roller coaster. My mom’s Methodist, so I am familiar with Stephen Ministers. It would be nice to have something like that in our church. I am close to my mom, too, but I typically don’t talk to her about marriage stuff – I talk to my girlfriends sometimes, and I also have a therapist I see once or twice a month. It’s nice to talk to someone completely separated from my life and get a fresh view on things. Thanks for your friendship!

  3. Margie says:

    Good blog post, Karissa, and I really appreciate and agree with the comments by Cassie also.
    My husband and I try to say the Prayer for Married Couple daily and I agree with the line about “ideal family” being an uncomfortable one. It “irked” me early on (about 3 years ago I guess when we began to regularly say it) and then I decided “OK, Lord, go ahead and help us, our family — especially my teenager!!! — be an “ideal family”. Of course I’m waiting, but maybe it is something that will be waited on and that is part of it. I have little patience in this area!

    And what I really like about the prayer is the line before that “Grant us Thy grace, that we may continue in faithfulness and love; Increase in us the spirit of mutual understanding and trust, that no quarrel or strife may come between us” because I have used this as a starting point in discussions.

    I would like to see a class for married people that encourages and enlightens on how to meet struggles of married life head on. I know it’s been discussed at our church, so keep praying and maybe something will come of it.

    I see no way that we, my husband and I, will attend a marriage retreat of any type, but I haven’t really asked God about that, so maybe I should.

    John Chrysostom has some good things to say about how difficult marriage is and how we should approach it.

    Here is a sweet prayer that I found online when looking at the prayer for husband and wife we’ve been discussing:

    Prayer by Archimandrite Nicodim (Mandita)

    O Lord Jesus Christ our God, our Sweet Savior, Who taught us to pray always for each other, so that by thus fulfilling the holy law we will be made worthy of Thy mercy: look down with compassion on our married life and keep from all perilous falls, from enemies both visible and invisible, my husband/wife whom Thou hast granted me, that we may pass our time together until the end with oneness of mind. Grant him/her health, strength, and fullness of wisdom enlightened from above, so that he/she may be able to fulfill his/her duties all the days of this life according to Thy will and commandments. Protect and keep him/her from temptations, and may he/she be able to bear and conquer those temptations that come upon him/her. Strengthen him/her in right faith, strong hope, and perfect love, so that together we may do good deeds and that we may order all our life according to Thy divine ordinances and commandments.

    O Greatly-Merciful Lord, hear us who humbly pray to Thee, and send Thy divine blessing in truth on our married life and on all our good deeds, for it is Thine to hear and have mercy on us, O our God, and to Thee we ascribe glory: to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto ages of ages.

    Amen.

    • kksorrell says:

      Margie, what a great prayer! I am going to copy/paste and print out for my altar. I, too, still pray the Marriage Prayer . . . I like the other parts of it, and I assume the writer probably didn’t mean it the way I took that line. I also feel like it is an important and powerful prayer to pray even if I don’t LIKE every word. I can’t see Steven going to a marriage retreat – not that he’s opposed to working on marriage or anything – it’s just not really his thing – he doesn’t particularly like being around people he doesn’t know. (Introvert vs. Extrovert going on here!) He was the first one to introduce me to the Orthodox Marriage Prayer, though – I think he even wrote it in the cover of one of our Orthodox Bibles. Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. Nepsis says:

    I do love your courage in posting, Karissa! I have some questions for you:
    1) Who’s the one stopping you from now and then saying ““Hey! This sucks! Help me!””? Did your Father Confessor blow your concerns off when you started down this line of thought and told you to just grin and bear it? Are your friends in church unwilling to listen to you and unwilling to share their own struggles? Does your pride stop you? (This last one is me.)

    2) Assuming that your priest or confessor didn’t tell you to clam up and you know some folks in the parish share some of your feelings, have you asked your priest if he would sponsor and lead (or he sponsor and allow you to lead) a marriage discussion group in your parish? There are Orthodox marriage resources out there (Greek Orthodox for instance at http://www.goarch.org/archdiocese/departments/family) so you wouldn’t have to make up materials on your own.
    Back in the Old World village, monks lived just over the hill. Wanted a marriage encounter? Walk over the hill. So our Church isn’t used to the way Americans want to do the group counseling thing. But we don’t have monastics over our hills. But there are monasteries that welcome families – St. Gregory Palamas in Hayesville, OH for one- and don’t think that no monastic understands marriage. Some of them have a great grip on its trials and joys.
    And sometimes our priests sometimes have to be convinced to allow lay leadership in such things at the parish level, but if you have diocesan materials for use in the group, what could he say?

    3) Why do you think an ideal Orthodox Christian family is 100% “well-adjusted, eternally happy, and selfless all the time.”? The NT is very clear about the tensions and misunderstandings that existed between Joseph and Mary, Jesus and his ‘brothers’, and even Mary and Jesus at various times. And don’t even start about many of the OT families.
    When we stand before God and man as an ‘ideal family’, in my (prideful) opinion, all ‘ideal’ means is that we demonstrate that we NEVER stop loving others in the family and NEVER give up on each other and NEVER stop our fervent prayer for one other. We never stop – in spite of all the other stuff, the disappointments, the little betrayals, the mindless lack of consideration at times, the tears, and the fractured hearts. We love each other as God loves us – both in spite of and because of our kinship with one another. (And I came very close to giving up on one of my children, close but not quite. Lord, have mercy on me. Thank God my wife still prays for me after 30+ years of marriage.)

    4) What do you think ‘perfect’ means and who are you letting put pressure on you to be perfect? We don’t need pressure from anybody else: according to English translations of the NT, Jesus puts more than enough pressure on us when he says in Mat 5:48 “You therefore be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Who me? Perfect?! Like God is perfect?! Like YiaYia and her friend Babushka think I should be perfect?! But in that verse, the English word ‘perfect’ is the very imperfect translation of the Greek word ‘teleios’, which really means ‘mature’, ‘complete’, ‘whole’, ‘full grown’, ‘fully accomplished /developed /realized.’

    In other words, grow over time, grow and bear fruit, grow into maturity, grow into completeness, grow into your own unique wholeness because your life’s goal is theosis – to become wholly a child of God.

    And don’t forget to exercise and eat your broccoli.

    • this is awesome! I have been contemplating the meaning of the word “ideal” this morning, and realized it does NOT mean perfect! Or happy, or covered in perfectly-ironed clothes! :)

    • Margie says:

      I appreciate these comments by Nepsis! I have been wondering about monasteries that welcome families and my husband and I have discussed finding one to visit, this is great encouragement!

      And the comments about the “ideal” family and what it looks like, thank you! God has pretty much led me to this conclusion through some of what is mentioned here and the rest is coming to me slowly as I keep “eagle eye” on my children so that I won’t miss the moment we become “ideal”. 😉

      God is so good, thank you all for the comments and responses!

    • kksorrell says:

      Thank you so much for these comments. Perhaps I am putting more pressure on myself to be perfect than I realize! There has been some talk previously at our parish of starting a parenting/marriage class for couples with children, but it has never materialized. Maybe I ned to push for that more. Thanks!

  5. Nepsis says:

    In one of my first confessions with my priest, he said,”It’s always easier for God to forgive us that it is for us to forgive ourselves.”

    Health and salvation to you and yours and theirs by God’s grace!

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