Insights from the Holy Fathers
Many have written extensively about marriage and family and offered some excellent advice. My aim is more modest. I will review some relevant thoughts from the holy fathers and their biblical foundations. I will also add some personal insights, grounded in the experiences of other priests and my observations.
Saint Ignatius Bryanchaninov, a known Russian religious writer, summarised the teachings of multiple church fathers before him. In many respects, his works are a condensed expression of their ideas – and the teachings of the Church – on the subject of matrimony. The chapter “On loving others” from the first volume of his collection “Ascetic Essays” contains the following text:
“Do not think, my beloved brethren, that the commandment on loving one’s neighbour conforms with the inclination of our fallen hearts. It appeals to our spirits, but our hearts live by the flesh and blood; it is addressed to our renewed selves, but our hearts are of the old man.”
“Our original sin corrupted our routine ways of loving, and now we must overcome this corruption as Christ commands us. We must learn from the Gospel His Divine love and how to love others in Christ. The falling from grace [of Adam and Eve] subjugated our hearts to the flesh and our old selves. But in the Gospel, our hearts will find freedom from these oppressive bonds and reconnect to the Holy Spirit.”
“The Holy Spirit shows us how to love our neighbour in holiness; the love ignited and nourished by the Spirit is like fire in our hearts, more powerful than flames of love in the flesh and the corruption by the original sin.”
In this extract, Saint Ignatius tells us not to let passion take us over in our love. He teaches us not to see love as the burning of the flesh. We should not allow our passion to direct us in our choice of companion in life.
The Greek language has two words for love. One, agape, refers to the love of the spirit, and the other, eros, to the love of the flesh. There is a similar distinction in Ukrainian. Many human languages remind us of the dangers of following the call of our flesh with blindness. I also make the same point.
The world is at odds with this truth. Advertising, mass culture, films, sequels and multiple other products convince us that love is a violent passion, a sensation of the flesh, a fire in our blood. The world’s message reaches many ears and is passed on from one generation to the next. People listen, and many do what the world tells them.
The result is plain to see. Divorce and unwed partnerships have proliferated. Why? Because passion does not enlighten our spirits; on the contrary, it corrupts our hearts and minds. It adds volatility to our lives. Saint Ignatius writes: “The more intense and passionate the love of the flesh, the more easily it turns into hate (2 Samuel 13:15). Many passionate lovers have expressed themselves with a dagger.”
Saint Ignatius is telling us: you may love someone intensely and hate them just as passionately tomorrow. Passion often goes hand in hand with pride, manifesting itself as possessiveness. Someone who sees another as one’s property grows tired of one’s possession, and their passion wanes. They lose interest and ask for a divorce. Many divorces happen in this way. People do not marry for the right reason, and when you ask them why they divorced, they will respond, curtly, “because I have no love anymore.”
But did they have any love in the beginning, or was it only passion? A passion to possess another, for example? Their desire is fulfilled, their passion dies, and their marriage falls apart. They feel nothing but disdain for their former possession and are perhaps stoking up a new passion for someone else. “Farewell! I have fallen out of love,” they will say, and close the door behind them.
Worse still, the passion – which these people take for love – is often not for the real person, but rather for some ideated image of that person, which is only an illusion or a fantasy. The gap between fantasy and reality creates a deep conflict, kills the passion, and makes the lover think that they have fallen out of love.
This cycle typically repeats itself many times. Like barren moths, these hapless suitors roam the world, bringing destruction onto themselves, their families and others. Why do they keep doing it? Because they put all their trust in their passion. As St. Ignatius (Bryanchaninov) wrote, “they surrender their hearts to the command of the flesh, and hence to the power of its puppet master, Satan.” To free oneself from the enemy’s rule one must extinguish the passion in all one’s undertakings, including the choice of a marriage partner.
I am not suggesting that we should not like our prospective spouse. But our likes should not have the final say in our choices. They should only be some of our multiple considerations. The Orthodox Catechism teaches, “Matrimony is a Sacrament, in which, on the free promise of the man and woman before the priest and the Church to be true to each other, their conjugal union is blessed to be an image of Christ’s union with the Church, and grace is asked for them to live together in godly love and honesty, to the procreation and Christian bringing up of children.”
As we see from the definition, marriage must first have the blessing of the Lord. We must pray hard to choose our partner well. We must supplicate the Lord knowing that we marry for the salvation of our souls. We must ask for His blessing so that our marriage would bring salvation to our spouse, children and kin.
Beyond prayer, we should also understand that in matrimony, we do not just enjoy each other’s company or our holidays on the Maldives. We have duties to fulfil, and marriage is hard work and a battle. It is our service to God and our loved ones. Unless we realise all these things, our marriage will always be at risk.
In ancient times, one had to work hard to bring food to the table, build a dwelling, and make clothing to protect the family from the cold and the elements. In our time, we still need to work hard to support our spouses and children, provide for them, and procure the essentials to send our children to school. Every parent knows how difficult it can be. Housing can be an even bigger problem, as we all know. Finding the right school, buying medicine for sick family members, and dealing with the bureaucracy and paperwork can also be onerous.
In family life, we deal with multiple tasks. Often, there are not enough hours in the day. We also need to go to church and take the sacraments and bring our children along. Marriage is a difficult journey and a sacrifice. To do well, we need more than a physically attractive person by our side. We need a helper, a reliable companion in our struggle for our family’s well-being and salvation in eternity. It is a lifelong project for both spouses.
Evaluating a prospective spouse, the first thing we should ask ourselves is this: can I rely on that person to work with me on building a strong family? Can I trust him or her in the daily struggle? Or will he or she give up, sit idle and expect me to do all the work?
I have seen many disasters in other people’s families. Some spouses grew so exhausted with the solitary struggle that they became permanently ill and disabled. Some of my flock died young from a toxic climate in their families. I have witnessed families fall apart after the birth of their disabled child. One of the spouses deserted, unwilling to shoulder the lifelong responsibility of raising that child, while the other bore the cross to the end, to the point of exhaustion.
As an old Russian saying goes, marry in haste and repent at leisure. It is always best to choose one’s marriage partner wisely. Think carefully: will your future spouse be prepared to work with you for the rest of his life? Will he or she share the burdens of providing for the family for decades to come, so that you and your children may inherit the Kingdom?
Do not let your passions flare up. Pray instead. Ask God for the right person who will not only be nice but also willing to endure the lifelong struggle for the salvation of the soul.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds