Learning to love in marriage. That’s key. Marriage, in the Orthodox tradition, and in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians chapter 5, is clearly really only about one thing: having the singular and privileged opportunity to enter fully into Christ’s sacrificial death of love for his spouse, the Church. In marriage Christ invites you to learn from his example of loving a terribly difficult spouse. That’s the point of marriage. It’s an arena in which we are trained and formed to love the way God intended. Love in marriage is beautiful and wonderful, yes, but if it’s going to be real and lasting it’s also going to mean martyrdom. Laying down your life. But that’s not an unfortunate thing, that’s the whole point. For Christians, that is. Fidelity, suffering. Going from saying me-me-me to saying other-other-other. Killing your own will. St. John Chrysostom said, “Consider every day where you’re not slandered, falsely accused, opposed or rejected as a loss.” If you find marriage and family life hard because you have to do everything together, act in harmony and union with someone who can be tough to deal with, or oppose you, who’s different than you, thinks differently in some hard ways, then count no day in marriage a loss. You can’t be a freelance Christian. The holy Fathers say, “If a person falls, you can know they have chosen themselves as a spiritual guide.” St. Teresa says, “The self-directed are the devil-led.” If you choose yourself without submitting to another, it’s certain to crash. Isolation leads to insanity. If you say, “I love God much better when I’m away from all the idiots out there,” you’re deluding yourself. Love is learned in community, where love is not just abstract and ideal but concrete, real, messy, irritating, un-ideal, pulling me out of myself again and again and again and again. Until I finally “get it.” Then deification comes.
My daughter Katherine used to wear a button that said, “It’s my father’s fault.” [raucous laughter in audience] Yes! Those who think, “Oh, Father Tom, I wish you were my dad.” I say, “You don’t know what you’re saying. Ask my children and they will set you straight.” I have to answer for what I have done, what I’ve failed in. But now that she knows that, it’s her problem. She has to figure it out and can’t blame me forever. We all have to come to terms with the fact that we were raised by sinful parents with all their own junk. Those who live on always angry and blaming will never become who they’re supposed to become. We have to deal with the hand we’ve been dealt and work through it all. Parenting is a good cause of humility for parents, but it also gives children all the raw materials they need for the great struggle that makes saints. But only if they can accept the reality and let God’s grace get into it all.
After decades of theological study, priestly service, teaching at a seminary and being Dean of the seminary, I now realize that what my mother taught me as a child is the wisdom I’ve been seeking for seventy years: “Go to church, say your prayers and never forget God.” If you live these three things right, with all you’ve got, all other things will fall into place.
Back in the early 1980’s I was in Greece for a meeting of church leaders. The Easterners all complained at meeting about the state of the Church in persecuted countries under Communism and Islam; the Westerners all complained about the secularism and materialism and hedonism and the godlessness. A young monk from Mount Athos said: “Brothers! We must have hope. We have everything we need. How can we complain? What kind of witness do we give when we complain of our hardships? We have been given by God something no one can take from us: we have the cross and our death in Christ.” Everyone was silent. How we face death and the cross is what proves everything. Does the world that opposes us see us as angry, complaining, protesting, bitter, condemning? In the eighth beatitude Jesus is clear how the Church should react to rejection: “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad!” Do they see that we simply hate sin or that we love sinners — that we are sinners! — and are ready to walk with them even if it means they want to do us in? Or do they rather see us doing the truth in love, with mercy and lots and lots of joy? Who wants to be part of that first community? Yuck. Seriously. I remember several years ago when I had a serious health decline, and developed heart disease. A nun, Mother Elizabeth, in her 80’s, came to visit me in the hospital. She said, “Father, you made it beyond 70 without a serious tremor in your life. No major health problems. Now is the moment of truth and we will see who you really are and what you really are.” I said, “Oh, thanks a lot Mother!” But she was right. Before we suffer hardships we’re just blah blah. But when it gets hard, how do I respond? If I live each day like that monk said, cross-bearing and dying daily with Christ, enduring well the thousand inconveniences and irritations thrown at me, with less self and more others each day, then I’m ready. I’m ready for the whole purpose of human life. It’s why I exist.
Back in the 70’s I gave a talk at a college on the Orthodox teaching about sex and marriage. In short, I had said that in the Christian understanding there are only two options: marriage or virginity. During the Q&A one student raised his hand — I’ll never forget him — and he said with an air of disbelief in his voice: “You really believe this?” I said, “I do.” He said, “Lifelong faithful marriage and no sex ever outside of marriage. I gotta say it, expecting someone to do that? It would have to be a miracle.” I replied — and I still love the answer I gave — “At least I can leave here tonight knowing at least one person understood my talk. It is a miracle. Without the grace of God in Jesus Christ, no one can be faithful to this teaching.” Jesus said it succinctly: “Without me you can do nothing” [John 15:5]. And nothing means nothing.