“Love is patient,
love is kind;
love is not jealous or boastful;
it is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way,
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong,
but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never fails.” (1 Cor 13:4-8).
Years ago when my family and I were living in Brandon, Florida, I met a man who had undergone a faith conversion experience and had become passionately zealous about his faith. He had not practiced any faith most of his adult life, and before coming to faith his marriage was strained by his workaholic lifestyle. His wife and children did not share his conversion experience and he became increasingly angry and frustrated over their resistance to his desire to talk about his faith, to give her material to read or to bring them to church activities. It caused lots of tension at home. His wife was especially disgusted by it all, especially after he told her one day he was “praying for your salvation.” She said, “If you’re going pray for me be sure to tell God, ‘If you’re gonna turn my husband against me, I don’t want your salvation.'”
Eventually, he went to his parish priest to seek support, but the priest (who was just superb) was less than sympathetic to his frustration. The priest said something like, “The best way you can witness to your newfound faith is to become a better husband and father, not to club them over the head with it. Let them see how it makes you a better man, more patient and loving, home more often and less angry, not more angry; and not see that it makes you insufferable to live with. They see you now as worse, not better, and you can’t heap blame on them for that. Look, only one year ago that was you, but now you’ve already lost your patience with them. Back off on the religion talk and ramp up the love.”
The man told me the priest’s words were a bitter pill to swallow, “but by the grace of God, I swallowed it.”
When I first met this man, it was three or so years after this all had happened, and he said that priest’s advice likely saved his marriage since he had even been contemplating divorce so he could be free to live his faith out “radically.” He was still very passionate about his faith when I met him. His wife never became Catholic, nor did his children, but he said his marriage was stronger than it had ever been and his presence in his children’s lives was far greater than it had been before his conversion. He said, “Hopefully my faith’s made me easier to live with and given me some humility. But most of all I’ve learned to stop demanding our life be on my own terms.”
I thought of this story when I recently read the advice of a Eastern Orthodox spiritual author Hieromonk Gregorios to married couples who find themselves in different places in their life of faith. He says that a great mistake often made by a spouse who is “more fervent in the spiritual life” is to think of him/herself as superior to the less fervent or unbelieving spouse. Those driven by anger, frustration, impatience, self-righteous judgment — i.e. spiritual narcissism — to bring about change in their spouse build their house on sand and become a stumbling block to divine grace.
Gregorios, thinking out of the tradition of the Desert Fathers, says that what these spiritually immature people really miss is that genuine virtue views others as greater than oneself (Phil. 2:3). The virtuous “place little importance on their deeds and think everyone else is far better than they are.” Any progress in authentic holiness only strengthens one’s resolve to serve, forgive and spread joy and peace. Genuine virtue intensifies one’s commitment to bear another’s weakness as one’s own (1 Cor. 9:22; Eph. 4:2). He continues,
In the same spirit, St. Isaiah writes, ‘If you are going along your way and there is a sick person with you, allow him to go ahead of you so that if he should want to take rest he is able to do so.’ This attitude of journeying together must be applied to those who wish to run with great speed in the spiritual life but who have a spouse who is unable to keep up with them.
To approach such situations spiritually, we should view ourselves as responsible for the spiritual weakness of the other person, perhaps because we have not shown ourselves to be the image of a true Christian and a real struggler; not only should the weaker one determine the speed of the couple’s common journey, but additionally the one who thinks they are stronger must believe that they are the cause of the spiritual slowness of the other.
When we move to the beat of love, we may appear to be lagging behind spiritually while in fact we are leading the way. When we live in this way within the bonds of marriage, all problems will be faced quietly, peacefully and with discernment — because we face them with love.