Marriage: An Exercise in Personhood

img_0971.jpgIt is intrinsic to human nature to seek to love and to be loved. Lying beneath the debris of our society’s confused notions of love and romance is a consciousness of our nature’s need for genuine companionship. Marriage has long been held in honor for this reason. The Roman Stoic, Musonius Rufus, wrote in the first century, “In marriage there must be above all perfect companionship . . . where, then this love for each other is perfect and the two share it completely, each striving to outdo the other in devotion, the marriage is ideal and worthy of envy.” Nonetheless, many forms of companionship existed in the ancient world and the same can be said today with the alarming increase of same-sex “unions” and other non-traditional “companionships.” In the contemporary environment of moral upheaval, many pastors are faced with the questions: why does the Church insist on the sacramentality of marriage? What makes Christian marriage distinct from any other form of companionship? The following essay will address these questions, exploring what it means to be a person and how Christian marriage alone offers the possibility to acquire Christ-like universality. In the end, we will see how only within the Church can we discover true companionship and a love that embraces all—friends and enemies, heaven and hell.

It is no surprise, in a world where everyone seems to be inescapably attached to an iDevice, that we would concurrently be suffering from an acute sense of collective loneliness. We are so consumed with distinguishing ourselves as individuals against the backdrop of humanity that we have lost sight of what it means to be a person. To be a person is not to set ourselves apart in our own little iWorld, but to bring into our heart—the very center of our being—the whole of humanity. Sister Magdalen, in her book Conversations with Children, explains, “A sanctified human hypostasis [person] . . . feels the existence of everything, created and Uncreated, as his own existence.” Unfortunately, many young people spend a significant number of years living wholly for themselves, pursuing their own interests, their own careers, and their own ambitions. Then, finding someone who fulfills their own needs, they decide to enter into a relationship. It comes then as little shock that when the other individual ceases to fulfill these needs, the relationship is broken off. However, this self-centered approach is in direct antithesis to what God intended for human existence and can never satisfy man’s innate desire for love and companionship.

Subsequent to the creation of Adam, we read God’s judgment that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). This text, while certainly proscribing the necessity of marriage, in a broader sense can be understood as relating to the special position that humanity occupies in the world. Anestis Keselopoulos writes in his book, Man and the Environment, “Man is positioned midway between the material and immaterial worlds because he participates in both simultaneously, he forms the bridge and point of contact for the whole of God’s creation.” God’s intent was for man not to be alone, but instead to gather together in his psychosomatic existence the diversity of the cosmos, serving as its microcosm. Even in the creation of humanity as two distinct genders (but still one nature) this mystery is revealed. St. Maximos relates, “Man, who is above all—like a most capacious workshop containing all things, naturally mediating through himself all the divided extremes . . . is divided into male and female, manifestly possessing by nature the full potential to draw all the extremes into unity.” Sister Magdalen confirms, “A fully developed person overcomes in himself the division between male and female, not by being androgynous, but by living at a cosmic level of being.”

The Church, since Her birth has existed for no other reason than that man should not be alone. The very word Church (Ἐκκλησία) implies a gathering together, a community or special assembly of people (not to be confused with the aberrant notion that it refers to a building!). The other images for the Church—the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ—all express the vision of a unified humanity, one in which perfect love is given and received in unmitigated reciprocity. The Church, in Her pursuit of this vision, has indicated two viable paths for its attainment: marriage and monasticism. Marriage, in Patristic thought, is often likened to a winding road, slowly ascending the mountain whereas monasticism is compared with a direct ascent. Monasticism is perceived to be the surest course but also the path requiring especial dedication, courage, and single-mindedness. Marriage on the other hand is seen to be less strenuous but far less sure, fraught as is it with more dangers and distractions. However, St. Paisios of Athos affirms, “God rejoices in the one and marvels at the other.” On either path, the Church affirms that the goal remains the same: the summit of true personhood.

Monasticism is most often associated with its negations—the vows of poverty, obedience and celibacy. However, Arch. Zacharias insists that the monastery is primarily “a place where we exercise ourselves daily to acquire the universality of Christ.” He continues, “We see that the monk’s calling is fulfilled when he becomes an intercessor for the whole world.” The monk enters the arena of the ascetic life to be trained toward this vocation. Obedience, chastity, and poverty each serve as aids to the monk’s endeavor to redirect his self-centered love toward God and his neighbor. Marriage, though less rigorous, can also provide a context for acquiring the universality of Christ. If approached correctly and with equal asceticism, marriage stands as comparable exercise in true personhood.

Andrew Louth, commenting on the need for asceticism in marriage, relates that the root meaning of the word askesis is “raw materials.” He argues that marriage can be a context “where the raw materials of two lives are worked together to create a microcosm of what it is to be human . . . a kind of laboratory in which human beings in the full sense—persons shaped by human koinonia so as to be capable of koinonia with God—find their beginning.” Sister Magdalen adds, “If you share your being with one person for life together, your intimacy can help you to learn love in all its dimensions.” In other words, the self-sacrificing love learned through marriage is the first step in actualizing God’s aim for man to acquire universal love. This goal-oriented (teleological) approach to the purpose of marriage is perhaps the greatest distinguishing characteristic dividing the Orthodox approach to marriage and the model witnessed in contemporary society.

John Behr, in his article “Asceticism and Marriage,” dryly observes that most couples wishing to perform the marriage ceremony seek only to add a “religious icing” to their otherwise purely secular relationship. Marriage has been reduced to a simple stamp of approval for sex in the hope that it will remain within “traditional” boundaries. Alexander Schmemann points to an alarming trend, even among Christians, “to make the minister a specialist in clinical sexology, in all cozy definitions of a Christian family which approve a moderate use of sex.” The ever-increasing trend of couples living together before marriage has blunted even this definition, making any ceremonial “approval” virtually meaningless. The Orthodox Church’s insistence on the Sacrament of Marriage must appear, to such an audience, as antiquated and blind to contemporary social developments. But the fact is: the Church offers no such “stamp of approval.” Rather Her stubborn insistence is based upon the conviction that within the Sacrament of Marriage alone can two individuals be joined together by God in a mystical union leading to authentic personhood.

Within the marriage service, this union forms a constant theme. The celebrant prays in the opening litany, “For the servants of God [bride and groom] who are now being united to each other in the community of marriage, and for their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.” Later, the following prayer is read: “Do Thou, the same Lord, stretch out now also Thy hand from Thy holy dwelling-place, and unite this Thy servant, ______, and this Thy handmaid, ______; for by Thee is the husband joined unto the wife. Unite them in one mind; wed them into one flesh.” God alone can join broken humanity. Removed from God, even the most noble and strongest of human loves can never constitute true personhood.

This rightly applies even to the conjugal union. St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, writes that “he which is joined to an harlot is one body” with her (I Cor. 6:16). Yet, no one would ever claim that such a union could, in any wise, constitute God’s intention for a unified humanity. Physical intimacy does not equate unity. St. Paisios insists, “Where there’s love, even if one is required to be far away from the other in certain circumstances, they will still be close because the love of Christ cannot be separated by distance. But if, God forbid, there is no love, the two may be physically close, but in reality are miles apart.” Couples wishing to enter marriage simply to ratify and justify their physical intimacy but unwilling to seek God’s grace for their union will never experience the consolation of true companionship and will inevitably join the masses of distanced and disjointed relationships.

A Christian marriage necessarily embraces the possibility of children. In the marriage service the celebrant repeatedly prays that God will grant the couple “chastity, and the fruit of the womb as is expedient for them.” The begetting of children naturally causes a couple’s love for one another to expand beyond the confines of their marital relationship. Unfortunately, couples that resist the natural consequences of their union are robbing themselves of the opportunity for self-sacrifice and growth as persons and turn the sexual act into little more than a mutual self-gratification. Sexual relationships that are inherently sterile (i.e. homosexual) further deny any possibility for love to expand beyond the confines of narcissism. St. John Chrysostom speaks of children as being the inherent “bridge” between husband and wife, “the three become one flesh, the child connecting the two parents to each other.”

Chrysostom, as well as many of the Church fathers, opine that the primary reason for human sexuality was for the purpose of procreation. It is a tragic witness to man’s rebellion that he has, through various means, denied this intent and turned sexuality into an end in itself. Moreover, he has forgotten that the unique relationship of husband and wife encompasses a far greater sphere. Sexuality is but one facet of the marital relationship. John Behr, in his book Becoming Human, points out that “beyond the “fruit of the loins”—the aspect of marriage which belongs to this world—marriage also provides a context for spiritual fruit and a path to the heavenly realm.” Sexuality, as we know it in this world, will cease to be in the age to come, as Christ clearly states in the Gospel of Matthew (22:30). However, the union, of which the joining of husband and wife as one flesh serves as a prototype, will continue in the heavenly Kingdom. The marriage service bears witness to both realities—procreation and the eschatological fellowship of the whole of humanity.

The image of marriage as a “path to the heavenly realm” appears as a recurrent theme within the Orthodox marriage service. The opening exclamation of the celebrant—“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”—is an obvious indication that the Sacrament about to be celebrated is not of this world. The fact that this exclamation appears also at the Divine Liturgy denotes a clear historical connection between the two. Hieromonk Gregorios remarks in his book, The Fellowship of Love, “The sacred text of the Sacrament of Marriage was always bound together with the Divine Liturgy and the newlyweds’ communing of the pure mysteries.” Thus, like the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Marriage foreshadows the heavenly Marriage Supper of the Lamb in the eschaton.

Another illustration of the Church’s understanding of marriage as a path to the Kingdom can be observed in the rite of crowning. The celebrant, at the conclusion of the marriage service, removes the crowns placed earlier on the heads of the bride and groom and prays thus: “Receive their crowns into Thy Kingdom, preserving them spotless, blameless, and without reproach, unto ages of ages.” Hieromonk Gregorios comments that “the crown of marriage is primarily a public acknowledgement of pre-marital purity.” However, he also adds that “the crown of marriage, refers to the future married life . . . They are the two rulers in the kingdom of their home, within the Church that is in their house.”

The Christian marriage is a microcosm of the Church. The epistle reading for the marriage service speaks of the relationship between husband and wife as mysteriously representing the love of Christ for His bride, the Church (Eph. 5:20-33). The symbiotic relationship between Christian marriage and the Church cannot be overstated. Without families striving for authentic personhood the Church would cease to exist. Likewise, without the Church, authentic union in marriage is impossible. What unity can there be that is foreign to the Eucharist? Without being one with Christ, without having been buried and raised with Him in Baptism and joined to Him through participation in His Divine Body and Blood, how can a husband and wife have any more than a purely physical and fading intimacy? It is impossible to become one with one another without first being one with Christ and a member of His Body. This is why marriage outside the Church can never achieve its intended aim. Even marriage within the Church, unless accompanied by an active participation in Her Sacraments, is bound to be abortive.

            The Christian life is a gradual process. Only after years of daily effort are the seeds planted in Baptism seen to blossom and bear fruit. Likewise, the grace that accompanies the Sacrament of Marriage is only made manifest through a slow, life-long askesis. Saint Paisios likens marriage to a carpenter joining two rough boards: a high spot is planed smooth, a valley is filled by shaping the adjoining board. Christian marriage is the Divinely built workshop where the unique characteristics—the strengths and weaknesses—of a each person are brought together and fashioned into a renewed humanity. Strengthened by the divine grace that accompanies each sacrament, the husband and wife learn to trust one another, to hold the other as a true friend and companion, and to develop a bond that “no man may tear asunder.” Yet, this is to be our relationship with every person, to share our lives with one another and to be in perfect unity. Thus, marriage stands not as the end but as the beginning of what it means to be a person. The goal is to love all with the same strength and fidelity that one displays toward one’s spouse. In this achievement alone is the purpose of marriage fulfilled, when each person learns to love with the universal love of Christ.

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