In the midst of everything that is going on in college, I know that many of you are probably also thinking about getting married or pursing romantic relationships. Dating can be a tough scene for us Orthodox Christians–let’s be honest: there are not that many of us, and there can be a lot of pressure from family to make something work or to choose a particular kind of person. Not to mention the crazy way the world often treats relationships as means simply to fulfill our own selfish desires. A little advice:
Take your time to find the right person. No matter how many times yiayia asks you when you’re getting married and making babies, hold out for the right person–the person who makes it easy to love, forgive, and live a life of faith.
Trust your parents, your priest, and your peers. Within reason. If there is a resounding “please-don’t-marry-this-person” coming from all directions, chances are, something’s not right.
Keep marriage in mind, but don’t overdo it. Yes, we date with the question, “Am I going to marry this person?” present in our minds and prayerfully in our hearts, but, especially when you are first getting to know someone, you don’t need to rush to that conclusion. Protecting yourself from giving away too much of who you are (and I’m not just talking sex) too quickly can help you strengthen a relationship over time if it is the right one.
Look for someone better than you. If you feel like you are dragging a person behind you in any way, but especially spiritually, this is not the person for you. Not only are you setting yourself up for a giant lack of humility, if that person really isn’t your equal, you could be setting yourself up for a difficult marriage. Your spouse should humble you with their faith and devotion, they should have spiritual gifts you admire, especially ones which you feel like you lack. Along the same lines, avoid dating someone you see as “a fixer-upper.” It’s not good if you think you need to save your significant other or be a missionary via dating.
Pray. Pray for guidance in finding the right person and help to navigate your relationships when you get into them. Pray for your future spouse, even if you haven’t met them yet. And with that, here are a few saints who can help you along the way:
St. Xenia (January 24) is known for helping people with the things she herself lost or gave up in her own lifetime: a spouse, a house, and a job. She was a young married woman, living somewhat carefree and never really thinking about her soul when her young husband died suddenly after he’d been out drinking with his friends. Shocked, Xenia ran from St. Petersburg, returning eight years later as a homeless wanderer. Many of the people derided her as an insane homeless person, but she bore their insults while praying unceasingly for the people of St. Petersburg. In her own life, she was granted the gifts of prophecy and great prayer. When it comes to looking for the right person, St. Xenia is known not only for bringing together godly people but also for saving young people from bad marriages. Pray to her as you are considering who to date and whether or not he or she is the right person for you. Know this, once St. Xenia has entered into your life, she’ll likely be around for the rest of it, and she is known for often answering prayers very quickly–be prepared (I know this not only from many stories I have heard from others, but from my own experience–my first daughter is named for this amazing saint because of her constant intercessions for us).
I once heard of a young couple who had just started dating and were asking a married woman they considered a spiritual mentor, “To whom should we pray for our relationship?” They wanted to know who might help them discern whether this was the right relationship and who would help them remain pure in their intentions and their actions as they got to know each other. The woman brilliantly suggested Sts. Joachim and Anna (September 9). Sts. Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Mother of God, were both from important Jewish lineages, St. Joachim being the descendant of King David and St. Anna being of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of the priesthood. What’s most notable, of course, is that they put their trust in God in their relationship, having faith in Him that He would bless them with a child even in their old age. They prayed to God for each other and for a miracle to be worked in their lives. The icon of them embracing each other depicts a pure and devoted love that we can hope to imitate in our own (eventual) marriages.
From the years of my youth, many passions combat me, but you who are my Savior, assist me and save me. –from the First Antiphon of the Anavathmoi of the Fourth Mode
As the hymn declares, many temptations arise in the soul in one’s youth. There is a certain awakening of passion that was unknown in childhood that comes to life as we approach adulthood. In this vulnerable time, the demons seek to ensnare us by allowing the body to snatch control from the soul so that the natural order intended by God is turned topsy-turvy: instead of the body being led by the soul, the soul becomes a captive to the desires of the body. Another time I’ll write more about this. Today, in continuing with our patron saint theme, I’d like to introduce you to a few saints (among many) who in particular intercede on our behalf when we are attacked by an onslaught of lustful desires.
Before I get started, I’d like to make two little notes on this particular temptation: beware of its pervasiveness on the one hand–plenty of research has shown how pornography, for example, changes the chemical make up of your brain in a similar manner to a drug addiction; and do not despair if it is a difficult struggle for you: you are not alone–many fathers of the church (here’s just one example) attest to the difficulty of overcoming lust, its ability to creep up on you even when you think you have it under control, and the ease with which we are able to fall prey to this temptation even if we have acquired other virtues.
So here are some fellow warriors to help with the battle. All of these saints struggled with lust, especially in their youth, and all of them in turning to Christ, overcame that passion. I’ve included their own prayers for help that I hope you can integrate into your own prayer life as you prayerfully struggle with sexual desire and ask for the intercessions of these saints.
St. Mary of Egypt (April 1) is perhaps one of the most revered and beloved models of repentance in the Orthodox Church. By the end of her life, she was perhaps the greatest spiritual pillar of her time. But her story begins with a young girl interested primarily in parties, socializing, and seducing–a young girl who lost her virginity at twelve and spent the next 17 years pursuing sexual partners to satisfy her lust. When she is eventually drawn to repentance by the Theotokos, she prayed,
O Lady Virgin, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word! I know that I am unworthy to look upon your icon. I rightly inspire hatred and disgust before your purity, but I know also that God became Man in order to call sinners to repentance. Help me, O All-Pure One. Let me enter the church. Allow me to behold the Wood upon which the Lord was crucified in the flesh, shedding His Blood for the redemption of sinners, and also for me. Be my witness before Your Son that I will never defile my body again with the impurity of fornication. As soon as I have seen the Cross of your Son, I will renounce the world, and go wherever you lead me.
Many people know and love the story of the bandit who became an Abba of the desert. St. Moses (August 28) was the leader of a band of murderers and robbers who rampaged through Egypt in the early fifth century. When he was turned to repentance by St. Isidore, he struggled for many years with the lingering passions from his former life, especially lustful and violent thoughts. In his struggle, he became incredibly humble, never deigning to judge a brother for his struggle knowing the pervasiveness of his own sinful desires and the destructive consequences they had in his past. There is no particular prayer of St. Moses that I could find, but take courage in this story from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
On one occasion Abba Moses of Patara was engaged in a war against fornication, and he could not endure being in his cell, and he went and informed Abba Isidore of it; and the old man entreated him to return to his cell, but he would not agree. And having said, “Father I cannot bear it,” the old man took him up to the roof of his cell and said unto him, “Look to the west,” and when he looked he saw multitudes of devils with troubled and terrified aspects and they showed themselves in the forms of phantoms with fighting attitudes. Abba Isidore said to him, “Look to the east,” and when he looked he saw innumerable holy angels standing there, and they were in a state of great glory.
Then Abba Isidore said unto him, “Behold those who are in the west are those who are fighting with the holy ones; and those whom you have seen in the east are those who are sent by God to the help of the saints, for those who are with us are many.” And having seen these, Abba Moses took courage and returned to his cell without fear.
St. Justina (October 2) was an amazing woman of fortitude. She was a convert to Christianity as a teenager and brought her parents to belief in Christ as well. She dedicated herself to Christ, refusing a marriage proposal from a suitor. When, through the power of the sorcerer Cyprian, Justina was tempted by multiple demons (during her prayers, nonetheless) to lustfully desire the suitor she had just rejected, she offered up this prayer,
O Lord Jesus Christ, my God, lo, mine enemies have risen up against me and have prepared a snare for my feet! My soul is brought low, but I have remembered Thy name in the night and am made glad. When they compassed me round about, I have fled unto Thee, hoping that mine adversary might not rejoice over me, for Thou knowest, O Lord my God, that I am Thy handmaiden. For Thee have I kept the purity of my body, and to Thee have I entrusted my soul; wherefore, preserve Thou Thy lamb, O good Shepherd. Do not permit the beast which seeketh to devour me to consume me, and grant me to prevail over the evil desires of my flesh.
From the time of his youth, St. John (September 28) was tormented by sexual desires. No ascetical feat seemed to be a match for the passion that raged in him. Even when he became a recluse, still he struggled greatly with lust, and the devil did his best to shake St. John’s determination to overcome this passion–so much so that he sent a serpent to terrify him and frighten him into forsaking his seclusion. On Pascha night, in the midst of these torments and his own temptations, St. John cried out to Christ,
O Lord my God and my Savior! Why have You forsaken me? Have mercy upon me, only Lover of Mankind; deliver me from my foul iniquity, so that I am not trapped in the snares of the Evil one. Deliver me from the mouth of my enemy: send down a flash of lightning and drive it away.
What’s up with all the pictures? Isn’t that like idol worship? Doesn’t the Bible forbid that?
Explaining iconography to someone who doesn’t pray with icons can be a little daunting. For us Orthodox, it’s as natural and normal as reading the Gospel, and we all sort of instinctively know that we’re not worshiping the icons. So what does the Bible say about images, and why do we have icons?
First off, typically when people try to say that the Bible forbids icons or images they are referring to the Ten Commandments:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Some Christians throughout history have interpreted this passage to mean that no religious images or visual art are allowed by God. In fact, the Church struggled with this issue throughout the eighth and ninth centuries finally defeating iconoclasm and upholding the use of icons in worship, a day we celebrate every year on the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church made clear the position of images in the worship of the Church and their relationship to the second commandment:
The Triumph of Orthodoxy. We even have an icon about icons. Image from Wikimedia
The Incarnation is a game-changer. Christ made visible the invisible God, and thus it is allowed that images of Him be depicted.
Icons depict real people. The second commandment protects us from creating fantastical creatures that replace the true God. Icons depict real people and events that draw us to the true God.
Worship and veneration are not the same. Worshiping an idol is the equivalent of replacing God with a created thing (or ideology or passion). Venerating an icon is an act of respect and love that glorifies the Creator (sort of like saluting to a soldier is an act of respect and honor that shows your loyalty to your country).
God instructed Moses to create images. Just in case anyone thought God’s commandment to Moses excluded all visual images of anything as idols, check out Exodus 36:35-37:9 where, per the instructions of God, Moses has images of cherubim embroidered into the curtains of the tabernacle and statues of the same cast for the Ark of the Covenant.
Obviously, then, it is not images that are an issue, but our relationship to images. So what do icons do for us and why do we love them?
Icons teach us our history. In the early Church, never mind the fact that there was no official New Testament canon for almost 400 years, there were very few copies of the Scriptures (no printing press), and not all Christians were literate. Even today, we have a huge contingency of Christians who do not read–you know, everyone under the age of five. Icons teach us the stories of Scripture and the lives of the saints–the whole story of salvation–and invite us to be a part of that history.
Icons teach us our theology. Icons are no ordinary paintings. They are full of symbolic meaning to convey the theological truths of the True Faith. From the colors to the stances of the people, to the scenery and lighting, icons teach us who God is, and who we are in relation to Him. For example, in most of the festal icons of Christ (Nativity, Theophany, Crucifixion, Resurrection), you’ll notice that Christ is the Light emerging from the darkness (of the cave, the water, Golgotha, Hades). Or you’ll typically see Christ wearing a red tunic with a blue cloak, showing us that he was divine (red) but took on humanity (blue), and his mother is typically dressed opposite as she–and we–are human (blue) who take on Christ’s divinity (red).
Icons draw us near to the saints. We believe in a Church that is united across both space and time. In other words, the saints that have preceded us are just as much a part of the Living Body of Christ as our own friends and family. Just as we might cherish an image of a loved one who is no longer physically with us (and we might carry that image with us or even kiss it when we miss them), we cherish the images of Christ, His mother, and the saints as images of those we love and who guide us in our own lives.
Icons call us to be still and worship. Unlike other forms of visual art, Orthodox iconography is specifically created with worship in mind. There is a stillness and a peace about the figures, even when they are shown “in action.” What seems to be a reverse in perspective is a message to us that it is we who vanish in the distance when we move away from God. Icons help us focus our prayers to God and help us dispel the distracting images that flit through our minds at the prompting of the demons.
Icons call us to the heavenly realm. Everything about icons that we’ve already mentioned–their themes, their symbols, their characters, their artistic style–seek to draw us toward Christ and His holy ones. This is another reason that icons are not painted realistically; they are meant to draw us not to themselves, but beyond the images to the heavenly reality they depict. Unlike other art and certainly unlike idols, icons do not allow us to get stuck in the beauty of this world but call us to be a part of a world transfigured by God’s grace and love.
Having icons is not about having beautiful churches, though icons are certainly beautiful. They are not about worshiping wood and paint, though they are integral to how we worship. Icons are meant to give us glimpses of the world to come and who we can become in Christ. I am reminded that Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Archdiocese once said to us at a College Conference
The walls of this church are lined with icons. The empty spaces are yours.