Marriage, Monasticism, and the Way of Salvation

Marriage, Monasticism, and the Way of Salvation

If marriage is a journey to salvation, what happens to people who stay single and don’t become monks/nuns? What is their journey to salvation?

Many people like to point out that the Church has blessed two “ways of life”: marriage and monasticism. These are the two ways, if you will, that have a definitive beginning through a sacramental initiation and for which the Church prepares us.

But are they the journey of salvation? When we look at the grand story of salvation and the message of the Gospel, is the answer to, “What must I do to be saved?” “Go, get married or join a monastery,” or is it, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me. If you love Me, you will keep my commandments. Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself”?

I think the answer is pretty clear. The way of salvation is the way of the Cross, the journey of self-offering out of love for God and neighbor, of repentance when we fail, and of trust and faith in the grace of the Father which is given to us in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but by me.  John 14:6

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Galatians 5:24

If anything, then, I think the claim that there are two “blessed” ways in the Church must mean that these are the two ways that are laid before us as obvious crosses which can lead to the crucifixion of our passions and selfish desires. We enter into them sacramentally as the Church recognizes the blessing of the struggle that is to come. But in of themselves, they are not salvific.

And just as fasting or prayer or almsgiving can be outward acts that do not penetrate our hearts and actually help us in the struggle against the flesh (and often become a foundation for pride and judgment of others who do not do as we do), simply being married or tonsured is no guarantee for holiness.

We can have faithless, selfish marriages where we seek only to have our desires met that are no more a blessing to us than adultery and harlotry. We can be prideful, arrogant monastics that look down upon lay people as second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God and no more gain salvation than if we were the Pharisee exalting himself on the steps of the temple.

And it can’t possibly be the case that there is no spiritual life outside of marriage and monasticism–that would negate the entire Eucharistic life of a Christian from baptism until deciding to be married or join a monastery. Would we say that every communion, every confession, every prayer, every act of kindness or devotion to God was meaningless in the life of a child simply because they were not married or tonsured? Of course not.

So why do we say it once someone hits the age of 25? Perhaps there is a sense in which as one is no longer under a rule of obedience to one’s parents and has more autonomy, the temptation to live a selfish and passionate life can increase. When the demands of siblings and family obligations diminish, certainly there is more opportunity for the demons to turn our lives inward and less obvious opportunities for acts of self-sacrificial love. But it is important to remember that every season of life has its particular temptations–that doesn’t make the single life devoid of spiritual value; it simply offers the single person an opportunity to recognize his particular temptations and repent when he falls prey to them.

I think talking about single life and also the decision to marry or join a monastery deserve their own posts, so I’ll save the practical advice for later, but for now, let’s set the record straight: the only “way of life” the Church blesses is a life in which we unite ourselves to Christ with self-sacrificial love. There is no other way.

The What-If Demon

The What-If Demon

If there’s one thing that can be said for the demons, it’s that they are persistent. They never rest from their attempts to get us sidetracked from the Way, and they’re relentless in bombarding us with distractions of every type, anything to keep us from focusing on Christ in our hearts. If we’ve been decently formed by the Church and are earnest in our pursuit of Christ, we’re often quick to notice the big temptations they hurl at us, even if sometimes in our weakness we still fall prey to them. So, of course, the demons get all the more tricky (have you read The Screwtape Letters?), and find ways to worm their way into our hearts and minds disguising their nonsense as “normal” thoughts or even “godly” thoughts.

One of these demons I noticed running around at College Conference this year was what I like to call the “What-If” demon. This annoying beast spends his time making us ask ourselves, “What if this thing I want to have happen never happens in my life?” “What if I had done this one thing differently?” “What am I going to do if some-thing-in-the-future-that-hasn’t-happened-but-could happens to me?” It seems he especially likes to pester young Orthodox Christians with all sorts of what-if’s about dating, relationships, marriage, and monasticism. Illustrative to this point are some of the questions we received from students in our question box:

 

What if we do not come to the realization to be married or enter the monastic life?

What if I don’t know by the time I’m 25 if I should get married or be a monastic? Does that mean I should automatically become a monastic if there is no one I can marry by 25?

Likewise, many young people who do feel called to marriage wonder, “What if I don’t meet the right person? What if I never get married?” Now, this is not to say that it’s not important to answer questions of how one should go about discerning one’s vocation. But the nasty What-If demon twists this necessary and spiritual undertaking into an anxiety-ridden, paralyzing question filling us with guilt, worry, and fear.

The What-If demon does his best to keep us looking anxiously to the future or mulling over the past, and this murky cloud of what-has-been and what-might-be is his greatest weapon. It swirls around us, becoming so encompassing, dark, and ominous that we can’t see clearly–we can’t see the present moment. And it is only in the present moment that we can meet Christ, hear His calling, and answer obediently.

In fact, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (really, you should read it) says it perfectly. Coaching his nephew on the ways of temptation, the demon Screwtape writes:

The humans live in time, but our Enemy destines them to eternity.  He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone, freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him), or with the Present–either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.

The present moment is the place where time and eternity meet and where God enters into our lives. In an important way, the present moment is the only moment for the Christian. Do you say “yes” to Christ in this moment with this breath? Are you listening for His call in your heart right now? Can you see Him in the person or situation that’s right in front of you?

We must do battle with the What-If demon as we do with all temptations. First, we have to recognize him for what he is. We can’t confuse his what-if’s with repentance for the past or discernment about the future. Don’t let him convince you that his imaginary situations where he replays your past with anguishing regret are the same as contrition or the images he throws before you with terrorizing anxiety of futures that haven’t happened need to be addressed to find God’s will.

His cloud is just that: a cloud. A cloud that is blown away by the Holy Spirit when we call upon the name of Jesus Christ. And once we have recognized the What-If demon for who he is and called upon Christ to banish him away, we can be free to see clearly the present moment in which Christ dwells.

Icon by the hand of Dn. Matthew Garrett. Used with Permission.

Icon by the hand of Dn. Matthew Garrett. Used with Permission.

If the What-If demon becomes too strong in our lives, he can wreak all sorts of havoc on our hearts, giving rise to anxiety, fear, and depression. If he is pulling too strongly, it’s important that we bring to light this struggle in the sacrament of confession. Confession is a time to be open and honest about the demons that pester us, especially when we feel convinced by their nonsense.

And watch out because just as you start to name the What-If demon and try to escape from his distractions, he’ll send in his cousin the Don’t-Repent demon who will try to convince you that you should feel shame for your anxiety, you are helpless, and you don’t deserve God’s love and forgiveness. Don’t listen. He’s lying.

The best thing we can do when we are tempted by the What-If demon is to remember that he is actually powerless as long as we refuse to give him any of our time and energy. When he comes to distract us, instead of letting him drag us away from Christ in the now, we can answer with the Prophet,

Behold, God is my Savior and Lord. I will trust in Him and be saved by Him. I will not be afraid, for the Lord is my glory and my praise. He has become my salvation. –Isaiah 12:2, OSB

Navigating Adult Relationships Before Marriage

Navigating Adult Relationships Before Marriage

Today we present the third and last of three installments by Dr. Albert Rossi answering student’s questions on dating, marriage, and relationships. Click here to read his first installment, Why Do We Date? and Click here to read his second installment, Why Do We Abstain?

Let’s begin where we began two blogs ago. Christ is everything. The Cross is a difficult privilege. That’s for starters. I will also begin by asking you to listen to my wife singing a haunting song, Today, that is about human lovers and that we can hear as the relationship between Christ and ourselves. He is our most intimate relationship.

So, for this blog let’s reflect a bit on adult relationships. You are adults.

Here’s the bottom line question. Is it wrong to date people who aren’t Orthodox? Perhaps it’s not a matter of right or wrong. Perhaps it is not a matter of good or bad. Perhaps it is a matter of smart or not-so-smart. Dating is a process of finding a mate to marry. Well, marriage has many beautiful intersections, negotiations, and complications. For example, in-laws and finances and where we will live and sexual activity and social life, etc. It probably isn’t smart to factor in a difference of religion if it can be avoided. The real issue is children and how they will be raised. If there is a difference of religion from the get-go, children won’t come along for awhile and then it will be too late to understand what kinds of obstacles must be overcome for each partner to be fully satisfied with how the children are taught religion. As you can infer, I strongly suggest that you do your very best to limit your dating to Orthodox partners, in OCF or your home parish or someone you may meet on Real Break or wherever.

By the way, one basic question in dating is to ask yourself the question, “What kind of parent will this person make for our children?” And, please be careful that at the dating level, we typically see other persons in the very best light. When a couple gets serious, there is a natural tendency to project into the future about how the mate will be. When a couple is serious or engaged, they are rather delusional about the other. That’s OK. But, the tendency is to expect the good qualities in the partner to become better and the bad qualities to become less. Such is not the case. The good qualities in a serious relationship do enlarge as time goes on. But, so do the bad qualities. The bad qualities enlarge just as the good qualities do.

Beyond dating, we all have many different kinds of adult relationships: parents, roommate, acquaintances, classmates, adult relatives, etc. Is there any kind of guideline for this kaleidoscope of life?

"View of a kaleidoscope" - photo taken by H. Pellikka taken from WikiMedia Commons

“View of a kaleidoscope” – photo taken by H. Pellikka taken from WikiMedia Commons

To the extent that we can, we need to seek out relationships that give us strength and hope. We need to take initiatives to try to cultivate relationships that are a healing presence for us, and for whom we are a healing presence. Obviously, this isn’t easy. And, to the extent that we can, and is appropriate, we don’t need to spend undue time, if any, with those persons who take us down.

As guidelines, we need to be as authentic and as honest as we possibly can with all our relationships. The mask we wear, the persona, can block meaningful exchange of energy between others and us.  We gain vitality from meaningful relationships.

We are all imperfect and we are all enough, in God’s eyes. Yes, we are sinners but we are much more than that. We are His Beloved. He loves us as His children. Perfectionism in relationships can tarnish the quality of the relationship. Sometimes it helps to talk about our tendency towards perfectionism. Not all who read this blog have perfectionist tendencies, but I venture to say that most, most of you do. It goes with the territory of being human.

I did a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio entitled, “A Message for Youth on Sex.” The podcast goes about 45 minutes and is an expanded version of these blog posts. You can access that podcast by clicking here.

I’ll end where I began. Christ is everything. We can’t say that often enough. And, yes, the Cross is a difficult privilege. You heard my wife sing Today. We navigate all our relationships as best we can by staying in the Present Moment, by centering ourselves in stillness.

 


Dr. Rossi teaches courses in pastoral theology at SaiPhoto from SVSnt Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He has written numerous articles on psychology and religion and published a book through Ancient Faith Publications entitled, Becoming a Healing Presence. He is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of New York. Dr. Rossi has a brief, bi–weekly podcast on Ancient Faith Radio titled Becoming a Healing Presence.

 

 

Why Do We Abstain?

Why Do We Abstain?

Today we present the second of three installments by Dr. Albert Rossi answering student’s questions on dating, marriage, and relationships. Click here to read his first installment, Why Do We Date?

For dating Orthodox college students, this is probably the central question, “Why do we abstain from sexual activity until marriage?”   Many non-Orthodox college students don’t seem to abstain. Why should I?

To begin at the beginning, God invented sex for His good reasons. So sex is sacred, good. God knows what He is doing. He made human beings as male and female with a gravitational sexual desire for each other. But it is also true that sex only fits into human life within the context of real human life. We wouldn’t consider sex without some consideration of affection and love. Sex includes warmth, respect and mutual satisfaction. Basically, sex only fits into a context of commitment.

My wife and I, married for 19 years with two children, did what married people do. We made love, that is, we had sex. When we finished making love my wife would often say, “Al, let’s have a cup of tea.” I would say, “OK.” We got up, put on bathrobes, went downstairs and sat at the dining room table. I made the tea. The overhead Tiffany lamp, which I had made, was dimmed low. The time was 11:15 PM, the outside street was quiet and the two children upstairs were asleep. Those 15 minutes of tea-drinking were among the most precious times in my marriage.

 

Image from Wikimedia

Image from Wikimedia

I knew two things for certain. I knew, existentially, that I was loved. How did I know? I knew because of what that woman did upstairs with me. She gave herself totally to me. I also knew that I could love. All I had to do was look at her face. She was a happy camper. That’s all there is to life, to love and be loved because God is love.

So, I had it all during that “cup of tea.” I didn’t say, “I love you so much that if you get metastasized bone cancer and need me to cook a macrobiotic diet for you, and go to the oncologist with and for you, and serve your every need, I will do that for you.” I didn’t say it, but that’s what happened. She would have done the same for me. That’s why I define sex as a “cup of tea.”

Sexual activity needs a context, the context of a committed Christian marriage, an eternal agreement that I will be with you forever. Then, sexual activity has purpose and meaning.   Without the lifetime-committed context, sexual activity is vapid, empty, and meaningless, although at the time it may be “fun.” Sex outside a lifelong committed marriage leads to jealousy, anger, and eventually hatred. Expectations are dashed.

Why do we abstain? The strongest answer is the truth expressed in music. I ask you to relax and listen to my wife singing The First Time.

The first time is the reason we abstain. We abstain so that the first time is with our lifetime partner, someone we can deeply cherish and who deeply cherishes us. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t be sexually active before marriage and experience the mystery of the act of making love fully. And, we can’t be cherished if we have given away our purity before marriage. Of course, we Orthodox believe in “second virginity” called repentance. But, the repentance path is much more difficult. So, please listen with your heart to my wife’s beautiful singing of The First Time.

Retaining one’s purity is not about not. Retaining one’s purity is a matter of getting an interior landscape that is as pure as can be on this planet. The Beatitudes say, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.” They shall see God here and now, not only in heaven. The pure in heart can see God in the mirror because they know they are doing they are doing their best to preserve their inner fragrance, their inner innocence, their inner sweetness, for Christ and for the life He wants us to have, and for the life of the future children may have.


Dr. Rossi teaches courses in pastoral theology at SaiPhoto from SVSnt Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He has written numerous articles on psychology and religion and published a book through Ancient Faith Publications entitled, Becoming a Healing Presence. He is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of New York. Dr. Rossi has a brief, bi–weekly podcast on Ancient Faith Radio titled Becoming a Healing Presence.