Today we present the first of three installments by Dr. Albert Rossi answering student’s questions on dating, marriage, and relationships.
I need to start where I always start, by saying the fundamental Orthodox truth, Christ is everything.
We put everything in the context of Christ. One time a married woman said that, when she was dating, she was looking for someone who loved Christ more than her. She said she found someone and now is very happily married. I would submit her approach to dating as an approach that works. I would also say that your job is to become a person whom someone else can find, someone who loves Christ more than the potential mate. Of course, that’s hard. But, aren’t good things usually hard to go after and find?
So, why do we date? We date because Christ made us that way, to grow-up into Him, to have the peace and the joy and the happiness that we all want. We date because we want to find someone to love, cherish and give our soul and body to. We date because we want to find someone who wants the same thing. We date because we are looking for love, exclusiveness, and commitment.
We date because it is a God-given adventure, an exhilarating and sometimes terrifying risk into the unknown.
We date because we are made that way, to be vulnerable and stretched.
The purpose of dating is to look ahead to marriage, to find a person who will love our children and us in a Christ-like manner. I would now ask you to pause and listen to my wife singing The Wedding Song.
That is what dating is all about. All the good that I have in my life came through my wife. She is dead for 23 years but more alive to me than ever. We are eternally married. I am a convert to Orthodoxy through her. Our children are a gift from her. My doctorate in psychology came as a result of her suggestion. My friendships, beginning with a long friendship with Father Hopko, came through Orthodoxy and my wife’s influence. She is the healing presence in my life. Marriage extends beyond our lifetime. Marriage is eternal.
We date to look for a mate, a lifetime person to walk through life with. Interestingly, when asked what college students want most in a potential mate, 85% of all those interviewed, males and females, say they are looking for a “soul-mate.” Yes, soul-mate describes what the search means for most red-blooded American college students today. Well, I hope I don’t burst any bubbles by suggesting that I don’t agree with the idea of “soul-mate.” Soul-mate is, for me, fundamentally a narcissistic term, making myself the arbiter of how I want you to be.
When we are dating we are scoping around for someone who fits our notion of soul-mate. When we reduce the field to three or four potential soul-mates in our mind, we date to find out which one truly fits our idea and definition of someone for us. A search for a soul-mate approach allows us to define our partner. We decide if you fit into our life, our way. UGH. The problem is that no matter how perfect a soul-mate the person might seem to be, if we marry we will find out that this person has serious flaws we didn’t anticipate before marriage. She or he didn’t show us these characteristics when we were scoping for a soul-mate. We are all fallen sinners, children of Adam and Eve. So, there is no near perfect soul-mate for us to choose. Our culture has a 51% divorce rate that I think is founded on this self-centered version of marriage.
Christ will provide the perfect person for us to marry. We need to pray and stay open to His guidance and grace. The word I use as a substitute for soul-mate is sandpaper. Our marital partner is our sandpaper who will smooth our rough edges by making us more loving, more in the likeness of Christ. We only need to pray and stay open to the Lord’s guidance.
Dr. Rossi teaches courses in pastoral theology at Saint 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.
In this series, “My OCF Story,” alumni share their experiences from their time in OCF and its impact on their transition and life in the post-grad real world.
Fr. Alexandros, Presbytera Stephanie, and their two sons, Niko and Chris
I graduated from Gordon College in 2008 with a degree in English and Secondary Education and I taught high school for a short time before attending Holy Cross Seminary for one year. I met my husband at an OCF retreat at Penn state in 2007, we were married in 2010, and we welcomed our first son in 2011. After getting married, I went back to work to help put my husband through seminary and was there until my husband graduated and was placed at a parish in Bethlehem, PA. Our second son was born about 6 months after we were placed and I am now a stay-at-home mom with my two sons, ages 4 1/2 and 1 1/2. In my spare time (which isn’t much), I help run our Moms & Tots group at church, I’m involved in the PTO at my son’s school (which is also our parish’s school), and I tutor to keep my foot in the door with education. My dream is to work at or help start an Orthodox School someday.
My most remarkable memory of OCF was at my first College Conference. I knew only two of the 200 or so students who were attending so I was a little nervous. But as I stood in church alongside all of these other college students, as I sat in discussion groups and listened to them asking questions, and as I got to know so many of them and their stories, I felt so encouraged in my faith. Up to that point I had a handful of Orthodox friends at church, some from camp, a few from my college, but it was hard not to feel a little alone in my faith. But being surrounded by so many other Orthodox young adults who were also striving to live a moral and faithful life in the midst of all of the temptations of college life, I felt an overwhelming sense of support and community. Those OCF friendships that I began forming that week carried me through the rest of my college experience.
Presbytera Stephanie on Real Break El Salvador
That leads me to how OCF has influenced my life. I was blessed to have a wonderful OCF at my college where we did daily morning prayers, weekly meetings, and frequent dinners and get togethers. I attended four College Conferences, served on the Student Advisory Board [now the SLB], and did Real Break El Salvador. And by my senior year of college, I was also traveling every other weekend or so to attend other colleges’ OCF retreats all over the northeast and sometimes beyond. The relationships that I built from all of these OCF events and programs are the people that I have relied on over the past almost 10 years. They are the ones who encouraged me in my faith, who helped me through difficult situations at work, and who stood up with me at my wedding–not to mention that I met the man I married at one of these OCF retreats 🙂 And it is because of all this that I also encouraged my sister and sisters-in-law to get involved in OCF and now, as a presbytera, the local college students at our parish. OCF played such a crucial role in strengthening me in my faith during the challenging college years and in fortifying me to go out into a world that does nothing but attack and challenge everything that we believe. And in a world where everything is focused on making money, getting ahead, and earning degrees, awards and recognition, OCF helped shift my focus and reminded me that my vocation should be centered on who I am (an Orthodox Christian), not what I am. For all of the retreats, programs, but most importantly the people OCF brought into my life, I am forever grateful.
Photo from Matt Westgate on Flickr
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 (Ksenia) of St. Petersburg
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).
Sts. Joachim and Anna
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.
I hope you’ll all forgive me, but today I’m going to share a bit of personal experience in response to a student question.
How do we balance academic studies with prayer time?
As I thought about this question and how to answer it, I couldn’t help thinking about my own college experience and my life now as a wife and mother. Let me tell you a story.
A few years ago on Pascha–my first one as a mom–I spent most of the night struggling with an almost one-year-old who didn’t want to sleep and didn’t want to be awake. She cried and fussed. She was hungry and cranky. She didn’t want me to put her down, and she didn’t want me to hold her. It was trying, to say the least, and I kept feeling like I was spending more time attending to my daughter’s (perfectly age-appropriate) needs and struggles than I did experiencing Pascha.
I remember thinking then,
Oh, this is why people become monastics. This is what they mean by married people being tied to worldly cares.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining about being a mother and wife. There are amazing joys and huge spiritual blessings in being married and having children–from the everyday joys of hugs and kisses to the bigger joys of seeing my kids grow in faith and learn to love. There is something especially blessed about teaching children to pray, even if it means you have to stop every thirty seconds to remind a three-year-old what word comes next or, more likely, that it’s “time for praying, not for playing.” Marriage and child-rearing offer constant opportunities to put our faith into action–there is always someone hungry to feed, naked to clothe, sick to care for, and lonely to comfort–and there is lots and lots of room for lots and lots of repentance. Constantly. But it is also true that the married life carries with it many unavoidable worldly cares that the monastic life does not bear–bills and budgets, kids’ schooling and activities, jobs, family obligations, keeping house, the many-headed hydra that is laundry in a house with children, noise–lots of noise. In my own limited experience, at least with small children, this doesn’t always leave lots of still, quiet time for still, quiet prayer.
The point of this blog is not to tell you how to find peace and prayer in the married life, but to help you know how to make time for prayer while you’re a student. So why am I telling you all this about kids and marriage? Well, for everything there is a season, and many people have reminded me that our lives have many seasons, some full of peace, others of turmoil, some full of joy, some of sorrow, some full of rest, others of activity. Each of these seasons, if we are open to God’s grace working in them, can bless us, challenge us, teach us, and perfect us.
So I’m telling you a little about the season of new marriage and new family life, assuming that many of you may soon join the ranks of nine-to-five work, diaper changing, and mortgages, to challenge you to see the season of your life you are in now, your college life, as a season of peace and preparation. Believe it or not, now is probably the closest you’ll get to monastic peace and silence while you are young short of joining a monastery for good.
Yes, you are busy, but you set your schedule. Make time for prayer and silence. You are being blessed in this season of your life with a kind of autonomy that you didn’t have as a child in your parents’ house and that you will not have again, at least not in the next season of your life. Do something with it. I look back upon my college years now with gratitude, thanking God that I had a spiritual father who expected me to do something spiritually productive with my time and friends who were struggling on that same path. Go to as many services as you can. Memorize your morning and evening prayers. Read Scripture and spiritual books voraciously. Talk about spiritual things with your OCF friends. Say the Jesus Prayer. Ask the important questions. Learn the hymns of the Church. Make space in your life for God while you are in this season of your life, a season in which, glory be to God, your most pressing worldly cares are your final exams.
I encourage you, especially during Lent, to see college life as a time of freedom and as an opportunity to till the ground of your heart so that prayer can blossom forth in preparation for whatever the next season of your life may hold. Every season will have its “something” that Satan will try to use against us to keep us from seeking after our Lord and falling in love with Him–right now, it’s probably homework. If you feel weighed down by the burden of your academic load and its demands, remember the words of Mother Gavrilia of blessed memory,
One thing is education: that we learn how to love God.