Orthodox America

  From the Bookshelf – Married Saints of the Church

Married Saints of the Church by Monk Moses of the Holy Mountain; translated, edited and with additions by Ryassaphore-Nun Melania Reed and Ryassaphore-Nun Maria Simonsson; St Xenia Skete, Wildwood, CA 1991. 

      Any Orthodox Christian--indeed, any fairminded person--who has ever watched "Entertainment Tonight" or read People magazine; or who is familiar with the gushing kudos shamelessly bestowed by Time on each new "Man of the Year," must marvel at the secular world's disdain for the Church's veneration of saints and her concomitant publicizing of their lives. Saints are, after all, the heroes of Christianity, suitable role models for those who might otherwise conclude that the imitation of Christ, the process of theosis, is a lovely ideal that lies utterly beyond the boundaries of the possible. And isn't ours an age starving for role models?

      The modern world not only worships its own idols, it loves to kiss their feet of clay. Social critic P.J. O'Rourke has neatly observed, "You can't shame...a modern celebrity....If you say [he] is an adulterer, a pervert, a drug addict, all it means is that you've read his autobiography." Adulation is now lavished upon those who, rather than inspire virtue by example, demonstrate that no amount of depravity and self-absorption stands in the way of success (with a capital $), fame, and sexual opportunities that would make de Sade blush.

      The heroes and heroines of Christian piety, by contrast, are notable for the heights, rather than the depths, they've reached. And, oh, how the modern Orthodox Christian needs their example! We who fear the possible loss of our second car or our summer cottage if we take the Christian injunction to honesty too literally in our business lives; we who dare not risk a long sought-after promotion by missing too many Saturday evening socials so that we might attend Divine Services and prepare for receiving the Sacred Mysteries; we who couldn't imagine resigning membership in a vaunted professional association that promotes abortion; we who are eager to obey God, but are at least equally eager never to appear fanatical--how much we can profit from studying the paths taken by these pious predecessors through life's moral minefields!

      No one can benefit more from the study of saintly precedent than the married Orthodox Christian and the Orthodox parent; for, like the clergy, we have assumed responsibility for the spiritual well being of others, but unlike the clergy, we are generally not credited (even by ourselves) with having any aptitude for such an "otherworldly" duty. Indeed, even the most devout Christian can fall into the unchristian mindset of seeing the marriage chamber and the celestial realm as competing, rather than complementary, scenarios. And so, a hagiography devoted exclusively to the married provides welcome ammunition for contemporary spiritual warfare.

    This easily portable book harvests from the Menaion the spiritual yield of over 300 married saints of the Orthodox Church, summarizing each life in calendrical order and with a complete alphabetical index at the end. The volume's cover sets the tone with a simple iconographic rendering of the Wedding Feast at Cana, itself an event replete with Christian significance for marriage and parenthood: our Lord worked His first public miracle, in obedience to His Blessed Mother and in Divine representation of His Heavenly Father, to ensure the uninterrupted celebration of the union of husband and wife.

      The author's introduction comprises one of the loveliest tributes to Christian marriage in modern Orthodox literature, extolling "a wonderful equilibrium between marriage and celibacy, a man-loving Orthodox anthropology, a balance based on the commandment of love." And later: "Somewhere in the pages below, the married person of today will encounter the very problem which preoccupies him, and will also find its solution there....The excellent spiritual message of these lives is a very useful weapon against the subterfuges and delusions of our day." And in a proper rebuttal to those who mistake wicked-minded puritanism for the virtue of chastity, Monk Moses reminds the reader that "St. John Chrysostom gave us the important teaching that almsgiving is higher than virginity, and avarice is worse than adultery." These holy lives make clear that it is love that tames lust, not any pseudo-pious contempt for even the appropriate carnal corollary of love.

      This is important to remember, for while many of the married saints obviously took to heart God's command in Genesis 2:24 and enjoyed its natural, impurity-banishing consequences in Genesis 2:25, many others forsook conjugal life for virginity, Indeed, the groom at Cana is revealed to be the Holy Apostle Simon the Zealot, who was so impressed by the first Dominical miracle that he forsook home and bride to follow the Bridegroom Christ, Who calls us all to the Great Wedding Feast. And St. John of Kronstadt was not the only saint who prevailed upon his spouse to live a celibate life together.

      But the reader who finds joy in the marriage bed need not feel rebuked by these examples of intra-marital abstinence. There are many cases of saints who lived a more typical married life, as evidenced by the large and happy families they produced. Saints Basil the Elder and Emelia begat nine children, among them Saints Basil the Great of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa. Small wonder that Saint Gregory the Theologian declared their marriage a "union of souls and bodies." And Saints Joachim and Anna were rewarded, not rebuffed, by God in their repeated efforts to conceive; they were made grandparents to our All-loving Saviour.

      One of the most startling aptitudes displayed by so many of these married saints was the ability to rejoice in the martyrdom of spouses and children. To the worldly mind this seems inhuman, an almost barbaric level of religious zealotry. But the Christian with true and lively faith, what could be more natural? Aren't we thrilled when our children receive worldly honors? And yet, what greater honor can a child receive than to "go to the head of the Christian class" and be immediately graduated into the heavenly ranks, wearing not a tasseled mortarboard bat a martyr's crown? Read the story of St. Julitta and her son, the youngest voluntary martyr known to the Church, St. Cyricus. It does not require us to reverse our understanding of "a mother's love," but it expands that understanding gloriously. Our spiritual fitness demands such stretching exercises.

      These lives are not recounted to discourage those who are nowhere near such astonishing standards of faith and piety. As an Orthodox friend explained when, approaching Baptism, an adult convert expressed grave misgivings about ever being able to keep the rigorous rules of fast, "Don't worry, the Orthodox Church has guideposts, not whipping posts." These lives are likewise guideposts, marking the path to eternal life; they should never be used as excuses for self-flagellation or despair, as such reactions are simply cleverly disguised expressions of envy and resentment towards those who truly can help us.

      This uplifting little compendium would make a wonderful engagement, wedding, or anniversary present for any Orthodox couple. We're never too old for heroes, and our children aren't the only ones who need constructive rote models to lift them from the cultural sewer this world has become. 

Michael J. Sullivan