Orthodox America

  Love unto Salvation

Editorial by Priest George Lardas

Much has been said elsewhere about duties and obedience in marriage, especially of the wife to submit and reverence her husband. But I should like to talk about the foundation of marriage, the thing that brings it into being and without which obedience is not salvific or blessed, and that is Love.

It was out of His exceeding great love for us that our Lord instituted marriage in the beginning, when He said, It is not good that the man should be alone (Gen 2:18), and made woman and declared, Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh (Gen 2:24). For where two are together, they may help each other, and when one stumbles, the other is able to right him. Furthermore, their mutual love should be a reflection of the love that is in God. This mutual love is the ground on which love of father and mother for their children grows, and the children in turn love their parents. In turn, the love that abounds in a happy family is shared with those around them through their compassion for the unfortunate and the sorrowing, and for those that have no family. This love is reinforced and grows by returning to God the love that He constantly sheds on us.

Love, if it be true love, must reinforce virtue. It is said that a friend is someone who encourages one to virtue. And so the partners in marriage must help each other in acquiring a virtuous life. Virtue, therefore, and not passion should be the foundation of marital love. For passion waxes and wanes and can vanish with familiarity, and the passions then lead to boredom, conflict, and even infidelity. No, love must be based on more than infatuation. It must be the active desire to seek the good of the beloved, and the highest good is salvation.

Love is a choice. In the face of the many distractions of our earthly life, and in the face of the real or perceived shortcomings of our spouse, we must keep our eye on what it was that brought us together in the first place, that quality beyond mere physical beauty, something in the depth of the soul that answered the call of our own soul. We chose this person to spend the rest of our life with, and we commit ourselves to this purpose of our own free and unconstrained will.

We make the choice to love our spouse, or not, every day of our life after the wedding. We are daily presented with opportunities to please our beloved in many and sundry small things and small acts of kindness. And this should be a joy to us, to give up our selfishness, to come out of ourselves, and to live for another.

This is not what we hear from the world around us: We are told to do our own thing, that we need to seek self-fulfillment, freedom of expression, pleasant experiences. Things that are harmless in themselves can become a ruinous passion when indulged in to excess. But beyond this, the world surrounds us with unimaginable enticements and distractions that keep us away from our love. And love that is not tended, as a luxuriant rose, will wither, and may die.

Christian marital love is made even harder by the way it is denigrated in our society. Virtue, chastity, purity, and virginity are mocked and ridiculed. Many have given up their responsibility and love for their children to seek a life of self-satisfaction at the cost of record numbers of broken homes. A measure of how far we have gone away from Christian principle is the prevailing scandal of the highest officer in the land, his admitted violation of marital trust and purity (among other things), and society's lack of outrage.

Love is shown in faithfulness and fidelity. Our Lord gives Himself as an example: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). Love takes on responsibility for those in its care: a husband for his wife, a wife for her husband, father and mother for their children, and children for their aged parents. We are not islands sufficient unto ourselves; we have an obligation to love those around us, actively and constantly. Consequently, it is very bad for one in the bonds of matrimony to seek to break them for any reason, except as a last resort to avoid losing one's soul. We are so constituted that no matter what our circumstances, we have the opportunity to achieve our salvation and to love our neighbor. Those that are tempted to stray from the purity of marriage and to seek comfort in the arms of another must restrain themselves not only with the fear of eternal perdition, but also with the consideration of the tears and heartache and loss to their children and spouse. If one's behavior causes scandal to the little ones, and leads them astray in their later years, it would indeed be better to have a millstone tied around one's neck and be cast into the sea. True love does not do this. True love endures, it is determined, it wills to do good to all, and to sacrifice oneself if necessary that others should be saved.

What, then, are we to do? Husbands, Saint Paul says, love your wives. A wife is called to submit to and reverence her husband, but a husband is called to much more: he must love his wife as Christ loved the Church, and be willing to give his life for her. A loving husband will find his wife sub-missive and respectful, and will gain what is more: her love. For Saint John Chrysostom (see Homily XX on Ephesians) says that it is the nature of the woman to love. But the husband must be told this. And if you husbands doubt this, bring home a small token of love to your wife, say flowers, for no particular occasion, and say, "I love you." You will be surprised at your wife's happiness. It is the nature of man to show love by ordinary deeds - handy work around the house, working to provide for the family, keeping the car in order - but a man often forgets to say these precious words, "I love you." A wife is not a servant or a slave, but a partner, a living soul.

Likewise, Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. It is good to acquiesce to your husband in small things, so that he will listen when you desire to discuss more serious matters. It is a small thing to leave out the carrots from the soup if he does not like them, or to keep the check register in a certain place. If you love him, you will show it in practical ways, and not only by word or gesture.

If the partners are not matched in piety, upbringing, or temperament, the marriage may have its difficult moments. It may happen that one of the spouses is a believer and the other is not. Perhaps one of them is not Orthodox and strongly believes in another faith. Perhaps this came about because the believing spouse came to Orthodoxy first, but was not followed by the other, or because they married when the believing spouse was not close to the Church. What should be done? While Saint Paul tells us not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers (II Cor 6:14), he also enjoins those that come to the faith with an unbelieving spouse, not to put the other away (divorce), for the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband (1 Cor 7:14). In such a case the believing spouse must practice all patience and love, and pray especially for the other, but in no case to put pressure on the unbelieving or less pious, for salvation and conversion are matters of free will. When Saint Elisabeth married Grand Duke Serge, Tsar Saint Nicholas' brother, she was of the Lutheran faith. At no time did the pious Grand Duke put pressure on her to change her faith, but he had patience and trusted in God and in his wife's good heart, and she came to the Orthodox faith of her own free will, and eventually became a saint of our day. The time of our lives is not over, and who knows, our own spouse may far exceed us in love for God, and we may find that we are married to a saint.

Love is the foundation not only of marriage, but of the very existence of this world. Let us, therefore, live the words of Saint Paul: Love suffereth long, and is kind; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth... And now abideth faith, hope, love, these thee; but the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:4-8, 13).

Priest George Lardas