Wednesday, March 11, 2015

When we struggle against our spouses

I was talking to a friend recently and he mentioned that he had a parishioner who was quite ardent about the fast and had very little patience for his wife. Specifically, she kept making him things for dinner that broke the Fast ("She keeps serving me fish with a backbone" is a line that sticks out in my mind.). What to do? If he backed the husband, the wife would be put on the spot. If he backed the wife, the husband would accuse the priest of being soft on the rules.

As with many marriages, one of the couple was at a different place on an aspect of the faith as there is rarely perfect parity on such things. The wife in this instance is struggling with the Fast. I don't know why. It could be that she doesn't know how to cook with the limited choices of the Fast or she finds it too time consuming. It could be that she just can't imagine eating another bowl of black beans and bland rice. I've heard as many reasons why people find fasting difficult as I've seen stars in the sky.

So what would I say to this couple?
The prokeimenon and verses are from the first half of Psalm 20 (21), which reads as follows in the Septuagint:

‘O Lord, the king shall rejoice in Thy strength; and in Thy salvation he shall greatly exult. “Thou hast granted him the desire of his soul, and hast not withheld from him the request of his lips. For Thou hast gone before him with blessings of goodness; Thou hast set upon his head a crown of precious stones. He asked life of Thee, and Thou gavest him length of days for ever and ever. His glory is great in Thy salvation; Thou wilt crown him with glory and majesty. For Thou wilt give him a blessing for ever and ever; Thou wilt gladden him with joy in Thy countenance. For the king trusts in the Lord, and through the mercy of the Highest he shall not be shaken.

The selection for the wedding service of this Psalm — so radiant with the joy and glory of salvation in the Lord — emphasizes in a striking way what is seen as the primary purpose of marriage in the Orthodox Tradition: that the married couple may aid one another in their journey towards eternal salvation.

by David Ford and Mary Ford
The important line here is: The primary purpose of marriage is that the couple may aid one another in their journey towards eternal salvation. St. Gregory of Nyssa's Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms describes the Psalms as a story about man's climb up a mountain seeking after God: there are moments of triumph and of loss of gratitude and recrimination. It is not an easy ascent, but in this theotic journey we married people have the benefit of a climbing partner - two people who want to make the climb together. When a man looks at his wife it should be with an eye towards lifting her up to heaven. Likewise, when the wife looks at her husband she should be watchful for ways to support him as he climbs ever upward.

It is my opinion that when two people begin to offer themselves to one another as a means of salvation, that the incongruities in fasting, prayer rules, almsgiving, tithing, etc. take on a much healthier shape.

When I as a husband imagine myself pulling my wife up the mountain against her will so that she is little more than dead weight dangling from a length of rope there is little chance I am going to have a healthy view of my relationship with her. Every step is a struggle that doesn't have to be one if she would "just get with the program." Similarly, the wife is dizzied by all the spinning resulting from being pulled up the side of a mountain without a handhold to catch her bearings. This is a recipe for disaster. One of the two climbers might refuse to take another step, he might intentionally slow the ascent out of spite, he might even decide to abandon the climb altogether.

So, my advice was and is: Think of yourself as an aid to your spouse's salvation. Always look for ways to help him climb higher. Trust that when your spouse has the chance to help you that the effort will be reciprocated. These ascetic struggles are methods by which we achieve salvation. They aren't salvation. If your wife dutifully makes Lenten bread every day, sits down to eat the flavorless loaf with you at every meal, but hates you with every bite, you have lost much more than you've gained.

You might say (and I have heard it said), "What if she just doesn't care?!" What if my spouse doesn't care at all about evening prayers or what she should be eating during the Great Fast or that she hasn't gone to confession in two years? That doesn't change anything. It's not about you planting a flag on the top of a mountain. It's about you helping your spouse find unity with God. Your situation just dictates that right now you'll be paying out more rope than you're pulling in. Even though you can't imagine it now there is every chance that some years into the future she'll be doing the exact same thing for you.


  1. Maybe the wife is not Greek Orthodox but Russian Orthodox or Ukrainian Orthodox. In th e Slavic Churches fish has always been eaten during lent. It is only the Monks who do NOT eat fish during Lent.
    This is a cultural differance between the various Orthodox churches.

    1. That wasn't really the point of the post. :) Regardless, in this particular case the wife was a convert.

  2. Thanks, Josephus Flavius. Your post has blessed me greatly. My wife has been letting out rope for forty years.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I think you did a great job of describing what it means to struggle together as a couple, with love and compassion, while leaving room for people to interpret what this means in practice according to their own particular situation.