Even before we got married, I’d been contemplating this idea of “martyrdom” that comes with the Christian life. I didn’t have to be married to be aware that, especially to those of us who are Orthodox Christians, “martyrdom” is a daily goal.
I’m not talking about getting stabbed or beaten or ridiculed for my faith like the great martyrs we revere were. That is, of course, a possibility, but the martyrdoms we are supposed to take on are usually a lot smaller, and there are a lot of them. They also, it seems to me at least, are easier to rationalise bowing out of. If someone told me, “I’m going to kill you because you’re a Christian!” I would probably say or do something that would sound something along the lines of St. Paul’s “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” It’s just so clearly the Christian thing to do. (Note: I have never been in this situation, so I can only hope that that is actually what I would do and that it would actually be as easy as I’ve envisioned it.) However, when I’m faced with things like doing something I don’t want to do that is also the right thing to do, it’s so easy to say, “Oh it won’t matter if I just don’t do this…” and embrace selfishness.
The Christian life demands that we “take up our cross” like Christ and deny ourselves. Easier said than done, right? Most frequently, the only denial I actively take part in is denying myself meat and cheese on Wednesday and Friday. It’s a good first step to teach us control over our bodies and minds, but it isn’t the only denial we’re called to. We have to deny our temptations, our impure thoughts, our wants. “I would rather do this” is supposed to become “I will do this for the best of the other person (or my soul, or both).”
It’s easy to forget self-denial when you are already living for yourself. That is why Orthodox Christians generally are supposed to choose between monasticism and marriage (there are a few unmarried lay people floating around out there, but that is because Orthodoxy is handled on a person-by-person basis with the individual and his spiritual father). Both monasticism and marriage are similar in what they require of us spiritually and how they shape us even though they look completely different. Both can be used inappropriately and be of no spiritual value whatsoever, though. (Thus it’s outright wrong to say that monastics live “better” spiritual lives by default because the temptations still exist to not be holy, though I will certainly allow that they tend to be in an environment that sharply highlights the holy and unholy in the human being and eliminates, or minimises, worldly distractions. Marriage and monasticism are very different things, after all, but one is not better than the other–only better for the individuals involved.)
I personally contemplated monasticism for quite some time. My last semester of college, I saw the path as inevitable and made arrangements to pursue it. An abbess I loved like a mother was fully supportive and wanted me to spend an extended stay at her monastery. I didn’t stay as long as either of us would have preferred, but it didn’t take long for her tune to shift from, “You might be a good candidate for this life! Try it out!” to “Why don’t you go back out in the world and see about getting married?” It was rather crushing since at the time, I had absolutely no potential suitors. I knew every eligible bachelor in every church near me (both in the area of California I lived, and on the rural side of my home state where I grew up and moved back to after college) and all had quickly friend-zoned me for whatever reason (which is why I roll my eyes at young men who complain that young women are always doing the “friend-zoning.” They just don’t realise they’re also doing it.). I left the monastery dejected, heart-broken, and a little hopeless. I needed some kind of pilgrimage to help me at that point, I figured.
But guess what? Just about a month after my spiritually difficult trip to the monastery, I ran into the man who would become my husband. He didn’t “look” the way I thought he would so I tried to ignore him (I don’t actually mean physical looks–I mean he wasn’t what I had envisioned and I didn’t want to think that my personal blueprints could be deviated from). I couldn’t, so I finally called a priest I was close to, knowing that if he could just reason with me and tell me to stop seeing this young man, I would have the resolve to actually do it!
He didn’t. He told me to give him a chance, with some very specific and careful guidelines.
So I did.
Before long, this topic of “marriage as martyrdom” became very important because marriage was the next step for us. (Neither of us would have continued pursuing one another after our summer of letter-writing as he was across the country from me if we hadn’t seen a potential future together, which was appropriate. We took the courtship seriously.) The thing is, though, that it seems I’ve heard this phrase so often, it starts to lose its meaning. So marriage is hard work? Of course it is. I’m surrounded by others’ marriages every day and I see that. But what purpose does something that is difficult have? It shapes and strengthens us if accepted appropriately. It can weaken and destroy us if we let it. The latter is definitely easier because it seems to be the natural way things happen. A situation is difficult, so I will give up, or pout about it.
In the marriage ceremony in the Orthodox Church, we are given crowns. Now the crowns represent plenty of things, but the most apparent thing they represent is “crowns of martyrdom” like we see in the icons. On taking on those crowns (at which point in the ceremony, the couple is actually considered married–not at the end, not at any special announcement, but in the middle of the ceremony when the crowns are on the couple’s heads, uniting them and challenging them), the couple is voluntarily taking on special tasks of self-denial. They recognise that this life is no longer about them as individuals and that everything from this point forward will be a joint effort and have joint effects. This is wonderful sometimes (a shoulder to lean on, for instance), and horrible other times (a companion who constantly brings to light what is wrong with you and challenges you to fix your attitudes). Our first steps as newlyweds were taken around the table that represents the altar (the Kingdom of God) on which is the Scripture, the chalice (which represents the Eucharist and Christ Himself), and the Cross (the ultimate representation of self-denial).
Everyone calls this ceremony beautiful. If you really think about the symbolism, though, it is one of the hardest things a person could really choose to take on. Why voluntarily say, “Bring on the hardship and the struggles!”? So, yes, it is beautiful–it is beautiful in the same way that blessings don’t always take the form of pleasant things.
In light of all this, with marriage comes children, in most instances. In modern society, this is the part of the ceremony that is most uncomfortable to so many people: just how many times God is beseeched to bless the couple with children!
Ah children. Now if that isn’t an opportunity for martyrdom, I don’t know what is! You can either gain heaven or lose your soul raising children, which must be the reason many people want to avoid it. There is no middle ground.
I read a fantastic blog article on this topic this morning, when I was, fittingly, contemplating writing something about marriage as martyrdom. He entitles it: Your Life is Over When You Have Kids (http://themattwalshblog.com/2014/01/10/your-life-is-over-when-you-have-kids/). A couple of quotes sum up marriage and parenthood particularly:
My life is over now that I have kids.
My life is over.
That thing that I called MY life. That portion of existence — that long, lonely chapter — when I lived for me, and me alone. That delusion known as my life, where I exerted, or thought I exerted, ownership over my whole self. Where I separated my life from all other lives, and lived to satisfy my whims and desires… I’m not living for me anymore. I never should have lived just for me, but now I can’t. Either I become less selfish, or I fail in my duty as a parent. There is no middle ground.
Taking care of another human being–especially one that is as absolutely helpless as a child–is a huge act of self-denial. It is, quite honestly, martyrdom to our wants and preferences, and can very easily bring out the worst in us. When the passions that corrupt us are brought to light, we then get two options: 1) Act on them! (Hint, this is the easy one), 2) Swallow, deny them, and do the opposite of what we necessarily want to do and how we want to react.
The phrase in the marriage ceremony that has most stuck with me over the months of marriage my husband and I have enjoyed (and struggled through!) already is the deacon’s petition that God: “That there may be given unto them soberness of life, and fruit of the womb as is expedient for them.”
As is expedient for them.
We got pregnant right away. That was a shock to me, even though I knew I was fertile at the time (which happens about twice a year for me). I figured we would struggle with fertility for at least a year or three, especially given what I’d been told by multiple doctors. When I realised I was pregnant, my immediate response was anger. I cried about it. We wanted children, but this was a little ridiculous, right? Then just as quickly as I figured out I was pregnant, we lost it. I was devastated and felt like it was my fault for railing against God about getting pregnant. Truth be told, if my cycles weren’t I prayed long and hard that if He gave me another opportunity to have a baby, I would take it gladly and without complaint. 11 days later, I ovulated again (much to my surprise–I’d never had two fertile months in a row), and I got pregnant. Again.
So I can only guess that this is an answer to the prayer that we be blessed with children as is necessary (expedient: practical, useful) for our salvation. Which is why this baby, our baby that might not live more than a few minutes or a few hours or a few days or a few years, is so obviously a great blessing to us. Every baby is a blessing, but a blessing that brings so many struggles, difficult decisions, selflessness, uncertainty (and with it the surrendering of our wills and preferences), along with the joy is the best blessing we could possibly receive. We have to learn to see life in God’s control instead of in our own. We have to give up so many things for the welfare of our baby and with it, our own souls.
Fittingly, our marriage crowns are displayed on our icon table in our bedroom where we pray most often. We can’t forget that we took on this particular task when we took on marriage–even though at the time we certainly didn’t know that this would be in the future! But we also know we don’t do this alone. We took the crowns of “martyrdom” along with the Scriptures, the Cross, the chalice, and the Kingdom of Heaven (they are all part of that end goal) so we know that God is with us every step, and that the saints who have gone before us and completed their martyrdoms are cheering for us, supporting us, and loving us through each challenge.
It definitely makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger.