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A Fundamental and Dangerous Misunderstanding of Marriage

A Fundamental and Dangerous Misunderstanding of Marriage

Archbishop Stylianos of Australia

To say that the institution of marriage is undergoing an unusual crisis in our times would be a commonplace observation.

Sociologists, psychologists, educators and all institutions that are involved with marriage and family are speaking to us sufficiently. However, in expressing their pessimistic views about marriage, they all begin from a starting point completely different from that of the theologian.

Because even though they may have noble criteria and high esteem for the institution of marriage and the family, it is really impossible for them to see the nature of the Mystery, which the Apostle Paul characteristically described as “a great mystery” (Eph. 5:32).

If “mystery is the visible sign of invisible grace” according to the simplest and briefest definition given by theology, then it becomes obvious that there is a great gap between theology and all anthropological sciences (philosophy, psychology, sociology, pedagogics, medicine etc) in terms of the method and the criteria used to study marriage. Theology takes grace into account, while the other sciences mentioned above place everything on a worldly basis, namely biological life and nature.

In any case, it must be made clear from the outset that when we maintain from a theological viewpoint that marriage is a creation of grace and not of nature, we do not simply mean that the blessing of the Church guarantees by definition a sort of spiritual strengthening from above which somehow sanctifies the biological, physiological and other aspects within the framework of “union.” This would certainly be a pious evaluation but at the same time it would be an unacceptable minimisation of the Mystery which, as mentioned, St Paul characterised as “great.”

For the Mystery of marriage to be great it must symbolise and truly guarantee great and wonderful promises, not merely a taming of the relationship between the two sexes. It is also more than the mere balancing of duties and rights between them, so that the “legal union” may be a peaceful and blessed environment within which child-bearing may prosper according to God.

All these are surely external consequences of marriage, but they are not the centre of the Mystery. Perhaps they are part of the fruits, but they are not the central and principal fruit of marriage. The Mystery of marriage is great and sacred, from the fact that the two persons are called to live in “one flesh.” The communion of marriage which will transfigure the two persons into a unity guaranteed only by God is precisely the basis of the great Mystery. It is for this reason that even in the betrothal blessing the Church prays for the couple with these words: “Strengthen them in the holy union which is from You.”

From the above essential observations it becomes clear that marriage, as the communion of two free persons aiming at the deepest possible unity, concerns primarily two persons. This means that the sacredness and value of the Mystery of marriage does not in the first instance have any absolute dependence on its external fruits, namely the children, which may or may not come. In any case, what is of primary concern in the entire field of Christian ethics, and defines the worthiness or otherwise of our actions and omissions, is the intention and spirit of the matter, rather than the external result. If it were not so, the Church should demand the dissolution of marriage as soon as sterility was ascertained on the part of either or both parties. It could for that matter even request – among other conditions for the celebration of marriage – a medical certificate stating that the prospective parents can bear children.

However, such unheard of demands were fortunately never enacted by the people of God, and the only reason for the dissolution of marriage, both in the Old and New Testament, was always considered to be fornication. Childlessness, on the contrary, even in the Old Testament was regarded as a social shame, but it did not in any way detract from the initial sacredness of marriage.

Despite what we have said so far, the Mystery of marriage does not reveal to us the mystical dimensions of its spiritual grandeur, unless we relate it directly to the other two sacred images of sacramental life in communion:

  • the communion of three Persons of the Holy Trinity in one essence,
  • the communion of the two natures, divine and human, in the one person of the God-Man Jesus Christ

The relationship is in no way accidental or arbitrary. It is already indicated by St Paul who stated the definitive framework of the Mystery with the words “But I say unto Christ and unto the Church.” In his Letter to the Ephesians and in his First Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul emphasises the relationship of the couple in marriage, comparing their union with the organic bond of Christ and the Church.

Yet in order to preserve the worthiness of this relationship and the deeper teaching that it involves, we must immediately say that we do not have merely several analogies between to the two sacred “images” we referred to and marriage. Essentially what we have here is a transcendent projection and analogous experience of the very Mystery of the uncreated divine life, and a reflection and image of its relationships within the created world.

We will understand this better if we remember that, according to the concise definition of the New Testament, “God is love” (1John 4:8). Love, therefore, is the essence of the Mystery both in the life of the Holy Trinity and in the union of the two natures in Christ, but also in the union between man and woman in marriage.

Since the communion of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity is a communion of love, it does not tolerate either the weakening or obliteration by confusion of the persons, or their estrangement by their division, but they are contained in one another “without confusion and without division” in boundless love. It is precisely the same thing that happens also with the two natures in the Person of Christ. Here the miracle of love is even more wonderful because, by definition and in principle, the two natures are not of the same value, since one is divine and the other is human; and yet, the unified Person of Christ renders and preserves them undivided and unaltered in a harmonious relationship by grace.

Similarly, in the union of man and woman in marriage, all kinds of differences by definition between the two sexes, instead of becoming presuppositions of opposition, become elements that complement one another in a transcendent synthesis and unity created by the miracle of Christian love which, according to the Apostle Paul, “does not seek its own”  (1 Cor. 3:5).

From what has been said so far it becomes clear that the qualification “unconfusedly and undividedly” in all three cases mentioned is the common denominator which denotes the nature of love, precisely by virtue of which the integrity and freedom of persons is preserved.

Just as in the case of the Holy Trinity the fact that the Father is the only source and root of divinity does not lead to the diminution or“subjection” of the other two Persons, likewise in the person of Christ the divine nature neither absorbs nor minimises the human nature. Rather, both converge into the one person of the God-man in such a harmony that we may always recognise without hesitation the perfect God and the perfect man, that is without any monophysitic misunderstanding or deviations.

In the same way when St Paul characterises the husband as being the head of the wife” this surely does not infer a differentiating value, which would permit the husband to subjugate or torment his equal wife. Because St Paul himself declared more loudly and before anyone else that “in Jesus Christ there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). It is, therefore, obvious that the “Head” here must be understood as the primacy of service. That is, as a moral precedence of the husband – being as a rule the physically stronger by nature – to care for the balance, stability, peace, unity and Christian happiness of the married couple.

When, therefore, the life of the couple in marriage has such sacramental and superessential “models” on the one hand, and such clear“formulations” and exhortations from St Paul and the word of Scripture in general on the other, then it must be a life of continuous and mutual ecstasy (namely an exodus from the individuality of ego) and self-transcendence of one spouse towards the other and for the sake of the other.

Only within the spirit of the ec-stasy and self-transcendence will one spouse be able to see the other in their full dimensions and their entire sacredness as icons of God. Hence, the one spouse does not see in the person of the other merely a mortal fellow human being, but the very incarnate God Himself. In any case, it is not accidental that already from the Old Testament the deeper relationship between the human person and God has always been represented by the bond of the bridegroom and the bride. In the language of the great Mystical Fathers of the Church, the union of an individual soul with God is very frequently called “intercourse” – a term that is deeply spiritual and absolutely corresponds to the existential fullness of the person in the process of deification; in our times this term unfortunately has come to mean almost exclusively the momentary sexual intercourse. Precisely in the same spiritual relationship Christ is called the “bridegroom”not only of the whole Church but also of the particular fighters of the Faith.

From the hymnography of our Church the stereotypical prayerful cry of the women Martyrs is well known: “I desire Thee, my Bridegroom, and I struggle, seeking Thee.”

After all this, no one should doubt in the least that the first and foremost reason for the sacredness of marriage is localised in the fact that it constitutes the “Mystery of the two persons”, the two spouses looking to one another as to the Lord. To the degree that the two persons will become united “in one flesh”, to the same degree they will have absolute harmony of soul and spirit that will permit them to become examples for their children, thus enlarging marriage into a family.

The former is absolutely indispensable for the latter. The question however is, whether two persons that live in the world of relativism and imperfection can reach absolute perfection. We all know that absolute perfection unfortunately can neither be found nor attained in the present world. For this reason marriage will always be a struggle for life, just as any other form of struggle which does not allow us even for a minute to believe that we have reached consummation. It is precisely the unavoidability of the idea, even within marriage itself, that is described in the following short poem, which summarises the whole tragedy as well as the whole sacredness of the common struggle of the two persons:


Parallel shadows which arose

to illumine and to erase

one another

to the degree that they are able and have the time

to love

 Analysing very briefly the problematics of this poem, we wish to observe the following points:

1)  That every human being, on account of the mortality of the earthly body, constitutes a shadow on earth. Pindar was even more pessimistic when he called man a “shadow dream”, that is not even a shadow but merely the dream of a shadow.

2)  No matter how hard the two spouses try to become one within the Mystery of marriage, in the final analysis there will always be some points in which they will remain not merely far but perhaps also foreign to one another. They will be like two parallel straight lines that never meet, according to the known geometrical axiom of Euclid.

3)  If these two straight lines do not remain fallen in their horizontal equal level, that is in the prosaic and mortal state of biological desires and comforts, but “are raised” in an endeavour of uplifting and elevation, going out of the iron ring of selfishness and breathing the freedom of mutual self-denial, then the shadows begin to illumine one another. The more one shadow illumines the other, the more it puts the other out, that is, it is united together in the same undivided illumination of love.

4)  To what point they will be able (on account of their weaknesses) and have enough time (on account of the fact that earthly life is brief) to love another “extensively” is a question that always remains open and which only each new couple is called to answer for themselves.

Before such a sacred struggle which lasts a whole lifetime, every third person must remain a spectator full of reverence and respect and should offer his assistance willingly and unselfishly only when asked by the interested couple. For in the final analysis every third person is a “foreign body” in the mystery of the union of the couple and if not careful could harm them and wound their union, or even destroy it completely.

For this reason the binding word of the Church is as awesome as an oath: “those whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder”(Service of Marriage). It should be stressed that this abstract third person is not always necessarily another lover, the mother-in-Iaw or any other person outside of the family, but may even come from the very flesh of the family, from the very children of the couple.  If the child exhaustively attracts the attention and the love of one or other spouse and leaves no margin for the necessary expression of tenderness and love between them, then it fatefully leads to sick situations, secret antagonisms and jealousies. Consequently instead of uniting parents even more deeply, the child unwillingly separates and estranges them. For this reason the golden rule also applies here with the qualifications “unconfusedly and undividedly.”

If love within the family must be undivided in order to unite all members with one another, it should also be unconfused, that is, the love of the spouse should not be confused with the love of the child, the brother or any other relative and friend.

Thus we have returned to a most crucial point of our article which we have characterised in its title as a “fundamental and dangerous misunderstanding of marriage’’. It refers to the erroneous understanding of considering as the first and foremost purpose of marriage the reproduction of the human race. No matter how sacred child-bearing is, with which mortal man becomes “God’s co-worker” also in the field of biology, we must explicitly reiterate that this mission is not the first and immediate purpose of the Mystery of marriage. For even if this Mystery was not instituted, people would multiply in some way or another simply as a result of the natural law of the mutual attraction of the two sexes for reproduction, as is certainly the case with all other kinds in the boundless creation of God.

It is precisely for this reason that some spiritual Fathers and confessors commit a tragic mistake when they restrict – especially by imposing penances – the sexual life of the couple strictly and exclusively in childbearing, and when they forbid them to come together if this purpose has already been fulfilled or if it cannot be fulfilled any longer. This is a completely arbitrary and erroneous interpretation of marriage that can reach even the boundaries of heresy with apparent signs of Manichaism or subconscious and dormant physiocracy. For marriage is blessed by the Church – as the relative prayer stresses very appropriately – “for the assistance and succession of the human race.” It does not say, therefore, only “for the succession” but primarily for “assistance” precisely because the Church recognises as the first need that “man should not be alone upon the earth” (Gen. 2:18).

In any case, the prayer to the bride to continue “rejoicing with her own husband” is clearly indicative of the fact that the rejoicing of blessed union is not exhausted in the … pangs of childbirth! The catapult on this delicate point is the exhortation of the most ascetical Apostle Paul to the spouses not to remain apart from one another more than is necessary, so that they may not give occasion to the devil to tempt them (cf. 1 Cor. 7:5). In other words, after necessary abstention for exercise and continence, the Apostle Paul advises the spouses to come together again, not necessarily for childbearing, but “so that the devil may not tempt you on account of your incontinence”!

The spiritual Father should necessarily take all these points into serious consideration when he faces questions concerning the life and relationship of the spouses otherwise he will unwillingly load burdens difficult to be borne within the wearied and terribly tested institution of marriage, especially in our days, and will unfortunately estrange the spouses from one another, thus making the blessing of marriage a daily and life long punishment.

Naturally if both spouses agree, for their greater spiritual endeavour, to abstain from sexual intercourse for as long as they decide or throughout their whole life, then surely the spiritual Father will also praise their honourable endeavour, but as a completely free choice – and especially by the free consent of both spouses – not as an obligation imposed from above. For even in this subject what St Paul says concerning virginity is surely again valid. (cf. 1 Cor. 7: 25-40); he praises virginity as the expression of a higher spiritual life but does not impose it for any class of faithful at all.

By way of conclusion in relation to the whole subject, the following bitter truth should be stressed, which apparently is not often remembered by some pietistic circles: to the degree that this sacred union of marriage degenerates into excessive love of flesh and therefore sinful and forbidden for Christians, to the same degree it is a sinful and barbaric mutilation to turn the most tender respectful relationship of the spouses in the purity of their spontaneity into a programme that becomes rationalistically guided and policed, as if it were a soccer match. This barbarity and love of flesh will be avoided by the faithful if they never forget that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Cor. 8:19).

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