Vol. 3 No. 2 - Pentecost 2008
Marriage á la Mode
The number of unmarried people is increasing. And there are some married people who say: "We do not want children, because we want to have as much pleasure as possible." This is a false position, for in a Christian marriage one kind of pleasure is not allowed continually. Christians marry for the sake of God and His law as much as they do for themselves. But Christians who remain single renounce marriage and live holy for the sake of God and Him alone. Thus we find that the family tie is abused, as well as the single state. Courtship of young people just out of school is not to be advised, because it often leads to debauchery. A courtship running through long years also gives occasion to sin and a species of wrongdoing to God, for the heart and its love are stolen from God and thrown away on a man.
- Archimandrite Sebastian Dabovich,
Preaching in the Russian Church, 1899
A 2007 Statistics Canada report revealed that for the first time since Confederation, more Canadian adults consider themselves to be single than to be married. To add to the trend, the number considering themselves "married" even included all those registering under civil marriage laws as couples of the same sex, indicating that the trend away from marriage is stronger than ever before.
Undoubtedly, most Canadians can find in their own lives a significant number of young people of marriageable age who have no plans to undertake matrimony. Such young people either fear an early commitment, prefer to wait to see what possibilities present themselves in the future or - in an increasing number of instances - reject altogether the very concept of marriage.
One can hardly blame them. The secularization of marriage as a kind of legal contract at its very foundation cannot provide a promising picture to young people. A steadily rising Canadian divorce rate, coupled with the experience of family acrimony resulting from the mounting pressures of societal business and personal excess and selfishness have done little to prepare or encourage a younger generation of brides- and grooms-to-be to undertake the struggles involved in making a marriage successful, starting with making a marriage endure.
Considering the jaded experiences of the next generation in regard to marriage and family life, one should not be surprised at the impact of consumer culture on the approach to marriage itself. Historically, marriage was a communal activity, blessed by the family, by the individuals involved, by the community, and by the Church. Today, the coupling of young people is largely cut off from such guidance, leaving no reference point for the dynamic of courting, establishing intimacy, preparing for the future, struggling with the passions, or objectively choosing a spouse whose fidelity will endure.
Bereft of such examples and guidance, young people are often left with the only reference point given to them: the reference point of the consumer society. If the selection of a spouse can be compared to the selection of a car or a home, expectations are inevitably reduced to utilitarian concerns: appearance, cost vs. benefits, and the enjoyment derived from the shopping experience. Like the decline in brand loyalty that was the hallmark of consumer societies for many decades, the decline in spousal loyalty and commitment is a logical consequence. Hesitant to sign on for the lifetime ownership and responsibility of a spouse, many young people inevitably resort to a kind of "spouse leasing", either dating with sexual relations as a recreational option, or entering passing common law relationships without the grace and stability of marriage.
Orthodox Christians have traditionally provided the life raft to save societies in the midst of various dark ages. At times when human beings lose or abandon what remains of civilized human life, it is Christians who have usually offered the way back, out of the abyss. In our day, the erosion of marriage presents this kind of cataclysm. The death of family life and the civilizing effect of enduring marital loyalties presents yet another opportunity to offer counsel and direction to couples and young people planning for their future lives together. Yet this must go beyond the first step of offering some kind of courses for marriage preparation (a step which most Orthodox jurisdictions completely ignore); Orthodox families, grandparents, parents, friends, and priests must take an active interest in cultivating the building blocks of marriage from an early age. We must take on the task of inculcating modesty and limits of behaviour in our children, based on the examples of the saints, not celebrities. We must reestablish the bedroom as the sacred chamber of marriage, rather than as a forum for isolated social life and all it brings with it. We must teach teens the parameters of public and private conduct toward members of the opposite sex, and instill a sense of "smart shopping" for a spouse, that provides for at least as much caution and restraint as one would demonstrate in purchasing a car with hard-earned cash.
The last decade has seen an emerging trend of young people not marrying at all. This is often seen as a kind of accidental circumstance, resulting from the pressure to achieve a certain level of academic and financial success before settling down. Yet instinctively, many recognize in this the adolescent tendency to avoid commitment, on the off chance that someone better might come along. The growing fear of marriage and commitment reflects a deeper spiritual fear and unwillingness to enter into any arrangement that requires something of us. Countless parallels can be seen in the spiritual lives of individuals and parishes. The "grown-ups" who are willing to take on responsibility for the care of others are too often being replaced by lukewarm adherents afflicted by fickleness and guided by fluctuations of spirit between enthusiasm and boredom. The Church Fathers warn us in numerous places about this state, called in Greek akkadia. It is the very same spiritual state - emptiness and rootlessness of heart, coupled with boredom - which fuels both the consumer economy and the practice of unmarried serial polygamy.
The Scriptures and the saints teach us that marriage is a classroom for the soul, an environment of preparation for eternity. The Scriptures themselves use marriage again and again as a symbol of Christ and the Church. Not only is such an analogy lost on a society that is increasingly drifting away from marriage and family life, but its fundamental role - the civilizing of the human soul, and bringing it to holiness - is lost in the sea of rampant individualism. Where sexual intimacy and marriage become temporary contracts - for a year, a month, or an hour - the stability of human relationships with God cannot be far behind. It should be no surprise to us in North America that the decline of marriage and the decline of religious and spiritual life proceed hand in hand. One is a visible image of the other.
Regrettably, many Orthodox communities have responded to this challenge in the same way as other religious groups across North America: with hand-wringing angst and frustrated silence. Yet the positive role of the Church is given to us throughout the Christian tradition. The role of families, parishes, and monasteries as meeting places for and coaching of courting and marital life is indispensable in combating the sexual commercialism of our culture. Priests, monastics, and mature faithful everywhere should mindfully play a role in bringing together faithful young people who might be compatible for marriage. Even if they aren't meant to marry each other, they can support each other in the struggle to find a spouse. Young people should be taught from the earliest age to pray for a spouse; the Akathist to Saint Xenia of Petersburg is an ideal place to start. Parents must pray for their children in this vocation as well.
And most primarily, Orthodox clergy and adult family members must redouble our efforts to destroy the hold of consumer culture on our children. Consumerism is harmful enough to our lives, to our pocketbooks, and to our level of satisfaction and peace with that which we have. It is incalculably more destructive to our families when a spouse is reduced to a commodity, and sexual intimacy is reduced to a disposable purchase.
It is here that the line between marriage and fornication is blurred, and the Image and Likeness of Christ in each person is lost, and our hope, our peace, and our joys are lost with it.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Pentecost, 2008)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2008.