I recently got set up on a blind date. Even though I tend to feel that blind dates are too contrived and have the potential to be excruciatingly awkward, it was set up by someone that knows me very well, and I figured it would be insulting both to the matchmaker’s thoughtfulness and to the potential blind date (really, what could be more rude than turning someone down before you’ve even met?) to not follow through. Besides, sometimes those who know us best can be the best judges of character, and God certainly works in mysterious ways. So, going into my blind date with “Dave” here’s what I knew: he’s my age, he’s athletic, he’s traveled a great deal, and he likes the outdoors and tea. In person, Dave is easy to talk to, has a good sense of humor, is creative and of tall, handsome stock. Basically, he’s a good catch. However, there’s that pesky little Church-as-the-pink-elephant thing: Dave is some typical secular American variety of non practicing Christian (meaning, Christmas trees and Easter eggs, but nothing else), and I try my best to keep the Orthodox Church as the center of my life. Despite my matchmaker’s best intentions, this discrepancy kind of presents a problem…
I’m obviously not beyond believing that we can all be instrumental in turning others to the True Faith (St. Cecilia, anyone?). At the same time, the very idea of dating someone who’s not Orthodox exhausts me. I know from experience that you can’t actively try to make someone love the Faith, and that many people grow to love it because of their girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s/fiancйe’s/spouse’s love of the Faith. And maybe that’s what God has in store for me, eventually. But right now, it just doesn’t seem like that’s how it’s supposed to go. How are you supposed to connect in a real way with someone who’s not Orthodox when your day-to-day life revolves around the Church? After you talk about where you’ve been and the latest book you’ve read, what is there really left to talk about? Our conversations about what we really want out of life are pretty limited. Instead, I find myself saying, “Well, the Church kind of runs my life…” and try not to make the other person feel too uncomfortable about it. It becomes very awkward very quickly. How can you even start to develop any type of real relationship when you feel like you have to downplay your faith?
A good friend of mine from Church was lamenting that many of her friends are getting married, and she’s starting to feel anxious because she’s still single. It made me think: what do these people have in common that they’re willing to commit their lives to each other, and at such a young age? The classes they shared in college? A propensity for sleeping in late on Saturdays? A few nights of passion? Do those things really create a strong enough foundation to build a marriage upon? Especially given the painfully high rate of divorce, it seems that now, more than ever, marriage has become (thanks to society) a two-fold downfall: the thrill of a wedding and the attempt at fulfilling our own selfish desires.
A wedding today is an event, not a sacrament. There’s the garments, the flowers, the linens, the rings, the bridal party, the place settings, the showers, the gifts, the cake, the invitations, the menu, the engagement party, the honeymoon, the music selection and the list goes on and on and on. It’s no wonder women turn into “Bridezillas:” they become so focused on the details of the event and on everything being “perfect” that they lose sight of the entire point! I’m not saying that those choices aren’t important: everyone wants their wedding day to be special (and yes, I too have some idea of what I think I would like it to look like some day), but we can’t lose sight of the fact that the person you are choosing to unite yourself to under God is much more important than what type of cake you have. Society certainly doesn’t help the case: a Google search for the term “wedding” brought up about 219,000,000 hits (“marriage”, on the other hand, brought up about 50 million fewer). There are entire blocks of time allotted on television for shows about finding the perfect dress, comparing your wedding to other women’s, and how event caterers tame insane brides. Bachelor and bachelorette parties focus on “enjoying your last night of ‘freedom’” through alcohol and adult entertainers instead of preparing for an upcoming union. Even the vows written for those getting married outside of the Orthodox Church are sappy and clichй! They focus on how one person makes the other happier, not on following the examples set for us by Christ and the saints (the most Divine Love of obedience and self sacrifice). Let’s face it: what should be a sacrament has become a complete and utter spectacle! With so much pressure (and money) being placed on “the perfect wedding,” it’s not surprising that so many people seem to eschew marriage altogether.
However, like many modern marriages, living together outside of marriage only fuels self-centered desires to be “happy.” Our ideas about happiness are largely polluted by our desire to always be the center of attention, or at least to know what’s going on in the center of attention (ie: tabloid fodder), which is only made easier through technological advances. The globalization of today’s world serves both as a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it allows us to experience so much more and to stay in touch much more easily than we could before the advent of the internet, cell phones, and commuter flights. It’s also a curse because it allows us to live in an extended adolescence, never truly allowing us to become adults. Teenagers (and adults as well, I assume) send sexually explicit pictures of themselves to each other’s phones, not recognizing that those images are easily forwarded and devastatingly permanent somewhere in the data world, nor realizing the long lasting detrimental effects this behavior has on their spiritual and emotional health. Social networking sites like facebook and twitter perpetuate the typically adolescent social phenomenon known as an “invisible audience” whereby we believe that everyone notices every tiny thing about us individually (hence why teenagers are so overly concerned with their appearance). Instead of participating in real life, we spend hours pouring over digital images of “friends” and wondering who’s been checking our current status. I have a facebook account, so I’m not saying it’s a completely negative thing, but I do think it contributes to our inability to navigate reality with our eyes open.
When we believe that we are the center of the universe, we remain focused only on what makes us happy without realizing that “happiness,” in and of itself, is a fleeting emotional state. There are many things that make me happy (a good book, a piece of chocolate), but few things that bring me complete and utter joy of the gifts-of-the-Holy-Spirit variety (like watching my students really learn or celebrating Liturgy). When we focus on meeting someone who “makes us happy,” we’re developing a superficial relationship, looking for the fairy tale ending of presents, platinum, and Prince Charming. Truly solid marriages can’t be based on similar interests in traveling and pumpkin flavored coffee alone: they have to have a solid core. That’s not easy when the rest of the world sees God as an abstraction and Sundays as the day for football and laundry. The struggle against the current can be exhausting when you’re looking for someone who understands that marriage is about becoming martyrs for each other in small ways every day and not about picket fences and puppy dogs.
The only thing I know for sure is that, like the Resurrection after the Crucifixion, the end result will be completely worth the struggle. When we’ve finally reached that point, we’ll be able to toast to a couple where each person brings out the light and love of Christ in the other. And if they also happen to like traveling and pumpkin coffee, that’s just the icing on the cake.