There is no single choice in our secular life that has more of an impact on our lives that the selection of a spouse. Such a choice in intimately tied with the way will live, our job, our family life, our diet, our entertainment, and ultimately to our happiness. It is also perhaps the most critical factor in our spiritual life. The scriptures teach us that husband and wife are one flesh, and as such, the unity of our marriage and the practice of our faith become deeply connected.
The parable of the shrewd servant in the Gospel reminds us that as Christians, we often fail to take seriously the really important questions in life. The Lord praises the unscrupulous servant in the parable, for despite the fact that he is thoroughly dishonest, he is shrewd enough to understand that which is important to his life in the long term.
As Orthodox people, we should be at least as serious as the servant in the parable when it comes to the critical question of selecting a spouse. The Orthodox faith presents us with two alternative paths for our life: life in the community of a married family, or life in the community of a monastery. Unlike the modern thought, there is no Christian concept of single life. Why would this be? Simply put, single life is too difficult, too tempting, too lacking in the corrective influences that life in some type of community (either married or monastic) will bring. Even monks and nuns are not given a blessing to be a hermit until they have attained a profound state of holiness, which most never attain. Our life together provides the ideal classroom for gaining our salvation, with the help of other people.
What does this mean for those who are seeking a spouse?
1) Pray. This would seem to go without saying, although it is surprising how many people forget to ask God to provide them a spouse. When we pray, we ask God to set us on the right path; this has the added benefit of helping us to avoid the wrong paths, saving us from countless mistakes and heartaches. We should similarly ask the prayers of other faithful, monastics, and the saints (especially Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg) in our search.
2) Go where the Orthodox people are. This is a principle we seem to understand when we shop for shoes, burgers, and pet food, yet it is amazing how quickly we forget it when looking for a spouse. The signals from the media are so strong in this regard, that there is a widespread assumption that an Orthodox spouse might somehow be found in a bar, or at a university pub night, or in a co-ed dorm at school. It is far more likely that we would find someone who shares our faith, our goals, and our outlook on life – in short, the entire purpose of our existence – on a pilgrimage, at church, at a retreat or monastery visit, or visiting other parishes. A priest I know once said that the best reason we could have Orthodox youth retreats and camps is to allow Orthodox young people to meet, start to like each other, and get married. Was he crazy, or right on the money?
3) Cultivate Orthodox friendships. Whether or not a friendship with another Orthodox person leads to marriage or to an introduction to a future spouse, it provides a long-term reality check on our behaviour and expectations. The world fills us with all sorts of illusions about “love” (i.e. lust, promiscuous sex, romanticism); Orthodox friendships provide a counterbalance to this delusion. Saint Anthony the Great of Egypt said that a time will come when the world will be so insane that people will see a man in his right mind, and call him the insane one. Orthodox Christians in isolation sometimes feel that way, and it can be tempting to despair, to cave in (even when we know it won’t make us happy), or to fall into spiritual delusion. Going out for a cup of coffee with a faithful friend or two can make a world of difference in this regard.
4) Don’t wobble. This is a delightfully illustrative English expression indicating we should maintain our integrity, and not lose sight of the goals we have set based on our most deeply held principles, the principles of our Faith. If marrying an Orthodox Christian is our expectation (the same as marrying a human being or someone who speaks the same language would be our expectation), we won’t just toss out this priority for something that looks good at first sight (e.g. – Let’s get married, and live on opposite sides of the world! Let’s get married, although we don’t speak the same languages, so we can never communicate, but we could find a translator). If we are asking the prayers of the saints and others people, seeking the counsel of our spiritual father on a regular basis, and partaking of the Holy Mysteries regularly, the timing is of little importance: only the end result matters.
These approaches also apply in modified ways to those who are married to non-Orthodox people: the need for our prayers, our pilgrimage, and the Holy Mysteries. But that’s another article…