Self-Sacrifice Is a Key to a Wonderful Marriage

This is a letter from father to son on the occasion of Alexandre’s wedding to Anastasia. The letter speaks for itself.
Javier Piedra | 17 August 2016

My Dearest Alexandre:

Congratulations! My heart felt and fiercely loyal love to both you and Anastasia on your upcoming wedding. It brings me tremendous joy and a sense of great expectations. As your father, I want to offer some thoughts for your consideration as you travel through life together, whether you are here in Ukraine or elsewhere. Experience shows that it is no easy task to fulfill the promises of marriage. As a general matter, keeping one’s wedding vows demands fidelity, truthfulness and self-sacrifice – no small matters. I know what I’m talking about since I’ve been married for 50 years! Your mother and I celebrated our golden wedding anniversary last month.

I write this letter so that you may reflect upon the meaning of marriage as seen through the eyes of your father who is quite savvy in these matters. It’s been a wonderful 50 years, I say, but a period filled with challenges and sorrows and delights and difficulties; a cocktail of “ups and downs” that leads to happiness if understood and approached properly. Tolstoy expressed the truth of this struggle in Chapter 14 of Anna Karenina when he said of Levin, the protagonist, at a moment of seeming intense crisis in the marriage: “He felt now that he was not simply close to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began.” Marriage is not a contract but rather a covenant, which means becoming one with the other as a result of a bond strengthened through the joy of self-sacrifice. There is nothing temporary about marriage. How might you strengthen your covenant with Anastasia? I provide you with a few reflections.

Alexandre, when you were growing up, your mother and I communicated with each other more often through deeds, winks and example than through lots of words or warnings. We whispered rather than shouted. In our capacity as teachers, we rarely employed arguments based on authority to convince you and your siblings of the goodness or merit of something. You should do the same. At times, we invoked a higher order – such as the teaching of the Church or Holy Scripture – to convey the importance of an issue or moment. But that was rare. We wanted to turn you into a thinking man who could use your freedom in accordance with right reason and the realities of human nature.

In this respect, we followed Cardinal John Henry Newman’s advice: “When the intellect has once been properly trained and formed to have a connected view or grasp of things, it will display its powers with more or less effect according to its particular quality and capacity in the individual. In the case of most men it makes itself felt in the good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candor, self-command, and steadiness of view, which characterize it. In all it will be a faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession.”

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As you know, a permanent commitment means fidelity and steadfastness in the face of adversity. It goes without saying that life-long commitments are extremely difficult to keep given a person’s tendency to be fickle or simply short-sighted. There are many factors that can undermine a person’s ability and resolve to remain faithful over an entire lifetime, and you, my dear Alexandre, are not exempt from the effects of the insanity of many of the forces and ideologies that afflict the modern world. At different times throughout life, you may experience confusion and uncertainty about Anastasia – get to the bottom of those feelings. At other times, let me speak frankly, your tendency to be lazy, self-seeking or absentminded may cause you to lose sight of marriage as a calling or vocation. There is nothing unusual about these thoughts and emotions because we are human beings and not angels. But the point I want you to understand is that, despite the many problems, some real, most imaginary, fidelity in marriage is possible – it really is! So the first thing you need to always keep in mind is that a life-long commitment to one person is possible to keep. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. In this sense, don’t confuse the temporary nature of a contract like in a business relationship with the reality of a perpetual enduring marriage covenant.

More thoughts. Anastasia must know that, as far as you are concerned, she is the only girl in the world. She must know that no other girl exists. That sounds simple now, because you just got married, but in 25 years, the picture may be quite different. Let everyday of your lives together be like the first day of your marriage, and let her know that. Let her know that you care about the things that she likes, be with her when she is tired and be with her when she is joyful. If she senses loneliness, discover why. If she is anxious about something, find out why. It is that process of discovery and sharing that unites your hearts, thus, solidifying that bond between the two of you. It worked for me, and it should work for you, just as it has for many others throughout the ages.

Also keep in mind that one of the most serious threats to a person’s marriage bond or covenant, in my opinion, is the tendency to convert “minor” difficulties, or inconveniences, into excuses to justify one’s own selfishness at the expense of one’s spouse or children. That is why you must work hard to get to know yourself better – to get to know your own failings and limitations; to get to know when you make a mountain out of a molehill. When you find out what “sets you off”, you need to employ means to combat those annoying tendencies that may upset Anastasia.  She must do the same. It’s a two way street.

Show Anastasia that you love her with deeds. This often simply means listening or remaining silent on matters of little importance. You will notice in time that human nature itself confirms that self-sacrifice, i.e., thinking and acting for the sake of others, is a key to long-lasting happiness, and in your case, to a wonderful marriage. That may sound odd but it really is true. You see, shifting gears slightly, Jesus Christ, by suffering and dying on the cross for each one of us, showed us that life is more than pleasure, comfort, power, status, listening to ourselves speak, self-absorption and “selfies”. It is about life and living and the others. Moreover, if you struggle each day to carry your little crosses at home or wherever you are, the result will be a more robust interior peace of mind, which will deepen over time, despite the many difficulties and contradictions you run into. Let me give you some practical examples of what I mean about the need to “give” yourself to Anastasia as Christ gave himself to each one of us.

During the first year of my marriage, I used to play chess with my friends down at the park during long summer evenings – pretty typical: some guys liked bowling, others liked watching movies, and I liked chess. Your mother (you were not born yet) knew what I was up to. She never said anything. But after your older brother was born, I noticed that she was a little annoyed with me hanging out with my buddies down at the park as I would tend to return home quite late. Bad move on my part. Well, after your mother and I talked about it, I immediately gave up playing chess – except on Saturday afternoons. She was so happy with my decision; the fact that she was happy made me happy. I can tell you from experience that family, wife and kids must come first. Little sacrifices like giving up chess, for example, will always turn into joys when offered up for the sake of the others.

More thoughts. It is critically important for you to do “little things” for Anastasia in order to maintain a strong bond of unity – to nurture the covenant. Let me try to explain. Doing “little things” means making the effort to smile, when you don’t feel like it, making the effort to be mindful, when you don’t want to be, making the effort to help around the house, when you don’t feel like it. It means going for a walk, or to the movies or just sitting at home and talking. It means just being around. It even means eating rice when you prefer “гречка” (buckwheat) – which is the greatest stuff in the world but that’s another story. I highlight just a few examples of a near infinite field of possibilities during the course of the day which you may offer up as a spiritual offering for Anastasia and family. From a Christian perspective doing “little things” is accepting the small crosses (uncertainties and contradictions) of each day bearing in mind their eternal significance. Just like Christ carried his cross, we must carry our cross – and our cross is “sanctifying” our everyday life for the sake of the others – and in your case concretely, that means doing things for Anastasia.

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Never lose sight of what you know so well: Always be optimistic and courageous, even when objective difficulties present themselves. Employ the same optimism and courage, which faithful parents have shown and continue to show around the world. The fidelity of millions of people throughout the ages stands as a living witness to the generous and joyful surrender of one spouse to the other. History betrays the lie of those who whisper in your eye that to persevere in marriage is not possible, boring and a real drag. No. A joyful fidelity in marriage is indeed possible; God cannot ask the impossible from us. He has asked us to be faithful, and, if he is asking this of us, then it is certainly possible, or he wouldn’t ask!

The ability to love in marriage magnifies our human dignity as human beings. We must choice to put more love where there is less love in order to find and draw out love in and through marriage. You and Anastasia must struggle to live in synch with our historical traditions and the dictates of human nature. In time you will see that I am right but you must work at it to see what I mean. And when raising children, keep in mind His Holiness Patriarch Kirill’s words: “We know, including from the lessons of our own history, that a people that has lost its historical benchmarks, that has renounced the continuity of generations, is easily converted into an object of social and ideological experiments. And the cost of such experiments is too high.”

You and Anastasia must help each other grow in love, in concrete and practical ways. Keep in mind that “love is patient, is kind; has no selfish aims, cannot be provoked, does not brood over an injury; takes no pleasure in wrong doing, but rejoices at the victory of truth; sustains, believes, hopes, endures, to the last” (1 Corinthians 13: 4 – 8). Think about the wisdom behind these words which are a window into earthly happiness, heaven and a healthy marriage. Make the effort to pray together – oh, a couple of minutes each day would do for starters. “Be not forgetful of prayer. Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education.” (Fyodor DostoyevskyThe Brothers Karamazov)

I ask merely that you reflect on all these matters as you enter this new, beautiful, and exciting period in your lives. The marriage bond is a permanent covenant not a temporary contract.

Mom and I are very proud of you. We can barely contain our joy for you. Be assured that you are both constantly in our prayers and that you can count on us. As long as I am here, both of you have a father and friend. Call me whenever you like. Visit whenever you want to talk. I am always available to chatter about anything. If you need a hand, let me know. I wish you both much happiness. Once again, with ebullient sentiments of joy, I look forward to your wedding and centuries of happiness.

With profound love to the both of you,

Dad

P.S. I told you that I would recommend a few books for further reading. I’ll let you know in my next letter. Also, there was scant little about Mom in this letter; in my next, I will say a few works about her – she’s the real champ here.

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