From 'Orthodoxy and the World' www.pravmir.com|
On Marriage and Family Life
By Excerpts from notes made by the Royal Martyr Empress Alexandra Fedorovna
Apr 24, 2010, 10:00
Source: The Transfiguration of Our Lord Russian Orthodox Church
There are many religious treatises to be found on monasticism, but there are too few books dedicated to acquainting the contemporary reader with the Christian concept of matrimony. And yet the majority of Christians choose the path of the wedded state, called by the Holy Fathers “the harbor of chastity.”
However, our life is usually spent in worry over obtaining one’s daily bread, and the mutual limitations and sinfulness of the spouses often leave a noticeable trace on the relations between husband and wife. Gradually the feelings which had made the young lovers the happiest people on earth begin to fade, grow scanty; the light of sacrifice and chivalry begins to dim; daily routine makes communion between the spouses lackluster. The experience of the crowned royals Nicholas and Alexandra was obviously quite different. Innate nobility, purity of feelings and intentions were united with a well thought out effort to maintain and guard the union which truly became a model for their loyal subjects.
While reading books, Empress Alexandra wrote out excerpts which accorded most fully with her own experience of marriage. The inner power of these notes lies in the virtuous way of life of the pious Empress, who was totally dedicated to the ideal of the family. It is for this reason that these excerpts reflect calmness, total sincerity, and celestial beauty. In our times, when the very basic human concepts of duty, honor, conscience, responsibility, and faithfulness are questioned and even mocked, the reading of these notes becomes a real spiritual event. Counsels, warnings to the spouses, thoughts on true and false love, reflections on the relations between close relatives, testimony concerning the definitive significance of the home atmosphere in determining a child’s nature – such is the circle of ethical problems with which the Empress is concerned.
The Empress helps us take a fresh look at the divine establishment of marriage and to value this gift in the light of Christian love.
Matrimony is a blessing from God
The divine design is to have marriage bring happiness, to have it make the husband’s and wife’s life fuller, so that neither of them would lose, but both would gain. However, if the marriage does not bring happiness and does not make life richer and fuller, the fault lies not in the matrimonial ties, but in the people who are bound by them.
Marriage is a divine rite. It was part of God’s design when He created man. It is the closest and the most holy union on earth.
The anniversary of marriage must always be remembered and must be distinguished among other important dates in one’s life. It is the day whose light will shine upon all other days until the end of life. The joy arising from entering into matrimony is not turbulent, but calm and profound. Over the wedded pair standing before the altar, when hands are joined and sacred promises are made, angels invisibly stand and quietly sing their songs, and afterwards they cover the happy pair with their wings, as the newlyweds’ mutual life begins.
Without God’s blessing, without His sanctification of the marriage, all the congratulations and best wishes of relatives will remain an empty sound. Without His daily blessing of married life even the most tender and true love will not be able to fulfill the spouses’ hearts. Without the blessing of heaven all the beauty, joy, value of married life may be destroyed at any moment.
Requisite qualities of the spouses
The first lesson that must be learned and put into practice is patience. The beginning of wedded life reveals both the qualities of character and nature, as well as shortcomings and peculiarities of habits, tastes, temperament, of which the other half was completely unaware. Sometimes it seems that it will be impossible to adjust to each other, that there will be eternal and hopeless conflicts, but patience and love overcome everything, and two lives unite into one – a nobler, stronger, fuller, richer one, and this life will continue in peace and tranquility.
Another secret of bliss in married life is attention to each other. The husband and wife should constantly show signs of the most tender attention and love for each other. Happiness in life is made up of individual moments, of small pleasures – a kiss, a smile, a kind glance, a heartfelt compliment, and countless small but kind thoughts and sincere feelings. Love also needs its daily bread.
Still another important element in married life is unity of interests. Not a single concern of the wife should appear too trivial, even to the gigantic intellect of the greatest of men. On the other hand, each wise and faithful wife will willingly interest herself in her husband’s affairs. She will want to know of his every new project, plan, difficulty, doubt. She will want to know which of his enterprises has been successful and which has not, and she will wish to be informed of all his daily affairs. Let both hearts share joy and suffering. Let them share the burden of cares equally. Let everything in life be common to both of them. They should go to church together, pray together, together lay at God’s feet the burden of their concerns for their children and all that is precious to them. Why should they not discuss with each other their temptations, doubts, secret desires, and not help each other with compassion and words of encouragement? Thus they will live a single life, not two separate ones. Each one should make sure to think of the other when making plans or entertaining hopes. They should have no secrets from each other. They should have only mutual friends.
In this manner two lives will unite into a single life, and in such a marriage each other’s thoughts, desires, feelings, joy, sorrow, pleasure, and pain will be shared.
Love requires a special delicacy. One can be both sincere and loyal, and yet one’s words and actions may lack that certain tenderness which enchants the heart. Here is a piece of advice: do not show your bad mood or that you are offended, do not speak in anger, do not act badly. Not a single woman in the world will be so upset over any sharp or thoughtless words you may utter as your own wife. And more than anything in the world you should fear to offend her. Love does not give one the right to act harshly towards the person one loves. The closer one is involved, the more the heart is pained by any glance, tone of voice, gestures or words that speak of irritation or are simply thoughtless.
It is not only the husband’s happiness in life that depends on the wife, but also the development and growth of his character. A good wife is a blessing from heaven, the best gift for a husband, his angel and his source of countless benefits: her voice is the sweetest music to him, her smile lights up his day, her kiss is the guardian of his faithfulness, her hands are like balm for his health and his entire life, her industriousness is the pledge of his well-being, her thrift is his most reliable manager, her lips are his best counselor, while her prayers are his intercessor before the Lord.
There is something sacred and almost awe-inspiring in the fact that upon entering into marriage the wife concentrates all her interests upon the one whom she is taking for her husband. She leaves her childhood home, leaves her mother and father, breaks off all the ties which bound her to her former life. She leaves off all the entertainments to which she had earlier become accustomed. She gazes into the face of the one who has asked her to become his wife, and with a trembling heart but calmly and resolutely entrusts her life to him. And the husband joyously feels this trust, which engenders a whole life of happiness in the human heart that is capable both of inexpressible joy and boundless suffering.
In the fullest sense of the word the wife gives up everything for her husband. This is an important moment for any man – to take on responsibility for a young, fragile, and tender life that has entrusted itself to him, and to care for it and protect it until death tears his treasure away from him or, conversely, strikes him.
Every loyal wife becomes engrossed in her husband’s interests. When he is having a hard time, she tries to encourage him with her sympathy and show of love. She enthusiastically support all his plans. She is never a burden upon his shoulders, but rather a strength in his heart, which helps him to constantly improve. However, not all wives are a blessing for their husbands. Some women can be compared to a creeping ivy that encircles a mighty oak – her husband.
A loyal wife ennobles her husband’s life, makes it more significant by turning it toward lofty aspirations through the strength of her love. When she embraces him trustingly and lovingly, she awakens in him his noblest and richest character traits. She encourages courage and responsibility in him She makes his life wonderful and softens any rough edges or habits he may have.
But there are also wives who are like parasitic plants. They encircle the husband, but do not share anything with him. They do not offer any help to him. They loll around on sofas, stroll along the street, moon over sentimental novels, and gossip in salons. They are absolutely useless, and as such they become a burden for even the most tender love. Instead of making their husbands’ lives stronger, richer, and happier, they only hamper his success. The results are lamentable for themselves as well. A loyal wife embraces her husband, but she also helps and inspires him. In all aspects of his life her husband feels how much her love helps him. A good wife is the guardian of the family hearth.
Some women think only of romantic ideals and shun their daily responsibilities, thus weakening their family happiness. In this case even the most tender love is often destroyed, and the reason for it is disorderly, negligent, and poor housekeeping.
A woman is endowed with the gift of sympathy, with delicacy, with the ability to inspire. This makes her similar to a messenger from Christ, whose mission is to ease human suffering and sorrow.
If knowledge constitutes the power of men, then softness constitutes the power of women. Heaven always blesses the home of the one who lives for good. A loyal wife places the fullest trust in her husband. She does not conceal anything from him. She does not listen to words of flattery from others, which she would be embarrassed to tell him about. She shares with him her every feeling, hope, desire, her every joy or sorrow. Whenever she feels herself disappointed or insulted, she may be tempted to seek sympathy by telling close friends about her emotions. Nothing can be more destructive, both for her own interests and for restoring peace and harmony in her home. The bitterness of which one complains to outsiders remains a festering wound. A wise wife will never share her secret unhappiness with anyone but her husband, because only he can resolve all quarrels and disagreements by means of patience and love.
Purity of thought and purity of soul – this is what truly ennobles a woman. It is impossible to think of true femininity without purity. It is possible to guard this sacred purity even surrounded by a world sunk in sin and depravity. “I saw a lily floating in the black water of a swamp. Everything around it was rotting, but the lily remained pure like an angel’s raiment. Ripples appeared on the dark pond, they swayed the lily, but not a single spot appeared on it.” Thus even in our immoral world a young woman can keep her soul untarnished by radiating sacred and unselfish love.
Love between the spouses
The main requisite in a family is unselfish love. Each spouse should forget his own ego and dedicate himself to the other person. Each one should blame himself and not the other person when something goes wrong. One needs to possess restraint and patience, since impatience can spoil everything. A harsh word can delay the merging of the spouses’ souls for months. There should be a desire on both sides to make the marriage a happy one and to overcome everything that stands in the way of such a goal. The strongest love has the greatest need of daily fortification. Most unforgivable of all is precisely rudeness in one’s own home, towards those whom we love.
One word envelops everything, and that word is “love.” Within the word “love” there is a whole volume of thoughts on life and responsibility, and when we study this volume thoroughly and attentively, each of these thoughts comes through clearly and distinctly.
Love reveals many things in a woman that cannot be seen by outsiders. It throws a veil over her shortcomings and transforms even the simplest of her traits.
Another important element of family life is the attitude of love towards one another; it is not simply love, but love nurtured within a family’s daily life, love expressed in words and actions. Courtesy in the home should not be formal, but sincere and natural. Children need joy and happiness just as much as plants need air and sunlight.
The spouses’ responsibilities
After the wedding is concluded, a husband’s first and foremost responsibility is to his wife, and the wife’s to her husband. The two of them should live for one another, give up their life for one another. Formerly each one of them was incomplete. Marriage is the joining of two halves into a single whole. Two lives are tied together in such a close union that they are no longer two lives, but one. Each one bears the sacred responsibility for the happiness and greatest good of the other for the rest of his or her life.
Each wife should know that when she finds herself in a state of confusion or difficulty, she will always find a safe and quiet harbor in the love of her husband. She should know that he will always be understanding towards her, will treat her very delicately, will even use force to defend her. She should never doubt the fact that he will empathize with her in all her difficulties. She should never be afraid to be met with coldness or rebuke when she comes to him, seeking his protection.
A husband should ask his wife’s advice concerning all his affairs and all his plans, and should have confidence in her. Perhaps she does not understand business affairs in the same way he does, but she will possibly be able to make valuable suggestions, since a woman’s intuition often works faster than a man’s logic. But even if a wife cannot help her husband in his business, her love for him makes her deeply interested in all his concerns. And she is happy when he asks her for advice, and thus they grow even closer.
A husband’s hands, inspired by love, should be able to do everything. Every loving husband should have a grand heart. Many sufferers should be able to find help in a truly loving family. Every husband of a Christian wife should unite with her in love for Christ. Out of love for her he will pass all trials of faith. In sharing her life, which is filled with faith and prayer, he, too, will unite his life with Heaven. United on earth by a common faith in Christ, reforging their mutual love into love for God, they will also be eternally united in Heaven.
A loyal wife does not have to be a poet’s dream, nor pretty as a picture, nor a creature of ethereal beauty whom one fears to touch, but should be a healthy, strong, practical, industrious woman, capable of coping with all family duties, and yet marked with a beauty that is granted to a soul that has a lofty and noble goal.
The primary requirement for a wife is faithfulness, faithfulness in the widest possible sense. Her husband’s heart should be able to trust her completely. Absolute trust is the foundation of true love. The shadow of doubt destroys the harmony of family life. A faithful wife proves by her character and conduct that she is worthy of her husband’s trust. He is sure of her love, he knows that her heart is eternally loyal to him. He knows that she is sincerely supportive of his interests. It is highly important for a husband to be able to entrust the handling of all family affairs to his loyal wife, knowing that everything will be in order. The wastefulness and extravagance of some wives have destroyed the happiness of many a couple.
A wife’s main duty is to establish and run her household. She should be magnanimous and kind-hearted. A woman whose heart remains untouched by the sight of misfortune, who does not try to help as much as she can, is deprived of one of the major womanly characteristics that make up the basis of the female nature. A true wife shares with her husband the burden of his cares. Whatever else a man goes through during the day, when he comes home he should find himself in an atmosphere of love. His friends may betray him, but his wife’s loyalty should remain constant. When darkness and misfortune befall a husband, his wife’s loyal eyes look at him like stars of hope shining in this darkness. When he is depressed, her smile helps him find new strength, just as a ray of sunshine straightens out a wilting flower.
Through the fault of those who have become married, either one or both, wedded life can become a misfortune. The possibility of happiness in marriage is great, but one should also not forget about the possibility of its crashing. Only a correct and wise married life can help achieve ideal relations between the spouses.
You should fear the least sign of incipient disobedience or alienation. Instead of acting in a restrained manner, the husband or the wife says an ill-advised or careless word, and suddenly a small crack appears between these two hearts that up to now have been one whole, and this crack widens and widens until the spouses find themselves torn apart forever. Did you say something thoughtless? Ask forgiveness immediately. Did a misunderstanding arise between you? It does not matter whose fault it was, but do not allow it to stand between you even for an hour.
Refrain from quarreling. Do not go to sleep with a feeling of anger in your heart. There should be no place for pride in family life. You should never coddle your feeling of injured pride in scrupulously trying to determine precisely who has to ask forgiveness. Those who love truly never engage in such casuistry, but are always ready to give in and apologize.
When the beauty of the face fades, the shining of the eyes dims, and with age come wrinkles, or when illnesses, sorrows, and cares leave their traces and scars, the love of a faithful husband should remain just as deep and sincere as before. There are no measurements on earth that are capable of measuring the depth of Christ’s love for His Church, and not a single mortal can love with the same depth of feeling, but nevertheless each husband must do it to the extent that such love can be recreated on earth. No sacrifice will appear too great to him for the sake of his beloved.
As the charm of physical beauty disappears with time amid cares and labors, the beauty of the soul should shine forth more and more, replacing the lost attractiveness. The wife should always be concerned above all to be attractive to her husband and not to someone else. When the two of them are alone, she should take even greater care of her appearance and not shrug it off because no one else sees her. Instead of being lively and attractive in company and then falling into melancholy and keeping quiet when left alone, the wife should remain merry and attractive even when she stays alone with her husband in their quiet home.
Both the husband and the wife should give to each other the best in each of them. Her fervent interest in all his affairs and her wise advice on all matters fortify him in the accomplishment of his daily duties and give him strength for all battles. At the same time, the wisdom and strength that a woman needs to fulfill her sacred wifely duties are to be found only in appealing to God.
Heavy work, difficulties, cares, self-sacrifice, and even misfortune lose their acuteness, bleakness, and severity when they are softened by tender love, just as cold, bare, and rugged cliffs become beautiful when wild vines entwine them with their green garlands, and exquisite flowers fill all their cracks and crevices.
Each home has its own trials, but peace reigns in a truly loving home and cannot be upset by any worldly tempests. The home is a place of warmth and tenderness. At home one should speak only with love.
Such a house can nurture only beauty and gentleness of character. One of the misfortunes of our times is that quiet family evenings are being pushed out by business, amusements, a whirling social life..
There are sorrows that wound even more than death. However, God’s love can turn any trial into a blessing.
Our love for each other may be sincere and deep on sunny days, but it is never as strong as on days of suffering and sorrow, when all the previously hidden richness of the soul is revealed.
The importance of the home
Every member of the family should take part in establishing the home, and complete family happiness can be attained only when everyone fulfills his or her duties.
The main center of each person’s life should be his home. This is the place where his children grow up – where they grow physically, strengthen their health, and absorb everything that will make them true and noble men and women. In a home where children are growing up, they are influenced by their whole environment and all that takes place around them, and even the smallest detail can have either a wonderful or a harmful effect on them. Even the surrounding nature contributes to the formation of their future character. All the beautiful things that are seen by children’s eyes become engraved upon their sensitive hearts. No matter where a child was reared, his impressions of the place where he grew up affect his character. The rooms in which our children will sleep, play, and live must be made as beautiful as our means allow. Children love pictures, and if the pictures in the home are pure and good, they will have a wonderful effect on the children and will make them more refined. But even the home itself – clean, tastefully arranged, with simple decorations and a nice view around it – has an invaluable influence on the rearing of children.
It is a great art to live together, loving each other tenderly. This must begin with the parents. Each home is like its creators. Refined natures produce a refined home, while a coarse person creates a coarse home.
Be faithful. Accept your sacred burden with reverence. The most durable ties are those which bind a person to his real home. In a real home even a small child has a voice, while the appearance of an infant affects the entire family routine. No matter how small or modest a home may be, for each member of the family it must be the most precious place on earth. It should be filled with such love, such happiness, that wherever a person travels afterwards, however many years pass, his heart must still yearn for his home. In all trials and misfortunes the home is a haven for the soul.
Each wonderful thought that comes into a child’s mind afterwards strengthens and ennobles his character. Our bodies age against our will, but why should our souls not remain forever young? It is simply criminal to suppress a child’s joy and force children to be gloomy and full of self-importance. Very soon life’s problems will lie upon their shoulders. Very soon life will bring them anxieties, cares, difficulties, and the burden of responsibility. So let them remain young and carefree as long as possible. Their childhood should be filled as much as possible with joy, light, and merry games.
Parents should not be too embarrassed to play and horse around with their children. Perhaps in those moments they are closer to God than when they are engaged in what seems to them to be important work.
Sooner or later into the life of every home comes bitter experience – the experience of suffering. There may be years of cloudless happiness, but there will definitely be sorrows. The stream that ran for so long like a burbling brook running through flowering meadows in bright sunshine will deepen, darken, will dive into a dark gorge, or rush down like a waterfall.
In like manner flows the life of a true home – sometimes in bright sunlight, sometimes in gloominess. But be it either in light or in dark, – it always teaches us to appeal to the heavens, to the Great Home in which all our dreams and hopes are embodied, where ties that have been broken off on earth are once more reunited. For everything that we have and everything that we do – we need God’s blessing. No one except God will support us in the time of great sorrow. Life is so fragile that any parting may turn out to be final. We can never be sure that we will have the chance to ask forgiveness for offensive or injurious words, or to be forgiven.
Children and their upbringing
There is no stronger emotion that the one which grips us when we hold our children in our arms. Their helplessness touches the noble strings within our hearts. Their innocence represents a purifying force for us. When there is a newborn in the home, the marriage itself seems to be reborn. The child causes the married couple to become closer than ever before. Silent strings in the heart suddenly come alive. The young parents are faced with new goals, and new desires appear. Life immediately acquires a new and deeper meaning.
A sacred burden is placed in their hands, an immortal life which they must preserve, and this imbues the parents with a sense of responsibility, causes them to think deeply. “I” is no longer the center of the universe. They have a new purpose to attain, a purpose great enough to fill up their entire life.
Our children naturally bring along with them a multitude of cares and concerns, and for this reason there are people who look upon the appearance of children as a misfortune. But it is only cold egotists who can look upon children in such a manner.
It is a momentous thing to take upon oneself the responsibility for these tender young lives, which can enrich the world with beauty, joy, and power, but which can also easily perish; it is a momentous thing to nurture them, form their character, – this is what one should think about when establishing a home. It should be a home in which children will grow up to a sincere and noble life, grow up for God.
No treasures in the world can replace for man the loss of truly incomparable treasures – his own children. There are things which God gives often, and others that are given only once. The seasons of the year pass and return again, new flowers bloom, but youth never comes twice. Childhood and all its possibilities are given only once in a lifetime. Whatever you can do to adorn it, do it quickly.
Parents should be what they wish their children to be – not in words, but in deed. They should teach their children by the example of their own life. The greatest treasure that parents can leave their children is a happy childhood, with tender memories of father and mother. It will lighten the forthcoming days, it will preserve them from temptation, and it will help them face the harsh realities of life after they leave the parental roof.
May God help each mother understand the majesty and glory of her forth-coming endeavor, when she holds at her breast her infant, whom she must nurture and bring up. As far as children are concerned, the parents’ duty is to prepare them for life, for any trials that God may send them. While the parents are alive, the child will always remain a child for them and should treat his parents with love and respect. The children’s love for their parents is expressed in complete trust in them. A real mother finds importance in everything in which her child is interested. She listens just as willingly to his adventures, joys, disappointments, achievements, plans, and dreams as other people listen to a romantic narrative.
Children should learn self-denial. They cannot have everything they want. They should learn to reject their own desires for the sake of other people. They should also learn to be solicitous. Careless people always cause harm and pain, perhaps not intentionally, but simply through negligence. Not much is needed to show concern – a word of encouragement, a little bit of tenderness when the other person seems sad, timely assistance to the one who is tired.
Children should learn to be of use to their parents and to each other. They can do this without demanding excessive attention, without fussing others. As soon as they grow up a bit, children should learn to be self-reliant, to make do without the help of others, in order to become strong and independent.
Parents are sometimes at fault for excessive anxiety or non-intelligent and constantly irritating counsels, but sons and daughters must agree that at the base of all this excessive fussing lies deep concern over them.
A noble life, a strong, honest, serious, and God-pleasing character – such is the parents’ highest reward for all the exhausting years of selfless love. May children live in such a manner that parents in their old age can be proud of them. May children fill their declining years with tenderness and affection.
Over each one of us always soars our invisible Guardian Angel.
(This famous sonnet by the English poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning describes extraordinarily well in verse form that same noble and beautiful love, of which the Empress-Martyr Alexandra speaks in her excerpts.)
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the end of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, – I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
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