Several women from my in-law's church recently spent a weekend up at the monastery in Goldendale for a women's retreat. They were fortunate enough to be able to speak (with the help of a translator) to the abbess, Gerontissa Eupraxia. One of the questions asked of her was about the martyrdom of marriage. Here was her response (published in the church's monthly newsletter):
"Sometimes God allows for us to have a difficult spouse as an opportunity of causing us to have much prayer, patience, kindness and love. A woman in Greece had an extremely difficult husband. He was a very hard and abusive man. The woman went to her elder and told him of her great difficulties. The elder told her to go home and fill a bowl of water and wash and kiss her husband's feet, asking for his forgiveness in provoking him. The elder also told the woman not to return until she had obeyed. She did in fact obey and did as she was told. To her amazement, her husband's heart was softened and he asked her why she did this. She told him and then he asked to go see the elder. He confessed [his sins] to the elder, and he was a changed man."
I have heard stories like that before, and they always amaze me. The modern mind, steeped as it is in rationalistic ideas of egalitarianism, individuality, and autonomy, naturally balks at these kinds of stories. Questions come bubbling up almost by instinct: Why should she, who had been abused, ask for *his* forgiveness? Why shouldn't she be allowed to leave him? Why should she have to obey her elder's instructions? Etc...
As Clif's recent post illustrates so well, the virtues of humility, prayer, and patience truly work miracles in a marriage. While some situations and marriages may require a spouse leaving, our modern culture has radically underestimated the power of a true Christian response to persecution and relational strife. Even in the case of infidelity, I have seen spouses stay together and rebuild their marriages. But the kind of long-suffering and humility needed to sustain an Orthodox marriage are the very things eschewed by contemporary opinion on relationships.
This truth was highlighted in a lengthy, and interesting debate over at Tripp's blog. It culminated with Tripp posting this: "The divorce thing is easy for me to justify through the Spirit....If the relationship is destructive, then let it die. We are but dust. Why would our relationships be any different finally?"
How different is this than the words of Gerontissa! How different this is than the very words of Jesus who tells us, "He who endures to the end will be saved." (Matt 24:13)!
Now, what this "endurance" may look like for some may be very different than others. Hence the need for an elder, a spiritual father, and a community of believers who share the same journey to help guide us in this discernment. Perhaps another women, with the same problems would have received different counsel from the elder? The point is, this particular women needed to obey these instructions to save her marriage and her soul.
Some relationships will end, and possibly for the better: Even Jesus allowed for an "honorable" divorce. (Matt. 5:32). But we have to start out with the assumption that our relationships are not "but dust." They are made to become icons of God and pathways to holiness. How can they become these things if we are not ready to, literally, "endure to the end" all sorrows they may bring?
Mother Teresa said "we are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful." What would our relationships look like to the world if this was our modus vivendi?