Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dating non-Orthodox Christians

Single Orthodox Christians have no easy road before them, especially if they suspect that they will be married some day. For most of history and in a large but shrinking portion of the Orthodox world today, single people did not have to worry about who they would marry: someone else chose for them. In the best cases, the people involved had veto power; that is, neither one had to accept the match. But in some cases one or both had no choice. Now we live in a world in which Choice is God. We cannot imagine not choosing our own hair style, clothing and career path; much less not choosing our own spouse.
We vainly imagine this power of choice is the same as freedom, but if we have no basis on which to choose other than our subjective urges, transient likes and dislikes, and fantasies based on movies, novels and occasional glimpses at internet pornography, then choice is not freedom but bondage: bondage to the ideals of a sick culture and the passions of a fallen mind. But this is the reality many Orthodox Christians in North America and Europe today. Some lucky few have relationships with parents or spiritual mentors that are close enough and mature enough to provide some guidance and advice in the search for a mate. Most, however, are out on their own. Even if they do ask for advice or guidance from a priest or parent or other responsible person, many young people are merely seeking confirmation for what they already feel or think or lust for.
So this is where we start: one priest's dating guide for Orthodox Christians.
First, and this applies not only to dating, but to all friendships: Hang out with people you want to become like. This does not mean that you do not hang out with people who are not perfect; that’s ridiculous, no one is perfect. What it means is that you look for Christ-like virtues: kindness, gentleness, self control, faith, joy, etc. People with these qualities or who are seeking these qualities will help you develop these qualities. Now I am going to say something shocking: Orthodox Christians are not always the most Christ-like people you know. (I probably didn’t surprise anyone.) Good people are good people no matter where you find them. Hang out with good people and you will become a better person.
Second, don’t differentiate between “dating” and hanging out, at least not in the early and middle stages of a relationship that may be leading to marriage. That word, “dating,” has killed more potentially wonderful relationships than any other word in contemporary English. “Dating” is a cultural construct defined by popular culture, chiefly movies and TV. Generally the only difference between dating and hanging out is that if you're dating you are admitting that you are sexually attracted to one another—not the best way to begin a relationship that you hope will lead to the martyrdom of Orthodox Christian marriage. Unfortunately, our culture has taught us that sexual attraction is key to finding a suitable life partner; in fact for much of our culture, good sex is the highest form of transcendence conceivable. But let me state the obvious: this is not a Christian culture.
Christians are called to a life of repentance, a life in which Christ is God and my life is His. Sex, even “great” sex, is a normal part of life for married Christians; but, and here is the irony for our culture, great sex is the byproduct of Christ-like loving and giving in the context of a life-long relationship. Feeling sexually attracted to someone you hardly know is certainly no way to determine if someone will make a good wife or husband. A good marriage can never be based on how the other makes me feel. Good marriage is based on my caring for and loving the other, even when it doesn’t always feel good to me.
Third, religion matters. Above I said that good people are good people no matter where you find them, but if you begin to think you might want to spend the rest of your life raising children with someone, then religion is very important. For most people, when things are going well religion is not a very important part of their life (no matter how strenuously they protest that it is). When we feel like things are going well, and nothing feels better than being in love, God drifts to the background, and we basically ignore God. I’m not making this up. Read Deuteronomy 32 sometime. It records the common experience of God’s people: when things are going good (when we “grow fat”) we ignore God. However, marriage, as many have observed, is the remedy for falling in love. Once a man and woman begin the hard work of sharing their lives together, God becomes much more important in their lives. I am not saying that marriage is all work and drudgery. No, not at all. The most wonderful, wonderful gift God has given me is my wife and children; however, marriage has also driven me to my knees again and again. When a couple do not share the same faith and same religious commitment, then when the going gets tough, where do they go for help?
The Orthodox Church allows marriages between Orthodox Christians and other Christians (not non-Christians). The main stipulation is that the couple agree to raise the children Orthodox. This allowance for mixed marriage, however, can be easily misunderstood in our modern world of choosing what’s right for me. This allowance did not have in mind an Orthodox boy choosing a Baptist girl because she’s hot. This allowance came to be in a world in which children were often promised in marriage before they were three years old. They had no choice; and so the church made allowance for the reality of a culture in which a man or woman could not choose his or her spouse. But we have a choice.
Young people, my daughters included, often say that there are no good candidates among the Orthodox Christians they know. I understand this problem. Often Orthodox Christian churches are small and choices are limited. Therefore, if you’re serious about finding and Orthodox Christian spouse, you need to get out and get involved in Orthodox projects, conferences and activities outside your little parish. Organize retreats, participate in diocesan, mission or service organizations, visit monasteries (you never know who else might be visiting), rent a van and crash a archdiocesan convention with seven of your buddies splitting the cost of the room. Be creative.
Let me sum up. It is not a good idea to date non-Orthodox Christians because it is not a good idea to date anyone. It is a good idea to have lots of friends, to learn how to be kind, generous, loving, patient and joyful by hanging out with people who encourage you to be more like Christ. If you suspect that a particular friend may indeed be someone with whom you could spend your life, then enquire if he/she suspects the same thing. If you are too shy to ask directly, then ask a trusted third person to make enquiries for you. Since you are already friends, you can skip the dating thing. You can now continue to be friends discerning together and with your priest(s), parents, and other trusted friends whether or not you are indeed right for each other.


Moosh said...

Father, bless!

You write, "If you suspect that a particular friend may indeed be someone with whom you could spend your life, then enquire if he/she suspects the same thing."

This makes me go "Hunh?" because it sounds like you're saying that either the woman or the man could initiate this process. If anything about relationships has been drilled into me over the years, it's that men don't like to be asked, they like to do the asking. Are you suggesting that in some situations it would be all right for the woman to broach the topic?

(I am *not* poised by my phone ready to call a man as soon as I get your clarification. :D )

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Michelle,
In my experience, usually it is a good idea to make inquires of a sensitive nature through a trusted third party. This is a good way to get a sense for how serious the other person is before initiating any kind of more direct quire on the matter.

John M. Black said...

Father, bless,

I'm a bit uncomfortable with some of the conclusions you draw here; though very often I'll admit I'm wrong and it could be that my discomfort is my own shortcoming. But sixteen years ago I met someone that would become my wife; this was not someone who was Orthodox, but we had an honest, deep friendship and even a spiritual connection, she being from a traditional Protestant background. I don't know how this happened (I wasn't consciously trying) but within a short time she fell in love not only with me but also with the Orthodox faith. The short story is, we've been married and have raised a wonderful Orthodox family for almost 13 years now. I cannot imagine anyone I know today to be so faithful, so spiritually inspiring, so dedicated to the Orthodox faith as this wonderful woman is now.

But if I had followed your advice then, would any of this have happened? I don't believe so, and I also don't believe this can be written off as an exception to a rule. When a young person who is firm in their faith shares their virtues with another and lives a Christ-like example of the Orthodox faith, he/she is bound to rub off on that person.

I think often the best marriage is one of movement; one where the couple is able to move from one spiritual state to another over time. It's difficult for me to imagine two people who are already completely alike, including in their faith, to have anywhere to go.


p.s. Michelle - I'd challenge that notion in principle, and argue that it's more a cultural than a religious matter. We men are not (always) the dominant things that society makes us out to be. :-)

A good Christian marriage is one where the strengths of one compliments the weaknesses of the other, and vice versa; and these strengths & weaknesses are not always the same things from one couple to another. Every person is unique, which means every relationship between two people is unique, and it's best to keep an open mind about how a future relationship with someone will be. I'm a very different person now than I thought I would be before I met my wife, and I'm much better for it... we have changed each other with time; we are each other's helpmates; neither of us is much more dominant over the other across the board; we each have differnt things in our life that we take the lead on.

John M. Black said...

I just re-read that now, and I realize I came off a bit full of myself; my comment about 'when someone is firm in their faith' by no means referred to my own past (far from it.) :-)

Fr. Michael said...

My general advice is that an Orthodox Christian should marry an Orthodox Christian because religion matters--especially after the honeymoon. However, you are right. There are cases in which the spiritual journey of one or the other is such that marriage should precede shared Orthodox faith. This is a matter of discernment, not just of the couple (because the love endorphins usually make anything seem possible to them), but discernment with parents, priests and other (usually) older and wiser people.

Anonymous said...

Glory to Jesus Christ!

I stumbled upon this blog and found it quite interesting. This issue is not discussed much in our Orthodox church in Canada but it is on the minds of many of our single people. It is a situation that I have prayed a lot about, especially most recently.

I have been an Orthodox Christian my whole life. I love the Lord and serve the church he has revealed Himself to me in. I'm 30 now, not married, gainfully employed with a career and a home and settled in a place where I believe God has called me to serve. I am aware that to continue my transformation into the likeness of Christ I must become part of a community where I am practicing sacrificial love and denying myself. The path I see is in marriage and children.

I think most will agree it is very difficult to find other compatible people seeking marriage in the church today. It has been my experience that some that you do find have some beliefs and practices that do not harmonize with those of the church, and are not interested in parting with them. For this reason I have been hesitant to pursue a permanent commitment to some of the sisters in Christ I have known. Other times I have met single Orthodox women from outside my area who are committed Christians, yet are understandably opposed to moving to a new place.

So I started visiting non-Orthodox Christian churches in my area for bible studies and services that do not conflict with the Divine Liturgy. A couple months ago I met a lovely young woman from a Presbyterian background. She is a very kind, compassionate and humble Christian person. She works with disabled people, keeps a prayer rule and has made a commitment to saving herself for marriage. We often discuss matters of faith, doctrine and study the bible. We also actively pray for each other and intercede for each other’s friends and family in need. She also does not object to icons and infant baptism. I have honestly told her that it is inevitable that my children will grow up Orthodox. She has not definitively accepted or rejected this idea. She is a quiet thinker and I believe she is praying and pondering for the time being.

I was inspired by an earlier post that described marriage similar to a journey moving from one spiritual state to another. It has been my experience to often stand in wonder about not only when and why the Lord takes away from us, but also the reasons he gives!