Saturday, November 24, 2012

On Virginity and Marriage

St. Gregory of Nyssa in his work, "On Virginity," in an early section of the work, describes the troubles of married life as a means of encouraging his readers not to idealize marriage, but to understand the evils that accompany the good.  He laments, "If only before experience comes, the results of experience could be learnt."

St. Gregory of Nyssa begins this section by conceding the joys of the best possible marriage: "...competent means, suitable ages, the flower and prime of life, deep affection, the very best that each can think of the other, that sweet rivalry of each wishing to surpass the other in loving...."  St. Gregory himself was a married man.  As he describes the highs and lows of the best possible marriage, you easily get the sense that this is his own experience.  He has known the best of what marriage offers...and he knows the distraction, anxiety, sorrow and sadness that must accompany even the best of marriages.

And then there is the reality that, by definition, few marriages are the very best.  "If you wish to know all of the trials of married life," St. Gregory advises those who are not yet married, "ask the women who actually know it."  Wise Gregory recognizes that, generally speaking, women, more than men, experience the most intense suffering in marriage.  I am not speaking here of merely the physical pain and constriction of freedoms that comes with bearing and raising children.  I am referring to the anxiety and tears associated with beloved children going their own ways and a spouse who fails to provide for, perhaps even to notice, her own emotional and perhaps even social and physical needs.  Men feel these things too; but I think women feel them more intensely.

Yet in spite of this reality, St. Gregory concedes, it is not ignorance of these sufferings that leads most people to choose the married life.  It is rather a kind of blindness, an unwillingness to believe that I will have to endure what my parents or relatives or acquaintances have endured.  An immaturity or unwillingness to believe that I am my parent's child, that my potential spouse is the offspring of his or her parents and that we all human beings alike suffer from similar passions and delusions.  And so we are surprised when the honeymoon ends, when our spouse is unresponsive, when we have to let go of our dreams for the sake of our family, for the sake of reality.

This reality, however, is also our salvation.  The seed of new life is in the fruit that we eat.  It is the very struggle to love, to love as Christ loved, to love unrequited--or at least not well requited--that makes us like Christ, that becomes the arena in which our martyrdom saves our souls and the souls of those we love: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."

Now to be clear, this is not an exhortation to remain in a dangerous relationship.  There is enough martyrdom in living as a single mother without also being beaten regularly by a drunken husband.  We are not talking about a legal obligation to enable another's wickedness.  No, abuse is not to be endured; but dissatisfaction is not the same as abuse. It is this continued love in the face of dissatisfaction that produces godliness.  It is a love that finds no other help except in God--God and His Mother and His Saints.  Here the Light of Christ shines brightly.

Some of you, those who are young, may be wondering why I present such a dismal view of married life. Is it because I have had a terrible marriage? Actually, no. After 33 years, I can say that Bonnie and I have (so far) beaten the odds. But this has not happened by accident. Love is work. All of life is work, the work of becoming like Jesus. And that's a good work. However, it is probably easier, more "glorious," as St. Gregory would say, to do this work as a virgin and in a monastery. That's the point of St. Gregory's work on virginity.  

Certainly, monastic life has its trials and tribulations too. And there can be failed monasteries just as there can be failed marriages. We are all broken human beings. And yet considering everything, if one can choose it, virginity is a higher path, a more sure (but not certain) path to Christlikeness. This is why St. Gregory recommends it. And yet married people need not despair. St. Gregory himself is married. Marriage is also a path to holiness. It is just a bumpier path.

No comments: