Saint Ambrose of Milan concluded in the fourth century, “We do not deny that marriage has been sanctified by Christ since the Divine Word says, ‘The two shall become one flesh and one spirit.’” Although it is not denied that Christ sanctifies and the husband and wife become one, the means by which this takes place remains a mystery. Father Epiphanios of blessed memory explains:
What is the Christian wedding more especially… it does not differ at all from the wedding of the atheists or of the non-Christians. For whatever reasons, all people approach marriage and, for the same reasons, Christians also “come into the communion of matrimony.” These reasons refer to three drives, which exist in man: to the demand for the flesh’s satisfaction, to the need of companionship, and to the desire to obtain descendants. Now the Church comes and blesses with the Sacrament of Marriage the union of her children. Of course, it does not change anything from its natural, instinctual, driving foundation; it sanctifies it, however. It places it, that is, in the framework of life in Christ of the spouses, which is nothing other than a journey toward salvation and sanctification. Naturally, a sanctified marriage must have, as a result, purity from every pollution, which, despite the commandment of God and as result of the natural order, can enter into the relations of spouses. The spouses in any case, for no reason—not even on account of their marriage, are excused from the duty of constant progress in purity of soul and body in sanctification. That such a struggling married couple entails the most ideal ground for the Church to cultivate in Christ new members, the children, is obvious. However, the main aim of the Church, which blesses the marriage, does not cease: which is the sanctification of the spouses.
Continuing in this line of thought, Saint Clement of Alexandria writes:
Marriage in accordance with the Word of God is holy because it is a union that is subject to God, contracted with a sincere heart and full fidelity by those who have been washed and purified by the water of Baptism and who have the same hope.
It’s no wonder that Father Epiphanios would conclude, “The finding of a suitable person for marriage is a matter for the knees (prayer).”
Ultimately, “God wants married people to be of one mind,” taught Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica. When spouses are not of like mind, problems ensue. To illustrate this, he offered the faithful a case, as he calls it.
A married couple came to me. It was clear that God had endowed them with great beauty; I had never seen a more handsome couple. The weather was cold and we served Liturgy in the chapel. When the service was over, they wanted to talk to me. “We have some problems,” they said. I heard them out. The case was that they had married each other out of love and had lived peacefully in harmony for a few years. The atmosphere in their family was akin to heaven. Then, recently, they had begun to quarrel over every little thing; there was no more peace in their family… “You used to be happy because you had your parents’ blessing,” I told them. “You parents had nothing against your union; on the contrary, they had arranged your marriage even before you had seen each other. So you had your parents’ blessing, you married out of love, and there was peace in your union. Your home was like paradise. Now everything has gone wrong – because of your thoughts. Until recently you were satisfied with what you had, you did not fantasize… You yourselves have created hell in your home with your thoughts…Come back to each other,” I told them, “ and be as you used to be. Then everything will be good again.”
Macarius of Optina offers similar counsel to a man who visits him for guidance:
Your is a Christian home, or should be. A home is a Christian one, when all the members of the household bear each other’s burdens, and when each one condemns only oneself. You have forgotten this, both of you. Ponder the truth of Christian marriage: man and wife are one flesh! Does it not follow that they must share all their possessions? And yet you two haggle over this property! And why? Because of words!
Unless you promptly strive for, and achieve, a loving peace between you, it is hopeless to try to bring tidiness and fairness into your business dealings with one another. Humber yourself, not your wife. Love her, not yourself.
The Russian priest of blessed memory, Alexander Elchaninov, suggests: “Our modern individualism creates special difficulties in married life. To overcome them, a conscious effort on both sides is necessary, in order to build up the marriage and make it a ‘walking in the presence of God.’”
Saint Tikon of Zandonst therefore offers the following counsel to spouses to build up marriage and keep husband and wife walking in the presence of God:
- Those that correctly enter into marriage ought to preserve love and faithfulness to the end of their life.
- The husband and wife must lay virtue, and not passion, as the foundation of their love, that is, when the husband sees any fault in his wife, he must nudge her meekly, and the wife must submit to her husband in this. Likewise when a wife sees some fault in her husband, she must exhort him, and he is obliged to hear her.
- The Apostle says to those who are married, “The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be by consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer” (1 Cor. 7:4-5)
- Those living as spouses, and above all, priests and deacons, should remember that they are Christians, that they confess the holy name of God, that they call upon and pray to God, that they partake of the Holy Mysteries of Christ, and so on. And therefore the Apostle tells them that they must not live in their marriage as the heathen do, “that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency”. (1 Cor. 7:5)
When the husband and the wife are of the same character and of good morals then the marriage will be happy and excellent, for there will always be unanimity, agreement, and peace among them, in which consists great happiness.” Behold now, what is so good or so joyous as for brethren to dwell together in unity”?
When either the husband is of good character and the wife is of bad character, or the wife is of good character, and the husband is of bad character, then perpetual suffering and a cross will ensue for the party of good character. Then in that case he must apply patience, and endure and overcome whatever evil may occur with patience.
With his counsel as the ideal that we strive for within married life, I close with the words of Fr. Alexander:
In marriage the festive joy of the first day should last for the whole of life; every day should be a feast day; every day husband and wife should appear to each other as new, extraordinary beings. The only way of achieving this: let both deepen their spiritual life, and strive hard in the task of self-development.