Orthodox Marriage and Parenting in the Domestic Church: Ladder of Divine Ascent for Marriage
You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48)
Some who are called to salvation through the vocation of marriage may consider it inferior to the monastic life. In part this attitude is shaped by descriptions that compare the monastic vocation to angelic life, particularly the abstinence from sexual relations. "Moreover the renunciation of the monk…includes not only these but in accordance with the strictest teaching of Jesus all sexual relations or emotion arising therefrom." The monastic idea of chastity is a life like that of the angels" (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10459a.htm).
Focus: Departure from "the world"
Married or Monastic?
Marriage was considered to be a secondary vocation by spiritual writers of both East and West following St. Paul's instruction to the Corinthians, "So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better" (1 Cor 7:38).
The description arises from the central focus of monastic life: the voluntary renunciation of "worldly" preoccupations. Before St. John Chrysostom matured into the great pastor he became, he too recommended monastic over married life. He wrote to his friend Theodore who was contemplating leaving monasticism, " …it is no longer possible for thee to observe the right conditions of marriage. For if he who has been attached to a heavenly bridegroom deserts him…" (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf109.v.iv.html).
Focus: Perfection in Christ: In harmony with His teachings in the world
Later on, however, St. John's attitude changed. After more experience and greater contact with godly people, especially the holy widow Oympias, we see a new recognition in St. John's writings that marriage is also an esteemed path to salvation.
In a letter to Olympias about the raising of children St. John wrote: "Bring him up in the chastening and admonition of the Lord. Never deem it an unnecessary thing that he should be a diligent hearer of the divine Scriptures. For there the first thing he hears will be this, 'Honor thy father and thy mother;' so that this makes for thee. Never say, this is the business of monks. Am I making a monk of him? No. There is no need he should become a monk" [i] ( http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf109.xvii.vii.html)
The Golden-Mouthed saint understood why Olympias was able to lead a holy life in Christ, while in the world. He wrote, "But you know how to dwell in great and populous cities as if they were uninhabited, spending the whole of your time in quietness and rest, and treading worldly ambitions under foot…the perfect training which renders you insensible to any terror at the hands of any one, the power of standing on a rock in the midst of mighty billows of tribulation, and sailing in a calm with a favourable breeze when the sea is raging around you."
Standing up to the afflictions and tribulations of the world produces virtue. St. John continued, "For such is the nature of affliction—when it lays hold of a brave and noble soul, this is what it is wont to effect. And as the fire makes the piece of gold, when it is applied to it, of better proof: so also affliction when it visits golden characters renders them purer and more proven. Wherefore also Paul said 'affliction worketh patience, and patience probation…More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…" (Rm 5:3-4). ( http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf109.xvii.vii.html
Perfection: Harmony with Christ continued
Clearly St. John came to the point of view that whether a person is married or a monastic, both paths can lead to holiness. He wrote, "I shall therefore quote you examples from the saints of the ancient times. How many, who had wives to keep and children to bring up, were inferior in no respect…But would you know why it was? It was for his hospitality, for his contempt of riches, for his chastened conduct. For what, tell me, is the duty of a philosopher [one committed to Christ]? Is it not to despise both riches and glory? Is it not to be above both envy and every other passion?"
He also warned all his readers, "Do not imagine that the monk alone stands in need of these lessons from Scripture. Of all others, the children just about to enter into the world specially need them" (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf109.xvii.vii.html
A practical example
Would St. John feel at home in our world 1700 years later? Most likely he would – and this does not speak well of us. It does, however, make his teachings all the more relevant. In his letter to Olympias, St. John spoke of the "court," by which he meant the ruling courts of Emperors and Empresses and their legates. We could replace the reference today with government leaders such as legislators or judges, or even business and cultural leaders. Most important, we can still apply the moral imperatives to the relationships we have with others. St. John wrote,
"Thus the more distinguished he is in the present life, so much the more he stands in need of this education. If he passes his life in courts, there are many Heathens, and philosophers, and persons puffed up with the glory of this life. It is like a place full of dropsical people. Such in some sort is the court. All are, as it were, puffed up, and in a state of inflammation.
"There is then every need of much discipline of this sort to those that are to mix in the present world, because such an one has a stronger temptation to sin than the other. And if you have a mind to understand it, he will further be a more useful person even in the world itself. For all will have a reverence for him from these words, when they see him in the fire without being burnt, and not desirous of power. But power he will then obtain, when he least desires it, and will be a still higher object of respect to the king; for it is not possible that such a character should be hid.
"Amongst a number of healthy persons, indeed, a healthy man will not be noticed; but when there is one healthy man amongst a number of sick, the report will quickly spread and reach the king's ears, and he will make him ruler over many nations. Knowing then these things, "bring up your children in the chastening and admonition of the Lord."
Desert in the city
St. John gives us a monastic ethos while living in the world – a desert in the city so to speak. It's a model we see practiced elsewhere. St. Paul, for example, was directed to venture into cities, "(R)ise and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do" (Acts 9:6). In fact, in early Christianity, the first Churches were home churches, and although not properly a "Eucharistic assembly" (Zizioulas, 2001), it certainly is the center of sanctification of a man and woman in blessed married and their children.
A prayer that is read for the couple during the wedding service affirms the inherent importance and dignity of Christian parenting. "Unite them in one mind and one flesh, and grant unto them fair children for education in the faith and fear ..." the prayer reads. This prayer reveals that the vocation of marriage and parenthood must be Christ-centered and thus marriage and parenting is God-ordained (Morelli, 2005, 2008a,b).
Marriage and The Domestic Church: A Ladder of Divine Ascent in the world
If the writings of St. John Chrysostom reveal that the ethos of the married and monastic vocations are similar in that both offer opportunities for sanctification, we can look to monasticism for guidelines on how to apply personal discipline in the world. St. John Climacus' "The Ladder of Divine Ascent" is considered one of the classics of Orthodox spiritual teaching. Unknown to many however, is that St. John was asked by married couples how they could apply his teachings if they were not monks. He responded,
"Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: "How can we who are married and living amid public cares aspire to the monastic life?" I answered: "Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not cause scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven."
In the introduction to the book Metropolitan Kallistos pointed out that people do not necessarily ascend the steps in order. The ladder is not to be taken literally; but sets "a standard and model for the whole Church." In our case, we can see the book as a guide to living a Godly life in the domestic churches – the families who live in the world.
The Five Elements of Godliness
St. John Climacus ("Of the Ladder") structured his instruction as a ladder that he called the "divine ascent." They are steps that, if practiced, can lead us to God. The pinnacle of the ascent is love. Love is what fills life with meaning because, as the Holy Scriptures teach us, "God is love" ( 1 John 4:8). When we strive for love, we strive for God, and we become aware of how God "fills all in all"
St. John used the image of a ray of light to describe God. The ray (God) makes all things, light: mercy encircling the ray, and a disk that represents love's unceasingness which appears as a "single radiance and a single splendor."
In a sense we emulate or replicate this divine activity "insofar as is humanly possible." We are not God, but the creation is such that even human actions find some congruence with the divine activity of God. One example is child bearing. A man and woman joined in blessed marriage become "one flesh" out of which a new person is created (Morelli 2008 a,b).
This example of creative love continues after the birth of the child. The parents are commissioned to bring the child into "Godliness" as the prayers of the marriage service exhort. This should also extend from the family – the domestic church – to all people to whom they come in contact, thereby fulfilling the commandment of Christ that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. This is accomplished through kenosis (self-sacrifice, emptying oneself) for the good and welfare of others.
Another primary element is prayer. "Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man with God…Its effect is to hold the whole world together." Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ taught us to pray. He told his disciples, "Our Father, who art in heaven…" Jesus also told his disciples that, "Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (John 14:13).
Prayer is a critical block in the foundation of the domestic church. Reflect on the words of Christ: Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock" (Matthew 7:24). Prayer holds a family together. Prayer unifies people with God.
A daily cycle of prayers can be performed including morning prayer, mealtime prayers, evening prayer, reading of the epistle and gospel of the day, as well as spiritual reading. Of course, all these practices are the "overflow" of sharing in the Eucharistic banquet on Sunday and Feast Days of the local parish. They have their origin to early Christian practice, "…they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread…and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need" (Acts 2: 42,45).
Work too is an indispensable to creating the domestic church. We at least know about two works of the Holy Trinity. One is the active relationship of love that the three Persons of the Holy Trinity have among themselves. Another is the individual work of each Person of the Trinity – what we call in theological terms the Divine Economy.
For example, the Father creates and upholds the creation. The work of the Son is to mediate the Father to the believer, and the believer to the Father – a work accomplished through His divine incarnation. He reveals the Father during his sojourn on earth where he worked as a carpenter in Nazareth (c.f. Matthew 13:55), preaching in the synagogues and countryside (c.f. Luke 4: 14-15), and finally through his passion, crucifixion, and resurrection. The work of the Holy Spirit is to rest on the Son, "For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…" (Colossians 1: 19).
The domestic church also must be engaged in work. The work of running a household – the cooking, cleaning, study, employment, etc. – must in some measure emulate the work of the Holy Trinity, which means it must be done in love. But love flows forth only where God is, and one must pray to come into the presence of God.
Here too St. John offered invaluable practical counsel, "Pray in all simplicity. The publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single utterance…heartfelt thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer."
Silence is considered a jewel of the spiritual life but one difficult to achieve in the domestic church often because of the press of schedules and responsibilities. Nevertheless silence must be cultivated. St. John taught that, "The lover of silence draws close to God. He talks to him in secret and God enlightens him."
The good saint links lack of silence to vainglory and passing judgment on others. We measure people and events from our own prideful viewpoint instead of listening to God who told us: ""Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get" (Matthew 7: 1-2). By holding our tongues, we can listen to what God tells us.
So how do we achieve silence in our world of sensory overload and the unrelenting demands on our time? When I counsel families I frequently tell them they must start making recreation a priority. They often respond with a quizzical stare. Not until I explain what recreation is for do they begin to comprehend why recreation is necessary.
Look at the word, I tell them. The term "recreation" means to "re-create" -- to make new. Parents in particular must renew their relationship in order for the family to be healthy. Think of the flight attendant when she gives the safety instructions to the passengers. "Parents traveling with young children should put on their masks before putting on their child's." Why? Because if the parent is not healthy, the child cannot be cared for.
We all need re-creation. We all need time out from the outer and inner distractions. I instruct family members to "set time each day to be in silence. Say a simple prayer, become aware of the presence of God, and let go of even this and stare off as if focusing on nothing around you." These practices are favored by monastics and others schooled in the discipline of silence. I have discovered that these simple instructions are sufficient for the blessed members of the domestic church in today's society.
St Isaac the Syrian wrote, " … there is no end to wisdom's journey. Wisdom ascends even till this: until she unites with God him who follows after her. And this is the sight that the insights of wisdom have no limit: that wisdom is God himself." (Alfeyev, 2000) St. Peter taught, "Let not yours be the outward adorning … but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious" (1 Peter 3:3-4).
At first it might seem strange to consider hospitality a step in the Divine Ascent. Remember however, the example of Abraham. Genesis recounts the visit of the Lord to Abraham and the hospitality accorded to the visitors: "And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, "My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant" (Genesis 18: 1--33). In Orthodox iconography this is depicted as the "Hospitality of Abraham."
This sharing comes from the sharing that God shows us. God shared his only begotten Son with us, "Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Philipians 2: 5-7). Is it surprising then St. Paul would instructed us to, "Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (Romans 15:7).
St. John of the Ladder affirmed the directive "When people visit you, offer them what they need for body and spirit. If they happen to be wiser than we are, then let our own silence reveal our wisdom." St. Paul told the Ephesians be hospitable "…with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4: 2-3).
In this spirit St. John reminded his readers that when serving others be sure to avoid self-centeredness as "vainglory induces pride." With this in mind we -- the little church in the home -- can exercise hospitality, giving to others motivated by the love of Christ. Family members can keep in mind St. Paul's words, "What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift" (1 Corinthians 4:7)?
In hospitality, let not the poor be forgotten. Our Lord told us: "But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you" (Luke 14: 13-14). How we can accomplish this can be the subject of a family spiritual discussion and project.
For example, several years ago during Thanksgiving season I was completing a family counseling session and asked, "How are you going to spend Thanksgiving? With other members of your family"? "Oh no", they answered. "We go to our local soup kitchen and cook and serve the homeless."
Here in San Diego, I know of families that show the same hospitality serving the Project Mexico mission that helps the poorest of the poor. Such is the hospitality of God. "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me" (Matthew 10: 40).
God the source of marital grace
In its Divine Ascent all the members of the domestic church can meditate on the words of Isaiah the Prophet: "I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go" (Isaiah 48:17). The family has to be the source of "newness of life" in Christ, and not conformed to the world. Once again the teaching of St. Paul, "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:12).
This commitment to have an Orthodox Christian household is enlivened by the grace of baptism. As we joyfully sing in the Paschal Season: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal 3: 27). As is read in the epistle of the Orthodox Marriage Service: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church". (Eph 5: 31-32). A blessed marriage is also enlivened by a special grace prayed for in the marital service: that "Thou [God] be present here [in the marriage] with Thine invisible protection."
The parish church: the channel of sanctification, the ladder to salvation
The family as the domestic church cannot foreclose on its obligation to be Christ-centered. Parents cannot assign their obligation to others, be it the parish priest, teachers, or youth workers. Christ must be present in the home from marriage, conception, birth, growth, until all fall sleep unto the Lord in the hope of eternal salvation.
Furthermore, the family cannot be Christ-centered unless it is also actively connected to the local parish community. Christ meets us in the Church. He feeds us with His heavenly and immortal Mysteries so that our paths may be straight, our lives guarded, and our steps firm[ii] in all we do especially in the domestic church.
Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world (John 17: 24).
Alfeyev, Bishop Hilarion. (2000). The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.
Morelli, G. (2005, September, 22). What Do You Know: The Score Or The Saint?http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliScore.php.
Morelli, G. (2008a, July, 8). Good Marriage XIII: The theology of marriage and sexuality. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart%20Marriage-XIII-The-Theology-of-Marriage-and-Sexuality.php
Morelli, G. (2008b, September, 16). Smart Parenting XIV: Talking to children about same sex marriage. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart-Parenting-XIV-Talking-To-Children-About-Same-Sex-Marriage.php
St. John of the Ladder. (1982), John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent. NY: Paulist Press.
Zizioulas, J.D. (2001). Eucharist, bishop, church. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Press.
[ii] Adapted from the Prayer of Thanksgiving from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.