“Take up their crowns into Thy kingdom,” the celebrant says to our Lord shortly before the final blessing over the bridegroom and the bride at the Orthodox marriage service. In this present book David and Mary Ford set before us a few out of the many Christian couples whose crowns have indeed been “taken up” by Christ into His heavenly kingdom. Drawing on that rich but often neglected source, the Lives of the Saints, their book provides us with a representative selection of models, of icons in words, to encourage us on our own journey to the kingdom, whether we are married or not.
The Orthodox faith is not abstract but personal. It is concerned, not with general principles or with a theoretical code of morality, but with the salvation of unique and particular persons created in the divine image. In this book we are introduced to some of the particular and unique persons who found sanctity and self-fulfillment specifically upon the married path. What is striking first of all about the examples chosen is their diversity. They are spread in time across nearly four thousand years, from the Old Testament era up to our own day. In space they extend no less widely: from Persia in the east to Alaska in the west, from Egypt in the south to England in the north. Some will be well known to most readers, such as St Spyridon (December 12) or St John of Kronstadt (December 20). Others will be less familiar, such as St Rictrude (May 12) or St Golinduc (July 13). In each case the story has been told in a simple but vivid style, with frequent quotations from the original sources and from the liturgical texts.
John Chrysostom calls marriage “the sacrament of love.” As such, marriage expresses something altogether fundamental to our human personhood. For we humans are created in the image of God, and that means first and foremost in the image of God the Holy Trinity. “God is love” (1 John 4:8): not self-love but shared love, not a single person loving himself alone, but a communion or koinonia of three persons loving one another. God is not just personal but interpersonal, not just a unit but a union. God is solidarity, exchange, response, reciprocity.
If all this is true of God, then it must be true also of the human person formed in God’s image. If God is love, then the human person also is love — not self-love but shared love. The human person also is solidarity, exchange, response, reciprocity. We humans, like the three divine persons, fulfill ourselves by living in communion or koinonia: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God” (1 John 4:7).
There are of course different ways in which this mutual love can be expressed; monasticism and the single life can also be “sacraments of love.” The command to “love one another” is issued to all alike, and not just to married couples. But the basic and primary form of human koinonia or communion remains always the mutual love of man and woman within marriage; this is the primordial human relationship, on which all other expressions of interpersonal community are based. Marriage, then, as the “sacrament of love” expresses our fundamental human personhood according to the divine image, precisely because we humans believe in the God who is Trinity and are created in His triune image.
“Let marriage be held in honor among all” (Hebrews 13:4). In numerous ascetic groups on the margin of the Church during the early centuries, the married state was seen as incompatible with a full Christian commitment. Candidates for baptism, if as yet unmarried, were expected to remain celibate for the remainder of their life, while married couples were required to separate from one another before undergoing Christian initiation. But the Church as a whole, rejecting the demands of these “encratite” movements, insisted that marriage is indeed a genuine path to holiness. Married couples, no less than monastics, can attain the fullness of theosis or “deification” in Christ.
It is true that the Fathers, both Greek and Latin, regularly affirm that the monastic vocation — understood as an “angelic” or eschatological anticipation of the human condition after the resurrection (see Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35-36) — is intrinsically higher than the married state. But this does not mean that marriage is not also to be “held in honor.” Moreover, there are Patristic texts which suggest that the highest state, for each person individually, is always the particular state to which that person is specifically called. Once the great anchorite St Macarius of Egypt was told to journey to a certain city, where he would find two people more advanced on the spiritual way than he was. They turned out to be two married women, living with their husbands in the usual way. “Truly,” exclaimed St Macarius with amazement, “there is neither virgin nor married, neither monk nor secular, but God gives His Holy Spirit to all, according to the intention of each” (Vitae Patrum VI, iii, 17). In the words of St Symeon the New Theologian, “In every situation, whatever the work or task involved, it is the life lived for God and according to God that is wholly blessed” (Chapters iii, 65).
How, then, are we each to discover the state to which we are personally called? To this there can certainly be no single answer. There is no exterior method which, in a mechanical and automatic way, will reveal to us what our personal vocation may be, whether married or monastic. If undecided, we have each to wait on the Spirit, obedient to our spiritual father, and the Spirit in His own time and way will speak to us in our concrete and particular circumstances. At the same time, as we wait on the Spirit, it will be of the utmost help for us to have before the eyes of our heart specific examples of those who have followed the vocation of marriage. Here exactly the present work can be of vital assistance.
This is, however, a book not only for those who are married or who are contemplating monasticism, but also for those pursuing the road of monasticism. For, as Paul Evdokimov has rightly maintained, there is only one way in which to learn the distinctive value of the monastic vocation, and that is by learning to appreciate the wonder and sanctity of the married state. By the same token married couples cannot properly perceive the beauty of their own vocation unless they also honor the monastic life. The two callings are not opposed but complementary; each affirms the other.
“Take up their crowns into Thy kingdom.” The supreme purpose of marriage is that husband and wife should each help the other to enter the heavenly kingdom. Through their mutual love and their shared life, the two of them — together with their children, if God has given them offspring — are called to bring one another closer to Christ. As an eternal union between two unique and eternal personalities, the sacrament of marriage has no other end than this. May all the husbands and wives who read this book be enabled, through the prayers of the saints here remembered, to offer up their bridal crowns more completely to Christ the King. And, whether we are married, monastics or single, as we look at the living icons of the Holy Trinity on the pages that follow, may we all of us be brought to a deeper appreciation of this “great mystery” (Ephesians 5:32).
BISHOP KALLISTOS OF DIOKLEIA