By Elder Paisius the Athonite
A requisite condition for forming a strong Christian family is for the future couple to find a good spiritual father. The spiritual father will play the role of judge, making sure that the family does not dissolve into quarreling. When the married couple finds itself in total disagreement, it will go to the spiritual father, placing its faith in God. Otherwise the family falls apart: the wife’s parents interfere, the husband’s parents interfere, - and all of them together try to impose their own will and thus destroy the family. If, on the other hand, the couple agrees to have a spiritual instructor, then such complex situations will not arise.
In order for the married couple to forge ahead, it must have a common spiritual father, for the latter is similar to a carpenter who wishes to put together two boards: after sawing off protrusions, he shaves the boards, makes then even and then joins them together. In general, it would be better for all family members to have one spiritual father, since he, knowing the family problems well, will be able to give each one instruction accordingly. Find a good spiritual father who will attend to you lovingly and always follow his advice: it is hard to obtain help from afar - the physician should be near you. Only prayer can be requested from afar.
-A certain woman was unable to tolerate incense or lighted candles in her house. Her husband, however, despite all the wife’s protests, insisted on constantly lighting the candles. The situation in the house became intolerable: neither was willing to yield. Then the husband appealed to the elder and described his problem to him. The elder said: - Calm down, your wife is by no means possessed, as it seems to you, only because she does not tolerate incense. She does it partly to oppose you and partly because she has not been used to such things. From now on do not burn incense and do not light any lampadas, in order not to upset your wife, and I will pray for you. The husband returned home and, without saying a word, ceased lighting lampadas and burning incense. Several days later, to his great surprise, he discovered that a lampada was lit in his house and the fragrance of incense pervaded it! Thus by his prayers the elder helped the married couple, and peace and love once again reigned in the family.
-The head of a family came to the elder, grasped his hands and said that his wife was so-and-so, was treating him thus-and-thus, and generally said all the bad things which his dark thoughts had whispered in his ear.
The elder then began to speak well of the wife, and finally told the husband that he should glorify God for giving him such a wife, and that it was he, the head of the family, who was the cause for love having departed from them. Over and over again the elder brought him back to this love, convincing him that it was he, the husband, who was at fault, and urging him to reject his shameful thoughts. The elder did the very same thing when the wife came to see him. He berated her, and thus both partners, correcting their bad thoughts which were directed against one another, returned to their love. And, of course, they understood the actions of the elder, even though he had berated them, because his aim was to revive their love. Try, as much as possible, to treat your wife spiritually, so that between you there would be love and mutual understanding. Strive for the same approach towards your children. A truly spiritual person has the habit of putting others first, says Apostle Paul (Rom. 12:10). The strong should bear the burdens of others so that the weak could rest, and not have each one bear only his own burden. When a married woman retains her maiden name, that is the beginning of discord within the family. The foundation (order) which God gave to the family disappears and confusion reigns: one child takes his mother’s last name, another - his father’s, and there we go!
In life, including family life, people can be roughly divided into two categories. One category of people is similar to a fly. The fly has the following distinguishing characteristic: it always sits down on filth, passing over fragrant flowers. Thus the people who are like a fly have learned to think and search only for that which is bad, neither knowing nor ever searching for good. The other category of people is similar to a bee. The distinguishing characteristic of a bee is that it finds beautiful and sweet things and sits down on them, disregarding all that is filthy. Such people have good thoughts, see good in others and think only of good. To all who had become used to blaming others, including married couples, the elder offered to choose in which category they would like to find themselves, and determine accordingly the status of those people whom they blamed.
To the question why God does not bring together couples who would lead a truly spiritual life, the elder replied: “It would be even better if the devil did not exist. Then spiritual life would be easy. But the devil does exist. God’s love determines absolutely everything. In order to save a bad husband, God gives him a good wife. And vice versa. Now everything is mutable and nothing is certain. Be patient, brothers, and everything will pass.”
You ask me about the marital relations of priests and also laymen. Why have the holy fathers not given us absolutely precise guidelines? This means that there exists something indeterminable, because all people cannot live according to the same stereotype. The fathers leave much to our good sense, spiritual instinct, the possibilities and efforts of each one individually. In order to be better understood, I will give you examples from the lives of married priests and laymen whom I know. Among them there are those who, having contracted a marriage, have born one, two, three children, and then proceed to live in purity. Others have intimate relations only at certain times in order to have children, and the rest of the time live as brother and sister. Still others abstain from intimacy only during periods of fasting, and otherwise have close relations. Some are unable to accomplish even that much. There are those who have relations in the middle of the week, in order to remain pure for three days before Holy Communion and three days after Communion. Others stumble even there.
The goal is for each one to lead a spiritual life with reasonableness and care, in accordance with each one’s spiritual abilities. Initially, of course, youth is a hindrance, but with the passage of time the body becomes more frail, the spirit becomes strengthened and even married people begin to get a taste of divine delight. At this point people become distracted in a natural manner from the delights of the flesh, which become insignificant in their eyes. This is how married people achieve salvation - they come to paradise by a quiet path of twists and turns.
You should keep in mind that the problem of marital relations is not only your problem, and that you do not have the right to regulate it by yourself; you can do it only through mutual agreement, as the apostle Paul commands us (I Cor. 7:5). Even when this takes place by mutual agreement, there is still need of prayer. And the strong party must take into account the state of the frail one. It often happens that one half agrees to abstain, in order not to offend the other, but suffers internally. Sometimes pious husbands, hearing from their wives words of agreement, unreasonably prolong the period of abstention, and then the wives suffer: they become nervous, etc. The husbands believe that their wives have become fortified in virtue, and desire to live more purely, abstaining from intimate relations over longer periods of time, and this causes the wives to become prone to temptation and to engage in extramarital relations. And when a fall occurs, their conscience bothers them terribly. However, the husbands continue trying to live more abstemiously, even though they see that their wives are not so disposed. Thus the husbands believe that their wives have reached spiritual perfection and no longer have bodily needs. But the physical side often cannot be disregarded and feminine egoism can be justified, and so can jealousy, which overcomes the frailer ones. The wife, seeing that her husband wishes to live a spiritual life, is forced to constrain herself, trying to get ahead of him.
Of great importance is how similar are the husband and wife in their physical state. When one is meek and ailing, while the other is robust, then the stronger one must sacrifice himself to the weaker one. And gradually, with the help of the stronger one, the weaker one becomes better, and when both are in good health they can forge ahead.
As I said, the sanctification of a married individual requires good sense, effort and spiritual labor. I believe that it is wrong to get married only in order to eat, drink, sleep and obtain sensual delights, for all of that is of the flesh, while man is not only flesh but also spirit. The body must help to sanctify the soul, not ruin it.
God sees the efforts of each Christian and knows the strength which He has given to each Christian, and asks from him accordingly.
Many married couples complain about each other, because they are unable amid great family difficulties to recognize God’s good plan for them. One husband, for example, complains that his wife is capricious, another wife complains that her husband is quick to anger. When this was brought to the attention of the elder, he smilingly said: - Well, children, God knows better than we how to do His job. If, for example, a husband is “prickly,” then God provides him with a mild-mannered wife, and vice versa. The Lord sees everything, He also sees that two childish characters would not be suitable for married life, because they would fall apart!”
A certain young man asked the elder: - Father, will I find a good maiden, in order to get married with comfort?
The elder, smiling, replied: - If all young men found good maidens, what would we do with the others? Pickle them?