Mother’s Day reflections

May 12, 2008

Yesterday was Mother’s Day (a secular holiday in America). It happened to coincide this year with the day on which the Orthodox Church remembers the myrrh-bearing women, those followers of Jesus who, after Christ’s crucifixion, came to his tomb early in the morning on the day after the Sabbath, intending to anoint his body with spices, but found the stone on the tomb rolled away and Jesus’ body gone; instead, they found an angel (or a man dressed in white robes) sitting inside the tomb, who informed them that the Lord had risen, and that they should go and tell his disciples and Peter about this; they ran away quite astonished and afraid. The account of these events is found in ch. 16 of the Gospel of St. Mark; the Greek text at Mark 16:8 is very odd (ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ), and gives the impression of someone stopping in mid-sentence.

After liturgy yesterday at the church I attend in New Jersey, I went downstairs for coffee hour, procured myself a cup of tea, ate a piece of a doughnut (most of the doughnuts were already gone by the time I got there), returned a book to the church library, borrowed a CD (Liturgical chants of the Syrian Orthodox Church), spoke briefly with various people, then sat down at a table where the choir had assembled. The choir then practiced a few songs; the rehearsal lasted hardly more than ten minutes. Afterwards, as people in the choir were going their separate ways, one of the members of the choir, a woman in, I would guess, her late 30’s, who has two young daughters, and whose husband also sings in the choir, in the course of chatting with the choir director about this and that, mentioned to her that, this week, she and her husband are filing for divorce.

I do not know this woman or her husband very well; I would assume that most of you, who are reading this blog, do not know them very well either. In any case, it is not for the sake of putting their personal miseries up to public exposure and critique that I bring up their case here. For myself, I publicly acknowledge that I have enough sins upon my own head to sink a large battleship or aircraft carrier; I am not in a position to stand in judgment of someone else. (Glory to Jesus Christ, who bore my sins, and the sins of the whole world, upon the cross, and who does not reject anyone who comes to him.) But I do know for a fact, that the Lord says he hates putting away (Malachi 2:14-16). He says this not once only, but many times, to such an extent that the disciples, in their astonishment, remark to the Lord that, if such be the case with a man and his wife, it is not good to marry (Matthew 19:10). In particular, he specifically, and repeatedly, states that whoever puts away his wife, save for the cause of fornication, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is put away commits adultery (Mt 5:32; 19:9; Mk 10:11-12). St. Paul says essentially the same thing, and specifically states that it is the Lord’s commandment, not his own (1 Cor 7:10-11).

And, lest anyone think that this was simply due to the cultural peculiarity of that time, when women were economically at a disadvantage to men and had little means, outside marriage, to support themselves, and that, social conditions now being different, Jesus’ words no longer apply (the usual evasions of cultural relativism) — in refutation of this line of reasoning, Jesus also forbids a woman to put away her husband (Mark 10:12). Marriage, Jesus says, is God’s act; it has been so from the beginning of the world, and, by implication, will remain so till the end of it. “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mt 19:6; Mk 10:9).

In view of these remarks, I would like briefly to consider the Orthodox Church’s policy with regard to divorce and remarriage.

It is a subject on which I have made no particular study, and can claim no special knowledge. What I have generally heard is that, in concession to human weakness, and by applying the all-purpose principle of “economy” by which general rules are bent to particular circumstances, the Orthodox Church is willing to consecrate second marriages, and even, in rare cases, third ones, but beyond this it will not go, accounting fourth and subsequent marriages as tantamount to bestiality. This prohibition (or concession, depending on how you look at it) evidently became codified early in the tenth century as a result of something called the “Tetragamy” controversy. The emperor at the time, Leo VI (“the Wise”), was, like King Henry VIII six centuries later, desirous of a male heir. His third wife died in childbirth; the son she bore died with her. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Nicholas Mysticus, told the emperor that to take a fourth wife would be worse than fornication. So, instead of marrying, he chose fornication, taking as mistress one Zoe Carbonopsina (“Little Zoe Coal-eyes”). She, in due time, bore him a son, Constantine — the future Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (“Born-in-the-Purple”). To secure legal inheritance of the throne for his son, Leo needed to marry his mistress. Eventually, he did so, over the objections — and cloak-and-dagger palace conspiracies — of Patriarch Nicholas. Leo applied to Pope Sergius III for an indulgence — in the West, marriage customs differed; there was theoretically no limit to the number of times one could marry so long as, each time, one was widowed (cf. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath). Leo forced Patriarch Nicholas to step down; the new patriarch, Euthymius, agreed to accept Leo’s marriage to Zoe Carbonopsina, but only on condition that the emperor do penance and enact a law forbidding fourth marriages in the future. Presumably, that is the law still in force in the Orthodox Church when, by economy, it allows third marriages but prohibits fourth ones. (See Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society [Stanford, California, 1997], pp. 466 ff., from which I derive most of these details.)

This was certainly not the only Byzantine imperial controversy having to do with marriage laws; the ninth century, in particular, seems to have been full of them. About a century before the Tetragamy controversy, there occurred something called the Moechian (“Adulterous”) controversy. The abbot Plato of Saccudium and his nephew Theodore, later of the Studite monastery at Constantinople (see St. Theodore the Studite: Sermon on Peace), opposed the remarriage of the young Emperor Constantine VI, and broke communion with Patriarch Tarasius for allowing it to go through. (And while we all give thanks for our mothers, we ought also to give thanks not to have had a mother like Constantine VI had, the Empress Irene, who put out his eyes.) Again, in the middle of the ninth century, the Patriarch of Constantinople Ignatius brought himself into imperial disfavor for opposing the cohabitation of the Emperor Michael III’s uncle and regent Bardas with the young widow of Bardas’ son; this affair was a chief factor in bringing to the patriarchal throne the noted scholar Photius, an event which was to have such profound consequences for Christian unity over the future centuries.

The evident conclusion to be drawn is that, on the issue of divorce and remarriage, the Orthodox Church — while it doubtless acknowledges the Lord’s unequivocal prohibition as a spiritual “ideal” to which the faithful should aspire — in practice recognizes Byzantine civil law as taking precedence over the Lord’s commandment.

That those who dwell in the large house a little to the West, which boasts of its excellent foundations, have the right to cast stones at its eastern neighbors on this issue is not immediately clear to me. There is, in the Catholic Church, a practice called “annulment.” I do not think I exaggerate if I say that, for most American Catholics, the possibility of annulment is viewed as roughly equivalent to the possibility of divorce. And I would guess that the rates of annulment and of broken marriages within the Catholic Church in the United States are not too dissimilar from the rates of divorce among the general population. When I was in college, I knew an Irish Catholic girl from Massachusetts. Her parents later separated; eventually they got an annulment, in spite of the fact that they had had five children together. My friend was quite visibly embittered by this, and, for some years afterward, it caused her to break with the Catholic Church. She said to me: “How do you think it makes me feel? It means that, in the eyes of the Church, I’m a bastard.” I have another friend, whose parents did not take this course, but actually divorced; the mother, who is Catholic, for years did not feel able, or was not allowed, to receive communion, and perhaps is not receiving communion still. The son, who is also Catholic, in due course followed the same unhappy path; he married and, within about a year, divorced. That this has colored his views on life and on his own future deeply, and that these colors are mostly shadowed, goes without saying.

What is the answer to this problem? I don’t know. Are there occasions when human beings so completely manipulate and abuse each other that their living together under the same roof is a detriment to their common sanity? Undoubtedly that occurs. Are there also cases where people who remarry find some sort of stability and happiness in one another? I believe I have seen cases of this, although I am not privy to people’s souls. In any case, on a human, empirical level, there is some evidence to suggest that the Orthodox Church’s policy of allowing second marriages is not a complete betrayal of the Lord’s will for human good: there are second marriages that seem to “work,” although there are also, without doubt, second marriages where the underlying reasons for the first marriage’s failure never really were attended to, and reappear in the second marriage in another form.

I cannot, however, get over the explicitness and urgency of the Lord’s statements. He seems to be saying that human beings, infinitely adept at deluding themselves and justifying themselves, will take every measure to get out of what seems to them a miserable situation except the one measure which is most vital and essential, which is to change their own hearts. “They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:7-8). So many people, it seems to me, assume that love is what they already have when they go into a marriage; and when some initial romantic feelings dry up under the pressure of practical reality, and what they originally thought they saw in the other person proves, on closer inspection, not to be there, they conclude that the marriage has been a failure. It seems to me that Jesus is saying, rather, that love is what comes out of a marriage; just as, when he speaks of eating, he says that it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out of the man, i.e., out of his heart (Mt 15:10-20), so also, in the case of marriage, it is not the various emotions that draw two people into a marriage that constitute their love for one another, but the change that each allows the other to work upon their hearts through this divine necessity of their mutual, life-long commitment. In brief, marriage is a sacrament because, like all sacraments, it is a God-ordained means for the salvation of the human person. It is God’s school in which the selfish, self-centered human soul, in answer to the most basic desires of its nature, learns to care about and for another person, and perhaps many persons (i.e., children). The permanency of that school is essential to its communicating its salutary lessons. If Jesus is saying anything at all in the things he says about marriage, he is saying that this state of mutual self-giving of a man and a woman is holy, it is God’s sanctuary, given for the purposes of life and salvation, and woe to anyone who would break it.

After church yesterday, I visited my mother. That is to say, I drove to the place where she is buried, and sang there the Trisagion prayers for those who are departed. My father and mother were married for 52 years, and had three children, of whom I am the youngest. Like most children, I had very little sense of what I was given. The love of my parents for one another was like an atmosphere that one simply took for granted, even during its occasional storms. I really had no idea how fortunate I was.


6 Responses to “Mother’s Day reflections”

  1. Michael McDonough Says:

    Hi Peter,

    I love the name “Little Zoe Coal-Eyes”! That whole epoch, East and West, saw some pretty ruthless and blood-thirsty “nobles”. In Rome, the “noble families” would build towers on top of the rubble of the ancient ruins, which they used as fortresses from which to attack one another. Some of the towers can still be seen.

    On the RC annulment issue — I too know cases where parents of friends (some with 13 siblings) received annulments in the 1970’s. The comments of your friends sound familiar. On the other hand, I think the “easy annulment” problem has been addressed by the Pope, but now we have, as you mentioned, large numbers of young Catholics entering into marriage for superficial reasons, with little or no proper formation for it. The lack of “consent” is frequently present. What many young folks who want to undertake marriage faithfully seem to be finding very helpful is John Paul II’s “theology of the body”, and “Love and Responsibility”.

    Best regards,

  2. bekkos Says:

    Hello Michael,

    Pope John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility is indeed an excellent book; it contains the essential ethical teaching of his The Acting Person while being much more accessible. As for the “theology of the body,” I confess that, although a book with that title has been recommended to me, I have not read it. Moreover, although the phrase is a common one these days, it is not yet entirely clear to me what it denotes, or wherein a “theology of the body” differs from Catholic moral theology as traditionally understood — aside from, perhaps, being expressed more in phenomenological terms than in strictly Aristotelian ones. Some while ago, I was asked, on short notice, to lead a seminar on Gregory of Nyssa’s work “On Virginity” at a Catholic church. A number of the people attending the seminar seemed to think that Gregory of Nyssa’s conception of the married life — with his belabored wailings over the miseries of this vale of tears, from which virginity was seen as largely immune — was sub-Christian, and contrasted it to the “theology of the body.” I gathered that, in the minds of some of the participants at least, the “theology of the body” signified not so much an ontological analysis of the moral basis of human love but a kind of spiritual ideal; it exalted a sort of comfortable but committed suburban homemaking existence as the supreme pattern of heroic virtue and piety. To the minds of these participants, the kind of bodily asceticism St. Gregory of Nyssa was talking about somehow missed the point of a truly religious life. It seemed to me that something was surely not quite right about their interpretation: a “theology of the body” surely has to account for a St. Symeon Stylites as much as for a St. Gianna Molla. Probably one should say this much, that both monastics and married people witness, in their different ways, to the reality of Christ’s kingdom, his victory over the powers of darkness, and both of them do so in an embodied way, but, while the latter bear witness to the kingdom by imaging, as St. Paul says, the love of Christ for his Church, the former bear witness to the kingdom by standing as a direct affront to the notion that the present order of things is the only desirable or imaginable one, or that it is permanent. Both monastics and married people are confronted with the daily realities of the fallenness of human nature; their warfare is the same, a struggle with the world, the flesh, and the devil; their means of warring are somewhat different.

    Thanks for commenting on the post.


  3. Michael McDonough Says:


    Your hunch about Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” is pretty accurate. As are your comments regarding the ascesis needed in all states of life, which he also brings into the work. In other words, it’s not just about conjugal relations, it’s about our human nature, as gendered soul and body created by God for a purpose, and how that purpose gives meaning to the vocations in life to which we find ourselves called.

    BTW, should you purchase it, make sure you only buy the 2006 re-translation by Michael Waldstein from the original Polish. You will save yourself immense frustration. The English translation available until then was awful, at times even asserting the very opposite of what, for example, the Italian version said. The new edition is intelligible, has a copious index, and a fine long introduction. The full title of the new translation is “Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body”. He regarded the work as a contribution to the “theology of the body” which he thought was called for by Vatican II as a pre-condition for developing a better moral theology.

    Best regards,

  4. […] while we’re at it … I never got the chance to link to some comments on the same sticky issue of Eastern and Western marriage disciplines by Dr. Peter Gilbert at De […]

  5. james g Says:

    Dr. Gilbert,

    I know that you are out of town with limited computer access but I wanted to let you know that I will be addressing this post at Eirenikon. I have the utmost respect for you and greatly enjoy your blog. However, I do disagree with your take on annulments and will be taking issue with it as I am addressing the subjects of the post at Eirenikon. Please take my criticism with charity.

    James G

  6. […] Gilbert once observed that some of us appear to have “exalted a sort of comfortable but committed suburban […]

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