The Word Among Us

June 2010 Issue

Nothing is More Precious

St. John Chrysostom on the Beauty of Married Love

Nothing is More Precious: St. John Chrysostom on the Beauty of Married Love

When the bishops of the United States released their 2009 Pastoral Letter entitled "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan," they put forth a blueprint for marriage that sought to encourage and inspire couples at every stage of their lives. One of the major themes that flowed through this document was the call for every family to become a mini-church, a place where each family member experiences Jesus’ love and strives to treat each other with that love.

St. John Chrysostom, a fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople, preached extensively about marriage and family life. In his time as a priest and a bishop, he saw the everyday joys and challenges of families from every walk of life. He used these observations, as well as his deep knowledge and love of Scripture, to draw out some fundamental principles for marriage. Let’s take a look at some of his teachings to see how we can build our homes into mini-churches.

Married Love: A Precious Gift. For John, everything begins with God’s plan of salvation. He held marriage in very high esteem because he saw it as the arena in which most people would take up the call to holiness—and do it in a way that led their spouse and children to holiness as well. And central to that plan was the gift of married love, a gift "that no possession can equal; for nothing, nothing whatever, is more precious than to be loved by a wife and to love her" (Homily XLIX on Acts). Married love, according to John, is not just romantic sentiment. It is filled with sacramental grace that raises a couple above the limitations of their fallen, human mindsets.

For John, this kind of boundless love is possible because of Jesus’ promise: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). "And not only is Jesus present in marriage," John wrote, "but so, too, are many angels, archangels, and other heavenly powers."

Jesus’ presence in a marriage brings with it numerous blessings. Just as he honored the woman who poured her precious perfume on him, so will he honor us when we pour ourselves out for our husband or wife. Just as he praised the faith of the centurion, he will praise our faith as we turn to him for guidance in our marriage. And just as he taught and encouraged his disciples as they traveled throughout Israel, he will always seek ways to teach us and encourage us as individuals and as a family.

The love and presence of Jesus in our homes is the single most important gift we can give to our spouse. So, each day, affirm together that Jesus is present in your home, guiding your lives along the path to heaven.

Welcoming Jesus into Your Home. In the course of his teachings on marriage, John taught that because their lives are so caught up in day-to-day responsibilities, married couples needed to be active in seeking after Jesus—even more aggressive than the monks who lived in the isolation of their monasteries. The monks do not need "the consolation and the help of the Holy Scriptures as much as those married couples who are in the whirl of a distracting existence" for "you are in the front of battle" (Homily III on Lazarus).

To counter these distractions, John encouraged married couples to "pray together at home and go to church." He said, "I would have you always pray; and if not always, at least very often; and if not very often, at least now and then, at least in the morning, at least in the evening." (Homily XXII on Hebrews).

We live in a world that moves at a whirlwind pace. We get ourselves so busy that we sometimes forget about Jesus. We face a barrage of images and ideas, from television to the Internet, from fast food ads to shopping mall hype, and they all urge us to go and go and go. Of course, in and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with these things, but they need to be kept in their proper perspective. When we find ourselves engulfed in them and unable to devote any time to our family or to our relationship with Jesus, John would tell us that our life is out of order.

John wanted balance. He wanted order. He espoused the value of schedules and the regular examination of the day, week, and month primarily to measure the balance. Balance for John meant that each family, each mini-church, needed to protect the "Christ-centered atmosphere" lest it fall by the wayside—and prayer is the best way to protect this atmosphere.

Show Your Love. A very practical man, John wasn’t satisfied just telling his people to love as Jesus loves. He made sure that they knew how to do this. For John, selfless love showed itself in a desire to be "perfect," all the while knowing that our spouse is not perfect. It is this striving for perfection, coupled with a healthy dose of realism, that will preserve a marriage from the pitfalls of resentment and punishingly high expectations.

To reinforce his point, John encouraged couples to express their love for each other every day: "Never call your wife merely by her name. Call her with terms of endearment, with honor, and with much love. . . . Always begin by telling her how much you love her. . . . Tell her that you love her more than your own life" (Homily XX on Ephesians).?John suggested that couples should be willing to die for each other, "even if it becomes necessary . . . to be cut into pieces ten thousand times." For John it was not only physical death but the death that comes from living together. John knew how deeply cruel words can hurt when a husband or wife says or does something that should not have been said or done. Sometimes, silence can cut more deeply than words. But in all these instances of death, John encouraged couples to forgive and let go—just as Jesus forgives us. If something needs to be addressed, it should be addressed—but always out of a desire for unity, always letting love cover our flaws and our sins (1 Peter 4:8).

It can be easy to forget that love keeps marriages alive, not routine, function, and chores. It can be easy, also, for a couple to take each other for granted. That’s why John encouraged his people to pay attention to their verbal and nonverbal gestures of love. That’s why he asked them to assess how they were doing from time to time—so that routine would not dethrone affection. It’s also why he spoke about the value of sexual intimacy in marriage.

The Key to Harmony. John also spoke about the importance of having harmony in the home. In his mind, harmony meant always keeping the focus on what was best for the whole, not just for one individual. It meant working through life together, resolving differences without resorting to harsh comments, spite, or anger. "When harmony prevails, the children are raised well; the household is kept in order; and neighbors, friends, and relatives praise the result."

So how can married couples live in harmony in a world that pulls them in so many directions? How can we dedicate ourselves to bringing Jesus into our homes when we are already spread so thin? Chrysostom faced this question as well, and he gave two key responses: Couples must pray and read Scripture every day, and they must avoid serious sin. If a married couple can work on just these two areas, they will be comforted and they will find harmony.

"If we order our lives in this way and diligently study the Scriptures," John taught, "we will find the lessons to guide us in everything we need" (Homily XX on Ephesians). What kind of lessons? On the one hand, we will learn how to love unconditionally, how to forgive, and how to treat each other charitably. On the other hand, we will learn how to guard against getting caught up in money, how to avoid manipulating each other, and how to put aside any tendency to puff ourselves up with pride or arrogance.

When a couple begins to pray, reads Scripture together, and tries to stay close to Jesus, good things begin to happen. They find that their efforts to be more considerate and more harmonious are built up and bring far more results than before. And this doesn’t surprise Chrysostom in the least. Remember how he taught that Jesus and the angels and the archangels all come into a marriage founded on Christ. They are all present in a marriage striving to be a mini-church, and they all cast a beautiful and bright light over the whole home.

Am I Ridiculous? When he talked about this exalted view of marriage, John faced a certain degree of opposition. "I am aware that many people think me ridiculous for giving such advice," he said. But he continued: "If you live as I say and build your household into a mini-church, your perfection will rival the holiest of monks."

So what about you? It’s never too late to start. Consider how you can bring Jesus into your home—maybe with a family rosary or a time of Scripture reading just before dinner. Make it a point to go to Mass together every Sunday. Work with your whole family to try to gain consensus on how to build up the harmony in your home. And above all, do not let yourself get discouraged. Every step you take—however small or large—can go a long way in establishing your home as a mini-church.