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“You’ve gone mad—creating a family without trying it out first?”

By Fr. Igor Prekup

You sample, others sample you…soon there will be nowhere to place a stamp of approval and you’re still sampling each other? Such is the preliminary tasting.

But in order to define the flavor, you must have prior experience, which means that the first trial cannot be the last—after all, to evaluate the merit you need something with which to compare…And not one out of two. In general, to find your own thing you need to refine your taste; or else you look and it seems okay, like you got a match, and then you suddenly find out that’s it, yet not completely it…but it will be too late—bonds and shackles in the form of a ring on your finger and a stamp in your passport, weighed down by growing, and thus increasingly burdensome kids! What a nightmare! No, you can’t, you can’t do it without testing it first.

Without testing what? Family life? But there won’t even be any until that very stamp appears. Even if you drown in pots and wring yourself out in the centrifuge of the washing machine, you won’t come to know family life until that vile, good-for-nothing, senseless—as you think—little stamp isn’t slapped down where it belongs. After all, it’s magical…

Indeed: people live and continue living together. They dote on each other. They live one year, another. Finally, one of the “halves” (usually HER) gets its way and they go to the civil registry. Would it appear that things have changed? After all, they just went to a public office, signed somewhere, put something on their fingers, well, went out for a bit, but after that…?

Because afterward, in theory, everything should go as before, along the beaten path? Not by any means! Either both or one of the “halves” has been replaced, as it were. All kinds of things creep up out of nowhere. Everything is different! So much is unfamiliar, alien; so many trifles, and so loathsome! And it turns out that you are faced with a choice: either fight for your family, in whose life there has arisen a sudden cataclysm, or conclude that the trial hasn’t worked and try to start over. But in a different place and with a different person.

This was an example from life. What did a three-year trial give my college friend if he was already sleeping in the lecture hall the first month after the wedding?

Family life is communication, and communication is mutual respect. It’s trust, but it’s also vigilance that opportunely notices a crookedness in the relationship; it’s both a delicate silence and a stern reprimand that’s to the point; it’s both the translation of an uncomfortable situation into a joke and a strict outlook that fights off the urge to joke about serious things. But all of this can be “fine-tuned” and outside of “marriage-y” cohabitation. After the wedding (even if this is just a signature at the civil registry), there will still arise new, hitherto unknown features on the adored countenance. With time, the countenance will become a face. God grant that the countenance may not turn out to be a guise, concealing a snout. You never can tell. But for this there is no need to cohabit. Even without extramarital and out-of-place intimacy, you can recognize a scoundrel; even in premarital cohabitation, that scoundrel may never come out from the person’s worst side.

So this is not an argument from the point of view of testing mutual suitability for familial coexistence.

Without testing what? If you fit on sexual terms? Oh, please…what, if you won’t fit on the first try, you’ll immediately scamper, looking for the next object to test? Then it’s better to not even try because there is nothing connecting you above the belt; but building a family life only on what’s below is impossible. Then you don’t need to talk about any trials; it’s better for you to honestly admit that you simply want to live a regular sexual life, but, as it were, not entirely contrary to Christian morality. That is, contrary, but kind of tangentially, not head-on…

In reality, sexual intimacy is first and foremost communication—if we’re talking about people, of course. Because every human is first of all a person, and then an appearance, a plasticity, a character, a strength, and an anatomy with an endocrinology. In the confluence of bodies there occurs a confluence of souls, which use bodies as means (let us recall Aristotle, who regarded the body as an organ of the soul).

But this, forgive me, is again about people. Needless to say, each one is free to choose to be a human (cultivating within himself the divine origin) or something like an animal—that is, the kind of zoanoid that formed due to a mutation provoked by the stimulation of man’s animal origin. At times you get the impression that since man by definition cannot be a normal animal, this is where some get the desire to believe in reincarnation, which allows them to take comfort in the thought that in the next life they will be rabbits in the state of Kentucky and then…

If we are not inclined to see in each other first and foremost a person, no trial will give us anything. And conversely, a lively interest in a person and a considerate attitude toward him, serious and respectful, are the conditions for understanding him, including in terms of sensual congruence. This respectful interest is the indispensable condition of friendship; and friendship is that same clamp which provides the couple with viability when the first illusions evaporate, everyday life begins to gnaw and engulf them, and other worldly problems come up.

Is it possible to have a close relationship before marriage? Yes! But a close friendship: tender, poignant, romantic, with its highs and lows, raptures and quarrels, after which the friendship either falls apart or grows stronger. After a more or less lengthy period of such “non-confluent” interaction, you can tell clearly enough if the other is your kind of person through and through: by the glances, tastes, needs, manners, touch, by the “grimaces and jumps”. And it’s very important to not digress into extremes: either to fall into depression upon discovering many differences in habit, losing sight of something substantial and capable of uniting the pair to such an extent that everything else works itself out—or, the other way around, to concentrate on something attractive, diminishing the importance of “details.”

Sometimes these details, which at first glance and in reality are not worth fighting over, later make living together intolerable, poisoning all the good that remains. To say nothing of the fact that at times what some take to be trifles are really rather serious vices, such as an inclination to alcoholism. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t put any initial trust in a person who drinks, that you should break up after the first incident; but just too many sad stories began with a woman rushing to save a man “drowning in search of truth” (which, as the ancients said, is in wine), but in the end, without saving him, she drowned along with him not only her own life, but also that of her future children, if not grandchildren…Incidentally, such marriages were often preceded by sufficiently lengthy trials…

Abstinence before marriage makes sense not only for believing couples. Let us set aside such extremes as, on the one hand, scientifically dubious hypotheses (like telegony together with wave genetics) that pursue the good aim of convincing everyone of chastity’s utility, and, on the other hand, worldly concepts that seek to dethrone traditional values (like “a fling strengthens a marriage,” “everything in life is worth a try,” and so on). If we do this, we will find enough arguments not only in the Christian cultural heritage, but even in the traditions of many indigenous nations, popularly called “savages” (and, as it often becomes clear after an attentive familiarization with their culture, they are called so entirely in vain).

But, in order to not completely change formats, we will limit ourselves to the argumentation that applies only to Orthodox Christians, who are “tormented by vague doubts” as to the validity of premarital continence.

The fundamental value of premarital continence is the virtue of chastity. As any absolute virtue, it is directed towards God and in a certain way is God’s gift.

But what is chastity? In some prayer books, for example, among other recommendations for communion preparation, spouses are enjoined to “maintain chastity” the day before. But what about at other times? You can relax and let yourself go…in the sense of freedom from chastity? Here we run into a certain conceptual confusion that has taken root in mass consciousness, due to which the idea of chastity is narrowed to abstention from sexual intimacy. Even in the case of premarital abstinence, people say, “maintain chastity until marriage.” And afterwards…? Chastity is also asked of newlyweds during the marriage office. Is it really in the narrow sense mentioned above?

Needless to say, no. The other frequent and a bit wider concept of chastity—modest behavior and a cleanness of thoughts that rejects carnal (again) temptations—doesn’t uncover the essence of the phenomenon either.

Of course, chastity impels one to protect oneself from unclean thoughts and to disdain not only carnal sins, but also indecent conversations and entertainment. But it doesn’t boil down to this.

“Chastity” is the translation of the Greek word σωφροσυνη (“sofrosíni”), from σως (“sos”)—healthy, whole—and φρονεω (“fronéo,” from φρην (“frin”)—mind)—to think, consider, and possess a mind. From this, we get φρονησις (“fronísis”)—thinking, intellect, discretion, and mentality. That is, chastity signifies an integrated intellect, consciousness, and thinking, as opposed to a fractured consciousness—schizophrenia (σχιζω (“s-hízo”)—to cleave, tear asunder)—not only in a psychological sense, but also in a deeper, essential sense. (Incidentally, the etiology of schizophrenia still hasn’t been established).

From this, we get chastity[1]: this is a holistic worldview that provides a complete picture of life—of the hierarchy of values and ethics, of the interconnectedness of events and causes, and of the meaning of all that exists and occurs.

Wholeness is also an artistic term. The study of academic drawing or painting begins with a complete view of the model (arrangement) and a complete representation on paper. A dilettante is characterized by the fractionality of his work process (the little eye is all worked out, down to the lashes and shiny spots, but there’s nothing more on the sheet), while a professional is characterized by wholeness: it’s as if the image revealed itself gradually and simultaneously, and only little by little are some areas elaborated with more detail; and the others remain in their initial stage, being marked only slightly, but the work has a finished look because it is whole.

P.P. Chestiakov, the famous teacher from the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts (the teacher of Repin, Serov, and many other prominent Russian painters) paid a great deal of attention to wholeness. “Draw the right contour, but look at the left one,” the pedagogue advised. “If you’re drawing the eye, look at the foot.”

So chastity is akin to the integrated vision of a painter. The only difference is that a painter maintains within one scope the model with all its proportions, spots, lines and accents, but a chaste view does so with all the reality of existence; and scrutinizing it, gradually comes to distinguish its details, keeping them constantly in correlation, juxtaposing them by significance and building on the foundation of this vision its life.

The antipode of chastity is a worldview in which some single value (which, however lofty, is not God) occupies one’s entire field of vision or an unjustifiably large part. Man, as it were, buries himself in this and is simply incapable of seeing anything. But chastity is like an eagle’s view from the height of his flight: he can both survey an enormous area and perceive the finest details.

Chastity stipulates a vision of all aspects of existence in their interaction, as a certain system that is structurally directed towards God—the original cause of existence. This virtue ensures a sobriety of mind and the formation of all virtues, starting with the foundation of all foundations—humility. But the fact that the sexual aspect has come to the fore in our understanding of chastity is not at all surprising: sexual attraction (be it the sublime variant—being in love—or the vile one—bestial consumer lust) is such a powerful force that reason is drawn as if by a magnet and gets absorbed in the object of desire, becoming unable to see all that is happening in the totality of its component parts. Whereas chastity allows man, while loving someone or something, to not fall into idolatry, to not stop aspiring to love God with all his being and to love himself and his neighbor as His image; and, more importantly, to love his other half first and foremost as a neighbor.

Here’s a bit more of amusing etymology. One word that shares a root with σωφροσυνη (sofrosíni) is σωτηρια (sotiría), which comes from the verb σωζω (sózo). This verb has the same root as the adjective σως (“sos”)—healthy, whole—as does σωφροσυνη (sofrosíni). That is why σωτηρια (sotiría) signifies recovery, as liberation from illness, from corruption. Salvation is understood as the restoration of union with God, which man at some point destroyed. If we speak of salvation, then we agree that we have something to be saved from, that man’s condition outside of this path is perdition, as a result of apostasy. If we speak of salvation as healing in the Christian sense, then we mean spiritual healing, the recovery of human nature from sin and its consequences, which have stricken that nature unto death; this means giving human nature the capacity for eternal life.

We understand “perdition” as the radical injury to human nature incurred in the fall of our forefathers, which deprived the human race of life eternal (“eternal” not so much in the sense of endlessness as eternal in quality, as inherent to the eternal God and impossible outside of an intimate union with Him). Therefore, we take “salvation” to be the restoration of that unity through a rebirth into life eternal in the mystery of baptism and the subsequent purposeful recovery of the godlike soul in the course of all earthly life.

Chastity (in its wide, aforementioned meaning) is the basis of our salvation. A chaste relationship expresses itself not only in the keeping of premarital purity and not so much in the mutually voluntary and agreed upon “deprivation for the sake of fasting and prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5)[2] during marriage. Rather, it is to regard a loved one as a person in all areas of life. Chastity, to be more exact, reveals itself in that very sensitivity that impels one to “render due affection” (1 Cor. 7:3)[3], responding to the happiness or grief of the other half, disregarding one’s own comfort, tiredness, busyness, and anxieties.

Without trying it out…? Yes, that’s exactly it. Concern for one’s own soul and for that of the beloved will help to curb (not strangle) the “wonderful rush.” It’s worth it because in the life of a Christian, all important stages begin with sanctification. Thus should they begin.

Translated from Russian by Katia Shtefan for Kiev-orthodox.org

[1] In Russian, this definition of chastity is both morphological and etymological: the word целомудрие (tzelomúdriye) is a calque from the Greek σωφροσυνη (sofrosíni); that is, each part of the Greek word was translated separately. Hence, σω(ς) (so(s)) became цело (tzélo) and φροσυνη (frosíni) became мудрие (múdriye). Consequently, in Russian, the word “chastity” literally means a healthy mind. Translator’s Note.

[2] As in the original version, this is a paraphrase rather than a direct biblical quote.

[3] See previous note.

Дата публикации: 10.09.2011