Introduction: The Teachings of Saint Paisios on Marriage (Part 1)
This is the first in a series of articles in which we will explore the pastoral advice given to married couples by St Paisios the Athonite, one of the more beloved saints of our Church. The Elder was given the gift of discernment by God, and in turn he has blessed us with his simple and poignant counsels that touch the heart in a powerful way. Most of the quotations that I will use in this series are taken from The Spiritual Counsels of Elder Paisios of Mount Athos; Volume 4: Family Life, published by the convent in Souroti, Greece where he spent the majority of his last days, and where he is buried. He has so much to offer us, so let’s get started!
Once, when asked what advice he would give to newlyweds, the Elder replied, “They should cultivate, as far as possible, the virtue of love, so the two of them will always remain united in such a way that the Third Person – our sweetest Lord Jesus Christ – will also remain with them.” This is reminiscent of the Lord’s words to His Disciples in the Gospel of Matthew: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them”. Truly, in every single one of our relationships, we should desire that the Lord be present, and this must especially be true in our marriage! God is present where there is love, and as He is the source of that love, His presence makes it stronger, deeper, and more authentic. When we enter the church to get married, we bring our water (our imperfect human love), and in the Sacrament Christ transforms that water into wine, to the degree that we allow it!
Saint Paisios encourages us to “cultivate” love for our spouse, and this is a good reminder that “love” is not merely a feeling or an emotion, but involves sacrifice and must be worked towards. We cannot assume that love is automatically present in our marriages simply because we are “in love” or physically attracted to our spouse. He says, “In order to live harmoniously, couples need from the very start to set their love as the foundation of their life, a true and genuine love, one that is found in spiritual nobility, in sacrifice, and not in fake, worldly and carnal love.” Though the emotions of being “in love” and the force of sexual desire may be present and operating inside our marriage, the cultivation of deep love takes conscious effort and active participation. To put it simply, a healthy marriage will require love, and love takes work!
Though work and active cultivation are required, the benefits that authentic love brings to our marriage are worth the effort! Saint Paisios, speaking on how the harmony of God is often revealed in the differences in character and temperament between spouses, reminds us that if love is present in our marriage then our differences from each other become a strength, rather than a liability. For example, when a couple is weak in the same areas, the smallest misfortune or trial can send them into a tailspin; but when one is strong where the other is weak, the strong one can encourage the other and vis-a-versa. “When two oxen are under the yoke and one of them is a little weaker or lazy, then the other applies greater strength and pulls forward, drawing the weaker one along”. However, for this to work love must be present; if real love is absent and the relationship is built upon carnal, worldly love only, then the weaknesses of one spouse, instead of providing the opportunity for greater unity and common purpose to overcome the trial, will instead provide a moment of danger for the couple where the weakness of the one becomes a stumbling block to the other, and their weak union is further fragmented. Even worse, when their weaknesses are the same, and their love is only carnal in nature, then the trials that come will operate like a whirlwind or tempest that tosses them this way and that. Saint Paisios offers many practical examples like this that reinforce the point that love has a unifying, binding affect on the couple, and that the strength of their union is dependent on their commitment to each other and determination to love the other as they would Christ.
As this series continues, we will take a look at four principles of healthy marriage that can be found in St Paisios’ teachings; they are Respect, Gratitude, Sacrifice, and Patience. We will examine each of these independent of one another, even though they should be considered as just one piece of a united whole, what it means to “love” the other.
 Evangelist John the Theologian Monastery, The Spiritual Counsels of Elder Paisios of Mount Athos; Volume 4: Family Life. Pg. 40
 Gospel According to St Matthew 18:20.
 Family Life. Pg 46
 Cf. Family Life. Pg 41-42
 Family Life. Pg. 49