I’ve been to two Orthodox Christian weddings so far, and my favorite part of them is the crowns. Both bride and groom are crowned during the ceremony. As with the breaking of the glass in a Jewish wedding (probably also my favorite part, though the chair-bouncing which terrified my father at my sister’s wedding may take first place there) I’m guessing there are multiple meanings to this symbol, but the one I’ve heard most often is that these are the crowns of martyrdom. They’re meant to remind the couple (and the witnesses, their friends and families) that their marriage is being forged not for their own personal satisfaction but for sacrificial love. And the sacrifices you want to make in your marriage may not be the sacrifices God wants from you.
Love Is Our Mission, the new “preparatory catechesis” on the family from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia which I reviewed here, does an excellent job of highlighting this sacrificial character of marriage. I’ve talked with people who say, “But straight people get to fulfill their desires, and you have to suppress yours,” or, “So in the Eastern churches priests get to fulfill their desires but bishops don’t?” This is a misunderstanding of marriage, as my friend Matt Jones points out toward the end of this piece.
Good (good-enough!) marriages as I’ve observed them are a means for the spouses’ sanctification in large part because they require sacrificing one’s own desires. They require not only forgiveness and repentance, constantly renewed, but accepting one’s spouse completely, “for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.” People change after marriage, and while sometimes you do need to leave for your own safety, the well-being of your children, and/or the well-being or at least correction of your spouse–I’ve counseled and supported women leaving abusive marriages–in less-drastic cases you pretty much do need to accept painful changes. And at one point or another I think many if not most spouses are in this “less-drastic case” where you fantasize about divorce, or don’t know how you’ll put up with this if it keeps going. That’s true of some of the best, most loving couples I know.
I met privately with some people from an East Coast archdiocese and talked with them about many of the themes of my book. One thing they asked was basically, What are some things we’re not talking about enough, which might help people see where the Church is coming from on gay issues? And I surprised myself by saying it would help immensely to talk more about the sacrifices the Church expects straight people to make, the difficulty of the sexual discipline required of them. The vocations in which they’re called to pour out their love are also really, really tough. One reason I’m grateful for my work at the pregnancy center is that it makes it impossible to forget just how hard Christian sexual discipline is for women who have sex with men–and, you know, men who have sex with women. I see so many people making excruciating and humiliating choices to give their children life or to support the kids they fathered: choices which will lower their economic prospects, damage their reputation, create conflict with their own parents, etc. But they do it because they want to follow God.
Being more honest about the sexual and vocational discipline required of straight people shouldn’t become a pity party, or an excuse to tell gay people to shut up about our struggles. My point is not at all, “We need to suck it up and deal, straight people suffer too!” What we need is solidarity without condescension. And solidarity without envy–without, “You get everything and I get nothing!”
Instead we can seek to acknowledge one another’s suffering and honor one another’s sacrifice. The vocational paths are different but none of them lead around what Spenser called the Gracious Valley of Humiliation; all of them are, sometimes, the Way of the Cross.