I want to write about how we should view other people when we are feeling that we need to find an intimate relationship with another. I am writing elsewhere about how our relationship with God should inform and influence our emotions and the direction of our life. But in this short post I want to consider how we should be acting and thinking around others, especially when we are struggling with these often overwhelming emotions and desires.
We know that we treat people differently. That’s fine. It is proper and to be expected. I don’t mean that we treat some people badly and dismissively, and we fall over ourselves to hang around with those we think are cool. I don’t mean that at all. That is a symptom and expression of our wrong thinking and acting, and we will consider that in a moment. I mean that when it comes to romantic attraction – which is not what real love is – it is already entirely normal that we treat people differently, as a matter of respect and proper boundaries.
At its simplest, there is something wrong if a father or mother has romantic feelings towards their children, or brothers and sisters towards each other. That is wrong and harmful in everyway. Those feelings are switched off in a normal, healthy family. There is something wrong if a teacher in school develops romantic feelings towards any of the students in their care. Those feelings are switched off in a normal, professional educator. Likewise, a Doctor will not consider it appropriate to try to engage with a patient in a romantic manner. In the Church, it has been the practice since ancient times, that someone who is to be made a priest should already be married, because it has always been clear that if a priest is considering members of his congregation in a romantic manner, this will undermine, and indeed be harmful, to his ministry and to the people.
We can apply this to the experience of those who are old enough to begin thinking about life time relationships with a partner, and say that there is something deeply harmful to ourselves, and to those around us, when we think of everyone in terms of possible romantic connections, or worse, in terms of physical satisfaction. This de-humanises those around us, and makes them no more than an object of our desire and need. It affects all of the relationships we have with them, because we are unable to engage with them as real persons, but only as the means to satisfy something we find missing in ourselves. We are essentially saying that I do not care who you are, only what you can do for me. We say this when we scan a room to see which young man or young woman we find attractive, which ones seem most popular and cool to be with, which ones we like – as if our casual external appraisal could say very much about a person at all. We say this when the first, perhaps unspoken, question which comes to our mind when we enter a large gathering is – do I consider, after a brief glance, anyone here a possible romantic partner?
How should we view others? If we are Christians, then it should be with the agape love of kindness, thoughtfulness, patience and chastity. We should, at a first level, be welcoming to all people in the same way. We should not have such close friends that we deliberately and hurtfully exclude others. We should not want to be part of the in crowd. We should make every effort in Church to sit with those whom others ignore, and to share ourselves with many, and generously. We should not demanding of others, as if they existed to serve our needs, but we should be grateful to God for every gift of friendship and kindness that we receive, while expecting nothing more. If someone calls us, then we give thanks for their thoughtful gesture. If they do not call again, then we remind ourselves how busy they are, and we pray for them, without feeling bitterness that they have not remembered us.
Everyone in the Church must be a true brother and sister to us. If my brother does not contact me for a while, he is still my brother. I am not related to him only because I gain pleasure from my relationship with him. Indeed, he remains my brother if the relationship becomes difficult, or if it becomes one in which he needs my attention all the time, and my own needs take second place.
When we view others as they are, as our family in Christ, then we allow them to be the person they are and are becoming. We see their faults, and we see their gifts, and we love them all the same, because they are our brothers and sisters. We begin to develop relationships, when we think in such a way, with the actual persons that we are gathered together with in the Church. And this relationship with actual persons must be the basis for the second level of our engagement with others.
At the second level, when we have learned to view all of those in the Church with us as brothers and sisters in Christ, those with whom we pray above and before all else. only then, should we notice that there are those few, especially of the other sex, that we find enjoyable in their company. But we should certainly not jump in to romantic feelings and imaginations. If there are a few whose company we enjoy, but not in an exclusive manner, then this is an opportunity to experience a deeper participation in the life of Christ with them. If we are serious about being Christian and perhaps one day entering into a Christian marriage, then this is the place where we prepare ourselves for that calling.
A Christian young man or woman, must use this period where special friendships are developing to become that man or woman who is able to properly enter into the sacrament of marriage. This is no less serious than the person who is to be baptised preparing themselves and being prepared for baptism. Or the man who is to be ordained as a priest preparing himself and being prepared for the priesthood. This preparation has very little to do with teaching about the need for shared interests, a common social and wealth class, similar levels of education. All of this treats the potential partner as an object to meet my needs. The preparation we need to engage in is all spiritual and is within us, so that we are prepared to be the servant of another for all of life.
If we are in this second level then rather than constantly looking around the circle of closer friends among all the brothers and sisters, to see who might be a possible partner, we should be concentrating with great seriousness on the much harder job of preparing ourselves for God’s will, whatever it might be. Are we becoming men and women of prayer? Are we present at Tasbeha every Saturday evening, and praising with concentration? Are we gaining fruitfulness in our regular use of the Agpeya? Are we learning to pray without ceasing? Do we fast seriously and with understanding? Are we reverent in the services of the Church? These are all aspects of the preparation that is required.
More than these however, are we becoming more humble? Do we take the last place? Are we willing to do dirty and menial jobs around the Church and in our homes, and universities and employment? Are we growing in the desire for the will of God to be done in our life, or are our own plans preoccupying us? Do we want to be wealthy and important, or obedient and humble?
If we are not growing in these things then it is hard for me as a priest to suggest that anyone pass to the third level of entering into a relationship that might lead to marriage. This is why we must not rush into relationships, and why we must learn to be patient. This preparation for marriage, and for life, is required of us all if we wish to bear fruit in our lives, and if we are serious about union with God in every aspect of our lives. If God is to be more than a part-time focus, as if a little bit of religion was useful, but not too much, then he must be God of everything. And if we wish to be truly and authentically human persons in the deepest relationships with others who are also becoming truly and authentically human persons in union with God, then this period of patient and necessary preparation cannot be avoided, and becomes its own reward in a greater participation in the divine life.
We must say to ourselves – I am not yet prepared for a life-long relationship. And we must do what is necessary on our part in the grace and love of God to become prepared. We know that we are not yet prepared because it seems that a life-long relationship is the one thing we need. But if we think like this then any relationship we enter into is undermined already, because we enter into it as if the other person must fulfill and satisfy our needs. Our preparation for such a relationship must include the understanding and personal experience that only God himself can fulfill and satisfy these needs. And when he satisfies them, then we are set free to receive what others give as a gift, and to give ourselves wholeheartedly without fear or expectation.
But this period of preparation of ourselves, of seeking to be and become a truly spiritual man or woman, fit for the sacrament of marriage, and for all other service of God, also allows us to consider others more patiently. In the first place, when we grow to know people as persons, then we are no longer able to view them only externally, as if their physical appearance was all that mattered. When we know the person they become much more complex, and the selfish person who was once very attractive to us, becomes less so, while the one we passed over becomes more attractive to us as we learn what they are truly like. This requires us to become more spiritual ourselves, more substantially rooted in God, because we can remain at a level where the vain, selfish and physically attractive person is still the one we are drawn to.
Those who are becoming spiritual, and we can all become spiritual men and women if we choose, and if we orient our whole life towards union with God, see deeper. They see deeper into themselves, and can reflect on what is going on inside themselves, and they see deeper into the reality of things outside themselves. Those who are becoming spiritual properly find themselves drawn to others who are also becoming more spiritual. This means that the spirituality of others becomes attractive to us, and we feel and find a communion with those who are also engaged in the journey towards union with God in the heart by the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is not only a matter of being present at the services, at the study meetings, and at Tasbeha. But it is also shown in the serving nature of others, in their humility, the way they deal with others, especially the often excluded.
In this second level, where we begin to find an affinity with a few others, especially those of the other sex, still as brothers and sisters, the one who is preparing himself by every spiritual means possible to be able to enter into the sacrament of marriage, also begins to see more clearly what is required in a partner for such a life-long Christian vocation. We begin to develop a patience, and a trust in God, through our increasing experience of God each day, so that finding a partner, any partner, at any cost, no longer becomes such an overwhelming desire. We begin to see that we ourselves still have much more preparation of ourselves to undergo, and that God who is with us, will always work out his purposes for our good.
And this leads to the third level. Of course the human desire for intimacy is often and even always present. It can lead us into sin of all kinds when it is not directed towards God as the first and foundational relationship. But if we are growing in our spirituality then we understand that patient and humble obedience to the will of God always bears fruit, while insisting on our own will in our own strength leads to separation from God, and often in disaster. We view all those around us in the Church as brothers and sisters. We do not allow ourselves to look on them as romantic or even physical objects to satisfy our needs and desires. We have been making serious effort over many years to become a more spiritual man or woman, and we have some close, but not excluding, friendships with others who are also spiritual in their life and desires and ambitions.
It is only then, at such a time in our life, that we should begin to think of the possibility of a life-long partnership with someone in marriage. It is in such a time that we already have spiritual friendships with spiritual people. We no longer view them from the outside according to their physical appearance, nor are we charmed by their job, or possessions, or anything external to them, because we know them as persons, as persons growing into union with God. At this time we make any possible plans the subject of prayer with fasting, and we wait and act in a patient manner. What we are considering, is not so much asking another person out on a date, but beginning the process of considering whether a shared participation in the sacrament of marriage in the grace of God is possible.
If we are at this stage, then it is because the person we are considering and speaking to and praying with is ALREADY a friend, a close spiritual friend, and a partner in prayer and service. This post is not about how we enter into such a commitment together, nor how the respect which has been the basis of relationships as friends must continue into the relationship as possible partners. But it is about how we are to view others in the Church, and how we are to reflect on our own attitudes and actions towards others. We must not make them the objects of our desire, but must see them and treat them as brothers and sisters, and then as spiritual friends, preparing ourselves with every possible effort for the life of service.
What of those who are not members of the Church? If we are serious, and if we are reflecting on the life of God in which we are called to participate more fully, we can see that we should certainly treat all men and women with the agape love of kindness, thoughtfulness, patience and tolerance. We should not make them the objects of any of our needs, but should also receive what they give of themselves with thanks, and demand and expect nothing more, while giving ourselves in service as far as is appropriate and necessary. But it is not possible to enter into the spiritual friendship which is the necessary precondition for any life-long partnership. It does not matter if the person we have in mind is friendly, attractive, fun to be around, and generally kind to others. Much more is required of us, and much more is required of those who enter into the partnership of the sacrament of marriage.
It is not even a matter of a shared religious and spiritual culture being missing. What is missing is the very foundation of the sacrament of marriage, which is the shared experience of life in Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit, which is the means of our union together in marriage. Certainly a secular marriage can take place in such circumstances, though not recognised or permitted by the Church. There can be a real relationship, such as we see in all those around us who are married in such a way. But it is not the sacrament of marriage, which both demands and offers so much more. It is not the union in the divine life which transforms and transfigures those who participate in and co-operate with the grace of God by the Holy Spirit.
We must turn off our romantic feelings towards those outside the Church, just as we must turn them off towards all our brothers and sisters, and close spiritual friends, until we reach the third level I have written about. We know that this is possible because we do it all the time and people around us in other and professional relationship do it all the time. But this requires and demands of us that we make the serious effort to become spiritual men and women, those who are truly experiencing life with God every day and every moment, so that all of our relationships are transformed, and our deepest needs are directed in accordance with God’s will for us, and the truly authentic experience of our own humanity.