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Marriage as Martyrdom
  • Formation
  • Orthodoxy
  • Prayer
Abilene Marshall

“The handmaid of God, Abilene, is crowned unto the servant of God, Nathanael, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Father James prayed these words over me three times, and then placed a crown on my nervous, veiled head. I was married a little over four months ago, and have been meditating on the crowning ceremony ever since. It is a profound tradition observed by the Orthodox church, which identifies marriage as an act of martyrdom.

In the age of social media and Hallmark movies, it can be difficult to grasp this serious vision of marriage that is so far removed from the highlight reels of romantic idealism that are often presented to us. Romance, bliss, and excitement are not the goals of an Orthodox marriage; nor, even, are children. Rather, we enter into the “country of marriage,” as the poet Wendell Berry would say, as two people looking towards Heaven. Marriage and monasticism are viewed as two paths with the same goal – becoming like Christ. 

This is, above all, a humbling process. I am still a novice, and will be for many years. Much like Orthodoxy itself, marriage is a life-long journey. But as my husband and I continue to grow together, I know that I will continue to look at the crowns that hang above our bed, bound together with a white silk ribbon, as a reminder of the life of martyrdom to which I have been called. My husband and I must strive to perpetually die to ourselves to serve the other, and by doing so, become worthy of our crowns.

It is a beautiful and difficult way to live. No longer are your decisions exclusively your own, and no longer must you bear your burdens in solitude. In all things, you consider one person before everyone else. Your world both shrinks to the microcosm of your household, and expands as you join the ranks of every married couple who has come before you. 

When we arrived home from our honeymoon, we returned to church with our crowns once again for the un-crowning ceremony. Father James placed the crowns on our heads, prayed, removed them, and sent us on our way to rejoin the congregation. The message to our church brothers and sisters was clear: the honeymoon is over, and the real work has begun. As we held hands and walked back down the aisle, to the joyful song of “God grant you many years,” we could not stop smiling. We were beginning the good, rewarding, difficult, blessed life of marriage. Thanks be to God!

I would like to end these musings of a newly-married woman with an excerpt from the poem I referenced above: The Country of Marriage by Wendell Berry.

What I am learning to give you is my death
to set you free of me, and me from myself
into the dark and the new light. Like the water
of a deep stream, love is always too much. We
did not make it. Though we drink till we burst
we cannot have it all, or want it all.
In its abundance it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.