How is your marriage progressing?
This simple question is a way of focusing our attention on right-thinking about progress and the Christian life. I posed the question to myself – I have been married now for 43 years. My first thought was, “What would ‘progress’ in a marriage mean?” Do I love my wife more, or any less? What would more love look like?
The truth of marriage is that progress is not the right measuring stick. The word “progress” originally referred to travel on a journey. Progress means to travel further. Thus the “Pilgrim’s Progress” really only means “the Pilgrim’s Journey.” If marriage is a journey, it is mostly measured by finishing the course. In that sense, 43 years is a lot of progress, and I pray the journey has only just begun.
The image of progress permeates our culture. It’s not an ancient idea, indeed, it is pretty much synonymous with modernity. It is probably one of the three most dominant ideas in our culture. So how is it that we are able to bear being married without “making progress?”
We bear being married because it is satisfying, in one manner or another. My parents were married for over 60 years in a relationship that was probably as satisfying to both as being themselves was to each. That is to say, the problems I observed them endure, were primarily the problems inherent to being themselves and would have been problems no matter how they lived nor with whom they lived.
My father engaged his working life in the same manner as his marriage. One year was perhaps different from another, as every day is from another. But when he retired, it was from the same work (auto mechanic) that he had done for his entire adult life.
For most of human history, it would seem, we lived without progress. There was little difference between the flint spear-point of 100,000 B.C. and 10,000 B.C. People lived and died, enjoyed good days and endured the bad. Of course, somewhere along the line, human beings made certain discoveries that brought greater wealth and improved technology. It has allowed us to succeed as a population and fill the world.
But, like marriage, the living of human life has not and does not change. The illusion of progress arises by the things we choose to measure. If acquiring wealth is progress, then it is obvious that some make progress. But one can still only live with wealth. And, like marriage, that living can only be done a moment at a time. The same can be said with regard to technology.
My small point here is that life itself is like a marriage. It is not something that can be described by the idea of progress. Life is “a progress,” a journey. But the end of the journey is as inevitable as ever and differs in no way from that of the meanest of cavemen.
I suppose the right question is “how is your life?” To know the true measures with which to answer that question is to know how to live.
Wonderfully sobering, Father.
“That is to say, the problems I observed them endure, were primarily the problems inherent to being themselves and would have been problems no matter how they lived nor with whom they lived” A point to reflect and pray, Father. Thank you
Thank you Fr. Stephen,
I have been praying for my homily focus for this Sunday, Judgement. I will stand before my Creator and answer up for the same issues as the “caveman”. My mode of transportation is different yet the sin is the same. Have mercy on me a sinner.
Very good insight Father. Moment by moment is truly how we should live. Making memories and savoring the moments. They are gone too soon. Thanking God for everything, even the bad, for those times are sometimes when He seems closest to us in our pain. As I approach our tenth anniversary ,with the man God chose for me, I think the bumps are smoother. As we grow in our knowledge of each other and our being one becomes so defined , yet we retain our individuality. We function well as a team. Maybe the reason is growing together thru the years instead of in different directions. Our focus is on God first, our spouse next, and then ourselves. We build each other up , and truly love and respect each other. Having had abusive and unfaithful spouses in the past, our marriage is a daily miracle of Christ that I never take for granted. I have a marriage that is as God intended and it is beyond anything I had experienced in my 61 yrs before it. How blessed you and your parents are and have been- to have known so many years of such a wonderful gift. God grant you many more.
Thank you Father. I always enjoy when you write about marriage and in this case, life also.
Life does not progress in the modern sense. I think of it as unfolding. You can take a very tightly bound bundle of rubber. By pulling a cord, it begins unfolding. And you see that it has, in its opening, become a large river raft.
Poppies where I live are about to bloom. At night they are tightly folded. But come the sun and they open in all their glory. If we allow it, we also unfold beautifully, like the poppy, throughout life… if we but permit the Son to shine on us. And, as you Father in your marriage, God has shone abundantly on ours of 53 years.
Merry, thank you for sharing about you and Michael. Always good.
Thank you, Father.
I work in a temple to progress, and it is sometimes disheartening to find how much of that language seeps into my own communication. Yet I was thinking about this very word earlier today, prior to reading your post, and mentally comparing it to Fr John Behr’s various works on “becoming human”. We want to reveal Christ and die to our own self, which is the archetypal marital commitment. The unfolding image Dean suggests is a good one, and I suppose unfolding is a journey that can use the word “progress”, but it is so laden with the baggage of progressivism…. The image of a flower or any plant is a good one, our Lord used it. There is not only the unfolding to greet the sun, but the assumption of flower into fruit or seedpod, and then death where the seed can finally fall to the ground and give itself back into more life. Human development is measured from birth to maturity, not from poverty/simplicity to wealth/complexity as the Human Development Index would like us to believe. And maturity is Christ, as St Paul reminds us.
“To know the true measures with which to answer that question is to know how to live.”
I have been reading your posts for about three months now. I am a lifelong Baptist, but I have been exploring churches that incorporate liturgy. I want to thank you for your writings. I find them wise and extremely helpful in my “progress”. 🙂
You mentioned that progress was one of the three dominant ideas in our culture. What are the other two in your thinking?
Thank you again for your time and work with this website. It has been a blessing to me.
Glad you find the blog helpful!
The three dominant ideas (as I’ve thought about them) are: that we exist as autonomous individuals; that our choices create our identity; the narrative of progress as the story of the world.
There are certainly other important ideas. One very important one (so, maybe there’s 4) is that the world has an existence apart from God – this is the fundamental notion of secularism. Secularism doesn’t deny the existence of God – but sees it as somehow outside of the world and that the world can be seen as a “neutral” zone.
Chuck, as a former Southern Baptist, I encourage you to keep reading Father’s blog and ask questions. This is a good place to do it. May God hold you close.
Another former Southern Baptist here, now Orthodox. I’m so grateful to have come home to the Orthodox Church! God’s grace to you, Chuck, as you continue your journey. And I thank Fr. Stephen also for lots of help and wisdom along the way.
Father, I wonder if the idea of progress is just another distraction from the real challenge of this life, which I’ve gleaned, is the hard work of saving our souls.
We’ve learned to look at ourselves in the wrong way – as though we’re going to get a report card when the day is done, or when our life is past. I’m I doing better? For one, it’s a focus on the self. Second, it assumes that we actually know what “better” is. We judge ourselves rather poorly, in my experience. I’ve seen people focus on a single problem (usually the one about which they are most ashamed) almost to the exclusion of everything else (including God). Our focus simply needs to be on Christ and loving others. His grace will do its work if we’ll pay attention to Him.
“I’ve seen people focus on a single problem (usually the one about which they are most ashamed) almost to the exclusion of everything else (including God). Our focus simply needs to be on Christ and loving others. His grace will do its work if we’ll pay attention to Him.“
If I spent half the time and money I do reading books about parenting or marriage immersed in the Gospel instead, I would be “progressing” quite well. ;>
I wonder…are self-help books endemic to the U.S.? They are popular in religious bookstores and elsewhere. We still have our Norman Vincent Peale cheerleader “pastors” among us also. Sophia, your comment sparked this question. 😏
Sophia and Dean,
I’ve heard it recommended by two priests to read the Gospels daily. I’m not always able but I do my best to read at least a chapter a day as part of my prayer rule. The practice is edifying and healing.
Fr Stephen Howell,
I’m very grateful for your comment and presence in this comment stream. May God bless you and your parish this Saturday, the Day of the Departed. Indeed this is a day to reflect upon our lives and those who are reposed with humility and love.
Unfortunately, I am an avid reader of self-help books. I imagine they’re proliferate everywhere. I hope to take Dee’s advice and read the Gospels more, if not every day. Or to put the stupid self-help book down and do something else.
Have you read “Parenting Toward the Kingdom?”
It has themes similar to those here. I have two copies and wish I could send you one!
My priest also recommended Brenee Brown’s Ted talks on vulnerability and I found it time well spent
The comments on marriage here are quite beautiful, thank you Merry, Dean and Father.
My husband and I have been married 15 years
Each day is the oldest we have ever been and also the youngest we will ever be. I do hope we have many more years. I have had to reflect this past year on why marriages fall apart. I think it is hard to know in advance that the person who sees the best in you will also see you at your weakest and at your worst. I am very grateful God has brought us to this point.
I was truly raised in the self esteem generation. These images of confidently navigating from one point to the next just seem false. Father, please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems like saying and believing Christ has done all things well, despite the chaos we see around us, is key.
I have. It’s my favorite.
Dee of St Herman’s;
Would you be open to corresponding with me? Certain questions have been growing in me that you might be specially able to help me with. (A few topics requiring significant scientific literacy (and sympathy), couched in a Orthodox faith. A rare bird!)
My email address is: man or they [all one word] at gmail dot com
(My apologies Father for the ‘private’ comment- feel free to remove it and send it privately to Dee)
Father I find myself thinking more and more about the whole of humanity in the same light that you are looking at the “progress” of a single person. This reveals many false assumptions (about what progress is; what the goal is; etc.), connects to the question of original garden, society/city, empire, beginning of kingship, state-sanctioned violence through history (and how a “long term study” of the impact of any single act of “good violence” to solve a local problem reveals a much more complicated story as it works itself out over subsequent generations).
It also recently has me looking very much at technology, “the [modern] city” versus the natural world God provided as a setting for the human being to develop. Wise priest Jerome Sanders once pointed out to me that in our modern settings we are increasingly disconnected from the “life” of God’s creation– we travel in steel and plastic by fuel, not partnering with animals; we do not walk on earth or stone but vinyl; we put up drywall rather than stone or wood; we heat and light electrically rather than by the use of wood and beesewax; we clothe ourselves in synthetics; by dyed meat; entertain individually by screens rather than collectively in song, dance, story, etc. etc.
I focus my thought on the horrors of modern chemical-industrial-technological food complex– a demonic assault on God’s raw gift of life. The short view argues from progress: more are eating; greater productivity, distribution etc. But, we cannot look at this in isolation: How will the peoples of the world eat 4 generations from now, if we rape, pillage and poison the soil today to ostensibly feed more (a dubious claim anyway)? And what havoc does a our modern diet of chemicals wreak on developing minds and bodies over time (ala Sally Falon, Natasha Campbell-McBride; etc.)?
In this respect (environment; food; sustainability; progress), it’s as if we Moderns have smugly solved the problem of Plato’s cave by pouring a barrel of gasoline on the fire: for a brief flaring moment we can see much better indeed!
“For most of human history, it would seem, we lived without progress. There was little difference between the flint spear-point of 100,000 B.C. and 10,000 B.C. People lived and died, enjoyed good days and endured the bad. Of course, somewhere along the line, human beings made certain discoveries that brought greater wealth and improved technology. It has allowed us to succeed as a population and fill the world.
And in a comment:
“Second, it assumes that we actually know what “better” is. We judge ourselves rather poorly, in my experience. I’ve seen people focus on a single problem (usually the one about which they are most ashamed) almost to the exclusion of everything else (including God). ”
I have been looking at the life work of Austrian “rebel farmer” Sepp Holzer recently. He seems to have managed to develop a ‘natural’ (I would even say “indigenous”) intellect- by immersing himself in God’s world all his life. He has thereby acquired a kind of seasoned intuition how to harmoniously integrate humanity (and various technologies and societal ‘developments’) with the natural environment in a way that is truly life-giving, affirming, and creating. He is showing how to reverse desertification for example by “humbly” modifying landscapes to create water retention spaces (like human-guided natural lakes and ponds). This then affects local climate and regenerates life.
There is something about the right use of science and technology in his naturally “healed nous” I believe. First, we commune with God’s creation. Then we can garden on a creative and technologically advanced scale.
I say all of this because It seems we need to cooperatively and communally “develop” as well as personally. Ridiculously controversial among Christians as it is (again, demonic clouding of vision), climate change and environmental devastation will have the earth teach us to repent where we would not on our own. There seems a task set for the whole of humanity, one person at a time yes, but not stopping at isolated individuals becoming holy. Looking at history really does teach us, and change the direction our thought and behaviour should go (at least it had better). In an essential way humanity is the same as it was 100,000 years ago. But in a way it seems God would have us collectively grow up too. Are we not all One in Christ’s body?
A marriage is an opportunity to reveal the deep mystery of God and humanity, but one person cannot do it. It takes communion. So too we seem to need everyone (i.e. the Church) to ‘accomplish’ what God wills for humanity and the world.
There are certain words and phrases that you bring to our attention in view of the way that they are used in our culture. Progress is one of them. The word progress is especially significant in America because progress, or moving ahead, reaching a goal, means specific things.
The question posed to youth (in my day, anyway) was ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’. It would imply something that would be a contribution to society. It also implies a cultural expectation: what do you want to be to acquire enough money to buy a house, a car, clothes, food, and whatever else you desire, go to college, raise a family, send the kids to college, go on vacations, entertain, and if there is any left over, give to charity. If you manage (manage, another key word) to succeed (and another) in these goals of what we call the American Dream, you have ‘made progress’. You start small and progress to big…it is always about bigger, better and more stuff. This is our so called Christian America. Her Dream, though, contradicts the Way Jesus shows us and spoke about. It does not speak to what we know as the teleological purpose of our life…fullness of the way of life in Christ,
You bring out the original meaning of the word progress…that it is a journey. Now the word journey we can relate to . We use that word a lot. However, the word progress, regardless of its usage in our culture, is still used among Christian authors, teachers, those we trust and who lead. I say this because I am so careful now, after taking seriously your teachings, how to think about these words. But something happens with this. Other people’s works that I read and enjoy do use such terms. So it creates a pause. I have to stop and think. (Not so terrible of a thing, I know) For example, I will be reading someone else’s article, and they will say something like ‘our faith and its practice does indeed work …we have seen lives transformed… progress can be made”. So I stop and think, Ok…that too.
I think it is important to be reminded that these changes are ever so slow and sometimes imperceptible, but they are still occurring. You do speak of the hidden-ness of our life in Christ. Yet there are also moments of reflection where we can be grateful He is saving our sorry souls, as we continue to live a life of repentance.
You suggest rather than look at whether our lives are progressing, to ask yourself ‘how am I living my life?’. Indeed that would give a clearer answer. But I am still at a loss. How would you describe the change in a person since first coming to Christ, in the dark dregs of our sin, void of any union with Him, to acknowledging that some semblance of change (transformation) has indeed occurred and is continuing to occur since saying “yes I will follow You…teach me, show me, for I know nothing on how to do this”? Even more, that before we even turned to Him He was at work in us. Is it possible quantify this work of God in us, what little we know?
I realize the changes are not always obvious. Outward signs of change can be deceptive. But I believe we can look back and see when our heart began to respond toward God. This can manifest in the least obvious way…like questioning the existence of such a God who is Love in the face of all this suffering. But that person would not even be questioning if it weren’t for the fact that it is simply a creature crying out to the One who created him/her…a most natural reaction, as it is most natural have a sense of emptiness in separation. We want to journey, or progress, or move toward Him in fulfillment of our very purpose. Whether we know it or not.
Just some thoughts from one who doesn’t know anything about marriage.