An Orthodox Christian Perspective: Suffering in Family Life

Over the years considerable material has appeared in Russian emigre periodicals concerning the upbringing of children and youth. The authors—here one should make special mention of Archpriest Sergei Chetverikov and Priest Alexander Elchaninov–not only provide rules and guidelines, but they try to penetrate to the essence of the matter, into the very soul of the growing generation, into the psychology of parenting and youth. They examine the spiritual and emotional needs of children, emphasizing the uniqueness of each individual, and the manifold difficulties which parents, teachers and children encounter as they interact during the wondrous process of a child’s development.
The word “difficulty” is closely associated with another word–“suffering”, and this is what I should like to address here: suffering and its role in Orthodox family life.
Suffering is an integral element of our existence here on earth. It is woven through every aspect of our life. One should speak about it, one should anticipate it, one should be prepared for it as much as possible, and one mustn’t run away from it. Nowadays, sufferings, sorrows, misfortunes are regarded as some kind of evil to be resisted and avoided at all cost. People fear suffering. (One doctor-archpastor said that the fear of suffering at times exceeds suffering itself.) Life, we are told, should proceed smoothly, unhindered. Suffering and sorrows interfere with a life of well-being; they bother us. They are considered to be anomalies, injustices, not the result but the cause of man’s wrongs. How could a good God allow it?! This way of thinking is instilled in our minds and hearts through the schools and mass media, especially here in the affluent West. As Orthodox Christians, our best defense against unconsciously assimilating this attitude is to understand the true meaning of suffering, as it is presented in the Orthodox Church.
In the fourth article of our Symbol of Faith, we read that our Lord Jesus Christ “suffered, and was buried. And arose on the third day according to the Scriptures.” As Christians we are called to follow Christ, to take up our cross—sufferings and sorrows. Apostle Paul writes that if we suffer with Christ we shall also reign with Him (II Tim. 2:12), and whosoever dies with Christ will rise with Him (Col. 21,12). Without suffering, without dying to this world there is no resurrection. In taking the path of suffering, the Orthodox Christian comes into contact with Christ; he participates in Christ’s suffering and answers his call as a Christian. There is no saint who did not endure some form of suffering. Indeed, the most widespread form of sanctity is martyrdom–witnessing to Christ with one’s life, even unto death.
While not all Christians are called to martyrdom in this literal sense of physical death, by taking up our cross and following the path of suffering, we, too, experience a form of martyrdom. Monasticism–a voluntary, conscious and deliberate embrace of deprivation and self-denial—is a supreme example of spiritual martyrdom. Living in the world also presents many opportunities for this kind of martyrdom, inasmuch as suffering–whether physical, spiritual or psychological–is unavoidable in this sin-infested world. Of course, if someone being led to martyrdom suddenly denies his faith and is killed, his martyrdom will not bring him salvation. Likewise, if we want our sufferings to bear a redemptive character, we must accept them willingly and try to make sense of
them, as far as this is possible to the human mind and heart.
From the history of the Church we see that it was precisely during periods of persecution that the Faith spread most readily.  “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Tertullian). Suffering can also bring forth much fruit in our personal lives. It is part of God’s plan, a test for us, to be utilized for the salvation of our souls. In the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov, “Where there are no sorrows, there is no salvation.” Sufferings cleanse a person; they help to uproot sin. In our sufferings we turn to God, asking not only to be delivered from suffering, but to be given strength to bear them, to benefit from them. According to St. Seraphim, “All our sufferings–these are valuable merchandise which we must make haste to trade for eternal riches.” Similarly, Priest Alexander Elchaninov writes in his diary, “All spiritual effort, all voluntary (and even involuntary) deprivation, denial, sacrifice, suffering–are soon traded for spiritual riches within us. The more you lose, the more you  gain… The courageous soul instinctively seeks sacrifice, occasions to suffer, and spiritually strengthens itself through trials.”
It is good for us to bring to mind the innocent sufferings of the righteous. We have the example of St. John of Kronstadt who endured a grievous and prolonged illness before he died, and St. Ambrose of Optina, who was unable to serve Divine Liturgy because he was so weakened by his physical infirmity; he used to receive people lying in bed. At the same time, how strong they were in spirit!
Suffering takes various forms. The most evident is suffering from sickness or physical infirmity. (In meeting someone, usually the first thing we do is to ask about their health.) This kind of suffering can sometimes be relieved by medicines and external means. It manifests itself in physical pains, in discomfort and
limitation of movement; associating with others is difficult, and consequently it is often accompanied by loneliness; sometimes illness causes physical disfigurement which can also result in suffering. This form of suffering is probably the most obvious.
The second type of suffering relates to the realm of man’s spirit and soul. It is not caused by direct physical pain, but usually by some external affairs: unhappy family life; difficulties at work and in society; an attachment to alcohol or drugs, to money, material goods; poverty, slander, offenses, failure in love, difficulties in school and among friends, a seemingly hopeless situation or dead end, fruitlessness, disappointment in someone, a transition in life, or, what happens frequently, the illness or death of a member of the family or someone dose to us.
A third form of suffering relates to the purely spiritual realm, and is unique to Orthodox Christians. Let us call it “suffering of the heart”. This is that feeling which we experience when we are unable to lift ourselves to a desired spiritual level; when we are aware of our sinfulness and remoteness from the Creator; when people close to us are perishing spiritually; when we experience a crisis of faith; when we are spiritually sensitive to what is going on around us. All of this, regardless of how good and favorable the external circumstances of our life, causes us spiritual pain, suffering. This can also be the result of the incompatibility of the Orthodox way of life with the surrounding world. For two thousand years Christians have had difficulty living in this world, but in our time of turning away from God, a time of grave and refined deceptions, immorality and frightful diseases, it is all the more difficult. We try to adapt to our surroundings, we seek tranquility, our “niche”, but we cannot find it, and this causes us pain of heart.
When sufferings are absent, then, according to a spiritual law, the soul grows weak and starts going downhill; it loses its armor and becomes vulnerable. This does not mean that sufferings are good in and of themselves, or that it is necessary to suffer all the time. There are times of joy, peace, times when we sense the strength of God’s grace. Ironically perhaps, these times are precisely the result of the acceptance of suffering. Pascha, for example, is preceded by Passion Week. One is reminded here of the Gospel passage: A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come, but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world (John 16:21).
Let us now examine the place of suffering in the family.
As we said earlier, every Christian living in the world comes in contact with suffering. When Christians live together in a family this suffering is sometimes even magnified. In getting married; most young people today expect only happiness and a peaceful life of well-being. The Holy Church forewarns us about the essence of Christian marriage: it places crowns upon our heads–symbols of both victory and martyrdom, joy and sorrow. But we pay no heed to this. The world around us, with its false and unchristian pronouncements about the evil of sorrow and sufferings, does not prepare one for the inevitable, and when a person is faced with suffering and misfortune, he is totally unprepared to accept them, to cope with them. All too often, people seek to escape the difficulties of married life by divorce. Martyrs knew they would be tried and tortured, and they went to their martyrdom with joy, with the singing of psalms and a firm confession of Christ. In the same way, one should enter Christian marriage with a readiness to endure and to suffer, knowing that this is what is required, and that here lies a ready path to salvation.
The fact that there are difficulties in a marriage is not to say that the spouses do not love one another. But love has its price suffering. The holy Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthians, teaches that love beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. This is true love. The ancient Stoic philosophers recognized the interrelation of love and suffering, and for this reason they advised not to love anyone, otherwise one would inevitably meet with suffering. Epictitus formulated a rule: “Kiss your wife and children, demonstrate affection; however, do not love them! If you love them, you will become distressed if they die.”
Sadly, today’s couples are not prepared to accept the everyday shortcomings and weaknesses which they notice in each other: laziness, vain talking, criticism, all kinds of habits, tastes, offenses, rudeness. They annoy one another. In society one can conceal one’s weaknesses, one can hide behind a facade of propriety, but where is there to hide in a family? Husband and wife cannot isolate themselves from one another. They have to put up with one another, to endure suffering, t bear one another’s burdens. Constant effort is required in order to deal with the myriads of irritations and difficulties which husband and wife encounter almost daily through many years of Christian marriage. This is what might be called the asceticism of family life. In bearing these trials, these sufferings, in developing strength of will, patience and meekness, in placing one’s trust in the Lord and not in one’s own strength, husband and wife grow closer to God and to one another. This in turn serves as a lesson for the children.
Suffering is a spiritual school in which both parents and children are educated. In the words of one religious writer in Russia, “Religion cannot be learned, like a science; it is grasped not by the mind but by the heart, through action, through direct personal experience. It is a spring, flowing into eternal life, and no reasoning about the water, no knowledge about it can satisfy a man’s thirst if he himself does not drink from the spring.” Archpriest (later Hieromonk) Sergei Chetverikov likewise emphasizes that knowledge about God must be distinguished from knowing God. Fr. Sergei recalls how, like every child, he came to know God in his early childhood not through external experience and not through any rationalization, but through direct inner perception. Suffering provides an inner experience by means of which members of a family grow strong spiritually.
In early childhood a solid foundation is laid for the future spiritual life. Fr. Sergei writes; “Why is it that some people preserve in their souls a steady and unshakable faith to the end of their lives, while others lose it, sometimes definitively and sometimes returning to it with great difficulty and effort? It seems to me that this depends on what direction a man’s inner life takes in early childhood. If a person is able, consciously or instinctively, to preserve the correct relationship between himself and God, he will not fall away from faith.”
Parents create an atmosphere for spiritual growth not only by means of rules and instructions, but primarily through faith and example. A child’s soul, which finds itself in a salutary atmosphere of active religious faith, love for God, piety and endurance of suffering, is involuntarily kindled with the flame of faith and love, like a candle which is lit from an already burning candle. When growing children see that, for the sake of eternal life, parents unmurmuringly accept trials—whether sent by God or voluntarily taken upon themselves–children develop a sense of a higher Power, a higher reality.
Not long ago I had a conversation with an experienced priest who has a large family. In raising his grandchildren, he asked himself what mistakes he had made in raising his own children. He recalled that at home he had only two dictates—may and mustn’t. If “may” then it was good, but “mustn’t” meant it was bad and God would punish the child and he would go to hell. This priest advised me and other young parents not to place the emphasis on God’s punishment, but to give more attention to talking about God’s love, God’s merciful kindness. Even suffering should be regarded not as God’s punishment but as a manifestation of God’s love for us.
Within the family there are also sufferings caused by children. This is most frequently observed in times of illness. It is noticeable that the sickness of an innocent child–suffering–draws the family together; everything earthly becomes secondary, unnecessary and vain in the face of the child’s illness. When a family member becomes ill and suffers, it does not mean that he is the one who is most disturbed. Usually the sick person is so engrossed in his physical sufferings that he directs all his remaining strength towards spiritual activity, but those around him, especially if they feel helpless, co-suffer with the sick one and pass the time in anguish. Here, everything is interconnected: the physical sufferings of the sick one are interwoven with the spiritual sufferings of those near him. Relief for both the former and the latter lies in hope in God and His Holy Church. Here again we see how suffering educates both parents and children. In times of illness, misfortune, adversity.., the family is drawn together, offenses are forgiven; sincerity and simplicity are restored, I’ve seen how parents who normally pay little attention to their children, devote themselves wholly to a child when he becomes ill, sparing neither time, nor strength, nor resources. Blessed Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) has observed how, during a child’s illness, a mother’s identity changes from “I” to “we”. When a Christian mother labors, goes hungry, spends sleepless nights and, in general, endures grief on account of her child, her children, she is rarely conscious of an inner warfare, she is oblivious to her podvig, as she would if she were concerned with her own self.
As children grow into the teen years, parents are faced with new anxieties—the children’s behavior, their actions, the absence of the desired result of their upbringing. They ask themselves, Why didn’t things turn out as we had envisioned? Where did we go wrong with our children? This, too, causes suffering. And here again we place our hope in the Lord, and soon we notice that God is bringing a certain equilibrium into our lives, and that we will never perish from trials in this world, if He is with us. He is like an island in the midst of an ocean of suffering, giving us salvation and rest.
Most of us do not take advantage of the many opportunities that family life provides for our spiritual advancement. By sharing, caring, serving one another, loving, forgiving–and all the suffering this entails–we are purified like gold in a furnace. Righteous Juliana of Lazarevo had thirteen children, six of whom died in childhood. She wanted to go off to a convent, but her husband convinced her to remain in the world and raise the children: “Black garments will not save us if we don’t live as we should; even in white garments [i.e., living in the world] we can be saved–if we do God’s will.”
Saint Theophan the Recluse writes, “Martyrs were cleansed and prepared for the Kingdom of God by fire, by being sawn asunder…We, however, are given a different cleansing. Each person is given his own: to one—a rough scouring, to another–a milder form of cleansing…” God knows what is best for us. Let us trust ourselves to His holy will, knowing that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Rom 8:18).
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