One is the asceticism of the monastic who forsakes all for the Kingdom. The other is the asceticism of the married, the widowed, and the single person who live in the day to day world and actively seek the Kingdom by embracing the Eucharistic heartbeat of creation and so find their being in in the life and the suffering of the other.
By Fr. Stephen Siniari
Magdalena lay in bed turning pages in a book he’d given her for their anniversary. A book on marriage? Now, after all these years I need a book on how to be married?
The experience of the Way, the Truth, and the Life is not the fruit of study.
There are two ways to experience He who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
One is the asceticism of the monastic who forsakes all for the Kingdom.
The other is the asceticism of the married, the widowed, and the single person who live in the day to day world and actively seek the Kingdom by embracing the Eucharistic heartbeat of creation and so find their being in in the life and the suffering of the other.
From the Introduction in “Orthodox Life in the Eucharistic Community of Marriage” (a manual for marriage that has yet to be written).
After fifty years together, old Samuel Elias told his wife “Magdalena, we’ll give it another fifty, and then we’ll make a final decision.”
She gave him the look.
“What, you don’t like the book?”
Magdalena knew he was an idiot. She knew it when she married him. That’s why she loved him. She loved him even during the years she couldn’t stand him.
She would walk around the house singing, ignoring him, maybe on purpose, doing whatever she was doing, and hear the old fool talking to her mother, “Is the girlie singing, Muttie?” old Samuel would say to her mother’s black and white picture hanging in the hall.
When they left her mother’s house, all those years ago, the day of their wedding, Muttie said, “Take care of her, Samuel, and God will save your soul in her.”
He said, “Muttie, I promise.”
Man is a woman: Page 173 in “Orthodox Life in the Eucharistic Community of Marriage.”
Samuel knew men and women were not equal in the modern sense. Men had bigger lungs. Bigger muscles. Bigger brains, so they could serve the woman.
The day of his wedding, his father told him, “She’s your summit. Together your human being is one at the top. She’s the gate to heaven, son. You were in her nine months. If there’s only one seat, she gets it. If there’s only enough to spare… her and the kids get the new shoes. You make do. Open the door for her. Never let the hands that cradle your babies clean the bathrooms. That’s your job. You are not her equal. What the soul is in the body, the woman is in the world. What? Do you think the devil couldn’t have gone after Adam if he wanted? No. He knew which soul to wound, and all the rest? A piece of cake.”
Samuel knew what his father meant. There were times early in their marriage when he could stand on a nickel and tell if it was heads or tails, when he could caress the buffalo with his big toe. Magdalena would look at his boots and give him that look when he came home from the loading dock. “How many times can you take the same pair of boots to Jacob the shoemaker? Those old boots know their way home by themselves.”
“I don’t need new boots, girl, I hate new shoes.” He’d put the unopened paycheck on the kitchen table. “They give me shoe-bites, new shoes.”
But she knew the finances. She had a natural talent for doing the bills. So when she said, “It’s time, Samuel.” Then he’d relent.
“New steel-toed boots for the putty factory.” He looked down proudly. When he looked up and saw her over there where she was making the Holy Bread, the way she looked at him and dusted the flour from her hands, he didn’t know which way to jump, so he said, “What a waste of money, new boots three months before retiring,” and knew right away he’d jumped in the wrong direction.
But his Magdalena didn’t say a thing. She just sent him on his way with a kiss and the lunch she packed.
Every day Magdalena was looking more beautiful to him, and lately, more like her mother too, her mother who’d been gone for many years.
“I think you’re pretty.” He said, backing down their porch steps on his last day at the factory, stuffing the lunch she’d made into the oversized pockets of his hooded denim work coat, the one she’d patched so many times.
Behind the door she made the cross and closed her eyes. “Fifty years.” Magdalena said when she thought back, “It took that long, Samuel, for your eyes to soften and my heart to unharden.”
Let each one be prayer to the other: Page 91 in “Orthodox Life in the Eucharistic Community of Marriage.”
He did his before bed around-the-house routine, windows, doors, outside lights, is the gas off? And lately, before bed, it seemed like he spent more time in the bathroom than her.
It was okay. She liked to read propped up on her pillows by the bedside lamp with the faded shade. She didn’t seem to mind waiting for her Samuel to finally come and snuggle in close to her. Samuel was an action junkie. He had to do . He couldn’t not be doing.
Magdalena, on the other hand, didn’t always have to do. She merely had to be. Her being was her doing.
Samuel Elias had always had a sense that he felt his way through the world, his life, and even his house, by means of measurements and tools like a blind man feeling his way around a blueprint with a cane.
But his Magdalena? She walked in light by her gift of just being Magdalena. He lucked out and found a girl who danced to the rhythm of God’s creation, a girl who never had any use for so-called instructions or pre-fab one-size-fits-all measurements or the schematic blueprints used by those who fancied themselves general manager of the universe and needed to oversee and orchestrate every little detail.
She looked up from her book. “Yes,” Magdalena told him, standing there with his flashlight. “Like you, Herr Maestro.”
Her eyes would read a sentence, then take a rest. And on the inside of her eyelids she saw the two of them together when they were young, in front of their icon-corner, lighting the oil-lamp and saying the prayers before bed.
Now the lamp was a flickering lithium battery LED tea-light, and as he made his rounds in the dark, he could hear her in the bedroom, whisper-singing the hymns of the church. Samuel looked in the corner and could’ve sworn it was the genuine article and wouldn’t have lied to himself and denied he smelled incense and the warm oil of a real flame.
When the kids were little the family prayed together – before meals, before bed, in times of trouble, on Name Days and Feast Days, around the birthday cake, or when someone was anxious or worried, when someone died, or when a baby was born… Lit the lamps and prayed the prayers.
They showed their boys how to make the cross without moving their arm each time they heard someone taking the Lord’s Name in vain.
Magdalena told them, “Not take… bear. Bear, the Lord’s Name in vain. Don’t call yourself a Christian and not struggle every day to grow in being a bearer of His likeness, of His holiness, just like the oil carries the flame.”
Magdalena made sure the twin thread of faith and thanksgiving was woven into the fabric of their daily life, especially, gathering her boys in front of the icon corner after Saturday Vespers, lighting incense and candles, and asking one another’s forgiveness, saying together the prayers of preparation before Sunday Holy Communion.
But now the boys were raised and had lives of their own. Sure, they called here and again, maybe even a visit now and then…
Ah, why lie? Not even for Pascha. Not even a telephone call on their 50th. Lonely, bittersweet birthdays, the bright sadness of lighting candles every week at church alone. They never called or came around unless their parents called them first… Who wants to be a nag?
But Magdalena and her Samuel knew, even though the icons were still there in their icon-corner, old and cherished ones, along with the ancient Holy Bread seal from Albania and all the holy things from their parents… and their parents’ parents… Even though at morning prayers, they shared a nibble of the Nafora, the Holy Bread from Sunday others called Antidoron, and sipped the Holy Water… Still they knew that there were bound to be shadows, even in a sunlit life.
Every year the list of those living for whom they prayed became shorter… And the list of those gone to be with Lord Jesus…
And lately, especially when either was alone in the house, it was as if they could hear all the wise things their mother or father used to say.
Magdalena, walking through the stillness of a silent house, and Samuel, by himself with a push broom, sweeping out the cavernous unheated factory warehouse, talking with those gone before, to the great cloud of witness , to the Saints and angels who had walked with them since childhood.
Now that they were old and it was just the two of them… Every time they took their meds… Thank God for… and they’d name each doctor by name… And the pharmacist too… Have mercy on those who have no doctor or medication or access to hospitals or health care…
Every time the old car started, or they did their wash… God has blessed us… When they unloaded the groceries… God have mercy on us for having so much and on those who don’t have enough…
Thanks be to God, for health, beauty, goodness, intelligence, yes, and yes, Lord and for Love of Thee, for keeping us safe and free from all serious injury, illness, incident, and harm, and out of the hands of those who hate You, O God… for indoor running water.
Every sunrise, every snowfall, each new blossom in the spring, rain running in the gutters, new shoots on the trees…
Each time they saw the ocean it was new, yonder is the sea great and wide… The sunset, the moon and the stars… How wondrous are Thy works O Lord… A beggar or a man walking with crutches, Have mercy on my brother… Loud happy children on their way home from school, raucous boys shooting hoops at the playground, cars in a procession around Palmer Burial Ground… In wisdom hast Thou made them all… The wordless icon of thanksgiving just came out of them, nether looking at the other, both together, making the sign of the Cross.
Nowadays, seeing each other, first thing in morning or napping at mid-day, or eating in front of the TV at sundown, or sitting on the porch in the evening, most days, the man and the woman were the only icons either knew, one to the other, icons of reciprocal love-bound existence, married people, icons, one to the other, the other to one.
One, in the way they touched. One in the way they felt when she moved close on a dark restless morning. A closeness that gave such comfort that before Magdalena knew it Samuel was back to snoring as they sank again together deep into that other worldly sleep.
A closeness of being, a oneness in breathing, an unshakeable solace during lightening in the middle of the night when thunder elicited psalms from their dreaming souls and drew them forward together like moths toward the morning.
A Recipe for Making the Bread of Intimacy in Marriage
Excerpted & abbreviated from Pages 19-23 in “Orthodox Life in the Eucharistic Community of Marriage.”
Make the Meshe (Holy Bread) together
Bring your life of intimacy to the Church and She will graft it into Her way of being. She makes natural love immortal.
Add to one consecrated bowl
Relationship and sexual knowledge, husband and wife together, are one ecclesial event that grows best and naturally in the one marriage of the one church.
Three meaningful ingredients
The Church is an image of Her Trinitarian prototype.
Time and chemistry will show why.
Marry together a little at a time
A gradual reciprocal relinquishment of individual will is best for incorporating one into the other.
Prayerfully, peacefully, and pleasantly done, like liturgy, it transfigures physical relationship into mystical unity.
Keep Candle and Incense Lit Before the Icon – Let it Rise
Dynamic transformation of sexual impulse into Eucharistic-becoming needs the leavening of Divine love, seasoning in time, a warm place, and a clean cover.
Impress the Seal with the Prayer
Asceticism in the community of marriage is sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist Presence of the Beloved, in kenotic self-emptying and the witness of sacrificial self offering.
Allow room for growth. Marriage reaches temperature slowly and gives the sexual love of two one body.
It Needs to Cool
When the Meshe cools over time, offer at His Altar what God has transfigured and pray to remain steadfast in the conjugal blood of His calling. The icon of marriage is ordained in this life so as to be fulfilled in the life of the world to come.
Bring your gift to Him
When we bring our beloved to Christ, to His Body, the Church, the human body becomes a fact of communion and when the time of translation to the life of the world to come is fulfilled and this life ends in the hope of everlasting life in Christ, the husband and wife together will be an image of the Bridegroom and His Bride and will dwell together with all the Saints in the land of the living, where the voice of those who keep festival is unceasing, and the joy of those who behold the ineffable Beauty of His countenance is unending, the two having become one flesh in the never ending day of His Kingdom.
When the pain came, Samuel’s pain, and she touched him, joy resounded in the Heaven of his heart. He looked at her and said, “Don’t leave me, Magdalena.”
Magdalena took him in her gaze and said, “I never will.”
How could she let go his hand?
He, who sat on her bed all those nights when she wasn’t feeling herself, when the young doctor needlessly changed her meds, meds which had worked perfectly well all those years, and after three days of worsening misery he took her to the ER. They kept her three nights, while he went home, alone, to an empty house and neither slept, nor ate, nor did his routine.
And when he brought her home, every time she looked up, she didn’t even have to ring the bell he placed on the bedside table. There he was, staring, holding her hand while she slept, trying to be nonchalant, like she hadn’t caught him praying over her and making the sign of the cross.
How could he not hold her hand? Wasn’t it Magdalena who had kept her head and called the EMT’s the time he collapsed, when they shook their heads like there was no hope for the man motionless on the pavement?
“Silly,” she’d say, every time she caught him staring. “After all these years, still looking at me. I don’t know what you’re seeing.”
“Never enough.” Samuel would say.
Her voice? That’s all he needed. As long as he could hear the sound of her, what matter were the words?
What matter if it was two beds now, close together, now that she was always too hot and his feet were always too cold? They could hold hands at night across the space, couldn’t they, and who would need to know?
“And a restaurant, why?” Samuel told Naum, “When her cooking is love made edible.”
The ritual of morning coffee together, taking turns doing dishes, singing songs from the sixties… Eating cream cheese on rye toast, feeding crumbs to the blue jays…
While he scrubbed the bathroom and said the prayer, Magdalena did the bills at her table and said the prayer too.
Sometimes he would come home and find her sleeping in his bed. “For the smell of you.” She would smile up at him, hugging his pillow.
Something in Samuel, each time he saw his Magdalena, called prayer out of his heart, if she was rolling up the vacuum cleaner cord, or doing the dishes, every motion a petition.
Three times. Three little kisses. She knew Samuel was thanking the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit for his girl with each kiss.
“What? You think I don’t notice?” She’d say.
“Notice what? What do you know?” He’d get shy like a kid caught peeking at a girl he thought was pretty.
Magdalena wouldn’t answer. But they both knew. She did the same.
When she watched him pushing the mower, each pass over the grass, each heart saying the Jesus Prayer without words, each heart beating, her behind the curtain, him out in the yard in his ancient bib-overalls and battered straw hat, out there where it was too hot for a man his age to be trapesing in the sun.
Maybe their hearts did sync like he always said, the old fool. Maybe it was her heart that kept his beating, maybe the other way too.
Still, Magdalena wouldn’t rest easy till she brought him his lemonade, he loved her homemade lemonade, and he was out there in his lawn chair admiring his yardwork, sitting under his tree, eating Cheez-It’s, wearing his battered straw hat and reading his Bible till his beard rested on his chest and he admired himself to sleep.
Slowly through the darkened house, jiggling locks, double-checking, triple-checking, now did I do that lock already? Ah, habits, automatic habits. Probably did. But better check again, won’t hurt.
Samuel, making his rounds, thinking of how things went at home and how different they went at church.
Samuel Elias and Magdalena were among the few left of our founders. They worried like a father and mother about how God’s people treated each other at our little Saint Alexander the Whirling Dervish Orthodox Church, how easily offended, how stubborn, how slow to forgive, or repent.
“My goodness,” Samuel Elias said to Nastradin. “I think of all the Orthodox, we have the thickest heads and the thinnest skin.”
“And we also have the best annual shish kabob picnic at least once a week,” said Kusheri Nastradin. “We grill each other every Sunday over the glowing charcoal of the smallest offense, intended or imagined. Doesn’t matter to us, we’ll work with whatever the devil can give us.”
At coffee hour, both parties insisting on their version of what the Church holds, while completely missing the Cross and our Master, who to Samuel, seemed to watch from the estavromenos in front of the iconostasis while they hammered more nails.
“Ah, who knows? I suppose I do it myself.” He said to the dark, and waved his hand at a mosquito who’d somehow slipped in past his best effort to secure the screen door without letting in those things that fly in the dark.
At home, when he and Magdalena had a disagreement, “And thank God,” he said to the mosquito, “our arguments, are like your bites, my friend, itchy and annoying, but less and less substantial and usually gone by morning.”
Samuel knew, emotions ran high in families, blood was thicker than water, no doubt. People took things seriously, maybe too seriously.
They did it too. Once someone asked Magdalena if she ever thought of divorce. She smiled, stopped her knitting for a moment and said, “I thought of murder.”
But unlike some at the church, neither Magdalena nor Samuel ever listed their contributions to the household as a defense for bad behavior, or turned the hot handle of the samovar toward the other by pointing out their shortcomings.
Besides, what good would it do? When it came to shortcomings, he admitted to the mosquito, “I, no doubt… got her beat by less effort than it takes to stay awake during one of Naum’s sermons, which Naum himself admits, could anesthetize an elephant.”
Blood is thicker than water, but Chrism is thicker than blood, at least that’s what was said by Kusheri Nastradin, and though Magdalena and Samuel did not share blood, they were one in the Chrism of the Chalice, and one in the blood of their sons, as all their forbearers were present in them.
Yet at Saint Alexander’s lately, they were rolling up their baptismal certificates and beating each other over the head with long festering charges prepared against their brothers and sister in the chalice. Charges that usually had very little to do with the life in the New Covenant of Christ.
And that bothered Samuel and Magdalena the same as when their children used to fight.
Their marriage, their household, and the household of God’s communion in the church? Hadn’t they finally, after fifty years, become one and the same?
Or had they always been so, and now, finally, after years of struggle together to lead the life in Christ, the truth of shared being could be seen with the softening of the eyes of the heart and the unhardening of the heart of the soul.
The natural bonds, the covenants, God and His people, husband and wife, mother and daughter, brother and sister, father and son, were still there, but now, in Christ, in the Church, those covenant bonds stood for more, didn’t they?
Naum told the people, “In the Eucharist of Christ, the biological blood relationships are no longer confined to individual households. They become symbols of a greater existential truth, of an eternal covenant. There is truly only one Bridegroom and one Bride, one household not built on sand, and it is His, and it is Him, and we are in Him.”
“So, how are we treating Him?” Samuel wondered, “When we treat each other so carelessly.”
Nastradin made the cross and said he knew of “three Persons united by love of the other… and a myriad of individuals divided by love of self….”
Naum wanted time to think that over.
For Samuel and Magdalena, how could they be cruel to one another, or to anyone? After all they’d been through, the tragedy with their sons, what they called their greatest sadness. And even after that, by the grace of God, they still never gave up on Christ and His Church, something deep down made them know He would never give up on them.
Some deeper truth, they understood, came home only in suffering. Each one loved, loved even the stumbling and missteps of the other.
Waiting for her Samuel to come to bed, knowing he was double and triple checking? Made her smile, really.
Foibles and failure? Even for those, they thanked God.
Kiss each other in the evening, and whenever possible, at days end, lie down together, and if not in the same bed, hold hands across the space: Page 45 in “Orthodox Life in the Eucharistic Community of Marriage.”
The day he finally stopped being by doing and sat down in his lawn chair, she looked out the window and knew.
She knew, when he said he couldn’t get warm and asked for that damned thread-bare crook-eyed four-button blue sweater, with the one button always dangling by a thread, and one button missing, two always in the wrong hole, making the whole thing hang funny…
She could tell by the way the lemonade glass tilted in his lap, by the way his beard rested on his chest, by the way the sunlight filtered through the leaves under the tree and sprinkled shadows on his hat…
By the way he sat there admiring his yardwork, Bible open on his lap, hand spread over the page like a blind man seeing proto-images of the garden through the tips of his fingers, her Samuel no longer hearing the cooing turtle doves, his final breath spoken like a memory of Heaven ascended just above the leaves, “At least they’re not Phinehas and Hophni…” (I Samuel).
Broken-hearted Samuel Elias, who had fought the good fight, finally surrendered to his pain, to the double-barreled brutality of sons who having accepted the image… preserved it not…
The children of Samuel and Magdalena, having witnessed in their parents, in all their growing up, the day to day struggle to live the Prayer Before Communion…
To work out the salvation of their family with the help of the Holy Spirit in a hymn of life offered to the Father in thanksgiving for His Son…
A husband and a wife openly confessing and asking forgiveness for failures and foibles… “Boys, we’re not perfect, we make mistakes. We’re sorry. We’re a family. Let’s try again.”
A mother and a father repenting the heartbreaking regrets of parents trying to learn parenting as they go, anguishing in their beds over wounds uncovered at the end of the day that can’t be kissed better, having no way of knowing that at night in the midst of the garden… One son would wound the other, put him in a pit and sell him down to Egypt for twenty shekels as a slave…
Parents in Christ, who tear their clothes and put on sackcloth, who go down to Sheol mourning… Can they be blamed, can they be embittered? Can the plague on their house be any less poisonous than the second angel pouring out his bowl and turning the sea to blood?
Some in the congregation even came forward with answers.
It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows…
Lo, children are a heritage of the LORD: The fruit of the womb is his reward.
As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man that has his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed when they speak with the enemy in the gate.
What words could Samuel and Magdalena offer to the enemy at their gate?
Magdalena and Samuel knew there would be shadows, even in a sunlit life and – for this reason a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave unto his wife…
In all your words and actions always keep in mind the Priority of Covenants… Page 221 (See Index for full explanation) “Orthodox Life in the Eucharistic Community of Marriage”
“Lord have mercy…” Samuel prayed. “Please, let our center hold, let us cleave to one another…”
Long ago Naum had told him about the priority of covenants, “You and God, then you and your wife, then the children, your parents, the parish, work, you know which to situate where, keep them in order, the order changes as life goes on, but always with you and Magdalena at the center with Christ, and He will sustain you to persevere.”
Lord have mercy… Please, let our center hold, let us cleave to one another… “Pray our center holds,” Samuel said to Magdalena and he kissed her hand. He told her about the molestation.
Their son finally told about his older brother and the years of abuse that had happened in their home, right under their noses.
Despite Samuel’s nightly rounds, his checking and double checking. Despite Magdalena’s twin thread of faith and thanksgiving woven from birth into the fabric of their being.
Despite having told them every day, “If anyone, anyone at all ever touches you…”
“They mean well.” Joey Tethotemire told Naum. “These talkers. They got a system they figure figures things out.”
Not Naum. If he had nothing else from Job. Not even when he sat with Samuel and Magdalena on the porch. Not even in the story called One Button did Naum betray the wound in human being which is called to remain unspoken.
One son lost saying Yes to the Way in the white-washed vestments of outward appearance.
One lost in tattooing No again and again into the fabric of his being, in open challenge to the Way, to the Truth, and to the Life…
Samuel’s finger on the verse, his own Joel and Abiah… (I Samuel).
When the pain came, his pain, he did not fall over backward in his chair. She touched him, walked out to the lawn chair and touched him, and joy resounded in the Heaven of his heart, “Don’t leave me, Magdalena,” she heard his voice clearly, though his lips never moved.
She took him in her gaze and said, “I will never.”
A week later, maybe less… Magdalena, curled around his pillow. How could she let go his hand?
About the Author
Father Stephen N. Siniari is a priest of the OCA Diocese of the South. During more than 30 years as a priest, Father Stephen served parishes in New England and the Philadelphia/South Jersey area while working full-time for an international agency as a Street Outreach worker serving homeless, at-risk, and trafficked teens. He currently lives on the Florida Gulf Coast with is wife of more than 40 years.
He is the author of two short story collections, Salvaged, and One Eye Open, 50 stories of Orthodox life in America, featuring the fictional Father Naum, long-time priest at Saint Alexander Parish in the ethnically diverse Philadelphia neighborhood of Fish Town.