Monday, September 19, 2011

“IT’S YOUR FAULT!” The wisdom of the Saints on marital disputes

“The man who finds fault with himself accepts all things cheerfully – misfortune, loss, disgrace, dishonor and any other kind of adversity. He believes that he is deserving of all these things and nothing can disturb him. No one could be more at peace than this man.”

-St. Dorotheus

Honey-do List:

The “honey-do list” is the gift that keeps on giving. On any given Saturday the husband does a chore here and a little work there. He says to himself, “It is good.” Satisfied by the work he has done, he sits down to watch a little college football or to engage in some leisure activity only to find out that his household chores are far from over. To his chagrin, his wife gives him a list of chores, better known as the “honey-do list.” Now, the husband, who would like to think of himself as the “head of the house,” has a choice: He can put the remote down, get up from the comfortable recliner and proceed to comply with his wife’s demands or he can continue to enjoy the football game knowing full well that he is going to pay a price later on. You may have heard the saying: “When the wife (or mother) is not happy, no one else in the family is happy.”

But there is another list that both husbands and wives give to each other, one that has more serious implications; and that is the “honey you did me wrong list.” Using the provocative words “you always” or “you never,” the wife or husband typically verbalizes a litany of faults to the spouse. Then the one on the receiving end of the long list of wrongs is given a choice to react in kind or to maintain a calm demeanor. No doubt, this give-and-take dynamic will help shape the marriage for better or for worse.

Silence Amid Criticism:

This is where the wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi in; as well as the wisdom of many other Saints. He said that being silent while you are being criticized is worth more to God than ten days of fasting. The reason why this virtue holds such high value in God’s eyes is due to the fact that it is a sacrifice and is very difficult to do. After all, our human instincts are quick and strong when we are accused of some fault. The first thing we want to do is defend ourselves and quickly deflect blame. But the fact is- restraining this retaliatory instinct goes a long way in marriages. If St. Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” with regard to those who persecute our faith, then at the very least we can apply this to marital arguments. (Romans 12:14)

Silence: When it can be a sin

An important distinction has to be made for the outset. If being silent when being blamed or accused for some fault does not compromise the well-being of another person or affect the common good of the family, then such silence is a virtue. On the other hand, if the foreseeable consequences of being silent does indeed harm other people then we are duty-bound to speak up and defend the principle at hand. Indeed, silence, under these circumstances, can be a serious sin. This distinction is important. Spouses who are victims of verbal or physical abuse can often misinterpret Christian virtues. They can take them to mean that we are required by God to be passive and servile under such mistreatment. Some even go so far as to say that the Christian obligation to forgive somehow implies that we cannot demand change from the offender or impose punitive measures on the culprit. Such as view grossly misinterprets the words of our Lord when he admonished his disciples to turn the other cheek. After all, when a temple guard struck him on the face during his trial before the high priest he demanded an accounting. “Jesus answered him, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’" (John 18:23)

Saying Sorry: There is always something

Aside from the more serious issues of abuse, most marital arguments are based on personal or even petty grievances. If we were to be honest, as a husband or a wife we choose to die in ditches that are not worth dying in. We either defend the indefensible or argue over the non-essentials. But you might ask: What if I am blamed for something I didn’t do or I am unfairly accused in some manner? St. Dorotheus, an abbot from the 17th century said the following:

“Certainly if someone examines himself carefully and with fear of God, he will never find himself completely innocent. He will see that he has given some provocation by an action, a word or by his manner. If he does find that he is not guilty in any of these ways, certainly he must have injured that brother somehow at some other time. Or perhaps he has been a source of annoyance to some other brother. For this reason he deserves to endure the injury because of many other sins that he has committed on other occasions.”

That’s right! Even if we happen to be in the right, there is always something to apologize for. Perhaps your tone of voice was stronger than it should have been; or you have been guilty in the past for the action you are being blamed for in the present; or you have been inconsistent on this particular matter. We are rarely completely innocent. But the point is that the words “I am sorry” are every bit as important as saying “I love you.” Be the first to apologize. It takes a great deal more virtue to do so. In so doing, you will be adding just one more jewel to your spiritual garment.

False Humility:

It’s one thing to confess your fault on your own terms and on your own initiative. Anybody can do that. St. Gregory the Great said, “We have known many who, when no one accuses them, confess themselves sinners; but when they have been corrected for a fault, they endeavor with all of their might to defend themselves and to remove the imputation of guilt.” But it is quite another to accept an unexpected reprimand or criticism with a calm and peaceful disposition; most especially from our spouse. This is a mark of sanctity and greatness.

Not When Emotions Run High:

Furthermore, if your spouse needs to be corrected because of the content of their accusations or the way they are going about criticizing you, chose another time to address it when emotions are subdued. In the meantime, it is incumbent on us, those of us who are being blamed for some fault, to diffuse the anger and the tension. This is most beneficial to children who are watching and learning from their parents behavior. No child likes to see his or her parents argue. As much as possible, therefore, disagreements should be behind closed doors. It is important to remember that the merit, at least in God’s eyes, is not earned by winning the argument and getting the last word in. Divine favor, rather, is won by maintaining the peace or striving for it. If marital tension is brought about by winning an argument then winning arguments are no great accomplishments at all.

Finding Fault With Ourselves:

The best way to prepare to “accept all things cheerfully – misfortune, loss, disgrace, dishonor and any other kind of adversity,” as St. Dorotheus would say, is to engage in prayer, spiritual reading and a daily examination of conscience. Reading and meditating on Scripture and the writings of the Saints is vitally important. You learn just how the Saints saw themselves. They regarded themselves as the greatest of sinners. They knew that they were nothing before God and their sins were never far from their minds. As such, they were the first to accuse themselves of faults and sins in the presence of God. They did what our Lord said to do: Take the plank out of your own eye. This makes for a very good spiritual exercise before going to bed each night. As such, when criticism from other people came their way, they received it cheerfully. To be sure, before their neighbor, relative or spouse accused them of some fault, they were already pointing the finger at themselves.

Sometimes we fail to consider that we can be just as bothersome to other people as they are to us. We are even the most critical about that which we are guilty of ourselves. Hence, a daily examination of our thoughts, words and deeds in light of the Word of God and the wisdom of the Saints can go a long way in making a marriage last a lifetime. To repeat, if we point the finger at ourselves in our spiritual exercises we will be less moved to anger when our spouse points their own finger at us. We might even thank them for it!

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)