Naomi of Embrace Your Femininity has discovered a wonderful letter written by St. Gregory of Nazianzus, a letter that provides timeless advice. It was written by St. Gregory to a spiritual daughter of his who was going to be married shortly, and he used it as an opportunity to provide some sage advice. I am going to give my thoughts on what I think are the more significant parts of the letter. I won’t repeat the letter in full; the whole letter can be found here. Those segments in quotes that are in bold are those which I feel are especially pertinent or (in some cases) those which the Naomi found meaningful. Keep in mind is that this letter is written for a woman who is about to be married, so its full impact is for married women.
Here is part of the first major paragraph:
Listen to me Olympiatha: I know that you desire to be a true Christian. As such, be aware that a true Christian must not only be one but she must also appear accordingly. This is why I ask you to pay special attention towards your personal appearance. You must be simple! Gold, attached to precious stones, does not add any value to women of your stature. This is even more so with make-up. It is very improper for you to alter your face, which represents an image of God, for the sole purpose of attraction and admiration by others. Know that this constitutes vanity that is unbecoming of a young lady of your character. I therefore ask that you overcome the feminine vanity that is abundant among young ladies of our time and remain simple in your appearance.
Something which has been noted around these parts for a while has been the tendency of many married women to use a lot of make-up and wear their nicest clothes when they go out and about, but to dress shabbily and appear unkempt at home. As St. Gregory rightfully notes, these women have their priorities backwards. Their husband is the only one that they need to look good for, and should look good for. He is the only man to whom attraction should matter. Looking good for the sake of other women is pure vanity, and must be rejected.
Of course, this must be balanced with the Christian wife’s duty to submit to her husband. So, if her husband asks her to beautify her appearance when they go out together, then she should. People will judge her husband by how she looks, so it is important that she provide a good impression. If he wishes her elegant, then she should be elegant. If he wishes complete modesty, then she should be modest. This advice by St. Gregory is primarily directed at a woman’s own initiative, not her husband.
What is particularly interesting is the language in the last sentence. While I am sure that the translation has turned it into something which is more akin to modern ways of speaking, that final sentence sounds just like something which could be said today. In that, it should serve as a reminder that vanity is a timeless trait, one that frequently rears its ugly head.
In your marriage, fondness, affection and love must be strong and persistent for him whom God has selected to be your life partner. This man is now the eye of your life and the delight of your heart. And if you ever perceive that your husband possibly loves you more than you love him, do not take advantage of his feeling by attempting to gain the upper had in your marriage. That is plainly wrong as it is totally against the writings of the Holy Gospel!
This warning seems to me to be a hint that pedestalization is not a recent development. Which should surprise no one, really. While one doesn’t necessarily have to agree with Rollo that men love idealistically (and women don’t), men are the same now as they have been throughout recorded history. We make the same mistakes, commit the same follies, and as seems obvious now, we repeat these time and time again. There is something within us as men that makes us (or most of us anyways) want to love women. At least, until we have suffered betrayal at the hands of a woman we loved. Respect is the fuel that keeps men moving. Without it we slow down and slowly fall apart. And there is no greater act of disrespect than betrayal. St. George is warning this young bride that taking advantage of her husband’s love for her will be hugely disrespectful, and may well lead to her betraying him, which could poison the well of love from him forever.
You must respect him and love him unconditionally, as you love God. Be aware that you are a woman and you have an important and great purpose and destiny; however, your purpose and destiny is different than that of your husband who must be the head of your household. Set aside the silliness of equality among the sexes, that some of your contemporaries preach, and attempt to comprehend the obligations of marriage. In the realization of these obligations you will discover the great patience and endurance that is necessary to fulfill your family duties; it is in this manner that you will also discover the great strength that you as a woman possess.
Consider that first sentence. Think of how radical it sounds. Unconditional love and respect? It sounds crazy to us today, but that only goes to show just how far afield Christianity has become. In truth, Christianity has always been, and will always be, a radical religion. God’s commands and Laws are never comfortable, because they are not aligned with our worldly wants and desires. A part of us will always resist what scripture and the Church teaches (or should teach), so we must always strive against this tendency and never forget that it exists.
What really strikes me, however, is the second sentence in bold. Is it just me, or is that not something which you could imagine having been written a few decades ago, when Feminism was making its greatest advances? When we think of our problems, the unhealthiness of the socio-sexual order in our present age, we tend to believe that it is a modern problem. Something which has only existed recently. This letter proves that lie for what it is. Feminism, with its call for “equality among the sexes” is an age old problem, one that has always been with us. There is nothing new under the sun, our present problems are to be found in every age.
You must never criticize, scold or become derogatory towards your husband for something that he has erred. Likewise, you must avoid any contempt towards any inaction or indecision by your husband, even when the outcome is not favorable or something that you greatly desire or consider proper. Be aware that demons are always around attempting to penetrate your household, and break up the couple’s harmonious spiritual cohabitation.
While he never directly uses the word Respect in this paragraph, St. Gregory alludes to it throughout. Everything I wrote about respect applies here. When a wife disrespects her husband, such as through open contempt, it opens a terrible wound in their relationship, one that doesn’t heal easily. While it may provide some instant gratification to prove him wrong, a wife who derides her husband will find that the long term consequences are perilous indeed. Such actions and behavior open a door through which the Adversary may enter, so that he may poison a wife’s mind, and through that bring the marriage to ruin.
Be extremely careful with whom you associate and the company that you keep. Be especially careful of the social gatherings that you may be participating in. Do not allow yourself to enter entertainment centers of questionable background; these represent extreme danger towards your purity and the sanctity of your marriage. These types of social interactions remove the instinct of shame, eyes cross with eyes, and once shame is not there to guard from any impropriety, the demons are able to exercise their influence and give rise to evils of unspeakable magnitude.
St. Gregory is giving more timeless advice here, by warning women (although this applies to men too) that they will be shaped by the company they keep. Oftentimes we won’t even notice this take place, but it does. You can often tell when someone has a new friend, just by the shift in their behavior. So it is essential we choose our associates carefully.
As for entertainment centers… I was struck by just how timely that advice seemed to be. Stories constantly pop up around these parts about wives who go to nightclubs with their friends for a “girls night out.” Such stories rarely end well. While they might be indicative of problems that already exist within the marriage, it is better not to chance such things. Avoiding temptation is essential, and so wives should be mindful of where they go.
Stay away from conceited and ostentatious women whose mind is pre-occupied with external appearances and social circles, all for the purpose of vainglory and public display. This should be the same for any men that you consider respectful and spiritual but whom your husband has not allowed to enter your home, irrespective of how highly you may regard them. For is there anything more precious for you than your good husband whom you love so dearly?
This is something which is very important for married women to understand. Men can perceive things about other men which a woman might be blind to. If your husband has indicated a man is not to enter your home, there is a strong reason for it. While there is always a chance that the husband might be mistaken, both respectful submission and general prudence dictate that a wife should not associate with men her husband wouldn’t want in the household. This advice is especially true in the present age, because there are more than a few men out there who seem to “specialize” in cuckoldry.
And now for your tongue. Your husband will always be your enemy for as long as your tongue is uncontrolled, even if you are to be blessed with thousands of other talents. A foolish tongue often endangers even the most innocent of people. It is preferred to maintain quiet, even in cases that you are correct. This is because you risk the expression of an unintended improper word or characterization. No matter how greatly you desire to say a lot, it is best that you limit your words and instead choose your presence to be a quiet one.
Nagging is nothing new. St. Gregory’s advice here is as good now as it was over 1600 years ago. Few things can erode trust, respect and love between a husband and wife quite like constant nagging. I am sure that it is a most difficult thing, to control your tongue as is required in marriage. But it is essential.
Lastly, this little part, which is the only section of the letter I was uncertain of:
And now pay close attention and be mindful of the following advice: You must never exemplify or maintain an uncontrollable desire for the flesh. Persuade your husband to respect the holy days of the Church and the fasting periods. This is because God’s laws are of much greater importance than the image of God. Be mindful that the institution of marriage was established by the Son of God to aid His creation so that a balance is maintained, as some depart this world while others arrive.
On the face of it, such language is not necessarily problematic. But it is easy to take such advice and use it improperly, towards evil ends. St. Gregory is correct that uncontrolled lust is a sinful thing, but that doesn’t mean that a wife’s passion for her husband is wrong. Far from it. Merely that she need temper it and not let it dominate her. Although I think for most women this is not apt to be likely, it is still advice worth noting. More important, however, is to not use Holy Days and fasts as an excuse to deny your husband. St. Paul was quite clear about the denial of conjugal rights, it should never happen. Abstinence in marriage must be mutual, and only for a limited time.
Other than that last part, this letter is a exemplary. Sadly, as a society we mostly reject the advice and counsel of the past. Too often we fall into the trap of thinking that our present situation is new and unique, and thus the wisdom of the ages is irrelevant. This letter proves otherwise. In our efforts to find a solution to today’s problems, it would behoove use to look into the past. Odds are that our elders have already given use the advice we need to carry us through today’s struggles.