We have received a very interesting email from a woman we shall call ‘Martha Simms’. Here is the email, with some of the details altered:
What exactly does it mean to ‘honour your mother and father?’ I was raised in a Protestant home. At the age of 50, I converted to the Eastern Orthodox faith. In doing so, I went against what my parents expected of me. My choice, also went against the wishes of my husband. Sometimes I still feel a ‘faded guilt’. Two of these dear ones, even yet, do not support my decision. Where have I done wrong?
Have I dishonoured my parents? What about my husband? I have been converted these past 10 years. I wish that I could get over these nagging thoughts.
There are several reasons why we, Orthodox Monk, are so slow to reply to emails:
1. We are busy.
2. The emails ask difficult questions.
The issue here is the thought that “I have done wrong” in going against the wishes of my parents (and husband) in becoming a member of the Orthodox Church.
This is a temptation. Before we discuss how to respond to this type of temptation, first let us look at the objective situation.
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. (Exodus 20, 12, KJV.)
This is one of the ten commandments. It is one of the pillars of Judaism and Christianity. Although we do not know any specific reference we would also imagine that some form of it is important in Islam, and indeed in every other major religion. That is because it is part of the natural law—the law put into human nature by God when he created us—for us to respect our parents, just as it is part of the natural law for parents to love their children.
The issue of course is what it means for us to honour our father and mother: what is the scope of the commandment? Can our parents tell us who to marry? Can they force us to worship God according to their own beliefs? Can they tell us what to study in school to prepare for our life? Can they insist that they live with us? Can they tell us what job to take and what job not to take? What is legitimate for parents to demand of us and what is beyond the scope of the commandment?
There is also a similar issue here concerning one’s husband, since Paul is clear that the husband is head of the wife.
Let us look at how Our Lord answers this question:
Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes [shall be] they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. (Matthew 10, 33 – 39 KJV.)
It is clear that the commandment to love God and to confess Jesus Christ his Son takes precedence over the commandment to honour one’s father and mother: there is a limit to the scope of the commandment to honour one’s father and mother. The Gospel passage is clear that we must put our faith in Jesus Christ over honour for our parents—or even for our husband.
We enter the Orthodox Church because we believe that it is the truth; that in entering the Orthodox Church we confess Jesus Christ in fullness. Indeed the Rite of the Catechumen before Baptism is clear that in entering the Orthodox Church we are renouncing Satan and confessing the Lordship of Jesus Christ. A proper conversion to Orthodoxy is therefore a confession of Jesus Christ and covered by the Gospel passage.
Let us now look at some historical and cultural background.
Honour shown to parents was very important in the Hebrew tribal society apart from any moral issue of a direct commandment of God. The interpretation of the nature of that honour has changed over the centuries in Judaism. One need only reflect on the interpretation of the commandment among ultra-Orthodox Jews today in comparison to reformed Jews.
It is the same thing in Christianity. Interpretation of the commandment has always been affected by the cultural conditions of the time and place where the family was that is the subject of the commandment. This includes other aspects of the commandment, whether for example our parents can tell us what job to take.
Now Martha says she comes out of a Protestant background. We personally think that Martha has these thoughts because of how she was brought up as a child—her relations with her parents in infancy. Now Protestantism is very broad and child-rearing practices within Protestantism today vary from the very authoritarian to the very permissive. This is further complicated by the fact that child-rearing practices and the interpretation of the commandment also vary according to social class, culture (ethnic group) and type of Protestant group that one might have belonged to. For although Protestantism is largely a matter of spiritual individualism, some strands of it have been very authoritarian.
Hence the historical background for understanding this commandment begins with an understanding of Hebrew tribal society and continues through the centuries with the nature of paternal authority in the Israel of Jesus’ time and continues through the Protestant Reformation to today. Similarly in traditionally Orthodox countries this commandment might be understood in different ways depending on class, culture and historical period.
Now depending on how much of a problem these thoughts are, Martha might simply employ a strategy of deflecting the thoughts in a way we will explain, or she might find it necessary to consult with a therapist. However, given her age we think that she just has to accept that the thoughts are going to bother her until they get fed up and leave her alone.
This is how Martha can deflect the thoughts. She should write the Gospel passage down on a piece of paper. She should put it in her pocket. Then when the thoughts bother her, she should pull the piece of paper out of her pocket and read it. Preferably out loud but if she is somewhere where that isn’t possible, then silently. She should repeat reading the passage until the thoughts get fed up and go. Of course if Martha is driving on the free-way or piloting an aeroplane at 30,000 feet she’ll just have to ignore the thoughts and get on with business until she gets to where she’s going. Now this might seem simple-minded, but it is actually the application of an ancient Orthodox practice.