We’ve recently been reading a collection of homilies by St. John Chrysostom on the topic of Matrimony. A common theme throughout them – husbands and wives bodies are not their own – brought to my mind Chapter XXXIII of the Holy Rule, a chapter which, perhaps due to a superficial reading, I never thought had anything to say to those in the married state. That has changed since reading these homilies. It was the following verse that came to mind while reading the saint’s words and which, in my opinion, shows a common thread between the monastic and married life:
[…] since they are not permitted to have even their bodies or wills
at their own disposal.
The homilies are based on some of St. Paul’s epistles. The Apostle reminds us that our bodies are not our own, that we who have been baptized are incorporated into Christ as His members and that we have been bought at a great price. Our bodies, therefore, belong first and foremost to the Lord.
[B]ut the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. Now God hath both raised up the Lord, and will raise us up also by his power.
Know you not that your bodies are the members of Christ ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot ? God forbid.
Or know you not, that he who is joined to a harlot, is made one body ? For they shall be, saith he, two in one flesh.
But he who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit.
Fly fornication. Every sin that a man doth, is without the body; but he that committeth fornication, sinneth against his own body.
Or know you not, that your members are the temple of the Holy Ghost, who is in you, whom you have from God; and you are not your own ?
It is interesting that he mentions this in the context of a problem of sexual immorality within the Corinthian community. All throughout the Old Testament adultery/fornication is used as a metaphor for Israel’s infidelity. God is the bridegroom; Israel, the bride. When Israel forgets the Lord and “chases after” other Gods, she is unfaithful to Him. This (sometimes quite vivid!) language is used time and again in the Prophets.
For some time now I have struggled to understand was is meant by fornication being a sin against one’s own body. What follows are some loose thoughts on the subject; I cannot vouch for their orthodoxy, so I am open to correction if anyone knows better.
On a natural/psychological level, it could just be that fornication is against the body because it makes one feel “unclean”. It is common to hear, for example, rape victims say that they felt “dirty”, or “filthy”, after they were violated, and some even to the point of trying to literally wash away the feeling.
But Paul has just mentioned that our bodies are now members of Christ and that that communion with Him – one in spirit – is greater than that of the flesh – two in one flesh. In a sense, our bodies are now icons of Christ. To commit fornication, which, as mentioned before, is a symbol of apostasy, would seem to convey two messages: on the one hand, it would be to reject in a symbolic way that union with God, by committing a desecration of His temple; on the other hand, we being icons of Christ, fornication would be to show, again, in a symbolic way Christ as unfaithful.
I don’t think it is stretching this interpretation about fornication and our body to be related to Christ and the Church, as I described above, since just a few verses later St. Paul has this curious bit to say about the husband and wife’s bodies:
The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband. And in like manner the husband also hath not power of his own body, but the wife.
The Apostle to the Gentiles refers to Matrimony as a sign of Christ and His Mystical Body, His Bride, the Church, in the Epistle to the Ephesians. Could St. Paul be pointing again, with this admonition, to husband and wife being icons of Christ and the Church? Would it be pushing it too far to say that Christ’s body belonged already to the Church, that being why He gave Himself up for her, so she would be presented immaculate and unblemished? And the Church belongs to Christ because she is His body, and so is subject to Him?
Coming back to the Holy Rule, how can one interpret the not having one’s body or will at one’s own disposal in light of Matrimony? I think the key is remembering that it, Matrimony, is an icon. My body is not my own. And coming back to the topic of fornication/adultery, if my body is not my own, how can I give it away to another? If I consent even to thoughts or glances or conversations, no matter how fleeting, am I not misusing that which is no longer mine? Am I not marring the icon? If my wife’s body is mine, that does not mean it is to be used as I see fit. It is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and so must be treated in accordance. My wife is “bone of my bone” and “flesh of my flesh” through the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Having been united to her, do I not have to nourish and cherish her, as if she were my own body?