Relationships and the Crown of Martyrdom

My favourite childhood movie will forever be The Lion King.  It was the first movie I’d seen in theatres.  The scene that saw Mufasa chase his son Simba through a sea of wildebeests to save him from being trampled by the oncoming stampede still flashes in my mind from time to time.  The same scene Scar dug his claws into Mufasa’s paws from atop a cliff on a mountain and watched him fall to his death with a smile strewn across his scarred face.  Mufasa died trying to save a life.

 But The Lion King was more a love story than tragedy.  The story of Simba and Nala was the first love story I’d seen.  They went from cubs groomed  by the tip of their mother’s tongues alongside each other to excavating elephant graveyards.  They were separated after Mufasa’s death for years only to meet again as adults to relieve Simba’s people from Scar’s tyranny and take back Simba’s pride.  They fell in love in the process.  Simba took his rightful spot as king, and Nala became his queen.

The movie reminded me of the marriage ceremony in the Coptic church, called El-Ekleel, or The Crowning.  The end of the ceremony sees the priest crown both the man and his new wife, a sign that the two have become one through the mystery of the sacrament of marriage. 

I used to think The Crowning was a symbol that the man became the king of his household, and the woman his queen.  I later found out from a priest’s wife that the crown received during an Orthodox marriage ceremony lies on the bride and groom’s head as a crown of martyrdom.  The man and his new wife have died to themselves and now live for the other. 

The idea sinks to obscurity in a society that places happiness before commitment.  What happens when the inevitable storm hits and everything you thought about the other person comes in to question?  What happens when good feelings devolve and break down and the only place you can find them again is outside your relationship? 

A friend I hadn’t seen in over a year recently connected with me on Facebook.  He told me he’d just broken up with his girlfriend of a few months.  The girl was emotionally and verbally abusive and though he loved her, he’d had enough.  He ended the relationship and spent the next few nights plagued with insomnia, his emotional hurt manifesting itself to physical pain. 

I told him I understood.  I’d recently gone through a breakup with a girl I’d been with for over a year and a half.  Though my emotions had never felt deep for anyone I’d ever been with, I did my best for her in everything I did because I believed true love worked before it felt and spoke.

I brought her soup when she was sick.  She complained it wasn’t homemade.  I drove her to Guelph and back to get her mail so she wouldn’t have to drive alone in the snowstorm.  She complained the whole night about how I forgot to close the door.  We made plans to see each other one Saturday.  She cancelled on me to meet a girl she barely knew for wine and cheese.  This was a few nights before I would surprise her with a pair of Maxwell tickets, her favourite artist.  Throughout this, I stayed.

Logically, I knew it was foolish not to leave, but I saw the heart she worked so hard to hide from me and I knew that it was good.  I still remember driving her friends, two newly landed Syrian refugee brothers from her church, to an Arabic restaurant in downtown Toronto, her sitting in the front passenger seat.  One attended an ESL program in a public school in Mississauga and the other looked for work where he could find it to help make money for his family in a country he didn’t know.  The girl yanked at my arm and stared at me with her deep brown eyes as smooth and sweet as honey.

“We have to help them,” she half whispered.  I loved when she thought of others.

I drove and heard her talk to them of education options and career possibilities that they could pursue. I saw her passion to work for her people and her friends, how she went out of the way to help them.  Her dedication to her community was honorable.  She was genuinely beautiful, inside and out.  And I told her this, though she never really reciprocated that kindness towards me.

Still, I’d seen her character. 

It was her fear of who I was that held up her emotional guard.  I was quiet and disorganized and scatterbrained and believed in truth that worked above the safety of status quo and I paid no mind to western values if they were not in line with my own.  I never offered comfort at the price of my dignity.  She, on the other hand, was not much into being different and constantly worked to please people.  We were oil and water in too many ways.

She fought against her fear for a year and eight months until she couldn’t do it anymore.  She ended our relationship in the front seat of my car on a warm April day after work.  Though I’d always believed true love endured all things, I knew I couldn’t use logic and fact to reason with her emotions. I was so exhausted from the constant emotional distance and lack of respect that I conceded and let go.  Above all, I appreciated how much she’d fought against her fear for so long to try to make things work. 

Many saw my relationship as a failure.  Some called me a ‘nice guy’ because I put in work for a girl that didn’t show me much appreciation.  But unlike the stereotypical nice guy, I never gave to get back.  I gave because I believe in practical love that works above the chemical imbalance that Hollywood has sold as true love.  I gave because she was named and known for eternity by the living Word greater than any life I could speak.  I saw past the cold exterior that pushed me away to the warmth of her beating heart, though she tried so hard to hide it from me.  I did not do my best for her to have my actions returned (though that would have been nice).  I did it because I saw her dignity.

It is important to note that I am not advocating a person accept another’s coldness or distance or any form of abuse within a relationship.  When she wronged me, I spoke my truth to her as gentle as I could.  I am also not saying a person with no practical ties to another stay in a relationship devoid of communication or appreciation.  If you must leave, leave.

I only speak to those who have struggled and pushed for kindness with their significant other with no expectation of reciprocation, and received none until the final curtain, such as my friend I recently reconnected with on Facebook. 

For those failed relationships where you gave everything you could for as long as you could despite the mistakes along the way and still saw things shatter before you like fallen glass, know that you grew. You pursued with honesty and failed with integrity.  If you remember the humanity of the other, that though they hurt you they often did so despite themselves, and choose to focus on their good and forget their weakness that cut you, you will grow. 

At the same time, Jesus says a city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Your good works were not hidden from your old partner, and they will remember you, your gracious heart and kindness, when the time is right.  They will grow just as you did. 

A good king gives his life for the other.  A good king fights for his pride despite the risk of death.  If you gave everything you had for another only to watch it break, know that every truly great man before you did the same, and that dead relationship may have been a high price, but your integrity was proven in the process. 

A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.