By Peg Hensler, NACFLM Region IV

CELEBRATES the vocation of marriage in worship and community life.

 Worshiping & Prayer Assessment

When asked about the most important qualities that Catholic couples need for successful, lifelong marriage, the typical responses from engaged couples might include – great communication, honesty, trust, loyalty, acceptance, just to name a few.  Rarely do young adults preparing for Catholic marriage list worship and prayer as necessary elements of a strong marriage, yet those of us who minister to engaged and married couples understand that the “faith” components of the marital relationship are as essential as the love and self-sacrifice that couples give to each other every day in happy, healthy marriages.  We’ve all heard the phrase – “families that pray together stay together.”  This simple statement is made manifest in the lives of real married couples and their families who regularly practice their faith together.  These are the families that seem to exude that wonderful sense of marital joy and family wholeness that all of us hope to achieve.

Sharing in the Eucharist together as a couple is the highest form of worship in Catholic marriage.  It is the source and summit of our Catholic faith, and the font of marital grace, that infusion of divine energy that enables us to take on superhuman qualities in the midst of the everyday joys and challenges of marriage and family life.  Married couples that work hard to keep the marital graces flowing are most successful when they make intentional connections between their faith lives and their daily family lives.  While Sunday worship and involvement in their parish community are obvious priorities, so is the daily attitude of thankfulness for all of God’s blessings, including the gift that spouses are for each other, and the supreme gifts that children are for their parents.

As Catholics, we believe that we are all members of the one Body of Christ, and as such we are all interconnected.  We are all branches on the vine that is the person of Jesus Christ; each family adds a new chapter to the story that tells of our common salvation history.  Nothing demonstrates our interconnectivity better than healthy, holy married couples and their families who invite Jesus to walk with them on a daily basis, and who glorify God in prayer and in action.  Interfaith couples, though they can’t share the Eucharist together, can still be “eucharistic” and unified in their approach to family life.  Together they can be thankful for all of God’s generous gifts, and they can pray for marital strength and endurance.  Let us always recall that when Jesus returned in glory to the Father, he promised us we would never be alone.  He left us the Holy Spirit to provide for all of our spiritual needs and he showed us how to worship and pray that we might always welcome the Spirit of God into our homes, our marriages, our lives.

The Spirituality of Struggle

By Mike Allen, M. Div., D. Min.

I’m a Family Life director, not a marriage counselor, but because I sometimes write about the spirituality of marriage in our diocesan newspaper, some people view me that way. It sounds like a parody of a commercial: “Are you a trained counselor?” “No, but I did sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night.”

Mindful of my limits, then, I agreed to meet once or twice with a troubled young couple to hear their story and offer guidance toward a referral. At our initial meeting, the frustrated couple sat in my office, with each spouse lamenting a deep dissatisfaction with their marriage, talking about divorce with an air of inevitability.

As each spouse spoke, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, the explosive revelation that might explain why two Catholics (and the parents of several young children) would willingly walk away from their lifelong covenant. What was the dark secret that doomed their marriage—Infidelity? Physical abuse? Addiction?

Apparently, there was no such secret. What I heard instead was a complaint from him that he didn’t feel respected, and that he never felt supported in decisions he had made for their family. Meanwhile, her primary grievance was that she didn’t feel listened to, and that he often made financial choices without consulting her first. Their bitterness was palpable.

After a brief silence, I said to them, “I appreciate your honesty about your relationship. I can sense the hurt and frustration you are both experiencing. I want to be sensitive to your feelings, but part of me wants to say to you, ‘Welcome to marriage.’”

“What I mean,” I continued, “is that when God brought you together in marriage, you were called to grow in love. That’s what marriage is; your chosen school for learning to love – your vocation. And these difficulties you are facing in your marriage – feeling disrespected or not listened to – are not really unusual, but are, in fact, to be expected.”

I know, I know; I just revealed why I’m not qualified to be a marriage counselor, imposing my own value system on that poor couple. My mea culpa is that I just can’t help myself. It’s amazing to me how many Christian couples are surprised that marriage is, well, hard.

Perhaps their naiveté makes sense. One of the problems in the Church, after all, is that we tend to present our best faces to each other because we think an authentic Christian is always happy and confident, with no worries or doubts. Naturally, then, we present the same picture of Christian marriage. Thus, when couples face problems, as virtually all couples do, they have the mistaken notion that our marriage is the only one struggling.

And yet, the demands of marriage are intrinsic to its nature. Think about it. Two individual persons called into intimate union, both with their own backgrounds, their own wills, their own personalities, their own preferences, and their own passions. How can such a vocation not bring with it immense challenge? And yet it is these very difficulties that best serve to shape our character and teach us to love.

As Catholics, we hear often about redemptive suffering, the belief that the trials we endure are never wasted but allow us to participate intimately in the passion of Christ. Rarely, however, do we translate that idea to marriage. And yet, the context of marriage – with its sometimes petty squabbles, power plays, and unreasonable expectations – provides the most proximate opportunity that spouses have to embody the suffering that true love requires, the self-gift that calls us to lay down our lives, minute by minute, for the good of the beloved, whether that love is reciprocated or not.

In that sense, the term “struggling marriage” is redundant. For while some marital challenges may be more strenuous than others, we do a disservice in marriage ministry when we fail to communicate that learning to love can be a painful process. After all, if the cross is the quintessential expression of love, how can we think that learning to love won’t hurt?

The good news, of course, is the hope of the Paschal Mystery. It is in sharing Christ’s suffering that we pass over with him from death to life. Thus, rather than fear marital struggles, couples should embrace them; not because trials are pleasant, but because apart from the struggle, love will never mature. There can be no Easter without Good Friday.

I don’t know what will happen with the couple who sat in my office, but I do know this; their marriage can die on its own, or it can die with Jesus. If it dies on its own, it’s just dead. But if they move forward together, seeking to lay themselves down in mutual submission, their struggling marriage will bear fruit in new life and deeper love. As the Catechism declares, “It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life” (1615).

Mike Allen is the Director of Family Life Ministries for the Diocese of Lexington, Ky. See www.marriage friendlytherapists.com for a partial list of counselors who support marriage.

Praying “All Ways” with Families

By Caroljean Willie SC, Ph.D.

Prayer is the thread that can bind families together. The purpose of prayer is to establish a deeper relationship with God and to give us the nourishment we need to live as disciples of Jesus. Expanding prayer, beyond the traditional words and rituals to include all of our senses through creative movement, music, art, nature, and more, can enrich the lives of all family members individually and together.

Following are some suggestions inviting families to pray together in new and creative ways.

• Choose a Favorite Hymn

Quietly listen to the words. Then invite family members to stand and move their bodies in rhythm with the music or create a song prayer with actions to the words of the song.

• Pray With Clay

Invite each person to create something out of the clay that reflects his/her relationship with God. Share with each other.

• Choose a Parable

Jesus used parables with images from the people of his time to illustrate his message about the kingdom of God. However, the images that he used are often not understood in the context of the 21st century reality of our lives. As a family, choose a parable and rewrite it as Jesus might tell it today using the images and experiences that are a part of your family’s reality. Act it out if you feel dramatic.

• Keep a Family Gratitude Journal

Once a week, or whenever possible, invite family members to contribute something for which they are thankful and write it in the journal. Conclude with a prayer in thanksgiving for the many blessings in your lives. At the end of the year review the journal together to see the many ways God has been present to your family during the year.

• Pray the Calendar

Each day God invites us to live lives of love and service. The invitation is always there, but with our busy schedules we often fail to remember to acknowledge God’s call through our daily actions. The calendar prayer invites family members to sit together once a week and decide on a specific action for each day of the week that all commit themselves to. For example, on Monday each family member agrees to do a random act of kindness, on Tuesday to listen to a song that praises God, on Wednesday to take a few minutes to appreciate something beautiful in nature, etc. At the end of the day all can share what they have done to honor their commitment.

• Design a Family Prayer Quilt

Give each person a 9”x9” piece of white cardstock. Within each square draw, paint, or use a computer image or other medium to illustrate a theme you want to include in your prayer. For example, the images in a gratitude quilt should represent those things in life for which you are grateful. The images in a hope quilt should represent things for which you dream – things that give meaning and direction to your lives. Connect the squares by paper punching a hole in the four corners of each square and connect with ribbon or yarn. Hang in a special place.

• Draw a Prayer

Keep a creative Family Journal in a loose leaf binder. This can be an ongoing project. Invite each family member to make a contribution using one of the following suggestions: draw a symbol to represent your relationship with God; make a picture to represent what you think God looks like; design a holy card; choose a scene from Scripture and illustrate it; illustrate a favorite prayer. Be creative and come up with your own ideas and themes.

• Create a Musical Autobiography

A musical autobiography is the story of your relationship to God through music. To create a musical autobiography of your family, make a timeline of approximately ten events or times in the life of your family that reflect both high and low points. Find a song or piece of instrumental music that reflects how your family felt at those times. A few ideas to think about: marriage, the birth of each child, vacation memories, birthdays, etc.

• Pray With Worldly Music

Choose a country or place in the world that your family would like to pray for and find a piece of music from there. Light a candle and sit comfortably, close your eyes and listen to the music. Allow yourselves to feel your connection to the people and land that the music represents. Pray for them. Join your prayer with their prayer for a world in which all may live in peace and harmony. Feel the peace that comes with understanding.

• Observe Nature

Nature provides us with the opportunity to stop for a few minutes to see what is happening right before our eyes. It invites us to sit still and see the mysteries of the visible world – beauty, growth, change, death, new life – and, in clearly seeing the visible, to come to know that which we cannot see. Take a walk as a family in a local park, along a hiking trail, or in your own backyard. Choose a spot and sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Do nothing but look at what is happening in that one spot. Notice the colors, the grass, flowers, twigs, insects, fallen leaves which might be in that spot. At the end of the reflection period share with each other what you have observed. End with a prayer of thanksgiving for the gifts of nature. This prayer might continue another day with a contribution to the family journal or a nature prayer quilt.

• Pray the Psalms

Psalms provide a wonderful model for litanies or hymns of praise for the magnificent gifts of creation. By using the models provided by a number of psalms, we can create our own hymns of praise. Choose one of the following patterns and compose a family psalm of praise in thanksgiving for creation: O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (from Psalm 8) Use this as a refrain and invite family members to add the gifts of creation for which each is grateful in his/her own life. After each contribution repeat the refrain, O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

May these prayer suggestions lead your families to explore new ways of communing with God individually and together. Be adventuresome! Look for God in unexpected places! Look for God in the ordinary places you frequent daily! God is there – beneath you, above you, around you, and within you. Celebrate our wondrous God through words, art, dance, and music. The possibilities are endless because God is infinite!

Caroljean Willie is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati currently serving as the NGO representative at the United Nations in New York for the Sisters of Charity Federation. Her interest in different prayer styles grew out of her cross-cultural experiences in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.