By Bob Ovies
The American Bishops issued their Pastoral Letter on Marriage for reasons marriage ministers are all familiar with. Marriage, whether sacramental or civil, is the choice of a shrinking percentage of couples who decide to express their love for one another by living together in an intimate committed relationship. And among those couples who do celebrate marriage, the difference in the divorce rate of Catholic couples and those of the general population is negligible.
But for all of this, there is still a “critical something” that has yet to be extensively pursued in marriage support ministries at either diocesan or parish levels, even though it’s foundational to Catholic life, it’s proven to be easy to teach, it’s been clinically demonstrated to dramatically strengthen virtually every factor known to be essential to the well-being of the marriage relationship (Rushnell and Duart, Couples Who Pray , 2007),
and, of all the collates known to contribute to happy and healthy marriages, it’s been identified by researcher Fr. Andrew Greeley as “the most powerful we have yet discovered.” (Andrew Greeley, Faithful Attraction, 1991).
That “critical something” is shared “couple prayer” – close, honest, personal prayer shared by a husband and wife on a regular basis.
Jesus tells us in his encounter with a busy Martha and attentive Mary that drawing back from the busyness of life The One Necessary Thing in order to focus on His company, to tell Him what’s in our heart and mind, and, very importantly, to listen to what He has to say to us, is the “only necessary thing.” (Lk 10:42) What an incredible revelation!
Married couples obviously have all kinds of important things to deal with, some of which are even critical. But married couples (like individuals, congregations, whole parish communities and the entire church) have only one thing that is “necessary” – prayer.
Yet most married couples are not praying together as a couple; not just the two of them coming together for that specific reason, and not with anything even remotely approaching a regular basis.
As a diaconal couple, my wife, Kathy, and I have been blessed over the past nine years to personally help some 1,400 couples embrace the “only necessary thing” more deeply and consistently as married couples. We’ve learned over that period of time that the overwhelming majority of couples – including even those who express a genuine desire to be able to pray together on a regular basis – are not in fact doing it, citing either or both of these two overriding reasons:
1. We don’t know how to go about it.
2. We wouldn’t feel safe. We’d be too vulnerable.
No other reasons come even close to being as significant as these. Think about that.
It’s been 2,000 years since Jesus walked the earth, died, rose from the dead, and sent the Holy Spirit. And yet, today most married Catholic couples (and other Christian couples, too, across the denominational board) are not praying together because of the above reasons.
There is very good news, though, and that is – both of those issues are teachable. They are learnable. They are achievable – and achievable more easily and more quickly than most couples might even imagine.
Couples can learn how to pray together in secure and successful ways. They can learn whole menus of solid ways to pray, within which they can closely and supportively pray together in their own most personally comfortable ways.
Couples can learn how to create a safe environment for themselves and their spouse, one in which sharing the intimacy of their personal relationship with God becomes an abiding comfort to them, not a threat. In fact, they can learn how to pray together comfortably in just a matter of weeks.
Here are some things we’ve learned that we hope will encourage you.
• It doesn’t take long. Couples won’t get there with just a strong homily or an evening in the parish center, but in just a few weeks they can be well on their way. Psychologists tell us that it takes approximately forty days to make or break a life-pattern, or habit, and we’ve found that that’s a very comfortable time-frame for husbands and wives to begin sharing daily couple prayer with as much faithfulness as they now brush their teeth, check their e-mail, go on the web, watch TV, or do any of the other hundred things that they now consider so important that they take time out for them each and every day.
• It’s accomplished successfully when it’s approached in gradual stages, with the first and most enduring stage being simply learning to start thanking God openly and honestly with one another. As David said, “Enter the gates of God with thanksgiving…” (Ps 100:1, 2)
Giving God thanks is not only a foundational and eternal response to God’s goodness to us, it is a wonderful starting place for any couple’s shared-prayer journey. There is little personal exposure in thanking God together,which in turn provides a greater sense of security, which in turn allows a higher degree of trust. It is trust that opens the door for intimacy and it’s intimacy – close, loving, enduring, personal intimacy with God and one another – that’s the most abiding of our longings and the highest goal of our prayers.
From that beginning point of helping couples learn to share open and honest prayers of thanks together, helping them pray comfortably together for a lifetime is simply a matter of supporting them through even more open, trusting, and intimate levels of “the only necessary thing.”
• from thanking and praising God in simple and heart-felt ways together,
• to asking God’s help together,
• to sharing personal insights and personal prayers about scripture and other resources together,
• to blessing each other and their children together,
• to sharing devotions together,
• to the deepest intimacies of forgiving and the highest intimacies of
worshiping God together –praying as a married couple may truly be the
most intimate act between husband and wife that any marriage can offer.
It is, after all, all in God’s plan, which means it’s already planted in the hearts of the next married couple we will get a chance to help, just waiting to bloom. The more we encourage prayer as a marriage support ministry of the highest importance, the more we will see marriages, and therefore families, and therefore the church herself, genuinely renewed.