“What therefore God has joined, let no man put asunder.” (Mt 19:6)
It’s Not Automatic
Kate and I have been married for just under ten years, and we currently have six children under the age of eight (four sons and two daughters). So, from the get-go our relationship has been defined by our constantly having more demanded of us than we seem to have to offer. This often drives us to prayer to ask God to make our kids (and one another) less demanding, to miraculously give us more energy, patience, and love, and to somehow get us on the same page each time fertility comes back around and we’ve got decisions to make. God is faithful, and He responds beautifully when we come to Him, so our deepest struggles usually don’t come from His lack of communication but from our own.
We had both studied and given presentations on the Theology of the Body prior to marriage, and I was proud of how we prayerfully discerned big decisions, so I expected that entering into a Sacramental union with my wife would somehow provide the grace of a sort of spiritual “mind-meld.” I realized pretty quickly that God doesn’t actually work that way, and we were both pretty quickly overwhelmed by the fact that we are completely different people, each with our own unique perspective (who knew?). It was like moving to a foreign country and expecting to naturally speak the language somehow.
I spent hours in prayer asking God to bridge the gap for us, and I was constantly nagging Kate to do the same. We would go to Adoration together, and I expected that God would provide us with a perfectly unifying experience, but it usually ended with us in the car afterward trying (and failing) to understand what the other was sharing about their own particular experience in prayer.
There was also the almost constant discernment about massive decisions having to do with openness to life, career changes, the education of our children, etc., and we didn’t feel like we had the material resources for any of it. Our foundational differences in our understanding of God and how we related to Him (especially when suffering is on the line) quickly came to the surface and seemed insurmountable. We would each get different answers in prayer, we would struggle to articulate ourselves, and we felt like we ultimately couldn’t trust each other’s discernment. After a while, we stopped wanting to even bring it up; we felt trapped within the walls that were growing between us. This division became a deep source of pain, despair, and bewilderment. If God cared about our marriage and He wanted us to be united, why didn’t He fix it?
We Don’t Make Sense By Ourselves
It was during my reflection on the Stations of the Cross one Friday during Lent that I realized where I had been going wrong. During the Fifth Station (Simon helps Jesus carry His Cross), God showed me that I was like Simon, unwilling to allow my own individual “progress” to be hindered by my wife’s struggle to trust God in the same way that I did. I was prideful of how well I thought I was carrying my crosses, and I realized that I didn’t really want to be affected by her weaknesses. I quickly recognized that if I were able to “get to the finish line” without her, it would be completely pointless. It was God who joined us, and because of that, our lonely journeys to Him no longer make sense. I realized that my life really only makes sense if I am willing to get under her cross, our cross, moving as slowly as both of us can move together. And, as it turns out, this completely changes the experience of the journey for both of us, making it so much more fulfilling and very real.
We began to see that what we were yearning for was what St. John Paul II continually referred to as conjugal spirituality. But, we didn’t have the tools or even a vision for how to develop that. We prayed together often using the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, and other devotions, and we discussed our insights and experiences, but we each still felt like outsiders to the deepest movements of one another’s heart. I realized that I could not know Kate in her truest self without coming to know who she is in the presence of God.
Simple, but Not Easy
It wasn’t until we were introduced to the Couple Prayer Series, a simple program created by Deacon Bob and Kathy Ovies to get couples started in praying together, and later to Domestic Church, a movement from Poland that provides basic formation specifically for conjugal spirituality, that we began to see that developing a conjugal spirituality wasn’t a new or complicated process, but it certainly wasn’t easy. We learned, for example, that the spiritual intimacy experienced when praying together openly and out loud is truly deeper than any other form of intimacy. The vulnerability involved in even sexual intimacy still doesn’t compare to the experience of allowing our spouses to enter into our deepest prayer.
Praying together can be as simple as just holding hands and taking turns praying out loud, but there’s a reason why couples tend to avoid it. It’s not because we don’t have a few minutes to spare. The truth is, I don’t want my wife to know that I don’t have it all together and that my real prayer sounds more like a lost fourth grader than a contemplative monk. However, when we do pray together, it feels like something truly real is happening rather than the usual experience of just having ideas bounce around in my own head in hopes that God somehow hears them. And, it’s always surprising how much more quickly and powerfully the answers come for the things we pray about together. It’s as if God is saying, “This is what I’ve been waiting for! This is what I put you together for!” Individual prayer is still necessary, but it is informed by the beautifully real experience of our couple prayer.
Spiritual intimacy will most definitely strengthen and improve all other types of intimacy (especially physical intimacy—just sayin’, guys!). It can be tough to get started, but the good news is that you don’t need special techniques, you just need to do it. Hold hands and pray. It may be awkward at first, but all you have to do to get better at it is to keep doing it. Pick a time each day (right before bed may not be best for one or both of you), and fight hard to stick to it, even when you fall off the wagon.
We, as men, naturally want a battle worth fighting, and we must not leave this one to our wives. They usually feel the desire for this kind of connection more than we do, but they are also deeply sensitive to the possibility of rejection if they were to ask us to pray with them. We are made to take the initiative and to pursue our wives, and there truly is no better way to do this than to actively pursue a deeper understanding of their minds and hearts as God sees them. The hardest part is agreeing to pray together and just getting started, but you’ll find that you’ll always be grateful that you did.
A few practical tips:
- Don’t be critical of your spouse’s prayer—this is a huge breach of vulnerability.
- Pick a time and stick with it. But, agree that if you haven’t done it before going to bed, you won’t go to sleep until you do. Make it a “no compromise” activity!
- Take turns (at least at first). Agree that you will squeeze hands or something like that to let your spouse know when you are finished.
- Start with thanking God for specific things—you’ll find it totally changes the attitude of the rest of your prayer.
- Involve Scripture (lectio divina) here and there. It gives you a great place to start your prayer.
- Just do it!
David Dawson, Jr. is the Director of the Archdiocese of New Orleans Family Life Apostolate and he and his wife, Kate, are the U.S. national coordinators for the English-speaking branch of Domestic Church, a lay movement founded in Poland with the help of St. John Paul II that provides basic spiritual formation for Sacramentally married couples and their families.