Sense of Life. Articles in English. Fundamental Practices of Marriage.
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Fundamental Practices of Marriage

God’s way of joining is a deep mystery for married couples. Despite their differences of sex, personality, character, and upbringing, the Creator joins them together in “one body.” We are dealing here with a truth that can be understood only to the degree in which we practice it.

In an earlier piece I presented two points of a “golden plan” for building a successful, happy, and, above all, enduring marriage – a marriage that enables both the union itself and the couple living in it to grow to their full potential. The first point is recognizing marriage for the supreme value it holds in our life and the need of subordinating to it everything that we do. The second is recognizing our spouse as the most important person in our life. The following reflection will build on these two points and present others.

Let us begin by reflecting on Christ’s well-known words: “So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19: 6). These words of our Lord and Teacher invite deeper reflection, since they touch on a truth that goes far beyond the desire of fallen man to dissolve marriage by legal means. God’s way of joining is a deep mystery for married couples. Despite their differences of sex, personality, character, and upbringing, the Creator joins them together in “one body.” We are dealing here with a truth that can be understood only to the degree in which we practice it. We have to approach this truth in much the same way as we approach the mystery of the Eucharist. What Jesus reveals to us about the Sacrament of the Eucharist is also hard for us to understand, and so he tells us “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22: 19). We are told to live this truth, to participate in it without trying too hard to grasp it intellectually. In the same way we need to approach the truth of the sacramentality of marriage. We need not understand it either – only live it. No need to waste time and effort in getting to the bottom of it. We need only put these mysteries into practice, partake of them, realize them. The “one body” that a man and a woman create by entering into the covenant of marriage with God contains within it an element of profound mystery, and this we are not required to understand but to live out.

What then must the married couple do to stay together? Note that it is not external factors or other people but the spouses themselves that represent the greatest threat to marriage; and this not through infidelity or desertion but through neglect of the very thing that binds the union together. The sundering of a marriage (a union created by God) occurs when the couple ignore the sacramental character of their union. Prayer, joint attendance at Holy Mass, the wearing of wedding rings, celebrating the wedding anniversary, and unceasing prayer for one’s spouse – all these are fundamental practices of marriage and require concrete action on the part of the couple. In this piece we will consider the first of these practices: that of praying together.

The vast majority of people living on this planet acknowledge the existence of God. But it is insincere to insist upon one’s belief in a Divine Being without the concrete behaviors to prove it. To style oneself as “believing but not practicing” is to enmesh oneself in a self-contradiction. In the biological domain it would be like saying “living but not eating.” What kind of living and growing can there be without the supply of nutrients which make life and growth possible? A person who claims to be a believer must act in concrete ways to prove to himself and to God (whose existence he acknowledges) the fact of his belief. He must provide himself with the spiritual nourishment necessary not only to grow spiritually but also to remain a believer – to acknowledge the existence of a Being to whom he can turn in difficult moments, especially when all human expedients fail. A person who wants to grow spiritually and develop his relationship with God must engage in systematic practices in order to be open to the flow of divine grace, i.e. to provide himself with the spiritual sustenance necessary for life.

And not only spiritual life – as becomes increasingly clear to all those who put the truth of marriage into practice. From God’s presence in the heart of man spring forth strength and hope that are essential for every area of existence. This intaking of food necessary for spiritual growth is achieved in a number of ways. The most fundamental of these is prayer, i.e. allotting a portion of one’s day to God and directing one’s thoughts toward Him. We can pray singly or in a group or community of persons. The spiritual life of the “one body” born out the sacramental covenant of marriage must also be lived out in concrete ways. As with single people, prayer is the basic practice by which a couple raise their union to God. Before entering into marriage we pray as individuals. After marriage – all the more so in this area – we are no longer separate individuals but a unity that God has created in a way that defies human understanding. This unity is unlike any other in life. When, for example, we feel the need for sleep, we satisfy the need as individuals, despite the marital bond, for the sleep of one spouse does not satisfy the need of the other. But as a spiritual unity created by God the couple must act in concert, since they remain in close proximity with each other. Every evening they kneel down together and thus, as a “spiritual organism,” prove to God and themselves that their life rests in the hands of their Creator.

Contained within the sacramental union of marriage is a supply of helps and opportunities that elude human understanding. Marriage is a an ever-enduring sacrament that pours out on the spouses an uninterrupted flow of invisible graces. But these graces can only be drawn on when the couple act in clearly defined ways. God always desires to preserve and respect our autonomy and freewill. He waits for the couple to open themselves up to His grace, to affirm their readiness and willingness to work with Him. The same condition applies to every sacrament. Praying together is the most important way in which a married couple affirm their constant cooperation with God and manifest their openness to the flow of supernatural graces which can then come to bear on every area of their life.

In future discussions I will comment on the other fundamental practices that couples must engage in if they wish to profit from the wealth of opportunities that flow from the sacrament of their union. But the most important of these is joint daily prayer. I often hear people say: “But I know of happy marriages in which the spouses do not engage in such overt religious practices; they do not pray together.” Indeed there are such instances, but the unity of such marriages (which may be clearly felt even by the children) is mainly due to good emotional and psychological compatibility. Often there will also be a happy convergence of character and interests. In such cases the couple bond attractively, but this union may lack a foundation, or it might be very weak. It may be a very nice house, but it is still built on sand: “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock, and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27).

When – may this never come to pass, but life can be cruel – when hard times descend upon us: the loss of a job, the grave illness of one of the spouses, the death of a parent or child, a natural disaster, or an accident – when such tragedies strike, a marriage that appears strong and stable may be severely shaken, weakened, and may even fall apart. That is why – if only preventatively – a couple need to invest in a deeper unity. They need to build a lasting foundation, and this must be deliberately and systematically achieved on the basis of the married couple forming “one body.” This is all the more necessary where the spouses have diverging characters and interests, or where they do not experience intellectual, psychological or affective unity (which is quite possible after the period of their mutual infatuation has passed). A consciously developed spiritual unity can be a powerful unifying and strengthening factor at such times (often it is the only one). Then there is no need to dwell on what separates us, on the differences that divide us. All that is needed is to develop that dimension of their union which of its very nature binds enduringly and becomes the bedrock foundation of the marriage. When couples are always open to God’s grace – not only through the practice of praying together but also through other practices that flow from the sacramental character of their union – they are best prepared for the onset of hard times; and they bear them more easily when they do occur. By remaining spiritually united in God’s presence through prayer, the couple deepen their sense of reliance upon each other. As to what manner of prayer, it really does not matter. The important thing is to do it. Our Catholic heritage has a rich store of prayers and prayer books. It is not hard to find prayers that both spouses find suitable. All they have to do is reach for them.

Remarkably, even scientific studies bear out the old adage that couples that pray together stay together. Let me conclude this part of my discussion by citing the results of a study conducted by American sociologist Mercedes Arzur Wilson:

1. One out of two civil unions fall apart: 50%.

2. Where there has been a church wedding but no religious practice, one out of three marriages fall apart: 33%.

3. Where there has been a church wedding and the couple attend daily Mass together, the odds of a breakup are one in fifty: 2%.

4. Where there has been a church wedding and the couple attend daily Mass and pray together every day, the odds are one in 1429, i.e. barely 0.07%!

(To be continued)

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