I thought I was done with weddings. And then my students started getting married, and now wedding season has begun all over again. Seriously, I have 6 weddings and two ordinations in the next 8 months. I hope they’re not expecting gifts….
Soon after one of my kids got engaged, we were talking about how exciting it all is. She looked at me with 22-year-old, doe-eyed, twitterpated optimism, and asked, “You know what I’m most excited about?”
The cynic in me steeled myself for some saccharine answer like “Waking up every morning with my best friend” or “Falling more in love every day of my life!” A good answer, but one that was unaware of the difficulties of real love.
“When we’re married, we won’t be able to hide from each other. Think how much we’ll grow!”
I’d like to take credit for that answer. After all, I did teach her apologetics in 2009. But she may have taught me more in that one statement than I did in 9 months of essay tests and notebook checks.
This is a power couple. They’re good-looking, intelligent, successful, outgoing. The world is their oyster. They should be focused on a Pinterest-perfect wedding and a honeymoon to make their Instagram followers jealous. But instead, they’re focused on holiness and how marriage will transform them and make them saints. Shoot.
It got me thinking. I don’t meet a lot of married couples whose approach to their marriage seems to be that it’s intended to sanctify them. At best, people tell me that marriage is really really hard and suffering makes you holy, so marriage makes you holy. On rare occasion,2 I’ll meet a couple that’s intentional about praying together. Not just praying as a family or showing up at Mass together, but honest-to-goodness, bare-your-soul-before-God-and-your-spouse praying together. More often, couples (good, holy, faithful couples) tell me that praying together is too intimate. God help us who live in a society where physical intimacy is shared with anyone we find moderately attractive but spiritual intimacy has no place in marriage!
But while redemptive suffering and communal prayer are essential elements of Christian marriage, I think even those two aren’t enough. Marriage doesn’t make you holy just because your spouse is a thorn in your side or a prayer partner. Marriage makes you holy because it strips you bare before another soul and asks you both to challenge and encourage each other. It’s that accountability that makes saints.
So I’m going to go out on a limb again and give advice I have no business giving.3 Go ahead and discount anything that’s tinged by my unmarried optimism and adjust as needed.
Here’s what couples need: a couple’s examen of consciousness. Make a commitment that once a week4 you’ll get together just the two of you.5 Start by praying together—Mass or a rosary or adoration or whatever but also from-the-heart, awkward, intimate prayers. And then get real. Each of you go over the last week, talking about where you feel you failed in charity. Point out the times you got angry, the times you were lazy—not just in your marriage, but throughout your life. Mention the ways God helped you grow this week and thank God for the many blessings he poured out on you. Talk through the frustrations you endured and try to figure out together how those things are working for good. And listen. As you share the ways you fell, ask your spouse if there’s anything you didn’t notice. Listen when he points out both your faults and your victories. Ask her what you did that made it harder for her to love well. Process the advice he gives you and the strategies she suggests.
Then switch and talk through your spouse’s week. Listen more than you talk, but speak when you must. Console and challenge and encourage. Speak hard truths, but speak them gently and with reverence.6 Ask (and grant) forgiveness. Thank each other. Ask the Holy Spirit to guard your tongue, that you might speak truth in love. Ask the Holy Spirit to guard your ears, that you might hear God’s truth. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart, that you might become holy.
Maybe some of you do this daily. But I imagine that more of you are living lives of quiet desperation, that the deep, intimate conversations of your courtship have disappeared under the weight of trivialities and exhaustion. So when your partner upsets you, you bite your lip and bury your frustration over and over and over until it explodes in unmerited rage that just causes him to close up. Or you try to say something each time and it comes across as nagging. You decide you’ll just be a martyr but you martyr her instead by your frigid response. When you speak, she takes offense and when you’re silent he doesn’t change.
But what if you had permission to correct each other? What if once a week, there was a peace accord, a free pass to examine your own conscience and encourage the other to grow? What if you were vulnerable before each other? What if you talked about little problems while they were still little? What if you saw your temper through her eyes? What if you saw your sullenness through his? What sins could you wipe away before they became habits that hardened around your stony heart?
And what if you were affirming each other as well? Balancing correction with congratulations? Taking the time to point out your pride in his patience or your pleasure in her hard work? Our herculean efforts often go unnoticed in the chaos of life and that lack of recognition becomes one more stone in the walls we build between us. What if every week you told him how marvelous he is? What if every week you told her how glad you are that she’s the mother of your children? What if you stopped letting life live you and started living like you’re saints?
It might be too much to jump into if you’ve got years of resentments and wounds built up.7 But you could start by praying together and affirming each other once a week and go from there. If you’re early in your marriage, you could amp up communication now; if it’s been 50 years, you could start talking about the things that have been swept under the rug since the Nixon administration. Figure out the formula that works for you, but start looking at marriage like its purpose is to make you a saint. Marriage isn’t sanctifying simply because it’s hard. What accomplishes the miracle of holiness in marriage is two people fighting together to become saints.
Obviously, I’ve never tried this. In fact, I don’t know anyone who has. Maybe it’s a ridiculous idea. All I know is I can’t get it out of my head in prayer and it sure isn’t doing me any good rattling around in there. Maybe it’s for one of you. Give it a shot for a few months, then tell me how it’s going. I figure prayer, communication, and the pursuit of holiness can’t hurt, anyway.
Also, kiss more.
While we’re on the subject, can I recommend my favorite books on marriage? I just reread Alice von Hildebrand’s By Love Refined and it’s just as good as I’d remembered. Note: it’s subtitled Letters to a Young Bride but is NOT written exclusively for women. It’s a book about love and sacrifice and it’s simply-written in short chapters—a perfect book to read together! Fulton Sheen’s Three to Get Married is (as I recall) not quite so simple but fantastic all the same. And it gives me hope that people can write well about things of which they have no personal experience….
Also, I fleshed out some of these thoughts in a talk I gave in Tennessee. Listen to it here:
- Sober [↩]
- So rare it’s really quite disheartening. [↩]
- See also Advice to Priests and 5 Rules for Fathers of Daughters [↩]
- Or every day or once a month. [↩]
- Pick a time when you’re generally not too stressed or distracted or exhausted and when you won’t feel rushed. Get a babysitter if you have to. Your marriage is worth the investment. [↩]
- Be very careful how you phrase things. Try “What was going on Tuesday night when you wouldn’t talk to Therese?” instead of “Have you forgotten what a baby you were Tuesday night?” “I feel as though this was a hard week for you to speak charitably about your coworkers” instead of “You were quite the gossip.” “I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but I was pretty upset when you joked that I was fat” instead of “Calling me fat was a total jerk move, don’t you think?” [↩]
- If this is the case, please, please don’t be too proud to consider therapy. Sometimes all we need is for someone to help us find a common vocabulary and we can take it from there. [↩]