Many Christians—and Catholics in particular—struggle to have the kind of meaningful prayer lives that could make this beautiful ideal a reality for their relationships.
For some, prayer is often an awkward struggle to figure out what to say and how to act. For others, with very committed and dutiful prayer lives, the struggle is to encounter God as a person or to experience much transformation in their lives or relationships. Still others think of prayer as a kind of spiritual vacation from their troubles, a quiet time of rote prayer and familiar formulas that gives comfort but rarely provides opportunities for transformation or deeper intimacy.
Many people have prayed in these ways for years, even decades. And they are genuinely surprised to learn that relating to God in a personal way, hearing him “talk back” in prayer, and receiving grace to make positive, practical changes in their lives and relationships are normal and expected parts of a healthy prayer life.
To be fair, all of the above experiences of prayer are genuine, sincere, and laudable starting points. Just as God does not waste any part of your marriage, he celebrates any effort you make to reach out to him. But if, up to now, your experience of prayer has been awkward or primarily dutiful, then think of the following words as an invitation to take your prayer life to the next level.
Traditionally, there are three different kinds (or “degrees”) of prayer: vocal prayer, meditative prayer, and contemplative prayer.
Vocal prayer—the way we pray most often— involves words said either out loud or interiorly. Vocal prayer can consist of formal prayers, like the Rosary and the Our Father, or informal prayers that we offer in our own words, like little conversations with God.
Vocal prayer can incorporate praise, through which we celebrate the ways we experience the goodness of God himself. For example, “Lord, you are so merciful, so loving, so glorious.” Or we can offer thanksgiving, through which we celebrate the things God has done for us. For example, “Thank you, Lord, for helping me find a way to pay that unexpected bill!” We can intercede for the needs of others or for our own needs. We can seek God’s forgiveness for the harm we have caused and ask for the grace to do better in the future.
Vocal prayer covers a lot of ground. Because it is so versatile, it lends itself to group prayer, and you will probably find yourself using it a lot as you pray. For instance, you might pray a Rosary or a Divine Mercy Chaplet together for the intention of a godlier, more grace-filled marriage (formal vocal prayer), or you could just talk to God about your day together (informal vocal prayer).
You might praise God for giving you his love as a model to follow in learning to love each other better, and you could thank him for the specific blessings of that day or the specific ways he has blessed each of you through your relationship. You might engage in supplication, asking God’s help in meeting a specific need, such as, “Lord, please help our son’s broken leg heal quickly and without any need for surgery.” Or you might intercede for a couple you know who is struggling with concerns of their own.
You might even ask for God’s forgiveness when you let each other down: “Lord, please forgive us for snapping at each other all day today. We really let the stress get to us. Please give us the grace to handle better everything we go through tomorrow and to remember to be loving to each other in the midst of it all.”
Vocal prayer is a great method of prayer for couples who want to seek God’s blessings for their relationship.
Meditative prayer usually involves reflecting on a focal point—such as a Scripture verse, a holy image, a biblical story or a story from the life of a saint, or a certain repeated sacred word or phrase—as a way of entering into a deeper relationship with God. When people first learn to pray the Rosary, for example, they often pray it as a vocal prayer by simply “saying” their Rosary. The Church, however, teaches us that the Rosary is meant to be a kind of meditative prayer.
Ideally, we should pray the Rosary in a manner that allows us to enter into the mysteries of Christ’s life, passion, death, and resurrection, to reflect on what those things mean for us personally, in the here and now. Our hands hold the beads, and our mouths repeat the words, but our minds and hearts are meant to soar above those physical anchors into the deeper mysteries of the life of God and his relationship with us.
You might reflect on what it must have been like for Mary when the angel Gabriel told her that she would conceive the Son of God. Then consider what her response—“May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38)—means for your own response to God’s call. Or on the sorrowful mysteries, you might consider that God’s love for you led him to endure the cross—and perhaps he is calling you to respond with sacrificial love to a particular circumstance in your own life.
You could take a moment at the end of the Rosary—or at the end of each decade—to briefly share your reflections with one another. As you are praying the joyful mysteries together, for example, you could reflect on the anxiety Mary must have felt at the Annunciation and then mention your own hopes or concerns about having a child.
Lectio divina (literally, “divine reading”) is a type of Scripture-based prayer that can be used effectively when praying with your spouse. In this type of meditative prayer, you choose a Scripture verse or passage and sit quietly with it, praying about it and seeing how God might wish to speak to you through it.
To practice divine reading in your marriage, you might choose a verse from Scripture that uses wedding imagery, such as the story of the wedding feast at Cana (see John 2:1-12) and reflect together on why God chose a wedding as the occasion of his first miracle. What might this say about the dignity of marriage and its importance as a sacrament?
There are many other passages of Scripture that speak directly to married love or can be applied to married love. You can also use meditative prayer to reflect together on the different images the Church uses when speaking about marriage.
We never pray on our own. Christians believe that if we are praying, it is because, on some level, God is moving in us and calling us to himself. Even the simplest act of vocal prayer is impossible unless God first moves in us and gives us the grace to turn our hearts and minds to him. Perhaps we recognize this action of God most profoundly in contemplative prayer, which can unfold as a powerful encounter with God that exceeds words but fills up every part of us. These powerful sacred moments can give even simple things deep meaning.
Experiences of contemplative prayer can result in significant growth in wisdom and a deeper, more personal connection with God. They can even be life changing. In a sense, contemplative prayer is when God grabs our attention and says, “Look at this! I want to show you something.” Saints like Teresa of Àvila, Catherine of Siena, and Bernard of Clairvaux were mystics who experienced God revealing himself in powerful ways during contemplative prayer. These were sacred moments that were deeply significant and profoundly felt. They were sources of great insights about the nature of God and his relationship to humanity.
Contemplative prayer often represents the most dramatic way God speaks with us in the unitive conversation that is prayer, and there is much that we can do to ready our hearts and minds to hear his voice. Because contemplative prayer is, in a sense, active, it begins with quieting our minds and turning our hearts to the Lord, so that we might be ready to receive whatever he wants to share with us, whenever he wants to share it.
The more we participate in the call that God places on our hearts through vocal and meditative prayer, the easier it is for him to get our attention. He will point out things we might not notice were it not for his taking our face in his hands and saying, “Look!”
Perhaps you have had moments when you just knew something to be undeniably true—maybe about God’s love for you or what he is asking you to do. For whatever reason, you came away from that moment utterly convinced that this was of God, and nothing and no one could shake your belief that you had experienced something real, something powerful, something that was perhaps beyond words but also a source of many future insights and blessings in your life. Contemplative prayer can be like that.
If you haven’t had experiences like these, don’t worry. If you stay faithful and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in your prayer life, it is very likely that you will. God loves you so much. He wants you to know his love on every level. And part of the way he demonstrates his love is through sacred moments of transcendence that characterize the experience of what Christians call contemplative prayer.
This is a selection from Praying for (and with) Your Spouse by Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak. Published by The Word Among Us Press (2018), available at www.wau.org/books.