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How to Strengthen your Marriage through Intimacy and Prayer

By Christopher J. Stravitsch

Pope Benedict, while greeting newlyweds in Rome after a weekly catechesis, stated, “Dear newlyweds, learn to pray together, in the intimacy of the home, so that your love may be ever truer, ever more fruitful and long lasting” (General Audience, September 7, 2011). Deepening marriage spirituality through prayer in the home is an important invitation for spouses, albeit a daunting one for many. As a Catholic marriage and family therapist, I have been privileged to work with couples who are having relationship problems, but who are also trying their best to live the marriage vocation God has called them to. Something I hear often, however, is that while couples do want to learn to communicate and pray together, most are not sure how to do so. As Catholic Christian marriage therapists, some of the best relationship advice we can give, which Benedict gives as well, is to learn how to pray as a couple. So with this post about strengthening your marriage,  I will outline a simple four-step process for couple’s prayer that is modeled after the Mass.

Using the Mass as a model for marital prayer is uniquely justified. In Familiaris Consortio (also known as “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World”), John Paul II teaches, “The Eucharist is the very source of Christian marriage. The Eucharistic Sacrifice, in fact, represents Christ’s covenant of love with the Church, sealed with His blood on the Cross” (no. 57). Christ makes himself known to His Bride, time and time again, as He reveals His self-emptying gift of love. The Mass is also a means by which the Church expresses her own love for the Divine Bridegroom. The Church never wearies in her desire to relive the Paschal sacrifice, to receive and experience the gift of God, and to offer herself as a gift in response. The Holy and Divine Liturgy is the prayer par excellence that defines the marriage relationship between Christ and the Church.

While the sacraments sanctify, build up the body of Christ, and offer worship to God, Sancrosanctum Concilium (the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”) notes, “because they are signs they also instruct” (no. 59). The Holy and Divine Liturgy communicates a message that should go beyond the realm of liturgy and penetrate the lives of the faithful. It instructs members of the Church in how to live their love relationship with Christ in all aspects of their lives and how to grow in love as a couple.   Indeed, “all the activities of Christian life…are bound up with it, flow from it, and are ordered to it” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 16). The marriage relationship between a husband and wife is of special importance, because they “signify and share…the mystery of the unity and faithful love between Christ and the Church” (Lumen Gentium, no. 11). Therefore, much can be learned from the liturgy about how spouses might pray together in the intimacy of their homes and thereby strengthen their marriage. To explore this, we will begin by briefly looking at how Christ and His Bride communicate their love during the Mass. Then we will examine how couples can pray together by making use of the same basic structure.

The Structure of the Mass

Catholics are familiar with the structure of the Mass, which consists of the Introductory Rites, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Concluding Rites.

Beginning with the Introductory Rites, the congregation unites and makes the sign of the cross, thereby consecrating their time to God. With an act of penance, they seek forgiveness for any sins carried in their hearts. Forgiveness establishes communion by healing their relationship with Christ and preparing them for deeper intimacy with Him. Joining in one voice, the people humbly recite, “I confess to Almighty God…that I have greatly sinned….”

After making a general statement of confession and becoming open to the mercy of God, the Mass transitions to the Liturgy of the Word. This involves listening to the Word of God proclaimed and can be likened to a personal conversation between Christ and the Church. God speaks to His people in the Sacred Scriptures and reveals His abounding love for them. “He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church” (SC, no. 7). The people, in turn, sing psalms to God from their hearts, allowing the words to rise as a sweet prayer. Intimacy is deepened as both Christ and His Bride honestly reveal what is most dear to them.

Next is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, through which Christ and His people freely sacrifice and offer themselves to each other. This sharing in love is the culmination of intimacy between Christ and the Church. In the Eucharist, Christ completely gives Himself to His Bride, in body, soul, and divinity. Receiving the Eucharist is an act of faith that commits the people to live their lives completely for Christ, who lives in them. The mutual giving and receiving nourishes the intimate union between Christ and His people. After the distribution of Communion, sacred silence may be observed and then the priest prays the Prayer after Communion.

The Mass ends with the Concluding Rites. A final blessing is pronounced and then the people are sent forth in peace to announce the Gospel of the Lord and to glorify the Lord with their lives.

These parts of the Mass, as a seamless act of worship, move the faithful “to be ‘one in holiness.’” Renewed “in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man” they are drawn “into the compelling love of Christ [that]…sets them on fire.” They remain in union with Christ as they are sent forth into the world, holding “‘fast in their lives to what they have grasped by their faith’” (SC, no. 10).

Praying with your spouse

While the liturgy is the source and summit of the Catholic faith, the Second Vatican Council also recognized the “spiritual life…is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy” (SC, nos. 10, 12). Fortified by the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, the laity consecrate the world to Christ as they answer the universal call to holiness. Christian marriage, in particular, is penetrated with the Spirit of Christ as the couple fulfills their marriage and family obligations. Faced with the challenge to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) their whole married lives must become a “spiritual sacrifice” (Lumen Gentium, no. 34). (Lumen Gentium is the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”)

Spouses who desire to deepen their intimacy by praying together in the intimacy of home can learn from the basic structure of the Mass. So at this point, we shift from the theological basis for this approach to marital prayer and will now explore practical ideas for putting this model into practice. The four steps for prayer that I will outline as a guide for you and your spouse can be done in one sitting or, if time is limited (which is often the case in family life!), then they can be spaced out and worked into married life throughout the week.

Step one: Reconcile and rejoice

Step one is modeled on the Introductory Rite. With your spouse, find a comfortable place and time to communicate and pray together weekly. Making use of sacramentals, such as lighting a candle or placing a crucifix, religious icon or statue nearby, will help define this time as sacred. Begin by making the sign of the cross and then reverently focus on being present to God and each other. In doing so, your time becomes an offering to God, who is the author of marriage.

Once you have established a prayerful setting, reconcile with one another. Reconciliation is an important part of every relationship, because everyone makes mistakes and needs to continuously say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” John Paul II teaches, “An essential and permanent part of the Christian family’s sanctifying role consists in accepting the call to conversion that the Gospel addresses to all Christians” (FC, no. 58). Talk about how you might have hurt each other during the week. Then in humility apologize for any sins against your spouse, such as impatience, anger, stubbornness, pride, failing to love, and so on. Every person experiences evil and is faced with their own weaknesses. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation” (no. 1606). Deepening conversion and subtle healing in the marriage relationship is the purpose of regular reconciliation between spouses. It also prepares you for deeper intimacy with God and each other. It strengthens your relationship as a couple.

After expressing contrition, ask for forgiveness from each other and from God. Repentance and mutual pardon within marriage should be a habit of daily life; it is important to be able to both give and receive forgiveness. St. Paul exhorts, “Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:32). This passage gives us excellent relationship advice! Married couples must turn to God, whose merciful love is more powerful than sin, and “who reconstructs and brings to perfection the marriage covenant” (FC, no. 58). Once this exchange of compassion and forgiveness takes place and the relationship is restored, thanksgiving and praise will be the natural response. You may wish to offer a short prayer of thanksgiving.

Step two: Discover God together 

Step two is modeled on the Liturgy of the Word. After reconciling and rejoicing, take time to discover God together. There are many ways to do this and communicating as a couple will be important. Reading from the Bible and talking about the passage is one example. If unsure about where to start, then you could begin by reading the Gospel passage that will be proclaimed at the next Sunday’s Mass. This practice has the added benefit of better preparing you for the Mass, especially if you have fidgety children that are a source of distraction during the Liturgy of the Word. The Sunday readings can be found at the USCCB’s Daily Readings link.

Another simple way to pray with the Bible–and thereby strengthen your marriage relationship–is to read the Psalms, which touch upon a wide range of experiences and emotions. This book of prayer includes expressions of joy and suffering, longing for God, sorrow and grief, expressions of anxiety, abandonment and trust in God, thanksgiving and praise. By thumbing through the various titles of the psalms together, you will surely find one you can both relate with. After reading a psalm aloud, use your best communication skills to share with each other what the psalm makes you feel or think. Pope Benedict recently encouraged all Christians to pray with the Psalms: “By teaching us to pray, the Psalms teach us that even in desolation, even in sorrow, God’s presence endures, it is a source of wonder and of solace; we can weep, implore, intercede and complain, but in the awareness that we are walking toward the light” (General Audience, June 22, 2011).

A third way to approach God with your marriage partner involves talking about what is on your hearts or minds. Simple questions can stir meaningful conversations and facilitate prayer: “What are you thankful for this week? What struggles are you facing? How can I pray for you? How do you see God working in your life and in our marriage?” After sharing your hearts with each other, offer petitions and intercessions to God, praying “for steadiness of love, large heartedness and the spirit of sacrifice” that are necessary to fulfill the noble duties of Christian marriage (Gaudium et Spes, no. 49). Entrust God with your various needs, express gratitude, and praise God for the gift you have in your marriage to each other. John Paul II offers a helpful summary of what to pray about:

“Family prayer has for its very own object family life itself, which in all its varying circumstances is seen as a call from God and lived as a filial response to His call. Joys and sorrows, hopes and disappointments, births and birthday celebrations, wedding anniversaries of the parents, departures, separations and homecomings, important and far-reaching decisions, the death of those who are dear, etc.—all of these mark God’s loving intervention in the family’s history. They should be seen as suitable moments for thanksgiving, for petition, for trusting abandonment of the family into the hands of their common Father in heaven. The dignity and responsibility of the Christian family as the domestic Church can be achieved only with God’s unceasing aid, which will surely be granted if it is humbly and trustingly petitioned in prayer” (FC, no. 59).

The Catholic spiritual traditions offer many more ways for married couples to approach and discover God together. Praying the Holy Rosary, novenas, and devotions can each complement this second step in marital prayer.

Step three: Communicate your love

Once married couples have revealed their hearts to each other and to God, marital spirituality and intimacy can be deepened through mutual communication of love. Therefore, step three is modeled on the giving and receiving of love that takes place during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

While recognizing Christ is present among you, you are invited to direct your attention more explicitly on each other. Sharing love with your spouse, in the context of prayer and marital intimacy, may include a kiss, sharing affirmations, offering comfort, giving a small gift, the fullness of marital union, or any meaningful way of communicating love. As a Sacrament, Christian marriage purifies marital love, making it an act of spiritual worship and a participation in the work of God.

“For as God of old made Himself present to His people through a covenant of love and fidelity, so now the Savior of men and the Spouse of the Church comes into the lives of married Christians through the sacrament of matrimony. He abides with them thereafter so that just as He loved the Church and handed Himself over on her behalf, the spouses may love each other with perpetual fidelity through mutual self-bestowal” (GS, no. 48).

As your communion of love is enriched you can once again grow in intimacy as you uplift thankful hearts as a fragrant prayer.

Step four: Serve each other

The fourth step calls to mind the sending forth that occurs in the Concluding Rites. As your intimate prayer time together draws to a close, you are invited to go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your lives by serving each other. The mutual submission of spouses, which St. Paul speaks of, is born “out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). Therefore, you are reminded to discover the presence of the Lord in each other. In doing so, the daily obligations of married life—cooking, cleaning, working, listening, consoling, and so on—are not only gifts to your beloved one, but also become spiritual sacrifices. Married couples are “penetrated with the Spirit of Christ, who fills their whole lives with faith, hope and charity. Thus they increasingly advance towards their own perfection, as well as towards their mutual sanctification, and hence contribute jointly to the glory of God” (FC, no. 56).

Regularly tending to your common prayer life will help you live in your marriage the very love that is shared between Christ and the Church. Recalling the Holy Pontiff’s advice to the newlyweds, when you learn to pray together as spouses in the intimacy of home, your married love is sure to be ever truer, more fruitful, and longer lasting.

* This article was written for and first published in Lay Witness Magazine, July/August 2012. It has been shared here with subtle revisions.

Resources for Your Home:

Some of the resources used in this article should be read by everyone and kept in the home. Below are links to resources we recommend and which can be purchased through our affiliate program with Amazon.

Catechism of the Catholic Churchby the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)

The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, by Gary Chapman

The Five Love Language: Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Got Married, by Gary Chapman

Forgiveness is A Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, by Dr. Robert Enright

Familiaris Consortio, an encyclical by John Paul II on The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World