We are convinced that praying together as a couple saved our marriage. This is why we want to encourage all couples to pray together daily. In marriage the spouses are the ministers of the sacrament to one another, and that ministry to one another should continue for the duration of their sacramental life as a married couple. Prayer together for each other and for their marriage should be an important element of this ministry. It is a surprising and sad discovery of ours in our marriage ministry, to find that the majority of couples do not pray together. They may well have a good individual prayer life, and have a good public prayer life, even being comfortable with spontaneous prayer in prayer groups, but when it comes to “couple prayer,” that is, praying together with their spouse they seem to find it very difficult and eventually give up.
What do we actually mean by “Couple prayer” then? It is not general family prayer, or grace at meals, or prayers in emergencies, as powerful and invaluable all these may be; but regular daily prayer of just husband and wife together before God.
Why should couples pray together daily? As we mentioned above, prayer together is an important element of our ministering the sacrament to one another. Christ is truly present at the centre of our covenant of love. “For where two or three have met together in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt. 18:20). We are the two!
We need to pray too for the specific needs of our marriage and family. God brought us together as husband and wife, so it’s important that we approach him together in prayer. In Matthew 18:19 we are promised “if two of you agree on earth about any request you have to make, that request will be granted by my heavenly Father.” What an opportunity we have to place all our requests for our marriage and family needs before Jesus. We should perhaps, dedicate our marriage to the Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph, who should be our role models, guardians and teachers in our way of married life and prayer. It is very important and very powerful for parents to pray for their children. Especially when they are in wrong relationships. We should take authority, and pray in the name and power of Jesus to break any bonds, which are not of God. Remember, “…a father’s blessing makes his children’s house firm.” (Sirach 3:9).
At this time in our culture, when marriage is so under attack, we need to pray together for our own marriage and the marriages of others, to withstand this attack—both open and insidious—and uphold God’s true plan for husband and wife, as it was ordained from the beginning. We need to pray that we keep the vows we made before God to our spouse: “to have and to hold from this time forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, …till death do us part.” We should perhaps daily renew these vows in some simple way, maybe by just saying: “I renew my marriage vows to you today till death parts us.” In a survey a few years ago, on marriage break-up in America, where approximately 50% of marriages end up in divorce, it was found that in marriages where couples regularly prayed together the divorce rate dropped to around 5%. These remarkable statistics speak for themselves.
Couple prayer opens the door to intimacy. Sharing our feelings and emotions before God makes us vulnerable, as our spouse learns our true relationship with God and we may well find this difficult or threatening. This is particularly so for men, who naturally find it difficult to be vulnerable about their feelings generally. But the difficulties are the price we must pay for the daily strengthening of our marriage, or maybe the actual survival of our marriage.
Prayer together is very helpful in resolving conflicts. Especially if we have made a commitment to forgive each other daily in prayer towards the end of the day, it maybe gives us a spur to resolve conflict before the time we have set to pray! Perhaps we should share how prayer saved our marriage.
We started praying together for Lent, before we were married, 15 years ago, and on the days we weren’t together we agreed to pray at the same time. After we were married we continued praying together for a few minutes in the morning and in the evening, and this is what saved our marriage in those early months when we were working in close proximity, running an hotel prior to this ministry. Perhaps the most important session was in the evening, when we had a set time and place for our prayer. We always honoured this commitment to pray, although very often we were fuming with each other, and fuming with God! Often, too, we couldn’t even verbalise prayer, we were so angry at each other! However, the Lord always managed to soften one of our hearts (usually Betty’s), and that enabled us to realise that we were not enemies of each other, but the hurts generated between us were caused by our selfishness. We would then make it up, ask and give forgiveness, and make a resolution to try harder not to let things get out of hand. We can honestly say that we have never, ever let our anger or quarrel go unresolved and unforgiven, overnight. This we can truly say saved our marriage.
Why don’t couples pray together?
If prayer together is so important then in strengthening marriage and blessing it with all the graces needed to live it, why do so many couples not pray together regularly?
Maybe it’s because their parent’s didn’t, or if they did they were not aware of it, consequently they have had no role model to follow. In addition perhaps they don’t know of any couples that are praying together, so again they have no example to follow.
Perhaps they’ve never even given serious thought to the idea of praying as a couple; at church—yes, personal time with the Lord—yes, at prayer meetings—yes, but have never seen the need or importance of praying with their spouse.
Probably the most common reason, most couples would say, is that they have no time to pray. The pressures of life and the world’s demands seem to squeeze all available time out of the day, added to which, to try to mesh two people’s busy schedules to find a mutually acceptable slot for prayer might seem to be impossible. But is this really a valid reason for not praying? Surely we can all find a few minutes each day to pray? We always seem to be able to find time to eat, or watch that TV program!
It is true that couples often don’t feel intimate enough with each other to pray together, they are so to speak, not yet “one in mind and heart.” However, they should learn to accept each other as they are, warts and all, by sharing their feelings and emotions generally, then they are less likely to be fearful of sharing prayer. Paradoxically, sharing in prayer will in turn bring intimacy, and improve communication between spouses in their marriage.
Husbands, by their nature, are often too proud to pray, feeling they must always appear strong and in control; but in prayer we all need to don the cloak of humility and realise we are completely dependent on God. That couples might be at different stages on their spiritual journey is often an excuse made by the spouse who finds prayer difficult, and this calls for mutual understanding and sensitivity. The spouse who is more adept at prayer should not force the pace, nor extend the prayer session longer than agreed, neither should they “hog” the session, but give their spouse time and encouragement to join in. If they are more natural and eloquent than their spouse, they should be aware that shyness or self-consciousness could become another hurdle for the other spouse to deal with. The solution however is found in acceptance. Self-consciousness will fade if both spouses accept and are attentive to each other’s prayers.
Making the decision to pray
Couple prayer can only really result from the husband and wife making a commitment to God and one another to pray together regularly, that is, making a decision. We can’t rely on “feeling like prayer,” for we would probably hardly pray at all, or at most, pray very erratically, if that was so! Prayer is a task; St. Benedict called it the “work of God,” and it is surely the most useful and most beautiful that God has given us to perform. The starting place for prayer is to ask God to make us willing to make this decision to pray. Henri Nouwen in his book “Reaching Out” says “the paradox of prayer is that it asks for serious effort, while it can only be received as a gift. We cannot plan, organise or manipulate God, but without careful discipline we cannot receive him either.” In other words we can cultivate the habit of prayer, which involves discipline on our part, but we need what only God can give us—the gift or grace of prayer.
Focussing couple prayer
It is very helpful, almost essential, to agree specific times for our prayer together, and to have a focal point or place for us to meet and pray.
In selecting a suitable time to pray together we should first look at when we are normally together, then when we are normally awake together! We need to find prime time and not a time when one or other is too tired or sleepy to concentrate. It is very important however, that we both make every endeavour to stick to the times we have agreed, regardless of how we “feel.” One or other must take the lead in reminding their spouse (gently).
Pray at the beginning of the day
Ideally, we should pray together at the beginning of the day for a few minutes, to ask God for the graces and blessings of our sacrament, to see us through the day, and to help and encourage us. We should also recommit our lives to him, and seek his guidance and strength. It is important too, that we renew our marriage vows to each other every morning, as we mentioned above, and pledge our love to each other—and mean it!
Pray at the end of day
In the evening, before we go to sleep, we should examine together the day that is closing. Thank God for all the blessings we have received, for all the good experiences; and seek and give forgiveness to each other for any hurts or wrongs we have done to each other. “…never let the sun set on your anger or else you will give the devil a foothold.” (Eph. 4:27-28)
We (Betty & Tony) have built into our night prayer a structure to help us do this, we each ask the other: “Will you forgive me for anything I may have done to hurt you this day?” This gives us the opportunity to mention anything that did hurt us; and often of course, we do hurt each other in ways we don’t necessarily recognise. We would also of course ask forgiveness for any specific hurts against each other, for which we had not yet sought forgiveness. This ensures we deal with the day’s business on the day. Having a focal point or place at which to pray, is also very helpful in making our couple prayer a habit, which in turn helps us to keep to our commitment. The focal point might be a special corner in a room with a small altar, or an icon, holy picture, crucifix, candle, Bible or indeed any combination of these—whatever helps us in our prayer. It is important to be comfortable at prayer too. We are more likely to concentrate our mind on God, if we are not distracted by how uncomfortable we are!
If we are just beginning to pray together as a couple, we would be wise to agree to pray for only a short time initially, say 5 minutes, until we are both comfortable with that period. Then, and only then, is it advisable mutually to extend the prayer time. Otherwise we will be likely to feel discouraged and find it difficult to keep to the commitment.
What do we pray then?
We need to develop a specific prayer form together with which we are both comfortable; this will grow as we see and experience the results in our marriage. We could try the Rosary or the Divine Office (the Church’s morning, evening and night prayer) for example, or we could read Holy Scripture—perhaps with the help of a commentary (Bible Alive, for example)—and see how this speaks to us as a couple. Ideally we need to bring in an element of spontaneous prayer to enable us to grow in intimacy with God and our spouse. It is important that our prayer time doesn’t become a ritual; so it is imperative that variety and spontaneity are mixed with more formal prayer. We will soon learn and feel what is most suited to us as a couple.
What spontaneous prayers we say, depends on our own situations as a couple and as individuals. The acronym ACTS can be a useful framework to be aware of: Adoration, Confession of our sins, Thanksgiving and Supplication. The latter can be subdivided into intercession for others and petitions for ourselves.
In establishing the regular habit of couple prayer, we must be aware of “legalism.” It is okay to miss our daily prayer once in a while, as long as we have established our prayer habit. Failing to keep to our appointed time doesn’t mean we are a failure. A degree of flexibility is necessary to deal with emergencies, forgetfulness, poor planning or tiredness! We are becoming legalistic in our prayer too, when we are more concerned about the form of our prayer than the content, when spontaneity has gone, and prayer has become a burden.
The other side of the coin is for us to be aware of letting “good things” distract us from “the best.” In other words there is sometimes a temptation to convince us that doing something that is intrinsically good is better than saying our couple prayer together. We must get our priorities right, and see that prayer is almost always best!
Responsibility for prayer
There is certainly a biblical principle that the husband has the responsibility for the spiritual development and religious training of the family, leading them to an increase in holiness. But women usually find it much easier to pray, and as we have said earlier men find exposing their very being in front of their wife very risky. But this is what God has called us to do; he wants us to go to him, openly and without pretence or protection.
Only by realising that in God all things are possible, can we bring our everyday problems to God, knowing that he will help us to solve them. Then we can become more fully that sign that the world needs to see, of a Christian sacramental marriage. In our couple prayer we should perhaps make a point of re-committing ourselves to Jesus daily as a couple, and offering up all we do that day for his greater honour and glory.
In addition to our daily prayer together, are we seen together in the local community going to the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation? We must remember that we should always be “that sign” to others. Part of our prayer together, before going to the sacrament of Reconciliation should perhaps be going through an examination of conscience together. An ideal one for couples is on the Dove leaflet #11, published by Pecos Benedictine Monastery, “An examination of Conscience for Married Couples” by Beth and Dennis Coburn.
As we enter into prayer or dialogue with God—listening and talking—the Holy Spirit will lead us into a thirst to study and learn more about our faith. We are called and expected to continuously progress in our spiritual journey. In order to meet this challenge, we may wish to take up a follow-on course at the Centre (Becoming One), or any one of the adult formation courses that are currently available in different parts of the country.
We should be open, too, to hear when the Lord is calling us as a couple into ministry. We (Betty and Tony) were led into this marriage ministry as a result of daily prayer together! We are excited and encouraged when couples that have been through the Centre, tell us how they have overcome their problems, and have been called to some form of ministry. What a powerful witness in the world today!