Talking to God out loud, we became real people again.
Nearly three decades ago this week, Father Arthur Swain told my new wife and me, as we knelt before the altar at St. Irenaeus Church in Cypress, California, to pray together every day.
Nearly three decades later, I feel like I’m finally doing what he asked. And discovering that marital prayer — just the two of us, talking out loud to God — is what my marriage needed, badly.
First: Daily prayer is urgently important.
At my wedding, Father Swain spoke with a strange urgency to my wife and me.
He told us in his homily that he had something to tell us and that the rest of the congregation could listen in if they wanted to. He said the marriage bond was stronger than we knew. The State of California could not break it. The District of Columbia, where we were moving, could not break it.
He said that’s because the bond is Jesus Christ himself.
“There is only one thing I am going to ask of you,” he said, “and that’s to pray together every night. You won’t have much furniture at first, but you’ll have a kitchen table. Kneel at that table each night and pray.”
He was wrong. We didn’t even have a kitchen table. But from the start, we prayed together each night, by a packing box with a sheet over it.
Second: Praying with your family is important, also. But different.
“Pray every night, and when children come along, draw them into that prayer,” he said.
We did as we were told. But over the years, something changed.
At first, it was the two of us side by side. Then, it was one of us praying while the other bobbed nearby with the baby. Then both of us were praying — or not — while holding babies. Then we tried (or not) to pray as a family while corralling kids, until, eventually, we had nine kids sitting all over the living room praying the Rosary together.
It was good to pray as a family, but it was different. Our thoughts and self-expression were restrained to a public version of our needs. We were no longer two souls pleading our case before God, being vulnerable to each other and to him. We were parents being good examples, choosing the needs that kids can hear.
That was all well and good, but it wasn’t marital prayer.
Third: We learned the importance of praying alone with your spouse. Out loud.
Over the years I have learned that the actual joys of marriage are different, and better, than what I expected; and that the difficulties of marriage were exactly what I expected — only far worse.
The clash of two people’s selfishness in marriage is cataclysmic, and the hurt you cause each other can be enormous. Women often deal with this by raising their ire and repeating their demands. Men often deal with it by shutting their spouse out and shutting themselves down — in video games, drink, time at the office, or television. Both responses make everything worse. The pain grows monstrous while the spouses’ qualities shrink to nothing before each others eyes. Soon, the two souls are unrecognizable to each other — horrid caricatures where human beings once existed.
Until something intervenes. Like praying together. Out loud.
We started doing the Evening Liturgy of the Hours together, adding our own petitions. Each night, I would hear April talking to God about the family and me with appreciation and admiration. She heard me talking to God about the children and her with understanding and attention.
The caricatures faded. We became real people again.
Fourth, and most importantly — God listens and acts.
So, simply as a psychological exercise, out-loud prayer helps. But prayer is far more than a psychological exercise. Sacraments are “signs that actually effect what they signify.” The sacrament of marriage is symbolized by the two becoming one — and God makes that happen. If you let him.
There really is a God, he really is the bond of your marriage, and he really is close and ready to help.
He changes everything. He infuses a couple with grace, making forgiveness bearable, growth possible, unity reachable. But only if you invite him in.