|When we think of the spiritual life and its
various practices, the first images that often come to mind are those taken from priestly
and religious life: set times of prayer, Mass and the recitation of the Office, acts of
penance, vigils and fasting, and so forth. But this view of the spiritual life, like our
first associations with the word vocation, can lead us to think that marriage is one
thing, and the spiritual life is another. Then the spiritual life appears to belong
primarily to priestly and religious life, and only secondarily to marriage. The fact is,
however, that marriage has its own distinctive way of living out all the practices of the
spiritual life. This doesn't mean that formal spiritual practices don't have a place
within marriage, as well. They certainly do. But marriage offers its own distinctive
occasions for growing in the interior life.
Let's take vigils, for example. We see them in all their glory among monastic communities who rise at 2 am. to chant the Divine Office. But parents find themselves having to get up at all hours of the night to look after their children, or parents, or each other, or simply because the stress of the day has awakened them and prevents them from immediately going back to sleep. Ordinarily we don't immediately think of this time as a holy vigil, but it can be, and it is very helpful to see it in that light. Then we can try to be more prayerful and reflective, for Christ is giving us the opportunity to serve Him by serving others.
In a similar way, fasting can appear in its own distinctive fashion in married life. All too often meals are taken on the run, or left to get cold on the plate because someone needs our attention. Here, too, we can see these things as our own way of exercising the practices of the spiritual life. Time set aside for prayer is vitally important for our spiritual growth no matter how busy we are, but during the course of even the busiest day there are those odd moments of travel, or waiting which can become our times of prayer. We hardly need to mention how many occasions during an ordinary day call for the practice of virtues like patience, or the restraint of our tongues.
What is particularly beautiful about this way of practicing the spiritual life is that it is not at all artificial, nor do we run any risk to get puffed up about how pious we are being. Our ordinary days will provide us with abundant opportunities for these kinds of spiritual exercises once we have become sensitized to them, and have put away the false idea that the spiritual life is one thing, and married life another.
Marriage in the beginning was the way in which God meant to reveal Himself to us and help us grow in union with Him. This remains unchanged. But what is different is that we are now called to marriage in a fallen and redeemed world. Our relationship with our spouse and children and family and the people around us is going to immerse us in the mystery of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection. The virtues we have just been talking about aren't separate free-floating pieces of the spiritual life, but aspects of this deeper union with Christ. Christ's redemptive suffering and death is continued and extended through time through the suffering we will undergo in living out the life of Christian marriage. This is not some figurative flight of fantasy. It is the literal truth. We will suffer moments of agony and abandonment and crucifiction in relationship to our spouse and children and the people closest to us, and in some mysterious way these sufferings can be life-giving, both for us and our family if they are seen in the light of our union with Christ.
Happily, we will also experience moments of resurrection in which our union with our spouse or with our children becomes a living symbol and a foretaste of the union we are meant to have with God. We will have moments when we experience how God has not only entrusted us with the role of giving physical life to our children, but a deeper life, as well, and those moments can help us understand something of the wonderful maternal love that our heavenly Father has for us. What we are insisting upon in all this is simply the fact that our daily married life is not separate from our practice of the spiritual life. In fact, it abounds and overflows with concrete opportunities to grow spiritually if only we have the eyes to see them.
Let us give you some practical examples: Our spouse says something biting to us and we restrain from answering in kind. Our teenager is late getting home and we spend the anxious minutes pacing and praying. Our child is sick and we reflect on the fragile nature of this life and our hopes for the life to come. We trudge off to work when we have no desire to do so because we need to care for our family. We have unexpected bills taking care of our children, and we find in them our own kind of vow of poverty.
All these ordinary events ought to be the fabric of our own spiritual lives.
Take a few moments with your spouse and try to look at your married life in this way. For example, what occasions do you have to pray, or to deny yourself? List some of them and make the resolution to try to do a little bit better in recognizing them.
as it was meant to be
Marriage, the fall, and the coming of Christ