Marital Arts

Practice of the Week
Marital Arts

Category: Might Be Your Thing. The practices here are not for everyone -- but one of them may be just the thing for you!
“Marriages, like careers, need constant nurturing. The secret of having it all is loving it all." --Joyce Brothers
Adapted from Maureen Killoran, "Marriage," in Everyday Spiritual Practice

The alarm rings, and so begins the spiritual discipline that has changed our lives. Neither my husband nor I are morning people, and at our age we tend to sleep poorly so most days we bring a less than enthusiastic response to the dawn. But still it begins. The alarm rings, and one or the other of us rolls over, switches on the light, and fumbles for a book which is hiding somewhere near the edge of the bed.

Let's say it's my turn to begin. I silently read the page we marked for today and pass the book to my husband who does the same. Then his voice is sleepy, quiet, as he reads aloud. Funny how different the text sounds when I listen. Peter returns the book to me, so that I, in turn may read aloud to him. For a few minutes, we share our reactions to what we have read, seeking to open our hearts a little wider as we begin the day. Each of us offers a prayer (sometimes we call it a wish) for the coming hours, and then, we close with a simple meditation:
Grace to us and peace.
We are given this day,
and awareness of its colors and sounds;
these and other gifts, too numerous to name
and infinitely rare, are given.
For these gifts,
we are thankful.
Grace to us, indeed. And peace. I credit this simple morning ritual, coupled with an equally simple one at bedtime, with saving our marriage and changing our lives. To understand this, you need to know where we have been.

Being married did not come easily to Peter and me, although we jumped into it quickly enough some ten years back. Each of us brought middle-aged stubbornness to our union, and neither of us had much experience with compromise or trust. Our relationship did not come easily, and yet we brought to the union a commitment to the marriage itself, a willed commitment to what we called the "third thing." Transcending our individual egos and self-interest, this commitment held us together even as anger and frustration pushed us apart. And yet there was loneliness and longing for some means of bridging the gulf that was our daily experience of relationship.

I had a mentor. I had the good fortune to meet Dr. Vera Mace, who, with her late husband David, pioneered the field of marriage enrichment. We spent many afternoons sharing good British tea—and our souls. Vera often spoke of David's and her lifetime commitment to making "better marriages, beginning with our own." In the empowering warmth of her example, I began for the first time seriously to entertain the possibility that a better marriage might be possible for Peter and me.

And then my friend Linda Bair made me a gift of a modern interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict was a monk in sixth-century Italy who revolutionized the monastic system of living into a daily rhythm of prayer, work, study, and fellowship. The keys to the Benedictine Rule are intentionality, companionate support, and respect for the irreplaceable details of the mundane. I was reminded of the Zen axiom, "When you are working, work. When you are sitting, sit. Above all, don't wobble."

Although as a couple, my husband and I were skeptical about conventional methods of prayer, the gentle pragmatism of Benedict's ancient Rule appealed to us. Together, we made a commitment to read a brief passage from the Rule every morning. As time went on, we tinkered with this and added that, until our brief reading developed into a ritual, a discipline of the head and the heart that we observe every day. We prayed—or at least we call it prayer—and out of that prayer has blossomed an astonishing bond of love.

Over time we have drawn on many sources: Benedict, Meister Eckhardt, the Dao De Jing, compilations of poetry, some of the Psalms. Our reflections are usually concrete, focusing on what the passage might mean in the immediate context of our lives. One of us might say:
"I've been thinking about all the odds and ends of time I've let go over the years -- all those hours when I believed life was forever. Now I can see the end, feel it coming towards me. No matter what comes along, whether it's good or bad, I don't want to miss a minute of what I have left to live."
Not infrequently we indulge in quiet conversation, sharing ideas or trading intimacies as we let the passage nudge us into a contemplative frame of mind. "I know what you mean. I don't think I've seen more than a couple of dozen sunrises. But I don't want to look backwards. You're right. At our age we can feel the end coming, and I want to be deliberate about looking ahead, appreciating the gifts we have today."

From there, we move into spoken prayer, an expression of intentionality about the day.
"Today I will make time for a walk in the middle of the day."
"Today I will pay attention to and celebrate the little things around me." "Please, God, help me find the strength for the difficult challenge I have to face this day."
"Help me hold in my heart the prob-lems and the suffering of ______ whose life is so very challenging right now."

Then, the ritual prayer, always the same, always said by one of us first and then the other. Although we have drawn on many sources in choosing our daily reading, this prayer of Benedict's we have committed to memory and it is the same for us each day: "Grace to us and peace. ..."
The day proceeds. We work and celebrate, make mistakes and achieve, laugh and squabble, worry and play. Whether we are better people for having prayed, I cannot tell, but I do know that I at least enter the world more centered, more connected to a relationship that provides an anchor for my values and my life. Prayer has not only saved my marriage; it also has deepened and enriched my life.

We work crazy hours, my husband and I. I'm a minister with lots of night meetings to attend, and he's a maintenance worker on the evening shift. By the time we get home, we are both tired and usually far from our best. For years we fell readily into arguments or, on a good night, into bed, pretty well wrapped up in a book or in ourselves. These days, we're still tired. We still read in bed. But something fundamental has changed. We spend some time, each night, in what, for us, is prayer.

We begin by taking turns re-reading aloud the passage with which we began our day. Peter reads, or I do, and then the book is passed and we listen to the other, hearing not so much the words as the voice of the beloved. Then—and this is crucial—no matter what kind of mood we are in, we take hands, and give to one another "an appreciation," a gift of words to share something large or little that our partner did that endeared him or her to us today.
"When we walked the dog, it made me feel good when you stopped and gave me a kiss. I appreciate that."
"I appreciate you for giving me support when I had a hard time giving blood today."
And frequently, the words come without bidding: "I love you."

We've discovered that a funny thing happens when you make a habit of ending your day by exchanging appreciations. As we go about our lives, we find ourselves noticing the little things that would otherwise have been ignored. Details become dear—the touch of a hand, a smile in the midst of a tough moment, the lilt of a voice during an otherwise routine exchange. He may not pick up his socks, but we laugh together, sometimes until we cry. I still slide too easily into impatience, but for the first time in my life, "I love you" is an ongoing feeling, not just words I ought to say.

I've come to the conclusion that a daily prayer discipline does not have to be complicated. It does not have to follow a ritual set down by people in a new or an old book. What matters is that you come to the whole business with an attitude of intentionality and with respect for the little things, the gifts of the ordinary that populate your days. What matters is that you find a pattern that fits, and then you stick to it.

And so we do, every day: "Grace to us and peace. ..." And with these words, with our intentionality, and our hope, has come that for which we hardly dared to pray. My husband and I love each other.

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