By Bob Sullivan
“The family who prays together, stays together.”
- Venerable Father Patrick Peyton
Is it the prayer which hold the family together or is it habits and routines which do so? It is a little of both and a lot of something else. More on this in a bit.
The divorce rate is extremely low in families who pray together. Some say it is less than one in 1,000 marriages. I’m not sure if it is actually that low, but there is no doubt that praying with your spouse, and praying as a family, is an important ingredient in stable marriages, especially if the spiritual leadership comes from the husband and father. Not that a marriage should be measured by whether or not a divorce has occurred. In reality, we want our marriages, and the marriages of our children to thrive, not simply survive. This is the difference prayer makes. It does not only make tough marriages just strong enough to avoid divorce, it builds resilience, purpose, joy, hope, and love.
Prayer with your spouse, and with your family, requires a certain level of confidence in your faith which leads to comfort in sharing your interior life with your spouse and your children. Anyone can recite memorized prayers, but too often, the words of the Our Father, Hail Mary, or the other memorized prayers, are recited superficially, and without an interior union with God.
For instance, the best way to pray as spouses and as a family is Holy Mass. However, simply sitting in a church during Holy Mass is not praying well. Nor is it praying well as a family. We need to experience the Mass as it is intended to be experienced, and that is, by joining your life to Christ’s sacrifice on the altar. If we want to experience Holy Mass the way God intends, we need to prepare for Mass before we arrive at the church and follow through to the “holy huddle” after Mass. Here is a five-step process you can follow to make your Mass experience more fruitful:
1. Read the readings with your family a few days, a day, or an hour before you get to the church.
2. Talk through all the blessings, struggles, worries, and joys in your lives and remember to take them to the altar during Holy Mass.
3. Specifically ask for the graces God offers in the Mass especially when you receive the Eucharist.
4. During Mass, pay attention and participate by verbally responding and singing with the congregation.
5. After the dismissal, talk about the Mass with your spouse and family:
- What were the readings about?
- What did Father say in his homily?
- Was there a petition which reminded you to pray for someone?
- For whom was the Mass offered?
- What did you sacrifice on the altar?
- What can you do this week to keep all this on your heart, on your lips, and on your mind?
This is a spousal and family prayer. Simply begin and end with the sign of the cross. This should develop into a family tradition, and when it does, more prayer and more grace will come because of it.
This seems pretty simple, but something — actually someone: Satan — seems to get in the way of spousal and family prayer. However, something as basic as improving your interpersonal skills can make a big difference. If I do not communicate well with my spouse, I am probably not going to communicate well with God and my spouse at the same time. Instead, I am probably going to be unwilling to open my heart to God when my spouse and/or my children are present.
One way to overcome obstacles to this five-step routine and other family prayer is to sharpen some basic interpersonal skills which enrich your relationship with your God-given partner — your spouse.
One of the most common comments I hear about parish Bible studies is that people wish there was a Bible study for couples. There is a reason for this, and it is not because people do not know how to read the Bible. It is because spouses want to share the experience of faith together. Parents also want to do a better job of sharing their faith with their children. The good news is that there are numerous Bible studies available for couples. However, a Bible study will not do everything. You need the skills to share your faith. Otherwise all the knowledge and understanding goes in and very little comes out.
This is where marriage enrichment makes the difference. Through marriage enrichment, you learn and develop helpful habits and skills which insulate your marriage from problems, and you prepare yourselves for a much more fruitful experience with the study of Scripture and growth in prayer together and as a family.
Don’t wait. The best time to begin enriching your marriage is the day you get home from your honeymoon.
Through marriage enrichment programs, such as I+U=We, Marriage Encounter, and (for more troubled marriages) Retrouvaille, you set yourselves up to add prayer with your spouse and with your children in a way which bears abundant fruit. The greatest gifts you can give your children, are not electronics, an education, or a trust fund, it is the authentic witness of your love for God and your love for your spouse.
So back to that “something else” which produces thriving marriages and families: Grace. The family that prays together receives many graces from their prayer. Grace is what holds them together. Prayer, joy, faith, hope, and love are visible signs of that grace. However, effective prayer depends on the quality of your relationship with God and your relationship with your spouse. Never take either of these for granted.