Betty Duffy

Monday, August 24, 2009

Spiritual Oneupsmanship

Coming into our marriage, I assumed that I was more spiritually advanced than my husband. I’d lived a year in poverty, chastity and obedience after all—an entire year of daily Mass, Rosary, and Benediction, plus frequent retreats, and a virtually guaranteed life of grace. Meanwhile, my husband was just a (crinkling nose) Sunday Mass Catholic.

Once or twice I thought that he was holding me back, that if he just went to one more meeting a week, one more retreat, then we could leap into our status as a spiritual power couple, one that sits in the front pews at Church with perfect kids saying the responses with such sincerity and volume as to edify everyone in the Parish.

I wanted to be the kind of couple whose spontaneous prayer flowed from our lips at every turn (“Let’s just pray about this…”). And I wanted him to initiate it—even though I married him with full knowledge that he was not comfortable with this kind of prayer. I thought it was his responsibility as the spiritual head of the family to acquire it and henceforth, to lead us all as I saw fit.

Well, none of that happened. He just would not agree to be as Holy as I was—didn’t matter how I poked, prodded, or complained. And, being the spiritual giant that I am, I threw tantrums, deciding that if he wouldn’t be Holy then neither would I. Genius, to think that if nagging wouldn’t work then being irritable and bitchy would.

But what is marriage if not a growing up together? Maybe it was a matter of growing in maturity and experience, for me to realize that a person with free will, when yanked upon, will pull back with an equal opposite force. The more I hounded him, the less interest he took in matters of a spiritual nature, so that it’s quite possible that by association with my nagging, he lost what interest he had. And for me, too, prayer became something conflicted:

“If we have unrealistic expectations of others, our spouse, our kids, we probably have unrealistic expectations of prayer. If we are nitpicky fault-finders, we think that is how God will be with us. Who wants to go to prayer to be nitpicked? If we appreciate others and enjoy their presence, their good and bad, we will know that prayer is not always a perfect scenario, but is good and necessary.” (****)

Somewhere along the way I thankfully learned that prayer does not win me anything in a spiritual competition with my husband. There was no sudden epiphany that led to this realization—only the passage of time for me to observe that my prayer did not accrue value or interest as the days passed. It didn’t propel me forward in advance of others. And the many retreats I attended and prayers I said didn’t really set me forward in virtue over my husband either. While I cleaned out some of the less savory physical elements of my life, my interior disposition was saturated with pride and self-righteousness. At nearly every retreat or spiritual talk I attended, I thought, “My husband really needs to hear this” rather than “How can I apply this to my life?”

Here’s another gem from Father Giertych’s retreat:

“In talking about religious life, men can focus more on the priesthood rather than their consecration, but women can sometimes focus more on the practices of the religious life rather than the consecration to God. Consecration is what matters—assiduous union with God in prayer.”

All the events of the past few weeks point to this idea of consecration in my married life—making my prayer a reciprocation of the love I first received from God, and making sacred all the irritable little aspects of my day.

For many years, I have referred to my prayer life as my “commitments,” and each day, I have measured them out, weighing the value of my day based on how many of my commitments I accomplished. It’s no wonder, with such a list, and such value ascribed to completing it, that I have looked down my nose at anyone who doesn’t share my accomplishments—and that I have beat myself up when I “fail” at them. When I view prayer as a reciprocal relationship with my Creator, not only is it impossible to fail at it, there’s no way of comparing it with anyone else’s prayer.

And concerning changing one’s husband, I overheard a conversation between my cousin and my aunt a few weeks ago:

Cousin says: “Here comes Dad barreling down the driveway again when his grandchildren are here. Can you please tell him to slow down?”

Aunt: “I can’t change him! He won’t listen to me! He’s seventy years old, and he has not once paid any attention to my pleas for change.”

If anyone’s marriage works otherwise, I would love to see it in action.

(****This is a paraphrase from a retreat given by a Legionary priest several years ago. Wish I could remember which one.)


Otepoti said...

Oh, well, I always describe our marriage as "stably dysfunctional." ;-)

I try to remember how much my husband has to put up with from me...

There's a book called "How to Get your Husband to Talk to You," on marriage generally, that I found helpful, if a bit too late. (Nancy Cobb, Connie Grigsby)


Jamie said...

Love this post-- lots of it resonates with me.