Religious practice and spiritual belief is often a point of difference for couples, especially if they come from different religious traditions. But having religious differences should never be a reason for avoiding a topic or making it taboo.
Even for couples of the same faith like us, differences persist and make sharing our spiritual life challenging. In our relationship, one of us expresses their spirituality in a traditional, private manner preferring silent contemplation, while the other is more charismatic and community-focused with a preference for exuberant verbalisations. This is despite very similar childhood faith experiences and sharing the same parish for our teenage years.
Whatever your spiritual style, and the reasons for it, neither is better than the other, simply different. And like many of our differences, we do well to approach them as an opportunity for intimacy rather than as a problem.
For example, we could choose to just do our own thing and keep out of each other’s way, but that would be a lost opportunity to grow an important dimension of our relationship. Our spirituality is a vital part of our personhood and if we can communicate about how we each experience and express our spiritual realities, our relationship flourishes.
Praying together helps us, and our relationship
Spiritual and religious differences need not be a point of division or a reason to avoid the topic. When approached appropriately and with genuine openness, our differences can be a rich harvest for our relationship as well as our individual spiritual development.
It takes an attitude of curiosity, of non-prejudiced enquiry, to successfully explore our religious and spiritual differences and experiences without causing hurt or harm. When done well, couples enjoy immense spiritual intimacy; a special kind of intimacy that is truly transcendent and bonds them in an extraordinary way.
Unfortunately, many couples don’t even try this for fear of causing an argument or hurt or of being rejected or judged by the other. They sacrifice the opportunity of experiencing spiritual intimacy to fear.
Openness, vulnerability and trust
Spiritual intimacy can only flourish when we are spiritually naked with each other; when we make ourselves vulnerable as we share our deeply-held spiritual thoughts and emotions. And when we trust each other like this, it is a truly sacred encounter. It’s an encounter with the living God within.
But spiritual nakedness is risky. It must take in the context of deep respect and reverence for the other. Like Moses leaving his shoes behind in order to approach the burning bush on sacred ground (Exodus 3), we need to adopt a similar attitude of awe-filled humility as we approach this most precious and sensitive aspect of the other.
It sounds simple in principle but let us tell you, it’s not so easy in practice! When we are so vulnerable and trusting like this, the slightest misstep can lead us to shut down like a clam that senses danger.
The greatest risk when we discuss our differences is when we adopt a posture of superiority or defensiveness which degrades our openness and respect for the other, and stifles our willingness to be vulnerable.
It takes time and conscious attention for couples to build the trust that enables the kind of spiritual nakedness necessary for spiritual intimacy to flourish. And one of the best ways to do this is through prayer; a graduated process of prayer that builds on simple foundations and develops progressively to more intimate forms of prayer. Here are a few suggestions.
Step 1: Regularly (daily) renew your wedding vows
Do this individually or together. “Lord God, I renew before you the vows I made on our wedding day. I promise to be true to [name], for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better for worse. I will love him/her and honour him/her all the days of my life.”
Step 2: Pray silently in parallel
Pray together silently, each praying his and her own prayers. You could begin with short scripture passage or a spiritual reading read aloud. Create a sacred space in your home or bedroom, light a candle, and establish a regular time for this.
Step 3: Recite prayers together
When you are ready to try praying together aloud, begin with something simple, like holding hands while you pray the Lord’s Prayer purposefully. Physical contact is very powerful and can accelerate the building of trust.
Step 4: Increase the self-revelation
Include in your prayer time a sharing question, for example: When did I experience God today? What do I most need God’s help for right now? How did I experience God’s love through you today? What am I most grateful for today?
Step 5: Open spontaneous prayer
Build towards more intimate, spontaneous prayer spoken aloud in each other’s presence. You can use a freeform style, or follow a format like our Trinity prayer:
1) Prayers of thanks and praise to the Father for everything good in our life that day
2) Prayers of sorrow to Jesus for any failures to love that day
3) Finally, prayers of petition to the Holy Spirit for any grace or help we need from God
Close with the Glory Be.
Whatever your prayer life as a couple, perhaps the best advice is that offered by Nike – just do it! Don’t overthink it. Don’t worry about whether you’re doing it properly, just do it!
Questions for sharing:
What is your image of God? Eg a father figure, a benign force, a judge, a guide etc
What is your fondest memory of your faith from your childhood?
What is your reaction to the idea of praying for your marriage?