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Marriage, Prayer and the Cross (Part I of III)

August 19, 2013 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, Marriage, Marriage Spirituality, Prayer

Venerable Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan exhorted the faithful while he was in prison, “If you desire peace, you will have to fight continuously.” This constant struggle is true not only for the heart but also for the sacredness of marriage.  Our culture has come to despise the faithful love of husband and wife. Anyone who advocates for this ancient institution is an object of derision. Yet the real problem is not political or social: it is a primordial spiritual threat, the threat plaguing humanity from the beginning. Every generation and every couple that wants to remain steadfast to their vows and the holiness of married friendship must face it.  If we want peaceful marriages and families, we too must take up this spiritual battle.

Hell, Marriage and God. St. Hildegard of Bingen describes an attack on marriage bellowing from the pit of Hell.  Here, the great Adversary of humanity pits himself against the tender intimacy of marriage.  He wants alienation and enmity, and so he engulfs the most noble of friendships in deception and division. Poisonous vapors and clouds of darkness bellow from the pit of Satan's hellfire – an image of the self-reliant confusion that threatens marriage and family even today. Hell's dark hubris makes married couples believe that their love for for post on marriage, prayer and the crossone another is dependent on themselves: that somehow it is within their own power or their spouse's power to keep the bond of love alive.  But, says St. Hildegard, this is not so.

Her reasoning is that if it is God who establishes a couple in matrimony, then only God has the power to save married love and hold marriages together. In other words, if we want to fight for our marriages against all the satanic and cultural forces that would destroy them, we must realize our inadequacy before this Great Mystery. It is only out of this poverty that we find the humility to turn to the Lord in prayer, begging Him to come to our assistance.  Conversely, without God, marriage is impossible.

Marriage Difficulties. There was once a theologian who suffered divorce.  Someone went to him for counsel complaining that his own marriage had become an overwhelming burden.  This scholar very humbly spoke from his own experience. He explained, probably with bitter compunction, that in divorce a burden may be seemingly lifted from one's self, but this is only because that same burden has been placed on one's own children.  These are words born of suffering wisdom – they sting our consciences because they should.

I am not sure any burden is ever even temporarily lifted in such broken situations, even the worst of them. Instead, when one abandons a difficult marriage, one is trying to walk away from a weight he simply drags behind him.  Yes, there are abusive situations – even those requiring separation. There are also situations where spouses torment each other with mutual disdain.  Such is the misery of humanity that we often murder one another in our hearts.  Yet, that Precious Blood shed for our sakes does not allow us to believe that this is the deepest truth about the heart or our fallen efforts to love one another.

It's rare that any marriage should not face the most severe crises in our culture. We live in a society that, by both law and practice, rejects marriage and all the moral truth required to protect it.   Our politically powerful are rewarded for pursuing social agendas openly hostile to the vulnerable tenderness of the bonds of matrimony. Under the secularism of a post-Christian West, the whole social ecology of society is poisonous for the friendship of marriage and for children – for sacred humanity itself.

God's Love and God's Works.  The presence of evil, even when it is in our own households threatening our most important commitments, is not what ultimately defines our life. The most defining reality of this earthly existence, no matter our hardships or failures, is God's love. He loves us and has given Himself up for us — because He believes in us, in the goodness with which He created us and to which He restores us.  It is a goodness in which He sees His own image and likeness – even when it suffers under the disguise of a difficult marriage.  God permits His greatest works to be vulnerable to all kinds of evil because He knows that evil is not infinite and, at the end of the day, love wins.  He yearns that we too might share in this joy, that instead of trying to overcome evil with evil, we might imitate Him in overcoming evil with good.

Marriage is one of His greatest works – a work in which He has completely implicated Himself, an institution in which He completely believes even when everyone else has lost faith in it. It is a sacrament – a visible sign of His power at work in the world.  It reveals, through living signs, the fruitfulness and fidelity of Christ's love for the Church.  Those who do not give up on what God can do in marriage are living signs of hope.  By humble faith in the midst of difficult struggle, they become signs of God's presence not only for each other, but also for their children and the whole community.  This is so even when, despite every effort of devotion to God and one another, friendship becomes seemingly impossible.  God loves to astonish us with the perfection of His power in our failures and inadequacy.

Marriage, Prayer and the Cross. It is a deeply painful obedience which God asks of us so that His glory might be revealed.  It is the Cross, and the Cross means war – war with ourselves, the world, and all kinds of hellish powers. We cannot have peace in our hearts and families if we do not raise the banner of Christ and fight. Yet, even when we fail in this struggle, His glory is invincible.

Our weapons, in this war, are prayer and penance, the Rosary and family prayer, the Bible and the Sacraments, loving sacrifices and renunciations of all kinds of entitlements, painful words of truth and readiness for reconciliation. Our allies are the Lord, the Virgin Mary and all the saints. Great mystics of the 20th Century, like Cardinal Văn Thuận, tell us that if we do not drop our weapons or betray our friends, victory is assured.

In our next post, we will ponder the power of God's love as the ground of married love.


Editor's Note: For more of Anthony’s insights on prayer, don’t miss his new book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden, an experience like no other. Anthony has an unusually profound understanding of mystical theology and lives a life of deep prayer. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute.


Art for this post on Marriage, Prayer and the Cross (Part I of III): Marriage Cross Christian Symbol, AnonMoos, 26 October 2010 own work, PD-Worldwide, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry, as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Saint Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students, and contemplatives about the spiritual life. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books "30 Days with Teresa of Avila" and "Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux". And, his book "Fire from Above" was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at

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  • Camila

    Dr. Lilles, Thank you for this post. I am experiencing an incredibly little light in our marriage. I find myself in prayer saying “My Lord my God, You overwhelm me with Your Goodness, praise You and Your mighty ways!”

    Sometimes amidst the darkest moments it is incredibly difficult to sustain obedience, but it is our only option (how often have I said together with St. Peter, To whom shall we go? Who else has the word of eternal life?!). We close our eyes and fall backwards into what seem a foolish pit (the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength)…. only to find ourselves sustained by God who rewards us for our obedience to Him despite our inner-selves clamoring to do otherwise (those who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy).

    This light my husband and I are experiencing comes from someone else. That I KNOW FOR SURE – if left to me alone – I WILL FAIL, this is 100% guaranteed. I absolutely love your first sentence – if we want peace – we MUST fight. And fight I will – until the end! (can you hear the battle cry?!)

    Just the other day I was telling the Lord “My Lord, I don’t want to suffer anymore, I’m sort of tired of this suffering thing” His answer “to look at Jesus crucified on the cross, everything, every longing of my heart is to be found in Him crucified, every nourishment, every dew, every quench is to come from Him crucified”……….the Eucharist is an immense source of ointment to the suffering soul and the Sacrament of Reconciliation an immense source of dew to the one in agony…..

    • $1650412

      WS, you make me think of St. Paul- Galatians 2:20- I would hazard the guess that you are very much becoming what you ask of the Lord and it is a very good gift to all of those around you (us)!

      • Camila

        You are sweet JoFlemings. Wow, 29 years! May God be praised!

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Wow – this is beautiful. Thank you for these reflections and your witness to the mystery of marriage. It is a gift to us all.

  • patricia

    Thank you Dr. Lilles for such a well defined post in the spiritual battle and marriage.

  • Ann Mechler

    Today my husband and I celebrate our 30th anniversary. Thank you for reminding me that a successful marriage is not dependent on my actions or on my husband’s, but on God’s action in holding us together. I praise God that we are together today!

    • Congratulations!

    • LizEst

      Congratulations Ann and hubby! 1983 was a great year! God bless both of you always.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      I am so very happy for you — and thank you for your witness to all of us. Your marriage is vital to the mission of the Church today!

  • $1650412

    We are closing in on 29 years married at the end of this month, and I have 13 children. Back in the beginning of this the Lord spoke to me very distinctly “ISAIAH 41:20” We printed it on our wedding invitations- so many years later, so many formative experiences later— if you unzipped our chests and examined all our hearts you would see many, many scars, some self-inflicted, some from friendly fire- (we hurt one another here regularly, it’s true), some from the world, and some from the fiery darts of the enemy. I wonder about the witness of all of it, when I can come up for air and find matching socks- a real rarity.
    You cannot imagine, Prof, Lilles HOW MUCH I NEEDED to read today that we gain our peace by means of war- Jesus brings a sword and sometimes, in fact often, this is a combat zone of prayer and penance- in this life. I have tried to explain this a number of times lately in conversation with spiritual friends but it comes across as sounding like so much activism to my hearers- I thought I must have been wandering far off the mark. This post echoed for me what the Lord is doing in my life point by point and gave me some encouragement I really needed- some validation I have been asking for specifically.
    For all my veteran, battle-hardened status, I am very war-weary, and frankly not a little burdened with my own version of PTSD, on some levels, at times. Living for Jesus IS a romantic adventure, and marriage and family life are a sublime privilege- but dealing with sin is also a nightmare at times- and I have it relatively ‘easy’, so to speak- my heaviest cross is usually just in cultivating humility, craving perfect contrition, and repairing drywall-(most of my kids are boys).
    This post was for me a word from the Lord that secured my soul, and I really needed the supernatural aid, thank you!

    • In the service of God

      13 children is such a blessing! Surely God entrusted many souls for your guidance. I come from a family of seven children and I thank God for my brothers and sisters who really have walked my path with me, hand in hand. (figuratively, five are brothers, and I know how to repair drywall too) Anyway, it is beautiful. I will pray for you in your journey!

    • Estefania

      Hi Jo, Congrats on your 29 yrs of marriage! May God bless you and your family. My first child is 16 mos. old and I have dreamed of a big family and I also want to keep my promise of being generous with children who we raise for the Lord. Bu t I have to ask you, what has helped you because after having this first child although he is wonderful and the light of my eyes, I see how difficult it can be at times. By the way, have you worked outside the home or been a stay at home mom? I would appreciate any input. Thank you!

      • $1650412

        Estefania, Jesus Christ is everything. I could say all kinds of things but that is the most important point, and if you apply that to your life, with all your heart, you will find what you desire most in this life.

    • LizEst

      …and it looks like 1984 was a great year, too! Congratulations Jo and Hubby! God bless you and all your family.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thank you for this — and thank you for your witness to faithful love in marriage. The whole Church needs you.

  • RachanaC

    Thank you for this post Mr. Lilles. I always appreciate your posts on marriage so much! I still do not forget that St. John Chrysostom quote you shared in one of your posts long ago – on what a young groom should say to his bride. Ah, how beautiful true marriage is!

  • Armando

    I agree we are at war, a spiritual battle against the flesh, in some cases a “hidden war” or a “silent war” We do not know we are sleeping until we are awaken, by then it can be too late! Stay vigilant my brothers, today ask yourself “What have I done to improve my marriage?” Many of us are to proud or have grown complacent in our marriages, to caught up in the busyness of our day, maybe your marriage has lost its edge, maybe “You” have lost your edge! We sometimes forget to do the things that made us fall in love in the first place and we begin to take our spouses for granted. Its never too late, God can and does manifest himself in the most unusual ways to show his amazing love to us. Do you have a hard time forgiving? We call ourselves Christians, but yet we have a hard time being Christ like in the most gut wrenching circumstances. We fail God everyday when we sin, Romans 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Yet God choses to over look our stain when we ask him too and choses to see the good in us and forgives us anyways. If we are to imitate him, why is it so difficult for us to do the same when we are offended? You might say “but you dont understand, I cant forgive that one!” Really? Why don’t you ask God. He is offended daily and still forgives us by the sprinkling of the blood of his son. Step out into the deep waters and trust Jesus even when the waves are crashing hard, it is when we “Act” even if the world tells you “Don’t” this is when the power of the cross is revealed and God shows how amazing his love is. You might be saying “Armando, Your preaching to Chior” Yes, you are right, because it is the Chior the enemy wants to destroy!

    Men, Love your wives as Christ loves the church, even if it hurts and witness Gods amazing love.

    In Him!

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thank you for these words of encouragement. We cannot be reminded enough to be faithful to the graces the Lord lavishes on us – especially in marriage.

  • Stephany

    Thank you for your post Dr. Lillies. It arrived in my inbox a day after a prayer request for a young father whose wife walked out on him and his two young daughters and moved in with another man. The assault on marriage is real and it’s on multiple fronts. Thank you for the encouragement and solid teaching to support us in the trenches.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thank you for praying for troubled families and marriages. God who is mighty can do great things – He counts on our prayers.

  • Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle

    Thank you very much for this beautiful and profound post on the sacrament of marriage and the cross intertwined –so important for our times. I’ll be sure to pass it along. God bless you, your family, and your ministry!

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