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

August 20, 2013 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, Marriage, Marriage Spirituality, Prayer

In the last post, we looked at St. Hildegard's vision in which hell is at war with marriage. In this war, human cleverness and resourcefulness are of limited value.  Only God can hold together what He has joined. In this post, we will ponder the power of God's love as the ground of married love.

Marriage, PrayerThe Power of God's Merciful Love.  The merciful love of the Father is the mysterious love that joins husband and wife, and it is on the ground of this love alone that marriage stands: the Father's love that makes marriage fruitful with children and grace.  He yearns that we might know a communion together in marriage, not unlike the communion He enjoys with the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Christ Crucified reveals and communicates this love from the right hand of the Father into the heart of every marriage. A gift of the Holy Spirit, married love must root itself in this merciful love of the Father, relying on nothing else – neither health, wealth, good times, nor earthly success.  In the soil of tender mercy, marital friendship drinks the cup of salvation, embraces agony and descends to Hell.  This crucified love is alone triumphant, raised on high to the heavens.  Before the mystery of merciful love, our very being must bow: it is to this mystery which we must submit all other loves, even marriage. Without this love, all other loves are not really love at all.

Prayer. To this end, there are some married couples who get by each day by praying through the troth they pledged to one another, intentionally and prayerfully declaring their vows of love before God, reconsecrating themselves to their sacred purpose with His help.  They beg the Lord to give them what they need so they might stand firm in their betrothal.  They want to honor the promises of love they have made even when their love is more bitter than sweet – they want this for their children, they want this for the Lord, they want this for their own integrity, they want this for each other.

Grace of the Sacrament. A real marriage, because it is a work of grace, unveils the mystery of sin and challenges us to confront things in ourselves we would rather avoid.  Sometimes when we see this misery we lose all courage.  It is overwhelmingly more than we can handle, and a kind of death grips our hearts as we struggle to find courage.  Here, the grace of the sacrament helps us in a singular way to see our poverty, and in this poverty, our need for God.  Here, at the Foot of the Cross, real prayer begins and something astonishing is born. And with real prayer, anything can happen because such prayer is animated by an invincible hope, that divine hope that flows from the One who reigns in heaven.

Purifications. Despite noble efforts and good beginnings, the pathway of married love must pass through painful purifications. The mystery of faithful love which animates marriage is a humbling, at times humiliating, desire that lives in the face of unbearable circumstances.  By living faith, this crucifying pain bears fruit spouses cannot see.  This is because when husband and wife are pushed beyond their own self-sufficiency, their faithfulness and trust is a window through which heaven's warm light shines on earth's cold darkness.

Often the obstacles they must confront are merely various forms of immaturity–mostly their own. Though Christ might seem absent, He is ever present in this suffering offering the pathway to maturity.

Sometimes the one they've pledged themselves to is facing grave physical and psychological suffering. Similarly, the death or illness of a loved one, especially a child, can become a horrible trial in which one is assailed with all kinds of rash judgments and heartbreak. Though Christ might seem absent in these discouraging storms, He is ever present offering the only healing and wholeness that can ever address the brokenness of humanity.

Sometimes spouses find themselves standing alone filled with bitter questions concerning their effort at fidelity.  Sometimes, after pastoral consultation and for safety's sake, periods of separation become the only option. Yet even here, on the hill of this bitter cross, one must not give up believing in love – for we come from love and go to love in such a way that we must love even those who have become our enemies.

Hope in God's Limitless Mercy and Love. Because He is truly risen and His power is truly at work in us, it is by means of a true hope – not escapism or fantasy – that we love one another and that we pray for one another even when all seems lost.  On the Cross, He has definitively revealed that our misery has a limit in the limitlessness of the mercy of God.  Even when families are so torn apart that the very sacramental bonds holding them together are frayed, He has bound Himself to us in a mercy that is still greater – for His loving mercy is infinite and our lack of love is only finite.

For all the pain, there is something so beautiful in these struggling friendships: those who live the sacrament of marriage by faith reveal something of the suffering love that binds Christ to the Church in a way that no other kind of relationship can. The miracle of married love, when it suffers under stress, becomes a powerful sign of Christ's faithfulness – the faithfulness from which all true faithfulness comes. After all, what is so great or Christlike about a marriage that does not confront difficulties, in which everything is easy and there are no challenges?

Love triumphs over death – this is the heart of the Christian mystery and thus, the heart of the sacrament of marriage.  Marriages offered to God with trust and openness, even when all human affection has failed, provide the Lord the space He needs to do something beautiful.  How the Lord raises up what has died is always surprising, and rarely in accord with the limited answers we imagine.  When it comes to His subtle work in the mystery of married love, He constantly surpasses our shallow expectations and accomplishes His greatest works in the most hidden ways, ways only faith can see.

In our next post, we will ponder the divine love which looks on marriage with resurrected eyes and delve deeper into the kind of prayer faithful marriage requires.


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: Wedding Feast at Cana in Galilee, Igor Stoyanov, undated icon, PD, 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

    Thanks Dr. Lilles, another great post.

  • patricia

    Thank you for such a beautiful post on marriage.

  • A. Crawford

    Are you considering writing a book on marriage at all? I am very much appreciating these wonderful posts on marriage–they have given me a great deal to think about. This one reminds me of Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand’s idea in his *Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love* wherein he proposes that sometimes it is within God’s will for people’s marriages to be a cross…it is through this that He purifies them in ways that would never happen if they had what the world would call a good marriage. That vision of marriage, as well as the one presented here, is completely at cross purposes with what the world understands about marriage.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thank you for this kind note – I think we do need good books on marriage, and so lets pray that God will inspire someone to write one. Until then, you are right to think about Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand’s excellent book. His work and that of Dr. Alice von Hildebrand have been profoundly influential on my life – they continue to bring vital insight into the grave problems of our day – and even more, a word of hope.

  • patricia

    Dr. Lilles
    my husband and I do pray together often daily rosary, divine mercy and we share in a mini lectio divino of the mass readings and we say our consecration prayer to Mary daily and marriage prayer. This is God’s work he makes us strong in him. I am so happy you have a series on marriage and holiness. This is so needed a couple a family who prays together really does stay together. Thank you for your profound posts.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      This is excellent — and I completely agree with you. Our marriages and families need to be rooted in prayer together, and the family Rosary is one of the greatest gifts of all.

      • patricia

        Yes one of the best prayers ever is the Holy Rosary! Thank you for your reply and encouragement Dr. Lilles

  • Michelle Ann Griffith

    Wonderful posts on marriage! I recommend studying the life of Bl. Elizabeth Canori Mora. Talk about someone who took her marriage vow seriously! She suffered greatly from her husband’s infidelity and he spent all his wealth on his mistress, so his wife and children were eventually left destitute. She prophesied that after she died, he would one day say Mass for her. He scorned her at the time, but after her death, he was granted the grace of repentance, became a priest and one day said Mass in her honor. Google books had a free download of a book on her life, written while her daughter was still alive. She is a saint for our times!

  • Marg

    Thank you Dr. Lilles for you much needed posts on marriage in todays society! I found these very helpful, marriage is a day to day journey where we absolutely need to include God at all times. I find when I pray and keep
    god at the for front of our marriage, I feel Gods grace and strength, this makes a world of difference,especially in the difficult times, He gives me the strength to carry on when discouragement sets in. Thanks again for your great reflections on marriage. God Bless You!

    • LizEst

      Good to see you posting again, Marg. I’m praying for you.

      • Marg

        Thank you for your prayers Liz. Have a great day and I as well am praying for you. God Bless you !

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Dear Marg,
      Thank you for this feedback and also your reflections. You are right, God always upholds us when we give Him space in our lives. Thank you for the witness to Christ’s faithful love that your marriage is for all of us.

  • Marg

    Dr. Lillies a big thank for your posts on Marriage, I just send you a message on this and for some unknown reason? it was taken off. Why is it when we take the time and want to express our thoughts on any given reflection, only certain ones get posted?

    • Sorry Marg, your first reply wasn’t posted yet when you commented again here. Nobody took it off. I’m not sure why it looked like it got posted. I have just approved it below. Sorry I had schoolwork so I wasn’t able to check right away. God Bless!

      • Marg

        No worries Mary! Thanks for responding to meon this and God bless you and have a great day!!

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