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

August 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, Marriage, Marriage Spirituality, Prayer

In our last post we considered the power of God's love as the ground of married love. In this 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.

Marriage, PrayerResurrected Eyes. The Gospels invite us to contemplate all marriage, even difficult and failed marriages, with resurrected eyes.  This is a perspective one gains by turning to the Cross. Today, married couples need to rediscover this gaze of love and its salvific powers.  It is a renewal of the mind that God accomplishes through mental prayer, the prayer called contemplative.

Mental Prayer. Mental prayer means praying with the attentive love of an open heart.  It is a holy listening which welcomes the Word of Truth, the Word of the Father. It is a search for truth in which His voice resounds.  It is seeing sin for what it is and surrendering our standards to His. He does not excuse our cowardice to confront sin nor does He tolerate the bitter resentment with which we entertain all kinds of false judgments against each other. He cannot show us His mercy if we hold our petty grievances over one another's heads.  At the same time, He also knows that it is not within our power to forgive or forget an offense.  Beholding His humility moves us to let go of our pride.

It is thus that He waits for us to seek His help, to wrestle with His questions, and to ponder His answers. Through mental prayer, a contemplation drenched in tears, we come to welcome His gentle rebuke and beg Him not to leave us.  The fire of His love does not allow our cold false judgments to stand. His light expels all the dark hubris in which we are wrapped.  It is this kind of wisdom that protects our relationships with those He has entrusted to our care.

What about those moments when we've lost all courage, when we have searched for a word of hope, and found nothing to sustain us in our faithfulness? God does not abandon those who lose heart even when they have abandoned one another.  Just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus walked away from the events at Golgotha, so too do those who turn toward divorce.  Who can grow deep in prayer when they run from the Cross?  Yet, is it not true that the Lord also goes to these disciples and gently explains the Scriptures to them until they recognize Him and feel themselves compelled to turn back and rejoin those they have forsaken?

Marriage requires ardent prayer, prayer in which we allow Him to question us and in which we consider His answers anew. This goes beyond methods of therapeutic meditation.  It is deeper than the effort to relax tension and manage anxiety.  It is not about surviving – it is about living life to the full.  It is a heart-to-heart, living encounter.  This kind of prayer requires that we pass beyond “self” and enter into a vulnerable silence in which we are completely open to the delicate touch of God.

Making Space for God. For those who would engage the Lord is this sacred conversation, prayer must become the priority of the heart. With the ears of the heart, one must be wholly attentive to the subtle tones of the Bridegroom's voice.  With spiritual eyes, one must be vigilant for the saving light of faith. He reveals to us our misery and the secret judgments we have made against Him with great tenderness and concern. It is a gift from God to see one's own misery, one's own lack of love against the fullness of love He wants us to know.  It is a grace to renounce accusation, judgment and resentment before the mystery of His mercy.  It is a participation in the passion of Christ to pray for someone who has betrayed us, denied us and abandoned us – to whisper from the depths, “Father, forgive them they know not what they do”

It is only through begging God in tears that our own fat ego dies. It's by becoming humble and contrite that Christ raises us up.  Here is where one finds the courage to forgive, be reconciled, and begin to love again.

Only prayerful, suffering love makes space for God to do something beautiful.  He loves to empty tombs if we allow ourselves to be buried there.  He loves to restore and rebuild what everyone else believes is lost – but He does so in ways that always exceed the power of imagination or clever calculation, in ways that demand trust, that require an obedient surrender of will, an abandonment of our hearts into His Hands.

Ordering Lives towards God's Love. Every station in life has its cross. Marriage, consecrated life, and the single life each must be painfully ordered toward the love of the Lord. Before her death, Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity came to understand the suffering and insecurity of her own prioress. She wrote to her prioress a letter that she asked be read only posthumously.  It would be many years later when the prioress finally surrendered this note – a note stained with tears. Blessed Elisabeth pleads with her superior to let herself be loved. The letter has become one of Blessed Elisabeth's major spiritual works and is entitled, Let Yourself Be Loved.  What she promised her prioress is true for anyone who struggles with their vocation and is discouraged by their own failures: God's “love will know how to rebuild what you might have destroyed.”


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: Bodas or The Wedding Feast at Cana, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, circa 1672, PD-US author's life plus 100 years or less, 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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  • patricia

    This post is so inspired. Contemplative prayer is indeed an instrument of a successful sacramental marriage. It is the joy of seeing God in one another that carries us during times of great suffering as a couple and as a family. The trintiarian love grows and develops in a marriage such as this. Thanks for sharing this Dr. Lilles

    • Anthony_Lilles

      You are very welcome Patricia – You have written something beautiful here: the joy of seeing God in one another does carry us through all kinds of trials.

      • patricia

        Thank you !

  • RobinJeanne

    Wow, I want to know and live this and never forget it !!!

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Me too.

  • LizEst

    “The Gospels invite us to contemplate all marriage, even difficult and failed marriages, with resurrected eyes.” Love this phrase. Thank you, Dr. Lilles, for a great post. God bless you!

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thank you Liz – God bless you too.

  • Maria

    The final sentence of this post is powerful! Thank you Dr Lilles for writing so eloquently on this topic

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Yes, that sentence speaks to me too. Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity is a real prophet for our time.

  • DianeVa

    WOW! Thank you Dr. Lilles for this series on marriage, prayer and the cross. I will save this to look at again and again. But what about those “unequally yoked” with a spouse who does not know God and refuses to validate a marriage? There are so many in today’s pews. How can we help them?

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Each case is very different and demands a lot of prayer as well as respectful listening on our part. This being said, I do not think we reach out in love and friendship enough. Sometimes it is just a simple word of encouragement shared during a meal together as families that can make all the difference. Sometimes a short phone call is all it takes to turn an impossible situation into one that can be offered to God. What would be very sad is to be afraid of being inconvenienced – the work of God is never convenient but those who embrace the inconvenience help us all discover anew His power at work in the world.

  • Jeanette

    Thank you Dr. Lilles for this. I was so impressed, I printed off all three parts about Marriage, Prayer and the Cross. One reading isn’t enough…gotta dwell over this one! I emailed each part of this series to a friend in need of this. Thanks again.

  • Erin Pascal

    I believe that God should be the center of all families and marriages. When God is the center of the family, there is harmony and peace. Thank you for this, I’ll print it out and definitely put it to good use.

  • Terese10

    This is really good stuff. I am going to order your book. I only wish you had it on Kindle. Any chance of that happening?

    • Anthony_Lilles

      You might check – I think it is available in this format.

  • Alexandra Campbell

    My husband left our family of six kids in 2009 almost right
    after he had willingly been received into the church and after we had had our
    12 year long (Episcopalian) marriage convalidated in 2008. I had returned to my
    childhood faith two years earlier. If we had not gone through the annulment
    process for his first marriage, which took two years (I was yearning to return
    to communion but knew I had to wait as he was not willing to live as brother
    and sister during the long annulment process), and NOT had the marriage
    convalidated, I would have been able to leave the marriage and would have been
    free to remarry a Catholic, as I had not had permission to marry outside the
    church. I did not do this, of course, but now, since he fell into adultery and
    left us to live openly with this other woman (a lapsed cradle Catholic the age
    of my oldest daughter who abandoned her husband and two young children to be
    with my husband) so SOON after we had our marriage convalidated, I am still
    devastated and confused because I cannot figure out why God would allow my
    husband to get an annulment, be received into the church, receive the
    sacraments of penance, Firtst Communion and Confirmation (all in one day!),
    have the marriage convalidated, only for him to leave us in the most horrific
    and public scandal in our small rural community that has caused and continues
    to cause DEEP pain to me and our children (only one of the two who received
    First Communion and joined the church with us will attend Mass with me anymore; the others were older when I returned and my husband was received and they were not interested.) It blows my mind! Why would God allow my husband to fall like this? I was not the best wife before I returned to the church and my chance to be a good Catholic wife was taken away by divine providence. I am completely docile to this fact but it is such a painful mystery…

    I can only say that since he left and blew apart our whole wonderful family, I have become “a woman of sorrows” and definitely have received “the gift of tears.”
    Should I be praying fervently for his return? As the years have gone by
    I began to think God took him away from me because He wanted me for the
    solitary life. I have remained resolutely single and am not tempted to get
    involved with men. My Catholic mother did this after she divorced my father and
    that is when I left the church at age 12 being so wounded by her infidelities.

    Now, I focus on raising my sons the best I can but, as I said, only the youngest boy will come to Mass and that not every week! I am trying to be gentle and not controlling to force the boys into the faith. I hope I am setting a tiny example as a
    devout mother who spends time praying, in holy reading and above all in
    ministering to the boys needs with motherly love and tenderness (plus good food
    and lots of it!)

    I see myself as a consecrated divorcee but I do not really pray much for my husband anymore at all…he seems so committed to the new woman.

    If fact he is in prison right now for beating her but they plan on marrying when he gets out!!! I used to beg him to come home but since 2010 I really have given up, even on praying for his return as I genuinely have started to think that maybe God wanted me out of that marriage, with no possibility of another one unless he were to die, of course. I do know that there is NO WAY I would give up the reception of Holy Communion in order to pursue a new relationship or to marry again…

    I am now focusing my prayers on the salvation of the souls of my teenage boys who are in such peril in the culture of death without a very solid Catholic faith that I have been blessed to receive and develop. I also pray that God might lead me to some form of religious life when my sons are grown and I am free. The Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour take even divorced women and you must be between 45 and 65, so there may be hope for me in that community in about 4 years when I will be 59 and my sons out of high school.

    What advice can you give me in the direction my prayers should take? It is so painful anymore to pray for my husband to return to me or even just for him not to go to hell. Actually, I do pray for him to not go to hell but that is about it. I don’t have a spiritual director and long to find a holy director who has the time for me…Can you help me Mr. Lilles? Your posts are so beautiful and seem to express some of my deepest anguish…I thank God for you.

    • Alexandra – I am sorry for your suffering. It is clear by the number of references to your ex husband in your posts that the wound runs very very deep. With respect to God’s providence, He cannot will someone to sin – so, He didn’t have an active hand in your ex husband’s decision to abandon your relationship. If He allowed it, it is only in the sense that free will must exist in order for true love to exist. The actor in this case then, is not God, but your ex. It is important to avoid a distortion of providence that draws you to be frustrated with God or to question Him in this case. This situation is purely a human problem caused by the fall and the choices of those involved. I don’t say this by way of correction or reproof of you but in a desire to free you of perspectives that will hinder rather than help your healing. I would strongly recommend you read “Searching for an Maintaining Peace” by Fr. Jacques Phillipe. Be assured of my prayers for your healing.

      • Alexandra Campbell

        I thank you for your response. I understand what you mean about God not willing anyone to sin. I think what I meant is that I am trying, now that the ordeal is more in the past, to inquire to the Lord as to what good He intends to draw out of this, as scripture says “all things work together for good, to those called according to His purpose” (rough translation.) I am not frustrated with God because as time goes by I can see that as I keep faithful to my marriage vow by not being available to men, He will be faithful to me and the boys. In my younger days I could never be without a boyfriend, there were my idols!
        Small miracle yesterday, both boys, even the really rebellious 15 yr. old came to mass with me. Not confession or communion but Mass, thank God! I also bought a St. Michael medal for one boy and need to get one for the older. He is currently wearing a Sacred Heart medal I gave him. The fact that they are even willing to wear these is a sign of Gods love to me.

        I have that book you mentioned and I am trying to see all as coming from the hand of the Lord. I think that’s what I meant….it was not God’s Perfect will that my husband leave, but it was His permissive will, correct? So if I learn to accept it as coming from the hand of the Lord, without any bitterness, and with forgiveness in my heart for those who hurt me I am on the right path, right? I am certainly learning about deep suffering and that can only bring me closer to Jesus which is what I want. So in some sense I guess I am starting to think that I am actually better off! Or is that wrong? I read that Blessed Elisabeth Canori Mora prayed for her husbands mistress and wanted her “to be in heaven” with her…I stumbled (God guided me) onto her tomb in a church in Rome last year and discovered her as a great saint to ask for help from. I have actually reached out to this other woman, vainly as far as getting her to go away and get her claws out of my husband, but to tell her that I am concerned for her soul and I do feel forgiveness in my heart for her some of the time! Not always, I guess that is where I need to grow. My only goal now is to become a saint.

        Is there anyone in your Avila school who would be willing to consider spiritually directing me through SKYPE?

        I had this thought yesterday. I don’t know if candidates do “internships” with supervision by expert directors (I am a clinical psychologist and this was our training model), or perhaps a qualified director that you know would be willing to help me. I live in a very rural area, and my wonderful, holy priest is a great confessor but he does not have time to do direction per se. I really need regular contact with someone. Thank you for your time in responding to me.

    • Camila

      (a prayer for you Alexandra)

      I abandon myself into your hands;
      do with me what you will.
      Whatever you may do, I thank you:
      I am ready for all, I accept all.

      Let only your will be done in me,
      and in all your creatures –
      I wish no more than this, O Lord.

      Into your hands I commend my soul:
      I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
      for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
      to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
      and with boundless confidence,
      for you are my Father.

      – by Charles de Foucauld

      ….. a little note from me…. when I’m suffering a lot the best thing for me is to focus on my moment to moment duties and stay away from media, and anything and anyone that is worldly. Pray. Do you have a crucifix? If not, get one. Talk to Our Lord crucified, I’m serious. He knows suffering, He knows betrayal, He knows what is like to be abandoned by the ones He love so much utter abandonment, He knows pain – just like you.

      Our Lady, Pray for Alexandra.
      St. Michael, protect Alexandra.

      • Alexandra Campbell

        Oh, thank you so much for your kind response! I am going to print out that prayer and use it! Yes, I do have a large crucifix and I am going to pray in front of it more regularly.
        Wow, your advice about staying away from media and worldly things (entertainment is my sometimes idol) is very much appreciated.
        The one thing I keep saying to myself and have even said to others who know about the ripping apart of my family, is that “Now I have the tiniest taste and experience of what Jesus went through for us!” (Right after my husband left I also lost my “big important” management job. The blessing in that was that I took my father into my home right away as he was being somewhat neglected by me as I was “so busy.” He died only three months later, a good death, back in the bosom of the Church after a forty year absence! Now I am working as a psychologist in a Crisis Unit and get to minister to people in severe need.)

        At some level I do know that it is a gift to be allowed to suffer with Him. I am trying to learn to offer my suffering to Him for the Salvation of Souls! I have also been considering attempting to fast from food as an offering, as I have never really done this…I want to grow in holiness faster as I am starting to think about how short our time here is!

        Thank you again for your kind comments. This would have been our 21st anniversary weekend of my husband and my meeting, and all the places we used to go for recreation as a couple and family in the Stanislaus National forest just burned up in the Rim Fire! Strangely symbolic…

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Dear Alexandra,

      Thank you for your devotion to our Lord and to your boys. I wish I had some word that might encourage you in this difficult plight. There is no way to imagine the overwhelming task and difficult trials you are having to endure.

      Dan Burke has written a brief response about how to understand Divine Providence in relation to human sin and misery. He is so right: God is never the author of evil, man is. Here, we discover an important step in humility. Only God can help us accept with compassion and mercy that, not only we ourselves, but all men and women are miserable sinners. Without the Lord, we are all in grave peril. So we must pray for one another’s salvation, even for those who have gravely harmed us. As we learn to submit the painful things others have done to us to the Holy Spirit, He can teach us how to pray and how to have compassion.

      You also asked about spiritual direction. Dan’s book on spiritual direction offers some good pointers about looking for a qualified spiritual director. I like what he has to say – because the Lord has not abandoned you even when you were cruelly dealt with by someone who owed you so much more. And He loves your boys more than you do – He is more solicitous for you than you are for yourself. We can also be confident that the Lord will continue to bless you and your boys with holy friends and mentors.

      Regarding the direction of your prayer: the direction each soul should take is a beautiful mystery which should only be approached with reverence and fear of the Lord. Only those whose faith is pure can really answer the question you have asked, but I offer these reflections for your consideration until the Lord sends you such a person.

      From what you have written, it would seem that your prayer is taking on the proportions of unconquered love – a work only God can complete in you and that will require constant surrender to His delicate promptings in everything you do. It is the way of suffering love, a love that perseveres, that is proved in hardship, a love that sees difficult trials as opportunities to reveal the wonder of God present and at work in the world. This kind of contemplation in action is very rare, but very needed today – this may be why the Lord asks it of you now, not just for you and your boys, but also for the rest of us who need witnesses to a deeper love. Here are three counsels to consider:

      1) “Wherever your treasure, there your heart.” In very many important ways, you have already discerned well regarding the priority of your heart – it must be to follow our Crucified Bridegroom. Going to mass, daily prayer and confession, as you have been, is key. So is interceding for your boys, who need your prayers. Along with this, St. Therese’s Little Way – choosing always to fill each moment with all the love you can and allowing Him to love through you when you have no love left to give.

      2) “From that moment, he took her into his home.” If you do not pray a family rosary, there is great grace in lighting a candle and gathering your boys together around the family Crucifix and offering together your needs as a family to the Lord before lights out. The Rosary also invites the maternal presence of Mary into your home – and this can become a blessing and a healing for everyone. I also recommend entrusting your sons to Saint Joseph – because he is Guardian of the Redeemer, he is also a guardian of all those who need strong fathers in their lives. I can testify that he took good care of me and my brothers when we needed it.

      3) “Do not worry about tomorrow, today has cares enough of its own.” The Servants of the 11th Hour are a loving group of consecrated women who have dedicated themselves to some very difficult apostolates – I admire their faith, and someday the Lord may open the door to some form of consecrated life for you too. But for now, the Lord has given you your boys, and they need you more than ever.

      What has happened to you is a very difficult crucifixion. Just as Christ was treated by His friends, you and your boys have been betrayed, denied and abandoned. Like Christ who bore the consequences of our sin, you are having to bear the consequences of someone else’s sin. But this brokenness and heartache does not define you or your boys. Like Christ, if you offer this to the Father with love as your sacrifice of praise, your faith unleashes a power that transforms the world. This is the way of the Cross, the way of love – the way you have already chosen.

      The way of the Cross is the pathway of believing in love because God is love. The way of the Cross in which you have set your heart is the pathway of a mercy that will not allow itself to be discouraged. Such love boldly enters the heart of her sons, fearlessly attends to all kinds of deep hurt and painful questions, and raises all this up in intercession to the Lord. Such love is never satisfied until each son knows that he is not alone, that he has great dignity and that he is loved immeasurably. Such love cannot rest until each son knows that the goodness of God the Father is deeper than all betrayal and abandonment.

      It is in this hidden effort of tenderness that a mother’s heart becomes invincible – like Saint Monica. Here, in the tenderness of maternal care, the hidden glory of faithful love is revealed to the fruit of one’s own womb even when a marriage has otherwise failed.

      This kind of crucified motherhood poured out to the last wordless cry is always raised up by Christ in unimaginable ways. This suffering love knows that the misery of this present life is not inexhaustible. This graced maternity comes to see that every sin and the consequences of every sin are all wondrously overcome by the Blood and Water flowing from the side of the Lord, the everflowing fount of mercy.

      I have no expertise to offer sound counsel, but please consider whether the direction of your prayer ought to be Christ crucified. He is the pathway to love, to victory, to restoring all that is broken in the most mysterious ways. He has loved us to the end, given Himself up for us – and His love is stronger than betrayal, abandonment and death. Consider whether you should strive in loving silence before the mystery of His presence at work in you to trust in Him, to look to Him, to discover how He looks on you with love, to familiarize yourself with how much He loves your sons, to be fascinated by Him, to let Him hold every thought captive even when worries and anxieties assail you or sorrow seems to overwhelm you- for His grace suffices and His power is made perfect in our weakness.

    • $1650412

      Alexandra, God loves you. He is honored beyond expression by your fidelity to Him in the midst of your trial. The reason He allows these terrible, painful things is because He intends to bring a greater good from them- a good that undoes or defeats the evil behind them- a redemption. The image I have in my mind is as if we were a military rank and file and each of us steps forward to receive a scroll on which is inscribed our own very personal mission. By fulfilling this mission, our trials and tribulations in detail, we will incorporate ourselves as completely into Our Lord as we are capable of and really participate in His work of salvation, not only for ourselves, but for our families both the generations from us and those behind us- and for the world. (That is my personal theory anyway.)
      Your cross is heavy, but it is perfect for you- and God will be with you in this, in an intimate way that you would not otherwise have the privilege of knowing Him- and even if every single step is one of misery on this side of the grave until you draw your dying breath- you will not regret a single moment you abandoned yourself to Jesus Christ and His permissive will for you if you persevere and your crown will give Him glory beyond compare. I think that asking God for an increase of faith hope and charity— first of all, and most of all, toward Him– o be able to have that crazy confidence in His passionate personal love for you -I think this would make you and Him really happy short and long term! ( I think this is what I need to work on too- and my situation is very very different from yours- but I seem to need that same essential thing- confidence in God’s overwhelming love for me! ;o)

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