The Word Between Us: Lectio divina and deepening marital intimacy
We enjoy the benefits of a good marriage, which is still maturing after 34 years together. While we image our marriage as contemporary in style, focus and vision, we find that its deeper dimensions are driven by an ancient practice: lectio divina.
We are also professional marital therapists who spend most of our days assisting other couples in their search for healthier marriages. Frequently we point them toward the benefits that flow from cultivating the practice of lectio divina. A solid spirituality in marriage, we have learned, brings with it a renewed love of God as well as a deepened intimacy. We sometimes feel like anachronisms, frozen in time and in sparse company in our allegiance to lectio divina. The recent attention given to it at the Synod of the Word in Rome, however, invites us to take heart and make a case for its place in marriage.
Lectio divina is an encounter with God through the reverent and thoughtful reading aloud of the Scriptures. Typically, the passage is short; the speaker pauses after reading, allowing the hearers to absorb the spirit and content of God’s Word. The reading can be repeated as many times as the listeners wish, after which time the participants are invited to share their reactions. Sometimes spontaneous prayers flow, sometimes not.
Lectio unfolds as a meditation on the Word and what the Word offers to the listener. Every exchange rises and falls under the guidance of God’s Spirit, as listeners recount surprising insights and powerful intuitions about the place of God in their personal development.
The Human Side of Marriage
Since marriage is a product of the human need for belonging, all marriages are flawed by a couple’s dependency needs, fears, desires to control and a variety of other human motivations. As a result, marriages are filled with opportunities for complicated emotional entanglements and deep misunderstandings. The routine of life, the constant stresses that a couple encounters, the shifting efforts to find meaning as a marital history deepens—all point to a need for renewal.
Couples often confess to us that they feel bound by the human side of marriage and seek a way to transcend their personal faults and limitations. Lectio invites them to begin a search for the deeper ground of love, one that can enhance and support their efforts to develop a genuine intimacy. The Word of God nudges them to break out of the narrow constraints of marital behaviors and open up a fresh vision of what their lives might hold.
Lectio divina fosters an awareness that marriage is bigger than just the two marital partners. God becomes the deep foundation of all interaction between them. Through reading, hearing, dialogue and prayer, God’s presence becomes more real. Similarly, partners become more authentic to each other as God invites them to ground themselves in sacred truths. Respect for one another deepens, and over time a renewed intimacy begins to flourish. A shared spirituality develops. Husband and wife recover a sense of the integrity of the other and grow less focused on nagging interpersonal issues.
There are no hard and fast rules for the practice of lectio divina. Here we share what works for us and suggest a few simple steps for those interested in cultivating this practice.
Find a quiet space. Since quiet space is essential to all forms of serious reflection, couples should begin by creating such a space for themselves. Get away from the phone. Find a time when the children are resting and quiet. Turn off the television set or radio.
The early morning is the best time for us, before the demands of our lives become all-consuming. We usually settle into a quiet corner of an upstairs den or a family room, where the early morning sun reminds us that it is time to begin a new day with an awareness of who we are and the central place of God in our lives.
Breathe in the presence of God. Just as the right physical setting can foster an inward calm, so can a few moments of slow breathing. The mind begins to clear as the body slows down and the breathing moves us to a sacred inward space. You can imagine breathing in the presence of God as you continue to slow down and prepare yourselves for God’s visitation. When we feel the calming of our everyday restlessness, one of us invites God’s Holy Spirit to be with us for the next 20 minutes. It is now time to listen to God’s Word.
Focus on a short text. We take a short section of Scripture and one of us reads to the other, slowly and with reverence. The next step is simply to remain open to the power of God’s word. We listen while God does the teaching. The word clears our heads and opens our hearts. Our experiences can range from intoxicating to sobering, even boring and routine. Nevertheless, God’s Spirit never fails to touch us in some way.
A simple passage from John’s Gospel offers a typical example. One of us reads: “If you love me, you will keep my word and my Father will love you and we will come to you and make our dwelling place with you” (Jn 14:23). As we quiet ourselves down and listen to God’s promise to dwell with us, the silence brings our thoughts and feelings to life. Our memories come to life as well, with both of us gaining nourishment from memories of how loyal God has been to us during our long history together.
We also become aware that God’s dwelling with us has been experienced in ways that we never anticipated: during difficult times, when we did not understand each other, or when we were searching for a deeper grounding in the wake of disturbing events.
Sometimes we trade off reading the passage. The differences in our voices and pacing provoke small awakenings in each of us; then we become quiet once again. We may not be aware of all the implications of the reading, but we know we are being changed in some way deep down inside, at the level where God’s Spirit works. When one of us is changed, even in small ways, our marriage changes. We realize that God’s work on our behalf is subtle and gentle, and the way we relate to one another reflects a similar gentleness.
Do not fear sharing. Sharing of genuine sentiments can create anxiety. Talking about deep experiences calls upon a couple to become more vulnerable, and this is often met with uncertainty. Couples should try to share as honestly as they can during these redeeming moments. The presence of God is always there to support and guide them. Prayer from the heart represents the ultimate vulnerability, and the reluctance to share vulnerability at this level is understandable. The couples with whom we have worked tell us such honesty triggers a continued learning and maturing process. They soon discover what we often describe as the ultimate form of marital intimacy: soul to soul.
In the end, lectio divina offers precisely what the words imply: a profound learning experience, a lesson. Over time, couples learn to breathe, live and interact with an awareness that God really is the hidden ground of their love. Their style of interaction and the way they care for one another begin to reflect the elements of unconditional love: forgiveness, openness, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, constancy and flexibility.
After our morning prayer, we become open to approach each other differently: with respect and kindness. A resolution takes shape to become more patient, grounded in a new appreciation that God is always patient with us. For the rest of the day, through a thousand interactions, we are reminded of how sacred marriage is. We know this awareness is the work of God’s Spirit dwelling with us. Respect begins to outweigh criticism; peacefulness begins to outweigh restlessness. Patience becomes more consistent.
Couples we have worked with also report that lectiodivina helps them discover a new foundation for intimacy. No longer do they feel totally reliant on their own resources; they now appreciate a partnership with God that fosters a new creativity for their shared life. At times the practice of lectio seems almost too simple. Yet when we allow God to be the hidden ground of our love, marriage becomes a gradual awakening to the challenges and fulfillment of that love.