For those of you who’ve been married: Do you remember what “just married” felt like? After the sound of the tin cans clanking behind the car faded, after you set your bags down in your together home after the honeymoon—what was it like?
I thought since I had wonderful training in my home of origin, since we had both taken classes in college on marriage, since we had premarital counseling and even attended the Weekend to Remember—it would somehow be a little more rose-colored. Maybe I’d envisioned a little more of the romantic-comedy trailer than, say, the paper towels commercial that comprised real life.
Because no matter how much training you’ve had, one flesh takes a lotta work. My sin settled in our little 500-square-foot apartment right alongside our stacks of wedding gifts. And when my sin collided head-on with his? Well, let’s just say sometimes I wished our duplex walls were a little thicker.
Falling in love is quite natural. Staying in love, and actually loving one another—that lay-your-life-down variety—is not.
And in this constant effort that is marriage, some parallels to intimate prayer materialize for me. It’s easy, I think—or maybe fluid—once I’ve muscled my way to that form of relationship not unlike the one God designed for Adam and Eve. Yet how often can I say that with God, I am naked and unashamed? That I start to move into a sort of one-fleshness, of I in Him and He in me? George Buttrick describes, “Prayer is friendship with God. Friendship is not formal; but [like marriage!] it is not formless; it has its cultivation, its behavior, its obligations, even its disciplines; and the casual mind kills it.”*
Prayer, I think, is one of the easiest and the hardest things we ever do.
To pray as regularly, naturally, and honestly as breathing, moving back into the relationship for which we were designed: This is the true work of prayer. Theologian Evelyn Underhill describes, “The determined fixing of our will upon God, and pressing toward him steadily and without deflection; this is the very center and the art of prayer.”
Prayer is hard in other ways, too. It’s hard, as Thomas Merton wrote, to learn “when one’s efforts are enlightened and well-directed and when they spring simply from our confused whims and our immature desires. It would be a mistake to suppose that mere good will is, by itself, a sufficient guarantee.”*
It’s hard to say, I think this is from God—when in fact, I’ve witnessed my prayers influenced by my own remarkably subtle, scheming inclinations; my stealthy pride and stiff neck; my presumptive selfishness. When in fact, words in my head interpreted as the mouth of God should hold no small amount of fear and openness to correction and input—even though “we have the mind of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:16). Yet with constant practice, Henri Nouwen affirms, we can still “become attentive to that small voice and wiling to respond when we hear it.”*
It’s hard to focus our minds, with their 9-second internet attention spans and scrolling to-do lists, to simply…
Walking with God throughout my day is, in some ways, like a marriage when your spouse is home all day. Sometimes it just helps to picture God with me, as tangible as the hand holding my own. After I wake with Him, hopefully finding my deep-seated satisfaction there, the art form of prayer is a realization of presence—a continuing conversation, as if a spouse were in every room of the house. (I realize I come from a marriage where I regularly enjoy my spouse’s presence. If you don’t associate your marriage with acceptance and intimacy, perhaps there’s a collage of other relationships that can help.)
Missionary to the Philippines Frank Laubach described this as having the windows of his heart open to God. He described his desire to “line up my actions with the will of God about every fifteen minutes or every half hour.”*
This year, may God move us more into prayer as natural and vital as drawing into our lungs the air He first breathed there.
*As quoted in Foster, Richard J. ad James Bryan Smith, eds. Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups: A Renovare Resource for Spiritual Renewal. New York: HarperCollins (1993), pp. 101, 105.