If you consult one of the larger dictionaries about the meaning of the word virtue you will discover three categories of virtue. They are cardinal virtues, natural virtues and theological virtues. There is no mention, however, of marriage virtues. This series will be filling that absence, with a monthly discussion of a particular virtue which can strengthen the great adventure of marriage. This month the focus is on gratitude.
Why do people marry? The short answer is that they are in love. Being in love and practicing love is truly the essence of the Christian vocation, no matter what one’s state in life because all true love is ultimately about falling in love with God.
Marriage affords endless opportunities to practice loving. But because the intimacy of the relationship also reveals personal flaws, (the other’s and our own), we can slip into negativity, forgetting what it was like to initially fall in love, and what it is now to live in love. The virtue of gratitude can help us remember.
Implicit in the term virtue is the notion of habitual, of a way of being that shapes our character. So it follows that to develop the virtue of gratitude it is important to be grateful, both in the recesses of our inner selves, and in external exchanges with our marriage partner, and to do so with some regularity.
So important did St. Ignatius of Loyola consider gratitude that he thought the absence of it was the only real sin. Without gratitude we cannot appreciate the grace of God which surrounds us, all of us, all the time. One resource for getting in touch with the roots of gratitude is the Ignatian examen.
Jesuit father Dennis Hamm presents a helpful modern version of the ancient examination of conscience which is more an examen of consciousness. He points out that in French and Spanish the word conciencia has a much larger meaning than the English word conscience. Consciousness is about awareness, self-knowledge, and feelings. The practice consists in prayer at the end of the day, reviewing high points and low points and being conscious of one’s feelings in relation to the daily activities, challenges and questions. Feelings will rise up and Fr. Hamm assures us that feelings are genuine clues about what is really going on in our interior lives.
The method is easily adapted to illuminating the marriage relationship. At the end of the day, find a quiet place for a few moments of prayer, and begin by praying for light to see and understand how you regard your spouse. A simple prayer is all that is needed, followed by a review of the day with the emphasis being on thanksgiving. This is not a search for what is wrong, but for seeing more clearly what is right.
One might ask the question, in the spirit of prayer, how the presence of one’s spouse is a source of blessing. What unique qualities of your spouse rise up in your consciousness? As in all prayer, it is essential to be honest with oneself, and of course, with God. Don’t make things up. You are concentrating on a person’s reality, and on your own reality. Over time it is possible that annoying behaviors will be seen more as quirks. The examen can and should include the relationship itself. How is life richer and more meaningful because you and your spouse are given to each other?
If a daily examen seems impossible, then a weekly exercise can still be beneficial. The point is to bring to consciousness the essence of the other person, oneself, and the marital relationship and to express genuine gratitude for all of that.
Because Ignatian prayer usually moves toward action, it seems reasonable to find ways to express this gratitude to your husband or wife. You might try a version of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem, “How Do I Love Thee?” You might create something like, “I give thanks for you because. . .”
Gratitude leads to many other “virtues” like laughter and fun, compassion and mercy. In addition to highlighting the gifts of our marriage partner, the examen will also uncover our propensity to magnify small failings, our own and others.
I think of a poem by the Carmelite nun, Jessica Powers, “The Tear in the Shade”. The narrator tells of making a small, half-inch tear in a shade, and then worrying about it (almost in an obsessive way). She goes outside “to lose her worry there”, and when she returns to the room “It seemed that nothing but the tear was there.” She goes on to say that there had been beautiful furniture, purple flowers, rugs—but, “It was amazing how they dwindled, dwindled,/and how the tear grew till it filled the room”. Practicing gratitude will allow the beautiful to flourish. It will also grace all aspects of our life, beyond the boundaries of marriage.
When the wife of the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. was shot while she was playing the organ in Ebenezer Baptist Church during a Sunday service, Rev. King turned to his congregation and asked everyone to kneel and thank God for all that had been left to them. How could this be? He had lost his son to assassination and now his wife. How could he say such a thing? Because during the course of his life, loving his wife and his children, loving the people he served as pastor, he was falling ever more in love with God. He knew that God was still with them; nothing was lacking.
The effect of practicing gratitude in marriage has the effect of shifting our perspective, enlarging our horizons, and deepening our love, not only for our spouse but for the wider community.
For Reflection and Action
- What qualities of your spouse are you most grateful for? Share your lists with each other.
- Does your spouse have an annoying behavior or habit that you’ve magnified out of proportion? Make an effort over the next month to let it go.