By Mike Jordan Laskey
February 10, 2023 — Sunday marks “World Marriage Day” in the Catholic Church. So I reached out to a handful of my married, Ignatian-rooted friends to ask them what elements of Ignatian spirituality they find helpful in their spousal relationship.
“Like, all of them?” my friend Tom replied.
Indeed. Here are just five ideas.
Ask for the grace you want.
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius frequently encourages the retreatant to ask for the grace they desire. No use beating around the bush with God. And we can learn a lot about ourselves just by naming our desires.
This same willingness to express the true desires of your heart is also essential in marriage. “We should be bold and courageous, but also humble in the asking,” my friend and colleague Eric says.
This point reminds me of an exercise my wife and I have used when we find ourselves going in circles when facing a conflict. We’ll fill in these blanks talking to each other:
When you ______________ (usually something here that hurts the sharer)
I feel __________________
It reminds me of ________________
My greater need is ______________
One thing I ask from you is _______________
We have found this formula to be almost magic when we have felt stuck. And it’s in line with Ignatius’ invitation.
The “Ignatian Presupposition”
Flip to no. 22 in the Spiritual Exercises and you’ll find what’s called the “presupposition,” which, depending on the translation, goes something like this: “It should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.” Ignatius clearly did not spend any time on social media. How countercultural it is to practice this sort of generosity — to assume good faith, to believe those who disagree with you are nevertheless in pursuit of the good. It almost feels naïve.
But approaching communication with your partner in the spirit of the presupposition is so helpful. It can create the necessary conditions for true listening during conflict: not just to listen to refute, but to listen rooted in the belief that your spouse has what’s best for you both at heart.
Think of all the big life questions a married couple might have to navigate together: Should we move for a new job offer? If we have kids, where should we send them to school? Which in-laws do we celebrate which holiday with? What church should we belong to?
And some more from my friend Emily: “What does God hope for us in this chapter of life? Where are our gifts being put to good use? How are we contributing to our community, both inside the household and outside it?”
Ignatian tools for discernment can be such great gifts in marriage:
- Making pro-con lists
- Imagining you have decided one way and seeing how that decision feels, then imagining a different choice
- Creating space for spiritual conversation with your spouse and asking God for confirmation of a choice.
None of this is particularly groundbreaking marital advice, but I have found intentionally putting these things into practice is challenging amid our family’s busyness.
Speaking of trying to find time for spiritual conversations amid busyness: My friend Shannon tells me that when she and her husband leave their young kids at home with a sitter and escape for a date, they share consolations and desolations. I joked to her that “desolation dates” are the hot new thing all the young couples are doing these days.
Looking back over your day (or, say, your month since your last date) and noticing consolations and desolations is, of course, a hallmark of the examen prayer.
The examen is also a fabulous gratitude practice: When I pause to notice all the ways God is at work in my life, it’s hard to be ungrateful. And as a Jesuit recently mentioned in a homily I heard, it’s very hard to feel grateful and unhappy at the same time.
Praying the examen with your spouse from time to time is also a good way to unearth points of tension or conflict — but in a peaceful context as opposed to a sharp-tongued argument. My friend Paul (author of a children’s book on the examen!) says that by inviting you to look at your feelings — so many feelings in marriage! — the examen gives you a moment to consider those feelings again in the presence of God and reform the narrative around them.
Paul also finds the final step of the examen especially helpful in marriage, the stage when you ask God for the grace to “do better next time.” There’s certainly a lot of messing up in any intimate relationship, requiring that sort of daily “mea culpa” and a resolution to keep trying.
I’ll let my friend Emily take this one:
Ignatian indifference or detachment is something that I think about a lot in my marriage but can seem counterintuitive. After all, who should I be more “attached to” than my spouse/ family?!? Isn’t it right to be attached to my family? Of course it is. We know that Ignatian indifference is really about allowing our orientation towards God to be primary and allowing all our other attachments to be ordered behind the primary one.
Ignatian indifference helps me to reframe my frustrations, challenges and even cynicism in my marriage by recalling that everything that surrounds me is a gift for me to steward. Not to control or change things that are unchangeable but to love God better by attending to the responsibilities in front of me. When I remember that the work of building the kingdom within my household really belongs more to God and less to me, it can help me to let go of my frustrations with my spouse. Do I do this all the time? Of course not.
The way detachment invites us to hold things loosely and to see people not as objects to control but as gifts from God reminds me of this classic Thomas Merton quote from “No Man is an Island”: “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
These are just five elements from Ignatian spirituality that can be helpful in marriage; I imagine I could write a whole different essay with five or 10 others. But as my friend Beth says, thinking of Ignatian spirituality as a collection of “tools” to use on your marriage like a mechanic might is probably not the best way of thinking. I’ve certainly simplified a lot here in attempt to offer something tangible. But I love the way Beth put it to me after naming a few of the Ignatian resources she likes most: “I don’t necessarily frame this as how I turn to Ignatian spirituality in marriage per se. Because marriage is a vocation that permeates my life. And Ignatian spirituality is a way of being in the world for life. How do I turn to Ignatian spirituality for everything — all the things?” That’s a good reminder!
St. Ignatius, pray for all of us this World Marriage Day. Because whether we are married or not, all intimate relationships can benefit from your holy, practical wisdom.