Love Is a Liturgical Act

“Christian marriage … is in itself a liturgical action glorifying God in Jesus Christ and in the Church” (Familiaris Consortio, 56)

(Man, Male and Female, is a “religious being” (CCC, 281); Love is a Liturgical Act2; Liturgy is a “Participation” in the Work of God (CCC, 10693); and, therefore, the Family is Called to a Domestic Expression of the Liturgical Life of the Church4)

Characteristics of the Present Situation
Given the title of this essay, not to mention the creeping association that any religious or holy action is somehow unhelpful, boring and life-threatening, perhaps it is necessary to begin by addressing the cultural presupposition that “love” and “liturgy” are as opposed to one another as “fire” and “water”. This mentality is nearer to us than we realize. A priest responded to the possibility of a married couple praying (cf. Tobit 8: 4) before making love that it would surely dampen their ardor; indeed, what about the more general criticism that prayer is for religious and priests—it is not for laypeople. Not to mention a too tired husband and wife who, even when they have remembered that they need to pray together, forget to pray together and fall asleep. Or what about the Catholic school which acts as if a Sunday liturgy over a children’s adventure weekend would spoil their fun?

What about the theologians, priests, and bishops who cannot understand being open to life, who cannot see the unbelief behind their rejection of the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative “significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (Humanae Vitae, 12)?5 In other words, what obstructs the perception of “what is”?6 Furthermore, how can preachers inspire in others what they do not possess themselves? Why does a government spend “more than £250 million on {intensive school-based sex education when the hoped for decline of} teenage pregnancy has been negligible?”7 Why are people so unable to grasp the good of a chaste love? What is it about the misery of a troubled conscience that is so appealing to contraceptive apologists? How difficult is it to appreciate the beauty of a fresh gift, wrapped until the “moment” of giving; and, indeed, the passion of God for the cheerful giver (cf. 2 Cor 9: 6-15): the longing of God for us to make a generous and whole-hearted gift of ourselves? Why are we so increasingly dominated by a fear of overpopulation?8 Where is the faith in God who has provided a home for us all? (cf. Is 45: 18) Why are we unable to go from the artefact to the artist? (cf. Wis 13: 1)

Our own children, too, challenge, intermittently, the need to pray, and to pray together (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 53); and, at different times, range through the convictions that God does not exist or, if he does, does not act and answer our prayers, and does not speak through his word. Alternatively, if the God of the Old Testament does exist, then he is not like Jesus Christ; and who, anyway, would “allow” himself to be put to death? Or, if we do listen to his word, it is not that God speaks to us, but that “we” invent what he says to us and that, in some general way, the word of God is archaic, rooted in history, and needs updating. In particular, the whole patriarchal language of the Church and “its” male priesthood are inexplicable to a generation in which women can speak in Church, are educated, and hold significant positions in society. Moreover, if God knows everything, he knew that the devil, and Adam and Eve, would sin; and, if he knew it, and God is also all-powerful, then why did God let them sin? If God is present everywhere, then he is present to the most appalling acts of evil ever committed; and, moreover, if he is all powerful, how is it possible that God does not act?

There is, too, the mentality that it is almost sufficient to tell people the truth: the truth about marriage; about the existence of the truth; and the truth about the nature of man, male and female, one in body and soul. What if it is only a kind of blind perfectionism to be so concerned about the truth that we cannot see the needs of the person seeking it? What of the danger that the truth is a kind of pristine structure which is, actually, humanly uninhabitable?9 But if, in retrospect, it is clear that natural truth points, like the literal sense, to the spiritual sense: points from right and wrong to sin and grace—from failing to love to being loved by Love (1 Jn 4: 8)— What is it that overcomes our “resistance”10 to the existence and action of God? When the light rises in the darkness, slowly it dawned on me how helpful but inadequate is all that I have understood about life. It is Love, then, that tells me when I am exhausted, and the day has been lived to the full—that it is an expression of God’s love for me not to leave me idle (cf. Ecclesiasticus {Sirach}, 33: 27); for, as I recall, many were the years when that word was true which said:”‘for idleness teaches much evil” (ibid). In other words, what will bring about a real wholeheartedness? What will help take us from a true account of the need for God to act in our lives,11 to the reality of God’s action in our lives?

A Preliminary Answer
So, why bother with an essay on the religious worship of man, male and female, in the context of marriage and family life? There are various answers to this question.

First, reflection on reality reveals it to be a far more enriched phenomenon than at first sight, it seems; and, if the whole of our lived-reality is “allowed” to speak then there is a need to do justice to it. In other words, we need to avoid the temptation to reductionism: to separating out the religious from the secular, and relegating the religious to the ridiculously unreal. Second, the very attempt to extricate the religious from the non-religious “action, event, and word” begins to fail when it becomes clear that God is not ashamed of his work of creation, nor abhors what he has created and, indeed, loves all that he has given existence (cf. Wis 11: 24; and cf. too, Wis 1: 13-14). Third, the very dialogue that our differences and difficulties encourage is, at the same time, precisely what develops both spouses and children. What brings us closer to God than the impact of the fallen world on our fallen hearts: both on us and our children? Even parents, it would seem, pray for other parents, then all the more they understand their own need of the “everyday” help of God. Fourth, there is the mystery of conversion,12 and the desperate need to study, and to implore the decisive hope in God that brings life: “they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?'”(Acts 2: 37). So, what is it that Peter tells us to do today?! Finally, then, there is the rereading of the word of God in the light of the action of God, such that we can see, as his Son Jesus Christ said that he and his Father are constantly at work (cf. Jn 5: 17). Thus, following a commentary on the Hebrew word, tamim (Dt 18: 13), “wholehearted,” which is understood as being “thoroughly made”13, there is the impression that it is clearly a work of God to be “thoroughly made.” It is a work of God to be capable of this wholehearted giving of oneself to the “other’,” whether the “other” is God, or a spouse. We need this work of God.

This essay will thus explore the following parts: calling on God who answers (I); praying together as husband and wife (II); and times of family prayer and catechesis (III); and, in addition, this reflection presupposes our long-term participation in the triple characteristics of the Neocatechumenal Way: “the Word, the Eucharist, and the Christian community’.”14

A Word about the Word of God: It Gives Wings to Human Beings to Rise Again on Winds of Grace, (I)15

 Speak, {Lord} … your servant is listening (1 Sm 3: 10)

In the very structure of the Old Testament being retained and yet surpassed in the New there is a marvellous sense of the Father’s generation of the Son, and the Son’s veiled, then explicit, emergence from the Father. Then, there is the coming-to-be of the Church, the “life, birth, and growth” of the Church through the procession of the Holy Spirit “from” and “through” God the Father and God the Son16. Thus, the whole of Scripture entails an unfolding witness to the full mystery of the Blessed Trinity; indeed, almost as a kind of historical culmination of the revelation of the Blessed Trinity, there is an almost Trinitarian baptismal presence at the Conception of Jesus Christ in the womb of Mary.17 It is not just that Christ is the living fulfillment of this word, 18 it is also that this word is a word-in-the-process-of-being-fulfilled19; and, therefore, the very reason it comes to be written, as it were, is that God “passed” and left the trace of his passing. What is more, not only is God at the beginning (cf. Gn 1: 1) and the end of his word (cf. Rev 22: 21), which is also a sign of God being the beginning and the end of all things, he is also in the midst of everything; and, therefore, just as the liturgy is in “midst of our lives” (Verbum Domini, 52), so Scripture is a “witness” to God’s passing through the reality of the whole of human history: through the whole reality of how people actually live. In other words, there is no situation that is “alien” to God: there is no situation to which God is not present; and, ultimately, the Scripture is “witness” to the help which God’s passing is to every human need. This Scriptural realism is the basis of the turn to the Word.

The Covenant: “Cause” of Renewal
Just as, however, the Covenant expresses the relationship between God and man, male and female (cf. Malachi 1: 10), so the biblical covenant was also used to express the mystery of marriage between a man and a woman (cf. Malachi 10: 14); and, then, just as the Church renewed her self-understanding by speaking of her mystery being foreshadowed “by means of the Old Covenant” (Lumen Gentium, 2),20 so the theme of covenant has been taken up in the Church’s renewal of her understanding of marriage: “The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by his laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent” (Gaudium et Spes, 48).21 This is called an “analogy of faith” (CCC, 114) and, as such, it is where one mystery of salvation illuminates another. Thus, between the Incarnation and the word of God (Dei Verbum, 13), between the Incarnation and the mysterious unity of the human person, one in body and soul (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 11) and between the Incarnation and the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, 8), there is in each case a comparison with the mystery of Christ, who is truly human and truly divine: “Jesus Christ is true God and true man” (CCC, 464).

Similarly, then, there is an analogy of faith between the Covenant and the sacrament of marriage.22 If, then, the first explicit covenant, the rainbow, was an external sign of the universal inwardness of salvation culminating in the paschal mystery of Christ, which constitutes the “heart” of the sacraments, then the covenant is the outward sign of the inward nature of the Christian sacraments. Marriage, in the new dispensation, takes up the mystery of God communicating himself in the language of love; and, given the covenantal nature of prayer (cf. CCC, 2562-2565), entails the spousal vocation to pray out of love for God and each other. If the heart ” is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation … {then the heart} is the place of covenant”(CCC, 2563), and if the love of husband and wife is to be so close that, as The Book of Tobit says of Tobias, “he fell so deeply in love with {Sarah} … that he could no longer call his heart his own” (Tobit 6: 18), then how much more is the spousal prayer to be a prayer which arises out of their marriage. Indeed, how much more is the mystery of marriage to be celebrated as a “closeness” beyond human telling!

More Particularly
What is this “word,” then, that brings life out of death, that acts as it did at creation, and brings to exist what did not exist: a living hope in the living God (cf. CCC, 298)?23 Or, alternatively, “Who” is this “Word” that brings to pass what was impossible for a particular person? “Who” acted in the life of Naaman and “made” a word capable of healing him (2 K 5: 1-19), and calling us out of psychological science into the event of conversion?24 In other words, while there are many insights to be obtained from a study of psychology, there remains both a “distinction,” and a “relationship” between a genuinely therapeutic self-understanding of the reality of being a person, and the mystery of our self-understanding in Christ (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22).25

What is at issue, then, is the unique merit of the word of God, and not the respective merits of any particular science. Do we not react like Naaman: “Are not … the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” (2 K 5: 12) Are not, in other words, all our different ways of understanding ourselves “superior” to the word of God? To which Naaman’s servants replied: “My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean?’” (2 K 5: 13)

Shema Israel: Listen Israel (Dt 6: 4)
What, then, does the prophetic nature of the Church teach today, if not “Speak, {Lord} … your servant is listening”(1 S 3: 10)? In other words, from the renewal of the Church’s self-expression in the “biblical” account of her identity in Lumen Gentium 26 to the present, a present that is always with us, is there not a “renewed” emphasis on the mystery of the word of God and its indispensable relationship to our salvation? Liturgy, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says, “is the privileged setting in which God speaks to us in the midst of our lives; he speaks today to his people, who hear and respond” (Verbum Domini, 52); and, inseparably, “to read scripture ‘with the Church’ was to read it, or hear it, in the liturgy.”27 Liturgy, then, is not to be understood as another activity to that of living, so much as “the privileged setting in which God speaks to us in the midst of our lives.” It is more, then, that the word of God is spoken “in the midst of our lives” than that it is a “word a-part”; rather, then, it is a word “in the midst” and therefore, for a reason: the reason of our need and “its” nature. Thus, “…every liturgical action is by its very nature steeped in sacred Scripture (Verbum Domini, 52). In other words, the word of God is indispensable to the promise of his action; and, in a certain sense, the word of God is always coming to act: it is always a word which is self-evidently in action and, therefore, witnessing to the hope that God will act again (cf. Is 55: 10-11).

Just as the liturgy is “in the midst of our lives”, so its nature is already to express how it “came” in the midst of a life; and, as such, there is both an incarnation and a proclamation of the love of God in daily life28: a witness to the existence of God and his help to us. Thus, the word of God to Naaman came in the concrete “moment” of the contrast between his military “victory”(2 K 5: 1), which was nevertheless given by the Lord (ibid), and his leprosy (Ibid.) In other words, working back from Naaman’s healing in the waters of the Jordan (2 K 5: 14) and his acclamation that “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (2 K 5: 15), we can see that the latent sense of God acting in Naaman’s life needed to become explicit to complete the good God was doing. Thus, there is a development in the narrative account from “the Lord had given {by Naaman} victory to Syria” (2 K 5: 1) to Naaman rejoicing in the God of Israel whom he now recognized as being the one who acts in his life. Clearly, then, it is possible that we are a people who are in the “midst of our cleverness” and yet do not recognize our debt to the Lord’s action in bringing it about. Therefore, we are discovered to be a leprous people, a people incapable of believing that what the Church teaches is what God actually makes possible in people’s lives. Intoxicated as we are, then, by our technological cleverness, we are nevertheless daily confronted with insurmountable difficulties; and therefore, the purpose of the latter is to help us to rediscover the presence of the Lord in the former “victories” and to make the progress we now need in humility: Naaman “went down … in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God” (2 K 5: 14).

Ultimately, then, there is a scrutiny of the heart which only the Lord can bring about; and therefore, just as Naaman discovered his pride in front of the invitation to go down into the waters of the Jordan, so do we discover ourselves in the “mirror” of the word29. If, then, there is a decline in the sacramental celebration of penance, perhaps it is also a sign that the word of God does not “examine” us: revealing both who we are, and who God is (cf. Acts 2: 37-38); and therefore, the more we actively listen to the word of God, the more it is possible that there will be a return to the sacrament of penance30.

Praying Together as Husband and Wife (II): “Sister, get up, and let us pray that the Lord may have mercy upon us” (Tobit 8: 4)
‘What is prayer?’ (CCC, 2558): ‘a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God’ (CCC, 255831). Just as communication between husband and wife is the life-blood of marriage and, indeed, often reveals what it is necessary to pray about, so the dialogue of prayer is essential to each one of us and, similarly, is “premised” on listening to the heart (cf. CCC, 2653). The different “moods” of prayer (cf. CCC, 2644), like the dialogue of a married couple, need to range over the realities of life as it is actually lived; and, indeed, entails taking to heart the challenge of criticism, as well as the praise of God “because He Is” (CCC, 2639).

There are many times and places of prayer for husband and wife; indeed, without falling prey to the temptation to perfect the structure of our prayer time,32 the Church teaches the value of regularity, and the wisdom of what is possible. Just as there is silent prayer, so there is vocal prayer; just as there is prayer “on our own,” so there is prayer together (cf. CCC, 2720-2724); and, indeed, just as there are “prayer-times”, so any time is a time to pray (cf. CCC, 2742-2743, 2745, 2633). The Catechism cites St. Alphonsus Liguori on prayer, who strikes at the heart of any uncertainty we may have about praying: “Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned” (CCC, 2744).33

Just as Tobit, Sarah, and Tobias (cf. Tobit 3: 1-6; 3: 7-15; and 8: 5-8) prayed out of their own situation, so do we pray out of the very circumstances of our lives. Therefore, whether it is problems to do with money, about being open to life, or for the multitudinous needs of our society, then prayer is as much, if not more, a part of the conversation of marriage as the dialogue which develops the spouses, and overflows into family life; indeed, there arise a kind of admixture of prayer and conversation, catechesis and various kinds of discussion, whereby it is increasingly impossible to say where one begins and the other ends.

For Naaman and His Wife
Naaman experienced, in his flesh (cf. also Job 42: 5), that the word of God healed him: “and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (2 K 5: 14). Moreover, it meant that Naaman could return home, not only to worship the true God, however imperfectly, conscious as he was of helping his “master,” who “goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there” (2 K 5: 17-19); but that he could also return home to his wife (cf. 2 K 5: 2-3) with the news of his healing which, no doubt, will also reach the ears of his wife’s Hebrew maid. In other words, although this is passed over in silence, Naaman’s wife saw that her husband was healed, and that this had been because of the inspiration of “a little maid from the land of Israel,” who had believed that the “prophet … would cure {Naaman} … of his leprosy” (2 K 5: 3). How Naaman and his wife were helped by Naaman being healed! Thus, we have the “situation,” as it were, perhaps typical in our time, of men and women who do not believe in the gift of marriage and who, therefore, in one way or another, are like the leprous Naaman; and, like the leprous Naaman, are invited to go “down … in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God” (2 K 5: 14).

What does it mean to go “down … in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God” (ibid)? Naaman descends “seven times in the Jordan” (ibid). Now, if “Prayer flows from listening to Jesus, from reading the Gospel …. {such that} Prayer flows from closeness with the Word of God”34, then it follows that our prayer needs to be “liturgically saturated” with the word of God. Indeed, perhaps prayer flows from the heart through the word: as if the word “gives voice” to the heart of “man,” afflicted and suffering, (cf. Ex 3: 7). Thus, we reach a point when it is clear that we need God to “come down to deliver” us (Ex 3: 8). In other words, the very word of God is a help in articulating our pain and God’s answer to it.

Christ Speaks to the Heart
In particular, then, there is the word about worry. Christ says to Martha, and to all of us who worry about so many things: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk 10: 41-42). So what are our worries? Will we be unable to bear the suffering of marriage? Will we be unable to bear the “trashing” of our selfishness? Is it that we cannot revoke the gift of ourselves? Are we afraid of being betrayed? Will we not have enough money, a good enough job, or the qualities necessary for being a spouse and a parent? Do we have the faith for marriage?

To which St. Peter, as it were, says: “Humble yourselves …. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5: 6-7). Humbling ourselves is going down into the waters of the Jordan (cf. 2 K 5: 14); indeed, the waters of the Jordan being blessed through the Baptism of the Lord, it could even be described as going into the depths of our baptism. On the one hand, there is the possibility of seven signifying the seven deadly sins; and, on the other hand, there is the possibility of a way of formation which takes us down “several distinct steps” (CCC, 1232) to the new man (cf. 2 Cor 5: 17). Casting all our “anxieties on {the Lord},” then, is in the context of a way of life which entails a dialogue with the Lord: a dialogue with the Lord in which the wall of impossibility is breached; indeed, it is a “place” where we do not know what the Lord will do, but we do know what we have done, what we cannot do, and that there is no one else to turn to (cf. Jn 6: 68). In this conversation we may not even be able to think clearly, identify our sins, or even know exactly what to ask for; however, in the refreshment of our spirit, we discover that God is with us.

The Marriage Bed: Tobias and Sarah
Even before Tobias prays with his wife, Sarah (cf. Tobit 8: 5-8; CCC, 2361), he has already carried out a rite which has driven away the demon which had tormented her (cf. Tobit 8: 2-3). In other words, already Tobias’ prayer is in the context of a rite which has freed the marriage bed of a demon that was “in love with” Sarah (Tobit 6: 14). So what do we need to free the marriage bed from; and, therefore, what do we need to do to obtain this freedom? It seems there are two forms of the sin of lust which dominate our times. On the one hand, there is taking what has not been given, and stripping out what should have remained a part of the whole gift. On the other hand, there is the Christian vocation to respect the “demands for growth in virtue that are virtually inscribed within,” the conjugal act.35 In other words, the human heart is a place of contradiction in which the only victor is the one who loses: the one who loses to the graced truth-in-love. Thus, the gift of persevering in prayer is that the marriage bed does not grow cold, and the difficulties of life bring an unexpected and beautiful closeness; and, in addition, the heart grows susceptible to the need to communicate, to learn and to forgive.

Times of Family Prayer (cf. CCC, 2685) and Catechesis (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 52) (IIIi)
In the first half of this section, there is, in part, a practical reflection on prayer. Subsequently, in the second part of this section, there is a brief answer to the more difficult questions which continually develop us (cf. Catechesi Tradendae, 68)

Prayer, like marriage and family life, needs the whole Christian life to live it; and, therefore, whatever our state in life, in a certain sense the whole Catechism is for each of us: single; married; religious, and ordained. Moreover, given the immense range of conversation that is possible between any two people, never mind the various members of a particular family, it is a wonderful resource in terms of stimulating all kinds of discussions. What is an angel? (cf. CCC, 325-336) How are we to understand the opening chapters of Genesis? (cf. CCC, 286, 289, 337, 375 etc.) How do we help or hinder the “Holy Spirit as the interior Teacher of Christian prayer”? (CCC, 2681) Why is it, for example, if prayer is an instantaneous communication with God, are we infatuated with the speed and complexity of human devices? If prayer is a powerful help in daily life, why do people prefer to write and dream about being superheroes, semi-mechanistic, and magicians? If prayer can reach across the universe in one immeasurably generous leap, then why not send a “prayer-gram”? It is not a matter, however, of being other than we are; and, if our reality is that we are “very little a family”36, then let that be the beginning, or point of renewal, and not a terminus of hope and help. There are two, if not three, particular times of family prayer: meal-times; bed-times; and Sunday lauds, or the morning prayer of the Church.

Family life is a work; and, like all work, it needs constant attention, periodic renewal, and prayer (cf. CCC, 2214-2233 etc.). It is not, therefore, a matter of a ready-made food which can be turned out, day in and day out, solving every squabble, grumpiness, and argument. Nevertheless, there are certain things to be learned about how a snack helps the grumpy to get to the table less crumpled; and, in addition, how letting one person start before the others is a necessary charity that overrides the rules of eating after the opening prayer. In other words, there is a structure of beginning and ending the meal with a prayer of thanksgiving (cf. CCC, 2834); however, there are so many needs, personal and communal, that a momentary prayer about them, particularly at breakfast, can be a kind of family morning prayer. It is true that people may be leaving at different times; however, even if the moment is imperfect, a pause to pray is at least a sign in the family of the remembrance of our need of God. “Pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on you” (CCC, 283437). Indeed, a brief expression of the wisdom of the Church can unexpectedly strike the heart of person who claims that the Church’s message needs updating; and, indeed, while the word of God continues to renew the youth of the Church, so the youth of the Church renew her, too. “The family’s catechetical activity has a special character, which is in a sense irreplaceable”; and, in addition, “The parents themselves profit from the effort that this demands of them, for in a catechetical dialogue of this sort, each individual both receives and gives” (St. John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, 68).

Practically, it may be that abandoning a longer, fixed prayer, may receive a better reception than adhering slavishly to a set formula. But, on the other hand, alternating a “current need to pray” with a more fixed prayer, such as the “Our Father,” may help to show the constant relevance of the great “received” prayers of the Church. Thus, a brief, introductory comment about the constant need for forgiveness in our own lives, as well as in the midst of social tragedies, brings out the enduring wisdom of the prayer Christ gives us.

Prayers at Bed-Time
It was St. Don Bosco who recognized that a good time to talk to children was just before they went to sleep. Naturally, however, the child who is just too tired to pray, never mind to talk, will be better left to go to sleep or to pray very simply. Nevertheless, St. Don Bosco was right; and, generally, even our older children will have a brief conversation before sleep. More particularly, though, it is our younger children who embark on theological questions at this time. Sometimes there is a kind of half-way house between talking about the day, and the different ideas that arise; and, in effect, it can be a time to challenge a preoccupation with toys, grievances, and forgetting to remember the needs of others. In time, however, there will emerge all kinds of questions. How do we know that “there is anyone listening to our prayers”? Why pray? What prayers, if any, have been answered; and, in being answered, encourage us to continue to pray? We need to pray, day-in and day-out, even if we do not “feel” like praying. Thus, prayer, like so many other things, needs to be a decision; and, therefore, the heart needs to be harnessed to prayer. Thus, grumpiness is as good a reason to pray as gladness, if not better, as it teaches us to pray out of our “mood”, disappointment, or annoyance.

What is hell? Is anyone in hell? In view, however, that this is a time to pray, there comes a point when it is possible to begin the prayer with what came up in the conversation. A conversation about the nature of hell as an eternally painful rejection of the mercy of God is a good reason to pray for anyone on the point of death, considering suicide, murder, or any serious sin; and, indeed, to draw attention to a prayer that is already being said: “save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in greatest need of thy mercy.”

One particularly poignant question that has arisen in the hearts of our children is the possibility of being killed: “Are we going to be killed?” The context of terrorism in the world, of an anti-life mentality, and of the rising persecution of Christians, has its impact on the prayers of our children; and, indeed, how desperately necessary is the Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis: desperately necessary so that parents do not despair of having brought children into the world, and children do not despair of the possibility of peace.

Just as at other times, a family practice may go through various changes, so it is with bed-time prayers; and, currently, what seems to work are a combination of personal prayers, and a common praying of a decade of the rosary. This is then rounded off by a bed-time story which, in its own way, can, in due course, contribute to the family dialogue.

Sunday Lauds or the Morning Prayer of the Church
This is probably the most challenging time of family prayer and, as such, involves the parents in a bit of preparation, both practically in terms of the dining room, and also spiritually, in terms of choosing a reading from the word of God. It is a good time to invite the participation of the children in the singing, the antiphons, the short reading, a response to the word of God, and to follow the prayers of the Church with their own prayers. On the one hand, however, there is the miracle of grace to find the right time to do this so that the children are not resentful, restless, or too disruptive; but, on the other hand, it is a certainty that, like me, the father may need an amazing grace of conversion to know what to overlook, and how to keep it moving, the children engaged, and the focus on God, and not on each other.

An apparently obscure word about the giving of a portion to God in The First Book of Samuel and, particularly, the reprimanding of the sons of Eli who “treated the offering of the Lord with contempt” (2: 17), helped me to examine my own heart in front of this vocation to pray with my family; and, in fact, to recognize that I could be disruptive if I was too sensitive to how well everything was done. Therefore, as is so often the case, the first consequence of a prayer to improve our morning prayer was a change in my own heart; and, indeed, as another word of God has confirmed, pride can be expressed in being too sensitive to the faults of others (cf. Si 10: 6)38. Similarly, praying about our eldest son always being late back from the gym for dinner led me to discover that there is no easy busy route home; and, therefore, my annoyance was turned into fetching him in the car and, in addition, having an opportunity for a different kind of talking time together. In general, then, it is often a matter of my conversion if there is a problem in the house; and, more widely, it is a part of our prayer to recognize our own sins in the context of praying for the difficulties of the times in which we live (cf. Tobit 3: 1-6).

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful opportunity to talk about the reality of life, and how God is actually present, active, and wonderfully patient with human beings; indeed, this is one of the main places that the difficult questions arise, especially if we do not avoid the Old Testament, and its challenging account of the history of salvation. Clearly, however, it is a matter of choosing a path through the detail as well as indicating, as best we can, the variety of events that reveal the path God chose through human history.

Questions that arise, persist and to which one returns (IIIii)
The gift of creation; the action of God in the Old Testament; and Christ, and the presence of evil in our world

The first question concerns creation: the more evidence there is of a profound inability to see the unity-in-diversity of what exists39, the more necessary it is to turn to the biblical account of creation; indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, said: “We can win the future only if we do not lose creation”40. The Catechism says: “Catechesis on creation …. concerns the very foundations of human and Christian life: for it makes explicit the response of the Christian faith to the basic questions expressed in the inseparability of the origin and end of life (CCC, 282). This does not mean that we turn to the creation account for what it cannot give; rather, we turn to it for “that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” (Dei Verbum, 11). Bearing in mind the characteristics of human authorship (cf. Dei Verbum, 12), the emphasis to be drawn upon here is that of the work of an artisan (Wis 13: 1); and, as such, an artist seeks to create a whole: a whole through which the parts possess a complementary significance. In other words, there seems to be a tremendous poverty in our understanding of the unity of the creation; and, in particular, the unity of the human person. We are not some kind of mixture, solution or combination of body and soul. Rather, we are almost like a sacrament: an outwardly expressed inward reality. The marriage of one man and one woman, in all its particularity, communicates the unique nature of love: that the measure of love is an immeasurable giving of everything; and, in the mystery of the reciprocal self-giving of spousal love “the Creator … {is} shown forth in the creature”41. Thus, the sacrament of marriage “communicates” the reciprocal self-giving of the Blessed Trinity42.

The Action of God in the Old Testament
It very often looks as if, to all intents and purposes, that God kills people in the Old Testament; and, as such, it looks as if God has wronged the innocent or, if they are guilty, not allowed or brought about their repentance. Whether it was the flood, in the time of Noah (cf. Gn 7: 11- 8: 21), or when he hardened the heart of Pharaoh (cf. Ex 4: 2143), or when, through Samuel (1 S 15: 1-3), God commanded Saul ” to go and smite Amalek … both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 S 15: 3), it looks as if God has brought about the death of all: the wrongdoer and, sometimes, their wives and children.

Firstly, the building of the Ark was a prophecy for the generation who saw it; and, therefore, the Ark itself provided the occasion for an examination of conscience and repentance. However, would everyone have seen the building of the Ark; and, even if they did, would infants not die with their parents? More widely, the actions of God are a sign to both the nation against whom God acts (cf. Ex 14: 4) and to Israel (cf. Ex 14: 30-31). In other words, the actions of the Lord were both for the sake of Israel and, through Israel, for the conversion of others. Secondly, Scripture is to be interpreted as a whole (cf. CCC, 112). It is indeed true, therefore, that Scripture speaks elsewhere of the action of God being specific to the sinner and to the one who is sent to tell him of his sin (cf. Ez 3: 16-21). In other words, just as it is a work of the Holy Spirit to convince us of sin (cf. Jn 16: 8), so it is a prophetic work if one man convinces another of “his” sin. The word of God says plainly: “The man who has sinned, he is the one who shall die” (Ex 18: 4); and, again: “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone – it is the Lord … {God} who speaks. Repent and live!” (Ex 18: 32). Consider, too, the repentance of Ahab and Nineveh and the Lord’s delight in it (cf. 1 K 21: 27-29 and Jon 3).

Finally, taking account of the customary understanding of the people of God (cf. Dei Verbum, 12) that “everything depends on divine causality,”44 it is very clear that God allowed, in a sense, responsibility to fall on him for everything; and, ultimately, God expressed his irrevocable love of creation in the redemptive gift of the Paschal love of his son, Jesus Christ, “in” the Church. In other words, although in the Old Testament history of salvation it is difficult to distinguish the commands of God from the fallen nature of the people with whom he spoke, it is clear that in the coming of Christ, there is a decisive revelation of God as the one who took “no pleasure in the death of anyone – it is the Lord … {God} who speaks. Repent and live!’ (Ex 18: 32).

Christ and the Presence of Evil in the World
The Catechism says that “There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil” (CCC, 309); and, essentially, the Revelation of Jesus Christ (cf. Dei Verbum, 2) is that God has taken to heart the suffering of mankind45. Thus the covenantal love of God for man, male and female, is as irrevocable as the “event” of creation, and Christ’s “paschal” re-creation of it; and, at the same time, the newness of the Christian expression of the judgment of mercy on the sinner (cf. Jn 8: 3-11) is an indispensable sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit. In other words, while the world walks almost uncomprehendingly into the reality of a third world war46, the Church proclaims a Year of Mercy. God is present among us in a way that contradicts our understanding and, at the same time, invites us to live the reconciling love of God between us. The evil that opened the side of Christ on the cross disclosed the mystery of the Church (cf. CCC, 766); and, as the bride of Christ, the Church both purifies herself, and brings the healing presence of her Lord among us (cf. Lumen Gentium, 8; and cf. CCC, 827). Christ on the cross expresses an impossible human patience: the patience of God who forgives the sinner (cf. Lk 23: 34, 40-43; and cf. 2 Pet 3: 8-9) and seeks reconciliation with man, male and female. How can we not ponder the mystery that God is both present in every aspect of our suffering and, at the same time, speak the truth in love to our freedom: “love one another … as I have loved you”? (cf. Jn 13: 34-35).

We need the Paschal Love of Christ to turn revenge into reconciliation, hatred into hope, and despair into love; and, if this is not impossible, we need it at the roots of our problems today, just as much as we need it to prevent the awful fallout of the unfolding of today’s tragedies into future conflagrations.

In conclusion
Marriage is a liturgical act, then, is a kind of summary of the presence of God among us; and, as such, it is a presence as varied as the nature of marriage and family life. Nevertheless, the principle effect of this being true lies in the omitted word, as it were, which is “celebration.”47 Just as the word of God brings us close to God and to ourselves, so prayer keeps us close to each other, and to those around us; and, therefore, an intense prayer life is probably what keeps the heart of husband and wife close to one another. The celebration of the liturgical nature of marriage, in the midst of the domestic church, however, is a vocation that exceeds our strength; and, therefore, whatever will renew the faith necessary to marriage and family life, will tend towards the renewal of the celebration of marriage. But if the Christian life is centered on faith, hope, and love, then faith has to give rise to hope and, together, faith and hope need to help with the existence of love; for, in the end, it is love that we need and are called to celebrate, both for the sake of marriage and the family, and for the times in which we live.

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, hereafter CCC.
  2. Background to this theme can be found in “Sacramental Marriage is a Liturgical Act: Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium in Dialogue,” Chapter 14 of Scripture: A Unique Word, (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014) pp. 355-398
  3. The CCC cites the following in footnote 5: Cf. Jn 17: 4.
  4. Cf. Lumen Gentium, 11; and cf. CCC, 1655-1658, 1659.
  5. Some have made known their change of heart and support of what they previously did not accept or understand, such as William May, while others seem to be less than clear about it, such as Bernard Lonergan (cf. “From Dr. Andrew Beards” {on the work of Lonergan, with comments about Lonergan’s view on Humanae Vitae}, The great anthropological questions which underlie this problem (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 32) are, however, best addressed more fully in their own right (cf. for example, Volume I: Faithful Reason, of a forthcoming trilogy from Cambridge Scholars Publishing).
  6. Cf. James V. Schall, October 26, 2015, “Maritain on Just About Everything”
  7. David Paton, “Teenage Pregnancy, STI’s and Abstinence Strategies”, pp. 99-109 of Fertility and Gender: Issues in Reproductive and Sexual Ethics, edited by Helen Watt, (Oxford: Anscombe Bioethics Center, 2011) p. 107. Conflating parts of two sentences; but cf. also p. 99: Why has England had for many years “one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the Western world?” Cf. also Familiaris Consortio, 52.
  8. Cf. Dermot Grenham, “Population Growth and Population Control,” pp. 110-124; indeed, this fear of overpopulation has taken such extreme forms that “Chinese women will still need to obtain a birth permit for the first and second child, and only within marriage. Those violating these strictures may still be dragged from their homes, strapped to tables, and have their babies forcibly aborted.” (David {Lord} Alton, “China’s one-child catastrophe,” p. 23, Catholic Herald, November 6, 2015.
  9. Cf. Pope Francis, November 11, 2015, Text of Pope’s Address in Florence on Humanism
  10. Richard A. Spinello, “Love and Responsibility: Required Reading for the Synod on the Family”, 26, October, 2015, Spinello says: “But the norms articulated in Scripture encounter resistance and, therefore, need some elucidation along with a spirited defense.”
  11. Cf. “Pinckaers proposed renewing moral theology by reinstating ‘the action of the Holy Spirit into the moral life'” {citing Servais Pinckaers, Morality: The Catholic View (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), p. 81, from John C. Berry, “Contraception, Moral Virtue and Technology,” p. 148, in Fertility and Gender: Issues in Reproductive and Sexual Ethics.
  12. Cf. Kiko Argüello, The Kerygma: In the Shantytown with the Poor, translated by the East Coast Neocatechumenal Center, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014) (original Spanish edition, 2012). Argüello says, for example, on p. 24: “I understood that, if I kept on this track I would end up killing myself”; and then, on p. 28, he says: “I … understood that the problem was faith. I could not give it to myself. So I turned to the Lord in that moment, crying out, and all of a sudden I felt inside me the certainty that God existed! I did not feel it as a thought or some kind of reasoning or as a theory. God existed: it was like a touch of substance.”
  13. Cf. John J. Parsons, “Living Transparently: Being Wholehearted with the Lord …”, Parsons cites Dt. 18: 13 and translates the Hebrew as “You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God,” commenting that the word “tamim” has the sense of being “thoroughly made.” Compare this with the slightly different translations from the Catholic RSV, Jerusalem and New Jerusalem’s translations. Parsons also links this to two texts from the Gospels: Mt 5: 48 and Mt 6: 22.
  14. Argüello, The Kerygma: In the Shantytown with the Poor, p. 62.
  15. Cf. the line in the hymn of the Divine Office, Morning Prayer: “Your peaceful presence, giving strength,/ Is everywhere,/ And fallen men may rise again/ On wings of prayer” (Vol. III, The Divine Office: The Liturgy of the Hours According to the Roman Rite. (London, etc: Collins etc., 1974) p. 77.
  16. Cf. Ricardo Aldana, “The Triune God as the Unity of Scripture” translated by Anne P. Devlin and Adrian J. Walker, Communio 37 (Fall 2010). Communio: International Catholic Review, pp. 459-476, This article inspired the consideration of the Scripture and the Blessed Trinity; but cf. also, CCC, 684, quoting from St. Gregory Nazianzus, Oratio theol., 5, 26 (=Oratio 31, 26): PG 36, 161-163: “The Old Testament proclaimed the Father clearly, but the Son more obscurely. The New Testament revealed the Son and gave us a glimpse of the divinity of the Spirit.”
  17. This thought owes a particular debt to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mary for Today. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press; 1st English edition (March 1, 1988).
  18. Cf. Aldana, “The Triune God p. 465.
  19. Cf. Aldana, “The Triune God, p. 468.
  20. Vatican translation:
  21. Cf. the Vatican translation at: Unfortunately, however, the significance of this word has not been recognized in all translations; and, therefore, it deserves special mention and investigation (cf. for example, various essays in Etheredge, Scripture: A Unique Word. (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014).
  22. Cf. Etheredge, Scripture: A Unique Word, p. 352: Mgr Paul Watson’s example of the analogy of faith: “Everything said about the covenant applies to marriage” (9/01/2011, Maryvale Institute).
  23. Cf. “Witness ‘Begets’ Witnesses” for an account more specifically about conversion:
  24. Cf. “Scripture Is a Unique Word”,
  25. This is discussed more fully in Chapter 7 of Vol. II of a forthcoming trilogy; the chapter is entitled: “In a Psychology Rooted in Traditional Philosophy Open to Development, Communication is at the core of Human Personhood, Vocation, Marriage, Family, and the Politics of the Common Good”. The trilogy as a whole is entitled: Vol. I: Faithful Reason; Vol. II: Faith and Reason in Dialogue; and Vol. III: Faith is Married Reason.
  26. Cf. Dom Christopher Butler, “Forward to De Ecclesia.”
  27. Scott Hahn, Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006) p. 142
  28. Cf. J.D. Crichton, Christian Celebration: The Sacraments (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1974)This sentence conflates two points, one made by St. Thomas Aquinas, namely, that “the celebration of a sacrament is … a profession of faith” (p. 4, footnote 7: ST: III, 72, V, ad 2) and one made by Crichton, faith as “incarnated” in daily life (p. 15).
  29. CCC, 2588. Although the Catechism says “the Psalms are a mirror of God’s marvelous deeds in the history of his people, as well as reflections of the experiences of the Psalmist.” I am using the expression to apply to the word of God as a whole: it reveals Christ (Dei Verbum, 25) and ourselves in Christ (Gaudium et Spes, 22).
  30. Cf. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today, translated by Martha M. Matesich (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997) p. x; but also cf. pp. 147-160: Chapter 9: “Conversion, Penance, and Renewal.”
  31. I have reversed the order of these two excerpts, in view of the fact that the opening paragraph had already given this definition of prayer before the question was raised a-new.
  32. Cf. Pope Francis, November 11, 2015, “Text of Pope’s Address in Florence on Humanism.”
  33. Footnote #40 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives the following reference: “Del gran mezzo della preghiera.”
  34. Pope Francis, General Audience, August 26, 2015:
  35. Kevin O’Reilly, “Humanae Vitae and Chastity”, pp. 125-135 of Fertility and Gender: Issues in Reproductive and Sexual Ethics, p. 125.
  36. Pope Francis, General Audience: “On Living and Being Together as a Family”, November 11, 2015:
  37. Footnote 122: this is “Attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola,” etc.
  38. Nevertheless, if the younger children disrupt prayers then they need a simple consequence, such as the temporary loss of a favorite game (cf. CCC, 2223), whereas the difficulties of the older children need reason, prayer, and an appropriate help (a blessing if they go through a phase of not being present, or an extra snack, etc.).
  39. How many things that were united, are now divided: person and sex; sex and procreation; parts of the body and the bodily person (cf. for example, the mentality behind all this in Waldstein’s Introduction, pp. 36ff, in John Paul II. Man and Woman He Created Them. A Theology of the Body. Translation, Introduction and Index by Michael Waldstein, Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006; and cf. too, Fr. John Flynn, November 22, 2015, “Analysis: Playing with Life: The Unknown Consequences of IVF”,
  40. In the Beginning … A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and Fall. Translated by Boniface Ramsey, (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1995) p. 100.
  41. From a Reading from the Discourse on the beatitudes of St. Leo the Great, pope (Disc. 95, 6-7), p. 519 in Reading for Ordinary Time, Volume V, Weeks 24-34, Pro Manuscripto, For private circulation only.
  42. Cf. Crichton, Christian Celebration: The Sacraments. This theme is almost written through the whole chapter on “The Sacrament of Marriage” (7), pp. 114-136. However, the statement that “Old Testament notions of marriages were quite different from ours, the position of women was almost totally different, and there has, of course, been a considerable theological development” (p. 136) is too much a mixture of thoughts to be gone into here. At the very least, let it be said that the fullness of marriage was both actual and anticipated at creation; and, at the same time, displays in the history of salvation both its problems and its “awaiting” renewal with the coming of Christ
  43. Then see also Ex 8: 15; 9: 34; 11: 10; 14: 4, 8, etc. However, not every verse says that the Lord ‘”will harden …{Pharaoh’s} heart” (Ex 4: 21) as clearly as the latter does; indeed, one verse comments on the sin of Pharaoh.
  44. Jean Giblet and Pierre Grelot, “Sickness/Healing”, translated by Henry J. Bourguignon, p. 543 (of pp. 543-545) of the Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Second Edition Revised and Enlarged, edited under the direction of Xavier Leon-Dufour, translated by various people (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1982) first paperback edition.
  45. Cf. “Divine mutual self-emptying involves going beyond oneself. This, alone, explains, to some degree, why a perfectly self-sufficient deity, eternally blissful, should create a world that could not increase his happiness, but only give him trouble” (John McDermott, September 14, 2015) “The Family: Expanded Sacrament”
  46. Cf. Pope Francis: ; and cf.
  47. Crichton, Christian Celebration, p. 6.
Francis Etheredge About Francis Etheredge

Mr. Francis Etheredge is married with eight children, plus three in heaven. He is the author of Scripture: A Unique Word and a trilogy, From Truth and Truth (Cambridge Scholars Publishing); The Human Person: A Bioethical Word (En Route Books & Media, 2017), with forewords from eight writers; The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends (2018); and Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, with contributions from ten other authors, as well as The Prayerful Kiss (2019); Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration (2020); Honest Rust and Gold: A Second Collection of Prose and Poetry (2020), Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers (2021), Unfolding a Post-Roe World (2022), Reaching for the Resurrection: A Pastoral Bioethics (2022), Human Nature: Moral Norm, Lord, Do You Mean Me? A Father-Catechist! (2023), A Word in your Heart: Youth, Mental Health, and the Word of God (2023), and An Unlikely Gardener: Prose and Poems.

Francis is currently a freelance writer and speaker and his “posts” on LinkedIn can be viewed here. A radio interview can be heard here.

He has earned a BA Div (Hons), MA in Catholic Theology, PGC in Biblical Studies, PGC in Higher Education, and an MA in Marriage and Family (Distinction). He is a collaborator of the Dignitas Personae Institute for Nascent Human Life.


  1. Avatar Pat Cullinan, Jr. says:

    Is anyone in hell?
    To start, there’s a whole town gone to hell, to wit, Capernaum. Corozain and Bethsaida don’t seem to have fared much better. (Mt. 11:21-23.) And then there’s Judas. (Mt. 26:24.) It gets one down.

    • Avatar bill bannon says:

      It gets us down because we don’t see what God sees and He sees intimately the sometimes hundreds or tens of thousands of times He sent actual grace to this person and they ignored the good urge just as He sent actual grace to make Judas sorry and throw back the money into the temple near the very end. Fr. Most said that God’s salvific will that all men be saved is vehement. But if God does all of our final act Himself, then no one has freely chosen Him as their real love forever. God wants each person’s final act or test in life to be that person’s choice of Him. But if God does the entire act for us, we didn’t choose Him really. So…He leaves men free to choose. Yes…it’s not an area to stare at too long because there is the mystery of predestination also…and the gift of final perseverance. Best to pray for the salvation of every human being in your lifetime and nothing blocks that from coming true because the lost can be from the rest of history. Christ said many are called but few are chosen but Revelations says the number of those in Heaven is so great, it cannot be counted (Rev. 7:9). God put both passages in the Bible for you to keep in your heart…both.