The Forty Day Challenge: A Lenten Marriage Builder

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©Heidi Bratton Photography

This week I’ve been reading Servant of God Fulton Sheen’s Love, Marriage and Children, and was struck by how much this man – a celibate who died more than thirty years ago – understood about contemporary married life.  (His profound understanding of the human condition is partly responsible for the fact that his nationally syndicated radio and television programs, which aired from 1951-1968, drew more than 30 million people each week.)

As we prepare to enter the penitential season of Lent, the forty days of preparation for Easter, many of us are considering what to “give up” during this time. For some it’s chocolate or alcohol – for others it might be television or (*gasp!*) computer time.  After reading some of the good archbishop’s observations, however, I was inspired to take another approach. 

In his essay the “Laws of Marriage,” Sheen describes the three “moments” of marriage that each of us must encounter:  The first moment is characterized by the sheer joy and ecstatic happiness of early marriage. “Though neither party may realize it,” writes Sheen, “the love at this moment is a kind of self-love or self-idolatry after the fashion of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image. … What is actually loved is the projection of self into the other person.”

Hear Heidi Hess Saxton on the Sonrise Morning Show 8:20 a.m. ET Monday 2/7.

This idyllic time of mutual joy, however, is often short-lived. Invariably reality sets in, which Sheen describes as the second moment of “crisis.” Although it may indeed take the form of a sudden trauma or challenge – a lost job, an illness or moral failure – it may simply come in a series of gradual realizations that your partner is not the man (or woman) of your dreams, after all. “Suddenly there is an awakening that the marriage is something like luggage; one finds in it only what was packed. … During this hour of crisis many marriages collapse because the partners do not know the law of life and do not stay together long enough to know one another…. Sometimes the partners begin to live apart or else are alone together: ‘I take my solitude with me; you take your solitude with you.’”

Ironically, it is this “wake-up call” that, according to Sheen, is the gateway to lasting marital happiness “if one but dies to egotism and selfishness. The aridity that one feels is not the defeat of love, but a challenge. … The hour is struck when the couple must realize that the taking of love’s stronghold is dependent on the siege of self; too often it is at this moment that the cowards leave and sink back into mediocrity.” On the other hand, those who “work through the pain” and persevere in love find that their love has new life.  “A new kind of beauty comes in this third moment. One of the elements of beauty is surprise, and with the unfolding of the years there comes the new surprises through the deepening of the mind and heart, for it is love that makes anything beautiful.”

Would you like to experience renewed beauty and love in your home? Do you believe God wants that for you and your spouse?  Consider joining me on a “40 Day Challenge.” Let’s pray together, asking God to bless our marriages and our families as we seek to live out more faithfully our own vocations:  For forty days, how many ways can we say “no” to self, and “yes” to our life’s partner – without pious subtext or martyred airs? In how many ways can we, joyfully and prayerfully, offer our love back to God, that He might infuse it with the newfound hope of resurrected love?

For the forty days of Lent, I will be posting links from my blog Extraordinary Moms Network to this “40 Day Challenge” Facebook Page.  Each day i will post a topic – something for us to work on. Feel free to chime in as you are inspired, with your intentions, thoughts of your own on that day’s topic, or to suggest a topic. (If you’d like to have me post your thoughts anonymously, drop me a line at (Enable Javascript to see the email address), with “40 Day Challenge” in the subject line.)

Let’s pray for one another!

(c) 2011 Heidi Hess Saxton


Heidi Hess Saxton, new Editorial Director at Ascension Press,  is the author of Raising Up Mommy and My Big Book of Catholic Bible Stories. Heidi blogs at A Rosary for my GPS, an online resource for mothers of adopted, fostered, and special needs children. She and her husband foster-adopted their two children in 2002.

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