Sunday, August 14, 2016

Love Blooms a Bit More After this Jesuit Retreat for Married Couples



By  Robert R. Schwarz
Note:  This article was originally posted 
in March 2015. You'll also want to read 
at the end of this article  interviews 
with a marriage-seasoned deacon 
 and a couple married 47 years.
The ideal love between husband and 
wife is God's chosen image of His 
relationship with us.  ( Sister Ruth 
Burrows, author of bestselling books )

" The idea here is to fall deeply in love . " 

            He was a 68-year-old Jesuit priest walking alone down the long approach road to  his  retreat center , one of many places he has called home in his global travels.  He carried a walking stick, and the sun was  coming up on a nippy Saturday morning in late April.   If you saw the doe and her two fawns  nibbling cautiously  in a nearby meadow  and heard the  dove cooing afar ,  you wanted to avoid believing that the 80 acres of  secluded  woodland and grassland  around you was only a two-minute drive  from the sprawling suburb of Barrington, Illinois .
            As the priest and I met,  we paused , smiled and introduced each other.  Aware that this retreat for married couples,  which my wife Mary Alice and I had come to  was a silent retreat ,  I waited for  the priest to speak first.
            "I'm  Chuck Niehaus ," he said . " I'm on staff at Bellarmine  here.   " Who are you?"
            Chuck exuded friendliness ,  and to spark our interaction   he shared some personal matters about his health.  I mentioned why   I had come to Bellarmine.   He showed no intention of wanting to move  on.
            " The idea here, you know, is to fall  deeply  in love, "he  said.   Then he added, as if  he had uttered these same  words hundreds of times to married couples,  " But you don't lose your identity when you get married. "
            He wanted to talk , and so did I—not about anything in particular , just   talk. He told me of his mission work around the world;  a lot of it had been ministering to Hispanics.  I looked closely at him for the first time  and saw a life-weary face. He said "I speak more Spanish than English  ." All those years away from his American  culture was quite a testimony to his faith calling, I thought.      
Man and wife take a break from the retreat's silence
  Walking with Fr. Chuck  back to the retreat center, I paused by a knoll   a few paces off the roadway.  There,  in the shade of a clump of evergreens ,  stood an unadorned  statue of Jesus with outreaching arms . "Mind if I take a picture  of  you standing  by Him ? " I asked.  
            The Jesuit welcomed it.  
            Regretfully,  it would be my last encounter with him during this weekend retreat.    
            I entered through the bright red front door of the retreat house—it is  named after Saint Robert Bellarmine , a distinguished  Jesuit theologian and cardinal  who died in 1621—and headed for the chapel to join 14 other couples  gathered for the morning prayer . My wife was waiting for me in a pew. Ten minutes later, all of us were in the dining room filling our plates with a smorgasbord breakfast of pancakes, bacon, fried potatoes , and scrambled eggs. 
As  eight of us ate at our assigned table , not even a whisper was heard ; we said "good morning " and  " how are you " to each other with  facial expressions,  and we improvised our own  sign language for 'please pass the  orange juice "  or  "who needs  their coffee poured ."  I'm sure everyone was wondering what their table companion needed fixed  in his or her marriage and what overall strategy our two retreat masters would be using to help us " fall deeply in love. "  A bit of suspense was palpable.
Retreat master Fr. Michael Sparough chatting with a married
couple during the retreat's  closing lunch  
At our first meal together on Friday night , talking had been allowed  ( as it would be at our last meal at Sunday lunch ).  I had busied myself  asking questions and taking notes after introducing myself as a retired newspaper editor  doing an article for my blog " Exodus Trekkers " ( ) . Mainly, I wanted to know why this individual had come here . Understandably,  the real reasons would be reserved  for   private spiritual direction sessions,  without or without the spouse ,  with either Fr. Michael Sparough or  Mrs. Mary McKeon, who would later emphasize to me, however, that "we are not therapists or marriage counselors  but spiritual directors.  "
            On that Friday night, a woman in her seventies from Chicago's South Side told me,   " We came because we are so grateful for  what God has done for us." Her husband, also in his seventies,  explained: " She's had five surgeries in the last six months, broke one hip , then the other.  We find comfort in being here with fellow Catholics and feeling freer to express opinions about things. "  His wife added, " I just enjoy being out. "
             Frank ,  a retiree and now a fund raiser for a Catholic agency, said he wanted  to "get away from the noise "  and  to hear the talks given by Fr. Michael Sparough, whom he had heard years ago.   
            Harold,  who teaches law at the Dominican University in River Forest, glanced fondly at his wife and commented, "  I just  wanted to get away from it all." 
            David and  his wife,  a couple with four children, one of them adopted , had driven all the way from a small Wisconsin town when the retreat  they had signed up for  on Chambers Island in  Door County, Wisconsin , was cancelled.  He's a chiropractor and also a substitute religion teacher for 8th graders , and he wanted to somehow apply to his class  what he would learn here .  His wife is his office manager. 
            Thirty-year-old Donna and her trucker husband had come  Madison , Wisconsin . " My husband's phone rings all day long and so I'm  glad he's here even if we didn't know this was to be a marriage encounter. But nevertheless  it's a blessing . "  I told her Mary Alice and I also had believed this was just an "ordinary" retreat but were glad it was for married couples because we had a few wrinkles in  our marriage to iron out . 
             ( For the record, Mary Alice and I  were both widowed when we married 18 years ago , and are still working—amicably— on her need to retain the independence she had experienced while raising two children after  her husband's death, and on my need to  "be in control " as I had been  when managing a newspaper  staff.  )
            Breakfast now over,  we rolled out linen napkins into a ring on which our  names were written and turned our heads to the retreat house executive  director , Fr. Paul B. Macke,  now standing to explain the events ahead.  Fr. Macke recently celebrated his golden jubilee as a Jesuit , which  had included  an 18-year stint in Alaska. Some would describe him as a ruggedly handsome guy with a soft-edge bearing of  corporate CEO.   (" The special touch at a Jesuit retreat ," he later told  me, " is that we can learn to talk to  God and discern what He might be saying to us."  ). We learned there would be seven "retreat talks",  three  Masses, a healing service,  stations of the cross, time each day for personal prayer and reflection ,  confession  dialogue  with a priest , and  a renewal of marriage vows.  He also mentioned that the $345 individual  retreat fee—or whatever the participant could afford— did not   cover actual expenses and that anything we paid beyond that would be most appreciated.
                        "We ask that you maintain silence in the chapels,  your room and in the corridors, " he added.   "If you speak with your spouse outside, be conscious of the needs of  others. "  A "quiet " conversation with one's spouse in the library and lounges would be allowed.
            Precisely at 8:45  a.m. that Saturday  ,   a buzzer reminiscent of our grammar school  days,  reverberated throughout the entire retreat house. It meant we had exactly five minutes before the next event started;  so we filed into the chapel like obedient children ;  we were   excited about what new dynamic we might discover about love and marriage. Last night we had learned that the agenda of retreat  talks was outlined by the " 5 Languages  of Love ," the title of a widely read book by Dr. Gary Chapman, director of Marriage and  Family Life  Consultants, Inc.  These  languages were: " Words of Affirmation " ( If this is your love language, unsolicited compliments mean the world to you. ) ;  " Quality Time" ( Nothing says 'I love you' like full, undivided attention ) ; "Receiving Gifts" ( If  you speak this language, the perfect gift or gesture shows that your are known, you are cared for, and you are prized above whatever was sacrificed to bring the gift to you. ) ; "Acts of Service: "  (Can vacuuming the floors really be an expression of love ?  Absolutely ! ) ; " Physical Touch":  Hugs, pats on the back, holding hands, and thoughtful touches on the arm, shoulder, or face—they can all be ways to show excitement , concern , care and love. ) .
Mary McKeon  in  a private session 
    Fr. Sparough and Mrs. McKeon are now  seated  to the side of the altar. Their eyes are closed in prayer.  Fr.   Sparough , dressed in priestly black except for a partially concealed  white v-neck sweater , is a slender , five-foot-eleven , 64-year-old Jesuit . He now rises and walks to turn off  the meditation music which has been filling the chapel for the  last ten minutes, and   you notice that his eyes behind his  steel-rimmed glasses   appear constantly focused on a thought that is  demanding expression.  He has a full head of  black hair and his mustache and small beard on his chin  have flecks  of gray. What will become more noticeable through the day is how his drama training is reflected in his movements and voice;  he walks fast and rhythmically, even when approaching you in the confines of a chapel . ( He comes from a family of Catholic dramatists ; I've seen him act on  public television and , at a retreat several years ago, he riveted the attention of  an all-male chapel   audience when talked about sin while  juggling  four balls .  )
Fr. Sparough moves to the speaker's podium and welcomes us. His diction is precise ,  warm and engaging .  As he spells out some of the retreat rubrics of the day, he wants to make sure that even though he has the august title of  "retreat master" ,   he wants you to know you are free to exercise options . He'll often  preface his directions  with phrases like "If  you care to " or  " You might want to "  or " For those of you who have a preference for.."   Here  is a Jesuit , you might  conclude,   with the confidence of a medical school professor  and , more importantly , a man who believes every word he is saying and  badly wants you to believe it.
He introduces  Mary McKeon. Now, if you detect a hint of the academic in Fr. Sparough, you might also see a combination of wife-mother-nun in  her. She is a  veteran of—as she puts it—"the honor , privilege , and joy of bringing people into a greater relationship with God ."  She appears to be in her mid-fifties.
Mary walks to the microphone , folds her hands in  prayer , and remains  silent for a long moment.  She is slender ( not a pound over weight, my wife observed ) , has blondish hair and blue-green eyes.  A colorful scarf accents and gives an extra feminine touch to her brownish tweed  jacket.    
Whenever she  speaks to us—whether about God,  love, or sex— she has an alluring mannerism of bending her elbow down to the rostrum and then resting her chin in the palm of her hand ever so naturally. 
Mrs. McKeon  relates her background ; it  included several years of   caring for  her  ill husband, a prosecuting attorney for the U.S. Justice Dept. , whose frequent   pain eventually goaded him to verbally  abuse his wife . Then there was the "blessed"  death of her mentally challenged  sister , who had been  afflicted with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. 
Mrs. McKeon has a smile and gentle manner that might remind one— especially a man—of that certain  cute substitute teacher  one had in grammar school, the one whom you thought would let  you could get away with anything.  Her voice has an innocent , soothing  tone of seduction .  Yet—and perhaps to her credit—one would easily believe she definitely would have failed in an acting career.
However, like Fr. Michael,  Mrs.  McKeon's persona has a yin to its  yang.  She puts phrases of speech  together that are seamless,  and her pauses between topics are perfectly timed for impact and ease  of  comprehension .   When she has a private conversation with you ( as my wife and I were to have ) , she is both relaxed and deeply serious.  As for her  yang side,  we were to see her go into serious  high gear when   rushing from a chapel or the  auditorium to a private consultation. She was then all business and logic and order—in a pleasant  Germanic sense.
In her single-occupancy room , a retreatant takes some
free time to read Holy Scripture
Our topic now was how love is  expressed  in " Affirmation."  We opened with Mrs. McKeon leading us in the song  " Come as You Are " and  ending it with her own words , " Jesus loves you just as you are. " She went on to say ," We don't change another adult.  Only we can change ourselves. "   Next , while standing next to our spouses,  we wrote down  on worksheets  our answers  to  questions like :  " When and how do you and your spouse offer words of affirmation to each other ?"  " How do you feel and respond when his/her words are negative , critical, or unkind ?"   " Share   an instance when words had a profound impact on your life/sense of self,  positively or negatively ."
Mrs. McKeon closed   with the loud exhortation,  "KINDNESS ! KINDNESS !  KINDNESS ! "  My  wife had tears.
            Prior  to lunch , my wife and I toured the two-floor  retreat  house that accommodates  79 guests  in  single- bed rooms , each equipped with a sink , desk,  Bible, and linen.  For most  guests ,  bathrooms and showers are in the hallways.   We were told that last year more than 4,000  people came for weekend retreats, including Catholic high school students .   We made a stops  in the library with its enormous collection of  religious books and Catholic magazines , the basement  bookstore, and  an exercise equipment  room .  Along the way, we passed several small conference rooms where retreatants  sign up for 15-  to 20-minute sessions  with  one of the five resident  priests or  with Mrs. McKeon.
 In the lobby, we paused  in front of a large portrait of Saint Ignatius Loyola , the 16th Century Spanish priest and founder of the Jesuit Order.  Bellarmine retreats are built upon two pillars of Jesuit spirituality:  the " spiritual  exercises" of St. Ignatius and silence itself. The heart of the exercises is the daily examination of one's conscience .  Quoting Pope Francis about silence, Fr. Sparough wrote in a Bellarmine brochure, "In silence we learn to listen to God who speaks to us  with  the tenderness of a father and mother. "
             After a lunch as sumptuous as our  dinner and breakfast , Mary Alice and I returned to our rooms for a catnap , relying on that school-like buzzer to wake us in time for the  Chaplet of Divine Mercy and  another retreat talk .  
            " Carefree timelessness that is not agenda-driven  " is  how Fr. Sparough introduced us to the next of the " 5 love languages" : Quality Time.   He encouraged us to commit to spending one hour daily in a one-on-one conversation with God.  Again we filled out a questionnaire and shared  it with our spouse . Two  of the questions were:  "What stands in your way of your having quality time ? "  and " When and how do you and  your spouse share quality time together ? "  There were long moments of silence  during our sharing, followed by whispers and a couple's occasional exclamation of disagreement.
            During " Service, " the next  love talk by Mrs.  McKeon ,  Mary Alice and I looked questioningly at each other when asked ,  "Are there things that your spouse does for you that you take for granted and wish to acknowledge and express your gratitude for  ?"  My wife  smiled and nodded . " Your number  one goal should be to find out what makes her happy—and do it," Mrs. McKeon  told   us  male  spouses .
            When we filed  into the chapel for the talk, Giving Gifts,  while  listening  to  CD music of two Broadway hit musicals—" Do You Love Me" ( from Fiddler on the Roof) and  the equally soul-shaking song—"Thank the Lord " ( from Godspell ) ,  we knew we'd be seeing—or hearing—something  not of the usual  Jesuit tradition. Sure enough, Fr. Sparough opened  with a display of his dramatic talent by reciting  and acting out the poem ," The Creation" by James Weldon Johnson , an author , educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist who died in 1938.  For ten minutes or so,  Fr. Sparough made the book of Genesis come vibrantly alive for us.  He gave us the same religious excitement when he silently dramatized the scene of the apostle Thomas on his knees  before Jesus, surrendering  his doubt about his Savior's resurrection  with , "My Lord and my God ! " 
After he had   made us realize  how a thoughtful gift—no matter its material value—can be a  powerful love language,  Fr. Sparough recited a prayer of St. Ignatius:

Take, Lord,
and receive all by liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my entire will,
all  that I possess.
You have given all to me ;
to you Lord, I return it.
All is yours;
do with it what you will.
Give me only your love
and your grace,
that is enough for me.

            Shortly before my wife and  I were to meet with Mary McKeon, we joined the others  to hear an afternoon homily by  Fr. Mackey on the importance of forgiving our spouse when we feel he or she has wronged  us. "Let go of it, "  he told  us .  Have the courage to say what has to be said, even if it risks starting an argument, he added.
Fr. Sparough giving spiritual direction 
    On the bulletin board outside the chapel were signup sheets to meet privately with  Mrs. McKeon  and Fr.  Sparough and two other priests.  At 4:30 p.m. , Mary Alice and I entered  Mrs. McKeon's  very small room and ensconced ourselves  a few feet from her.  " We came here to talk about independence and control in our marriage , " I said , trying to be sufficiently  casual so  she would believe  we were a well behaved couple with no serious problem.  Our spiritual  director leaned  back in her chair , looked warmly at us and smiled as if to say I'm glad you're  here . Let's visit a while , shall we ?    
           "  Bob and Mary Alice, this retreat is not to fix marriages but to help married people develop a deeper intimacy with God. I am a spiritual director , not a therapist or psychologist. I've seen many marriages come together for the first time due to a spiritual bonding. "
            "I know, " my wife said . " I think we've seen some of that here ."  
              Sensing that neither one of the three of us cared to do an autopsy on a marriage issue which had been largely  resolved months ago, we began  small but convivial talk on topics here and there.  
            That night during a dinner of a tossed salad, freshly baked  rolls,  baked chicken,  real mashed potatoes, string beans , and a dessert  of  brownies and  ice cream that we  scooped ourselves  from gallon containers ( some of us had three helpings ),  we listened to a recorded lecture on spirituality by seminary president   Fr. Robert Barron , theologian and    author/ narrator  of  the highly acclaimed "Word on Fire "  DVD.
            At 7:15 we were in the conference center ,  learning—in a compelling way—why  physical touch  was the most important love language for many couples, . Wondering, I'm sure ,  what Mrs. McKeon had to say about sex , we waited now  for her to unfold her praying hands and  begin.  She may have read our thoughts , for within a minute or two she told us that the manner in which we touch our spouse "should be genuine and gentle and what your spouse needs— whether it’s a backrub, foot rub, or sex. "
            The point is, she exclaimed,  is to "  CONNECT ! "  She related how she once went to the bedside of a dying old man who had been so gruff in life that no one liked him . He certainly didn't want anyone to touch him nor he to touch anyone, surmised Mrs. McKeon. But when she  boldly reached out and  grasped his hand, saying "shall we pray," the old man acquiesced . They then  looked into each other's eyes  during the entire prayer.
          Her story stilled the conference center  . Silence was even more prolonged when Mrs. McKeon told of the  time when she , with heartache,  came to console her   three-year-old   grandson lying  ill . Having been born prematurely had permanently afflicted his vision and required him to wear strong  glasses . Mrs. McKeon bent over him, bringing  her face close to his so he could clearly see his grandmother  .  "We looked closely into each other's eyes and all  he said was "I love you. "
            We wrote our answers to several questions about "physical touch , " which we shared with our spouses very quietly, of course. . What gives you the greatest pleasure?  Is there something that does not please you ?   When and how do you experience God's loving touch ? We were also asked to recall some nonsexual "touching times" that enhanced intimacy between  us.  
            By now ,  I believe each of us knew much more about our spouse and ourselves than we did 24 hours ago. Growing a bit impatient with the process of learning so many do's and don’ts about this new "language of love, " I asked Mary Alice if she thought there was any more we really  needed to hear.  She frowned  and turned her attention to Mrs. McKeon and Fr. Sparough , who were in a huddle talking  to each other as if they had asked each other the same question.
Fr. Paul B. Mackey, Bellarmine ,   executive director of
Bellarmine,  at the portrait of St. Ignatius , founder of
the Society of Jesuits 
     Fr. Sparough broke off the huddle like a football quarterback.  He promptly centered himself in front of  us all , and without a word began to reenact Jesus' washing the feet of his disciples during the  Last Supper .   It served as an  introduction to Mrs. McKeon's   announcement  ( which came after a short break) that were going to do something never done at one of these  retreats: Spouses were going to wash each others' feet. A few  gasps and a chuckle or two were audible as we turned around and saw that  towels and basins had been placed on nearby tables. We had the option of washing our mate's feet, which some of us did. Our Jesuit conference center soon resembled a dispensary for podiatry patients. 
       A healing service was conducted at 8:30 that same night.  Fr. Sparough blessed each of us on the forehead with holy water . Prayers were said that addressed our  problems and  afflictions  that we brought in prayer  up to the altar .  Afterwards, Mary Alice went to her room,  and I took a short walk in the cool night air to process out what I had learned  that day.   What had been poured into my heart and mind by the retreat masters , by my wife, and by the  Holy Spirit  was  overwhelming . I would need a few days  to  contemplate all the applications for my marriage and for my day-to-day living. Very  helpful was the meditation  by Blessed Mother  Theresa  given to me earlier that day during my confession session  with Fr. Sparough. (  It is entitled "Thirst " , and I have laid the meditation  on my night table at home and have since read it three times. ) A few lines from it are :  " Imagine Jesus speaking these words to you  tonight"…It is true. I stand at the door of your heart, day and night….I THIRST FOR YOU. Come to Me, and I will fill your heart and heal your wounds.   
Outside, after I had walked more and   taken deep breaths and   said "hello" to the stars, I felt prepared  to renew my marriage vows the next day along with the 13 other couples.  
      Sunday morning: graduation day .  " What we want for you is a transformation in your lives, "   Fr. Mackey told us at breakfast.
In  the conference center for the final retreat talk,  we were immersed deeper in Jesuit spirituality  by praying the "Examen" , a way of praying developed  almost four centuries ago by Saint Ignatius and which today many  Catholics throughout the  world, especially Jesuits ,  might say at any time and place ; it is meant not only as an in-depth, daily review of one's conscience but also  a means to embrace the Jesuit central theology  of FINDING GOD IN ALL THINGS .
            Fr. Sparough and Mrs. McKeon guided us through an adaptation of the Examen. It exhorted us to :  
# Relax and be open to God's presence.
#  Pray the following: Father, thank you for t he gift of the light of this day.
o   Open our eyes to see  your grace at work within and around me.
o   Open our ears to hear God's whisper  in the music and noise of our   life.
o   Open our minds and hearts to think and feel, as God  would lead us.  
o   Pray all  this in the name of Jesus, our Brother, our Savior, and our Friend.
#   Reflect quietly for a moment  on our  three days here , asking ourselves:
o   What we are most grateful for—and why.
o   How did we experience God in our spouse .  ( We were advised to  "savor  this grace and remember it for the  future." )
o   What we are least grateful for and what do we need to let  go of . 
o   What had been a challenge, calling us to grow stronger.
     We shared our reflections  and then prayed the "Our Father. " Mrs. McKeon  told us how she had   experienced a benefit of the Jesuit way  of examining one's conscience:  Once in conversation with a priest , she asked  him an innocent  question about his training and education. The priest snapped back an unwarranted and  curt reply.   "Later, he came to me, "  Mrs. McKeon recalled,   "and asked  my forgiveness for his behavior . "
            "In a few moments  Mary McKeon and I will be leading you in a renewal of your marriage vows ,"  Fr. Sparough said. " But now, I'm going to ask you to stand and tell everybody what you have learned during this retreat." Then remembering a retreat courtesy, he quickly added,  " If you want."  Several stood , including me, and offered comments like:  " I now know my wife better "; " I now know my husband better";  "We're grateful "; " I've learned a few important things I should have learned a long time ago about love" ;  " We're going to tell our friends about this retreat. "
      I'm sure there was a lot more each of us could have shared—and probably did later at home . But as Mary McKeon told my wife and me ,  this was a spiritual retreat  and not group therapy or an AA meeting.  We were not asked to read out loud the "love letters" we had been asked yesterday  to write to our spouse, telling him or her ( "as best as you're able")  some of the reasons why we love him or her. 
Whatever those intimate  letters said was now being expressed  by the many  spouses tightly holding hands or draping an arm around one another. It was our body language of love, so unlike that during  Day One or Two of our retreat.
The  chef--a much appreciated  member of the retreat   
    Next, we were asked to stand and look into each other's eyes and repeat the church's formal wedding vows. Voices went low. Hugs and kisses followed . The  lunch buzzer sounded and we all filed into the dining room for a cheerfully talkative lunch.
 Experiences like any Jesuit retreat need a  private debriefing  by the participant…A week  after the retreat, Mary Alice and I  were sitting  down to dinner in our home in Arlington Heights. My  wife cheerfully  asked me:  "Do you think our marriage is better off now?"  I  smiled at her and squeezed her arm. She smiled.  
That night I took a retreat  prayer card off my bedside night table and read the first line from a poem attributed to Fr.  Pedro Arrupe, a former superior general of  the Jesuits.

Nothing is more practical
 than finding God in a quite
absolute final way. 

…and a few words now from  3 marriage 'veterans'
               " Good communication , "  says John Brown,  kept him and his wife Eileen together for almost 46 years –that and a marriage encounter 30 years ago at a Chicago hotel. " Prior to that encounter," John says in our interview with his wife in their Arlington Heights ( Il )  home , " we were not really communicating very well. "
            " We thought we were," chimed in Eileen, "but we were talking about things . We weren't going to the  feelings level. "
            John is a retired information specialist at an office supply  company ;  his wife taught fourth grade for seven years  at the St. James Catholic school .
            Asked for advice for married couples,  John says , " Do whatever you can to enrich your relationship, seminars, books ."  Think of what will benefit your spouse rather than yourself, he adds. " Don't be selfish , like sitting at your computer for hours rather than talking to your  wife . Couples can end up like roommates. "
When expressing anger to your spouse, Eileen cautions,  " Do not say   ' You make me angry ' , rather say ,  ' I  feel angry because--'   . That statement opens the lines of communication more easily. "
John and Eileen Brown and grandson Randy
John  and Eileen are strong believers in marriage encounters where couples share  and discuss their marriage "stories. "   For 15 years, the Browns presented   weekend  encounters. They  now belong to a "community" of married couples that meets monthly at the Our Lady of the Wayside church.  The Browns also suggest husband and wife, if interested in a weekend encounter,   sign into the website of  Worldwide Marriage Encounter    ( for  encounter locations  and dates .  
" Our Encounter Weekend taught us how to communicate at a feelings level ," says Eileen. "Learning that, changed the way we related to each other. We renewed our love for each other that weekend. "
For couples contemplating marriage, John advises ," Get to know each other ." But he quickly adds that surveys show that couples who live together before marriage have a higher divorce rate.  These at-risk  couples refrain from the wisdom of  dealing with conflicts, and do so out of fear that  expressing their feelings will cause  his or partner to leave, he explained. The Browns agreed that without  the sanctity of marriage vows, it becomes "too easy "  to leave a partner when the "going gets rough" as will happen in any marriage. 
" Forgive and Forget " Says the Deacon
Paul Schmidt, a deacon at the Browns' church and a married man for 47 years, sums up his marriage advice this way: " You're never going to be prepared one hundred per cent for marriage. " His advice to couples contemplating marriage is: “ They should meet with the parish priest; as part of the marriage preparation, the priest will ask them to take an online survey called ‘ Couples  Checkup.’ It will show areas of strength and areas for growth. “
Deacon Paul Schmidt and wife Paulette
 Things might "pop out at you which are clear indicators that you're not ready for marriage," he says. "For example, many couples never have talked about how many children they want. " Another question asks how they think they will "fit in" with the family of their intended spouse. " Don't pass over these questions ," the deacon says ."These issues  should be thoroughly discussed. "
The  couple will also be asked to participate in a six-hour pre-marriage session (called "Pre-Cana ") at their church or other local churches.  
Paul and his wife Paulette have participated in and facilitated marriage encounters  during the last fifteen years.
Paul's best advice for married couples is : " Forgive and forget , nothing is perfect. Too many couples are married but live separate lives. Keep communication lines open and don't prejudge. The biggest thing is to listen to what your spouse is really saying.? Many couples don't get to the feeling stage in their communication ."  He encourages married couples to consider making a marriage encounter weekend. It will provide the tools to have real communication and change their lives, he maintains.  

All comments are welcome.
© 2016 Robert R. Schwarz




Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Lifetime of Searching Until Her Climatic Leap of Faith

(originally posted in March, 2015 )

By Robert R. Schwarz

          Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, 
          concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by 
          the admission of faults to one's brethren, fraternal correction, revision 
          of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of
          suffering,  and endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. 
         (Catechism of the Catholic Church , second edition,   # 1435 )

          ' Somebody's knockin' at your door '   ( African-American spiritual harmony )

Julia , a "grains"research  scientist ,  in her lab

               It was, she would say later, "the crowning moment of my spiritual life ."  Nervously confident , Julia DesRochers  waited for one of  the four priests to lay   hands of blessing upon  her  head. She was standing on her church's altar with 12 other adults , and behind each of them stood their "sponsor" ,  the one who had eight months ago  enthusiastically encouraged Julia and the others to receive this soul-changing  sacrament.
  Today was the Easter Vigil , and the church was alive with music befitting the mounting  joy felt by Julia .
              Sitting in pews were smiling friends and family  . Smiles for Julia came from her aunt, a cousin,  and a close friend.  
            The priestly cadre of the St. James Catholic Church of Arlington Heights, Illinois  made their move. Frs. Zavaski  ( then pastor ) ,  Foley ( recently back from a long U.S. Army chaplaincy stint in Afghanistan  and soon to be pastor) , Gilbert ( recently   from Tanzania ) , and Joji ( originally  from India )  approached each of the "elect"  and , placing both hands on their heads, blessed the 13 . Then the priests dipped a finger into the Holy Oil , ( a mixture of oil of olives and balsam ) .
 Julia  felt Fr. Joji's fingers  make the sign of the cross on her forehead , thus "sealing" her with the chrism and  proclaiming her a true member of the Roman Catholic Church.       
            " I felt like I was really joining the body of Christ,"  Julia later told this reporter in a recent  Exodus Trekker interview.  For Julia, this  was the climax of a decades- long spiritual journey  that had challenged  her with many twists and turns .

A  Lukewarm Journey Begun at  Age 14

            Julia isn't sure when she first became aware of her spiritual dimension.  Growing up in nearby Palatine, she  to Sunday school  there and was,  she said, an "occasional church-goer"  with her mother at the United Church of Christ. When her mother remarried and she and daughter moved to New Jersey, Julia  joined a youth group at a Presbyterian church . The group had weekly prayer breakfasts . " That's probably when my spiritual awareness began to evolve, " she said.  "I was fourteen .   I was not really that into boys and was a pretty straight arrow sort of kid. "
            Then came a phase in the life of mother and daughter when both of them became "less  religious."  Some of this,  Julia claims, was influenced by  the divorce of their  pastor,   whom Julia described as a "neat, charismatic guy whom everybody liked  except for the several who wanted to give him the boot. It was pretty divisive.  "   Julia's  mother  referred to the pastor's critics as a "bunch of hypocrites who were suppose to be forgiving, not judgmental. "   The incident , Julia recalled,   "definitely changed the mood in  our house ." 

Dad and Daughter Test the Spiritual  Waters

Now 35  and out of graduate school and married , Julia admitted that she then "had a very hard heart about religion." One day while visiting her divorced father at his retirement cabin in Door County, Wisconsin,  she rose early before her husband  and joined  her father  for coffee on  the porch . "Dad and I had a real good relationship. " She began to tell  him about her joining a marathon running group and meeting two Catholics and a married couple , the husband being a Protestant minister.   "Sometimes," she related to her  father that morning, "we would talk about church , and  I remember thinking that these people weren't so weird or hypocritical. "  But she also told father that she believed "religion is just a crutch for people . "
In  Florida on vacation: in 2003 ( from right ): Julia,
her father, John, husband Glenn, and a family friend  
            The conversation turned to  a library book Julia had read recently that confronted the reader with his or her possible ignorance about the Bible. "I don't know what whispered to inspired me to read  this book, " Julia  commented to her father who, though he believed in God , was not a Christian.  This led to father and daughter talking  about "spiritual things."
            In our interview, Julia said she and her father that morning were "testing the spiritual waters " of the Christian faith . " I think God on that porch  was working on my heart, softening it, " she said. "He does this in such a subtle way. You have to sort of move close to Him inch by inch .  He knows it's got to be at the right time for you.  "

Tragedy Brought Her 'Finest Moment '

In May, 2003, Julia's father was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. " I remember praying like I hadn't prayed for years , " Julia said.  She   began to cry as she related one of those prayers:  God help me to be strong for him because he's going to need me a lot to get through this.  " And then I had this peace that I never had felt. It was so awesome. "
Her  father was moved to his daughter's home for hospice care , where he died  a week later. "It was such a  good death, "  Julia said.   Without   faith in God that was then "blossoming" in her , she said she never could have gone through her father's dying. "It was like God just held on to me, " she  said.  "It wasn't really me who had done this. It was all Him." 
" I loved my Dad, but before his passing I wasn't a much of a giving person.  " She admitted that if not for those  "searching" conversations with her  father on that cabin porch, she might have been tempted to just walk away from all of the ordeal.  "But not for a second did I have that temptation.   My husband —and he is not a religious person— later said to me: 'Julia,  that was your finest moment.'  "

Her Dad's Death the 'Tipping Point '

"In my spiritual walk,  my father's death was the tipping point, " Julia recalled.  "After that , I said to God: After you have done all this for me with my father, how can I turn my back on you now?"
          And she didn't.  After she and her husband moved back to Arlington Heights, Julia renewed her search for a church that was  "modern and progressive –and had likeable music. " Her spiritual outlook began to change after she read  " A Purpose Driven Life" by the noted evangelical Rick Warren . From his words  she learned  that "studying and praying is fine but  you really need to have people around you. "
For "nostalgic reasons" and to renew her faith ,  Julia  returned to her former Protestant church in Palatine where her parents had been  married.  But she  soon left this church after the congregation and the pastor had a "falling out."  ( She would later hear a Catholic priest comment humorously, that when Catholics are dissatisfied with their pastor they find a new parish, but Protestants go off and form their own church.)
Julia  began more "hopping around " to different denominational churches . But all their theology, she said, sounded the same to her , and  she got  "really tired of the relativism" of their  sermons . "I asked myself, well, if that particular Bible  translation I just heard is good now,  what about 20 years from now? "
            Julia knew she needed  "something else ." But what ?  " Being a Catholic was furthest from my mind.  I was raised Protestant and had heard a lot  of miscommunication about the Catholic church . I had a friend who challenged me with two questions: 'How can you worship Mary and  believe that the Pope is infallible?' "  Julia's   reply  today would be  this  quote from Archbishop Fulton Sheen:
There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate
the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they
                            wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be. 

            She continued to  go "in and out" of several churches, "trying to get  their version of the mass…but never to become Catholic,  for my family  might become upset. I fought that and fought it. "  But two years ago she said she " yearned for a deeper connection with  Christian faith traditions and those saint and holy souls who have gone before us. "

Now  Drawn to the Catholic Faith

            Then it happened:  " I felt  drawn to the Catholic faith tradition in a way I cannot describe.  I finally accepted that the 'whisper ' I kept sensing was the Holy Spirit guiding me to  consider Catholicism.  I wrestled with this for a while until I decided that I had to trust, obey, and say ' here I am Lord. '  And one day while praying, all of a sudden I had this epiphany: Well,  why don’t you actually consider becoming Catholic instead of all these other things that make you feel close to being a Catholic but don't ?"
In Her home at the table where her
epiphany occurred
            At our  interview in her home, we sat around the same small  room table where Julia's epiphany occurred. A candle was burning on it, illuminating a Bible open to  Psalm 23 and also  a small Byzantine icon of  Jesus the Good Shepherd. My host with the  brown hair and blue eyes wore black slacks and  white blouse,  and with a coy smile  and  lilting  voice she brought to mind  Audrey Hepburn.  One of the  family's two  dogs yipped now and then in a distant room.
             Julia continued :  " I knew that thought was not mine, but totally the Holy Spirit…I called  up Fr. Joji because I had seen his name on the St. James website. I met with him. He was reassuring  about my lingering doubts about going through RCIA and advised me: " That's exactly what you should do. There's no obligation. You're just coming to  find out more about the faith. "
            Yet Julia had "tons of doubts ". One thing she was sure of, though:  "I didn't want to be a cafeteria Catholic, picking and choosing what  I wanted to believe. If I were to chose becoming a Catholic,  I really wanted to understand the doctrines and dogmas of the church  and remain faithful to them ." Then, deciding  that this was her faith journey and not her family's, Julia last September  took her first step to conversion and began the RCIA process ; soon she  was enjoying the  "wonderful  fellowship and  generosity of spirit "of her classmates .   
       When  asked to  comment on his 13 years of directing RCIA and of seeing  Christians  of all ages brought into the  church,  Jim Hamman said : " I always feel like a proud parent , seeing them gradually lose their doubts  as the Holy Spirit grabs them. "  [ update note: Since then , Julia has joined the RCIA team, she says, "to help other people come into the church. " ]

'It's So Beautiful—Really !'

            Not all of Julia's doubts disappeared overnight.  She admitted to struggling with doctrines like such as   Mary being born without sin and the need to confess sins to a priest rather than just to herself. She asked Fr. Joji if she should turn back from her intentions.  He told her , she said, that there are a lot of things which Catholic seminarians struggle with;  but as long as she  remained  open to God revealing the truth to her about things  like Mary being born without sin, then all would be right with  her. Julia now tries to see her spiritual director monthly—"so it can become a habit"—at the Sisters of the Living Word convent.  "I have really now come to appreciate reconciliation ( confession ) ."
            Julia will stay "open to the truth, " she said "because people much smarter than me  have studied scripture much more than me. "
            Now married 25 years to Glenn, a chemical engineer,   and having "put down roots"  in a home for ten years—"longest we ever lived in any place"—Julia  sings in the 8:30 a.m.  choir,  has joined the church's mission group to Dominican Republic, and plans to sponsor one of next year's RCIA candidates.  She has a PhD in grain  science and works full-time for a Chicago company doing  research on bakery products.  "It certainly has been a path that I never could have  anticipated. But God is good and here I am.  As I've walked along this path for the last year, it keeps feeling more and more rich. It's so beautiful—really ! "
            Her message to fence-straddlers ?  " Sometimes you just have to step out in faith and trust that the step is going to be there. Like when you walk down the stairwell in the middle of the night, you can't see that certain step, but you trust that it's there."

Julia with her RCIA class of  "new" Catholics and  (in rear )  their sponsors. Julia is second from left in front row. Fr. Joji is
directly behind her. 

All comments are welcome.
© 2016 Robert R. Schwarz