By Robert R. Schwarz
Note: You'll also want to read recent
interviews with a marriage-seasoned
deacon and a couple married 47 years,
which appear at the end of this article.
" 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|
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 " ( http://exodustrekkers.blogspot.com/ ) . 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 independency 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 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:
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|
" 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 :
Ø Relax and be open to God's presence.
Ø 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.
Ø 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|
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 (http://www.wwme.org/) 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.
© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz