Sunday, December 28, 2014
What should couples expect from Catholic marriage preparation?
I went to the eye doctor a couple of months ago for my yearly eye exam and a typical (for me) small-talk conversation transpired as the doctor was finishing making his notations on my chart.
Dr.: “So, what do you do for a living?”
Me: “I work for the Catholic Diocese in town.”
(Pause while typing in chart.)
Dr.: “Did you say the Catholic Diocese?!”
Me: “Yep, that’s correct. I work in the Marriage and Family Life Office. We do marriage preparation and enrichment retreats as well as coordinate the instruction of Natural Family Planning among other things.”
Dr.: “Hmm, guess you have an uphill battle to fight what with divorce rates being what they are.”
Me: “Yeah, there’s always more that we can be doing to help married couples respond to God’s grace.”
Dr.: “Well, OK, on your way out you can schedule your appointment for next year. See you then.”
Me: “Sure thing.”
|Ken Teegardin, "Vision of Eye Chart with Glasses" is licensed under CC by 2.0|
I don’t want to read too much into the doctor’s pause when I told him who my employer was and what I specialize in, but I can’t help but think that at some level he was buying time to think of a cordial response to a typically polarizing topic – the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage and family life. I mentioned this was a typical small-talk conversation for me because whenever someone asks me what I do, my response automatically propels us into the impolite social conversation realm of religion, if not also politics!
Along with these social exchanges with service providers and professionals, when engaged couples come to diocesan PreCana sessions they either have no idea what to expect for the day, or they have heard anecdotes from their friends or siblings. If so, they think they’ll be spending the day listening to couples sharing their experiences on topics such as: communication (perceived as “fight fair”), finances (experienced as “we have these school, car and credit card debts that we don’t like to look too closely at”) and intimacy (“we know what works for us and we like things just the way they are, thank you very much”). None of these preconceived notions is particularly helpful to them because what the mind of the Church is when it comes to actual marriage preparation is quite different.
So what would I share with my eye doctor if he seemed more open to a conversation about what constitutes Catholic marriage preparation? What do I wish engaged couples roughly knew prior to attending a PreCana day (or better yet a weekend) of reflection?
1. There are objective truths and you cannot simply say that “your truth is your truth and my truth is my truth” while simultaneously asking God to bless your marriage.
a. The Lord is a gentleman. If you ask to profess your vows in his house according to his design on your wedding day you can be assured that he will turn the inevitable sorrows in life into instances of resurrected new life. If on the other hand, you go through all the motions on your wedding day and outwardly do everything that Catholic Christians are supposed to do at a wedding, but then consistently act in ways contrary to your wedding vows, the Lord will allow you to persist in your choices, always willing to accept your homecoming should you choose to return. An example of this problematic dual living is saying “yes” to the question, “will you accept children loving from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” on your wedding day and then making use of contraception and/or sterilization throughout many years of your marriage.
2. There are three general stages of marriage preparation: Remote (from conception to puberty), proximate (starting with puberty, dating, courtship through engagement) and immediate (last months of engagement and finalized discernment for wedding liturgy).
a. Everything we observe, and do, prior to marriage is either shaping us to readily love others selflessly or selfishly. Let your imagination wander with the notion of what your relationships might have been like in high school and college if you had progressively learned and applied the lessons of how best to anticipate the true needs of others rather than focusing on getting what you like or want from others.
3. Divorce prevention does not equal marriage preparation.
a. Bumper bowling prevents you from ever getting a ball in the gutter, but it can never make you a professional bowler.
4. Marriage takes up and re-proposes the tasks of spreading and defending the faith, tasks that were given in baptism and confirmation.
a. Who has ever heard a homily on this before! I certainly never have. But it is amazing, because it means that married couples have two tasks in marriage that God, through the Sacraments, is equipping them to accomplish: spreading and defending the faith. Some examples of spreading the faith within marriage might be, sharing Bible stories with toddlers and having them learn from observation how to genuflect before the tabernacle and how to make the Sign of the Cross. For defending the faith, how about charitably responding to a teenaged child’s questions about the relevance of Sunday Mass or Lenten fasting. God knows the difficulty of these tasks, which is why in part he gives spouses direct access to his own divine life and consoling spirit through the sacraments.
5. Your burning desire to enter into marriage will always give way to feelings of disillusionment and uncertainty which is always the invitation to mature vowed love.
a. Just like a caterpillar begins life, enters a chrysalis and emerges as a beautiful butterfly, so too all married couples must complete a simple, but arduous, transformation in order to reach the heights of love. Eventually the honeymoon is over and a powerful question is posed: “Why did I give my whole life permanently to this person who is hurting me so bad?” Precisely at this moment of questioning, the wedding vows show the way forward to mature enduring love. If the vows are forgotten, distained or purposefully ignored full growth can never be achieved and with it the gift of wings which allow for glorious flight, something far better than a happy contented caterpillar ever knew.
6. On your wedding day, at the moment of consent, you give away your whole life in an instant. All of married life after that is an unfolding of that promise given in time!
a. Yikes! We do not do this with other humans in any other context. We do it “frequently” with God in the other Sacraments, but he is trustworthy and faithful, unlike our imperfect spouses. Incidentally, this is part of the reason why witnesses at weddings are indispensable; we all need to have our feet held to the fire sometimes.
7. You do not have to have all the answers for your marriage to be pleasing to you, your spouse, your families and God. You do need to be humble and receive grace from God.
a. I do not understand how the Internet, my cell phone or microwaves really work, but that is OK. I still successfully collaborate with them all the time. My wife and children will always remain mysterious to me, but that is OK. I can still successfully serve their mysterious otherness from me and when I do so, I will find myself becoming more joyful and conformed to God who is love himself.