It only took a couple of days, after sharing news with family and friends about our engagement, before my husband and I started fielding a steady stream of questions about color palettes and reception venues. What kinds of flowers did we want? What would our first dance be, too? These were things neither of us had thought about before Matt had popped the question in August of 2014, but we were suddenly confronted with having to make dozens of choices that have had little to no bearing on our marriage.
But, there was one thing we were sure of: where we would get married. We were married in the church where we met, and that defined our wedding day and our marriage more than the invitation design or what my dress looked like on Oct. 10, 2015.
As many are aware, marrying in the Catholic Church means you get the added bonus of pre-marital spiritual preparation. And, yes, I said bonus. I know of couples who have done this prep online, or through brief meetings with a priest, but for those considering a wedding in the Catholic Church, I would encourage something even more. My husband and I participated in Engaged Encounter, a weekend-long retreat for Christian couples discerning and preparing for marriage, and it changed our lives.
While my husband and I did not do our Engaged Encounter retreat in Hartford because we did not live in Connecticut at the time, the retreats are designed to run the same way in dioceses nationwide. Through listening and reflecting on a series of witness talks and presentations, we were challenged as a couple to talk about money, sex, family values, career ambitions and our faith, among many other things. We were asked to talk about forgiveness and to think about the ways in which we could better serve each other as husband and wife, in the way God intended us to. We heard and reflected on testimony of couples who had raised sick children, struggled with seemingly impossible financial situations and were challenged to forgive in even the most trying of circumstances.
After each talk – each one focused on a different topic – we were allowed time together as a couple to share our reflections and ideas based on the witness talk we had just heard. We met alone, just the two of us, so we could confront the topics head on, without fear of judgment from other couples we had just met. It’s not as though these topics had never come up in our discernment prior to our engagement, but from the very first reflection, my husband and I began to share things with each other we never had before.
Sometimes we argued during those talks, sometimes we laughed and sometimes we even cried. All cards, for the first time, were fully left on the table. And I believe that level of openness may not have been achieved any other way, except for in that safe, spiritual space created by a retreat team that had opened up and shared so much of their own stories with us. It has set a precedent and laid a foundation for our future that we capitalize on every day.
There are aspects of the retreat that I must keep to myself for the sake of anyone interested in someday participating in it themselves prior to their wedding. Some things are better learned about through experience, and I could never do the most cherished moments of the Engaged Encounter retreat justice in writing, anyway.
Because of Engaged Encounter, I know my husband and I were better prepared to make that covenant with God on our wedding day and we better understood what it was we promised to each other 10 months ago. We had delved deeper than we ever had into all of the issues we thought we had already discussed, because we had brought God to the table for the conversation. Beyond material things like money and lust, we reached a better understanding of our hearts and we have continued to thrive upon what we gained in that one weekend. My husband and I received a lot of advice prior to our wedding about preparing for the day itself, but the best encouragement we got was an invitation to participate in an Engaged Encounter weekend. It was, by far, my favorite wedding present.
Anna Jones is a writer who lives in the New Haven area.