Infertility is More Than Physical. Research-Based Advice for Engaged + Newlywed Couples.

In the heady first days of engagement and marriage, it’s hard to imagine the possibility of anything but lifelong joy.

Though the head knows marriage calls spouses to suffering and purification, the heart is frequently focused only on the blissful--and in many ways, rightly so.

Where, then, does that leave you and your spouse the first time you face a major cross or struggle? How can we live in the tension of suffering and hope while seeking to support and understand one another?

Marc Sherman and his wife Erin struggled to conceive for nearly a decade after their wedding day. With all glory to God, they are now parents, yet their personal journey illuminated a deep need: while science and medicine offer a wealth of physical support, where were emotional and psychological resources for spouses experiencing infertility?

Marc and Erin set out to meet this need, working with research psychologists to produce qualitative and quantitative research pertaining to husbands and wives’ individual and interpersonal experiences of infertility. Their business, Organic Conceptions, was founded in 2015, offering online education designed to develop couples’ emotional awareness, communication, healthy thought patterns, and understanding of the holistic relationship between mind and body. 

Whether infertility is or is not a part of your current season, the principles of communication and understanding are relevant to all couples. Marc chatted with us to share his advice and perspective for spouses-to-be and newlyweds.


Organic Conceptions is rooted in you and your wife's personal journey with infertility. Can you share a bit of your story, and how your struggles impacted your marriage and spiritual lives (for better and for worse)?

We often see life evolving and sequencing in a particular way, and “struggle” is such an understatement in terms of what’s happening behind the scenes. Within just several months, that anxiety, worry, and concern over did we wait too long? And what’s wrong with my body? Becomes so emotionally difficult.

For my wife and I, after many, many years struggling, we were prepared to adopt and then conceived naturally--not once, but on two occasions. When you’re struggling, these are the most frustrating stories to hear. Friends and family try to encourage you, but it’s such a sensitive space. 

After living this twice, it was very clear that things were different in each of our experiences. For my wife, it changed her perception of herself, her body, our relationships, past decisions leading to this journey...that led to the start of Organic Conceptions. We hired research psychologist Dr. Kate Webster to look into the patterns that emerge in [couples’ experiences of] infertility. From a marriage perspective, this is potentially one of the first major [challenges] you face as a couple. Everything you do is called into question, including your faith.

Dr. Webster’s research ultimately showed every couple’s story would map to the same set of emotional transitions through grief, pain, and worry. These emotions are validated through the research, and then we can start to empower and support couples to stay married and close through these difficulties. 

There is a way in which a woman experiences this differently than her husband. We tell our couples, neither is right nor wrong. It’s about emotionally coming closer together and leaning on each other. Like any issue in a marriage, there’s middle ground that, through this research, can bring them to that place. Couples begin understanding how to engage and stay connected in the light of uncertainty--and there are other instances of pain and uncertainty in marriage [in addition to infertility; this provides a solid foundation for future difficulties.

For recently married couples bearing this cross of infertility, what practical advice you can share?

I want these couples to know: your emotional health and well-being matters. Research speaks to what happens in the month-to-month devastation of hope to despair.

At the highest level, our emotional and reproductive health aren’t entirely separate systems. We are physical, emotional, and spiritual beings.

[I encourage couples to not be] be too quick to jump only to fixing the physical and seeking answers; give meaning to emotional processing and experiences, as well.

Individually, couples need to make sense of this journey, but it does need to be entered into together. At the root, it’s about building a marriage, family, and life.

JacoleEngagement-0901.jpg

What about engaged couples? How can they work through fears or preexisting fertility issues in a productive way? 

Erin and I often say, Wouldn’t it be great if someone got to us sooner and made us feel we matter as individuals and as a couple; that our faith matters and that [conception] is more than a to-do list item? This is a wonderful time in couples’ lives, and for some it might not go exactly as planned--wouldn’t it be great if a couple actually puts on the table early on, asking, if this doesn’t go as planned, what options or treatments are we open to as alternatives? What a healthy conversation to talk about the timing and methods you each are open to. It’s a conversation that needs to happen earlier on than it typically does.

Marriages are damaged by the journey, not the outcome.

If a couple’s journey wasn’t made in a connected, intimate way while making decisions together throughout an infertility experience, it can carry over into family life.

The ache for children and family is a natural and human desire. How can Catholic couples respectfully, lovingly answer friends and family who suggest they pursue infertility treatment options not in line with the Catholic faith?

I suggest couples focus on connecting emotionally, share their thoughts as a unit, and remember their faith. IVF and fertility treatments emphasizes the physical, treating it as a problem to be solved, and leaves out the emotional and spiritual pieces [of who we are]--we need to make room for all three.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with so many NaPro doctors about getting to the root of what the body is telling us: are we brave enough to listen to what our bodies are saying? In my mind, these are the most logical first steps: learning and having confidence in our bodies. Rather than leaping over and dismissing it, let’s pay attention to it. Couples can use this language of the body and the logic of fertility care in their conversations.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Her Witness Photography

An exclusive offer for Spoken Bride readers

If and when you feel called to sign up for Organic Conceptions’ programs, fill in “Spoken Bride” at checkout in response to “How did you hear about the program?” to receive the program workbook and journal for free. Questions may be directed to Organic Conceptions.

Wedding Planning | Ceremony Seating for the Bride and Groom

 

When planning a Catholic wedding, the bride and groom consider many details for the liturgy. One important decision is where they will sit, stand, and kneel through the duration of the ceremony.

Seated next to the Sanctuary, Facing the Congregation 

Imagine the way a priest sits, in a sacramental way, at the head of the sanctuary during the Mass, facing the congregation. In the same way, a bride and groom may choose to sit at the periphery of the sanctuary with their bodies facing the wedding guests.  

In their essence, the bride and groom embody beauty and love. They naturally attract the attention of their beloved family and friends. As they sit on the altar throughout the Liturgy, many wedding guests may gaze in admiration at the subtle movements and interactions between these living icons of love. 

One reason brides and grooms may choose to sit facing the congregation is to serve God as a visible witness of holy love and participation in the Mass. While wedding guests hear the word of God and see the bride and groom, their senses are filled with an image of unconditional, divine love. 

Seated in front of the Sanctuary, Facing the Altar 

A bride and groom may opt to sit facing the Altar, with their backs to the congregation throughout the Mass.

The Sacrament of Matrimony is an exchange between bride, groom, and God. The three become one through the mutual consent and exchange of marriage vows. The congregation of wedding guests attends as a crowd of witnesses, lifting the couple in joy, prayer and celebration for their new vocation. 

When a bride and groom choose to sit facing the altar throughout the duration of the wedding ceremony, their bodies, eyes and hearts are completely directed towards God--on the crucifix and in Scripture. Through their exemplary position in the front of the church, they lead the eyes and hearts of wedding guests to God. 

A Combination Option 

The Liturgy of the Word, the celebration of Matrimony, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (if included) are three different movements of the wedding ceremony. By speaking with your priest and wedding coordinator at your church, there can be a way to include different seating arrangements for the bride and groom during different times of the Mass. 

Perhaps you and your soon-to-be spouse yearn to be a visible sign to your wedding guests, yet desire to point your eyes and hearts to God as well. Think creatively about how and when your bodies can communicate these desires throughout your wedding ceremony.

It may be possible, for example, to sit facing the congregation during the Liturgy of the Word, move to the front of the church for the Celebration of Matrimony, then remain in new seats and kneelers—facing the sanctuary—for the duration of the Mass. 

The only way to know the right option is by praying through these decisions and discussing them with your fiance and priest. The physical structure of your church may impact your decision, or your priest may have personal preferences based on his own past experience. 

When planned with intention, the little details of your wedding ceremony help create a meaningful and powerful experience for everyone present on the day you enter the Sacrament. 

Are you married? Where did you and your spouse sit during the wedding ceremony—and why? Please share your experiences with our community on Facebook or Instagram.

Engagement + Newlywed Retreats, Part I | Supplementing Your Marriage Prep

This post is the first of a two-part series.

We’ve been asked recently for our tips on making your marriage preparation as in-depth and transformative as possible. Whether you’ve chosen a day-long workshop, pre-Cana classes at your parish, or meetings with a sponsor couple, consider taking time for further education and prayer, as time and finances allow, with a supplemental retreat for you and your beloved. In these days of the New Evangelization, the Church is rich with resources ancient and new that invite rest, contemplation, and time to be drawn nearer to one another as you both are drawn into the Father’s love.

Photography: Mel Watson Photography

Photography: Mel Watson Photography

Because so many worthy resources exist for different spiritualities, devotions, and needs of the heart, it would be impossible to list them all. Your diocesan website is a good place to begin seeking upcoming events that might bear fruit in your relationship. Another is the dwellings of religious orders in your area, some of whom welcome visitors to join in their daily rhythms of prayer, work, or ministry or who host speaking events.

And think beyond the confines of topics related specifically to marriage prep: retreats with the themes of prayer, art, theology, mental wellness from a Catholic perspective, and beyond allow ample time for discussion, self-examination, and growth in faith.  Below, by region, are a series of programs and ministries that can provide the silence and deeper dive you might be thirsting for.

 

East Coast

Charis NYC: Ignatian retreats by and for Catholic young adults, with several program options centered on spiritual concerns common in this stage of life, including discernment, contemplation, meaningful living, and life’s transitions (New York City).

Given: A day-long event for engaged or married couples featuring talks, worship, and the sacraments (Baltimore).

International Institute for Catholic Culture: Founded in response to John Paul II’s call to the faithful to re-evangelize the culture and form a “civilization of love,” this non-profit educational center well-suited to lovers of theology and academics provides classical language courses, lectures on the intersection of faith and culture, art exhibits, and musical performances (Philadelphia).

Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center: An apostolate of Regnum Christi that hosts Ignatian-inspired retreats of varying length, as well as monthly reflection events. The center is particularly gifted with meeting the needs of couples, offering its own marriage prep program for engaged couples, speaking events for newlyweds, and marriage workshops. Catholic counseling and therapy are also available onsite, through the Alpha Omega Clinic (Washington, D.C.).

St. Joseph Retreat House: Serving the New England region with guided retreats inspired by St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, with time included for structured prayer, recreation, and spiritual direction (Boston).

Theology of the Body Institute: Offering a variety of 5-day courses designed to form the entire person, “head and heart,” the Institute combines academics with the sacraments while educating on Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body Audiences, Love and Responsibility, and other writings, alongside topics like beauty, interior prayer, and a retreat created specifically for engaged or married couples (Philadelphia).  

 

Midwest

Love Your Marriage: An day-long event for married couples, with an emphasis on creating a holy, thriving relationship through all stages of life, including newlywed years and parenting (Denver).

Ruah Woods: a Theology of the Body education center offering study courses and retreats both on and off-site. The center also offers psychological services from Catholic professionals whose worldview informs their work with clients (Cincinnati).

St. Benedict’s Abbey: Men’s, women’s, and couples’ retreats led by Benedictine monks (Atchison, Kansas).

Tabor Life Institute: Programs and retreats that teach the Theology of the Body through the use of Scripture, writings by Church mystics, art and iconography, and the Eastern Rites of the Church. The Institute--whose staff includes a priest who attended some of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body audiences in Rome, the first time they were delivered--additionally hosts Pre-Cana weekend event for couples preparing for marriage in the Byzantine Rite (Chicago).

 

South

Alexander House: Founded by a longtime-married couple who restored their relationship from the possibility of divorce with the help of a Catholic therapist, this apostolate for couples in all stages of marriage and family life provides courses for engagement and problem-solving for troubled marriages, all in light its mission to help couples create a joyful domestic Church (San Antonio).

Casa Maria Convent & Retreat House: Offering structured retreats, including those for couples, that include talks, personal prayer time, the sacraments, and participation in the Divine Office with the beautiful Sister Servants of the Eternal Word (Birmingham).

Catholic Charismatic Center: Offering retreats for young adults and couples (recent leaders include Father Stan Fortuna), rooted in the spirituality of the Charismatic renewal movement (Houston).

Three to Get Married: An engagement retreat aimed at comprehensive formation of spouses-to-be--spiritual, psychological, emotional, and cultural--through presentations from priests, married couples, medical professionals, and trained psychologists (Nashville).

 

West Coast

John Paul II Resource Center: Providing day-long Theology of the Body retreats on a variety of topics--including those geared toward women, men, parents, couples, and educators--as well as talks for marriage preparation and enrichment (Phoenix).

New Camoldoli Hermitage: A beautiful, coastal Benedictine hermitage, offering preached retreats throughout the year by the Camoldolese Benedicitines and inviting participants into the prayer of monastic life (Big Sur).

Our Lady of the Rock: Retreat opportunities hosted by Benedictine sisters, inviting guests to participate in the daily prayer and tasks of their monastic farm life, which is largely self-sufficient (Shaw Island, Washington).

Sacred Heart Retreat House: A site run by Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart, this house provides retreats for men, women, couples, and young adults, rooted in the Carmelite spirituality of leading the faithful into a deeper relationship with Christ (Los Angeles).

 

Nationwide (U.S.)

Passion and Purpose for Marriage: An initiative of Dynamic Catholic, this one-day event, hosted across the U.S. and based in California, offers talks for couples in all stages of their relationship on practical matters in the vocation of marriage, prayer and worship, and time for one-on-one discussion.

Miles Christi: Guided Ignatian silent retreats hosted by the Miles Christi brothers, offered nationwide and based in Michigan and California.

We thrive on the community you help us to grow. If a program or retreat you’ve attended has blessed your relationship outside of marriage preparation, be sure to share it with other brides in the comments and on our social media.

Next week, read more on retreats, including digital resources and how to plan your own retreat with your beloved.

Our Favorite Quotes on Fruitful Love, on the Anniversary of Humanae Vitae

This week, the Church commemorates 50 years since the publication of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae Vitae--translated as ”Of Human Life.” Drawing from the hundreds of years of Scripture and tradition on which the Church was founded, the letter was composed in response to a commission whose purpose was to evaluate the effects of newly and widely available contraceptives on society.

The Pope’s words praise the goodness of married love: he calls it “fully human,” involving both body and soul--the whole person--and imaging Christ’s free, faithful, total, and fruitful gift of self. Love like this reserves nothing and bears real fruit, ending not in death but in eternal life.

Life. Whether physically, spiritually, or both, all married couples are called to be abundant and allow new life to flow forth from their love.

Amid social pressure and speculation over whether the encyclical would “reverse” the Church’s directive that contraceptives are contrary to the nature of authentic love, Paul VI courageously maintained that artificial means of birth control are never in keeping with a sincere, unreserved gift of the self and exchange of persons.

After all, as he pointed out, the nature of love itself; the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice at Calvary, hadn’t changed since before the commission--how, then, could human beings change their imitation of this love, without changing the definition of love entirely? His appeals to logic--and his recognition that every person desires to be loved without conditions or limitations--draw attention to the high, yet attainable, calling of our path to heaven.

If you’ve never read Humanae Vitae, engagement and new marriage are ideal times to contemplate the love spouses are called to imitate; to be the human face of the Father’s love to one another in the particular way only they, as individuals, can.

What’s more, if the demands of love, and the Church’s reasoning on contraception, are difficult for you, take time to turn inward in prayer and ask the Lord if he’s calling you and your beloved to deeper understanding or a lifestyle change. He is merciful in all things and desires nothing less than our deepest happiness.

When the love of husband and wife mirrors the Father’s love as closely as possible, we are drawn more deeply into the heart of God and that much closer to the fulfillment and true flourishing on earth that he intends for us, his children.

This list of resources, including prayers, studies, and media, from the U.S. Bishops is a rich and accessible starting point. For your further contemplation and inspiration, we’ve compiled a selection of passages, from holy men and women past and present, that make us excited and motivated to live out love’s demands.

On authentic love

As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, [the relationship between spouses] becomes a “pure, unadulterated affirmation” revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable. - Pope Francis

Self-discipline...is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character...it brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace. - Humanae Vitae

For the Lord has entrusted to [spouses] the task of making visible to men and women the holiness and joy of the law which united inseparably their love for one another and the cooperation they give to God's love, God who is the Author of human life. - ibid

On the love of God

All love ends in an incarnation, even God’s. Love would not be love if it did not escape the limitation of individual existence by perpetuating itself...wherein death is defeated by life. - Ven. Fulton Sheen

The liberating message of the Gospel of Life has been put into your hands. - Saint John Paul II

Do you want to see the difference [between NFP and contraception]?...There’s nothing to fear. Trusting him is only threatening if he’s a tyrant. He’s not. He’s perfect love. Let go. Let him in. Trust him. - Christopher West

On family size, discernment, and infertility

The number is not in itself the decisive factor. The fact of having few or many children does not on its own make a family more or less Christian. What matters is the integrity and honesty with which married life is lived. True mutual love transcends the union of husband and wife and extends to its natural fruits — the children. Selfishness, on the contrary, sooner or later reduces love to a mere satisfaction of instinct and destroys the bond which unites parents and children. - St. Josemaria Escriva

I would therefore like to remind spouses in a condition of infertility, that this does not thwart their matrimonial vocation. Spouses are always called by their baptismal and matrimonial vocation itself to cooperate with God in the creation of a new human life. The vocation to love is in fact a vocation to the gift of self, and this is a possibility that no physical condition can prevent. Therefore, whenever science finds no answer, the answer that gives light comes from Christ. - Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

On sacrifice and its fruits

...the seeking [of Jesus]  is a going out from ourselves. It is a going out from our illusions, our limitations, our wishful thinking, our self-loving, and the self in our love. - Caryll Houselander

Want to be happy?…Lose your life in love and you will find it. Give your life away as a gift, and you’ll come to resurrection. - Bishop Robert Barron

The various forms of sacrifice include one positive similar meaning: Life is surrendered in order to be transformed and shared.” - Scott Hahn

On charity with regard to Church teaching

We are fully aware of the difficulties confronting the public authorities in this matter…"the only possible solution to this question is one which envisages the social and economic progress both of individuals and of the whole of human society, and which respects and promotes true human values." - Humanae Vitae

Now it is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ; but this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ Himself showed in His conversations and dealings with men. - ibid

On human nature

Our body is a cenacle, a monstrance; through its crystal the world should see God. - Saint Gianna Molla

Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning. - Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)

For man cannot attain that true happiness for which he yearns with all the strength of his spirit, unless he keeps the laws which the Most High God has engraved in his very nature. These laws must be wisely and lovingly observed. - Humanae Vitae

As always, we at Spoken Bride are here for you. No matter where you’re coming from, no matter your opinion or experiences with this aspect of Church teaching, we’re committed to truly seeing and hearing you. We welcome your thoughts, your questions on married love and Natural Family Planning, and even your reservations and respectful disagreements, so know that you have the freedom to share them in the comments and on our social media. Consider this an invitation to conversation, with our hopes of living out our mission of truth, goodness, beauty, and authenticity with charity and productive dialogue.

Photography: Alyssa Michelle Photography, seen in How He Asked | Danielle + Jeff

 

Into the Desert: A Conversation About the Exodus 90 Men's Program

Freedom resides in a particular realization about sacrifice: it’s the recognition that when dying to self is painful, it doesn’t mean our sacrifice isn’t working. It means that it is.

Inspired by God’s people being led to freedom in Scripture, Exodus 90 is a 90-day program created to call Catholic men out of slavery and into freedom; out of themselves and into the heart of God. Founded on principles of fraternity, prayer, and asceticism, the program intends to cultivate habits that sanctify men, equipping them to better serve the Lord as they live out their vocations.

We recently chatted with James Baxter, Executive Director of Exodus 90 and Those Catholic Men. The program is particularly recommended for men preparing to enter into their vocations, and we hope you’ll share it with your fiancé; additionally, many men find it meaningful to begin or end the program on a liturgically significant day. Those who embark on Exodus 90 beginning next week, on February 19, will conclude the program on Pentecost and, God willing, witness the fruits of the Holy Spirit in abundance. Read on for James’ thoughts on spiritual exercises, chastity, and freedom, along with his advice for the brides supporting their men in the pursuit of heroic virtue.

The Exodus 90 program includes, among other resources, daily Scripture verses from the Book of Exodus. Can you tell us more about the significance of this book to the intentions of the program?

The singular goal of Exodus 90 is freedom. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free, but we drift away from it over time, often quite unknowingly. I know that freedom is a cultural buzzword, and thrown around to justify everything from sexual exploits to abortion.

But the hard fact is that we need to reclaim our definition of freedom. That's because the Church places a heavy emphasis upon it, especially in our sacramental rites--including marriage. Freedom is the condition, the foundation, the soil out of which love grows. When we're not free, we cannot bear the fruit of love. And in a particular way, when men are not free, it's wives and children that suffer the most. That's why we're entirely committed to freeing Catholic men with Exodus 90.

The Church tells us the gift of our sexuality is meant to be lived in freedom. In turn, Exodus 90 emphasizes the virtue of chastity. What practical tips can you offer engaged and married couples for developing and living out this virtue?

I'm engaged to an exceptionally good woman, whom I also find the most beautiful woman in the cosmos. Her name is Colleen, and we'll be married on June 16, 2018. Chastity in marriage preparation is a reality that's close to my experience right now. Here are my recommendations regarding chastity:

First, start today. All virtues are dispositions, or habits, toward the good. It takes time and experience, and failing and trying again to possess them. Your behavior yesterday affects who you are today. So, start again now. Identify your triggers, take control of your glances, use your screens only for work or school. This will make the chastity of your future, married selves much easier.

Second, express physical affection within the scope of proper discernment. Being appropriately physical tempers the passions--at least that's been my honest experience over the past few years.

Lastly, tell the truth. Ever since the fall, we have the tendency to avoid God, deceive ourselves, and blame others when it comes to sin. The Catechism teaches us that the relationship of man and woman gets to the heart of the human condition, and in that process, the experience of our fallen nature is painfully acute. You're going to mess up. But when you do, just speak the truth. Make your confessions to your loved one and the Church, and move forward. Don't let the darkness become something that divides you. God has a marvelous way of turning our brokenness into the very source of our attractiveness; he’s been in that business for a very long time. And no one is above or below that mercy.

Purification of the body, mind, and soul can be painful. What advice can you offer those struggling with the pain of purification?

My advice here is somewhat direct, but I hope that the sincerity is clear. What if we just accepted that purification is painful, and it is so because we are fallen and life is complicated? If we do not first accept that profound purification and self-denial are needed in each of us, it’s difficult to understand in the proper context that God wants to fulfill the desires of our hearts. Otherwise, it's hard to differentiate our faith from that of the prosperity Gospel, or the idea that God just gives us whatever we want, when we want it, and how we want it. The purification of the self is painful but it is also deeply meaningful when it bears the fruit of freedom, as we've seen so many times through Exodus 90. Because then we can love. And that’s what life is about.

This journey of purification and growth in holiness can be as hard on loved ones as on the individual undergoing it. Can you share some concrete ways women can support their fiancés or husbands in programs like Exodus, and can hold themselves accountable to growth and self-denial, as well?

The program’s tenets of fraternity, asceticism, and prayer can benefit both individuals in a relationship during this journey. For fraternity, I’d tell women it's essential that your man is accountable to other men. Though that means at times he is away from you and the home, it will be worth it in the long run. So, encourage your man to find a fraternity or to be proactive and form one. I’d encourage you to do likewise with a group of women that raise you up.

For asceticism, a big part of what makes Exodus 90 so hard is the constant self-denial. And we ask that men don’t modify the regimen to them, but bend themselves to it. Self-denial will be easier if a man’s fiancé or wife is also denying herself in her own ways. There is a beautiful camaraderie that can happen when both are engaged in actively saying no to things they would otherwise have. And here’s the secret: this has frequently meant that husbands and wives are communicating way more! What woman doesn’t want that? By the end, wives and kids like the man at the end way better. But a lot of no’s have to happen before this yes emerges.

For prayer, Colleen and I have experienced that praying as a couple is hard, especially amidst the hustle and obligations of young lay life. At our latest marriage prep session, our priest, Fr. Andrew, told us the story of the holiest couple he had ever met. After years of admiring them from a distance, the priest finally asked: "How do you do it? How are you two so holy?" The husband responded, "We pray together every day." Fr. Andrew was delighted by this answer and asked him further, "What's the secret prayer? I'll tell all my couples!" The husband smiled and said, "Right before bed, we grab each other's hands, and say the Our Father. That's it." That's it. Colleen and I are trying to do this more before we go our separate ways each evening.

The program began as a way to help men combat addictions and distractions in a particular way, though any man can participate. In your opinion, how can a couple discern when an addiction is debilitating enough to require more than spiritual help alone, and what resources can they turn to?

If the question is at all there, you would do yourself some good by accepting that it’s there. There’s a reason you’re wondering, and acceptance is the way to freedom in the future. For resources related to pornography addiction, check out Integrity Restored and watch some videos with Matt Fradd and Dr. Peter Kleponis, who are experts in this field. Matt Fradd just released a great book called The Porn Myth: Exposing the Reality behind the Fantasy of Pornography. And Dr. Kleponis frequently writes on the topic at Those Catholic Men.

Exodus 90 is a step toward recovery for those in the throes of an addiction, and if you need help of a psychological nature, it can be a great resource and supplement to therapy. We actually get calls from therapists about using Exodus 90 clinically. I will say, we have had men break decades of addiction through the experience, but again, we are not therapists and this isn't a porn-recovery program as such. All we have done is re-present the spirituality of the Desert Fathers for contemporary men, and that's why this is working and spreading so rapidly. Prayer, asceticism and brotherhood leads to freedom.

In three sentences, what are the top three pieces of advice you'd share with engaged and married Catholic men?

Put your phone in a box under your bed, and spend undistracted time with your fiancé or wife. Read more books this year than you did last year. I’m reading Dr. Jordan Peterson's new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and it’s been captivating. Whatever work you do, strive to be the best at it without losing your soul; excellence glorifies the Father, inspires evangelization in the workplace, and bestows meaning.

Men interested in pursuing Exodus 90 can learn more and sign up for the program here.

Images by Sarah Ascanio Photography.

 

Why I'm Grateful for Traditional Wedding Vows

DOMINIKA RAMOS

 

This probably isn't a surprise to most, but when you get married in the Catholic Church, you don't get to write your own vows. For some, this might be difficult to accept as the wedding industry attempts to ingrain in brides that their wedding day is preeminently theirs and every detail and moment of the day should reflect them alone.

Moreover, movies, TV shows, and real-life weddings often show in beautiful, humorous, and tear-jerking ways that vows can be a way to express the unique love shared between the bride and groom--a love not shared by any other couple. Being told you must use vows shared with countless other couples can be a bit of a letdown.

However, the problem the Church has with couples writing their own vows is that, by doing so, they pledge themselves to their own idea of what marriage is rather than what the Church teaches marriage is. What, then, does the Church teach that marriage is?

There's a part in C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces that I think movingly encapsulates the Christian truth about marriage. In the passage that follows, the character of Psyche is about to be sacrificed to a monster. Despite her fate, she is surprisingly full of equanimity and tells her sister:

 "And how would it be better if I had lived? I suppose I should have been given to some king in the end...And there you can see again how little difference there is between dying and being married. To leave your home — to lose you...to lose one's maidenhead — to bear a child — they are all deaths."

 Amidst wedding day daydreams of dresses and flowers and perfect color palettes, the idea of marriage as a death might seem emphatically unromantic. But as with death, there is a veil that covers marriage preventing us from fully seeing what is beyond. No matter the amount of preparation you put into marriage, you still can't fully understand what you're getting into until you're actually in thick of it.

In fact, marriage is more than just a death, in the sense that you can't see beyond the threshold of the wedding day.

Like any vocation, marriage is a crucifixion. When you answer 'Yes' to God's call in your life, you choose to nail your will to Christ's on the Cross.

And herein lies the paradoxical truth of weddings and marriage that stands at odds with the culture's understanding: we're told your wedding day is only about you and your spouse, a celebration of you, a grand display of your wills to marry now, but then to do what you will later.

The Church tells you your wedding and your marriage are not about you. Or rather, they are about you insofar as they are about Christ. Marriage is designed for the salvation of your soul and of the the souls your marriage touches for the glory of Christ. Your wedding day is the willing renunciation of your will. 

How can we then presume to be able to put together more fitting words for entering into a mystery we cannot fully understand? Who better than the Church can give us the right words to renounce our wills and unite them to the Cross?

Like a mother teaching her small child to speak, she teaches you to speak the right words. In her wisdom, she gives you words carefully crafted and passed down through the centuries. They are words that clearly spell out the gravity of what you are doing: making a solemn vow in front of God and man--a vow that cannot be put asunder by will or undone in times of difficulty or distress.

Yes, they are words shared by a multitude of other couples, but for that reason they bind you more closely to the whole Body of Christ. They are words you will be asked to repeat in your thoughts, words, and actions every day of your marriage. And they are words imbued with sacramental grace, to help you and your spouse become a living sign to the world of the love between Christ and His Church.


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About the Author: Dominika Ramos is a native of Houston, Texas though she dreams of spending her days frolicking in the English countryside. She and her husband met at the University of St. Thomas, where she studied English literature, and they were married at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Walsingham on the Feast of the Visitation in 2014. Her life is currently composed of running Pax Paper, a hand-lettering and illustration business, blogging about the transcendental aspects of motherhood (among other things) at A Quiet Quest, and chasing after her rambunctious and delightful toddler son.

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Joined by Grace: 2 Marriage Ministers on Prayer Together + Getting the Most Out of Your Marriage Prep

Despite being “ever ancient, ever new,” eternal and divine, some more human elements of the Church, particularly ministry, vary widely across dioceses and parishes. And so vary the lives of their attendees. If you’re preparing for a sacrament, particularly marriage, you’ve been somewhere different than anyone else and any other couple in the room: we are loved and willed into existence; we are planned; we walk the road of providence, whether we realize it or not.

Maybe you’re reading this as you’re revisiting the Church for your wedding and are looking for answers on the reasons behind seemingly arbitrary teachings and traditions. Maybe you’re already familiar and on board with the theology of marriage, and are looking for something more beyond the basics. Here’s a gesture, on our part, to help you experience and appreciate your marriage prep program with fresh eyes.

Teri and John Bosio are the creators of Ave Maria Press’s Joined by Grace marriage prep program, a sacramental approach to making good on your vows for a lifetime. The Bosios recently released a prayer book to accompany the program, and you, by inviting the Father into your dialogue as a couple. The book is a simple, beautifully designed resource with both the basics of Catholic spirituality and prayers alongside lesser-known devotions.

No matter what preparation program you’re enrolled in and no matter where you are in your spiritual life, it’s our hope that this recent conversation with Teri and John illuminates ways to make your preparations more personal, less one size fits all, and ways to take part in the life of the Church.

For couples who haven't shared a prayer life before, what steps do you recommend for finding a starting point and creating a routine?  

Engagement is such an important moment in your life as a couple. This is the time when new directions are charted, new habits formed, and decisions made that will influence your life for years to come. For couples wondering where to begin with prayer, our recommendation is to start with what you have in common--your love for each other, and the gratitude for how you feel.

One of you might say to the other, “Do you mind if we say a prayer of thanks to God for bringing us together?” Then, say the simplest prayer that comes to mind, such as the Our Father, or any others. This might be the start, or the continuation, of a conversation about how to make prayer part of your faith life, even if you are from different religious tradition. Engagement is a time to start your prayer traditions, including prayers before meals, evening prayers, and others. 

For those who already pray together and are looking to delve deeper during this time of preparation for marriage, what prayers or habits can they turn to?

We’d recommend praying in community. None of us can live in isolation. Researchers are finding that marriages connected to the life of their church community receive from it great spiritual and social support. The parish is where we are born spiritually in Baptism, and we return to the parish regularly for our nourishment through the sacraments. Although your parish after the wedding may be different and far away, it’s still valuable and important to participate in the life of the parish where you live at the time.

Make it a habit to attend Mass regularly, make use of the sacrament of Penance, adopt spiritual practices like the rosary or Eucharistic Adoration, and participate in acts of service with your parish community. You’ll find your parish becomes your extended family wherever you live, for the rest of your life. It can be a great source of strength and support, especially when you encounter challenges.

The marriage prep program the two of you designed, Joined by Grace, prioritizes the sacraments as a framework for married life. What are some ways couples can practically live out a sacramental mentality during engagement and, later, in marriage?

Joined by Grace invites couples to love each other as Christ loves the Church. One notable place Catholics personally experience this love is in the seven sacraments. You’re encouraged to answer the question, “What does the Bridegroom--Christ--do for his Bride--the Church--in each sacrament that I need to do for my spouse?”

For example, in Baptism we experience Christ’s forgiveness and acceptance. He shares his life with us and welcomes us into his Father’s family. Engaged couples learn from Christ the importance of mutual acceptance, without which no marriage can survive. Such acceptance is expressed in listening to each other attentively and respectfully, adjusting to one another’s habits, bearing with the other’s annoying quirks, being patient, and appreciating each other’s uniqueness and differences.

In Confirmation we experience God’s love through his commitment to be present to us with the Holy Spirit.  The bishop seals us to Christ with sacred oil, and we receive the gifts of the Spirit. One of the most important qualities of spousal love is the commitment to always be present to each other: to trust, to pay attention, to stand by each other, to give support, and to stay focused on the needs of the other.

Similarly, from the sacrament of the Eucharist couples can see the importance of self-giving and sacrifice; from the Sacrament of Penance they learn forgiveness; from the Anointing of the Sick, compassion, and helping each other heal. And from Holy Orders and Matrimony, you learn to serve one another and together, serve God.

The practical skills and loving attitudes we learn from the sacraments are critical, and are renewed and strengthened through the graces you receive at every Mass.

Joined by Grace also encourages mentorship from other married couples. Any advice for newlyweds and spouses-to-be for connecting with other couples and finding community, particularly if one or both of them will be joining a new parish or relocating after the wedding?

If you currently aren’t an active member of your parish, working with a mentor couple is a great way to get started.

Your mentors can introduce you to your parish’s prayer and social life and help you meet other young couples. In our 44 years of marriage, we’ve received many blessings from actively participating in the life of our parishes. For us, that looked like going to Mass regularly, attending social functions, teach religious education to children and adults, serving on the parish council, singing in the choir, and serving as ministers at Mass.  

During times of relocation, we always prioritized finding a parish where we wanted to belong. These churches became for us our extended family, where in each one we met many friends who were there through joy, illnesses, celebrations, job losses, and family deaths. We do not feel alone. In moments of needs our friends pray for us and help us. The parish stands by us and holds us up when we fall down. Don’t remain isolated! When you are new in a city and on your own, go to Mass to the nearest parish, read the bulletin, find things you want to do and become involved--it will be a blessing for your marriage.

The two of you have now experienced many seasons of your marriage, from newlywed life on into grandparenthood, and have worked with many couples through your marriage prep ministry. What aspects or realities of married life would surprise engaged couples the most?

So many aspects of married life caught us by surprise! First, little things can appear to be big things, but they’re not. We've learned to accommodate things like toothpaste left in the sink and to adjust to one another’s ways of doing things.

Second, we looked forward to children and were blessed with two wonderful daughters. It required an adjustment to our lifestyle, from being a couple to being a family. It took time to navigate our roles as parents and to balance meeting each other’s needs with the needs of our children.   

Third, we found it can be all too easy to find ourselves going in different directions. When one of us went back to school at a time the other was frequently traveling for work, we found we had little free time to spend alone. We had to deliberately make time. We started scheduling and budgeting for a babysitter so we could regularly date, like we had before marriage.

Finally, we found strength in knowing we are not alone.

We can draw strength from each other in difficult moments: job changes, sickness, moves, and beyond. Each of us have learned there is nothing more reassuring in those dark moments than remembering our spouse, and God, stands by us, watching out for our common good and helping us work out of predicaments together.

Any wedding planning and marriage advice you’d like to share with our readers?

Your wedding only marks the beginning of your married life. One is a day; the other is a lifetime. During your marriage you’ll each continue growing as individuals and will constantly change--there might be days you don’t recognize each other! Agree now on how you’ll handle those surprises and what life throws at you.

When you encounter challenges, think back to these days of planning for your life together. Think about how your love story started. When times get tough and the problems seem bigger than both of you, agree now that you will to seek help through prayer and openness to professional counseling.

Our best advice for your wedding planning comes from Pope Francis’ The Joy of Love. He writes:

“Here let me say a word to fiancés. Have the courage to be different. Don’t let yourselves get swallowed up by a society of consumption and empty appearances. What is important is the love you share, strengthened and sanctified by grace. You are capable of opting for a more modest and simple celebration in which love takes precedence over everything else (212)."

John and Teri Bosio are active in parish and family ministry, serving parishes and dioceses around the country and leading couples retreats and family ministry workshops for deacons and priests. They are the writers of Joined by Grace, a marriage preparation program, and the accompanying Joined by Grace: A Catholic Prayer Book for Engaged and Newly Married Couples, from Ave Maria Press. They have produced three parish-based marriage enrichment programs, Six Dates for Catholic Couples, The Beatitudes: A Couple’s Path to Greater Joy, and Four Dates for Catholic Couples: The Virtues. The Bosios live in Nashville, Tennessee, and have two daughters and one grandchild.

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