You probably already think this is a good idea, or you wouldn’t have just clicked on that title up there. But perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed with wedding planning, not to mention wedding budgeting, and you have no idea how on earth to squeeze out several hundred extra dollars and an entire precious weekend for the standard “Marriage Encounter” retreat that everyone says is so worth it. Or maybe you’ve never been on a retreat before and don’t see the point.
So. First I will tell you how we figured our way through the practical obstacles, then give you a reading list to take with you, and finally share with you at least one of the insights I received that have recently made me glad all over again that we did this 6 months ago.
A full weekend with meals and talks and the whole nine yards simply was not in our budget. If you can work it into yours, that’s great! Instead, we found a monastery* about two hours away that asked a donation of something like $50 for the weekend, welcomed us to come to their liturgy of the hours and mass and rosary, but left us to our own devices outside of that. I stayed in the guest house and walked into town to scrounge for food when I needed it, and my then-fiancé stayed in the monastery itself and was able to eat with the monks. If $50 isn’t in your budget, I guarantee that monks and nuns would rather you come anyway and forget about the donation. Regarding finding time for a whole weekend away, I also guarantee that about a month before your wedding, all you’ll want to do is escape and breathe and be somewhere that nobody expects you to answer the phone, respond to emails, add people to the guest list or run errands. You will need it, so do yourself a favor and block that weekend out months in advance (you’ll probably have to do that anyway, as guest quarters at monasteries tend to book up far in advance). And, if you don’t see the point of a retreat, let me put it to you this way: going for two days to a quiet and peaceful place without a phone where you get to sleep and read as much as you want and have no demands placed on you. . . Sounds pretty good, right?
About that reading: because, like I said, this was not a guided retreat (i.e., there weren’t any retreat leaders giving us talks and reflections and leading us through exercises), I brought some books with me, a selection from this list below, all of which were helpful to me before and during our engagement.
- Marriage: A Path to Sanctity, available here. My bread and butter on the retreat itself.
- Discerning the Will of God: An Ignatian Guide to Christian Decision Making, available here. If you are having those dreaded second thoughts or major fears—or even minor fears— now is the time by golly to figure out what they mean, not to push them away and pretend they’re not there.
- For Women Only and For Men Only, available here and here. These great little books were recommended to me by my former roommate, then a psychology grad student. Easy to read, they outline and succinctly discuss key points of the male and female psyche that commonly trip couples up and lead to all kinds of misunderstandings. Helped me to understand my Dad better, too!
- Holy Sex!, available here. A silly title and a book you’ll want to brown bag, but gives some great insight to the psychology and philosophy underneath it all, and some advice for, ehem, practical application. More good advice for the ladies out there on that latter point can be found in this stellar little book, best saved for the last few weeks before the Big Day.
- What I Wish Someone Had Told Me About the First Five Years of Marriage, available here.
- The Bible (duh), available just about anywhere, but bring your own so you can write in it.
- A journal. Even if you’re not a journaling sort of person, this will almost certainly be a time in the midst of chaos that your thoughts come into focus and you realize and are able to plan things that you’ll want to remember. Or maybe writing helps you think. Or maybe you just want to copy out some passages that struck you from all those books. Or maybe a random bout of creativity hits and you need to draw or paint or write something totally retreat-unrelated (I found myself writing a children’s version of the Prologue to Canterbury Tales on my last day. None of the children’s tales themselves have surfaced, but I love that epiphany Prologue!). Or something. Just, bring some paper.
Of course, there is also Fulton Sheen’s classic, Three to Get Married. But I confess I think I overdosed on Fulton Sheen in my younger years and now don’t have much patience for him. Terrible, I know. But if you do like him, read this along with or instead of some of the others.
So, here we are, 5 months in, and I thought I’d go back and see if any of what I wrote down that weekend made any sense, or if it was primarily sentimental and irrational hogwash. Believe it or not, it was super helpful to re-read it, comforting and revealing all over again. I had written down a number of scripture passages, and one of them in particular was pointedly pertinent:
And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weakness, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. –2 Cor 12:7-10
Very soon after we were married, in the midst of all our relief and happiness, we discovered it will be some time before I’m able to have kids. So. Talk about a thorn in the flesh. Begging the Lord about it three times? Check. Thirty-three times? Check. Trying to see the power of Christ in the midst of it all? A work in progress. But I’m glad something prompted me to write that down, someONE knew that I’d need that reminder 6 months after the fact. There were a lot of other things, too, that I was glad to look back over, to be reminded of, and I’ve no doubt that I’ll read over those pages again many times in the years to come. Rather than sharing them all with you, though, let me just encourage you to go find your own tailor-made Revelations. You need that calm in the storm now, and you’ll need it again in the midst of all these abundances and elations!
*For those interested, the monks we stayed with were the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem in Charles Town, WV, not far from the Shenandoah. They’re tonsured! Like, actually tonsured. Super cool.