By Reverend Roger Carr-Jones, Marriage & Family Life Coordinator, Diocese of Westminster
Although I enjoy swimming, I am not a strong swimmer, which in the past meant that I rarely ventured out of my depth. It was not the water that was the problem, it was my ability to learn to swim with confidence. As my technique has improved so too has my confidence, which has allowed me to discover the beauty of the water itself. One key fact was to discover that we are designed to float: provided we remain calm and focused the water will hold us. In life, when we take notice, we often find that it is God who is holding us afloat until we find the courage and skills to learn the new strokes that will take us forward.
Marriage, like my learning to swim, requires good preparation and then an ongoing commitment to develop those new skills and insights we have as a couple, as we delve further into the depths of our mutual love and self-giving. We could let our relationship stay in the shallows, but were we to do so we might miss the opportunity to discover and rediscover aspects of our relationship that lie hidden in the deep.
In May 2018, after only 27 years of marriage, my wife and I finally plucked up the courage to go on a marriage enrichment weekend provided by Marriage Encounter (ME). Having spoken with other couples since, it is very common to think that marriage enrichment is a good thing, whilst at the same time finding every excuse to avoid taking the plunge. Like viewing the water on a hot day, we are attracted but held back for the fear of a cold shock! It was, of course, a wonderful and refreshing experience. On our return journey home, the car radio, always on, remained strangely silent as we talked for nearly two hours on what we had shared and learnt about one another and our relationship.
We were reminded of these memories when we attended last month, this time virtually, a follow-up ME weekend entitled Going Deeper. It was again to provide a time of surprise, growth, reconnection and renewal. It was a timely reminder that the ocean of a relationship is deep and expansive, filled with new discoveries and life. Two points remain clear in my mind, which link back to my earlier thoughts of first entering the water and then actually learning to swim.
The first: When did you first notice each other? is a question I like to ask couples preparing for the sacrament of marriage. It usually brings a smile as the couple reconnect to the moment when they first actually noticed each other, prior to the first date. At that moment words and gestures are not to the fore: it is the simple, yet complex pleasure of simply noticing. Marriage enrichment helps us to reconnect to this moment.
The second: When did you first meet? is actually a very complex question, which was reflected by the story of a couple, who had been together for many years, who when asked this question near the conclusion of the ME weekend simply said: “We met for the first time at this weekend!”. That for me is the beauty of taking the time for a guided exploration of the unique aspects of our relationship, to see where God has been in the ups and downs, and to be constantly surprised by the gift of each other.
If we are to grow together as one then we need to be prepared to be open to one another, which is easier said than done. So, finding a way in which to communicate, at a deep level, what we think and feel is very liberating. It is a bit like being on retreat, when we learn to abandon the false image of what we expect the prayer accompanier or lead requires of us, and instead learn to talk candidly from our hearts to God and each other.
Marriage enrichment comes in a variety of forms, from making time in the diary for one another in the week, to sharing and praying together or booking a romantic weekend away, through to participating in a structured marriage enrichment weekend. You might be able to add other items to this list that help you to feed and nurture your vocation of marriage.
In the early days of romantic love and in the first years of married life we would, without thinking, ensure that we make time for one another, rekindling our mutual love and expressing our on-going fascination with the one whom we love. This is that ideal place where we want to always be: secure, loved and affirmed. Yet in reality, married life, not unlike the spiritual life, will always have its ups and downs, highs and lows, and of course times of rediscovery. It is how we grow together that matters in the end.
My overcoming a fear of swimming, whilst recognising my limitations, has enabled me to learn about the sea and the beauty hidden within. As we prepare to mark our thirtieth wedding anniversary this Tuesday, my sharing a weekend of enrichment with my wife has taken us both further from the shore, into the depths where we have found each other and God.