Married Life and the Theology of the Body

IMG_4465During our engagement, a friend of ours gave us a copy of a purple paperback with an odd title: “The Good News of Sex and Marriage.”  Kristin and I read it together over the course of our engagement and the first year of marriage. Along with our classes on natural family planning, we felt that it was the best marriage preparation we had received.

Thus, began my love affair with the Theology of the Body (TOB). I dove head first into studying it. I listened to talks. I attended workshops at the TOB Institute. Spent countless hours having conversations with people about it. I read and prayed with the text over and over again. I really wanted to understand the context of the material, not just the text itself. JPII was a genius and one of the most profound thinkers in the history of the Church. I wanted to make sure that I understood him and was properly nuanced in my teachings of his material. It has been a bit of a zigzag over the years, but I think I finally get it now.

Concurrently, I began my graduate school work and practice as a counselor. I always knew that I would be working with couples in distress and preparing engaged couples for marriage. My training was from a public university and as many of you know, modern counseling theories are rooted in postmodernism, which rejects objective truth on principle. Being Catholic, I could not accept that premise but still chose to “dialogue” with the theories and find the points of connection with the faith. In short, God baptized my education.

The TOB provided a shift to the very foundation of the practice of counseling. If we start from the presupposition that man is alone in the universe, then no counseling theory could bring any substantial comfort to the hurts and struggles of life. If we are just going to die someday and not live on into eternity, then what could I possibly say to give someone hope? At best, I would encourage hedonism, because you might as well enjoy life while it lasts.

The TOB shift is this, man is not alone but called into relationship. Believing that humanity is called by God to be in relationship with Him for all eternity now gives us a better foundation to work with in counseling. (Honestly, this has been the Catholic vision since the beginning; which makes the TOB the best type of theology: new and ancient at the same time.) JPII gave us a vision for humanity that put love and relationship as the center of our being, not subjectivity and thought. It is not “I think therefore I am;” it is “I am loved therefore I am.”

Moreover, the invisible God gives us visible signs of his love. One of which is the love between married couples. Marriage has been raised to the sacramental order and now becomes a tangible manifestation of God’s presence in the world. Yes, this is a great mystery! (See Ephesians 5) Married couples are invited by God Almighty to witness His love and have the opportunity of offering all aspects of their life together back to God. Biting one’s tongue in a fight becomes an act of virtue. Getting up and doing the dishes is part of becoming holy. Going on a date is something that makes God smile. Every little thing now has the opportunity to be sanctified and redeemed. (This includes sex, which is so awesome that I’ll leave that for another post.) Those mundane and little things in marriage become the precise vehicles God uses to make couples into saints. Wow! (or as they say in Southern Louisiana..Geesum!)

In this light, the goal then of marriage counseling is not just learning how to communicate better, rather the goal is to teach couples how to love better! This makes a lot of sense to me. Communication is not the end. Even, healing is not necessarily the end. Love is the supreme end and direction of counseling sessions. The counseling theories I learned were now properly ordered.

15 years later from first reading that purple book (FYI, the cover has been changed in the latest edition), and 12 years later from beginning my counseling practice, I have learned a lot as a husband, father, and counselor. Wisdom comes with age or as my wife likes to remind me when she sees the grey in my beard…age comes with wisdom! I see very clearly that everything I have learned or experienced in my personal and professional life is not just for me, but should be used to help others. Therefore about 7 years ago, I put together a marriage retreat (Living the Gift of Marriage), because it gave me an audience to share this message with. Counseling is great but you can only work with a small number of people at any given time. Retreat ministry provided another outlet for these reflections.

By God’s grace, I have had the opportunity to offer my little retreat in a few different places: Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, and even on a cruise to Cozumel. It was always a moonlighting gig but I have loved every time I have done it. I am grateful to the many folks who have come with hearts open and laughed at my bad jokes! I know it has helped people.

Then, some amazing happened, after years of studying, teaching, and practicing, I had the opportunity to offer my talks for the Theology of the Body Institute. Along with Dr. Greg Bottaro, we offered “Together as One” in Feb 2016. It was a dream come true! Even though it was the coldest winter in years for Philly (literally -18 degress after wind chill…that’s cold for a Southerner!), I was on cloud nine. It was a graced opportunity to help couples from around the country. Many of whom were in ministry and felt the pressure of perfection. Often Church leaders don’t know where to go to let their hair down and be vulnerable. I think we provided that safe space for people.  It’s needed. We are all human.

Having said all of that, I am happy to announce that we are offering “Together as One” again in November. If you are a married couple who is looking to boost your relationship or in search of a couples retreat that is both spiritual and practical, this is the event for you. The TOB is driven by theology and spirituality, leaving many of the practical aspects to evangelists, catechists, and theologians. We like to believe that our retreat helps to make those points of contact for married couples today.

Please come and join us for this weekend. Hopefully, it won’t be as cold as last time! But should be just as powerful (God willing).

For more information, find the event on Facebook or TOBI website. We hope to see you there. Email me if you have more questions.


Why Marriage?

Years ago, I was having a conversation with a boss concerning the upcoming marriage of a friend.  We were sharing our thoughts, excitement and joy about the moment, when he suddenly made the off-hand comment, “I don’t understand what motivates anyone to get married anymore.  Unless it’s their tradition or belief system, there really is no point.”  I was taken aback by his comment.  Thoughts came pouring into my mind:  defensiveness, anger, a desire to correct his erroneous thinking. Then I stopped and prayed, “Father, why would someone think this way?”  And the answer came immediately, “Look around and see what marriage has become. If you saw the world as he sees it, would you not reach the same conclusion?  Recognize his heart and reach out with mercy before condemnation.”

This exchange with my boss caused me to reflect on what has probably become one of the most defining questions of our time, “Why get married?”  For generations, we had taken this question for granted and simply assumed that marriage was the natural progression of relationships. Well, we all know what happens when we assume.  But now we are facing challenges to the foundations of marriage as the bedrock of social order, and we find ourselves struggling to find language to justify its very existence.  We can no longer simply say, “That is the way it was, so that is the way it should be.”  We must, rather, demonstrate to a progressively more faithless world the power, beauty and truth of the worldview that makes sense of marriage.  Pope John Paul II knew this well, as does his successor, and both have labored mightily to offer us the raw materials needed to re-evangelize our faltering culture with the Truth.

The beauty at the center of their vision is that this Truth is written on our hearts.  The call to nuptial love, to true communion, true intimacy, true love, is inscribed within every man and woman. We yearn to love and to be loved in a way that satisfies the soul and only a love that is both divine and human, like Jesus himself, will satisfy.  Marriage, in a singular way, allows us to wed those two loves in life-giving, lifelong fidelity and proclaim the stunning truth that such a love alone satisfies.

In the last few years, I have seen two distinct films that wrestle with the question, “Why marriage?” – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Away We Go.  Though both films are utterly different in their style, each posit their alternate versions of marriage and argue, in sync with our culture, that living together without a vowed commitment is acceptable.  At heart, however, what both films manifest is the deep fear which stands at the core of this proclamation.  In Benjamin Button, it is fear of an incurable condition.  In Away We Go, it is fear of dealing with past hurts.  While I felt compassion for the central characters in the film, my compassion did not blind me to the elegant truth of marriage.  The great tragedy in these films is that the characters, who could have discovered in suffering and failure new hope, instead settled for the compromise of fear.

I have had many conversations with couples that are in love and desire the very best for one another, but because of parental divorce, one or the other is simply afraid of getting married.  Instead of seeing hope in a new future, they fear themselves bound to repeat the past.  It is a great tragedy when we allow fear to govern our hearts.  God is compassionate on our weakness, but His mercy also calls us out of our weaknesses into new strength.  If our past taste of marriage has been bitter, God wishes to share the sweetness of His plan for love and make us, as He makes all things, new.

If we try to see marriage only in human terms, then we will end up, like my boss, unable to satisfy our wondering of “Why marriage?” The risk of love that is marriage, without God, becomes an unsolvable conundrum, a puzzle too difficult to comprehend. But through eyes of faith we see the mystery of ‘loving unto death’ as an invitation to seek grace, rather than despair in our own weakness.   We recognize that for a marriage to be successful, it requires One who is Love to be an intimate participant in the union.  Let us have the strength to face our fears, cry out to God, and not settle for less.