Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Back from the mountain

We have returned from our big fat religious premarital counseling retreat weekend. It was a mess - I was really kind of disappointed by it. We came back to a dark city on Sunday night feeling exhausted, dirty, resentful, with L's glasses broken and my mood wrecked.

The retreat house, up in Poughkeepsie, looked like the hotel from "The Shining" - an imposing stone seminary built 100 years ago on the banks of the Hudson, surrounded by bare trees and stubby grass. It was creepy but interesting. There were 27 (!) couples there, and two lead couples who directed everything. Now, these couples are volunteers, and they are amazingly generous with their time and unswervingly open about their personal lives (over the course of the weekend we heard about their: battles with depression, mentally ill children, fertility troubles, financial woes, weight issues, troubling long-term arguments with their parents, resentments towards each other, and their sexual proclivities). They were very nice but hard to relate to - one couple was in the sixties and had an athletic team's worth of kids; the other was in their forties and lived in Connecticut. Neither pair really fit the mold of the hep-cat, urban-living, cool hipster-with-a-dash-of-metrosexual couple L and I plan on becoming (and frankly, to be perfectly honest, already are).

As soon as we got there we went around the circle of fiances and -cees and had to say one reason why we loved our partner. I turned to L and said, "I can't handle this." People extolled the wonders of their partners' sense of humor, generosity, warmth, selflessness, caring. I said I loved L's baking skills. It was that kind of weekend.

Basically the entire time a couple would give a talk to us about ourselves, our relationship, our future, the sacrament of marriage, the process of decision-making, religious family life, etc; then L and I would separate and write each other letters based on questions and things we were instructed to consider; then we would reconvene to meet in private and discuss these issues (or, alternatively, nap). From Friday night to Saturday night, we were good, and we made an honest, good faith effort to participate. L and I communicated in ways we usually don't; we were kind and open and loving in the written word in a way that is difficult to sustain when you are battling all of the distractions of daily life. So I am thankful that this retreat brought us closer together and gave us some insights about our commonalities and differences, our abiding love, our relationship with God, and the family we hope to create.

But then, on Saturday night, the whole thing went to hell. They started talking about birth control and natural family planning, and all of a sudden we had become these subversive rebels, like in "V for Vendetta," but instead of blowing up Parliament we wanted to hotwire a car and follow the Hudson back to the city before they made us write another got-darn letter. During the talk of natural family planning, the speakers were making some statements about contraceptives, and abortifacents, and the value of a child conceived out of wedlock that made L snort with derision and made me unable to maintain eye contact with anyone in the room. I thought what they were saying was insulting and patronizing, and wrong-headed. At that point, all of the day's frustrations came to head and they kind of lost us for the rest of the weekend. The next day, during what was supposed to be the spiritual highlight of the weekend, a renewal of our engagement promises, we couldn't even do it - I was not in the right mood, my mind was racing, and I just wanted to leave. It was sad.

So, over all, I think the curriculum of the weekend can be improved. I felt like it was a little simplistic at times, like they were assuming we had gotten engaged on a lark instead of getting engaged as the culmination of a process that took years. At times I felt like we were getting beat by a dogmatic 2 x 4, with an insulting lack of nuance or intelligence behind the explanations. Sometimes it was very New Agey and schmoopy, and there seemed to be an expectation of such blatant openness that I just couldn't sustain. I don't feel comfortable opening up about the dynamics of my relationship with people I don't know. I don't want to hug people I don't know. I don't want to be told what to do by people I don't know.

We were making jokes the entire weekend about our dismal plight - the monotony of the sessions, the frustration of not being able to go anywhere or really break new ground with our conversation. There weren't many new ideas introduced. L and I always took our engagement seriously, and we know the depth of the commitment we are preparing to make. But the retreat was disappointing, and sad, all the same. I tried to make the most of it, for the first 24 hours at least, so in large part it's my failure. But the resentment and disappointment and relief we felt on that train ride back to the city are not emotions I plan on bringing up to the altar.

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