In all the conflicted debates over the past years regarding sexuality, churches have often forgotten the simple and privileged task of witnessing to and commending the married life. It’s something worth doing.
This past summer, my wife Annette and I went on a marriage retreat. As a pastor, I had in the past organized and participated in such things. These were weekend affairs, usually a bit frantic: having made difficult arrangements for kids back home, we would press through prayer, food, videos, discussion, and then the rush home and back to the grind.
The retreat we went on this summer was different. It lasted for seven days and nights. It was far from our work places and home, in the woods of northern California. (We live in Toronto.) We had never met the other 10 couples, who were from diverse Christian traditions. They brought their children (17 in all), who had their own retreat alongside ours, tended by their own leaders. And, at the end, we weren’t tired at all; we were deeply grateful and renewed.
We decided to go on this retreat for two reasons at least. The first was that it was sponsored by Chemin Neuf, a Catholic ecumenical community that came out of the French charismatic movement in the 1970s. Chemin Neuf has celibate and married members, some with children, and is committed to an ecumenical witness, with a significant membership of non-Catholics. They live and work around the world now, and are known to a few Anglicans for their help in mentoring the St. Anselm’s community of young people at Lambeth Palace.
Annette and I came to know Chemin Neuf through some ecumenical encounters. These turned into a deeper interest, and we spent a few months on sabbatical in France getting to know them better. When we asked what they suggested we do next to deepen our relationship, they said “take one of our marriage retreats.” Chemin Neuf is known for an extensive ministry with young people. But their marriage ministry, known as Cana retreats—a name shared with some quite different groups—constitutes their foundational outreach. They put on dozens of these retreats each year in fifty countries.
Annette and I also wanted to breathe anew our married vocation. There was no special reason for this desire: perhaps getting older (we are in our early 60s), perhaps the sense of career endings, or simply a thirst for divine refreshment. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was nudging us. When we told people we were going to a marriage retreat, they would sometimes exclaim, “I hope everything is okay with you two!” It was, and it is. Indeed, the question itself goes to one of the challenges our churches face: marriage demands our nurturing and celebratory attention at all times and for all couples, and not only in the face of difficulties, personal or collective.
For all its international reach, Chemin Neuf has but a scant presence in North America. The only Cana retreat in the United States this year was in California. And so we signed on, and trekked to a small Bible camp in the midst of the tall red cedars of Mendocino. The retreat was led by a Protestant couple from San Francisco who, though not members of Chemin Neuf, have a close relation with them. Several other couples, who had been on the retreat before, came along to help. Finally, two couples came from France, including long time members of the community. Although they shared some teaching, their main duties, as it turned out, were to work with the children.
For seven days and nights, we met together as a group, as couples, and in small groups. We prayed, sang, ate together, and rested. Accommodations were spare. We shared common bathrooms. The mornings and evenings were cold, and we hung around fire pits outside to warm up. Cana retreats do not advertise ahead of time their format, and I won’t do so here either. Not that there is anything odd about it — there is teaching, praying, talking, and reflecting — but it helps not to know what is coming next, or even why, so that one can simply be open to the offerings of the present, and pay attention to the matter at hand. This is particularly helpful to someone like me, who is trained to mercilessly analyze and evaluate before the fact, during the fact, and after the fact; often missing the fact.
Chemin Neuf’s gentle charismatic spirit instead suggests, “Receive a little, and see what the Lord provides.” In a marriage, such openness and unhurried patience is surely one of the most freeing elements each spouse can provide the other. It is freeing because it is a way of making room for God’s own indwelling and leading.
I, for one, received several important things over those seven days and nights.
First, I received anew the gift of responsibility. The retreat reminded me of how responsible we are for our marriages in the deepest way possible. As parents, we tend to think that our first responsibility is to our children, and only then to our spouse. Our retreat challenged this. “Your children will leave you,” one of the older couples explained. “You will have to come back to each other, and that is who you will die with.” Of course, we can’t predict the order of expiration within our families, but the married couple’s life precedes their progeny, not so much in love, as in priority. “One flesh” – whether one interprets this as the unitive sexual act or in the child that comes from it – is the result of “leaving,” of children leaving parents, and of parents then being left to live apart from their children.
This is, frankly, hard for me to accept. I am caught up in my children, even as they are now young adults. We have had some deep and heart-rending challenges, and even deeper joys together, which have left me utterly tangled up in their lives. Yet I not only have to let them go, but have to realize that they were always meant to be let go. Annette and I, by contrast, were given to each other to be held for life. The married life is a very different reality of relationship, compared to the parental life, something that, once recognized, ought to reorder priorities within the family more radically than it does, at least in my experience. We were the oldest couple at the retreat (apart from the visiting leaders), and I confess to a certain regret that touched me in the face of looking back on my long droughts in taking up this kind of responsibility and holding such priorities devotedly.
Nonetheless, the retreat rekindled in me the sense that our marriage is a vocation, to be treated with the seriousness of, indeed with a yet more fundamental seriousness than, my priestly vocation. A Jesuit who advised me at one time always told me this, but I don’t think I believed him. Married clergy are indeed quite different than celibate ones in this regard, and there is nothing wrong with that. “You and I,” my Jesuit friend told me, “do not get at our priestly vocation through the same route. And that is how it should be.” Many married clergy fiddle about with rules of life and with disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer. They can be ever so earnest about these things, urging others to do the same. But they do not see their own marriages are deserving of even greater devotion and discipline, as if marriage simply takes care of itself. It doesn’t.
Second, my own attention to God was heightened. Our retreat opened up for me, once again, a sense of how our marriage is a primary place in which we come to know God. It is certainly as important, in this respect, as the Eucharist, and in ways that are unique in their daily and bodily contours. The nuptial form of God’s own gift of himself in Christ Jesus, however we explain it, is enough to indicate that human marriage must be an unveiling of divine life at its core (cf. Eph. 5). And it is. But one must be able to recognize it.
The retreat gave me and my wife time to think about this revelation within to our life together, to talk with each other about it, and be opened up through discussion and prayer about it. It proved a renewed revelation in itself. The consistency and depth of God’s self-giving in our married life astonished me on reflection. Each couple will have their own perception of this, and they will see how it takes place in varied ways. Annette and I shared many tears as we saw this truth laid out – tears mostly of thanks. On the other hand, I realized how often this knowledge has been obscured in our life together, a life which I have spent mostly in the form of navigation rather than of listening and receipt. At least for a week, the human helmsman rested, so as to see not only those around me once again, but also the truer hand upon the wheel.
Finally, my understanding of the Church was deepened. With a few exceptions, the couples came to the retreat as strangers. In the process we were thrust together – gently to be sure, but with unavoidable encounters of honesty and prayer – with those whose responsibilities and knowledge of God were as deep and real as ours, yet very different, just in the specific forms that married life must take.
Most of the other couples were in their 30s or early 40s, multicultural in background, and from a variety of Christian traditions and experiences – Inter-Varsity and Youth With a Mission, Presbyterian, Catholic, Free Church, “seeking.” They were teachers, students, parents, counselors, doctors, computer engineers. One was a talented young poet. It was married life we shared most deeply, even before we could glean the common baptism we also shared, and the Christian commitment that percolated in our midst. That shared married life, it turned out, was as much the place where Christ’s body emerged in its reconciling and unifying power for us as was the prayer and song we offered, or finally even the Eucharist that – in this radically ecumenical moment – we ended by receiving together.
The church, of course, is far more than an agglomeration of married couples! But I was nonetheless confronted with the fact that our married life is not some privatized civil arrangement in which Christian virtues may or may not be practiced well. Rather, our marriages are a well-spring of ecclesial communion in their own right, given precisely in the nuptial body of the Lord. This fact has been too much neglected, as has its ecumenically unitive power.
I pray that married couples take time – in whatever way, whether in a retreat or not – to nurture their marriages. I pray that churches will help them do that, not now and again, but regularly. The integrity of our lives, together, with God, and in the Church, is bound up with such gracious sustenance.
The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto.