Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Letter To A Friend Describing My Engaged Encounter Weekend



Dear ****,

You may recall that last spring, [my wife and I] had to spend a weekend attending a "Catholic Engaged Encounter" at the [major metropolitan area airport] Hilton. I meant to blog about it, but it would require hours upon hours to really fully encapsulate the absurdity of the whole exercise. After reading your most recent post, I thought I would give you a peek at the underside of the iceberg you discussed on your blog about the CFC. Maybe I'll post this on mine.

Engaged Encounter is a pre-marital counseling program (also referred to as a "ministry" by those in the know) which couples who wish to be married in a Catholic church are often required to attend. The format is thus: one or two married couples (typically an older couple with experience running the program and a younger couple with less experience) lead the weekend-long program by giving a series of presentations. I've heard that the value of the program depends heavily on the couple involved, although the materials are uniform for all Engaged Encounter programs (and uniform in their lack of all but comedic value). The couples leading our Engaged Encounter were cringe-inducing.

Anyway, each couple takes turns giving a presentation on a pre-ordained topic, reading prepared remarks on the given topic in order to avoid rambling (without much success). The prepared remarks describe lessons learned in the couple's married life. After sitting through the alternately boring or awkward presentation, each couple would be separated, and all the men or all the women (it alternated with each presentation) would leave the room and go to a pre-assigned hotel room. There, they would hand-write answers to questions contained in their Engaged Encounter workbook. (I've scanned and attached just a few pages from my workbook). After 15 minutes or so, the person left behind in the conference room would go the hotel room, where you and your partner were supposed to read each other's answers and discuss accordingly. In practice, [my wife] and I would watch TV in the room, go to the hotel bar or discuss how unhelpful the questions were.

The topics of each presentation ranged from (and I quote from my EE workbook): "Becoming A Family," "Decisions in Marriage," "Openness in Communication," and "Forgiveness in Marriage." These were the recognizable topics that one might expect in a pre-marriage counseling session. But there were other topics that were and would remain vague and unknowable -- hodgepodges of cliche-ridden, Christian new-ageyness such as (quoting again here): "Encounter With Me/Encounter With We," "Called To Be One," "Two By Two" (<--doesn't that suggest wife-swapping to you?), "Sharing the Vision," and "Marriage Morality." And let's not forget the really galling, awkward, comedic gold-mine, "Sexual Intimacy in Marriage."

The topics of each presentation were not the only terrible cliches. Within each presentation, we were invited to dwell on:

whether I believe that "God doesn't make junk,"

"specific characteristics [that] I see in myself that make it more difficult for others to know and love me,"

when and whether "I set aside my feelings and made a conscious decision to love [my partner],"

"areas of our relationship [that] I realize loving [my partner] takes a decision,"

"what marriage as a vocation mean[s] to me,"

"How I feel about using sex as a means of getting my way?" [<-- this question seemed oddly out of place],

and "what areas do I wish that we would be more open in discussing intimacy in our relationship (e.g. sexual relations, couple prayer, family)."

Over the course of the weekend, I wrote snide remarks, doodled and generally tried not to laugh out loud. [my wife] and I had to sneak outside to our car at the end of each day's program in order to drive back to our apartment in [major city], because the hotel rooms were doled on a single-sex, roommate basis for purposes of chastity and morality. Each day's session lasted a good 12 hours, and it was a bitch to drive from the [major metropolitan area airport] Hilton to [major city] and back again the next morning. But we felt that it was as much a matter of principle as anything else. We'd been together for almost three years, and slept in the same bed for the vast majority of that time. Why change now, just to make a few strangers happy?

By far the creepiest part of the weekend was the Saturday night prayer service. Late at night on Saturday, before the day's program ended, there was a prayer service. Keep in mind that this was your average, beige-carpeted hotel conference room. We had just returned from a break to find that the neat rows of chairs had been rearranged into a large rectangle with a small table at the center. On the table were 50 or so large, unlit candles. A boombox had materialized from somewhere and the wife from one of the presenter couples put on a Josh Grobin CD. We were invited (ordered) to take a seat and write out a "Betrothal Pledge" to our fiancees. Then someone dimmed the lights. I thought to myself that ordinarily, the dim lights and loud, shitty music would distract me from writing out a solemn and heartfelt ode to my future wife. But since I was, in fact, simply writing "all work and no play makes Michael a dull boy" over and over, it didn't really matter. Then, after about 20 excruciating minutes, Betrothal Pledges written and tucked away, the presenting couples turned off the lights completely. They walked to the center of the rectangle holding large, lit white candles and explained that they would walk around the room to each couple and pray with them before giving them their own white candle. Sure enough, both presenter couples, working from different sides of the room, started to go from engaged couple to engaged couple, giving out candles and huddling with each couple in prayer -- a sustained, creepy four-way hug -- before lighting the engaged couple's new candle and moving on.

Fortunately, [we] were positioned so that we were the last couple that either of the presenter couples would reach. So we had the entire prayer service to plot our move in panicked, emphatic whispers:

"There is no fucking way I am hugging any of those fucking people and I am sure as SHIT not praying with them," I hissed.

"I know, Sweetie, I don't want to, either," [my wife] nervously replied.

"This is so fucked up. I have a STAR on my name-tag for fuck's sake!" I said, looking down at the plastic name tag pinned to my sweater, with a five-pointed star next to my name that I had not seen on any other name tags, and which I vaguely suspected was supposed to mark me out as the non-Christian (I turned out to be way off -- the star had something to do with my room assignment and nothing at all with my religion).

"The star doesn't mean anything." said [my wife].

"Sweetie, a) Jews don't take well to wearing stars on their breast, and b) when you do make a Jew wear a name tag with a star on it, you don't close the doors and turn off the lights!"

"Well, I'm freaked out, too!"

"Well, then we'll just tell them that we're not comfortable with whatever it is they're doing," I said.

"Can we do that?" [my wife] asked.

"Well, it's not the Middle Ages anymore! They can't torture us. Can they?"

Anyway, when our turn came to hug 'n pray, I stood up and looked down into the guy's eye and said in a loud voice, "I'm sorry, but we're not comfortable doing this." He smiled, and graciously said in his best, unerring Ned Flanders voice, "Sure! No problem at all! You can still have a candle if you want one, though." And that was that. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like maybe Monty Python bursting into the room dressed as cardinals, screaming "no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" But I was met with a friendly smile and a hands-off "no problem" attitude. Even so, we left immediately.

*** In the interest of fairness, let me hasten to add that I don't intend this as a comment about or a critique of the Catholic faith. I'm not trying to make fun of it, nor to insult its adherents. My wife and in-laws are Catholic, and through them, I've developed a real appreciation for the religion. But the Catholicism practiced by my wife and her family is not same thing as the stupidity unleashed in that airport hotel conference room last spring. Last time I went to mass with my in-laws, I wasn't told that "God doesn't make junk." I'm after the faux, canned religion that sounds like it came out of a Deepak Chopra book or "Chicken Soup for the Soul."

18 Comments:

At 11/03/2005 8:18 PM, Blogger Kristen said...

I'll be at Engaged Encounter this weekend, so I was very excited to see that someone else had blogged about it already.

Your letter lends it to be very close to what I'm thinking.

Thanks

 
At 11/06/2005 5:03 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Well, how was the weekend? Better? Or worse?

 
At 11/11/2005 7:53 AM, Blogger spray said...

Michael,
You never told me about the star on your nametag!! That is un-frickin-believable. Hilarious.

 
At 11/17/2005 9:22 PM, Anonymous jana said...

Oh, man...it's not just the Catholic church that does these EE weekends. My Dutch Reformed husband and I did a reformed EE before we were married. I think we spent our time in the room when we were supposed to be talking about our future marriage making out.

Thanks for the humor.

 
At 11/18/2005 7:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

omg! I still shudder when I think of my own engaged encounter weekend--and it was ten years ago. Not much has changed. Although you left out the part about the gay priest instructing the group about sex, procreation and birth control. And admonishing us that "Love Is A Choice."

 
At 11/20/2005 9:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, here I was, raised Catholic, went to Catholic school, and I had no idea that this went on. In fact, this is way off anything I have ever seen or heard of. Yeah, there are classes for those getting married, but they are nothing like that. You go, you talk to other couples and a priest for a few hours, maybe 8 over the course of a few weeks, and that's it. I wonder why they're so different?

 
At 11/20/2005 3:25 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Anonymous,

Traditional pre-cana classes, which I believe you are referring to, were an option for us, too. And we would gladly have taken those classes, but at the time it seemed more convenient to get the whole thing over and done with in one weekend. My guess is that the traditional pre-cana really does vary on the priest, whereas the Engaged Encounter is a uniform curriculum.

 
At 12/30/2005 12:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My question is why would you submit to this weekend if you clearly find it so offensive? What did you expect from the Catholic Church? You can't really criticize them for promoting their ideology when you knowingly submitted to it. The real fools here are you and your fiance for going to this when it clearly doesn't reflect your values.

 
At 1/02/2006 9:11 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Anonymous,

Perhaps you didn't read the entire post, or you didn't read it very carefully. Either way, a closer reading would have served you well before you unsheathed your underwhelming poison pen ("fools"? I never used that term in my post).

I did not critcize the philosophy of the Catholic Church -- in fact, I made a point to state my appreciation for Catholicism in the final paragraph. My criticism was aimed at the cheap sentimentality of the Engaged Encounter program. A little more philosophy would have improved things.

 
At 1/10/2006 9:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My wife and I had the same reaction to the format, ten years ago. We didn't go home at night, though - she came up to my room, asked my roommate if he minded if she slept with me, and then did so.

Since we live in LA, the participants in our weekend were overwhelmingly Mexican or otherwise Latin American, with a handful of Irish people. EVERYONE was in the hotel bar both Friday and Saturday nights. The Saturday morning working sessions, in particular, were a series of half-dead hangover cases sprawled on the recliners around the hotel pool.

The essay questions struck us as absurd, but that was apparently only because we'd already talked to each other about parenting, in-laws, and money. I say "apparently" because several couples got into full-on screaming fights when they compared their answers to some of the questions. Those couples probably got something from the weekend.

 
At 3/31/2006 7:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what do you mean ,"why did he submit to the weekend"??,you generally have to to get marrried in the church, its just another hoop to jump through,and another waste of time, i have to go soon,and your post didnt suprise me at all,i had a feeling it would be exactly as you described,tedious boring and hokey,i hope the hotel has a bar!!!

 
At 8/11/2008 5:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been at engaged encounter this past week-end. Having seen this blog before me and my fiance (not baptized) were freaking out but it turned out to be a wonderful time to sit down together and talk seriously about our choice of commitment to each other in love and respect. The environment was not judgmental and the couples very nice. The place was a monastery so we had also the perfect excuse to turn off the cell phone for the week-end and forget about all the wedding ceremony preparation.

 
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At 2/15/2011 11:04 AM, Blogger playak said...

Dreading my own CEE, I read your hilarious letter about it before we went. You have described it perfectly. I waited for the Josh Groban CD to play all weekend. Well, they spared us the Groban but not the group hug! But your letter empowered me to say "oh hell naw!" We lit our candle, skipped the hug, and no one noticed.

You were fortunate enough to have had yours at a hotel, though. We were trapped at a Catholic retreat center, which basically looks like any elementary/middle school anywhere. And we got to sleep there. In tiny, uncomfortable beds, on thin, starched sheets, in tiny cubicles drawn closed with a curtain in an open air room so that we could enjoying the deafening snores of 25 other trapped individuals.

Sleep-deprivation does not breed loving feels for church or spouse-to-be. And seriously, all the activities (exactly the same as you described) are only impactful for couples who have never expressed their feelings to each other, who have never talked about any issues ever. And by the end of Friday, you've pretty much written everything you ever wanted to tell your significant other -- but you still have two days left!

Lon

 
At 1/26/2012 5:19 PM, Blogger Kastlekonfusion Residence said...

Attend the Engaged Encounter Weekend because you want to learn the tools to build a stronger foundation for your marriage, and not because it is mandatory.

If it's the latter, you will not reap the gems of this program, as you would be, quite likely, be feeling the same as the blogger, not opening your heart to love and cringe when EE Community are being life giving.

I have some advice for those who engage in premarital sex and planning to get married in a church.

My husband and I had been staying together for about 10 years before we were married in church. We practised sexual abstinence for about 6 months. This decision was very much influenced by what we learned from the "Theology of Body" workshop (DVD presentation by Christopher West).

I pray that both of you will understand importance to practice sexual abstinence and may I highlight - the UNITIVE way.

Read deeper into the vows that you'd be exchanging, especially this line - "I take you to be my wife/my husband".

It will be a very special moment for both of you when you consummate your marriage - giving yourself to each other to become one.

Start this new chapter of your life ... in the way God has intended it for, since the beginning.

The grace of Jesus Christ be with you,
Karan

 
At 1/26/2012 5:25 PM, Blogger Kastlekonfusion Residence said...

Attend the Engaged Encounter Weekend because you want to learn the tools to build a stronger foundation for your marriage, and not because it is mandatory.

If it's the latter, you will not reap the gems of this program, as you would be, quite likely, be feeling the same as the blogger, not opening your heart to love and cringe when EE Community are being life giving.

I have some advice for those who engage in premarital sex and planning to get married in a church.

My husband and I had been staying together for about 10 years before we were married in church. We practised sexual abstinence for about 6 months. This decision was very much influenced by what we learned from the "Theology of Body" workshop (DVD presentation by Christopher West).

I pray that both of you will understand importance to practice sexual abstinence and may I highlight - the UNITIVE way.

Read deeper into the vows that you'd be exchanging, especially this line - "I take you to be my wife/my husband".

It will be a very special moment for both of you when you consummate your marriage - giving yourself to each other to become one.

Start this new chapter of your life ... in the way God has intended it for, since the beginning.

The grace of Jesus Christ be with you,
Karan

 

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