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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Marriage is Like a Favorite Pair of Jeans...

A lot of choices...
As most people know, we live in a throwaway, consumeristic, instant-gratification culture; where, more often than not, things, from appliances, to watches, to leather shoes, are replaced instead of trying to fix them.  Unfortunately, that includes relationships.

In fact, there are some, and we all know someone, who jump from relationship to relationship, as if they were trying on a pair of jeans to see which fits the best.  And, even when they find the right pair, it's just a matter of time before they start shopping for a new one because they feel the old pair is fading or getting worn out.  (For PG purposes, I won't even mention those who have a closet full of jeans!)

I remember a conversation I had with a friend several years ago, who after getting divorced, only a few of years into his marriage and with a toddler son in tow, he nonchalantly said to me, when I said I was sorry for his failed marriage, "Hey, things happen!" as he shrugged his shoulders.

"Things happen?" the words resonated within me.  It's a sad commentary on society, but it's what many people have come to accept in our Sex in the City, Desperate Housewives and it's all about "me" society, where immaturity, feelings and personal "happiness" usually outweigh responsibility, commitment and family.

It is not a coincidence that slightly over forty percent of first marriages end in divorce, which sadly jumps to sixty percent of second marriages and seventy-three percent of third marriages.  (I guess you can say, the grass is not always greener!)

Worst of all, it's a vicious cycle.  Children of divorced parents are more likely to have failed marriages themselves.  According to the U.S. Census, daughters of divorced parents are sixty percent more likely to get divorced than daughters of non-divorced parents and for sons, it's thirty-five percent higher. 

The statistics are alarming and, quite honestly, depressing when considering the biggest casualty of this throwaway culture is the deterioration of the family, which sociologists would say, is the cornerstone of any civil society.

Bl. Pope John Paul II once said, "As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live."

And, the family begins with marriage.

Earlier this month, my wife and I celebrated our 16th civil wedding anniversary.  I use that caveat, when describing our anniversary, since we took our vows a second time in the Catholic Church in 2007 and call the latter our Catholic wedding anniversary.

A complimentary gift...
To celebrate our nuptials (and my 50th birthday the previous week!), my wife booked a room at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.  We sent our kids off to my mother-in-law's condo and had a short getaway, just the two of us, like we used to.

One of the things my wife and I have always tried to do, which I'll admit was easier when the kids were younger, is go out on dates and spend quality time together alone; whether it was going to New Orleans several weeks after our oldest daughter was born, or New York, or Key West, or weekends at the Biltmore Hotel (which is 5 minutes from our house!).  Not only do we feel it strengthens our bond as a couple but we have always truly enjoyed each other's company (What can I say? She laughs at my jokes!).

Yet, it hasn't been as easy in recent years.  Having demanding full-time jobs and all the stress that they entail, extremely busy schedules, including the kids' ballet, baseball, softball or basketball, and parties (many many parties!), house chores (my wife more than me!), commitments to several ministries at our parish, school gala planning (my wife is the chairperson), family and friends obligations and the expense of three kids in Catholic school (which is a non-negotiable for us), orthodontist bills, a mortgage, home repair bills, car payments and real estate (and a blog) on the side.  It gets overwhelming at times and, unfortunately, there's not enough time in the day to make time for each other.

For us, like many couples, it's easy to get caught up in the rat race.  It's easy to get into a rut of laundry, helping kids with homework, picking up messes, cooking (note: these are all things my wife does!), then get irritated and to lash out at the people we most love; i.e. each other and our children (not that I'm suggesting that, after doing all that, she's the only one that lashes out). 

It's easy to start building walls, as a defense mechanism, because of things said in frustration or anger.  That is when communication breaks down in many marriages and can lead to staleness and apathy (Fortunately, we've never reached that point but I can see how it can happen).

It's in those times, when we most need time out (and I don't mean in a corner).  Time with each other.  Time away from the everyday pressures, strains and distractions. 

Abraham Lincoln once said, "Marriage is neither heaven nor hell, it is simply purgatory." 

As funny as the quote may sound, maybe he had a good point because, according to our faith as Catholics, purgatory is where we will experience the greatest joy we have ever felt but also the greatest anguish.  Now, is it me, or does that sound like marriage? (And Lincoln wasn't even Catholic!)

My wife and I are involved in a marriage covenant group at our parish, whose purpose is to strengthen marriages through faith, understanding the sacrament and placing God in the center of our relationship. 

Aside from meeting once a month to nurture friendships with like-minded couples committed to their marriages and families, and work on strengthening the intimacy in our relationships, every year we hold a retreat to help new couples; some who are struggling, others who just want to refresh their relationships, get re-energized.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I served on a retreat, where apart from the team members, there were twenty-four couples; ranging from newlyweds to thirty plus years of marriage; all having a wide range of reasons for being there.  

Let's face it, marriage is under attack in our society; not just by attempts to redefine it but by the de-emphasis on it's importance.  Thus, people are waiting longer to get married; partially because of self-interests (and I'm guilty myself!), partially for fear of divorce; or they follow the lead of many Hollywood stars, who are just living and having children together without getting married or getting married after living together for a while (Not realizing that those that live together before getting married are 46 percent more at risk of getting divorced than couples that don't!). 

It's funny, while my wife and I were staying at the Biltmore, there was a couple getting married and at the entrance of their reception, they put up a time line of their relationship that stated:  first date on such and such a date, first kiss on such and such, moved in together on such and such, etc. (Say what?  Are you kidding?  Moved in together?  Is that a monumental and proud moment in a relationship nowadays?).

In any case, all marriages need a jolt on occasions because as humans, we all tend to get complacent and, quite frankly; lazy at times (which is probably a higher tendency for me than the average bear, as Yogi would say).  That's what the retreat is all about.

After several years of inviting them, a couple that we have been great friends with from the start of our relationship, who unfortunately have been going through a difficult time, decided to join us.  I'll admit, I was a little apprehensive because they are not particularly religious but, at this point, they were looking for help because their communication had deteriorated to the point where they couldn't talk without getting into an argument.

The not so newlywed game...
We spent an amazing weekend with them, giving them their space to address their problems, as well as new and old friends sharing our lives, including some of the darker sides of marriages that people don't freely discuss, playing games, laughing, crying, praying, eating meals together and participating in exercises meant to rekindle that "magic" that drew us together in the first place. 

I remember at our first retreat, discussing things with my wife that we didn't normally discus and what made it more effective is that it was done on neutral grounds, which lends itself to deeper conversation without the bickering normally attached, and spending quality time together.  After one exercise, we ended up shooting hoops at the school basketball court.  It was a bonding and unforgettable experience for both of us.  But, it all begins with God.

If we order our lives and our marriages correctly, by putting God first, everything else falls into place.  Because, if I start with the understanding, praise and thankfulness that God is truly our loving Father, who I am dependent on for every breath I take, then I must, as a consequence, realize that just as He loves me, He loves my wife as well.  Therefore, I need to treat and respect her as a beloved daughter of God (Yikes!).  Then again, she needs to treat and respect me as a beloved son of God too! (As my grandmother would have said, "La pobre."). 

Consequently, God serves as a bonding force in every marriage.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote a best-selling book in the 1950's whose title said it best, "Three to Get Married," and he wasn't referring to the mother-in-law!

So, it's not about "me," as society tells us.  It's about us.

Moreover, at the risk of getting a little deep (which has never stopped me before), our wedding vows don't end at the altar.  They begin there.  They are renewed and reaffirmed each time our two bodies become one.  If you think about the profundity of this sacramental union, consider that God creates life through the intimate relations of husbands and wives.  We become family, which John Paul II called entering into the innermost life of the Holy Trinity, who is family; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We are completed in the image and likeness of God through marriage.  Are you still with me?

So, Jerry McGuire got it right when he told Dorothy Boyd, "You complete me."

At the end of the retreat, our friends couldn't thank us enough for having invited them.  It may not have resolved all their problems but, at least, it was a start and they both appear committed to working on fixing and improving their relationship and putting God in their marriage. 

As Jesus says in a parable, "Though it (the mustard seed) is the smallest of all seeds, when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches." (Matt 13:31-32)  Hopefully that mustard seed planted at the retreat will bear good fruit.

As for me and my marriage, despite a little wear and tear and having faded a bit, I stopped shopping for a new pair.  My favorite jeans are just fine.  In fact, they are more comfortable and better fitting than ever before...

Sunday, March 16, 2014

St. Patrick; a Man Who Changed the World...

“I am Patrick, yes a sinner and indeed untaught; yet I am established here in Ireland where I profess myself bishop. I am certain in my heart that "all that I am," I have received from God. So I live among barbarous tribes, a stranger and exile for the love of God.”

--St. Patrick, 5th Century Roman Catholic Bishop and Saint, who at the age of 16 was taken as a slave to Ireland, exposed to Druidism (a form of Paganism), learned the Celtic language and, during his captivity, experienced a profound conversion to Christianity and devoted himself to prayer in hopes of getting through hardships.

After his escape, six years later, he returned to Britain, where his family lived, and became a priest, committing himself fully to the service of God.

He returned to Ireland as a bishop and, for the next forty years, almost single handedly converted the Pagan nation through his passion, courage, ability to communicate the faith, example and perseverance.

St. Patrick, “Apostle of Ireland,” pray that I, a sinner like you, with the love and grace of God, can be an agent of change in the world, if only within my family...

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Binding Force of Children...

“Nothing is more binding than a child, who is the symbol of the survival of man (and) the pledge of the resurrection of the body…Nothing is more religious in nature than procreation; it is the sign both of unity and continuity...There is something about a baby that disarms, attracts, and makes even the evil want to appear good.”

 -- Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Freddie Miles, Unfilled Promises and Finding Happiness...

Good times; Miles #13 with QB Carl Sheffield...
Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote, "What you are is God's gift to you, what you become is your gift to God."  Of course, sometimes circumstances and environment dictate what kind of gift you can offer.

A couple of weeks ago, I was looking through Facebook and came across a discussion that piqued my interest about a former high school classmate named Freddie Miles.

It started off with a photo and an innocent question asking, "Whatever happened to Freddie Miles?" and quickly snowballed into a full fledged and sobering exchange.

For those that don't know, Freddie Miles was one of the best running backs ever to come out of South Florida, and still is regarded among the top high school football players to ever to play in the region.

He was a high school All-American, who, along with teammates Carl Sheffield, Anthony Frederick and a staunch defense, led Miami Springs High (my alma mater) to two consecutive undefeated seasons in 1978 and 1979.

He was destined for greatness and many people saw him as a shoo-in to play major college football and possibly even the NFL.

In fact, before graduating from Springs, he signed a letter of intent to play for legendary college coach Howard Schnellenberger, who was coaching the University of Miami at the time.

Unfortunately, there was a problem.  Freddie's grades, and specifically his reading and writing skills were not college material.

It led him on a downward spiral that, according to the Facebook comments, was truly disheartening.

You see, at Miami Springs High, Freddie was the center of attention.  He had the girls.  He had more friends than he knew what to do with.  Administrators and teachers treated him with kid gloves.  Every major college and university was falling over themselves to recruit him. 

Why wouldn't they?  Despite his small stature, he was built like a rock, was athletic, had blazing speed and, as the Miami Herald put it, had "dazzling" moves that often left coaches, opposing players and fans dumbstruck.  High school defenders didn't have a chance against him when he had full head of steam or was running in the open field.  He ended up with incredible career and single season rushing and touchdown stats.

In other words, he was a legend in his own time.

Unfortunately, as often happens with superstar high school athletes, everybody around him, including parental figures, treated him as such.  He wasn't forced to play by the same rules as other students at Miami Springs.  He was protected.  He was coddled and, if he didn't want to go to class, well, he was urged to go (wink wink), but would often find himself in the coaches' office instead.  When he did go to class, one of the most vivid memories I have of him (being an impressionable sophomore at the time) was seeing him sleeping on a desk in the back of a classroom.  Yet, somehow, he was able to keep his grades high enough to be able to play each week.

Now, I'm sure it wasn't out of malice or ill will and, maybe, it was even out of love.  Coming from where Freddie came from, they may have thought football was his only chance in life. 

In fact, according to a childhood friend, Freddie practically raised himself without a mother or father in the rough streets of Brownsville in NW Miami, where crime and violence are part of the daily landscape.

Hence, when he most needed guidance, discipline and structure, he was left to his own devices.

Consequently, upon graduation, he couldn't play at UM and ended up going to play junior college football in California, where he bounced around from program to program, suffering injuries, disciplinary problems, frustration and, I'm sure, plenty of dejection along the way.

By 1982, the year I graduated from high school, he had played for four junior colleges and the University of Illinois, where he was suspended for "failure to adhere to the rules regarding training quarters" and was rehabbing in Miami.

After short stint at the University of Florida, in 1985, he was cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, basically putting an end to his once promising playing career.  His great potential going unfilled.

Freddie in 2012...
A couple of years later, he was arrested for a serious crime and went to prison.  He has been in and out of trouble ever since.

Sadly, a former teammate that knew him well wrote on Facebook that he runs into Freddie from time to time, living on the streets of his old neighborhood; homeless and destitute.

The story really shook me.  For several days, I couldn't get the thought off my mind.

Here was a guy with all the God-given talent in the world and, because of misguided generosity on the part of the adults in his life and some wrong decisions, it was squandered; how very sad.

Several days later, I was preparing for a presentation on the Beatitudes for an adult catechism class, where I am a guest speaker, and Freddie Miles came to mind.  

I thought about what Freddie, like most of us, wants most out of life.  Some may say money, success and fame.  Others might suggest power, fulfilment, or love.  But, at the deepest level, the thing we all want most in life is happiness.  We want to be happy.

It's the reason we innately want to love and be loved, not just because our hearts supernaturally yearn for communion with God, who is love, but because the ultimate end of love is happiness.

The great early 20th century writer and philosopher, GK Chesterton, once wrote, "Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God." (Not that I'm suggesting Freddie Miles of knocking at the door of a brothel!).

The Beatitudes (Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, where He said blessed are the poor, the meek, the humble, ect.) are God's roadmap, or "rules" if you will, for happiness.  Happiness that can only be attained through detachment from the feelings, people and things that we often think are most important. 

The majority of us think of freedom, and thus happiness, in terms of being able to do what we want when we want without restrictions, and that includes having the wealth to be able to do it, of course.

However, if we look at many of those that apparently have it all in life, we realize that all the wealth, fame, physical pleasures and power in the world, doesn't necessarily translate to happiness (think of Whitney Houston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Farley, or to a lesser extent Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan and Mike Tyson, just to name a few). 

Some of the richest and most famous people are also the most conflicted, troubled, enslaved to vices and unfulfilled.

During his heyday, Freddie Miles probably had as much freedom as any high school student could have.  Considering his unfortunate home life and the way he was put on a pedestal at school, although he didn't have the wealth, he probably did what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it.

Unfortunately, no one gave him what he most needed; discipline.

Contemporary theologian, Fr. Robert Barron, often talks about Michael Jordan in this context.  He says Michael Jordan, is arguably, the greatest basketball player of all time (outside of LeBron James since, Barron would say that, he is a priest in Chicago!). 

However, as the clergyman points out, did Michael Jordan play the way he wanted to play on the court?  Did he foul other players at random, take running starts at the basket without dribbling the ball, goof around with his friends all night and just show up to play?

No.  It took discipline.  He played by the rules of the game.  He practiced long hours, took endless foul shots, three-pointers, layups and free throws.  He studied film.  He took care of his body.  He listened to dozens of coaches throughout his lifetime and he learned from other great players.

Hence, the rules of the game, and his discipline gave him the freedom to be what he was meant to be.  The rules, the coaches and the referees helped unleash his true potential.

And, what can be more rewarding and make us happier than living up to our full potential?

It was something Freddie Miles wasn't able to.  He needed the rules; not just in football but in life.  The rules that would make him happy.

Then again, I may be looking at it all wrong.  Maybe, it's not as sad as I think.  It could be that through all his trials and tribulations, he found happiness.

Jesus says, blessed are the poor in spirit, those who suffer, the humble and the marginalized.  While we may never be able to imagine how someone rummaging through garbage can be happy, it could be, they are at peace.

In his classic book, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton describes a crossroad in his life, where he truly found peace.  He wrote, "For the first time in my life I realized that I no longer cared whether I preserved my place in all this or lost it... All that no longer mattered.  It was in the hands of One Who loved me far better than I could ever love myself:  and my heart was filled with peace.  It was a peace that did not depend on houses, or jobs, or places, or times, or external conditions... It was a peace that the world could not give."

It's about detachment as Jesus said, and if Freddie Miles has found that peace, then he may have more to offer God than I do...

In the words of Coldplay:

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own