In Spanish-speaking countries there are signs along the road that say “Retorno”. It means “to get off the path and check where you are going”. As the word alludes, Marriage Retorno, a couple spirituality programme, is an opportunity for married couples and even the religious to check their spiritual “road map”. The road map is the Word of God as written in the Bible. This programme guides participants to establish God’s will for them, individually and as a couple, and to adjust the direction they are going or to confirm they are on the right road.
Here, Colin and Cheryl (not their real names) share how Retorno brought them back to where they first started serving together in a family ministry. A big U-turn after being away for eight years! They had experienced a period of dryness when routine had set in and the sense of purpose and mission was lost amidst the work. Through this weekend programme, Colin and Cheryl learnt to turn towards God as a couple again.
Marriage Retorno Weekend 2015
Come November, we would have been married for 33 years. We are blessed with three grown-up children and recently, a beautiful grandson.
We attended our original Marriage Encounter (ME) Weekend in 2002. We are still journeying with our Weekend couples in a Love Circle. We try to meet once a month and after 15 years, they are like family to us.
We first heard of Marriage Retorno from our ME circle of friends who, after attending the programme, incessantly nudged us to attend it. They said that it would make our couple relationship complete.
With more persistent urging by these friends and upon our third attempt, we were accepted for the Retorno Weekend in June 2015.
We found the pace of the Weekend right for us, and we went with the flow.
We particularly loved the quiet setting. It afforded us time and opportunity to reflect not only on our relationship but, more importantly, on God’s presence in our relationship. We took time deliberately to communicate with God and express freely our joys and anxieties, and to pray together for each other.
We were in our bedroom, going through the handout after the fourth talk on Saturday afternoon. From the list of bible passages to read in the handout, I chose 1 Samuel 3: 1-18 (The Lord calls Samuel) and wrote down my reflection. My better-half read and reflected on the passage that she had chosen, Hosea 11:1-5 (God’s continuing love for Israel). As we were taught, after writing, we exchanged and read each other’s reflection, before ending with our conjugal prayer.
Just as we finished saying our prayer, I suddenly felt our room warping and saw a very bright light so brilliant that it dazzled everything in the room, causing the walls and the furniture in the room to fade away.
My first thoughts were, “What is happening? Am I in a movie?” as it felt like one.
All I could do was to gaze at the bright light from the window which was intense but not blinding to my eyes.
Then a strange calmness overcame me when I “heard” God’s call. He was calling us to return to serve in the ME movement.
The light gradually dimmed and the room returned to its original state.
I was in awe of the experience, and could not comprehend what had just happened. Not wanting to forget what had occurred, I furiously scribbled away my experience in my journal. I described as much as I could to capture that sensational moment before the bell rang for us to re-assemble in the conference room.
Later, I confided in my wife about what had happened in the room. She shared that she sensed something had come over me. She observed that I was suddenly quiet and writing frantically, which she thought was very unusual of me.
The rest of our Retorno Weekend was not the same after that. Like the prodigal son, we felt troubled at the thought of returning to active service in the ME movement. We were in denial and kept questioning if that was what the Holy Spirit wanted of us.
Towards the end of the Weekend on Sunday, there was a session of “Sharing our Marriage Retorno experience and expressing our commitments”. As I shared with the couples on what I experienced the day before, I found myself shaking uncontrollably. I was unnerved. I suspected the couples must have heard my heart beating hard and fast, or thought I had gone off the rails.
After Retorno, we continued with our daily practice of choosing a bible verse for reflection. Strangely or coincidentally, the readings we chose directed us to the same calling. We backtracked on the reflections we wrote during Retorno and were astounded that they too were gently leading us to the same call.
The call made us uncomfortable. We were still resisting it and were beginning to feel anxious.
You see, we were invited to be ME presenters after our original Weekend in 2002. After five years of discipleship and presenting three ME Weekends, things became a routine for us -- we went to meetings and prepared for our presentations for the sake of doing it and out of obligation to the community. We felt dry and empty like a well after a drought whilst other team couples were gushing with enthusiasm about their Weekends and their role in the service teams.
We did not have the sense of belonging so we decided to turn our backs on ME and stopped serving altogether in 2008.
We gave the reason that our jobs and family were demanding more of our time.
So the “recall” bothered us. Over the next few weeks, we prayed and read the bible. Then we had a flashback of a conversation we had a few months prior to signing up for Retorno.
We were saying how thankful we were to God as we reflected on His generous love for us. He graces us with more blessings than we truly deserve - our personal well-being, our happy marriage, our sensible children, our stable careers, and a comfortable life. We were telling each other that with all these unexpected gifts and unreserved blessings from God, we better know when to say ‘yes’ when He calls us.
Slowly, it dawned on us that He was calling us now. Out of fear, we did not want to say ‘no’. However, through deeper reflection, we realised we could not say we love God and not pass on His overflowing love to those who are seeking Him.
We surrendered ourselves and placed our trust in the Holy Spirit to guide us and smoothen our journey back to ME.
Thanks to Retorno, we are now involved with the ME movement again after being away for eight years. This time round, the fervour to serve is very different. It started with attending the ME Deeper (Team Formation) Weekend for the second time, and rewriting our talks.
We have learnt to put God as our centre of focus, and let Him be our driver. We have begun to see ourselves in the larger picture of His plan – He has given us talents and resources to be His hands and feet to reach out to couples, like us, and spread His message of love.
Since our comeback, we have presented one ME Weekend. At that Weekend, we again felt the Holy Spirit with us as we were presenting to the couples. The wonderful feelings we had were indescribable.
This is our encounter with God at Marriage Retorno. We do not know how Retorno Weekend may move or touch you spiritually; ours might have been a little dramatic. You just need to open your mind, surrender yourself, and take that first step.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu.
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Marriage Retorno is a stay-in Weekend (from Friday evening to Sunday evening) that helps married couples discover a way to deepen their communication with God as a couple, and learn how to discover His will for their married lives. It is also a good formation programme for couples serving in family ministries to reconnect with their original calling and re-ignite their enthusiasm to serve.
A Marriage Prayer
In Tobit 8: 4-8 we read about Tobias, leading his new wife Sarah in prayer:
“When the door was shut and the two were alone, Tobias got up from the bed and said, “Sister, get up, and let us pray and implore our Lord that he grant us mercy and safety.” And they began to say,
“Blessed are you, O God of our fathers, and blessed be your holy and glorious name for ever. Let the heavens and all your creatures bless you. You made Adam and gave him Eve his wife as a helper and support. From them the race of mankind has sprung. You said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; let us make a helper for him like himself.’ And now, O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that I may find mercy and may grow old together with her.” And they both said, “Amen, amen.”
Then they both went to sleep for the night.”
How romantic it is, when a man and his wife come together in prayer, perhaps because it reminds us that we are ultimately made for God and yearn for God. What can we learn from the prayer of Tobias and Sarah?
1. Give thanks to God, who is the Creator of the universe. Remember that without God’s constant care for us, we would simply cease to be;
2. Acknowledge God as the Author of marriage. Out of His love and infinite wisdom, he gave woman to man, and gave them the natural means of continuing life on earth. The spouse you are praying with is a wellspring of life, and should be loved and respected;
3. Love is not lust. You are attracted physically and sexually to your spouse, but your relationship must be life-giving. To have sexual relations without an honest openness to life is to reject part of your spouse’s sexuality.
4. Old age is granted by God. Each day you wake up is a result of His mercy, so try to never take a moment for granted. Treasure the time you have with your spouse.
5. End each day with prayer as a couple. Even the days when you don’t feel like it, for prayer is a work of love, and love is a decision you make.
Lastly, prayer helps us to love better. Christ calls for us to love each other “as he loved” us (cf Jn 15:12). How are we to do that if we do not look to him each day?
If you are just starting to pray as a couple, it will be hard and even awkward at the start. But hard work, discipline, and a single-hearted yearning for God will give you strength to persevere. Take the first step today. Say to your spouse: “Dear, I’d really like us to put God at the centre of our relationship. I know He loves you so much, and I know He will accept our invitation to lead us in our married life together. Let’s start to pray together every night.” How sweet is that!
Photo by CTS Books
It is essential that children actually see that, for their parents, prayer is something truly important. Hence moments of family prayer and acts of devotion can be more powerful for evangelization than any catechism class or sermon.” - Amoris Laetitia, 288
An excerpt from Amoris laetitia (Latin: The Joy of Love) a post-synodal apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis released in April 2016.
In this monthly column, we feature Catholic personalities and their favourite memories of being ‘family’. In this issue, Fr Edward Seah shares why his family is special to him…
Fr Edward with his family.
When I was young my family basically followed the ‘Chinese religion’. It was a mix of Buddhism and Taoism. But the daily ritual of offering prayers was done by a house-helper from China brought in by my grandfather. There was a disconnection between the prayer style of our house-helper and the rest of the household. Almost all my family members don’t pray, in the formal sense, except during Chinese New Year when prayers [mainly ancestral worship] were done, first thing in the morning, before we spent the next few days in family gatherings and visits.
As my mother faced a series of crises at different times of her life, a gentle Catholic friend of hers took her to the Novena Church so that she could seek consolation through the intercession of Mother Mary. On many Saturdays, my mother and all of us, would walk from Boon Keng Road to Novena Church. My mother’s determination to complete the nine-Saturday pilgrimage, rain or shine, taught us faith and perseverance in prayer. But the long walks were also moments of excellent family bonding. We felt that tangible sense of solidarity even to this day. And the name Novena rings deep in our hearts and to this day it is still associated with the call to prayer and solidarity. It is where the Lord touched us, for He never fails to listen, console and heal. To date, three out of her six children became Catholics.
My late father did not take religion too seriously. Often considered a joker by people [including the young people from the Bajeri Lane Kampong who played soccer with him] he would at times poke fun at what he considered superstitions.
Though he professed to practise the ‘Chinese religion’, he never visited temples but tried his best to live a life of compassion, kindness and generosity even as he struggled once in a while to control a flaring temper. Educated in St Anthony’s Boys School, my father knew The Lord’s Prayer and believed in God deep inside. Occasionally, he would surprise us by appearing at the Novena Church. He approved and encouraged us in our weekly pilgrimage but he had to stay filial to my grandfather and kept our weekly Novena pilgrimage a top secret. He would join us for outings after the Novena Service.
The sense of prayer and solidarity continues to this day in our family of inter-religious spirituality. One of my siblings would take my mother for Novena service every Saturday, and once a year almost all would gather in solidarity with mum [not baptised] for the Good Friday procession in St Joseph’s Church in Victoria Street. Meanwhile, Chinese New Year continues to provide moments for family bonding, recollection of the significant past, and setting some common directions together.