Engagement: The Journey

By: Camille Carloss

It’s that time of year again.  Birds are singing, flowers are growing, sun is shining (and kicking butt, if you’re in the south) and there are a new group of engaged couples. All those who got engaged last spring have gotten married or they are almost there.  But soon the excitement of the new engagement will wear off and then the temptations will start…

When I first became engaged I was warned to have the shortest possible engagement. Unfortunately, because of our situation of both living abroad, we have had to wait over a year for engagement- something I would never wish upon anyone. But even when this advice was told to me, I didn’t really take it to heed. I quickly learned that the advice was very wise.  Engagement brought a change that I really didn’t expect.

I don’t know about you, but always expected to feel different when I turned “monumental” age.   The day I turned 18, I did not feel some tangible change, where I suddenly felt like an adult. The ages of 10, 13, 18, and 21 came and I never really felt different.  But with engagement, I did feel a change.  There was something different in engagement, that I never expected before it happened. And I can’t really explain it or put my finger on it, except to say that it does feel different.

More recently, I’ve been reflecting that the period of engagement is a bit like the novitiate in religious life. Obviously, there are stark differences between religious and married life. I am not attempting to make direct parallels are analogies, because they will always fall short. This being said, I would argue that the time of the novitiate in religious life does have some similarities to engagement and looking towards religious formation can strengthen and encourage those in the engagement process.  New Catholic Encyclopedia describes the novitiate as follows: “The novitiate is the required probationary period prior to profession of vows in a religious institute during which time the aspiring religious is initiated into the life of the particular institute and his or her call (vocation ) to this institute verified.” The article continues to describe the novitiate process: “The intense, interactive yet individualized process deepens the novice's lifelong configuration to Christ begun at baptism.”  How beautiful! And how beautiful would it be if we viewed engagement like this? Because, ultimately, this is what engagement is preparing for- for the new vocation of service, which, we hope, will lead us to Heaven, holiness, and configuration to Christ.  Formation in the novitiate process ought be likened to marriage prep: “It includes formation in the cultivation of human and Christian virtues; prayer; asceticism; liturgy; the teachings of the Church; and the history, life, and rule of the particular institute.” All of this should be able to be said about preparation for marriage!  Sometimes marriage prep is lacking, but ideally there should be a balance of theological teachings and practical advice (basically human and Christian virtue). Finally, the Encyclopedia states a reality that also exists for engagement: “As mature and responsible persons the novices share responsibility for their own formation and are expected to collaborate actively with the opportunities and graces of this process.”  I’m sure the graces are different and, perhaps, less in engagement than marriage, but I do think there are special graces there. Grace is certainly needed in engagement and even if it isn’t expressly there, we can certainly ask for it!

Now, all of this is beautiful. But if you know anyone in religious life or even have heard about religious life, you may have heard that the novitiate is one of the most difficult times in formation. Engagement is also difficult. Engagement is kind of the worst.  That’s usually my response to close friends when they ask if I’m ready to be married/ how engagement is going. And the response I’ve gotten from already-married people? It’s a resounding “yes!” Apparently lots of people also thought engagement was the worst.  But, upon reflecting, it makes complete sense that both the novitiate and engagement are very difficult times.

It makes so much sense that the enemy would launch vicious attacks during both of these formative times. What are some of the things the devil hates the most?  Commitment, healthy families, purity, and, above all, holiness. It would make sense that when one is attempting to follow their path of holiness, that the devil would want to avoid that at all cost.  I think that the devil sends temptations during engagement in order to get the couple to falter and eventually break off the engagement. Or, worse, perhaps he may even twist some into marriage and eventual divorce.  I’m not sure. But I am sure that he’s working and he’s working hard.  I am also sure that the Lord is working in our favor. He is working to teach us chastity and to teach us patience. He is working to show the grace that can come and He is so excited to bestow the bountiful graces of the sacrament of matrimony when the time comes.

Reflecting on the period of engagement as we are so close to the finish line, I think that I took engagement for granted.  I tried to be present to the time I was in, but more often than not, I was impatient and eager for the waiting to end.  I knew I wasn't the best at waiting and that I needed help.  I needed time to be with the Lord and to pray intentionally about how to proceed and cooperate with grace during the final period of engagement.

 Before I returned to The United States, I was able to take a week long, personal journey on the Camino de Santiago, a famous pilgrimage in northern Spain.  There is so much to be said for the Camino. I have desired to go on this journey for years. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to go to Spain was in hopes that I would get to partake in some of the Camino. My response when people asked why I was on the Camino was that I wanted a week to myself: a week to pray and journey alone before being thrown into so many new changes awaiting me at home.  And all this was true, but one of my main intentions was to learn how to wait well, specifically concerning engagement. And I did. The Lord is so providential. I couldn’t begin to describe well what He did on my heart and within this little journey, but He did show me how to wait well and how to be better engaged.  He showed me all the little ways I failed at being engaged and through the physical duress, beautiful scenery, and silence, he showed me how to improve. How to love better and how to accept the grace of engagement.

The blessed moment of seeing the next town after miles of vineyards. 

The blessed moment of seeing the next town after miles of vineyards. 

After my journey, I reflected that one could liken the Camino to engagement. There are some points when you are walking through miles and miles of vineyards with no civilization in sight and you think that you will never reach the destination.  There are difficult moments and sometimes walking kind of sucks (at least for non-athletic me), but at the end of the day, even though you’re exhausted, you feel proud and you know you can continue. And, finally, probably the most important similarity is the end. When you arrive to Santiago there is a mix of emotions (disclaimer- I took a train and did not walk the full Camino, so this could not be true for real-Camino-finishers).  There is a sense of accomplishment. A tinge of disappointment with the amount of tourists and with the scaffolding of restoration. Perhaps, a sense of “what next?” And, I presume, all of this can be said once the marriage actually comes. But what’s really important for both the Camino and marriage is that, I think, you realize that life is a Camino. The journey is over and you have to go back to real life, but you can still maintain the spirit of the Camino in everyday life. And in marriage, there will be the joy, the excitement, and so much more, but after the honeymoon phase ends, monotony threatens. And life doesn't have to be monotonous. Honestly, a life with Christ usually isn't.  But life does change.  Feelings may dwindle and monotony may creep in. But it’s just another journey.  Another Camino.

A final note: I only brought one book with me on the Camino (besides the Bible) and that was When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd.  This book attempts to aid in the art of waiting and walks the reader through the author’s mid life crisis.  Now, this book isn’t Catholic, but it is deeply spiritual and she does reference many Catholic greats (St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross).  Though the book is geared toward the transition of midlife, I think it’s applicable for all periods of transition. I began this book for the first time during my last semester of college as I was transitioning into the real world.  I never finished it, but decided to start it anew on the Camino, amid all the transitions awaiting me, and in the thick of waiting for engagement. The Lord definitely used this book during the Camino and I had tons of little “God-incidences.” I would like to share one fitting piece of wisdom about grace and waiting:

The fullness of one’s soul evolves slowly. We’re asked to go collaborate with grace.  That doesn’t mean that grace isn’t a gift. Nor does it mean that the deliberate process of waiting produces grace. But waiting does provide the time and space necessary for grace to happen. Spirit needs a container to pour itself into.  Grace needs an arena in which to incarnate. Waiting can be such a place, if we allow it.
— Sue Monk Kidd (13)

Now at this exact moment in time I feel okay.  I’m ready for my fiancé to not be in a different continent from me. I’m ready to stop planning a wedding. I’m ready to get married. But, I feel like we are at the point that it’s so close that the agonizing wait I’ve felt for nearly the entirety of our engagement has been alleviated.  That and the Lord has given me buckets of grace.