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Silence, prayer, reflection at heart of married couples retreat

The Rev. Greg Carlson, S.J., and the Rev. Larry Gillick, S.J., will lead a three-day session centering on Ignatian spirituality at work in the life of the individual and the shared life of married couples.With the seemingly amplifying spectrum given humans for the expression of their feelings — the vacuity of an emoticon to the horror of oversharing — a Creighton University weekend retreat is encouraging married couples to be still for a few moments and indulge in the powerful intimacy of silence.

Creighton Jesuits have been holding retreats for many years and, for more than two decades now, those retreats have taken place at the Creighton University Retreat Center near Griswold, Iowa. This year, the Rev. Greg Carlson, S.J., and the Rev. Larry Gillick, S.J., will lead a three-day session centering on Ignatian spirituality at work in the life of the individual and the shared life of married couples.

Rather than a typical couples retreat, conjuring images of counseling sessions, the retreat is largely conducted in the quiet of prayerful reflection. Fr. Carlson and Fr. Gillick provide some direction in the way of prayer and meditation through brief, loosely planned dialogues — Fr. Gillick calls it a “Huntley-Brinkley” back-and-forth, while Fr. Carlson winkingly says it’s more akin to “Click and Clack” — but then the individual participants are asked to pray in silence.

Following a prayer session, spouses share with one another what they prayed about.

“Other than that, it’s silent,” said Fr. Gillick, director of the Deglman Center for Ignatian Spirituality at Creighton. “There’s no group sharing, it’s not a counseling session, it’s not a marriage improvement seminar. It’s meant as a time to pray with the holiness of the sacrament of marriage in mind and ask how that bond can be influenced by Ignatian spirituality.”

Held around Valentine’s Day, the retreat offers a spiritual counterpoint to a holiday festooned in pink and red hearts, chocolates, cards, dinner reservations and other outward, sometimes bombastic demonstrations of love and affection.

At the Retreat Center, the focus is on listening to the still small voice of God in each person and how the presence of God enhances the life of a marriage. Listening to God is foremost, and through that, Fr. Carlson said, the idea is to help spouses listen and more adeptly relate to and accept one another. Acceptance of the quiet nature of the retreat, he said, usually comes very early and very easily for participants.

“A basic skill, perhaps the most basic human skill, is listening,” Fr. Carlson said. “The weekend gives people an experience of listening, not so much to us, but to listening to their lives, listening to what’s going on in themselves. After a day or so in silence, the things they read and the things they remember start to ring bells. Our contemporary life is so fast-paced, with such an inundation of data, we don’t have time to sift through it and people have trouble listening. This is a chance to listen to themselves and, therefore, to listen to one another.”

The intimacy created by sitting in a comfortable, prayerful stillness with another person is something to be celebrated, Fr. Gillick and Fr. Carlson said. To that end, even meals at the retreat are taken in silence.

“It’s a time for being alone,” Fr. Gillick said. “It’s a time for being together. We are not experts in marriage or counseling or therapy. We’re not even experts in spirituality — nobody is. We are pilgrims walking along together. In that, we are learning more about ourselves and more about the person with whom we are sharing a life.”

The experience is at once relaxed and intense, energizing and solemn, the two Jesuits said. A participant will find himself walking alone, together, toward a place of acceptance and confidence in God, himself and his spouse. The retreat eschews any facile takeaway or quantification by which most of the rest of the modern world makes judgments on the success of similar activities.

“When we finish a retreat, I urge people not to consider or answer the question, ‘What did you get out of it?’” Fr. Carlson said. “That’s a measurement question, a productivity question that tends to reduce us and our experiences to a kind of capitalistic, efficiency-based model. The better question is, ‘Is there something this weekend that you are grateful for?’ That ties back in to the listening: that you heard something or were given something, do you appreciate something more? And that doesn’t lend itself well to measurement.”

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.