By Jonathan Ghaly
Exhausted by a broken dating world which has been likened to The Hunger Games, — yes, even among Catholics — where checklisting, ghosting, swiping, and text-rejecting followed by text-flirting followed again by text-rejecting has taken the place of simplicity and humility in front of the other, Chris and Natalie Stefanick’s June 24 talk on dating at the Our Lady of Lourdes Gathering at the Grotto summer series was a balm from the Spirit for several young adults who attended, and a welcomed source of light and hope.
Though married over 20 years, the Stefanicks have a good pulse on the current state of dating today, especially among Catholics, and how much the world has infiltrated our minds and hearts in this arena.
Chris didn’t waste time beginning with the first topic: “How do I find someone? Start by looking around right now. You need to start seeing dating as part of your vocation if God is calling you to marriage… You have to take looking for someone seriously, and if you don’t find someone right away, you have to take continuing to look for someone seriously,” he proclaimed to the large crowd of 300+ people at the Grotto, most of whom were young adults.
“I talk to so many young adults who are like, ‘I tried this Catholic dating app and it didn’t work so I stopped.’ You’re seeing marriage the wrong way!” Chris continued. “If someone’s called to priesthood and they say, ‘I tried one seminary out, but I didn’t get along with anyone so I stopped…’ God’s calling you to a sacred vocation, get off your butt and pursue that vocation! What is marriage? It’s a sacrament…it’s a sign, but it becomes that which it signifies… We get so stinking picky! In some strange sense, this is not about us, Natalie and I…in some amazing sense it’s about our coming together to encounter God. So when you see it like that sacred vocation, why are you sitting on your butt?”
Natalie jumped in: “Pursue with seriousness and intention. Make yourself available — I’m speaking to the women primarily: lead without leading. Make yourself available to be noticed and led.”
Chris also likened a young woman taking dating seriously to a religious sister in the novitiate — it’s the “active” part of discernment, of putting oneself out there and asking people on dates.
“We discern by doing, by taking these steps, and not having this crazy pressure on ourselves that there’s this one perfect script that God has written for my life: ‘what if I get it wrong?’” Chris added. “That’s a fear-based relationship with God… No, He’s saying, ‘Take steps, I got your back because I’m your Father and I love you.’”
Natalie echoed her husband: “St. Augustine’s quote, ‘Love God and do what you want’ has freed me so much to step out of the discernment tornado because I used to think that way, and just move, pray, and trust Him that He loves you.”
The Stefanicks also spent time on the vital but overlooked importance of “the contemplative part of discernment,” of silence and listening, in order to see more clearly in our distracted world.
Natalie shared her experience as a case-in-point: “Chris and I became good friends, and I just always saw him as a friend, and I never categorized him as someone I should or could date.” On a college road trip before cell phones, Natalie was without the luxury of distraction and faced with these questions: “I knew I wanted to be married. I was contemplating that I just went through a whole year and didn’t find anybody. Where am I looking? Who am I looking for?” She continued her road trip reflection: “I wonder if there’s someone in my life right under my nose who brings me joy who I’m not looking at correctly. And God put Chris in my mind, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him the rest of the summer.”
Chris added: “You could be pursuing the whole world. Maybe God put someone under your nose but you’re not seeing this person because in a distracted and noisy world we’ve forgotten contemplation, which enables you to see life as you’re experiencing it right here in front of you. It enables you to smell the roses, to see the beautiful people sitting next to you that you’re overlooking because of slight imperfections, which of course you don’t have. I swear if [Natalie’s road trip] happened today…she’d be listening to a podcast [instead of praying and asking the questions she asked], and we might not be married right now, for a lack of silence; we would have missed this beautiful relationship. Do you take time to pursue and then time to be quiet, and contemplate and be close to our Lord?”
Chris and Natalie also addressed a second topic: What should dating look like? “I think people have lost the sense of what dating is. We call it the lost art of dating — people don’t date anymore,” Natalie claimed. “I talk to young people and there’s a lot of fear going on, and people think a coffee or meal is marriage. It tweeks the whole experience.”
Natalie admitted she went on several dates before Chris, because she was taking the desire of her vocation seriously, and through those dates she learned who the “jerks” were, who was arrogant, who brought her joy, who were not good fits, etc. “You just try it out,” she said. “If nothing more, you’re encountering another soul that day.”
The Stefanicks emphasized the importance of just having fun with each other as a couple and the act of “bracketing” problems — as a proclamation that the relationship is bigger than the problems, whether they are bills or difficult wounds of the past. “This is about having life to the full in Jesus Christ, and we proclaim that life by having fun together,” Chris shared. “And most sexual sins for people wanting to remain pure come from the fact that y’all are boring. Be romantic, and creative!”
Finally, the Stefanicks addressed the age-old question, “How do you know you’ve found ‘the one?’”
“A lot of people are burdened by this question,” Chris observed, proposing that this obsession comes from our current era of endless options and idealism through dating apps and pornography, which causes F.O.M.O.: the fear of missing out. “We’re formed by this over-all culture in which we treat people like objects we can just throw away and move to next object: ‘Is this one perfect? Is that one perfect? The next one has to be more perfect.’ It’s absolute poison to how we look at and face one another.”
Natalie added that a lack of gratitude for the other is detrimental, especially when we are satisfied by other means. Our evolutionary brain has programmed us to interrogate our own relationships: “What’s wrong with this person? Could I find better?”
“But ‘We take hold of every thought and make it obedient to Christ,’ St. Paul says. Reform your brain to be a brain of gratitude. You are not going to find the perfect person, because the perfect person doesn’t exist! Marriage is not about finding the perfect person. It’s about perfecting you; and this is something that often takes people years into marriage to figure out.” Chris shared that 10 years into their marriage, Natalie’s past wounds emerged, and though it was perhaps the most difficult trial of their marriage, they both experienced a love that could “walk through all that garbage,” and be healed together by Christ’s sacred Heart.
“Guys, those imperfections that you perceive in the person you might date, those are not red flags, it’s a green light sometimes, God telling you to lean in, lean into this beauty, be purified together.”
Natalie provided some concrete criteria: “I think people over-complicate dating, and then over-complicate the choice for ‘the one.’ But does this person bring you joy? Does this person love the Lord and lead me to love the Lord, and am I not completely repulsed by this person physically? Then we’re good! Move! Progress! I guarantee [with] that Sacrament, the attraction will kick in no matter what… The only real dealbreaker is when a person is unable to admit when they’re wrong.”
This last criterion about not being repulsed sounds a bit repulsive itself, but I think the point is that physical attraction can grow, and I’ve met many happy married couples who weren’t very attracted to each other when they first met, but with time and getting to know the inner beauty of the other, the physical attraction followed.
Chris had a powerful closing: “‘You complete me.’ No he doesn’t! No she doesn’t! The only perfect one is God, and every vocation and our pursuit of every vocation, whether you’re married, single, a vowed religious or priest, whether marriage happens for you or not, when you pursue what God is calling you…all these paths are just rivers flowing into one ocean, to the One Who completes us…to the One who described heaven as a wedding banquet. He created you for love and every love in this life prepares us for the One Love and leads us to that one Love. And that’s what dating is all about.”
Everyone I spoke to after the talk, including many singles and couples in their 20s, 30s and 40s, were filled with a freedom and hope, as if someone had taken a huge weight off our shoulders and given us some much-needed guidance. Among many other things, this talk challenged me again to not drown in my own endless criteria of how many of my boxes a girl checks and whether she’s the one or not, but to pay more attention to the truer question, “Is the Lord perhaps proposing her to me?” Then everything becomes a dialogue with Christ, and not a monologue with my belly button.
Chris and Natalie also witnessed such a freedom and joy with each other during the talk, which verified everything they were telling us. “It’s impossible to love your spouse. That’s why it’s a Sacrament.” A week after the talk, my roommate and his girlfriend who were in attendance got engaged. I can’t help but think the talk was a gentle nudge to finally go for it (girl’s been waitin’). Because as the great Michael Jordan’s 90’s Chicago Bulls had as one of their mottos, especially during the playoffs: “Don’t mean a thing without the ring.” Amen. Alleluia.
As could be expected from post-talk gossip, there were a few critics in attendance who complained that the rather minimal criteria the Stefanicks offered as guidance for healthier dating and choosing a partner was opening the door to “basically marrying anyone.” This is a common objection I’ve heard (and had) over the years. On the one hand, no, not every person of the opposite sex makes you feel safe, loved, joyful, or helps you grow, that’s for sure. So no, don’t worry, it doesn’t lend to marrying “anyone.”
But on the other hand…maybe that’s the point? Maybe we don’t know everything? Maybe we don’t have the omniscience of God and don’t perfectly understand the mysterious dynamics of love and marriage? Perhaps we give too much authority to our gut feelings and All-Knowing intuitions? Perhaps we are more picky and idealistic than is reasonable? Perhaps Jesus Gosling and Virgin Mary Jennifer Lawrence shouldn’t be the standards by which we live and die in the dating world? And perhaps we’ve given up on the possibility of allowing ourselves to be…surprised? Perhaps.
Listen to the Stefanicks’ talk here: https://www.youtube.com/embed/YIKI_R8DATY?rel=0
Jonathan Ghaly graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is a Realtor and real estate investor in the metro Denver area. He likes long walks on the beach, playing basketball and soccer with his buddies, and having existential conversations while sipping Oak and Eden whiskey.
Featured photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash