To the dismay of many Catholics, or those choosing to marry one, tying the knot requires attendance of Pre-Cana classes. Pre-Cana is a series of lectures on how to have a functional marriage, organized by people not allowed to have one. The irony is not lost on anyone, save the organizers. Still, one has to imagine they’re in on the joke, if not just a little.
The prospect was not at all appealing to either of us. I’m terribly impatient, scoring highly on any Attention Deficit checklist. Six hours seemed unbearable, impossible, cruel; even spread over three sessions. And I’m not very comfortable in religious settings. My visits to houses of worship are invariably as a wedding guest or tourist. Like many, I believe in something, I just don’t think it has an address I must frequent.
My wife-to-be was not excited about the Pre-Cana either. Like many Catholics I know, she’s more of a Skeptolic. The blind faithful consisting these days only of the elderly fringe, the oldest leaves of the family tree. The remainder: the trunk, branches and twigs, practice Skeptolicism. They feel the Pope is a wee bit too stubborn and outdated, like someone demanding we return to the days of pulse-dialing telephones. He gets absolutely no slack from them for being Polish.
What I’ve seen of Skeptolicism in my her rural village in Poland is familiar to the Skeptolicism practiced by friends in the States and Ireland. One appreciates the rituals and traditions of the religion, but such things as a Baptism seem more ceremonial than anti-Hell insurance. The hypocrisies and blunders the church has made aren’t swept under the carpet anymore. The fact that the previous village priest had impregnated one of the local girls was common knowledge. On a positive note, while he did seriously violate his duties as a servant of God, he at least listened to the Pope and shunned birth control.
Our opposition to the Pre-Cana indoctrination on any grounds was moot. Our hands were tied. We were to be married in a 600-year old church in her village later that summer and that required permission. That permission came with a six hour price tag. We rose to the occasion with a healthy mixture of anger, cynicism and dread and entered the first great test of our relationship.
We both drew a breath as we made our way to the first of three two-hour marriage boot camps. We arrived at the church on time and made our way to the large function room. Chairs were neatly lined up and by the looks of it they were expecting a sizable crowd. Not too shabby for $100 per couple. The room can hold a 200 unhappy souls for certain. Slowly it filled up.
Instinctively we both took seats in the back, not far from the exit. This turned out to be one of the greatest seating calls of all time.
Pre-Cana is the opposite of a concert. The back rows fill up first. As the seating options dwindle, the only seats to be found are in the front. For late arrivals there will be no escape. No choice but to stare at the speaker, deer in headlights, for two hours. The rest of the crowd was at leisure to read, knit or whisper snide remarks.
We had not fooled ourselves. We were certain we would be bored beyond recognition. As a result we had come equipped to kill time by any means necessary. Books. Magazines. PDA. New York Times Crossword. Sketch pads. We divvied up our swag as we waited for the session to start.
Ten minutes after the hour the room was full and buzzing with conversation. A middle-aged woman and man took the podium. She was short and round-faced with thick glasses. Barely visible behind the podium, like Dr. Ruth behind a tree. He was tall, thin and balding with a half-hearted comb-over.
They began to talk but neglected to turn on the microphone. Mouths were moving, but nothing was heard over the din of the audience. They had the rapt attention of the first row for certain — the only people who could hear what was being said. The remainder of the crowd gradually quieted down until finally they had the attention of the audience. Still, nothing could be heard. This went on for five minutes.
After numerous shouts of “We can’t hear you!” they realized we weren’t bluffing and switched on the microphone. The speakers popped loudly, waking any slumbering audience members. The man mumbled something about using a microphone. Then they announced they would start over. Fine for us, we hadn’t heard a thing yet, but I pitied the folks in the front row for having to undergo a double dose.
Evidently a scene began. What it was about was not understood. All turning on the microphone did was make their inaudibility more obvious. Still, no one save the front row had any idea what was really going on.
The inaudible scene carried on for a few minutes more. The folks out of hearing range, rows 2-30, simply raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders amongst one another. Finally, someone in the middle aggressively announced the fact that we could not hear anything.
This time the duo moved to rectify the situation once and for all. That involved turning the volume knob and calling out to the audience to see if they could be heard. After a few moments it was determined that all rows were within audio range.
They began the scene again. From the top.
Imagine if you will, bad actors reading a bad play in a mediocre theatre with shoddy equipment in front of a captive audience of miserable critics. If you’re able to do that well, you’ll be able to recreate the experience any time.
The scene was about a couple, married presumably, who are deciding where to go for dinner. One of the scenarios resulted in conflict. The other results in going to dinner.
I don’t have much experience getting in pre-dinner conflicts. I tend to shirk any decision-making responsibility and agree to most restaurant suggestions offered me. That could be because of non-confrontational personality traits or simply hunger. Regardless, the scene didn’t speak much to me, nor did it seem to speak much to anyone in the room. If it was speaking to them, they weren’t listening. They were busy looking around, bewildered. Hurt even.
When the scene ended there was a pause. Hopefully not for applause, because none was forthcoming. The duo, the only ones in the room who understood what was just talked about, proceeded on to the biography phase. Unfortunately, the biography phase involved more mumbling and microphone popping of P’s, T’s and B’s as well as coming in and out of audible range.
We all learned that they were both allegedly happily married, not to each other. We understood her to be a counselor, psychologist and mother of five. He was a counselor and hypnotist. Quite fitting given his monotone, lure-you-into-a-trance delivery. He was married thirty years or something with great kids as well, he told us. I made a mental note not to ever be hypnotized or analyzed by either. They both were Vicodin in human form.
The audience was underwhelmed. They had lost us at hello. And if not then, then during the mumbled scene. Or the repeats that followed. Or the biographies. When she told us she’d been leading Pre-Cana classes for over 20 years, my heart sank. I felt she should be jailed.
With the acting and biography phase over, we moved into the part about how great marriage is. They told us how glad they were that we came, stunningly oblivious to the fact that we had no choice. It was the equivalent of working the food line at the Alcatraz and thanking everyone for eating at your restaurant. One would have been hard-pressed to find an individual who wanted to be there, much less pay $100 for the privilege. We were there solely for the piece of paper that said we survived it, and which qualified us to get married in a really old church.
At this point, and to our misery, we were still about five and a half hours away from getting that piece of paper. We’d need to spend the next two Wednesday evenings here. Then and only then, precious paper in hand, would we be able to banish them from our memories.
At some point during the droning they mentioned that the reason for Pre-Cana indoctrination is to make sure everyone realized how great marriage is. That point seemed fairly obvious seeing as we were there in the first place because we thought marriage was a great idea. I am assuming that if one thought marriage was a terrible idea, they would not pay $100 and listen to a tranquilizing chat on how good it is for six hours.
They were preaching to the converted. The converted were really, really bored.
I had finished one magazine and readied a book when they announced a new plan: the formation of random groups of eight. People turned their chairs around, to the sides, left, right, everywhere. They formed semi-circles, circles, walls, clusters, knots, spirals. I slid back and closer to the exit, facing only my wife-to-be.
They wanted us to have a group of eight but someone’s fianc’ hadn’t bothered to come that night. We had a group of seven. Then six when the odd man out squeezed away from our community to read a book in the back. We then had three couples facing different directions and not each other.
Many folks now had their backs to the speakers, myself included. Some tried to mingle in their new groups. One thing was for certain: no one seemed to care what the speakers were mumbling about.
A new neighbor who faced my fianc’e’s right shoulder made an awkward attempt to introduce himself to me with her in between us. He gave up.
We entered the discussion phase of the torture. The speakers asked the various groups to discuss “inspirational married couples” that we knew of. One of the few people to take that seriously also happened to be in our group. He asked me what couples came to mind. I shrugged my shoulders, as did my fianc’e. He then told us his fianc’e’s parents are a great example because they’re so happily married. Everyone looked away as if he were a homeless guy who had approached our caf’ table.
As time crept onward the crowd tended to grow in volume and activity. That didn’t stop the duo from speaking. They continued bantering about something. It was only audible to only the first few rows, but that seemed okay for them. The captive row members looked about sadly, planning an exit strategy. It was a certainly that they wouldn’t be late next week, lest they get front row seats again.
We detected an accent among our group and struck up a conversation with a Ukrainian couple. We discussed the merits of the Pre-Cana. It was determined there were none. Then we discussed what the chance was that we could escape. We wondered what the next session would be like and tried to discern who in the crowd looked like a doomed couple. Anything to pass the time.
We had been provided workbooks and information sheets and statistics and explanations of what makes a good marriage. That which was not goofy we wound up disagreeing with. The contention that birth control causes divorce was a fun one. We wrote silly answers to “serious” questions, mocked the duo and looked at our watches.
The crowd reminded me of a time when I was performing for an improvisational comedy troupe in a Christmas show for employees of Microsoft. We were ignored, scowled at and drowned out by the audience. After fifteen minutes of torture we packed up, took the check, and left. Sadly, tonight’s performers had more staying power; well-practiced playing to hostile crowds.
They kept on. Determined to hold us through to the end. Drowned out by bags packing, zippers zipping, chatter, cell phones activating and chairs sliding. The only thing we heard, inspiring both hope and dread, was there would be a different speaker next week.
Ten minutes from the end, a few brave souls left, as though fleeing a horrible ballgame. They had correctly surmised that the registration sheets we handed in earlier were the only form of attendance being taken.
At 9 o’clock, before the speakers could finish dismissing us, my fianc’e and I were halfway down the stairs, behind the Ukrainian couple.
“See you next week,” I said.
“Eh,” he answered in a thick accent, “Maybe not.”
Indeed, I never saw them again.