In Vegas, the smart guys who keep the house comfortably in business would have taken these odds off the boards.
Fifty years of marriage? For Judi and Mike Diedling? For a couple whose marriage had deteriorated so badly that both spouses felt as if they had been dropped on the tarmac in Siberia in flip-flops, T-shirts and shorts?
But there they were on June 11 – inside St. Philip Neri Church in Metairie along with more than 200 other couples – giving thanks for the miracle of a resurrection too sublime for words.
Did they ever, in the darkest days of their dead-end relationship, feel they would have been celebrating 50 years of marriage together?
“Knowing where we were, I wasn’t thinking about 50 years – I was thinking about the next day,” Mike said.
“I don’t think we even thought about anniversaries that far ahead,” Judi said. “We were just working to get to the next anniversary.”
Even looking ahead one year at a time, that seemed like a sucker’s bet. In 1993 – 26 years after they had been married at St. John Brebeuf Church in the Archdiocese of Chicago – Judi, a dental hygienist, silently poured out her agony at St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Slidell, praying, but mostly sobbing.
“The crisis was so staggering at the time I could barely catch my breath,” Judi recalled. “It was such a monumental moment, not knowing where to turn. I knew there was something wrong with this relationship. I remember looking up at the crucifix saying, ‘You know what’s wrong with my marriage! I need an answer!’”
The next morning, almost immobilized by her grief, Judi fought off the temptation to stay home from work. She had patients to take care of.
“I felt if I kept my mind busy, that would keep me going,” Judi said. “I was totally broken.”
In the middle of the morning, a woman walked in and sat in Judi’s chair. She had taken a canceled appointment.
“She said to me, ‘I sense that you’re in great stress,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m fine,’ and she said, ‘No, you’re not,’” Judi said.
The woman went on to tell Judi that she had initially declined to take the open appointment but “all of a sudden felt called by God” to take it.
And now, she was sitting in the chair front of Judi. Instead of playing the role of a captive audience – after all, Judi had “the sharp tools” in her hands – the patient deftly turned around the dental spotlight.
“I just turned into a pillar of jello,” Judi said. “She told me there was a priest at her parish, St. Margaret Mary, and he was the person I needed to talk to.”
After the appointment, Judi got herself back together and made the call. Father Benson just happened to be walking through the office and picked up the phone after a few rings.
“I told him, ‘My marriage is falling apart and I’m in dreadful pain and a lady from your parish told me I needed to speak with you,’” Judi said. “He said, ‘OK, I have 7:30 tonight available. Be there.’”
When Judi showed up alone that night, Father Benson took one look and remarked: “Well, you’re here – where the heck is he?”
In what Judi believes is another way the Holy Spirit worked in their lives, Father Benson told Judi that just that afternoon he had read a newspaper article about a program he had never heard of or knew much about. It was something called Retrouvaille, and a couple in his parish, Bonnie and Richard Chase, were in charge of the local group.
“I don’t know if this is what you need, but here is their number. Call them,” he told Judi.
“Things that happened along our path of recovery taught us there are no coincidences – none,” Mike said.
Judi called the Chases, but they told her the next Retrouvaille weekend would not be for another three months.
“So, we continued to go through the motions of being in a marriage, and I was not a very nice person,” Judi said.
“That’s when she found her voice,” Mike said, laughing.
“But it was not the voice of God,” Judi replied.
Their weekend in November 1993 – and their subsequent commitment to attend several follow-up sessions– changed everything. Father Steve Bruno, who has worked with couples on Retrouvaille weekends, described it as the paschal mystery.
“It’s the birth, the growth and the death of a relationship – and then the resurrection,” Mike said. “We’re certainly a perfect example of coming back from death. If we could do it, anybody can do it. The whole purpose of the weekend is to get people back into communication. If they’re not talking, you’re never going to get this solved. The weekend is just to get your head on straight to mentally go after this thing.”
In the 24 years since their marriage was restored, the Diedlings have become the coordinating couple for Retrouvaille in the archdiocese.
“I’ve told people it’s as close as I’ll ever come to seeing a miracle, because you see them on the weekend and after the weekend,” Mike said. “Most couples are visibly changed on the weekend. They come in on Friday night not touching one another, and they don’t even want to sit next to one another. Some don’t. By Sunday afternoon, many are holding hands. This is a different group than we saw on Friday night.”
The follow-up sessions allow the couple to delve deeper into their challenges.
“I remember heading to the post sessions and then turning around and heading for home and then turning around again and going back to the posts,” Mike said. “It was somewhere in that sequence of six weeks that we figured out we could do this.”
The next Retrouvaille weekend will be held July 21-23 at Lumen Christi Retreat Center in Schriever, Louisiana (near Houma). There is a qualification that if a couple is experiencing physical abuse, “they need to fix that before they do the weekend.”
After the Diedlings left St. Philip Neri Church following the anniversary celebration, they picked up dinner for their grandkids so that their son and daughter-in-law, celebrating their sixth anniversary, could go out alone on a dinner date.
“One of the great things was that as we renewed our vows, I listened to them without the sparkles I had in my eyes on my marriage day,” Judi said. “I had a true sense of what those vows entail. So, it was a renewal. And then letting our kids celebrate their anniversary was wonderful because we could give them the joy that we were experiencing also.”
For more information on Retrouvaille, call the archdiocesan Family Life Apostolate at 861-6243 or go to www.retrouvaille.org.