Beth and Ryan Grusenski have been a presenting couple for the archdiocesan Engaged Enrichment conference for four years, addressing soon-to-be-newlyweds on prayer, natural family planning, sacramental prioritizing and even how to reconcile different temperaments within a relationship.
In this ministry, they offer the wisdom of their eight years of marriage and the lessons they have learned in the decade since they met as undergraduatess at Marquette University.
But the Grusenskis say they find the experience often provides a teaching moment for their own relationship.
“It’s been fruitful for us,” Beth said. “It certainly forces us to communicate in a way that otherwise we wouldn’t have to. It’s one thing to stand up there and tell people how it should be, but I think we have a desire not only to talk about what the church says and why that’s important, but also to live that.
“It’s sort of a call, every time, to revisit are we practicing what we preach, and if not, how can we reassess?”
The Grusenskis acknowledge that the daylong conference for engaged couples, held at locations throughout the archdiocese during the year, is not always every future bride and groom’s favorite experience. Many of the couples are there simply because it is a requirement of getting married in the archdiocese, and those who want to wed in a Catholic church are required to attend.
Nevertheless, the Grusenskis, members of St. Dominic Parish, Brookfield, have a profound belief in the importance of the ministry, and in proper preparation for sacramental marriage.
In a recent interview at their Menomonee Falls home, with their three young children playing at their feet, the Grusenskis described the marriage preparation process as a “ripe opportunity” for the Holy Spirit to work in young couples.
“Even if the door is just cracked open because Grandma wants you to get married in the Catholic Church – well, you’re gonna get married in the Catholic Church and then we have the unique blessing of having sacramental grace for the rest of our lives, and it’s going to work on us if we let it,” said Beth. “That’s the mentality that I go into (the Engaged Enrichment conference) with: the door is obviously cracked open, whether it’s Mom and Dad telling you we’re not going to show up unless it’s in the church, or the culture you grew up in, or because it really truly means something to you – it’s cracked and … the grace is going to work on us if we let it.”
Life’s hurdles a source of grace
For the Grusenskis, that grace was part of what brought her, a freshman, and him, a sophomore, together at Marquette in 2005. Eleven years later, that same grace has been key in helping them overcome stumbling blocks life has put in their path.
Just a few months after they started dating, Ryan, a New Jersey native drawn to Marquette because of the Jesuit education, told Beth, a California girl who came to Milwaukee looking for a change in scenery, he was discerning the priesthood.
Her reaction was not what he expected.
“He looks at me and says, ‘This is usually when the girl leaves,’” recalled Beth with a smile. “And I said, ‘That’s fine with me. If he wants you, then let me not hold you back. You just let me know if you need to go do that.’”
“Her shoulder shrug at that idea that I was discerning the priesthood was, I think, one of the most significant things of our early relationship,” said Ryan. “For the other girls that I dated in college, it was like a source of hurt, as if I was somehow not committed to them. For Beth to react by saying, you know, whatever the Lord wills – that was really new to me and refreshing and gave me a perspective that I hadn’t had yet.”
Their relationship reached a new level of commitment at the end of Beth’s junior year when she spent six months studying in South Africa. Ryan had just graduated and was headed to New Jersey to teach German at his former Jesuit high school, and the young couple faced a big decision.
“Really, what it boiled down to was, is this worth remaining in a relationship while we’re so far apart?” said Ryan. “Once we decided it was worth remaining committed to one another, as a dating couple, like a week later, I was on the phone with my mom like, ‘I’ve got to buy a ring.’”
They married in June 2008 in California, just a few weeks after Beth graduated from Marquette with her degree in theology, social welfare and justice.
“I think because we got married in California and we were both living in different places, we did it really simple,” she said. “I think we realized that the most important part for us to plan was our liturgy, so that’s where we spent our time, and we let my parents plan the party afterwards.”
Their first dance song incorporated verses from the Song of Songs, to which the couple had a devotion – “You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.”
They settled in New Jersey and began their family – Sophia was born in 2010, Nathanael in 2012, and Helena in 2014. They returned to Wisconsin, where Ryan teaches at Marquette University High School, and Beth is a stay-at-home mom.
Parenthood is source of grace
Carrying on with what has become a theme in their relationship, parenthood – a state many would consider to have its own inherent trials – has become a unique source of grace for the Grusenskis.
“I think kids are probably our ticket to heaven,” said Ryan. “It’s funny; I think a lot about (how he wanted to become a priest) because I enjoy talking to priests about the complementarity of the priesthood and the call to marriage … they’re giving up something that we are accepting. And there’s humility in both paths, this tremendous humility – I’m giving this up for you, Lord, or I’m accepting this for you, Lord.
“There’s this beautiful interplay … the same way that a priest shepherds his flock and gives of himself to his flock, in terms of priorities, we (parents) give and give and give and give until you think you don’t have any more, and then the Lord fills you up again.”
“I think they teach us a lot about our virtues and a lot about our vices,” said Beth of her children. “You have to come face to face with those. And I think that Ryan and I have witnessed just the purity of spirit that exists in our children. We say all the time, Sophia is going to teach us how to be holy, because you watch this just purity – Mom and Dad’s patience has run out and she’s running to the rescue.”
“Sometimes, no one wants to feed Nathanael his meal except for Sophia!” said Ryan.
“That’s why the Lord tells us to love him with the faith of a child,” agreed Beth. “She reminds us how to.”
Let marriage form you
As a couple who married young by today’s standards (both were 22 at the time), the Grusenskis have a unique perspective on the formative aspect of marriage. It’s a big part of the advice they give to young couples discerning the vocation of married life.
“Marriage will form you, and (it is) not something that we need to be perfectly formed and have ourselves all figured out to enter into,” said Beth. “It’s a disservice society does to people to tell them you need to have it all figured out in order to take this step instead of allowing this to be part of their formation, because it will be part of their formation whether you’re 22 or 40 – marriage will be formative.”
Ryan encourages young couples to pray together – “and to know,” said Beth, “that that’s really awkward and hard.”
“Right, and when it falls on its face, do it again,” said Ryan. “Set aside a space weekly or bi-weekly where it’s just like, yup, this is our awkward moment now. We’re gonna do this.”
“Prayer together has allowed just an intimacy in our communication that wouldn’t exist otherwise,” said Beth. “Had we not gotten to the point in our journey … where we were ending our nights in vocal prayer, there are so many things that I would never know that Ryan was struggling with or asking the Lord to help him with.”
It’s all part of what Ryan describes as “crucible of prayer and failure” – which really encapsulates their view of marriage itself.
“I think marriage is just a tremendous opportunity to grow in holiness, specifically the way that the Catholic Church views marriage. It’s this really safe space, because hopefully neither person is going anywhere, to work on yourself and help the other person work on themselves,” said Beth.
“That is so significant,” agreed Ryan. “Why wouldn’t you want a partner to do that with? Why wouldn’t you want to be sacramentally bound in this safe space to work on the things that you need to work on to make you holy? I would much rather be working with my wife than alone.”
“When my worst comes out, it’s not going to be the deal-breaker,” said Beth. “The way that we view marriage, there are no deal-breakers. We’re here, and this is it, forever. Until death do us part.”