In the summer of 2012, James and Anne Marie were at different places in their lives, but were walking the same path of faith. Those paths eventually converged, but not without some crosses along the way.
James, 24-years-old at the time, seemed to have the world as his oyster. He had landed his dream job as a math teacher and head football coach at his former high school in Nevada. "But what I really wanted was someone to share it all with," he recalled. "I had been on CatholicMatch for about two years, and hadn't really had any success. I decided I would do one last six-month subscription and really focus myself."
Anne Marie was in an entirely different work scenario. Two years younger than James, she felt it necessary to leave her first nursing job. She termed the work environment "toxic" and relocated to another town in the central Illinois area. Anne Marie was going to start over, and was also looking for someone special, but by no means was she optimistic about CatholicMatch. "Looking at profiles was what I did because I was impatient for God to send someone," she said. "But I had no real expectation of finding anyone."
The distance between them was substantial, but for James, looking long-distance was close to a necessity. "I'm from the middle of nowhere," he said. "As in, '200 miles from the closest Wal-Mart', kind of nowhere." Indeed, James' hometown is a four-hour drive from the nearest airport.
He came across Anne Marie's profile. There was a physical attraction, and he liked her good sense of humor that came through her writing. He certainly liked that she answered "Yes" to all seven faith questions on the profile. So he decided to send her an emotigram.
It was on November 17 that Anne Marie logged in and saw the message waiting for her. She reviewed James' profile and was impressed. "I was struck by how manly he seemed in his pictures," she said. "He hunted, he fished, he hiked through the mountains with his dog Wally. And he was right on in terms of faith matters. So I responded my usual demure way."
Anne Marie's demure method of response was to write" WADDUP JAMES? HAPPY SUNDAY!"
"She had me at WADDUP JAMES," he said later.
James and Anne Marie traded emails until shortly before Christmas, when he summoned the nerve to ask for her phone number. On Christmas Eve he sent her a text message.
"I almost didn't respond," Anne Marie said bluntly. "He didn't have the guts to call, but I eventually did respond. And sometime that following week, he did call." In between the text and the call, Anne Marie mentioned to her father that she was in correspondence with someone from Nevada. He recommended caution, given the distance.
They both did realize the need to meet in person, as the emails, phone calls and Skype sessions were drawing them closer. "I still remember Skyping with her for the first time," he said. "She was so beautiful. And so I did the craziest thing I have ever done in my life. I got on a plane to visit Anne Marie and her family for a few days."
This was in early February of 2013, and the early parts of the visit were awkward, in spite of the groundwork that had been laid in the months leading up. "I had trouble getting him to talk," Anne Marie said. "For the 20-minute car ride home, he didn't say more than 30 words to me."
"To say I was nervous would be the understatement of the century," James admitted. "She was far more beautiful (in person) than I had imagined. I wanted to tell her just how beautiful I thought she was, but was afraid she would take it the wrong way."
James did have a lot on his plate that first date—"meeting the girl, her six siblings, two parents, a dog and a bird on the first date," as Anne Marie acknowledged. Nonetheless, she wondered if they had made a mistake and directly asked him if he planned on talking more the next day. "Bold, and not very good at taking the other person's perspective," she recalled.
Fortunately, they were able to get settled in with each other the next few days, and the rest of the weekend went as they had hoped. By the end of the visit, James asked Anne Marie if she would be his girlfriend, and she accepted. And as a bonus they got an extra night—a misread of James' 8:05 departure flight as being 8:50 resulted in a late arrival to the airport and the need to leave the next day.
Two months later, Anne Marie made a return visit to Nevada and spent four days with James. It started a pattern of monthly visits, as they took turns traveling. Conversations about one of them relocating to be closer to the other were taking place. But there was also movement going on in Anne Marie's life that temporarily took the relationship another direction.
"I was reluctant to invest myself fully," she said. "I had visited several convents the year before I met James, and while I had not felt a pull toward the religious life, I never really let go, or embraced a call to married life." Anne Marie questioned how married life could possibly meet the standards of holiness set by religious life.
Furthermore, she struggled with anxiety and fear in making her decision. "I was operating under the assumption that God had one plan for me, that it was up to me to find it, and I was so afraid that if I didn't pick the right path I wouldn't be happy." Then on top of this, she was working with a new spiritual director who took her anxiety about the relationship as being reflective of the relationship, not taking into account her past struggles with anxiety.
Anne Marie made mention to James of some occasional worries, but had not revealed the full scope of her struggle with discernment. Consequently, what happened in mid-August, shortly after her second visit of the summer, knocked him for a loop.
"I was starting football season," he said. "The next morning (after Anne Marie returned home to Illinois) she calls to tell me that she can't date me anymore. Anne Marie had been the best thing to ever happen to me and suddenly she's gone! I've always considered myself a strong person, but I was a shattered man. All I could do was pray that Anne Marie would find the peace she said she was looking for."
The fact Anne Marie had initiated the breakup should not be taken for a lack of emotional angst on her part. "August 16 began the worst two months of both our lives," she said. "I told James that it just wasn't God's will for us to be together right now."
She spent time in Adoration composing emails and letters that tried to explain to him what was in her heart. "I told him and acknowledged to myself that he was the best man I had ever met, and that our personalities suited each other uncannily well. But, I told myself, marriage wasn't holy enough. I must not be called." Anne Marie recalled telling family and friends that maybe the relationship with James was a door God would re-open in the future. "But God had not closed the door," she later realized. "I had."
Try though she might, Anne Marie couldn't let go of James, as she prepared for a visit to a cloistered Carmelite order in October. She also followed the advice of a family friend, who suggested she take serious stock of her life, starting with examining both the talents and desires God had given her.
This inventory of her gifts and desires showed Anne Marie that she was someone who liked to talk and do things with other people and to organize activities. The prayer life of the Carmelites was the path to sanctity for some, but would it be so for her? Her inventory seemed to suggest otherwise, and she realized that everything from Church teaching to the writings of the saints to the witness of married saints was a clear message that matrimony itself held an exalted place in the eyes of God. "I ignored my natural gifts for a mistaken ideal," she said.
James was trying to be at peace with whatever Anne Marie's decision would be. Some of her emails helped him understand the situation a little bit better, but he admitted to be unsure how ready he would be when she reached a conclusion. To make matters worse, he was having a rough fall in his professional life, as his team struggled, and "seemed to emulate my spirit at the time."
Anne Marie concluded her discernment process and was open to the idea that marriage was her chosen path and there was a strong possibility that James was the man she should share that with. He was on a bus riding to his team's final football game of the season when he received a text from her telling him as much.
If this were a Hollywood movie, the reunion would be easy. But in the real world, there are hurts and wounds. "I can't quite express how hurt I had been this whole time and I was unsure how I would ever be able to forgive Anne Marie for what had happened," James said. "I knew that I loved her, and I knew that I still wanted to marry her. I just wasn't sure how I could release all the anger I had inside."
Anne Marie knew all too well what James was dealing with, and wondered if they could move past the struggles of the last two months. "How could he trust me in the future, with my track record?"
The answer was that the Mother of God intervened, and under her title of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots.
James went to a Eucharistic conference the day after receiving the text from Anne Marie, and a religious sister gave a talk on Our Lady's role as the undoer of knots. "As I listened, I could feel the knots in my heart loosen," he said. "All of that anger and hurt from those two months were gone by the time that talk was over."
The couple renewed their monthly visits and worked on communication. This past June, James made a major decision—he gave up his dream job to move to Illinois and be closer to Anne Marie. "I had always told my team that their priorities should be in the order of faith, family and football. If I asked them to have those priorities, I should live them by as well." Illinois had more to offer he and Anne Marie as a couple.
The days of Skype dates and travel plans were gone. Now James and Anne Marie could have dinner together, or he could come by for breakfast, if she had a rough night shift at the hospital. "I saw God's hand more and more in our lives," Anne Marie said.
This past July, a Saturday afternoon dawned bright and sunny. "I'd been trying to imagine some way to propose to the most beautiful woman in the world," he recalled. "Unfortunately, I was not blessed with the greatest of imaginations." He trusted the advice of his father, as well as Anne Marie's father, who assured him that when the moment is right, James would know.
They each went to confession on this Saturday, although circumstances had them at separate churches. He arrived at her apartment before she returned, and brought two things—the ring, along with a letter that he had written her after Anne Marie's very first visit to Nevada. It was a letter that had never been sent.
James and Anne Marie were already reading Three To Get Married together, and he suggested that they do a little more reading. He read on his phone, while she read a hard copy. He asked her how many pages were left, which Anne Marie found odd, but flipped to the back of the book. The letter fell out.
Anne Marie knew that James had written her an unsent letter, and as she began reading, she realized that this was that piece of correspondence.
"When I wrote it, I envisioned Anne Marie reading it right before I proposed," James said. The last words I wrote were "Now turn around so I can see your pretty eyes."
"And that was that," Anne Marie said enthusiastically. "July 19, 2014, James and I became engaged!!"
James and Anne Marie still have to set a wedding date, one that will be sometime near next Easter. James is also still searching for a job in the area, as he makes a complete career change. It's an obstacle they can face with confidence, but walking the path of faith, they have already overcome so much together in their sincere desire to find and do God's will.