Battle with alcoholism teaches couple that forgiveness is ‘greatest act of mercy’

Setting foot in the warm comfort of Joe and Lori Leis’ rural home near Princeton, the casual observer would never guess the trials the loving, hospitable couple experienced in their 43 years of marriage.

Not many would guess that 23 years ago, on her 40th birthday, Lori planned to pack her bags and leave her husband after he left for work that morning. But for some reason Joe decided not to go to work that day. The couple believes it was divine intervention.

“I asked him, in not a very nice way, why he hadn’t left for work yet,” Lori recalled. “He said he thought he’d spend the day with me on my birthday.”

That was something in their 20 years of marriage he had never done. For much of that time, Joe had been an alcoholic.

“Alcohol plays a real strange role in your life,” Joe said. “It romances you and then it drops you like a rock. It leads you into depression and into despair,” Joe said. “Our marriage was more than rocky; there was nothing left of it.”

The path to healing

Joe and Lori married just before their 20th birthdays. He entered the Air Force and was stationed in Bismarck, North Dakota, where they started their family. They later moved to St. Paul and then to  Princeton.

Joe stopped going to church in high school but Lori was faithful in attending Mass and actively engaged in her faith life. One Sunday, shortly after the birth of their fourth child, Joe noticed that she didn’t take the kids to church.

Lori and Joe Leis relax outside their home near Princeton. (Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)
Lori and Joe Leis relax outside their home near Princeton. (Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

“She said she just couldn’t manage the older three and a newborn,” Joe remembered. “I didn’t want her to miss out so I said I’d go along with her.

“At the end of the homily, the priest would always say, ‘So that’s why you need to turn your life over to Jesus Christ,’” Joe said. “And I distinctly remember saying to myself, ‘Yeah, I know, but not today.’”

Shortly after he began attending Mass with Lori and the kids, the couple attended a parish mission at St. Edward Church in Princeton (now Christ Our Light Church).

“It was advertised that all you had to do was attend and you could start life with a clean slate,” Joe said. “At the end of the mission, that priest closed it with, ‘So that’s why you need to turn your life over to Jesus Christ.’”

What really struck a chord with Joe at the mission was “forgiveness.”

“The whole idea that we are called to forgive others but we also have to be forgiven and accept that forgiveness ourselves, that was huge for me,” Joe said. “I wasn’t yet willing to say I was turning my life over to Jesus, but I took that step of not only trying to forgive myself but to forgive all the things that went on.”

Shortly after the mission experience, Joe voluntarily entered treatment for his alcoholism.

“I knew that if I didn’t, I would lose her, if I hadn’t already,” he said. “One of the things they tell you in recovery is that you can’t do it for someone else. You have to do it for yourself or it isn’t going to work.”

Learning how to love

After treatment, Joe worked on trying to “fix” himself. Despite the changes going on inside of him, he remembers arguing with Lori nearly every day.

“One of my goals in recovery was to mend my relationship with Lori. I didn’t know if that was possible,” Joe said.

At the same time — right around her 40th birthday — Lori was at her lowest point in their marriage. Every morning as Joe left for work and her children for school, she stood in the window, waving to them and uttering a prayer of protection for them. Then, she added:

“Please help me, Lord. I just need your help. I’m giving it to you. I’m putting it all in your hands.” But as the day went on, she’d pick up the same old burdens.

In recovery, Joe’s counselor suggested marriage counseling. At first Lori agreed, but then fear took hold and she worried that a marriage counselor might advise them to part ways. She shared her worry with Joe and the couple decided to attend a Marriage Encounter weekend, which ended up being a good first step.

Through Marriage Encounter, the couple was introduced to Retrouvaille, a program of Catholic origin intended to help heal and renew marriages.

“The bottom line was we had to learn how to love each other. That takes a lot of patience, especially when alcoholism is so self-centered itself,” Joe said. “When you perceive all your relationships, almost your whole worth, around that beer bottle, I had to give that up, walk away from my own family, just to survive. And that’s what it was, survival. That’s where her patience came in.”

For years, Lori said she tried to block Joe out of her life.

“I did not ask him to leave. When the kids were small, they needed both of their parents,” she said. “So I had built this fortress around myself and it kept getting thicker and thicker. Once we started with Retrouvaille, I had to destroy the fortress.”

Both Joe and Lori decided to volunteer to be presenters in the Retrouvaille program.

“I had lost my ability to even be patient. Once we began writing our talks for Retrouvaille, I realized we couldn’t change everything in a year. But I could say, old tapes are playing and I have to turn them off. I need to be patient,” Lori said.

Finding forgiveness

Spiritual works of mercy -- Bear wrongs patiently. (CNS logo/Malcolm Grear Designers) Editors: Part of a series of logos for use with stories about the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
“Bear wrongs patiently” is one of the spiritual works of mercy.

At that point, Joe still had not fully handed his life over to Christ. That came at another parish mission, this time led by a religious sister.

“Wouldn’t you know her final closing statement was, ‘So that’s why you need to turn your life over to Christ’?” Joe said.

She offered the audience the opportunity to come forward and pray at the foot of the cross.

“That was it for me,” Joe said. “That was the moment I turned it all over to Jesus. I said, ‘OK, it’s yours.’ Life has never been the same since. That’s not saying I don’t still go into my self-centeredness, but I’m trying to follow Jesus, to walk in his ways.”

The couple, who have now been married 43 years, worked with Retrouvaille for 18 years. Later, they became involved with Pacem in Terris, a Franciscan Center of Spirituality where people come for private retreats located near St. Francis, Minnesota.

The two volunteered together and made professions as secular Franciscans. Eventually, they joined the staff and worked there 10 years until retiring last year. The couple now makes their home near Princeton where they say they are awaiting their next mission from God.

“When you go through something like alcoholism, you don’t see your wrongs,” Joe said. “I never ever thought of what I was doing to Lori and the kids. I was only thinking of myself. But once the Lord pulled me out of that, to see how much mercy she had given me from all the wrongs I had done and that she was able to forgive me and move forward with me, is a tremendous blessing.

“I thank the Lord every day for that,” he said, “not only for his forgiveness but also for the forgiveness she’s given me,” Joe said.

“And it goes both ways,” Lori added. “For all those years, for the way I treated him, that he was able to forgive me for that and to be patient with me as I moved through my own changes in how I saw him.”

“Forgiveness is the greatest act of mercy,” Joe said. “We keep doing that together.”

What does the church teach about bearing wrongs patiently?

The recent canonization of Mother Teresa of Kolkata brings to mind her oft-repeated encouragement, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” This principle figures into a discussion of any of the works of mercy, but it seems especially germane to the call to bear wrongs patiently.

By Maureen Otremba
By Maureen Otremba

What comes to mind when you think of “bearing wrongs patiently?” If you’re like me, it’s the list of the injustices you’ve suffered and the integrity and resolve required to carry on. Or if you’re a bit more globally-minded, it’s the wrongs visited upon your family, your neighbors, members of your community or even the helpless victims of crime. How is anyone rightly expected to bear these evils patiently?

First, let’s clarify what is being asked of us. A brief look at the Scriptures and the principles of Catholic social teaching which arise from them confirms that we are to work for justice and the protection of human dignity at all its stages. We are not enjoined to dismiss sin, violence or wrongdoing, or to pretend that wrong is right.

But while we work for justice and human dignity, we are to patiently lift these burdens, even as Jesus carried the cross and charged us to do the same. And if we’re honest about it, the burdens that chafe us the most are only occasionally monumental. More often, it’s the daily shortcomings of our spouse, children, co-workers, fellow parishioners, and even ourselves that require patient bearing. As C. S. Lewis observed, it’s not 490 offenses you have to forgive your brother for, but rather the same offense 490 times.

In a similar vein, we are charged with bearing patiently the wrongs we experience that are incidental, unintentional or ignored. Like when a driver cuts us off in traffic, or we are inadvertently excluded, or any of a hundred other slights we endure.

But notice that the object is not just to endure. These aren’t the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Endurance, after all. Instead, they are all ordered to mercy. And just where is the mercy in bearing wrongs patiently? It is in imitating the way God treats us. Even when we sin, God loves us and does not equate us with the wrong we have done. God always wants good for us and sees in us a beloved son or daughter. We, too, must seek to see the person behind the wrongdoing and not reduce him or her to the action that is causing us grief. Such an attitude grows out of the “great love” Mother Teresa epitomized: the love at the heart of mercy.

Maureen Otremba, a writer and workshop presenter, is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Sauk Rapids.

Author: Kristi Anderson

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