Pray, Date, Marry

Catholic speaker offers advice for finding true love.

“Become the woman of your dreams, and you’ll attract the man of your dreams,” Sarah Swafford advises young women.

As “dorm mom,” or resident hall director, to 142 girls who lived in Benedictine College’s St. Scholastica Hall, Swafford had a “front-row seat” into the lives of young women who came to her to talk about their dating struggles.

Her trusted advice led to a ministry of mentoring and speaking. Her message on the importance of what she calls “emotional virtue” in relationships has been reaching audiences throughout the United States; she speaks to high-school students, college students, parents and Catholics in the pews. Last December, she was featured on EWTN’s Life on the Rock.

Emotional virtue, she says, is the solution for an ordered, drama-free life, which helps one center one’s life on Christ rather than the opposite sex. Doing so, she asserts, allows one to strive for virtue within oneself and to follow the natural progression of a relationship based on friendship, patience and trust, in order to build what will last — rather than the world’s model of meeting someone, dating and moving in together.

“I think what happens in our culture a lot is that girls get so depressed and so bummed out, and guys get so impatient and tired of the waiting, and they find someone who is remotely what they want and they throw all their eggs in that basket,” Swafford explains. “And whenever that person doesn’t turn out to be what they want, they’re devastated. It all goes back to the whole idea that no one person can be your everything. It has to be Christ.”
Swafford stresses that when people follow God’s plan, relationships are built to last because they are built on real friendship, which becomes stronger with time.

Happily married to Benedictine College theology professor Andrew Swafford, and mother to three children, 5, 4 and 7 months, Swafford shows by example that what she teaches really works. She met her husband when they were both students at Benedictine, and they were good friends before they started dating.

“We met when I came to school. He was discerning the priesthood when I met him. I got to know him as a friend,” Swafford shares, emphasizing the importance of getting to know someone in the company of friends, family and in different situations to thoroughly know his or her character.

Swafford says that Benedictine College was instrumental in her spiritual growth and deepened her zeal and understanding of the Catholic faith — which, in turn, helped her discern that Andy was the man she should marry.

On a retreat, a priest gave her valuable advice on how to find the right man to marry.

“He said to run toward the Lord — and when you get there, look out of the corner of your eye to see who has been running with you,” she recalls.

Andy was that man — on the same path, seeking God, just like Sarah. As their relationship followed the natural progression of friendship, group dating, then courting, she knew that God’s plan for them was engagement and marriage: “It was our junior/senior year when we were dating. God raised up the two of us.”

She knew that Andy was the man she wanted to marry because they had established a strong relationship built on friendship and trust, and “the chemistry was right.”

“Andy asked me to go on a walk with him,” Swafford remembers. “He asked if I would like to serve the Lord with him as a dating couple.”

Many months later, while in Rome on a Benedictine-sponsored trip, Andy told Sarah he loved her as they stood in front of an outdoor fountain. He proposed to her in the campus’ adoration chapel her senior year, and they married after college.

“Andy is my best friend,” she says. “He is the most phenomenal man. I like being with him.”

Following college, Swafford served two years as assistant director of admissions for Benedictine, where she traveled the country as a recruiter. The following three years she served as resident hall director and lived with her husband and young sons in the dorm’s apartment. During that time she says that women often told her they felt like an emotional mess inside, although on the outside they knew how to be chaste with their bodies.

Swafford coined the phrase “emotocoaster” to describe the emotional roller coaster that many people were experiencing in the dating world. She said that, deep down, many women have a negative self and body image and that they don’t realize that their bodies are sacred. One of her talks, entitled “Tackling the Beast: Body Image and Self-Worth,” addresses this problem. Her other talks include: “Emotional Virtue: Reclaiming Virtue for a Drama-Free Life,” “Emotional Virtue for Men: The Gentleman’s Guide,” “Don’t Shoot the Messenger: My Interview With the Guys,” which focuses on how women play a role in helping or hurting men with their actions, words and wardrobes, and “The Natural Progression of a Relationship.”

She enjoys sharing her ideas and faith with others.

“I love getting feedback. After the EWTN (show), I had 129 emails, and 50% to 60% of them were women just totally resonating with the message. And I thought it was really interesting that the other 40% were from men — college and high-school guys — who said, ‘You know, I really struggle with this, too,’” she says, emphasizing the common theme of “I really struggle with becoming overemotional, overly involved and overcommitted before the time seems to be right, and then she dumps me, or he dumps me. And I’m left in broken pieces because I ‘sold the farm’ because I thought I was going to marry this person and we had only dated for six months.”

The topics she addresses relate to and are rooted in Church teaching.

“So that the ‘I do’ of the spouses may be a free and responsible act and so that the marriage covenant may have solid and lasting human and Christian foundations, preparation for marriage is of prime importance,” the Catechism states.

“It is imperative to give suitable and timely instruction to young people, above all in the heart of their own families, about the dignity of married love, its role and its exercise, so that, having learned the value of chastity, they will be able at a suitable age to engage in honorable courtship and enter upon a marriage of their own” (1632).

Currently, Swafford serves as director of special projects for Catholic identity at Benedictine. She enjoys mentoring young people and helping them navigate through the years of high school and college and find virtuous, happy relationships.

Swafford recommends young women critique their closets with a friend who can serve as their “accountability partner”: Get rid of clothing that is not projecting the image you wish to portray, so that you can strive to dress modestly.

“We went through our wardrobes, trying on outfits and asking what impression it gave,” she recalls of her own “wardrobe analysis.”

One of her most practical tips is: “Don’t rush anything.” 

In dating, be slow to share everything about yourself, she adds. Be careful not to trust the other person too soon. You should reveal things about yourself gradually, with discretion. 

“Ask yourself, ‘Has he earned my trust?’” Swafford explains.

And chastity is key, of course, as the Church teaches: “Reserve for marriage the expressions of affection that belong to married love” (Catechism, 2350).

“If you have watched a person deny himself for you,” Swafford says, “you know it is special.”

Lisa Socarras writes from
Annandale, Virginia.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.