As a divorced woman, this weekend’s Gospel passage is difficult for me, for obvious reasons. I’m sure I’m not alone in this either, given the number of divorced, separated, and miserably married people I know. Jesus’ statement on divorce was as black and white as it could be. Those of us who have suffered broken marriages have learned to make peace with gray area for our own sanity, and Jesus’ teaching on divorce is like a punch in my gut.
I feel enough guilt and shame already, Lord. I often feel like a failure. Why on earth would my ever-compassionate Savior be so uncompassionate about divorce? Even Moses understood that some hearts are too hard and rigid to be able to live up to the ideals of holy matrimony.
I find that the wisdom of the Church is incredibly helpful in times of spiritual confusion like this; for example, the wisdom of pairing this Gospel passage with the Genesis story about how God created Eve. I often struggle with the words of Jesus until I look more closely at the roots of His message in the Old Testament.
“It is not good for the man to be alone,” God says in Genesis. “I will make a suitable partner for him.” In reading that statement, I meditate on several words. Partner. Suitable. Make. I. For me, there is a lot of healing in these words, if I’m willing to honestly assess who I was when I married, and who I still am.
When I got married, I was not willing to be someone’s partner. I wanted someone to be my partner. There is a subtle but powerful difference. One is centered on serving, while the other is centered on being served.
When I got married, it was in many ways not a “suitable” match. There were a handful of people who told me so, and even more who said nothing. I am so grateful for those who remained quiet, because I might have otherwise lashed out at them or not turned to them for support once things got hard, for fear of the “I told you so.”
One of those who was silent was the priest who married us. My ex was not Catholic, but he knew that having a shared faith was really important to me, so he told me he wanted to convert (and I believe to this day he was sincere in that desire, if only because he wanted to get married so much). My priest wisely discouraged him from doing so until after the wedding, recognizing that in my heart I was making his religious status a condition for marriage. I would not have married him if I’d known he wouldn’t convert. I now recognize how wrong this attitude is, but at the time, I saw nothing wrong with it.
In the Catholic faith, consenting to marry based on a condition to be met in the future is not truly willing consent and potentially invalidates the marriage, which is intended to be, among other qualities, unconditional. My priest’s silence, intentionally or not, laid the groundwork for me to pursue the healing process of seeking an annulment.
Setting a condition is just one of many examples in which I was not yet “suitable.” Trust me, there were others. And it would be very easy for me to list the ways in which I perceived him to be unsuitable for me, too. Not flawed. Unsuitable. Like Adam in the story, men are often asleep while God is forming us women into suitable partners. They look awake. They walk and talk and their body parts seem to be working, if we get that curious. But emotionally and spiritually, they are asleep. (Can I get an “Amen” from the ladies on this one?)
This sleep is apparently God-induced if we are to believe the archetypal template set forth in this weekend’s version of the creation story. It is very much a part of God’s will, and it’s not and never was my job as a woman to wake that man up. My job has been to allow God to make me, and leave the waking to God.
“I will make,” says the Creator. At the point that I got married, I had spent several years making myself. The “real” Christy as I perceived her was shy, insecure, unattractive, inarticulate, and generally incapable. So around the time I graduated from college, I made a decision to change myself. I worked hard on becoming more extroverted, sure of myself, well groomed, well-spoken, and competent.
The result of this over-exaggerated perception of my flaws and overcompensation for them resulted in an arrogant, verbose perfectionist obsessed with appearance and easily losing herself in pleasing other people while neglecting and ignoring her own feelings. And I was less secure than ever. Making myself did not work; it’s no wonder the relationships into which this self-made woman entered also did not work.
Like Jesus, the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce as a spiritual reality. This is why, unlike Protestants, Catholics cannot remarry after we have been legally divorced. I may have a piece of paper from the State of Virginia saying that I am legally released from the marital partnership in which I had previously been bound, but the State of Virginia has no jurisdiction over my soul. As far as the Church is concerned, I’m just as married today as I was on the day I spoke the vows.
On the day I spoke my vows, there is no doubt a wedding took place. But a wedding is not the same thing as a marriage, that mysterious process in which two become one. Someone once explained it this way – marriage is not like addition, but multiplication. If you multiply 1 and 1, you still get 1. But if you multiply 1/2 and 1/2, you get 1/4. Without two people wholly giving themselves, the final outcome is less than what you started with, and definitely not “one flesh.”
The Holy Church assumes that both people are giving all of themselves fully and that the Sacrament “takes” until proven otherwise through the annulment process. Any of us who’ve personally gone through the agony of discerning, pursuing and obtaining a civil divorce can vouch that the process doesn’t always “take,” or we wouldn’t be pursuing this painful path in the first place. Contrary to popular belief among many people I know, divorce is NOT the easy way out.
However, getting a divorce in Jesus’ time was as simple as a man dismissing his wife for any reason, and the people to whom He was speaking in today’s Gospel used this scenario (which was sanctioned by Hebrew law) to trip up Jesus. Our Savior’s answer was intended to address the hardness of their hearts, not condemn and isolate those of us who are already hurting and grieving a broken relationship that fell far short of the First Marriage. Quite the opposite, Jesus established the authority of the Church (including the theological authority to define marriage and declare it non-existent) to bring us healing, reconciliation and unity.
There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about what annulment is and isn’t. Even Catholics sometimes mistakenly refer to it as “Catholic divorce.” The basic gist of annulment is this – that a wedding took place, but not a marriage. There is a wonderful book that my church recommends for people who are interested in learning more about what annulment is and isn’t – Annulment: The Wedding That Was by Michael Foster. It explains in simple language the Code of Canon Law and answers the questions that divorced and even married people have about the process.
I’m just about ready to embark upon this leg of my journey. There are no guarantees about what the outcome will be. Perhaps the Church court system will decide that my marriage is valid; in which case, I can either remain unmarried and celibate, or do some serious soul-searching. Either way, I know that God is leading me every step of the journey, and that it is not good for man (or woman) to be alone on this journey. We are made for each other, out of the same “soul-stuff” from which even Jesus was made. He will give me the grace to live with an open heart, whatever the outcome.