Summer is ending, and with it, wedding season. Young love, beautiful weddings, and marriage vows always inspire me. When we see the bride and groom’s love for each other, we get a glimpse of God’s love for us. When people commit to loving forever, they model for us in some small way what God’s love is like. But what happens when our human attempts at forever-love fall short? What happens when people we love go through a divorce?
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Few things make the rest of us so aware of our limitations as our inability to offer meaningful and compassionate advice to family and friends going through a divorce. Marriage is forever, the Church rightly teaches, but what words can be spoken to someone whose forever-love has come crashing down around them? What of those whose forever-love has been experienced for so long as something-less-than-love? Such that when it ends, both parties finally feel a sense of freedom and elation? What can the Church say to these people?
Recently Pope Francis issued two letters modifying the process for separated or divorced couples seeking marital nullity. Many Catholics see this as an attempt to set the tone for the upcoming Synod on the Family, which begins in early October. The Pope’s recent statements, whether official or off-the-cuff, have left many Catholics wondering if a seismic shift is coming in the near future. The Synod, like Pope Francis himself, fills many Catholics with either hopeful anticipation or anxious trepidation — or a bit of both. Like marriage, Church teachings reveals to us something of God’s steadfast love for us. The stakes are high, and appropriately so.
There is a sense in which a forever-once-ended ushers in a new kind of forever. Once it is over, there is never going back. Many Catholics feel as if a forever is ending when they consider with anxiety what the Synod might change. What if an eternal truth about marriage and the family comes crashing down? The close scrutiny of the Pope’s words will only increase as time draws closer to the Synod on the Family. (At least one Catholic congressman chose not to be present during Pope Francis’ address to Congress during his US visit, primarily over objections to the Pope’s encyclical on the environment.) In the Synod on the Family, the Church needs to articulate a pastoral response to those affected by divorce, to those who want to move forward after a forever-love has ended. At the same time, the Synod must respond to those who fear the Church’s forever-teachings will come to an end.
For people of faith, two things are certain: 1) there is a God, and 2) we are not He. We believe that God has made a covenant with humanity, which entails certain expectations (let’s call it “God’s law”) that keep us in right relations with God and with one another. It stands to reason that God’s law does not change — but our understanding of that law changes and deepens as we grow and mature, individually and collectively. Revelation is ongoing because God is still active in the world and in our hearts. How then can we fathom — let alone speak intelligibly of — “forever,” whether that be the forever of Church teaching or the forever of marriage? On the one hand, how do we conceive of “forever” in a way that preserves it as something of great value, as something that reveals a glimpse of God to us? On the other hand, how do we mourn, but also move on, when a “forever” ends?
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I imagine that couples going through a divorce are plagued by what-ifs? and where-did-it-go-wrongs?. Maybe it was doomed from the beginning; maybe it never would have worked out, the worm already in the apple, the bruise begun just from being chosen and plucked. Years of relationship pack their bags and separate, this time for good. The burden of us, too much to bear.
What happened in those intervening days and months and years? How did things change so much between that first day of “I do” forevers, and “I just can’t” today? There is a kind of gravity to forever, a realization that comes with knowing that our choices and actions really matter. There is a burden of responsibility, a responsibility which cannot be shirked, cannot be avoided, cannot be passed on to someone else. What I do matters, now and for as long as I live — for what seems like forever. It is often never felt more keenly than when things, despite our best efforts and intentions, come to an end. At wits end they say, “This must end; it cannot be endured for another day, much less for forever.”
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From our perspective (this side of heaven), the only thing that is forever is God. We ask things of people that we can only ask of God. When we ask for someone’s forever, or someone asks for ours, we are really asking it of God. Neither you nor I nor anyone else can give ourselves to someone or something forever, unless we do it in and through God. So when we say “I will love you forever,” we are saying something not only about our relationship with another, but with the Other.
Relationships last forever only insofar as they are rooted in God. No relationship, whether that be between a husband and wife, parent and child, or even communities within the Church, will last unless they are rooted in God.
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We believe in a God who is ceaselessly at work in our lives, at work even in the midst of failure and death on the cross, even in the end of apparent ‘forevers’. God is close to the broken-hearted, and so we must believe that God is closest to those who have gone through a divorce. It is for that reason that Church leaders at the Synod ought to look to divorced and annulled Catholics for guidance, as they seek to articulate anew the Church’s teaching on family. Yet many might question, “why would we to look for guidance from those who have ‘failed’ at marriage?” To this we might ask, “to whom else can we look to learn from their experiences?” What doctor chooses only to work with patients in perfect health? We do well to remember the company that Jesus kept in his earthly ministry.
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Those undergoing a divorce, in the midst of a broken heart, feel acutely the loss of their ‘forever’ — it is a loss, a disintegration, of part of their identity; such a loss longs for closure, a kind of identity reintegration. To emerge on the other side of ‘forever’ takes time for them to come to a newly integrated identity. But how do they do this, and what can their experience teach those anxious about preserving the ‘forever’ quality of Church teachings? Any change in how the Church articulates teachings on the family may also cause some Catholics to change their identity. For some, this will be a welcome change; for others, a sense of disintegration and disorientation. Through prayerful reflection on our graced histories, we discover that identity reintegration can only come by looking to the future through the lens of our past.
Let me explain it another way: when we experience the death of a loved one, we have to make peace with the past before moving on. And we don’t do that by extinguishing or rejecting good memories, but by savoring them and carrying them with us. If we lose our sense of forever, paradoxically, we can gain perspective on it by looking at our history. Reflecting on how we spent our time, examining the graces of each day, allows a pattern to emerge, the pattern of a life graced by God. We start to see what the Psalmist calls God’s “steadfast love,” popping up again and again in our lives. In a strange way, fear of the future, fear of forever, is a call to examine our past and return to touchstone moments where we felt God’s love in a distinct, palpable way. The only way to be open to the future is to have a deep experience of love in our past, an awareness of our graced history.
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Forever is ours to commit to when we can say that the God who has been in our past will still continue to be with us in our future. When divorced men and women can look to their past and find God present in it, they move forward with hope, sound in their identity. When the members of the Synod see God’s hand guiding each moment in their own histories and in the history of the Church, they can speak with truth about the family. When Pope Francis taps into his experience of being loved by God, he can speak the truth prophetically to those who might resent him for it, whether that is Congress, the College of Bishops, or the world beyond the Catholic Church. It is only when we, as good-enough Catholics and as women and men of goodwill, can see God’s forever-love at work in our past, that we can begin to understand more fully the eternal future of both Church teachings and our forever-loves.
After the Synod has ended, our new forever will have just begun.
Title image by Bored-Now, available on Flickr.