Failure, forgiveness, re-marriage

By Donald Schell

A note from a younger priest stirred up a lot of memories for me:

A couple I met on Thursday are getting married two weeks from today. He’s been married before and needs some kind of sense of closure from his previous marriage. I think he wants some kind of ceremony that will help him leave it behind. The new wife doesn’t want the old wife to be involved…

Do you have any suggestions about what to do here?

What had I actually learned from my own divorce and remarriage almost a third of a century ago? Memories flooded in, a strange mix of crippling grief, guilt and exhilarating hope.

Thirty-three years ago, I was a divorced priest with a five year old daughter. I was engaged to be married but felt shaky accepting the happiness of new love. Though I trusted my fiancée and everything I saw and felt about how we were with each other, the promises I’d made in my first marriage haunted me. I had failed a good human being to whom I had promised lifelong committed love. Could I make the same promise again in good faith? When an evangelical friend demanded I tell him who was at fault, I knew in that moment that neither blame nor self-accusation would serve the truth. But when I told him I couldn’t reply, it cost me the friendship.

Questions of fault or blame, and just plain ‘what happened?’ filled pages of my journal and months of conversation with my spiritual director/confessor. Gradually my director, my bishop and the priest who pastored my fiancée and me, helped me find a balanced story of the first marriage’s failure, a story of two people trying hard in some ways, failing one another in other ways, sometimes even trying hard to hold together in ways that actually hurt and divided.

Seeing mutual failure in the divorce sowed the seeds of forgiveness and gave me hope that my ex-wife and I could learn to make the new relationship we’d need to raise our daughter in two households after the divorce. As our daughter grew up, our working together, much to our surprise I think, renewed friendship and deep respect.

But look, there I am trying to leap out of the uncertainty. My colleague’s question wasn’t about later. What transpires in that confused, uncertain time before making new vows? When I examined those memories directly—without filtering them through the lens of the good things that happened later on—I finally saw how much of my dilemma lay in my fiancée’s deep trust for me. Partly Ellen’s trust healed, but it also stung. A shadow in me brooded over her readiness to stand with me and make promises asking family and friends to bless the joy we felt God inviting us into. Reluctant as I was to admit it, my gut said it would easier somehow if Ellen had also been divorced. Illusions of balance or fairness (justice) and some share of guilt got me thinking that if we had divorces behind us, my conscience would rest and let me make new promises. Was I really wishing the loss and suffering of divorce on Ellen?

Conscience can be a trickster. Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn to show a good-hearted boy’s struggle with his damaged conscience. Huck feels guilty helping Jim escape slavery. Like Huck Finn, the best I could do was tell my troubled conscience to be still. But when that accusing voice was quiet, I heard another – what if Ellen’s hopes and trust in me were naïve? Her hope looked so much purer than mine. Could such seemingly pure hope live with my dark memories of failure and loss? How many months after our vows would she be waking in the night as I was now, wondering who this man really was?

Especially at the beginning divorce hangs its quarantine sign on memories as if they could infect those who heard them. Some memories feel burdensome, embarrassing or shameful. Others treacherously turn accusing and vindictive. The good memories may not be quarantined, but they’re orphaned. The couple who birthed all those good memories died.

Time does change and heal some of that. Present trust can make even old memories trustworthy. Over some years Ellen came to know the boy I had been growing up, the kid I was in college, and the young man I was in my first marriage. Now when that younger me shows up in our children, we can love, trust and forgive him. Other relationships grow and heal too. My daughter is the big sister in two families. Her four parents have come to respect each other. Ellen and my children are friends with their sister’s other sister.

But my mind is rushing ahead again. When the confusion was still fresh in Ellen’s and my first year together, she and my dad were talking, and he stopped, something crossed his face, and he said, ‘We’re really glad Donald found you, but his mother and I only wish he’d met you first.’ Though she felt the welcome he intended, his words left her speechless. Regret simply made no sense. Ellen knew I was a different man for my failed first marriage. And none of us – not Ellen the new stepmother, nor either parent, nor the grandfather who was speaking regretted our daughter, his grand-daughter What was he saying? What could he really mean?

He was wishing for what couldn’t be – no divorce, no pain, no confusion. But wishing a more perfect and orderly life for me – not divorced – missed new life and blessing that was already showing up like fresh growth after a forest fire. Dad’s affectionate welcome to family risked rewriting the past, erasing real people, my ex-, our daughter (his grand-daughter!), and me.

Yes new life did happen, but how did we carry ambiguity and memory of failed promise into a whole-hearted, unambiguous commitment to new promise?

A month or so before the wedding, David Boulton, the priest who married Ellen and me, said he wanted to talk with me alone. I was afraid he’d seen how little I trusted myself. Would he try to talk me out of the wedding? No, David simply but forcefully told me I had to GIVE UP my pretense that I knew more any about marriage than Ellen. ‘Your failed first marriage doesn’t make you an expert,’ he told me. ‘Offer your best to Ellen and learn from her while she learns from you.’ David’s words complemented what my spiritual director was doing.

David, Fr. Paul, and a handful of trusted listeners cleansed my memory and heart, letting me forgive myself and my ex-, reflect on a past that was ending, and let it go. Letting go, I entered a living future, a real marriage with Ellen.

Thirty-three years later I look back with gratitude at how the church – a bishop, two priests, and some very good friends – offered penance, counsel, challenge, and encouraging words that made me trust myself (and God’s grace) enough to make the promises I so wanted to make and live with a partner I love.

So now, pastorally what do I offer someone still raw from divorce and mistrusting himself/herself, but wanting to make new promises? I use the Prayer Book Rite of Reconciliation (penance or confession) or some informal approximation of it. Penance offers the release and simplicity of acknowledging promises made and not lived out. Penance and reflective counseling invite letting go of both blame and accusation. New life begins as the divorced partner makes confession and we talk, sometimes deflecting blame, sometimes probing for honest statement of failure. We can pray together for the person, and also for the ex-partner.

This pastoral work and ritual of penance make most sense to me by working with the divorced partner alone. or each alone If both partners are recently divorced. So many of the stories we tell ourselves as we come to marriage vows are burdensome illusions. Penance is a place to lay the burden down.

Broken promises demand the strange work of learning to find one’s self trustworthy all over again. I’ve often told people in their relationships (and their workplace) that ‘shattered trust’ can be rebuilt. Trust isn’t a commodity or a fixed state, it’s the unfolding experience of finding yourself or another person trustworthy. That’s as true trusting ourselves as it is trusting another.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company working for community development in congregational life. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago.

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