Divorce is a traumatic personal experience under any circumstances. It is all the more difficult when it is unexpected or unwanted, if children are involved, or if the partners are people of faith who took seriously their commitment to be faithful “for better or worse...until death do us part.”
Divorce shatters dreams and betrays expectations; in many cases it destroys in a seemingly short time what a couple has worked years to establish and maintain. The wrenching personal tragedy of divorce creates a wide variety of powerful and sometimes conflicting emotions, including relief, anger, fear, and guilt. In addition to the practical challenges which accompany a divorce, the apparent failure of a marriage often raises serious issues of self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem.
For people of faith, a divorce may also raise serious questions of a spiritual nature: doubts about God’s faithfulness, the value of religious faith, the efficacy of prayer, or the sincerity of the church community. While some individuals find comfort and courage in their religious convictions following a divorce, others feel betrayed or embarrassed by their faith or the church and some are tempted to abandon active participation in a faith community.
If you are a person of faith confronting the devastating results of a current or past divorce, remember that faith is never a guarantee that bad things will not happen, even though we are sometimes taught to believe that it is. In fact, faith is the conviction that all will eventually be well, no matter what happens. Faith is what enables us to respond with determination and hope when we experience painful, inexplicable and unwelcome personal tragedies like divorce.
If you are a person of faith who is struggling spiritually because of a divorce, here are some general suggestions which you might find helpful:
• Continue to pray, even if it means changing when, how or why you pray.
In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic experience, many people lose the will or the ability to actually “say” prayers. This is a time for developing a new way to pray by sitting quietly and letting God speak to you. Be attentive the various ways, occasions, and circumstances in which you might be hearing God's voice for the first time. Some people keep a journal during difficult times to record thoughts, feelings and impressions which might reveal God's presence and direction in their lives. Others discover the value of joining a prayer group or using a prescribed form of prayer such as the daily Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary or centering prayer.
• Continue to participate as fully as possible in the spiritual and sacramental life of the faith community, even if it means finding a new parish where you are comfortable.
In some cases, divorced persons find it difficult to remain actively involved in a parish community if they feel other Catholics are judging them for their marital "failure." In other cases, divorced persons find it difficult to feel at home in a faith community where people around them seem completely unaware or unconcerned about their personal suffering. It is helpful to remember in either case that most members of the faith community have (or eventually will) suffer painful disappointments, losses and failures in their own lives. They may be unsure of what to say or do to acknowledge your personal situation, but their continued presence in the faith community is a reminder that our shared faith helps all of us survive devastating traumas like divorce.
• Continue to value your association with the Catholic Church, even if it means altering your perception of Church authority.
At some level, most of us think of the institutional Church as a kind of "super parent." We expect Church authorities to enforce church rules and punish people who break them, but we resent authority when it seems unresponsive to our personal situation. Although divorced Catholics may feel that they are being unfairly penalized by Church authorities (or, on the other hand, that an ex-spouse is not being sufficiently punished), it may be helpful to remember that it is the Church's responsibility to hold out to us behavior which most fully reflects the ideals of the Gospel. At the same time, Church authorities realize that we are all human, and sinful, and we all fall short of Gospel ideals in many aspects of our life. As Pope John XXIII said, "Nowadays,...the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.... [T]he Catholic Church... desires to show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness..." [Opening Address to the Second Vatican Council, 1962].
• Continue to seek the support and advice of good friends, a trusted personal confidant, or a wise spiritual director, even if it means stepping outside your normal ‘comfort zone.’
No one knows the pain of divorce better than people who have experienced divorce, so individuals or support groups of divorce survivors are an important and valuable resource. So are good friends, although they may sometimes feel torn by conflicting loyalties and reluctant to help if they were friends of both spouses. If you are troubled about spiritual questions related to your marriage or divorce, it is important to find a spiritual director, pastor or pastoral staff person in whom you can confide and whose advice you trust.
Although divorce may change your understanding of faith, your relationship to God, or your relationship to the Church, it can become an opportunity for an even deeper, more enduring spiritual life. As in most matters related to faith, the real challenge is to learn to grow.