Nullity, Humility, and the Ever-Greater Being of Love

As alluded to in the presentation of my poem “Annulment and Afterlife” last month, on the Feast of the Dedication of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., answered in the affirmative to Angela’s petition for annulment of the marriage we entered into on July 25th, 1998, at St. Anthony’s near Catholic University of America.

This is a judgment full of both sadness and relief for me.

The Strangeness of the Father’s Care

“Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the LORD intends?” (Wisdom 9:13). Today’s first reading reminds us that even this finite world is full of riddles, and yet the world's patterns themselves are subject to a superordinate intentionality which is incomprehensible. We must be humble before the LORD, and hold nothing in reserve as leverage against Him. The Gospel reminds us, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” We have no basis from which to judge the mysterious dispensations of God. No basis at all—not even nature. Ask Abraham on Moriah.

As Saint John of the Cross writes, “All things of earth and heaven, compared with God, are nothing.”

This is also the day on which is marked the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Happy Mary’s birthday!) The second matins reading for the feast, from Saint Andrew of Crete, strikingly makes a similar point as today’s Gospel, for the birth of Our Lady is the prelude to Christmas, when Christ reveals something beyond the comprehension of even the divinely cultivated religious consciousness of the elect people of God:

“‘The fulfillment of the law is Christ Himself,’ who does not so much lead us away from the letter as lift us up to its spirit. For the law’s consummation was this, that the very lawgiver accomplished His work and changed letter into spirit, summing everything up in Himself and, though subject to the law, living by grace. He subordinated the law, yet harmoniously united grace with it, not confusing the distinctive characteristics of the one with the other, but effecting the transition in a way most fitting for God. He changed whatever was burdensome, servile, and oppressive to what is light and liberating, so that we should be enslaved no longer under the elemental spirits of the world, as the Apostle says, nor held fast as bondservants under the letter of the law.”

That is, even if an angel of light (or a theologian!) tells you that he or she has it all figured out based on Christian revelation and natural law, remember that the Christian mystery, and life in this agonized world, and the depths of another human, will never be anything but mysterious.

Acquiescence to What Is

Angela and I both agree as to the nullity of our marriage.

It was always my desire to reconcile for the sake of the kids, and I repeatedly sought that. But the nullity of the marriage became apparent to me even before the sharing of the whole of life between us was ended more than five years ago. However, especially when you have children together, even the fact of nullity should not decide things in a troubled marriage. There must always be the preferential option for the weaker.

At a certain point, though, you simply have to respect the other person’s resolve, even if it is beyond one’s understanding. Angela has followed the proper ecclesiastical process in order to make non-reconciliation definitive. I bow to her resolve, and I do so with the relief that if there is to be no reconciliation, at least I may be officially free to find a partner in life whom I may have and hold till the end—having endured, I hope, sufficient purgation to be worth being held onto. Much I have had to confront in myself: my sins, my codependence, spiritual and emotional defects. Please God I am now worthy to marry my Beatrice, whoever that turns out to be.

The permanent separation of a man and woman who have married (for which we use the shorthand “divorce”), and who have children together, is a catastrophe all around. [This is always true, but a crucial qualifier must always be noted: if there is abuse, the victim must be supported in gaining a new life.]

Such a broken partnership is an ongoing and bleeding catastrophe for children. My children have a right not to feel it alright that everything “didn’t work out”—and what they aren’t able to feel, I will try to feel for them.

Divorce is also a serious wound in the community, ramifying in ruptured ties, failed responsibilities of care, betrayals of friendships. The point of life on earth is to learn to love one another. Even the mere awkwardness of divorce puts an obstacle in the way of intensifying communion. Who knows what to say or do when confronted with a broken family? I hate causing others discomfort, but divorce necessarily does that. If we are committed to increasing charity in this loveless world, we must take in earnest the task, the task of our crucified Lord, of absorbing ruptures in concrete ways so that the mission of ever more extensive and intensive love may be advanced.

(The particular counter-witness of our marriage’s dissolution continues to weigh heavily on me. There will always be something surreal here.)

All this said, the dissolution of a marriage is not susceptible of definitive judgment by other humans. Have mercy on those who survive such shipwreck—especially for the sake of the children, who are the main point of sexual rules and marital law. If there is no reconciliation between the partners, so much more must there be communal reconciliation to draw the wounded parties back into a life of fruitfulness in service of the Father’s plan of loving goodness. The children are not served if either or both of their parents are ostracized.

Humility and Our Responsibility for Marriage

If we care about the health of marriage, and it should matter keenly to us, we must treat human development as an urgent task (in ourselves and in others). But this effort requires one thing above all: humility. Humility before the mystery of the Father’s plan, which is always stranger than any of us can ever guess at, and humility before the mystery of the other person. The work that has to be done cannot be done by a person who thinks he or she has it all figured out. Those who think they do, should not be giving counsel to anyone. No one has integrated every desire operative within his or her heart or psyche. (Certainly, repression is not integration.) We all have so much to learn from each other. It's not just a truth of classical liberalism: gurus of any type are evil; all tyranny over souls must be overthrown.

This is one reason why propagating liberal arts education is such a priority for me: I think it essential for human development. But there are other factors bearing on the body-soul whole which have not been taken into account adequately. Above all, there's the epidemic of trauma (passed from one generation to the next, not least through homes, both broken and intact). There’s a crisis in our ability to empathize. There’s the hypnosis of consumerism and a cybernetic contraction of the human spirit.

Above all, we need to integrate the wisdom of the dark night into social pedagogy. Our religion is in crisis not least because of that privation.

If we care about marriage, we must be intentional about fighting the enemies of our capacity to grow in love and to make a lifelong commitment from the heart (which is not the same as sticking to a commitment by the book—which ends up causing destruction in other ways).

Gratitude and Prayer

To those who actually tried to bring about reconciliation in our situation: I cannot thank you enough. For those who are managing the difficult task of loving both of us and our kids, thus beginning the work of absorbing this catastrophe and integrating the Frankses back into the community: my gratitude is abiding.

What I still desire with regard to this relationship: a warmhearted approach to “co-parenting” (the awkward term that’s used to describe how divorced parents raise their kids). Please pray for this. At least my eldest child’s moving in with me gives me hope that my fatherhood isn’t over with their childhood.

Please pray for my still-unfolding vocation. I hope to create more in this world, if that be the good Father’s loving will. Please pray for Angela and her new life. Please pray, above all, for my children, that they somehow continue to trust in the reality of love and grow up whole within that faith.

If you mourn the dissolution of this marriage, you do not feel differently than I have felt.

Some of us prefer to stay married despite recognizing the nullity of the bond. What we call the indissolubility of marriage has everything to do with the rights of spouses who do not want to be put away and, above all, the rights of children. [Again one is not speaking here of tyrants and abusers, whose rights end when they spiritually enslave.]

But sometimes rights are unenforceable, especially when it comes to the most intimate and inexpressible depths of the person. One does what one can, one does what one must, and then one must acquiesce before the dignity of the other person, whose heart and psyche one cannot judge, whose depths one cannot plumb. It is a great psychosis to believe that one can compel the mystery of the other person. Only God has right to the deepest places in another.

Before the often-harsh, always-strange, mysteries of His reality, I bend my knees to the Father, from Whom all lineage in heaven and on earth is derived. He is sovereign over all, and I trust in His goodness despite the pain He allows and orchestrates.

To Angela, whom I married in such sincerity and joy of heart, I will forever be grateful for bearing the most wonderful children. Nothing nullifies such a gift. May the good Father bless her in the life she has set out on, may He hold my children when I cannot, and may He give me a home and new scope for the gifts He has bestowed on me. May He bless all of you who speak blessing upon the Frankses, and may you always have evidence of His invincible love for you.