Two friends and I are starting to record our conversations on atheism and Catholicism. Peter van Kampen is a current Catholic and professional minister for the Catholic Church. Daniel Mallett is a former cradle Catholic and the cousin of Catholic music minister Mark Mallett. I am me. If you're on my blog, you probably know I am a former Catholic and minister of the Church, now Atheist.
I love our conversations because, I hope, we are respectful and we mutually enjoy each others company. We are hoping to make these conversations a regular thing. The goal is to benefit both sides in understanding the other.
I am trying to process the grief I have been experiencing the last few days. Why has it been so tough? I feel I am coming to an answer. Since this is my blog, with few readers, I will use it as an opportunity to process.
I am comparing it to other sufferings I've had to endure. I think of my mom dying, losing religion, my daughters medical issues and forced deployments of my spouse. I think the most traumatic experiences of suffering come when they have the shortest time to process.
For example, when Zelie was born, it was a shock to realize that her life would be very different. In an instant I had to process years worth of anxiety and stress. But even still, as she grew we could tackle the problems one at a time.
My mom dying was very hard on all my siblings, but I was very lucky in that I lived close to her. I spent the most time with her throughout the years before her illness and death. For me, I see processing what happened may have been less traumatic than for my sisters, because I had time and space to process.
Losing religion took me years to do. I began really struggling in college and then throughout my twenties came to grips with certain things about religion I didn't agree with or that bothered me. It took me another five or so years to process that religion wasn't what I had hoped it was. It took a LONG time. So long, that once it was over, I haven't struggled with it at all.
With Fernando's deployments, it was always very hard to endure, but I think the first one was the hardest on me. Going from getting out of the military to being without my new spouse for over 15 months in a single phone call was traumatic. Taking him to the military base and leaving him there as a young mother and expecting again, knowing I could potentially never see him again left me hallow.
So, why is this so hard? I have already come to accept that my marriage had to end. But, it has been a slow process too. It took years of struggling and strife to let go. Once I did, I went back multiple times. I still have had parts of me that long that we could make everything OK, even though I have also been convinced that is hopeless.
But for me, my marriage was sacred. As flawed and troubled as it was, in my mind, it was real. Letting go of it was like letting my mom die or saying goodbye to Jesus. It was a death that was slowly happening and I was mourning the process.
In my heart, I believed that I did the best I could have in choosing to get married and how I handled all the stress that came after. I remember loving Jesus and Mary and standing before God and committing to Fernando. So, for the Church to send me a letter informing me in an instant that it never happened was gut wrenching. I hadn't had time to process that. I've been just trying to survive in the world as a single person who is still trying to be a mom as best I can.
It's true. I don't believe it was sacramental. So, why does this bother me so much? Because I hadn't processed all of it yet. I was still processing letting go of the actual current marriage, much less accepting it was all fake 12 years ago. I truly believed we lived up to all the needs for a valid marriage. It was shocking to me that they would declare otherwise.
So, it's like someone dying in a crash, unexpected and difficult to process and accept. I struggle between feeling gas-lit and believing it. There is nothing special to religious ceremonies besides the significance we give them. In my mind, I was still giving that process a lot of significance.
My therapist likened it to an abuse victim who is hung up on the past. It makes sense. It's normal. But for the rest of us, we are left just wishing that person could move on with their lives and be happy. It takes time.
I really have to let go of whatever beliefs I had attached to those religious commitments and vows. The marriage wasn't good for me. Period. I need to move on. "Write my own scripts," as a friend and I say to each other. Get away from the voices of others in our heads that, knowingly or not, enslaved us to living lives that were not our own. We were afraid of using our own minds to think critically. We were warned of devils and hells and all sorts of supernatural influences over our choices.
Goodness is in this world. Evil is in this world.
How many people have to told me to pray through this! Really, almost everyone except my specifically atheist friends. How can they think that would help? That is what got me into this mess. Praying and not using my reason. Taking a step back to breathe and accept is definitely good. But, asking for some kind of divine wisdom and actually expecting it to come, is madness.
For me, putting on the glasses of reality has helped me to process many things up to now. I hope that I can make it through this one.
I woke up Wednesday morning to an official letter from the Diocese of Salt Lake City informing me that the "tribunal", which consisted of one priest, had made the decision that my marriage to Fernando was "null." It never was "sacramental" according to their decision.
I knew this was coming. But, receiving it still felt like a punch in the gut that lasted 48 hours. It made me physically ill to think I devoted so much of my life to a church and a man who want to just wipe that commitment away.
You see, I didn't just "get married." I had been celibate for 9 years prior to meeting my husband. I was a good girl, trying to love Jesus and do everything I could to prepare myself for marriage. I went to confession at least once a month. I taught religion in middle school. I lived as a missionary with drugs addicts. I studied theology because I wanted to spread the "good news" of the Catholic Church. I loved Jesus with all my heart.
I waited to find a man who also was committed to the Catholic Church. A man who wanted to be open to children, who wanted to pray and grow in mutual love of Christ. A man who would be committed for life and be a good partner. I took my vows seriously.
Because of those vows, I suffered through 3.5 years ( total over the marriage) of being separated from my husband because of
the army. This was a great tragedy for me because I had been very clear before Fernando and I got engaged that I did not want to be a military wife. I knew I couldn't handle it (not many marriages survive anyway). He had agreed it wasn't the life he wanted. Yet, throughout our marriage it was a major point of contention because he said I married him "in the military" I should accept it. He lied. He went back on his promise.
I also was open to life. Because of my faith in the Church, I felt it was immoral to use contraception. We tried NFP, but I was extremely fertile. I had 6 kids in 8 years. This was extremely difficult and caused a lot of personal suffering, of which Fernando would minimize and invalidate.
So, yes, maybe the fact is that I don't believe we were ever sacramentally married. But it isn't because we didn't follow the church or have the right intentions at the time. It is because I do not believe any of it is true anymore. But, that doesn't mean I didn't believe it then. I gave up over a decade of my life and portions of my entire future to that marriage and the children and consequences from it.
For them to have the audacity to "decide" that my marriage wasn't real (in their eyes) is just deplorable and the worst experience of gas-lighting I have experienced to date.
If there was any part of me that still wished the Church was real, it is gone.
I am so insulted and disgusted. The worst part is when other people who haven't experienced this say to me, "why do you care, you don't believe it anyway" or "it's just because he wants to be remarried." It doesn't matter WHY Fernando wants an annulment. It doesn't matter that I don't believe any of it anymore. It's because I truly did believe it. I sacrificed and tormented myself for way too many years before I finally admitted I had to get out of the marriage, because of that belief.
The power of religion over our lives, guiding us to make choices for years and then saying they weren't real is unacceptable. Until people realize that we need to make choices based on reality, this kind of detrimental manipulation will waste lives.
According to the Church, all of this was based on a not real commitment.
I am heartbroken once more.
What do we all want? Love, kindness, security, friendship, compassion. The list goes on. For me, I want to be able to relax, be myself, feel accepted and know I am not alone. I want to be able to enjoy life, hope for the future, feel important and do seemingly impossible things.
With Jesus, all this is possible. He is like everyone's ready made best friend. And the awesome part is, he can be anything to anyone. For one person, he is a strong big brother type. For another, he fills in the need for romantic love. He is the friend, the cheerleader, the guardian.
At times, Jesus is all we have. When I say Jesus, I mean whatever supernatural entity people may identify with.
So, what happens when we lose the ability to believe in him? Or, what if you are a person who was never able to feel the "love of Christ."
When my mom died, it was devastating. But, having let go of Jesus over a year before, I had learned something of losing a major loved one. When I said goodbye to Jesus, I realized I could still hear his voice. He had always been with me and could always be with me, because, he was me. I had taken all the things I wanted to believe in and placed them in Jesus' hands. Now, I could take them back and hold them in mine.
When mom died, I decided I would hold her with me. I would hear her voice. I would never let her go. Because, the truth was, if she had not died, she would be there for me. She would call me everyday. She would come visit me and call my kids silly names and clean my house when I was tired. She gave me the love of Christ. And just because life sucks and she got sick, does not mean that I have to give up her love. Her love was real and it was given to me freely. I will never let that go. I can live each day knowing, I was/am loved. I am not alone on this difficult beautiful journey.
I can also tell you of Judy, my godmother. This woman loves and cares for others to a scary point that most may think a bit over the top. But, she loves. She made me believe I was important and valuable. Maybe it's just because she believes Jesus made me. But I like to believe it's because she values the individual regardless. She believes in God and she showed me the "love of Christ."
So what is a decided Atheist to do with this "love of Christ?" Give it away. I know what acceptance, encouragement, compassion, apprenticeship, and friendship have done for me. They have given me hope when I felt all was lost. They have helped me to believe in myself when I wanted to give up.
Life is so short and fast and scary. "We can see so far because we stand on the shoulders of giants," my college professor, Dr. Regis Martin, would say quoting Isaac Newton. We need each other to take flight past the limited isolation of our finite being. We can hoard our time, energy, love, education and resources. Or, we can share. And by sharing, we lift others up.
It is true that sometimes we will be hurt, abused, abandoned, and taken advantage of. This is the risk. For me, I would have nothing if it were not for my mother and Judy. If it weren't for my sister, my friends, teachers, books, and the smile of a stranger, I would have given up when life got hard.
At times, especially since I have let go of Jesus, it is the smallest acts of kindness from complete strangers that allow me to suffer the pain of a difficult life. I choose to offer that to others.
I still allow myself to bask in the peace of Christ that I used to believe was real. I still allow myself to hear my mothers voice calling me her baby. I hold a strangers hand who is scared. I give a hug. I look into another's eyes and love. I give the love of Christ to myself and to those I meet.
We all need the love of Christ. Of course, I do not mean the actual love of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who lived 2000 years ago, was crucified, died and was buried and now sits at the right hand of the Father. No.... We need the love, acceptance, understanding, encouragement, kindness, and hope that only we can actually give. Because we are all we have.