My main source for this article is the writing of an articulate woman, Cally, who has experienced the hurricane (hence the calm of eye of the storm metaphor) of a divorce and wanted to help others. Cally wrote: As one who has hope but is still in the chaos of ‘post-storm clean-up’, it was wonderful to share with the Atlanta Family Life ministries team and feel heard. They took my reflections and ran with them creating a richer, more eloquent version of what I was attempting to express yet lacked the time and energy to fully develop. May God bless their ministry, and aid their endeavors.
As I read Cally’s writings, I felt empathy because many of the feelings of divorce are the same as the feelings of grief of a death, because it is the death of relationships and way of life. I know what it is to cry out to the Lord in the middle of the night, wondering where He is and why He seemed to blink. Like her, I have looked at my future with teary eyes seeing the bleakness of loss, the burden of responsibility and wondered if I‘d ever have joy again, but I’ve also had a peek towards the end of the tunnel. It is that peek that led me to search for more words of hope. That search turned up a wonderful article written by an Orthodox Bishop in Belgium on this topic. For my article, I have taken the experience of my new sister, treated them like I do my own writings, and infused them with the teachings of the Orthodox Bishop and other Orthodox sources. This article is meant to express the hurt of divorce, but to also give hope for healing for those who have divorced within an Orthodox framework.
Orthodox Christians are called to love one another and come together as a group to glorify God. Our prayers emphasize this with the use of the word “we”. The importance placed on belonging to a parish, celebrating liturgy in the company of the communion of saints, and the importance of having a spiritual father, all attest to the view that being part of a community of believers is essential.
When two people are married in the church, they transform into a mini-church, a little Orthodox community of their own family. The relationship is beyond a legal contract, deeper than an emotional infatuation, because it has a sacramental nature. It’s a mysterious relationship that is transformed by Christ himself. Marriage is for the Orthodox Church a spiritual path, a seeking after God, the mystery of oneness and love, a preparatory image on earth of the Kingdom of God. This is why the metaphor of marriage is so frequently used in relation to Christ and ourselves (the Church).
What happens to that holy bond when divorce occurs? How can a family bear to be ripped apart? What happens to that “icon of Christ” that was our family?
The completeness of the marriage relationship can be damaged by sin. In other words, it is an offence that breaks the bond. The divorce is ultimately a result of this break. This is the teaching of the Eastern Church fathers. Cyril of Alexandria said it clearly back in the fifth century: “It is not the letters of divorce that dissolve the marriage in relation to God but the errant behavior”. The reality of divorce is really just the external symbol of the breakdown of the relationship of two people. According to the spirit of Orthodoxy, the unity of the married couple cannot be maintained through the virtue of the legal contract of marriage alone; the formal unity must be consistent with an internal dance of love. The problem arises when it is no longer possible to salvage anything of this dance, for then the bond that was originally considered indissoluble is already dissolved. The resulting disunity causes the divorce and then the legal process of divorce creates a ripple effect across an entire community, leaving pain its wake that can affect generations.
A divorce is the attempt to rip in half the fruits of a union such as children, family, businesses, homes and so on. As the wisdom of Solomon revealed, cutting a child in half does not give you two children, but one dead child. Divorce can feel like our children and ourselves are being ripped apart and it’s only with great grace and sacrifice that we keep them whole and help them heal.
When experiencing a divorce, there is no area of your life which is not tainted by it: your sanity, all your relationships, sense of security, sense of community and your livelihood. There are times when your body can physically ache with the pain of emotional wounds and mental stress. In the wake of so much destruction and heartache which in many cases seems unending, how can we begin to grapple with the intrinsic Orthodox concepts of forgiveness, healing, communion and love?
It feels like we can’t. As humans, how can we come out of the trauma of a divorce and come out happy, healthy and confident? Recovery after a divorce is not like the toddler learning to walk but more like the war veteran learning how to function again after losing a limb.
Divorce does not heal the hurt marriage, it kills it. It dissolves the mini church that had been created causing great loss, similar to the loss when a spouse dies, but profoundly different. In a divorce, the relationship has died, but the spouse is still around and the changed and damaged relationship may be there as well, for the rest of our lives. The grieving spouse is left without the support of two united families and may even feel condemned by the very families that would have been supportive if things were different. When a spouse dies, people want to comfort the surviving spouse and families may draw together, but in a divorce, we may feel like we’re on trial for the murder of our own marriage.
According to Orthodox teaching, one of the essential characteristics of marriage is its indissolubility. Consequently, a legitimate marriage is dissolved only through death, or through an event which revokes the ecclesiastical significance of marriage, refutes its religious and moral foundation, and is in other words religious or moral death.
Divorce caused by religious or moral death occurs by itself when the basis of marriage ceases to function and the purpose of the marital bond is therefore frustrated. In such an instance, it is not the competent authority which dissolves the marriage. Rather, this authority only formally certifies that the legitimate marriage has lost its basis and has dissolved itself. (Orthodox Canon Law manual by Dr. Lewis Patsavos, p.135)
That’s why it feels like the grief of death, compounded by other painful emotions, changes in circumstances and new realities.
So is there a light at the end of the tunnel which doesn’t turn out to be another train?
The church has a process called an ecclesiastical divorce which is meant to acknowledge the destruction and promote healing.
The process of a church divorce is meant to uncover, name and heal any brokenness, both small and great, within the heart, mind and soul of the petitioner(s). This will enable them to move forward with peace, grace and maturity to continue their life following Christ in His Holy Church and, God-willing, enter into a subsequent marriage.
The silver lining is sometimes it is in those darkest moments that in our agony we are most ready to receive love the love of Christ. When all else has been taken, when our friends have tired of our endless circles of hopeless emotions, our thoughts are a swirling cesspool, and we simply weary ourselves, then we may cry out to Christ with deep honest hearts and He hears us.
- God is Love- true love and true acting love
- God will send His angels to watch over us and our children
- Through God all things are possible
- God allows the famine in our lives so that we may better enjoy the feasts
None of us can fix our own brokenness whether it’s a divorce or any other profound loss, but God will give us what we need to heal in His time, with His grace and with unexpected moments of joy.
Sometimes profound losses cause us to stop, leave our distractions behind, repent and follow Him. Profound losses can cause us to reach more honestly into our hearts and become more truly ourselves and more open to love others. Through the valley of the shadows, the glory of the mountaintops, and the mystery of the tunnels, God is with us, drawing us ever closer to Him and to our true purpose in life. Our lives are a journey of theosis, becoming like God, and the opening of our hearts is a first step on this process which will take all of our lives here and continue into eternity.
Divorce is traumatic, but like in other traumas, God’s mercy is abundant and healing grace comes in the unique way and time that He knows is best for each of us.
Survival Tips from the Eye of the Storm
- Christ is perfect, we are not, but we can still do these things:
- Get up again no matter how often we fall
- Give credit to God for his blessings and mercy
- Use all that we have to be instruments of God’s mercy
- Act with love
- Pick up our cross, bear the weight knowing God will share the burden
2. Time is on Our Side
- Keep Calm and Carry on
- Prioritize your tasks (make lists)
- Break down your tasks into manageable steps and accomplish them (1 accomplished task a day, adds up to hundreds of accomplishments a year)
- Know that there are phases in your healing and allow yourself time to flow through them
- Your life here is a tiny moment of eternity, you can endure this
3. Build a Daily Routine
- Give prayers of thanks for the blessing you have (and list them)
- Use the Orthodox prayer book
- The Jesus Prayer can help you weather emotional thunderstorms
- Spend time giving to others
- Remember that love is an action not an emotion- show love to those around you
- Use your talents and find your purpose
- Exercise to relieve stress and create the happy chemicals in your body
- Remember Christ retreated from the crowd- allow yourself time to be alone
- Find fun things to do: garden, sports, dancing, clubs, new interests to keep you grounded and vibrant
- Journal. Write it down and move on.
- Regular sleep, food, and vitamins are essential (get professional help if necessary!)
4. The Tools of Our Faith
- Enjoy Christian fellowship
- Volunteer and give to others
- Go to confession and seek the guidance of your spiritual father and priest
- Prepare for and take Communion
- Read the daily scriptures and lives of the saints
- Go to Holy Unction services
- Give to your church as a good steward
All of these tips will help us through the storms of divorce, but what about the children? It’s so hard to be strong when you are the rock that others cling to and you feel like you are crumbling yourself. Let others be part of your children’s life. You can’t and shouldn’t be everything, they will find comfort and help with other adults such as family members, coaches, teachers, counselors, Sunday school teachers and their priest. Help your kids to see the signs that they are getting upset and be proactive yourself about helping them before they explode. When they are acting out with heartbreak and rage, let them vent their emotions without hurting others, and then cuddle them, like swaddling a young child. Rock them and hold them. Get them a pet to love and find helpful books such as the Bernstein Bears and Tear Soup. At the same time, your kids are probably trying to protect you and often take on too much for their age. Be honest with them about your pain in age-appropriate ways and be careful about either running down your ex-spouse or pretending that everything is fine. Kids always know. Try to maintain routines and expectations for your kids as much as possible to foster a sense of normalcy and security.
In Rwanda there are special villages operated by Prison Fellowship, a Christian Charity, called Reconciliation Villages. The idea is to help residents reconcile, and to seek and gain forgiveness in an atmosphere of hope through Christ. Every day the residents experience the grace of God as they accomplish their daily tasks. In these places, perpetrators of genocide and their victims choose to live together in a village community, actively interacting and working though the healing process together. They do this in order that the next generation maybe raised in an environment untainted by the divisions and prejudices of the past. The daily struggle for these residents is to see their neighbors as their brothers and sisters in Christ on the path to salvation, irrelevant of the pain and scars of the past. It must be noted that there are many of participants in the genocide that choose to remain in prison rather than face their victims, they live in a perpetual hell of their own making. If people who have endured literally the stuff of nightmares, can attempt to live in harmony as a community, what excuse do we have not to try to treat the people we come in contact with kindness and mercy, despite whatever the perceived injury they have inflicted upon us?
In divorce, relationships are broken, but people can experience healing and some measure of reconciliation in time through God’s grace, perhaps not as spouses and family in a legal sense, but as brothers and sister in Christ. Maybe you aren’t in a situation where it would be wise to reach out to your ex-spouse in reconciliation, but maybe you can show love to the elderly person across the street or show patience to the slow waitress. Find reconciliation, of some kind, in your heart and it will spread through your life with healing grace. If you focus on building you own relationship with God and acting in love towards those you come in contact with, God will find a way to make you an instrument of His use.
Bishop Athenagoras (Peckstadt) of Sinope: Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Orthodox Church-Economia and Pastoral Guidance: http://www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/liturgics/athenagoras_remarriage.htm
A. Coniaris, Finding God in Time of Sorrow and Despair, Light and Life Publishing, 1996
P. Evdokimov, Sacrament of love – the conjugal mystery according to the orthodox tradition, Paris, 1962,
P. L’Huillier (Archbishop), Divorce according to theology and cannon law in the Orthodox Church in Messenger of the Exarch of the Patriarch of Russia and Western Europe (no 65), Paris, 1969, pp. 25-36.
G. Patronos, Marriage in theology and in life, Athens, 1981, p.119