Divorce: In the Image and Likeness of Hell

I never intended to fall in love.

For a long time, it was not something that I believed in: the portrayals on television and in books seemed trite and shallow. Those who claimed to be in love seemed to be living out a fantasy that was destined to crumble. Love, therefore, was something that happened unexpectedly, like a flash of sunlight on a winter pond.

When I decided that I was going to marry my husband, it was not a rational discourse, weighing the advantages of financial unity, or a bid for an end to loneliness. It was a bold resolve, made in the knowledge that I was forging something beautiful and irrevocable, that I was taking a step, like Ulysses setting sail for home, that would end either in shipwreck or in glory.

I had no delusions that I was wedding myself to Galahad. I had known my husband for some time, and I had seen there was evil in his soul — every bit as much as in mine — but I loved him, and I knew that this was the one man with whom I could stand before God and vow my life away. I knew that this loving would be enough, and that in all of its darkness and suffering and beauty we would find the means to save our souls.

It was years later, after the ring was locked upon the finger, that I was sitting in a car with my husband’s divorced aunt. She said, “You know, no one will blame you if you divorce my nephew.”

I didn’t know what to say. It was as though someone had said to Frodo, “You know, no one will blame you if you just put on the One Ring and become like the Nazgul, half living and half dead.” The dignity of the quest is too great to justify such an ignominious end.

This is not to claim that there have never been times when I have considered leaving.

Early in our marriage he was usually out of work. There were days when I was in tears because we didn’t have enough money to buy milk for our daughter, and I considered walking out, telling him to call me when he had found a job and was ready to support a family.

But I knew that it would never happen: the motive for change would come from seeing me and his family with him, day by day, and that however humiliating it was to ask my parents for loans that I would never be able to repay, it would be more devastating to go home and admit that the project on which my life was built had failed.

In every marriage, there are moments when it seems impossible. I am sure that when Christ fell on the road to Cavalry, the thought of lifting his cross again and dragging it the rest of the way to the top of the hill seemed like madness. Perhaps it is different through divine eyes, but for men, there are always moments when we turn to heaven and say, “Are you insane?” When we are hardly able to see the top of Golgotha through our dust-bitten tears, we derive no comfort from reassurances that crucifixion isn’t all that bad, and that, seen in perspective, it’s really a beautiful expression of love and self-giving.

Unfortunately, this is how many tracts on divorce come across.

The theologians remind us that our married life is an image of the union between the soul and Christ in heaven. We hear of the wine of joy being mixed out of ordinary water, and of the bliss of two becoming one. We are offered the promise that if we just stick with it, it’s all going to get better, and we’ll enjoy a happy old age sipping lemonade on the front porch of a yellow house while our grandchildren play in the sun. We are told to improve communication, fall in love with each other all over again, observe the tender moments, etc., etc.

But how are you to fall in love again with an insensitive beast who has broken your heart and slept with another woman? How can you see your sex life as an image of the intimate life of the blessed Trinity when your wife consents only on a full moon when Mars is in Virgo, and makes love with the enthusiasm of a dead frog?

Marriage is, absolutely, an image of the soul wedded to God. It includes the same agony, the mingling of tears and blood, the same thorns digging into our skulls, the same nails plowed through our palms. And yet this yoke is easy, and this burden light.

This is the mystery at the heart of the Gospel, and it is the mystery at the heart of marriage: Only in dying do we live. Often we look at the spouse to whom we have vowed our life, and we think, “This is not the person that I married. This is not what I wanted.” And yet, it is what we were promised: the sickness, the poverty, the worst.

We are often tempted to abandon the project — to call on the angels of divorce to come with their golden ledgers and take us down from the cross of nuptial defeat.

It is when this temptation is strongest that we have the greatest capacity to strengthen love.

Everyone experiences this at some point in their life, whether they are contemplating divorce, or adultery, or suicide, or abortion. There is a despair that tears the soul apart, a raging fire that consumes everything, and then the will consents, just a little, to the sin proposed. Then there is quiet. The soul looking down into the surface of the river Styx, and seeing its reflection writhing amongst the tortured ghosts.

It is not peace: it is death.

But when peace has been absent for a long time, it can seem to be a good alternative.

In this moment, there are two paths set before us. God tells us to choose life, so that we and our children may live. And yet, often enough, we choose death.

God allows us to survive these little deaths, just as he allowed Adam and Eve to survive when they were cast from the garden. Yet this is the more difficult path. I have met divorced people who, out of this confrontation with the image of hell, were eventually able to transform a lukewarm faith into a life of penance and service to Christ. One day one of these people will be canonized, and we will all be able to beseech them to save our marriages.

Yet it is unquestionably better to choose life — even the life that comes through the cross. God does not try the soul beyond her means. He does not condemn divorce without giving us the graces necessary to avoid it.

Next week, we will make an honest appraisal of the obstacles that stand in our way, and consider why so many people in the modern world are choosing the wide path to the end of marriage.


Melinda Selmys is

a staff writer at VulgataMagazine.org.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.