Over the past few months, I’ve been reading the blog of an American rabbi. She was in the midst of getting a divorce when I first started following her, and her words resonated so much with the pain and confusion I was feeling.
When it came time to finalise her divorce, she wrote a liturgy around the granting of the get, the document of release.
The Christian tradition doesn’t have anything like that. We have beautiful liturgies for blessing and exchanging rings and two people becoming one. And our liturgies rightly emphasise that the commitment of marriage is not to be entered into lightly. They rightly express the hope that the love publicly declared will be ‘until death do us part’.
But for so many people, for so many reasons, that sadly is not the case. And when we find ourselves faced with one of the hardest, most painful decisions life can throw at us, we can only declare it legally. And alone.
One day I was wearing my wedding ring. The next day I wasn’t.
One day I was Kate Reynolds. The next day I was Kate McDonald.
There was no ritual. There was no liturgy. There was no public declaration or communal witness. There was no way of marking the way these superficial changes have cut deep. No way of acknowledging how the past twelve years I spent with someone have made me who I am today. No way of giving thanks for the gifts that marriage has brought. No way of letting go of the hurt that was inflicted. No opportunity to ask for or grant forgiveness. No way of offering a new kind of love for self and other.
I’ve tried hard to keep what’s going on in my personal life off of this blog, away from my work, separate from my life here. I walked out the door and put on a brave face. I initially convinced myself it was because I needed privacy, and that has been partly true. But I know now that I have allowed the stigma of divorce to send me running away in shame. While I have received so many letters and emails and phone calls filled with grace and compassion, I have also heard too many times over the past months that marriage is hard work, and have internalised that as an accusation that if I had only worked harder, my marriage would not have ended.
The truth is, ending a marriage has been far, far harder than staying would have been. It has taken all my courage and all my strength. And I spent too long hiding from the grief. It finally found me just before Christmas. As I sat in a horrific traffic jam for two hours, the dark clouds shrouded my heart, the world blurred, and as the traffic cleared, I pulled over and sat in my car for an hour on the side of the road and wept the ugliest of tears.
Since then, the grief has been messy. The nice neat stages of grief of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a lie. There are times when the anger is so strong all I want to do is take all the crockery in the house and throw it against the stone wall outside. Times when I do the work that needs to be done and then go to bed early and cry myself to sleep. Times when I ache with regret and long for the familiar. Times when I feel like I’m walking through fog and times when I feel like a compass wildly spinning. Bad decisions. Unhealthy coping mechanisms. Been there. Done that. All the phases of grief, all at once. Then a few days of peace before it starts again. It’s exhausting. No one can warn you just how exhausting it is.
There was a death in the Jewish family next door not long after we arrived in Tiberias. For days the road was blocked with cars. Chanting went on well into the night. Grief hung heavy in the air.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that over the past weeks. About how grief needs community.
Today, especially in the West, we’re taught that tears are weakness, that sadness is unsightly, that anger should be silent. There’s a great country song by Miranda Lambert — Mama’s Broken Heart — which sums it up so perfectly:
Go and fix your makeup, girl, it’s just a breakup
Run and hide your crazy and start acting like a lady
Cuz I raised you better, gotta keep it together
Even when you fall apart.
For those of us in public roles, this is especially the case. Who can be a good leader when they’re a hot mess, right?
The lack of Christian liturgy around divorce seems to perpetuate this unhealthy and theologically unsound assumption.
Liturgy is the work of the people. It cannot be done in isolation; it requires community. On days when we struggle with our faith, we can rest knowing that others will hold it for us. At times when we don’t know how to pray, it offers ancient holy words. When we cannot feel God’s presence, it hallows the silence. When we long for nourishment, with a gentle human touch, it places bread into our empty hands. When we feel like crumbling into a million tiny pieces, it reminds us that God binds up the brokenhearted. When the world feels dark, it assures us that in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.
Above all, it tells us over and over again that we are God’s children, very human, very flawed, but very loved and very forgiven, blessed even in our brokenness.
One of my clergy friends expressed concern when she heard I was moving to Israel: ‘Where are you going to find good liturgy when your soul needs feeding?’ A wise and insightful question.
I know I will be ok. I know that, as terrible as it feels, what I am experiencing is normal. I have a community in which to grieve, albeit a community which is scattered across four continents and a dozen countries.
But liturgy is where I find my home, where I know myself. And I feel lost and lonely without it.