Monday, November 10, 2008

Archive: A Ceremony of Divorce

Human beings of every culture mark great changes in their lives -- birth, puberty, graduation, marriage, death -- with ritual ceremonies: gatherings of friends and family to share emotions, beauty and wisdom; to honor the past and make commitments for the future. Of these rites of passage, perhaps the most elaborate, beautiful and celebrated is the wedding. The marriage ritual is composed not only of solemn vows, but of most of the elements of art and poetry: symbolic acts and images, resplendent spectacle, deliberate drama (How to you instantly boost the ratings of a TV show? Write a wedding into the plot.) A marriage ceremony isn't just a wedding of two people; it's a wedding of religion and custom with beauty and sharing, to reinforce the power of the couple's act.

Unfortunately, there's one great, life-changing passage for which no similar ceremony is customary, at least in Western culture: the event of divorce. The closest thing we have is the Catholic act of annulment–but that's not a solemn acknowledgement; it's more of a religious ostrich act, sticking the church's head in a hole and pretending the marriage never happened. Traditional Judaism has a ceremony, but it’s brief, private, and starkly simple: only men are allowed to initiate a divorce, and they do so simply by writing a bill of divorcement, called a get, and presenting it to their wives, saying “Behold, I divorce you!” and tearing up the marriage contract. Family and friends are usually not invited.

“At present, the get ceremony is often conducted as if it were an exclusively legal procedure, with little attention given to the emotional and spiritual dimensions of the experience,” write Jewish scholars Or N. Rose and Judith Rosenbaum, in an essay called “Renewing the Ritual of Get.”

Shin Buddhism has a divorce ceremony. So do some Native American traditions. And in recent years, the idea has been brought up more and more frequently in Western society. The United Methodist Church and United Church of Christ now have optional divorce ceremonies included in their liturgies; a Michigan Lutheran minister and the Episcopalian bishop of Newark have both written their own rituals for divorce, and Unitarians have experimented with various divorce rituals. A liberal Jewish Web site called offers a variety of optional ceremonies to mitigate the bruskness and sexism of the get. But in general, in our society, marriage is celebrated openly and publicly, while divorce takes place in private. Marriages are presided over by ministers (civil ceremonies excepted), but divorces are the domain of lawyers and judges.

That's a great and sad mistake.

Before I became a full-time writer, I worked for three years as a paralegal for my then-wife, who ran a family law practice specializing in domestic violence cases. “Family law” was, in a sense, a misnomer, because what we really were doing was helping people to survive as family units broke apart – and helping those units to break apart, when the only thing worse than being apart was being together. There was and is, unfortunately, a great and terrible need of for such services on this island. We could never fill that yawning abyss, and strain of trying finally cost us our own marriage.

In fact, no lawyer, judge or court can completely heal the wounds of a severed family, and part of the reason for the problem is our reliance on the legal system to do so, to the exclusion of the community.

When a person dies, there’s a whole web of rituals that involve the family and friends in the mourners’ lives – not just the memorial service, but such little things as the custom of bringing food to the deceased’s family, so they don’t have to cook. The corpse is put on display, so everyone can say one last goodbye—and hug the mourners, and share comforting memories, and offer help.

But there’s no system of community involvement to aid in the mourning for a failed marriage. Family court proceedings are sealed, especially when children are involved; dead marriages have no obituaries. Even in the best of circumstances, a family breakup is a wretched, wrenching experience, and all too often, it is made even worse by the isolation that the victims feel, as their relatives, in-laws, mutual friends, and even church congregations fall silent, became distant, frown disapproval, whisper snide remarks – or, even worse, take sides and attack. Adults and children carry the psychic wounds of one relationship into the next, and often their friends only know what’s happened from gossip.

This is the opposite of what needs to take place. If ever there is a point of change when human beings need their community to come together around them in love, beauty and affirmation, it is this time.

We need ceremonies of divorce.

Such a ceremony might sound something like this (Christian version):

Minister: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to acknowledge a tragedy in the lives of our friends, John and Marsha, to affirm our love and support for them, and to acknowledge their transition into new stages of life. John and Marsha, please come forward.

(John and Marsha step forward, wearing simple clothes of mourning.)

Minister: John and Marsha, do you acknowledge that a marriage existed between you, that you loved each other and cared for each other, and that this bond was a precious, solemn and valuable thing?

John and Marsha: We do.

Minister: Do you solemnly pledge to remember that this bond existed, and to honor and respect that memory?

John and Marsha: We do.

Minister: Do you understand the gravity of that bond, and power of your pledge before God to maintain it?

John and Marsha: We do.

Minister: Do you affirm that despite your efforts and solemn pledges, this bond has dissolved, or that to continue it would cause more pain and damage to yourselves, your families and your friends than could be healed?

John and Marsha: We do.

Minister: Are there any children of this marriage?

John and Marsha: Yes.

Minister: How many?

John and Marsha: one.

Minister: Please give the name and age of that child. Please answer individually. John?

John: Michael, aged nine.

Minister: Marsha?

Marsha: Michael, aged nine.

Minister: Michael, are you here today?

Michael: Yes.

Minister: Michael, please come forward, and stand with your parents.

(Michael comes forward, and stands in between his parents.)

Minister: John and Marsha, please take Michael's hands.

(They do so)

Minister: John, do you acknowledge that absolution from your marriage vow to Marsha does not absolve you of your bond to Michael, and that no ceremony and no law exists that can remove from you the name of "Father"?

John: I do.

Minister: Then please repeat after me.

(John repeats the following pledge, after the Minister:

Michael, I love you. What's happening today is no fault of yours, and I will always love you, even when we are apart. I'll always do my best to take care of you, and you can always come to me as your father. I'll work with your mother to give you the best life possible, and I'll never use you to fight with her. I'll do my best to help your mother be your mother, and I'll still be your father in every way I can.

Minister: Michael, do you understand that your father still loves you, and pledges to still be your father in every way he can?

Michael: I do.

(This ceremony is repeated between Michael and Marsha, substituting "father" for "mother" and vice versa.)

Minister: John and Marsha, by the power invested in me by God and before this congregation, I absolve you of all the bonds and obligations of your marriage, save two. You have sworn again today to love and support your son. And you have sworn to respect and support each other as the parents of your son. And I now call on all those gathered here to affirm these relationships, both new and continuing. Do you vow to love, acknowledge and support John and Marsha as your friends, and to help them in their continuing roles as Michael's parents?

Congregation: We do.

Minister: And do you acknowledge that your love and friendship for John and Marsha continues, even though their own relationship has changed?

Congregation: We do.

Minister: John and Marsha, you will now place your rings in the crucible.

(John and Marsha place their wedding rings in a small crucible set up before the altar.)

Minister: these rings will be melted, and two new rings that will be given to Michael by their father and mother: one for each hand, each engraved with a message of a parent's continued love for his or her son.

This marriage is ended. But all of you are charged to continue what was good from that relationship. Let each friendship continue, each good sharing go on. Let no one say this marriage was a mistake, and let no one forget that it happened. Remember the good, and heal.

Let us pray.

(All present bow their heads.)

Minister: Lord, we ask your blessing upon this solemn change and upon all present, and your continued guidance and forgiveness through the changes ahead. Remind us that we are all frail and in need of the love and support of others, and that our own pride should never keep us from seeking the help of others when we need it, and that our own angers and ambitions should never blind us to the need of our children. Please help us to remember, in our humanity, that Your own love flows not only between two people, but between all people, and that even more powerful than the bond of marriage is the gift of forgiveness.

All Present: Amen.

1 comment:

shannon said...

The saddest story you've ever written. Hope its better, now.