By Reverend Roger Carr-Jones Marriage & Family Life Coordinator, Diocese of Westminster
At the back of my house is a large wall. For most of the year it is hidden behind a profusion of plants each vying for the light. It also provides a home for wildlife. Every so often, to ensure that the plant life remains healthy and vigorous, it all needs cutting back and reshaping. From time to time new plants spring up bringing new colours and shades. The wall also needs attention to ensure that it remains sound and able to support the plants. However, if someone were to bash the wall then everything would suffer as a consequence and much work would be required to mend the structure and tend the plants. We could leave it in ruins, or begin to slowly rebuild and at the same time protect and revitalize the life that is growing upon it.
The social impact of divorce and separation is huge. All of us will know someone who has experienced the pain and effect of separation or divorce. There is no such thing as a neutral divorce: at some level it leaves emptiness, hurt and loss. The negative effects of divorce on families, friends and work colleagues affects society on a massive scale.
September marked the first time that I led Restored Lives, a resource designed to help people recover fully from the experience of separation and divorce. Created 20 years ago this resource has enabled thousands of individuals to explore the challenges of relationship breakdown, from the emotional struggles through to practical support.
The first step of any journey is the hardest, requiring courage, guts and determination to cross the threshold to attend. This is even harder when you gather virtually, where reassuring words cannot be accompanied with the physical gesture of a handshake or hug. This first step is the first stage of inner healing, opening the path to future restoration. It is an act of trust.
Our church communities are not immune to the effects of divorce and separation, so we need to be careful that we are not averse to the need to respond. Restored Lives helpfully provides a guide to this ministry called “Heartbroken? Who cares?”, which is simply designed to help people and families impacted by separation and divorce.
Although my guests came from diverse backgrounds all were from Christian communities and spoke of their sense of isolation from the very communities that should, in truth, be ready to support them. From time to time we need ask the question ‘how do we support the divorced and separated in our parish setting?’
When I think of this resource and ministry it always brings to my mind the image of the Good Samaritan, one who recognised the need, crossed the road and brought about restoration.
What would we do if we noticed that someone is injured? No doubt, we would stop, try to heal the wound, do what was needed, or seek help. The image of the Good Samaritan lies at the heart of Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti, where he writes “The parable is clear and straightforward, yet it also evokes the interior struggle that each of us experiences as we gradually come to know ourselves through our relationships with our brothers and sisters” (No. 69).
In reaching out to the separated and divorced, we are always encountering a person, not an issue. Our responses are signs of our love and accompaniment, including the spiritual. Love is the primary gift offered by those in this ministry, many of whom will have been on the same journey. When the wounds are emotional or the subject area seemingly difficult, we might naturally feel challenged and be tempted to avoid it. If this is our charism, then God will do the rest.
Of course, the temptation in me is the desire to want to give advice. This habit tends to inhibit rather than inform, as no two journeys are the same, and each must seek their own solutions on the road to recovery. This brings to mind the words of Pope Francis who invites us, in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelli Gaudium “to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (n.169) The Pope’s call to accompaniment requires walking alongside, being reassuring and developing a Christ-like closeness.
With this in mind the best guide to delivering Restored Lives is the reminder that we, as helpers, are there to deliver the material and, to borrow more words of Pope Francis, to develop the ‘apostolate of the ear’. Once we learn to listen without comment, simply mirroring back what we have heard, then we are giving the greatest of gifts to someone who is hurt, forlorn and distressed. I know of someone whose marriage disintegrated after he had an affair and was made homeless. He asked a friend for a room, which was provided. In doing so it was clear that the other friend was meeting his immediate physical need, whilst not condoning his actions. This action is a powerful expression of what accompaniment involves: walking alongside, listening and offering non-judgmental support. Each story will be different.
What I have learnt after nine weeks is that it is easy to tend to the physical hurts: it is much harder to tend to the emotional ones. The healing of memories requires learning the difficult art of forgiveness, in order that the love of God can flow freely again. Our little group included those whose relationships had crumbled in lockdown, to others who were further along the path, yet each, in different ways, needed to experience restoration. This is a useful reminder until we feel healed within it is hard to live again, to explore our relationships with others and with God.
We are not asked to walk in their shoes, which is quite impossible, yet, we are compelled to act with love and compassion. So, in this brief reflection I would like to acknowledge my gratitude for all those who have followed the example of the Good Samaritan, crossed the road and bound the wounds.