'Where should we do it?' I asked Chris, and he looked at me like I was an idiot, which is fair. 'St. Philip's, of course.'
This was the church where we had each become Episcopalian, where I had served as a priest, where we had made a home as a couple.
'Could we ask Scott?' My former boss, the former rector, or head priest, of St. Philip's, our friend and my mentor, he seemed like the obvious choice. Chris agreed.
Once we settled on the place and the priest, the time and the date, I didn't worry too much about the details. What we would say was written in the Book of Common Prayer. What I would wear took a little more time to discern, but ultimately I chose to wear my clericals - black suit and white collar, because it seemed fitting for a sacrament. Not everyone would approve of that, of course, but it didn't matter. There would be nobody else in attendance.
We entered quietly, following Scott in procession to the front of the church, and sat at the side altar. It was a summer night, beautiful and mild, muted and dim on the inside of the sanctuary. It smelled the way I always remember it - musty, mixed with wax and incense and thousands of prayers from the living and the dead. I was nervous, which is not surprising: my life was about to change. We were given brief instructions, observed a time of silence, and then we began.
'Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness.'
We were here for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, commonly called 'confession.' It was the religious end of our marriage.
We had been divorced some months before, a process that took ten minutes.
It was Easter Tuesday, April 2nd. The morning after the morning after the Resurrection. When they issued the court date, Chris said, 'What? We couldn't get an April Fool's divorce?'
Shortly before 9:00am, I presented myself in the courtroom with the requisite paperwork, filled out in triplicate. I took my seat in the gallery, along with about fifteen other people, scattered around the quiet room. Some were alone, some with attorneys or friends. I looked around the place, which felt like a sterile sanctuary, with pews and rails and robed attendants. We were all equal in the eyes of the law, and we were all here because we had demonstrably failed at upholding the bonds of matrimony.
I braved a glance at the other faces, surely as sad and drawn as my own, and yet we each inhabited our own solitary space, the amount of room in the courthouse provided us with a buffer that clearly made us a group of individuals, not a community. This was a place of dismantling families, after all, and none of us was here to share. I wondered how those who worked in this courtroom - the judge, the bailiff, the clerk - managed to do so every day amid so much heartbreak. I noticed how exceedingly gentle they were with all of us.
I surprised myself by beginning to weep. Chris and I had been living apart for so long by that time, and we were both building newer, better lives. I felt completely resolved about the end of our marriage. I had not cried since the day I moved out.
But now the sense of failure was overwhelming, bewildering, and the whole atmosphere of the courtroom felt like the inverse of church to me - the coming together, not for the common worship of God, but for the individual separation of people. I was overcome by the finality and the shame of it.
Chris walked in, and unlike the other former couples in the room, he came right over and sat next to me. It was impossible to process how I could feel support and relief as the person I was about to divorce entered the room. He was wearing the suit that he married me in. I reeled from the disjunction of feeling like I needed him here, for this. That I couldn't do it without him.
Never, never in my life had I considered I might be divorced. In fact, most of my life I had assumed I would never marry. And yet, here I was, eight years after I did marry at age 38, waiting until I was sure. Joking that I had 'skipped my first marriage', the 'starter marriage' that so many enter into when they are young and don't know who they are or what they want. The joke that felt so bitter now that it was obvious that ignorance and shortsightedness do not have age limits. That despite my own certainty, I got it wrong. I was wrong.
Chris took my hand, looked me in the eye.
'I am not sorry I married you, even though things ended as they did. I have no regrets.'
The pain in my heart soared. I could not look at him and I finally had to tell him to stop. I knew I had to compose myself for what we were about to do. And at that point, I did not feel that I deserved to be treated so kindly.
Five minutes later it was over. The judge called my name, I swore to tell the truth, he asked my address, date of marriage, date of separation, and if I wanted a divorce. He then looked to Chris, still seated in the gallery, and asked if he assented to all of those things. When we both said yes, the judge issued the order, the clerk signed the paperwork, we each got a copy, and we were done. I put mine in a folder, then later I put the folder in a file cabinet. I have never been able to look at it.
Chris and I made plans to have coffee post-divorce, to wish each other well in the new lives that we would not be sharing. I told him to go ahead and I would meet him at the cafe. I made it to the stairwell of the courthouse, where I sat and sobbed. I was now a divorced person, a divorced priest. I sat there, trying to absorb this, trying to muster any justification for it. I knew it was wrong, and yet this was also what had to be done. It was too much for me to bear for a few moments.
After awhile, I marveled from my seat, still on the stairs, how strangely beautiful the brand new courthouse building was. All the exterior walls were glass, and so even as I was hidden from the people flowing in and out of court, my view from the sixth floor was panoramic and stunning, with sunlight streaming in everywhere. It did not seem right in a place where broken things and broken people are presided over all day long. It seemed like a place with little room for grace, despite it saying 'in God we trust' over the judge's seat. I suddenly wished for windowless concrete, painted institutional green.
All this came back to me as I knelt in the warm embrace of tradition and stained glass, next to the man to whom I was no longer legally bound, in the church where we were married, in front of the priest who married us, as we prepared to ask God for forgiveness.
'Will you turn again to Christ as your Lord?'
'Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?'
'We forgive them.'
'May Almighty God in mercy receive your confession of sorrow and of faith, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.'
Sorrow and faith is exactly what I was feeling. The statue of Mary gazed at us through flickering candlelight, but it wasn't her judgment I felt, it was her relation. Sorrow and faith, she had been there before, haven't we all? Although obviously her suffering was not of her own making. Still, the presence of the saints, living and dead, was there in the room bearing witness to this, and it was not shame I felt, it was comfort. It was assurance that whatever Chris and I were putting asunder, we were not being exiled, by each other or by God.
In the courtroom, the strained silence, the multiple, efficient forms, left me feeling abandoned: free to let go of my husband through administrative process, but no one would hold anything against me, it was just another day in the system.
In the church, though, kneeling there, I felt the grief, the importance of the bond we were breaking, the fact that it matters to others, to God, that we were divorcing. In the marriage ceremony, the whole congregation, representing the entire Christian community, vows to uphold the couple in their union. By abandoning ours, we were cutting one tiny thread of the fabric that holds all of us together. It is a big deal.
And it is also not outside the love of God. The path of religion, though steeped in custom, is not just a set of rules. It is a love story of its own, and our story says that no matter how many times you fail, you are always forgiven. God never gives up on you, but always calls you home. Even this divorce, even my guilt and failure, would not be dismissed or ignored, but embraced and transformed.
'Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.' The last words of the priest in the ceremony are to remind everyone that we sin every day, that Christian life is more about recognizing that fact than trying to avoid it. This time, Chris and I had made no plans to speak afterwards, and in fact he left before I did, without saying goodbye, just after Scott slipped out through the side door to let us leave when we were ready. It was ok, though. I didn't need any more reassurance.
I stayed for awhile, enjoying the silence. Then I walked alone into the summer darkness, smiling and free. .