The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. —Ps 90:10Having lost a child in 2009, Christmas has been a tough old struggle for the last few years. It is a time which tends to be all about the kids, right? So when one is missing, the season serves to focus pretty much all your attention on that fact. And that fact is the hard, concentrated, epicentre of pain you try to keep locked away deep inside you most days. It is hard to shop for presents when every store you go into abounds with things you know she would love. It's, well, it's quite frankly heart breaking.
This year is the second Christmas we have spent with our beloved Mary, who was pretty much 17 months old by Christmas day. Mary being around has made this all easier. Not just for me, for Lou and the boys too. I sense we are all a bit stronger, and we are all a bit more focused on Mary and what her latest cute new thing is.
The point is, at Christmas and New Year, my mind does wander to all those people who have a really tough old time. People who are alone, people who have been hurt, people who are afraid, or have been betrayed. After 41/2 years, I feel as if I am finally beginning to learn to live with the devastation of losing Ruth. It's not OK, but it is…And you learn to cope, by the grace of God.
To some extent, the death of a loved one is something that can and does occur in life. To lose a child is particularly unnerving and unnatural. However by the grace of God, and with the help of friends, one does, slowly, begin to regain one's faculties. Winter inevitably turns to Spring, and the new life we have been gifted in our baby daughter has helped this process to work in our family, melting the snow of grief, allowing the buds of joy to peep through once more. This year I recognised how this tragedy has shaped us and formed us as a family. How tight we are, how much we look out for each other, how close the children are, what it has taught them.
Still, some hard times seem to be more difficult to overcome than others. Two particular tragic events in my life stand apart from the death of Ruth, and yet constantly, I mean daily, cause me great distress and pain. This pain seems constant and irresolvable. Both are cases of familial betrayal. I think one leads from the other, and I have realised after much agonising, that I am not in control of these situations and it is not for me to fix them. You cannot take responsibility for other people's actions, you cannot change the reality of other people's lives, priorities, and choices. It is part of life that no matter how hard you strive, and no matter how well intentioned your motives are, sometimes people will disagree or even take offence. This year especially I found my myself wondering about the founding disaster in my family, which centres around my father, who is estranged from me, having utterly and ruthlessly betrayed us all, my mother especially, back in 1998/99. I haven't really seen or heard from him since then, but this year, he turns 70. He is an old man. He is an old man who betrayed his wife and his sons for a woman half his age. She is now a fairly young woman who lives with the prospect of caring for a man the same age as her own father.
The age of man he is now entering is the one where your strength begins to properly fail you and when your joy rightly comes from your children and your grandchildren. As Shakespeare observes, man begins to lose his charm — both physical and mental. He begins to become the butt of others' jokes. He loses his firmness and assertiveness, and shrinks in stature and personality. My father seems to have denied himself the privileges of old age: pride in your sons, pride in your grandchildren. To feel loved and respected by those you have formed, nurtured and cared for. To bask in the radiated love from those who you have cared for. He dismantled the family I knew as a child for lust.
Nevertheless, this New Year I found myself contemplating his future. What he will do? Who will care for him? Has he thought about it? Is he concerned? I bet it's been great fun for the last ten years or so. I bet he has been utterly in denial about his age, who he really is, what he has really done and the consequences of those actions. But the time to pay the piper is creeping up on him. Who will stand at his bedside and care for him? Will the woman he lives with stand with him? If so, how long for? What has his selfishness condemned her to? What will she do afterwards?
Obviously I am writing this because it is cathartic to some extent, but for two other reasons. One is a genuine fear for the souls of two people who have acted atrociously and have not shown any remorse whatsoever, nor any consideration or concern for the consequences of their actions. Both of these people have been Baptised & Confirmed as Catholics and now have fallen away. They have deliberately and consciously turned away from the Church, because the Church condemns their actions as sinful. The wages of sin are death. This apostasy is something the Church has always held a particularly dim view of:
…those cannot be saved, who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded through Jesus Christ, by God, as something necessary, still refuse to enter it, or to remain in it.—Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church: Ad GentesAnd also:
Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.— Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen GentiumThe dreadful behaviour subsequent came on top of the initially damaging adultery, and my father's leaving my mother and starting a new life with this other woman. Society may, presently, find itself more at ease with this kind of behaviour. It has become increasingly common, however the damage it causes has not lessened. I prefer to take a longer view than simply the one currently blown to the fore on the winds of temporal cultural fashion. The Church has carefully considered the most beneficial way for us to act in community with each other and bases its insights on a grand, historical tradition, sound philosophical reasoning, and divine revelation from the very Word of God Himself. It has always held that the bond of marriage cannot be loosed because of difficulties of living together, because of the absence of one of the partners, or because of the adultery of one of the partners.
The indissolubility of a marriage properly contracted is evident in both apostolic and evangelic doctrine. Fundamentally, both Jesus and St. Paul explicitly condemn divorce and re-marriage (Mt 19:6; 1 Cor 7:10), St. Paul appeals to Christ Himself ("not I, but the Lord,") to demonstrate how this teaching is normative. Humanity had always known this, and God intervenes and emphasises this further very early in the record of revelation, through the bi-lateral covenant He institutes between unequal partners: the decalogue. Here, adultery is noted as a massive problem, one that was considered most grave in pre-history and from the very earliest life of the Church, because it ruins the life of the family.
In the New Testament, St. Paul exhorts husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (Eph 5:25-26), in other words, sacrificially, and it is by meditating on this measure of true love that we can really gain insight into our divine destiny and the communion of Heaven. This is what love really means, it is not about what you want or what your needs are. It is about heroic virtue. The measure of your love is manifest in the measure of your sacrifice. Think of the unconditional love of a mother for her baby, or of the example of those spouses who tirelessly care for spouses with strokes, dementia, or other disabilities. This selfless love is the love Christ showed for His Church, and it is the selfless love modelled by the perfect communion of the Trinity. As Joseph Ratzinger expresses it:
Marriage is an indissoluble Spiritual-bodily union where, nonetheless, the couple remain unconfused and un-mingled—Ratzinger, Called to Communion, p. 39.The Second reason I am writing this is because my circumstances may prove didactic in cataloguing the real and dreadful consequences of adultery and marriage break-up, not just for the people involved immediately, (spouses, children, etc), but also for the wider family, and even community. The shame of what my own father has done still weighs me down most dreadfully. He betrayed my entire childhood, everything I thought he stood for was demonstrably a lie; a construct of my own imagination. What I considered my father to be was merely a spectre of the man who actually was, I had remade him, in my own mind into who I wanted him to be. As part of that process, I had ignored many warning signs, defending him against criticism from friends and associates, until I could no longer hide from the reality of who he really was. Despite the assurances of my mother and brother that he would never betray us, or do anything to hurt us, my worst fears were eventually realised, and all the myriad web of lies was laid bare. Numerous opportunities to put things right were offered, but my father pushed all propriety and sense to the side and instead, continued down the spiral of degradation he had committed himself to. He forced me into an intellectual, legal, and eventually even a physical confrontation, all of which left him looking increasingly impotent and ridiculous. Far from giving me pleasure, the reality was that this merely served to systematically exorcise the last vestiges of respect I held for him. Every opportunity for compromise, for reconciliation, for peace, was cavalierly flung back at me. Battle was joined on every front, and on every single front, he was utterly defeated. All the respect I had for him was then gone. He was left looking ever more the construct, ever more the façade, held up for so long by the love of his wife and his two sons, who, now on his own, amounted to very little, except a selfish, ignorant, and bitter old man.
The shock I felt was mirrored in the wider family, who were incredulous at the game which had been played for so long and the betrayal it constituted, although they soon recounted the hints and clues they themselves had long ignored that led to an inescapable conclusion. Also in the community, he was shown to not, in fact, be what he purported to be. This contradicted how we had always portrayed him to others, and we were all dreadfully embarrassed and let down by him, But sadly, it was also an affirmation for the Godless, those without morality or principle, who ever rejoice when good example fails. No doubt Satan was at the heart of all of what took place, largely still is, and rejoices in the mayhem, hurt, and bitterness it has all begotten.
While there is life, there remains hope. Hope for deliverance from the evil we each visit on each other, hope through penance, through recognising the scope, pain and wrong we have done, acknowledging it and trying, in some way, to make reparation. But despite this, the reality of my own relationships; what 'my father' means to me, has been damaged in a way which I currently see as permanent, because so much time has elapsed and those things, those actions, are a reality for me.
As time creeps on, the proportion of my life these feelings inhabit becomes relatively greater, and they seep further into my experience, my reality. Reconciliation is always possible, but the nature and manner of that reconciliation are tainted by the reality of actions so that true reconciliation requires they are acknowledged and dealt with. When the hurt and pain goes so deep, we might attempt this, or make some in-roads, but can it be put to bed? With the time remaining to my father, I would contest it would be more than a challenge. The alternative is to put it away and pretend it never happened, but bitter experience has taught me that this is of little real benefit. The poison of un-dealt with pain always seeps to the surface like buried toxic waste. In any social situation it, at best, remains hidden beneath a thin veneer of civility, and bubbles up at any given opportunity to contaminate your best intentions. Hard as it may be, honour, integrity, and honesty are the only way to truly deal with such things. And that can be painful, which is why most people prefer to avoid true reconciliation.
For me, every aspect of my life since then has been determined by these events. I have undertaken not to be the man he is. To not have been formed by him in any way. To stand on my own and make my own way. To have integrity, honour, faith, charity, honesty, loyalty, trust, and all those other things he had not. He is my father, and am his son. I miss the man I had hoped he was, I weep for the grandfather my children should have had, but I am not that man, nor could I ever be.
You were born together, and together you shall be forever more.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup, but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread, but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
From The Prophet by Kahil Kilbran