The DSA symposium went well. I did my sharing with lots of nervousness but all in all, I didn’t faint, throw up or screw up too badly.
My sharing was about the fears I faced going through my divorce journey. Of course there’s so much more emotions at stake, but FEAR stood out the most. My 2 main ones were:
My Standing in Church – the judgement and stigma that came along with it
My Children – their views on the sanctity of marriage and making their lives ‘holy’
I look back at how things fell into place for me and it’s been an amazing journey, guided fully by God’s hand. I can’t give Him praise and thanks enough.
I think the most wonderful affirmation I received was on Sunday, just a day after the symposium. I had gone to another Church to attend a talk. As I was making my way for mass, I glanced up to see this mature lady, standing by her car just beaming at me. I looked back thinking it was someone else behind me but no. I was alone.
As I approached her, she came forward and took my hand saying, “Were you the one who presented at the symposium yesterday?’ As I nodded, she thanked me profusely saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you so much for your sharing. Keep up the good work and your faith. You have truly inspired us, those of us still married to make us value our marriage.’
Wow. I had touched even the married ones. Now that was totally unexpected.
I was pretty stunned to say the least. I had no words to reply her(which is very rare for me). I smiled and muttered a Thank You I’m sure. Then I walked into church and started to cry.
The weekend had been fairly emotional for me. Why I can’t say. Mebbe it was hearing the other presenter’s sharing that was so strikingly similar to my story and reminded me of my grief again. Maybe it was the many faces I saw in the crowd who I could relate to when I was feeling lost, depressed, overwhelmed and burdened. Whatever it may be, I doubted if I was fully healed. I wondered if I had been complacent with my assurance and self confidence in having closure. I knew I was in a much much better place. I felt Joy and Peace and Love within as never before.
Yet the emotions evoked stirred up a valley of darkness all over again.
That night, as I went to bed, gathering my confusion and all that whirl of strange emotions, I realized very clearly that this sadness that took over, it had to happen. Coz when the Joy and Peace and Love returned, it made these Fruits of the Holy Spirit all the more precious.
I told myself ‘Hey, it’s OK. It’s perfectly OK to have the sadness come again. That’s what makes us so human.’
The reality of the human life is that every relationship is complex. In a marriage, it’s even more so. Why? Coz it usually comes with attachments. Like family. And not all families get along, just like not all siblings like each other. Unlike friends, you can’t choose family.
Listening to Fr Doyle in this clip is comforting. The Catholic struggle is real. I think as a Cradle Catholic, I ended up with a lot of guilt. The Catholic Guilt. What is it?
“Catholic Guilt” is generally used to describe the feelings of remorse or conflict in people who are or were raised Catholic. Sometimes this guilt is associated with specific church teachings, since when people feel that they have violated their faith’s laws they tend to feel guilty about it. The phrase also has a broader meaning, though. Many Catholic teachings emphasize the inherent sinfulness of all people, which can lead to a certain degree of self-loathing even in the absence of some obvious transgression. Guilt in this sense is usually related to inherent imperfections and daily failings that cause a person to feel that he or she is isolated from God and unworthy of reconciliation.
Did I go through this? TOTALLY! This idea of sin, of being unworthy, of being guilty of committing some ‘sin’ coz it’s just not acceptable as the doctrines teach us is VERY REAL. I think it only hits the Cradle Catholics, those of us baptised at birth. It’s ingrained into our very being that lying is a sin, stealing is sin, adultery is a sin, divorce is a sin.
It’s all well and good coz every one needs a Rule Book. The Laws are in place for order.
You see, I was asked to be a Godmother and to me it was a great honour to be ‘chosen’. When my soon-to-be God daughter told me that in my absence, one of the RCIA leaders had told her divorcees can’t be a Godparent, I shrugged it off. So be it, go ask someone else. No biggie.
The phrase ‘of good standing’ stood out. What did that even mean? As I researched more, I saw that even teaching Catechism may be an issue if a divorcee is not ‘of good standing’. In a nutshell ‘of good standing’ meant NOT REMARRIED.
So it was actually quite easy to proceed with it since I was of ‘good standing’. Yet, I was quite peeved. Why so much judgement from the Laity, the people in Church? To understand this, of course one must realise if a divorcee remarries then he/she is in a state of sin as adultery is committed. You are sleeping with someone else OTHER than your spouse, WHO is still your spouse even though you’ve gotten a divorce(civil law) coz in the eyes of the Church you are still married to him/her.
Catholic laws are perplexing. It is hard to explain to non-Catholics when even some Catholics don’t grasp this. I am STILL married, and I will always remain married unless my Ex-spouse(from civil law) dies or I get an annulment.
When my Goddaughter-to-be asked me to check and confirm with Fr that it’s ok for me to be her Godparent, I kinda said ok. But I didn’t bother. I gave excuses until she confirmed it herself with the Parish Priest. ‘Fr says no issue at all!’ she beamed as she relayed to me the ‘good’ news.
Funny, I thought. Fr doesn’t really know me so how would he know I’m of ‘good standing’? I may not have remarried, but maybe I had a boyfriend(or more) and was sleeping around(ya rite? More scandalous than tying the knot to one man promising faithfulness yet again).
Anyway we proceeded with her baptism and for some months since the incident of being told(or insinuated) I’m ‘not worthy to be a Godparent coz of my divorce status’, I stepped away from weekday masses at church. For a regular, it’s odd. Odd enough for people to notice I went MIA.
7 months is a long time. I didn’t realise it at that time that I was actually angry at the Church for making me feel so judged. At the same time my article in the Catholic News on Surviving Divorce also came out, which I truly regret writing and having been ‘outed’.
The impact of feeling the Stigma of being a Divorcee was strong. I just blamed my work issues and stress for my pulling away from Church. But after I’d resigned from work, the embarrassment of showing my face in Church was still there. I knew it wasn’t about work anymore.
When I finally did return to Church, meeting the parish priest who I had long tried to avoid(Catholic Guilt again), I felt I had to explain to him my long absence from Church. I told him that I had felt ostrasized based on my status and the judgement that I could not be a Godparent had been imposed based on this status.
Fr, to his credit, apologised to me saying ‘On behalf of the Church, I’m truly sorry you had to go through that. BUT why did you not come to talk to me instead of believing the words of the church leader?’ He had a point. I had taken the laity’s words at face value, probably self imposed an exile on myself. So stupid.
But that in a nutshell is Catholic Guilt for you. I had inflicted it upon myself, whether it was rightly imposed by the congregation. How many times have we done this to ourself?
Galpal: What do you mean you’re still married? I thought you went through a divorce.
Me: I did. Civil divorce yes. Under civil law. But under Church law, I’m still married.
G: That’s plain nonsense. You deserve a chance to love again.
M: I can’t marry again. In the eyes of the Church I’m still married. If I marry someone, I’ll be committing adultery.
G: Do you really believe that?!! You can’t get a shot at love again? To marry again?
M: Unless I get an annulment.
G: What’s that?
This conversation has happened several times with different friends, some of whom are fellow Catholics. And more with those who aren’t.
It’s true that many Catholics aren’t aware of this. It’s also true that if you remarry, you can’t receive Holy Communion. It’s a mortal sin as one is in an adulterous relationship to be married to another when the first marriage (in Church) is a Sacrament(remember the indissolubility of marriage?).
Unless of course, as I stated, one gets an Annulment. What’s that? In a nutshell, your marriage is nullified and void. It never existed. It’s a strange concept but it works under the Canon Law.
I’ve not gone through the Annulment process yet. It’s so long drawn. I went to the Tribunal Office once my divorce papers were finalized. One of the first questions they asked me was ‘Are you seeing someone?’ How odd. Then I realized that the queue is long and so they give priority to those who plan to get married. Well, no rush there then. The last thing on my mind was to get into another relationship.
I got the form and put it aside.
When renewed energy returned(and my Spiritual Director told me not to sit on it any longer), I got the updated list/form. It had less questions now but I got tired just attempting the first 2. There are 14 questions, each with sub questions. Many many parts. Going through these was like rehashing my past and going back to the pain. I couldn’t do it.
The Sanctity of HOLY Communion
I had this chat with a priest once. As we were talking, I mentioned I was divorced. In all earnestness, his jaw dropped and he said, ‘Oh! You can’t receive Holy Communion!’ He’s given me Communion before of course.
I was stunned for a few seconds and coz I was comfortable talking to him, I retorted, “Fr, what era are you from? That’s not true at all. You don’t know my story. I’m not the sinner here. I didn’t break my vows.’ Then I softened coz I know I sounded harsh, and clarified by telling him I’d spoken to a few priests about it. I had it covered. Coz I was a kiasuSingaporean. (definition of kiasu: fear of losing out)
To understand the seriousness of receiving holy communion in a state of sin, you’d probably need to know what mortal sin is. Mortal sin breaks our relationship with God, it’s serious stuff.
So here I was, pretty horrified that I’d just received this news from a priest. I had heard of such things from friends whose family or relatives had stopped going to church or receiving the Holy Eucharist coz they were told so. To hear it for myself, direct from a priest was mortifying. Needless to say, we chatted further, me and Father and we got things sorted. Pre Vatican 2 was of this thinking. Times have moved on. Things have changed. And we have our wonderful new Pope Francis who has impressed the world of Catholics and Non-Catholics alike with his more liberal views.
You see, the difference here is, I clarify and throw back questions at my priest. How many divorcees would do that? I think many wouldn’t dare to. I’m lucky enough to have access to priests who have advised me well.
Not long after, I went for confession and had the good fortune to meet another priest I’d never met before who quoted some penance that sat so right with me, I confided in him.
You see, I had gone through this period of questioning the Church laws. I felt like the laws were too old school and man-made and really, is it my fault???!! God forgives the sinner rite? After all, it is in His mercy that I am saved. So understanding this whole notion of being married, stuck in the sacrament of marriage while civilly(civil law wise) I’m divorce…. when it’s NOT something of my choice to begin with…how do I justify this fact?
I shared with this priest about how when some laity(church folk) find out someone is divorced, they actually bring it out to the parish priest who then may be in a dilemma on granting Eucharist to his parishioner. He told me that sometimes, it’s easier to avoid gossip and judgement by receiving the Eucharist in a different parish, one the parishioners are not familiar with you.
I was like ‘What do you mean, Fr? So it’s like I should go to another church where no one knows me to receive the Eucharist?’ Yup, that was his point.
So it is true what the bible says : A prophet is not welcomed in his own hometown.
That was what hit me. And hit me hard it did.
One reason I stopped going to my previous parish, near my home was coz my parish friends(I was a Catechist before) would always ask ‘Where’s your husband? Never see him now.’
Of course they were not being nosy(Yeah, rite). But I just didn’t feel I was ready to share with strangers. Neither did I want to start any gossip. So I left that church.
Somehow, finding a new church where no one knows you or your family seemed easier. Church hopping is not fun. I won’t encourage it. You find one, a ministry that you like with good minded people and stick to it. After all, we all need a Church Community. Until someone in that church community finds out you’re divorced and then…they bring it out to the parish priest. Which is my next story.
So much education is needed on our Church laws. So much. So much more is needed to teach others not to judge though. Coz everyone has their story, it’s not for us to judge it.
When the Catholic News asked me a year plus ago to be interviewed on the issue of Divorce, I was ready. Or so I thought. To talk about divorce was something not many are ready to share…it’s like having HIV or being LGBT. Let it stay in the Closet.
When they asked for my photo, I hesitated. In the end I gave a picture which I thought didn’t reveal my face too much. When they asked what church I was from I asked if it was necessary to include that bit of info. On hindsight now, I really still wanted to keep my private life private. Well, they told me they’d remove it, but alas, while the hard copy was cleared. Someone made a boo-boo and it came out in the softcopy on the website.
I really wanted to withdraw my article but it was too late. I’d be irresponsible. ‘You can do this, Jo! Face your demons!’
When the article finally came out in Dec 2017, I realised I was not. I immediately regretted it. Why? I guess it was what happened almost simultaneously during my RCIA.
This is the article. My sharing on being part of the Surviving Divorce programme. Singapore has its own programme too.
I had several friends who read it and gave me a thumbs up. That’s when I realised ‘Oh gosh, people DO READ the Catholic News!! And my face is recognisable after all!’
Needless to say, I had a very different journey after that incident. I withdrew. I stepped away from my church coz of certain issues that surfaced which I’ll blog for the next entry. I used the excuse that it was work. Well, it was work too as I was facing a crap time with my boss and colleagues in an environment so toxic and went against all the values I believed in. But now that I look back, I also know that ‘coming out’ had some serious impact on me and I had not fully healed.
Life is funny. God was not done with me yet. I see it so clearly now. So, here I am. Blogging, sharing and being a face for divorce Catholics.
My interview is featured in the latest copy of the Catholic News dated 1 February 2019.
When they asked me if my boys would be keen to be interviewed, I thought: Sure let me speak to them.
But my oldest said ‘No’ straightaway. When I asked him to think about it, no rush for an answer, he replied, ‘Nothing to think about. I’m not doing it.’
I’m glad. Coz I think no matter how old he may be – in his 20s – it’s not a good idea to expose them to this. Not yet. My healing took a long time. For the children, I’m not sure if they ever will find closure and healing. I’ve seen friends who are in good marriages even if their parent’s weren’t. I’ve also seen those in broken marriages even when their parents are 60 years together. There is no clear cut pattern. Every family is uniquely different, every family has their secrets.
I hope you enjoy my interview article. I hope it helps you as you consider your children’s needs. We will screw up. We are only human. At the end, my only advice is this: Be the better parent. The one who is there for your child, supporting them and showing them you are dependable, responsible and love them no matter what.
It’s rare that both parents in a divorce are mature enough to put their differences aside to want to do the best for their kids. So if you are in that post divorce relationship that is civil and good, I am happy for you. If you aren’t, like me, we try to do our utmost best for our kids to not be affected by incivility and not to have to choose sides.
I didn’t exactly go all out to seek a new church during my separation. Likely it was God’s plan. I felt that my parish church, located a mere 8 min walk from my home, was not spiritually nor emotionally doing me good. I was tired of dealing with familiar faces curious to know why they don’t see my family anymore. So I became a church hopper, going to any of the 32 Catholic Churches convenient to my next appointment(I actually made it a mission to step into ALL the Catholic churches as I’d not been to several of them. Proud to say I succeeded.)
About a year after my separation, I chanced upon a quaint newly renovated Catholic church en route to work. The weekday morning mass timing was perfect. The minute I stepped in, an overwhelming sense of peace hit me. I can’t describe it. It was just a serenity and comfort like no other. It became my sanctuary. Morning masses started my day so right.
As my affinity towards the church grew, I felt a calling to do Church work. My last retreat was CER(Conversion Experience Retreat) at Catholic Spirituality Centre. I could hear clearly the voice of Archbishop William Goh reminding us that once the retreat was over, to stay faithful, and it was highly recommended to join a ministry.
So at one morning mass, I said a short prayer: ‘Dear God, I’m not sure what you want of me, maybe I’m not hearing your voice clearly, so if you do want me to get involved in church, be direct can? Let me know what it is you wish of me.’
As I ended my prayer with an ‘Amen’, Fr C the Parish priest comes up to the pulpit, and before the closing prayer puts up an appeal for catechists.
‘Oh no! Anything, Lord. Anything but that.’ After teaching catechism for over 6 years at my previous parish, I needed a change. Something different. Preferably no kids involved.
But I had asked and He’d answered. In the form of a priest no less. How could I say no now?
So that was how I got involved in a new church. It was easy to fit in. I was new. People were curious about me. But I realized there were so many other ‘new’ people joining the Catechetical ministry that I could merge into the wall somewhat. Granted there were curious ones who asked personal questions; when I wasn’t ready, I didn’t say much. When I trusted the person enough, I shared. A little.
The response when you tell someone ‘Well, I’m actually divorced’ is almost like you went through a death. There’s an awkward split second silence before the ‘I’m so sorry’..….’for your loss?’ is what I sometimes want to add on. I just nod my head and say ‘Thanks, I’m fine.’ Sometimes a cheeky ‘Oh I’m better being single.’ Which sometimes gets a shocked look, so I’ve stopped with that. After that short exchange, there is a further awkward pause…they don’t quite know what to say, so I quickly help to change topic. It’s really embarrassing. So I learnt NOT to state my marital status after that.
I guess what I’d like to hear could be something like:
‘That’s tough. I hope you’re doing ok.’
Just keep it simple. For some, I actually find them less chatty towards me after. Which is weird. Or maybe not.
I guess a Divorce is like Death. The Death of a Marriage. But sometimes I feel a betrayal is worse than death. With death, there’s closure. With a betrayal, you think ‘Was it me? What did I do to screw things up?’ There was some self-blame. Of course, I blamed my Ex a lot more. Pride does that. No marriage is perfect and it takes two hands to clap. Two hands to ruin a marriage too, just like it needs both parties to want to work at it.
‘When it’s broken, you fix it’. That’s the old school of thought. Nowadays, it’s ‘When it’s broken, get a new one.’ We think nothing of sticking through to our commitment. It’s easier when the going gets tough, the tough just ….. go.
For me, it was easier to start afresh. A new ‘spiritual life’ in a new church. Almost like a new job. No one knows your background, your failures. You are on a clean slate. It’s refreshing. New Beginnings.
I guess I was looking for distractions. What better place then in church, rite? Not like I started doing extreme sports or hanging out at bars.
I got involved in catechism, in RCIA; I kept myself busy attending retreats and Surviving Divorce programmes. It felt good to be connected with God. I wanted to. Church was a sanctuary. And I felt His presence so strongly. It happens you know. When you’re at your weakest, when you know there’s no one else and you’re so low, you can only cry out: ‘GOD, are you THERE?! I need you now more than ever.’ That’s when I felt His reply: I’ve always been here, my Child. I never left you.’
My healing process didn’t happen overnight. I was having my ups and downs frequently and felt like I was on a roller coaster ride. Work went on, raising the boys alone continued. Life was far from perfect but I found my solace and strength in knowing that I was busy building my spiritual life.
It was this relationship building with my God that I had lost in my years building my life, my family. Everything becomes mundane and routine. You fall into this dead-end trap of never-ending busy-ness. Busy with work, with the kids’ school matters, with my folks’ doctors appointments, with my own stuff. I realized I was leading a life that I thought had focus, yet in some ways, I just let the routine rule my life. And forgot God.
My then husband and I started leading our own busy lives. Our own separate paths. We became indifferent. Your life is yours, mine is mine. Where was God? I saw Him on Sundays only. We forgot to eat together as a family, pray together and we got angrier and angrier as responsibilities grew and one of us fell short, or worse, burdened one more than the other.
Pride made us never apologise. We took each other for granted. We lost our niceness to each other. How did that happen? How bad is it when the one you promised to love with all your heart, body and mind gets you so angry and upset and treats friends/colleagues nicer than you? How bad is it when home becomes a battle ground and you prefer to stay out?
These things don’t happen overnight. It takes months, years to build up. And before you know it, you realise there’s a stranger in the house. This is what many marriages become. The two who promised to love and cherish each other til death suddenly are tormentors to each other.
Love is not a feeling. Love is action. You love with the deeds you do. That honeymoon romantic love never lasts. It’s so hard in a marriage to love ONE person for always coz we are so imperfect. What holds it together is something called Grace. A very strong powerful grace that I firmly believe comes from a sacred place coz it’s not human. It’s divine. It’s a gift. A gift that comes from God.
How I’d wished I’d known about this earlier. I’d have prayed so hard for it.
One thing I’m grateful for was that during my time of separation, I came across a programme offered by the Catholic Church that offered a support network.
Beginning Experience was one such help for me in my healing process. It was by sheer coincidence I came across it. I went to a church I don’t usually go to and picked up a bulletin and saw it there. It was my cry for help answered.
A weekend with other (largely) womenfolk who were facing the same crisis. Nothing helps more than being surrounded by your own kind. Or those who are facing worse crap to make you feel ‘Why the heck am I complaining?’ I could still count my blessings.
Not long after, I came across another newly minted programme called Catholic Survival Divorce Guide(now called Surviving Divorce SD). Started in USA by Rose Sweet, it was a new programme in Singapore. This time, I received the info via email. I realised I had missed 3-4 sessions already so I called to inquire if it was too late. Joining halfway was better than nothing. Luckily the group size was small(only 5 of us) and as the pioneer batch, there was a lot of flexibility.
SD really helped me. Apart from watching videos, we had a lot of time to share our stories. The women I got to know still remain close friends. We were united by our sadness and grew stronger from it.
I later facilitated the programmes(held twice a year) which was also good therapy for me. We are not professional counsellors, just individuals who want to help those facing marital woes through our own healing stories and more importantly, keeping the faith.
Look out for the upcoming Divorce Annulment Separation Seminar (1/2 day) on 16 February and the next Surviving Divorce(10 week programme) starting in March 2019.
Just as these programmes provided me a source of comfort and a network of support, I’m sure it will benefit many in need of this during their crisis. Some are so hard hit, it’s incredible to see the strength they harbour within that they are unaware of. …and how they shine through later on, as they grow stronger week to week.