27th Sunday Ordinary Time Mk 10:2-16
There’s a point in everyone’s life when they consciously recognize that they are not children anymore, but adults. I remember my moment of recognition. I was 17 years old, and away from home at Santa Clara University as a freshman, living in the dorms. After the predictable first couple of weeks of homesickness, I began to get into the rhythm of campus life, made some new friends, and suddenly one evening, as I was walking to my dorm, I had this wonderful sense of well-being. The homesickness was gone. I was, in my own mind of course, an independent adult man, and that was pretty cool. So what did I do with this new-found independence? Two radical things – I let my hair grow long, and I stopped going to Mass on Sunday. When I went home for Thanksgiving, my hair was bushy black and stuck out in all directions. I looked like a walking Q-Tip. And when it was time to go to Mass on Sunday, I looked my Mom straight in the eye and said, “Sure, let’s go!” I was an independent adult male coward, apparently.
Now what does this have to do with marriage and divorce, the obvious theme of today’s Scripture readings? Hang on, we’re getting there. I’m working backward from the end of today’s gospel when Jesus says, “…whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Note that word “accept”. The reality is that children (and in this case, I’m not talking about babies, but self-aware children, perhaps 7 or older) have a distinct sense of their place in the scheme of the universe. They know that they are not adults, and they furthermore know that they are utterly dependent on their parents and other folks in authority. It is painfully clear to an 8 year old that bucking the child dependency system is a recipe for hunger, cold, fear, and disarray in life. When Jesus invites us to accept the kingdom of God like a child, he invites us to this same sense of dependency on God. In the end, he is saying, “Trust God the same way you trusted your mother, your father, or whoever played the role of a loving parent in your life.” That is the way of happiness and peace.
So, why didn’t God just leave us with the minds of children, open and dependent on Him, for now and for eternity? Apparently, God wants us to take the round trip from child to adult to child again, for that journey is worth the effort. That journey is the journey of discipleship and spiritual maturity, and that’s who God wants – people who have the intelligence of mature adults and the humble mindset of a child. God seems to treasure the humble heart above all, the one who knows that God is God and we are not. And that is not only okay, but preferred.
So there I was, eating Thanksgiving turkey, bushy-haired and fearful of my mother’s discovery of my new found agnosticism. I couldn’t wait to get back to school and start being an adult again. So off I went back to school and did more manly things, like growing a beard. You know those caveman ads on television? Yeah, that was me. I persisted in avoiding Mass, because I was an independent man, you see. And then I met this girl. She was pretty and smart and full of life, and wouldn’t you know it, she went to Mass on Sunday. To her, it wasn’t a question, it was a way of life. So I went to Mass with her, discovering a new appreciation of the liturgy as an independent adult male who happened to be in love.
My mother always told me to marry the woman who would help me get to heaven, so four years later, I did. And to this day, she remains bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, a most “suitable” partner, to quote Genesis. When a marriage works, there is a mutual interdependence, a dance within life and through life, an awareness of one’s individual role and a celebration of the partnership. We respect and enhance each other’s journey, dependent and independent at the same time. That childlike acceptance of the reality of being dependent plays in marriage as well, and in this understanding, we taste the kingdom of God.
Why do marriages break up? There are many root causes, but in the last nine years of working with couples who are divorced, I find that there is always a tipping point, a moment when one of the partners decides he or she would rather be independent of the other than dependent, and the bond is broken. I also see that marriages do not typically break apart overnight. It is a series of cuts, a series of decisions that exclude the other, an erosion of trust and a building of walls. If you sense this happening in your own marriage, I implore you to waste no time in getting counseling. The slide to divorce can be stopped. Two-thirds of divorced people in the United States say that they wish they had tried harder to save their marriages. Two-thirds!
There is some good news too. Divorce rates have been dropping steadily after peaking in the 1980’s. You’ve all heard that often repeated statistic that 50% of marriages end in divorce? Not true today – the number is trending downward, largely because people are waiting longer to get married – divorce rates drop significantly if a person marries over the age of 25. But divorce still happens and always will happen. We’re not naïve. The Church has struggled over the years to accommodate this reality without disobeying Jesus. If a marriage is meant to be forever, and it fails for a very good reason, the Church allows the marriage to be annulled. Annulment is a process, and to be honest, it is not an easy process for a couple who has married following all of the Catholic practices. Don’t get me wrong, it can be a very healing process, but many are loathe to undertake the journey because of the need to relive the reality of their loss. The pain runs deep, and my heart breaks for them.
You may be aware that the Pope has recently made some significant changes to the Church’s annulment process, to be implemented on December 8th of this year. Although we don’t have the official procedures from our Diocese yet, we can expect that an uncontested annulment process will be greatly simplified, bringing the timeframe down from the current 9+ months to a matter of weeks. I certainly don’t want to promise anything specific, but I am greatly encouraged by the Church’s direction here. If the Church is to be a field hospital to the world, this is a great place to apply intensive care.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but if the Church is to be a field hospital to the world, what does that make our Parish? A MASH unit? Yes, indeed. We are the front line to the pain of the world. If you are hurting, please make yourself known to us. If you know someone who is hurting, please reach out. If you are not specifically qualified to help them, please ask one of us on staff. We’ll do the best we can to get help. As Jesus said, “…do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
© Deacon Peter Hodsdon St. James Parish, Solana Beach