The Personalist Project

Let me tell you a story.

Years ago, I watched a young friend go through a dramatic few years trying to make things right after getting his casual just-for-fun girlfriend pregnant. With effort, he dissuaded her from aborting their child, offering to single parent if he had to so that his daughter would live. He moved in with his girlfriend during the remainder of the pregnancy with the idea that they could be a family. At first, it seemed like it might work out for them. But the relationship fell apart a few months after their daughter was born. Undaunted, my friend continued to spend every moment he could with his daughter, but as his relationship with his ex deteriorated, that became harder and harder to do. 

For a while, he thought that even if he couldn't be in his daughter's life, he could at least avoid being a deadbeat dad. So he signed up to join the army, and went back to his home state for basic training. Three quarters of the way through training, a previously undiagnosed medical weakness was discovered and he was released. The temptation to stay in his home state, near his family and familiar stomping grounds, must have been pretty strong. But he couldn't pretend he wasn't a father. He wasn't a person of any particular moral convictions except for a strong, midwestern family loyalty. No matter how messed up things get, you don't give up on family. So he headed back south to be as close to his daughter as he could be. The last time I saw him, quite a while ago, he was working two jobs, paying child support, and seeing his daughter every other weekend.  

Never would he have said that he wanted his daughter to grow up without both parents around, amidst division and confusion. It wasn't what he intended when he first hooked up with a cute girl, sowing his wild oats while trying to figure out what he wanted out of life. He didn't realize he was choosing the mother of his daughter with this "not at all serious" relationship. When his girlfriend became pregnant, all he wanted was to make it right, for her and for their child. But in the end, it wasn't something he could make right. 

There are things we can break that we are not able to fix.

I thought of this story yesterday while reading the reactions on FB to this open letter by a friend of mine. Many of the responses were attempts to "fix" the situation described---people talking about how troubled marriages should be solved or abandoned. Monica's marriage was labelled, dissected on the basis of the limited information in the letter, diagnosed, and treatments were prescribed by combox strangers. 

The letter itself, if you read it, doesn't ask for a solution. Monica does not ask to be fixed. She asks only for support from the pulpit and from fellow Catholics, that we walk beside her on this difficult road she is travelling. Monica knows something that I learned watching my young friend those years ago: there are things broken that we cannot fix.

Am I advocating despair? No. But these broken places in people's lives are where Francis's call for compassion and pastoral care is most relevant. For while it is true that we cannot heal one another's every wound, nothing is beyond God. And while we wait for his action, we can and should follow his command by loving one another, even in the broken places. 

It isn't comfortable, to walk with someone and help carry their cross. We'd much rather whittle the cross down to size, or tell our friend helpfully that they need not carry this cross (there's a much more comfortable alternative cross just over there, after all), or shout tips from the sidelines on cross-carrying technique. We don't want to look too closely at the inescapable suffering that faces another for fear that we might learn that living well and truly requires that we also suffer, that we also may someday face a cross that seems too large and too cruel to carry and be asked by Christ to bear it for Him. 

In all the coverage of the synod, there's been a tendency to focus on changes in discipline and implications for doctrine. What is the Church going to do to remove people's crosses? What is she going to teach? But the focus of the synod on the family has to be primarily pastoral, and the perennial pastoral concern is this: to feed the hungry, to console the afflicted, to clothe the naked, to see each person and to love and serve them and the image of Christ within them. As a pastoral document, I expect that whatever guidelines might come from the synod will be concerned with giving pastors the guidance and tools they might need to best serve families as they are, not cracking down on error or loosening doctrinal teachings to pretend the faith-filled life is easier than it is. 

My young friend's story, his life complicated and enriched and burdened, all in one, by his daughter's birth and the impossible task of making right the circumstances surrounding it, could be used as a neat, pat explanation for why the Church teaches what she does about sexual morality. And that would be true, and possibly helpful for many. But we cannot love the man or the child by holding them up as examples of life gone wrong. Nor can we love Monica by declaiming on what her marriage should and should not be. At the end of the day, Monica still has to face what she and her husband and her children are, in reality, not in the abstract, and choose each moment what best serves them. 

There may be no single right solution, no one "the answer" to these broken hearts and broken families. But there can still be so much that is good in choosing to love and sacrifice even when it cannot make things right; even when there is no easy answer or perfect happy ending to be achieved. 

I borrowed my title from a Waugh novel, but it's a different novel by that author that I am most inspired by. Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite novels, not despite its lack of a conventionally happy ending, but because of it. What is redeemed in Brideshead is not the happiness of the protagonists; nor are they saved from the consequences of their mistakes. Charles and Julia don't get to have the "might-have-been" of a happy ending together. Their sins and errors have had lasting consequences, and there is no way to take them back and try over. Like my friend, the young father, they cannot make things right.

But while their lives and their sins cannot be redeemed, they themselves may be, and are. There is another story underlying the surface, in which all can be perfected. This is a story we cannot write for each other, but may only witness as companions and as friends on the journey.  

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