Every Person Carries a Hidden Story - A Letter from Sarah King
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My dear sister in Christ,
A few years ago, on a fairly ordinary, cloudy Thursday afternoon, I went to the dentist. The dental hygienist was pleasant enough, and asked the fairly ordinary and benign question, “How’s your day going?” as she rummaged through her supplies. I replied, “It’s been alright.” She nodded without looking up. And in that moment I was flooded with a loneliness I’d never known before.
That morning I had gotten civilly divorced.
That morning the world I had worked to build, then slowly and quietly dismantled, formally collapsed in a single moment. The facade was gone. With the question, “Do you believe this marriage is broken beyond repair?” and his matter-of-fact “yes” and my softer “yes...” (hiding something of a question), I became marked by the ugly scar I never imagined I’d bear: Divorce. At age 28. Invisibly labeled. Interiorly shattered. But on the outside, just another twenty-something at the dentist on just another ordinary Thursday.
"That morning the world I had worked to build, then slowly and quietly dismantled, formally collapsed in a single moment. The facade was gone. With the question, “Do you believe this marriage is broken beyond repair?” "
Over the next two years, as I entered the annulment process and began the painful road to healing, I often recalled that cloudy afternoon. I still do, with a bittersweet twinge. It’s made me look at the people I encounter a little differently. That man speeding down the highway? Maybe he’s just lost his wife, or lost money he doesn’t have to a dark addiction or is just desperate to feel alive. That woman handing me my coffee through the Starbucks window or scanning my groceries? Maybe she just learned that her boyfriend cheated, or is trying to provide for her child and care for her sick mother, or is battling depression. Every person carries a hidden story.
"Every person carries a hidden story."
And you, my sister. You carry within you a thousand hidden stories. Maybe you’re fighting for custody right now, trying to protect your child from the very man who vowed to protect you. Maybe you’re trying to heal a broken marriage, struggling to discern whether or not to trust your spouse again after revelations of years of infidelity. Maybe you’re carrying the cross of an eating disorder or serious illness and it got too heavy for your beloved to carry, so he left you. Maybe you’re struggling to find your place in the Church, to discern your vocation, to sort through your confusion about your same-sex attractions or gender identity, to decide whether to move or to leave your job. Maybe you’ve answered, “I’m fine” when the truth would have been, “I’m broken,” or “my heart is shattered,” or “I’ve never felt so alone.”
"Maybe you’re fighting for custody right now, trying to protect your child from the very man who vowed to protect you. Maybe you’re trying to heal a broken marriage ...Maybe you're carrying the cross of an eating disorder or serious illness ...Maybe you’re struggling to find your place in the Church ...Maybe you’ve answered, 'I’m fine” when the truth would have been, “I’m broken,” or “my heart is shattered,” or “I’ve never felt so alone.' My sister, I SEE you.
My sister, I SEE you. I see your heartache and I feel the weight of your tears and the numbness of your uncertainty. But more importantly, the LORD sees you. Our God is nearer to you than you can possibly imagine. You are seen. You are beloved. You are held.
One of the most beautiful things I heard from the countless people who supported me through my divorce and annulment was from a gentle old priest during confession. As I dried my tears and wiped my runny nose, feeling more foolish and lost than ever, he looked in my eyes with the tender compassion of our Father and said, “My child, you’ve lost a love. But you’ve always had His. Go to Him.” I sniffled and nodded, eyes still heavy with tears, then walked out after my absolution straight to Jesus Christ in the monstrance. I knelt down and held out my hands, then promptly began to cry again as waves of pure Love washed over me. Kneeling on the floor that night, I finally realized that I was SEEN (runny nose and all) and still so beloved in the eyes of my beholder. That night, I began to discover that the path to healing would be found through surrender.
"As I dried my tears and wiped my runny nose, feeling more foolish and lost than ever, he looked in my eyes with the tender compassion of our Father and said, 'My child, you’ve lost a love. But you’ve always had His. Go to Him.'"
My sister, wherever you are and whatever you’re facing or whatever you’ve lost, GO to Him. In your sorrow and pain, return to the First Love of your life and offer him your wounds, just as he has offered you his. Go to Him and empty out your heart, just as he has emptied out his sacred heart for you. Go to Him and find rest.
You carry within you so many hidden stories... and also so much hidden strength. You carry within you a wellspring of divine Love and Mercy, a spark of the stardust at the center of your being, an unshakeable hope and an infinite promise rooted in your Creator. There will be so many more moments ahead when you will feel lost and broken. But in your uncertainty, return to the Creator who formed you at the dawn of time in order to add beauty to His creation. Let Him remind you that you are His beloved daughter. Allow Him to pour peace and self-forgiveness into your deepest wounds and regrets. Allow yourself to dare to believe you are worthy of Perfect Love. Allow that love to transform you. Allow yourself to begin to hope again.
"You carry within you so many hidden stories... and also so much hidden strength."
Dear sister, your story is still being written, its many pages hidden in the depths of your Father’s heart. I pray that you can dare to hope in God’s promise of a beautiful plan for the pages ahead, no matter how broken you feel right now. God sees you. God is with you.
Go to Him.
In Christ's Love,
"We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community."
- Dorothy Day
Tell us a little bit about yourself!
I was born and raised in the amazing state of Wisconsin and am a cradle Catholic, an animal-loving/spider-rescuing vegetarian, an aunt to three amazing little ones, an amateur artist, and a DRE (Director of Religious Ed) at a small church north of Madison, WI. I love my family with all my heart! I also love cows and Star Wars, and hiking, and ice cream. I'm a super awkward eater who spills a lot. I'm generally joyful but also introspective, and can switch from jokes and laughter into ultra-deep conversation within ten seconds. And St. Anthony is one of the forerunners in my Saint Squad, since I tend to forget something important at least once every day.
I definitely thought I'd feel more put-together at this stage of my life, but God had other plans for me! (I'm often known to say "I'm a mess... but I'm God's mess.") In the midst of the beautiful chaos of my life, God continues to bless me abundantly with an incredible community around me. I love my job and consider it such a gift to serve the Church as a lay minister. And though the future is a little uncertain for me right now, I know that God keeps asking me to draw closer to Him every day, and I'm doing my best to just stay faithful to the task of each moment! God will show me the rest, in time. :)
For those of us who are unfamiliar with what an annulment is and what the process looks like, would you mind sharing a little bit about it?
First, it’s important to clarify that civil marriage (which both people enter into contractually through the civil courts) is distinct from sacramental marriage (in which two baptized persons participate in a supernaturally-binding sacrament during the exchange of vows). The civil process is entirely separate from that of the Church, so a civil divorce does not in any way address whether or not the religious sacrament was validly established.
The word “annulment” refers to what the Church formally calls a “declaration of nullity.” It is NOT a Catholic “divorce” but rather proves that the marriage never truly, validly, sacramentally existed at all, because the conditions necessary for a valid marriage weren’t met. Something was just broken from the start. It does NOT mean that children produced by the marriage are “illegitimate” nor does it mean love never existed... just that the conditions for the marriage to be a free, total, faithful, fruitful gift of self, from both parties, weren’t met at the time of the vows.
"The word 'annulment' refers to what the Church formally calls a 'declaration of nullity.' It is NOT a Catholic 'divorce' but rather proves that the marriage never truly, validly, sacramentally existed at all, because the conditions necessary for a valid marriage weren’t met."
The process of petitioning for a declaration of nullity is typically rather lengthy, because the Church takes the sacrament of marriage very seriously – and rightly so. Christ himself was adamant that marriage is a lifelong bond (Matthew 19:1-10), and no person on earth can “undo” the bond that has been created in a valid sacramental marriage. To begin the process, the “petitioner” writes a summary of the relationship, including both people’s basic life history, the story of their relationship, details regarding the engagement, wedding day, and exchange of vows, and details regarding their marriage. This petition gets presented to a tribunal of persons trained in canon law, who carefully and prayerfully study the petition & subsequent testimony from witnesses. The tribunal’s job is to determine whether or not both persons were free to marry at the time of the exchange of vows.
Both parties have the opportunity to be involved in the process, to testify, and to read the others’ testimony should they desire to do so. Both also have the opportunity to work with a canon law advocate as they navigate the process. The tribunal also appoints one person called the “defender of the bond” to argue in defense of the sacramental validity of the marriage. All of these arguments and testimonies are ultimately presented to the tribunal, which makes a formal ruling on whether or not the marriage was sacramentally valid. After that ruling, the petitioner has the opportunity to appeal the decision to the nearest appellate tribunal or to the Roman Rota.
The process can take anywhere from several months to two years (or more, in certain cases and depending upon the length of an appeal). In my case, the process was two years exactly. This can be intimidating to people, but I found it to be deeply healing. God knew far better than I did how much time it would take to begin to heal my heart, and I’m grateful to have had so much time to reflect, to pray, to carefully and critically examine my role in the relationship, and to grow in trust of God’s plan! It was truly a great gift in my life.
As millennial Catholic women, how can we be more compassionate to those in our communities who have been through or are going through the annulment process?
I honestly never imagined that my life would lead me down this road… and it took being here to even realize the subconscious judgment I think I carried towards divorce. I was something of a perfectionist in my teens and early twenties, so to go through one of the most devastating “failures” a person can face in life was seriously humbling. But it was also a hidden gift, because it revealed to me how much I need to depend on God – and I think that’s what I’d tell anyone reading this.
No matter where you’re coming from, you’ve experienced hurts and “failures” too, in varying degrees. We all fall short of the ideal in this Christian journey, and we all need God’s grace and the love of our community to get back up and try again. Divorce is a very public cross to bear, because it means the collapse of something that an entire community of friends/family invested in – the collapse of something meant to be sacred and eternal. There’s such deep shame and stigma around the “divorce” label that my fellow sisters bearing this cross are often afraid of judgment. We’re quick to compare ourselves to the ideal, and bear deep wounds that are slowly healing. I would say the most important thing we need (and what I was blessed to discover around me) is a community of people willing to sit in the messiness of our grief, listen without judgment, and remind us of that God is still present with us in our pain.
Please don’t be afraid to reach out! Try to speak with compassion and remember that life is complicated and messy. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say. Just being there with us, as we attempt to rebuild the new normal of our lives, will mean the world to us.
To the woman who feels like there isn’t a place in the Church for her because she’s going through a divorce and an annulment — what advice would you lend her?
Dear sister, the Church is the hospital for your soul. Right now you may be feeling lost, broken, angry, numb, afraid, abandoned, alone... You’re grieving the death of a dream you had for your life. And in this time of grieving, the Church is your HOME and your respite. Jesus is yearning to be close to you, especially in this time of need, so stay close to him and let him heal you through the sacraments. Reconciliation, in particular, will help you to find deeper meaning and understanding as you reflect back on your journey, and begin to prepare your heart for whatever is ahead.
Seek to root yourself in a community, ideally a community of strong, holy, supportive women, and to form a relationship with a priest or pastoral minister who can help walk with you through this process. The annulment process can be deeply intimidating, and canon law can look like another language! It’s important to surround yourself with people who can help you make sense of what’s happening and process the divorce/annulment experience in the light of our faith. Get support through counseling and/or spiritual direction. Cry when you need to. Don’t jump into any dating relationships – give your heart entirely to God and focus on growing closer to Him before moving on to whatever He has planned for your next.
I understand how scary and uncertain your life might feel right now, but trust me: God is holding you so closely right now! You are not alone, and you have not been abandoned. Please reach out to me if you need to talk or are in need of some extra support! I've just started a small online ministry called "In Joyful Hope" that I pray will help support other Catholic women in need of support during their divorce/annulment. You can visit the website (In Joyful Hope) or just email me at Sarah@injoyfulhope.com - know that you are in my prayers!
Fill in the blank
My favorite liturgical holiday is…
Holy Saturday! So often we want to rush into the joy of Easter, but I savor this bittersweet, in-between day… the space between the cross and the resurrection. It's basically the essence of how we live our lives, all wrapped up in one quiet day, and I could spend my whole life reflecting on the depths of its meaning.
The saint I identify with the most is…
St. Francis! It feels a little bold to say that, but Francis has always been a companion on my journey in so many ways. He was such a passionate person, who spent so much of his youth just trying to figure out what to do with his life and where to direct his energy. When he finally did, he was ready to surrender everything for God - and that's the deepest prayer of my heart! We're also both prone to carry on conversations with the birds and all the earth's creatures, and not at all ashamed to admit it.
A favorite quote of mine is…
There are just so many! It’s hard to narrow it down!
One of my favorites lately is “Thank God ahead of time” by the incredible Blessed Solanus Casey. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and reminds me that even any hardships ahead of me will offer unforeseen gifts from God.
I feel at peace when…
I’m in Eucharistic Adoration.
A current obsession of mine is…
Raising monarchs (butterflies). It started as a project for my nieces and nephew, to help restore the dwindling monarch population, but now the whole family is obsessed. My sister joked that she should get a bumper sticker that says “will brake for milkweed” but there’s some truth to it... I literally braked to avoid hitting a butterfly the other day!
I’m also obsessed with the Litany of Trust. And the Catholic Feminist podcast. And lettering!
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