What I Learned from Breaking Off My Engagement - A Letter from Emily Gill
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I woke up that Sunday morning, and it was back – the dread-like aching and near-anxiousness in the center of my chest. I was fine last night! Why do I still feel this way?
I got ready for Mass, drove into campus, and met my fiancé at the church, where I asked him to serve in my place since I was still getting over a cold. I donned my veil and found a seat. The torment in my chest grew. God, I don’t understand. What am I supposed to do? What do you want me to do? I’m so confused… All through the opening prayers, the Gloria, the readings, I sat with my writhing heart, feeling isolated in the pew. Every once in a while, I would glance up at my fiancé and wonder what was wrong with me, wonder if it would be best if…but no, he’s been so good to me, why would I leave him? But something doesn’t feel right… Back and forth, my thoughts twisted into knots again. I clenched my hands together as I inwardly cried out to God for help and clarity.
He had not remained completely silent the past eight months, but He wasn’t being very clear, either. Especially when we are choosing between two goods, it can be difficult to see which path to take. We want to do God’s will; we want to live for Him and follow the path He has laid out for us, but if we come to a fork in the road, and He doesn’t clearly point which way to go, we can get stuck. And I was very, very stuck.
"We want to do God’s will; we want to live for Him and follow the path He has laid out for us, but if we come to a fork in the road, and He doesn’t clearly point which way to go, we can get stuck. And I was very, very stuck."
Father T., now preparing for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, (and also the priest who would be marrying us in a short two months)*, had given me a book to read called, “Searching for and Maintaining Peace,” by Fr. Jacques Phillipe, in an attempt to help me get unstuck. In Fr. Phillipe’s gentle but frank discussion on interior peace, he noted a few reasons why we may not be getting a clear response from God about an important decision, but a particular reason stood out to me the most: sometimes God wants us to make the decision. I knew God had given us free will out of love for us, so that we could truly love Him and all that, but I had never thought about it like this before. Fr. Phillipe also said that God knows that, as we are creatures living in time, many decisions need to be made in a timely manner. If He isn’t giving us a flashing, neon arrow in one direction, we should pray about the possibility that God wants us to direct the flashing, neon arrow. And, if there is still no clear answer from Him, and the deadline (like a wedding day) is fast approaching, make your decision with a simple prayer such as, “God, I do not know if this is exactly what you want me to do, but I need to make a decision now, and this is what I have discerned to be the best.” Then, move forward with the decision.
"In Fr. Phillipe’s gentle but frank discussion on interior peace, he noted a few reasons why we may not be getting a clear response from God about an important decision, but a particular reason stood out to me the most: sometimes God wants us to make the decision."
I recalled this possibility, as I had several times during the past few weeks, as Communion began. I don’t remember exactly what I was praying as I went up to the altar, but I do remember, as I knelt in the pew after receiving my Lord, crying out to Him in my weakness and in my desperation for direction. Then…
“I will love you no matter what you choose.”
Soft and gentle, but unexpected. Had I really heard – no, felt – those words in my heart? A tense, but mildly consoling stillness held me together as Father sat back down in the presider’s chair. I looked at my fiancé, and knew that somehow things were going to be ok. I wasn’t sure how, but God knew how.
Later that day, after more tormenting doubts and inadvertent napping, I found myself sitting in the bathroom, on the phone, suddenly not crying anymore.
“Do you want us to come meet you somewhere?” my mom asked gently over the phone. I told them I wanted to pray one last Rosary then would move forward if nothing – or no one – stopped me.
I was keenly aware of everything around me as I drove back in to campus. I realized this was really happening – this is real – and I sensed the hinge on the moment.
I will never forget the despairing moan that escaped his lungs as I quickly stepped out of the room. But I had done it. I had made my decision. I only had moral certainty, not absolute certainty, that this was the right decision, but that was enough. Marrying him would not have been “bad,” but neither would breaking up with him be “bad.” But I was honest with myself: I didn’t want to hurt him anymore; I would not enter into the Sacrament of Marriage with a heart twisted in doubt; I knew I could not say those vows in the depths of my heart where I wanted to be able to mean it.
Even though there were suffering and pain in the several months before and following the split, I knew this was what was best for both of us. And, as it turns out, it really was what was best – now, two years later, both of us are happily engaged to different people, and both relationships are more beautiful than anything we could have imagined.
But why go through all of that to get here? Why wouldn’t God just tell me straight up, “Hold your horses, this isn’t the best way to go,” instead of letting the doubts torment us for eight months?
Sister, God loves you. He knows and wants what is best for you. Sometimes He helps us grow by letting us make the decision. Sometimes He helps us grow by letting us suffer. While it may be painful, it is an experience full of rich learning, and full of His deep grace. His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts, but He is a loving God that does not force anything on His creatures. You have the free will to make decisions – this is a God-given gift, given out of love so that we can love in its fullest sense. Do not be afraid to be honest with yourself and with God. Search for the truth as you discern, but do not be afraid of where the Lord is leading you, even if you can’t see exactly where you are going, and even if He’s not really telling you, either. He knows what He is about. If He truly wants you to fill in the answer to the question, listen for the small, still whisper in your heart, and know that He will love you no matter what you choose.
"Do not be afraid to be honest with yourself and with God. Search for the truth as you discern, but do not be afraid of where the Lord is leading you, even if you can’t see exactly where you are going, and even if He’s not really telling you, either."
* Technical note: in the sacrament of matrimony, the priest is only the witness to the marriage. He is not actually marrying the bride and groom because the bride and groom are the ministers of the sacrament of marriage.
Tell us a little bit about yourself!
My name is Emily Gill, and I am a 24-year-old enjoying life in Indiana. I graduated from Purdue University with a degree in biomedical engineering and work as an R&D engineer, where I try to make patients’ lives better as I figure out how this whole engineering thing works. I am a small group leader in the Frassati Society, a group for young adults to come together, foster community, strive for holiness, and bring Christ out into our modern world. I have also helped with Children’s Faith Formation at my parish, which has been a blast, a frustration, and a huge, wonderful learning experience all at the same time. I enjoy inspirational, thought-provoking, and slap-in-your-face quotes and long hikes through forests and mountains. I am trying to reclaim my mornings and my high school running habits, and have just made a goal to run 100 miles before our wedding day in September (please pray). Speaking of which, I am currently engaged to a wonderful man named Nathan who serves others in the community and in the Church diligently, works to show others God’s beauty and truth (especially through his music), and quotes SpongeBob regularly. We credit God for bringing us together through our respective trials and through help from St. Raphael, St. Joseph, and St. Padre Pio. We’re pretty blessed.
What does your vocation look like lived out on a day-to-day basis?
In general, my daily living consists of learning everything I can from God through prayer and through the wiser and more experienced people in my life. Through this guidance, I’m better able to share my own God-given skills, creativity, and perspective with others for their benefit and for God’s glory – not my own. God is showing me that as young adults, we have a unique opportunity to both learn from those who have gone before us and to make our own mark on the world around us. Sometimes all it takes is asking a question, sometimes a more defined action is called for, but it’s all about being open to what God wants you to do in that moment with what He has given you.
In particular, this time between being single and being married is giving Nathan and me the chance to prepare ourselves for when God joins us together in heart and mind. It’s the push and pull of living where we are and looking towards the future. We have been praying together every night since we became an official couple (after our “mutual discernment period,” which most people call dating). Joint activities such as going to daily Mass, keeping a regular Eucharistic Adoration hour, and being involved in community service and young adult ministry have enriched not only our individual faith lives, but also our spiritual life together. There has been a lot of prayer centered on how God wants us to live out our future marriage and family life. In some way, we want to pour out His love to others through the love that He has bestowed on us. We both have expressed a certain tugging at our heartstrings that God has something big coming for us.
But in the meantime, we are both trying to do our best at our current day jobs, using the skills and talents God has blessed us with to the best of our abilities. At work, I’m still a “baby engineer” as my (also engineer) maid of honor puts it, but I am trying to look at it as an opportunity to learn how to be humble, how to serve others, and how to persevere so I can create something beautiful. (Yes, medical devices are beautiful – look at how they keep people going!) While it can be frustrating and intimidating being the youngest in a department of seasoned engineers, I am learning humility and trying to absorb everything I can from them. As I learn, I am becoming more confident in the knowledge and skills I have gained, and I am able to speak up and challenge the way things are in an attempt to make them better.
And through all of this, God is teaching me how to work for Him wherever I am, whatever I am doing.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given on discernment of vocation?
A very dear priest told me, “Discern one thing at a time.” In other words, if you’re considering entering a religious community, don’t start dating the guy you saw the other day praying the Rosary before Mass, however cute or noble. Or, if you are dating someone, don’t continue to date them if you are seriously considering a discernment retreat at a religious community. Trying to discern two things at once complicates everything, and your intentions can very easily get muddled.
To the woman who’s considering leaving a relationship, do you have any insight for her that may be helpful as she discerns this decision?
I have quite a lot of thoughts about this. Here are some points of advice I gathered during and after my discernment to leave my ex-fiancé.
1. Pray. A lot.
Dig deep and be honest with yourself and God. Really open your heart to Him and let Him reveal deeper things to you. What is causing you to doubt the relationship? Are there selfish reasons, or is there a real problem, obvious or not? Or is there something else that is pulling at your heart, and you just feel in your gut that something is not right? Really examine your relationship. Try to imagine yourself having a family and being with this person for the rest of your life. Be careful of fleeting, passionate feelings, but be in tune with your heart and ask God to guide you in the right direction.
2. Seek help
from trusted family, friends, and/or spiritual advisors – people who you trust to listen, encourage, and be real with you. God has placed these people in your life (and you in theirs) to be signs of His love for you. My parents, my close friends, and a couple priests really helped me through my decision. Just one of a million examples: my dad gave me a little booklet with the beautiful Prayer to St. Raphael for a Marriage Partner in it, which he prayed for a quite a while before he met my mom. The prayer itself helped me think about what I was really looking for in a spouse.
3. Don’t Discern Two Things At Once
As I said before, don’t discern two things at once. This also applies to relationships – don’t try to discern whether or not you are supposed to be with Man B when you are with Man A. Things get messy if you try to discern both at once, and that’s not fair to anyone. I almost fell into this trap, but I clung to God and hung on to my Man A until I had fully discerned to leave him. (Man B wasn’t even in the picture afterward, anyways!)
4. Give Yourself Time to Heal
If you do make the decision to leave, give yourself enough time to heal before pursuing other relationships (this can help with item 3). Breakups are hard for both parties, which is something I immensely underestimated. Be patient with yourself, and give it to God. Loneliness is an invitation to draw closer to God, so when it kicks in, turn to Him for healing.
5. Keep Your Peace
Know that God is working for your good, not your sorrow. Like the man Jesus healed who was born blind, God makes himself known to others through our suffering and healing. He will not give you anything you can’t handle with His help. An acorn cannot become a towering oak tree on its own. That's not how it was designed. It was designed to be dropped onto solid earth, to be blown and kicked down the path, to be pelted with rain and drenched with dew, to be buried in the dirt, in the dark. But it was not designed to remain an acorn; that is why it was designed to endure the falls, the buffets, the storms, the burying, the dark. Without these things, the acorn will not open up into the seedling that will grow into an oak tree. This metaphor really helped me shortly after my breakup. Keep going, sister, especially when it’s dark.
Fill in the blank
My favorite liturgical holiday is…
Easter. So much joy after Lent! So much beauty out of suffering.
A saint I identify with the most is…
St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Through her “Little Way,” she’s not saying don’t do great things; rather, in whatever state of life you currently find yourself, do every little thing with love and in love.
My favorite quote is…
difficult to pick, but one of my favorites is a somewhat long quote from Pope St. John Paul II to young people:
“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.
It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”
I feel most at peace when…
taking a moment to just be with God, whether that be in front of the tabernacle, while sitting quietly next to Nathan on the couch, or in the middle of trying to fix broken stuff at work.
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