A Theology of Escape

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A Theology of Escape


Lift the Wings, by Bill Whelan, performed by Áine Uí Cheallaigh (1995), encountered 1997

Buy it here | Available on Spotify | See it here | Lyrics here | Sheet music here

By 1997, I knew I had made good my escapes.

Yes, “escapes” plural: from a marriage and from a workplace, as I’ve described in earlier pieces. And as a result of those extrications and of subsequent developments, I finally knew, with a fair amount of certainty, what my adult life was going to look like: whom I would be married to, who my kids were, and how I would be employed. It might seem strange that at this point, over a decade after the crisis in my first marriage and three years after I’d left the big firm, I should still be turning all this over in my mind. But actually, it’s only after the crisis that you can stop to process it all.

I liked what I saw, no question about that: happy marriage, good family situation, job I was proud of.

Escapes Had Been Necessary

It was striking, though, that to reach this happy plateau, escapes had been necessary. This was the part I was not happy to acknowledge. I had been raised to finish what I’d started. (One of my earliest memories of treasuring praise came when I was about eight and my step-grandmother had remarked to my mother how impressive it was that I’d finished writing a short play; yes, I had thought even then, I finish things.) But now, in my mid-forties, I was finally learning the opposite lesson: that deep happiness can sometimes come from leaving big commitments behind, unfulfilled.

If it had just been a matter of my job, it would have been a lot easier to process. But when it came to leaving behind a marriage, it sat uneasily with my religious convictions, and this was the moment I had to deal with it in detail.

Catholic Discourse Alert

And here I must frankly notify the reader: this is going to be a very Catholic blog post. If the struggles of a Catholic with the doctrine he was raised in aren’t of interest to you, I’ll forgive your skipping this one. But these pieces are about some of the important times in my life (and the music that went with them). And it inevitably happens with Catholics – and of course did with me – that doctrinal issues find their way into some of the important times of their lives. So yes, I have to go there, but it’s up to you whether you choose to come along.

Okay: we’ve cleared the room. At this point I’m assuming that if you’re still here, you’re up for a discussion of what it’s like as a Catholic confronting the religious implications of being happily divorced and remarried.

Absolutely Positively Not (Maybe)

When I was mulling this over in 1997 (and I fear for generations to come), Catholic teaching started out with great clarity regarding divorce: You Can’t Do It. Jesus said you can’t, and also said that remarriage is adulterous.[1] And it was a teaching that made some sense to me in light of at least one rationale; when you marry, you twine other people’s lives with your own, and if you extricate yourself, they stand to be hurt by the disentwinement. Jesus never used this rationale, however.

Moreover, the Church had made exceptions that suggest that the harm-to-others rationale is not uppermost in its thinking. I saw it with my mother, who, two months to the day after her divorce papers were signed, was able to remarry before a priest, by virtue of the “Pauline privilege” which denies that certain marriages contracted between non-Catholics are valid, and gives no consideration to whether there were children.[2] The Church also allowed annulments, and again, the presence or absence of children seems not to have had a bearing.

One What?

The Old Testament formulation that Jesus and the Church appeared to be relying on instead was this: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24. As with so much else in Genesis, who knows what the original author may have meant by these words? But if I was compelled to put any sense to them at all, I drew a blank. I could see no evidence of any reality which gives “one flesh” meaning. I had always seen marriage as a partnership of two people: two people who may become like each other, but who remain two separate people, each with his or her own physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual “flesh.” To my modern ear, the insistence of “one flesh” is either suspect (yet another way to subjugate women, perchance?) or monstrous (the couple as a two-person Borg). And even though this did come from Jesus’ mouth, I could not and cannot accept it.[3]

In any case, the implications of Pauline privilege and annulment run contrary to the “one flesh” concept. Pauline privilege is supposedly justified because the parties could not have made what the Church regards as a true marriage, since it was unsanctified by the sacrament of matrimony, as being contracted between non-Catholics and not conducted by a priest.[4] Now, the sacrament of matrimony, as every Catholic schoolchild educated with the Baltimore Catechism used to know, was, like every other sacrament, “an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.”

Do you see the problem? Unless Jesus instituted the sacrament of matrimony before he was born, then the one-flesh doctrine, dating back to Genesis, and obviously fully a part of Jewish teaching by the time Jesus came on the scene, must relate to something other than matrimony. And if the absence of Christ-instituted matrimony makes marriages capable of retrospective non-recognition, then every marriage contracted before Jesus did whatever he did to “institute” matrimony was capable of retrospective non-recognition, notwithstanding the one-flesh doctrine.

More simply put: Jesus can either be the institutor of matrimony, without which marriage may be invalid, or the inheritor of the one-flesh doctrine, in light of which multitudes of marriages contracted before (and since) the institution of sacramental matrimony were and are valid. But He cannot be both.[5] Catholic doctrine has not convincingly reconciled this inconsistency.

So, bottom line, I was confronting a Church whose principal justifications for its hard line on divorce were incoherent.

A CARE Package Full of Menus

But even if one granted, as I found I could not, that there was an intellectually satisfying, scripturally supported, justification for the rule, even if divorce and remarriage were sins, what about forgiveness? Well, the Church says, we’ll forgive you as soon as you acknowledge your transgression and, to the extent possible, undo it: stop living with the woman, break up your child’s homeBut until you do, don’t you dare come to Communion.

Well, I’ll tell you one thing: that doesn’t a bit resemble forgiveness the way I have practiced or experienced it.[6] Most serious forgiveness is of ongoing sins, or of wrongs that either cannot or under the changed circumstances at the time of forgiveness should not be undone. Serious forgiveness gives the sinner a pass. Forgiveness the way the Church offers it plays a lot more like revenge.[7]

And it lets God off the hook too easily as well, at least the God of conventional Catholic moral teaching. So many things in the realm of sex and marriage are officially forbidden. And so many of those things are things we need want and need desperately (as I had needed to be divorced and remarried). In the realm of sex and marriage, I am confident, most of us, if our stories were fully told, would be deep in mortal sin most of the time. The Catholic Church, then, asks us to believe in a God who made us what and how we are, and then made hanging offenses out of a vast number of things necessary to our happiness. True, Jesus died for the forgiveness of all sins, but under Catholic doctrine, that forgiveness is like the proverbial CARE package full of menus; the hangings will go on anyway unless we cooperate with that so-called forgiveness by repudiating our desires and our affections, effectively our very God-given natures.

Doesn’t sound much like a loving God to me. More to the point, it doesn’t sound like Jesus to me. Yes, he told people to go and sin no more. But – at least in dealing with people face-to-face – He never made those statements sound as if the forgiveness would be lost if they did sin again.

What About David? What About Jacob?

But it went further than that. It was inescapable that Biblical heroes (David, for example, or Jacob) engaged in transgressions that actually seemed to be the vehicles for God’s plans, and they were never excluded from the Jewish community. God’s design seemed to depend upon Jacob deceiving Isaac and cheating his brother, or David engaging in horrific slaughters of peoples whose only offense was that they were in the way of Israel’s expansionism. God seemed to bless sinners, making not just what they did, but their getting away with it as well, parts of their heroism. Maybe what they did was wrong, but they stayed part of the community, and what they did was not only what they had to do, but what the community needed them to do.

This spoke directly to me. From the outset of my escape, I had never quit attending Church and never quit going to Communion. I was not going to be party to the Church’s effort to exile me.[8] If they tracked me down and showed me the door, fine. But I was not going to show myself the door.[9]

I was not going to do it because I didn’t agree it should be done. In a modest and untrained way, I was evolving a theology of escape and renewal, if you will. I still believed in building lasting things – sometimes. But sometimes, I thought, you needed to leave off, and leave. It wasn’t contrary to God’s plan; it was God’s plan. And I wanted to share my point of view.

Where to Say It

Given the resources available to me then, I had only one conceivable place to do that: Easter Vigil.

My congregation has a tradition that echoes the way some congregations in the early Church celebrated Easter, by praying and reading Scripture through the night before the Easter morning service. Individual parishioners or groups of them present hours of it, each built around a particular passage from the Old Testament, often presented dramatically, with media like slide shows or songs, sometimes popular ones. I got myself appointed to present an hour, as I’ve done at other times (some of which you can see here).

I got together with another member of the parish who had ended a marriage, and we put on the program together. My text was Moses’ departure from Egypt, and my music included Lift the Wings from the phenomenal then-new Irish revue Riverdance. Why each of them? Well, let me quote a little.

What I Said

First, a bit of my homily that night:

We humans are meant to set down roots. Setting down roots is of course much approved by churches and governments, which thrive in rooted places, and tend to treat the roots as sacred.  But more importantly, the work of rooting is close to the human heart. We need to make families and communities and workplaces and countries and churches. We need to nurture our young and our old, and intertwine our lives with those of others.  We need to collaborate in building bulwarks against disaster of all kinds. We intertwine our roots with those of others, we become connected.  You cannot pull on one of us without pulling on us all.

However, we humans are also meant to tear up roots. Churches and governments don’t like that as much. But it is just as central to who we are as putting down the roots. There come times in many of our lives when our roots strangle us, when we can no longer stay with the parents who raised us, with the spouse we had built half a life with, with the jobs that have failed us for one reason or another, with the careers that we had thought would see us through, with countries that had bred us and protected us, and — yes — with the very churches that are the wellsprings of our spirituality.  Nations, in fact, have to tear themselves from the guts of other nations — just as the Hebrews did with Egypt and our country did with England.

But wait, you may say, how could God be operating at cross-purposes? Is God crazy, asking us to plant ourselves and sprout roots, and then later sometimes asking us to tear up the very connections He asked us to grow in the first place? Could God be the kind of God who wants that?  I at least believe He is. God has left us no guarantees that the roots we try to grow will always work and go on working.

And gardeners know that sometimes a plant just outgrows the pot and has to be pulled out and planted elsewhere, or it will die. If you accept the official Bible story that the Hebrews were all descendants of Jacob and his family, you must also acknowledge that the experiment of the Jacob clan coming to live in Egypt worked for a while, and then stopped working.

This is the way of human rooting.

Whatever we were once told, there are no indelible marks placed on our souls by baptisms, marriage oaths, citizenship oaths, employment contracts, ordination, or anything else. There are only efforts we flawed humans make to establish relationships with each other and with our God. The efforts do not always succeed, and if they succeed, they may not succeed for all time.

God Himself made us that way. I submit that insisting that God could not want contradictory things for us at different times is insisting that God be rational by human lights, tearing God down to our scale.

This is hardly an original perception on my part.  We all know the words of the Book of Ecclesiastes, that to every thing there is a season: “a time to sow and a time to reap, a time to build up, a time to break down, a time when you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing.” God’s plan for us at one time may in that sense contradict His plan for us at an earlier time. Still, you may say: Uprooting? Doesn’t it hurt when you do that, and not only yourself, but the people with whose roots yours are intertwined? You bet. Pharaoh and his people took it on the chin — they lost all those first-born. And even if you don’t feel for Pharaoh, how can you possibly not feel for all the first-born themselves…? …. God has never laid down any unconditional prohibition against causing suffering. God cares about suffering and means us to care about causing it, but also cares about putting us where He wants us. Exodus is very clear testimony that sometimes we are intended to choose freedom …. Sometimes the captain is meant to go down with the ship, and the soldier to stay by his post even when it’s being overrun. We are not always meant to pursue our own happiness, growth and survival. But sometimes we are. And there are no fixed rules to guide us. We have to listen for that voice.

What Whelan Said

And then songwriter Bill Whelan’s voice (please follow at least one of the links above that give you a chance to hear the music too):

How can a tree stand tall

If a rain won’t fall

To wash its branches down?

How can the heart survive?

Can it stay alive

If its love’s denied for long?


Lift the wings that carry me away from here and

Fill the sail that breaks the line to home

When I’m miles and miles apart from you

I’m beside you when I think of you, a Stóirín

In the show, the song was sung upon the separation of lovers, as one of them is about to cross the sea; though the first production did not make it entirely clear, in later productions the separation was evidently part of the Irish migration to America[10] (largely prompted by the Potato Famine). Whelan is a stunning composer, but not quite of that caliber as a lyricist; you could not quite fit the first quoted stanza together with the context or with the second stanza.[11] However, both stanzas formed a pretty decent match to what I was talking about: longing that will not permit you to survive in a situation and must be remedied by turning one’s back on people or circumstances one may still have an attachment for.[12]

Then and now, hearing the solemn, almost funereal drumbeat, the tambourine, the harp, and the keening low whistle that begin that song, I am transported back to moments when I was transfixed by the need for a wholeness I could not achieve where I was, and then, equally, to later moments of looking back not only in relief, but also in understanding that what had been left behind was nonetheless precious. That ambivalence is real, as I can attest, but inseparable from many lives fully lived – and I would submit, lived in as close to a Godly way as our inconstant natures will permit.

That was what I was trying to share that night. I hope I succeeded.


[1]. See, e.g. Luke 16:18Mark 10:2-12.

[2]. The privilege, as Wikipedia tells us, “allow[s] the dissolution of a marriage between two non-baptized persons in the case that one (but not both) of the partners seeks baptism and converts to Christianity and the other partner leaves the marriage. According to the Catholic Church’s canon law, the Pauline Privilege does not apply when either of the partners was a Christian at the time of marriage. It differs from annulment because it dissolves a valid natural (but not sacramental) marriage whereas an annulment declares that a marriage was invalid from the beginning.” Now, I have no reason to believe that my Irish Catholic grandmother had failed to have my mother baptized (though she was married to a Methodist). So my mom did not technically conform to the “non-baptized” criterion. However, Mother had become an apostate in college, going so far as to become president of the Radcliffe Unitarian society. So she was, if not unbaptized, at least unchurched, when she married my father, who was definitely not baptized. And I guess that in getting permission to marry my stepfather in the Church, she was able to characterize the events that had led to her divorce from my father as being in some sense a “conversion” that had led to my father leaving. (I question whether a reversion to the faith of one’s youth is properly called a conversion, but that is probably only a semantic quibble.) There may have been some truth to this account of events, but it left out a lot of salient information.

[3]. I believe Jesus when he talks about his Father; it just sounds right. When he simply spouts Old Testament piety, on the other hand, I do not feel compelled to go along with him, any more than I would feel compelled to follow Jesus’ dietary observances. He’s echoing a work too discredited for anything in it to stand without an independent gut check.

[4]. The explanation for annulment is similar: no true sacrament because one or both of the parties was incapable of making the commitment.

[5]. And while we’re on the subject, just when did Jesus institute matrimony, anyway? Or could it be that the Baltimore Catechism was just wrong about this? And if so, about what else? Incidentally, the logic doesn’t change if you concede that Jesus didn’t actually institute matrimony. If every marriage contracted before Jesus’ time were deemed a product of the sacrament notwithstanding that someone other than Jesus had instituted it, it would seem to follow that every marriage contracted after Jesus’ earthly time was similarly a product of the sacrament. Unless one contends that all the new marriages entered into outside the Church after Jesus turned up suddenly left off being binding. Rejecting that assumption, but assuming that all marriages entered into outside the Church from the beginning of marriage were sacramental, what room is there for Pauline privilege? I can see none.

[6]. As a child of divorce, I had truly and immediately forgiven both parents, and I never saw anything to suggest that they had not truly forgiven each other. The predictable upshot was that they had each made better marriages the second time around. I was the beneficiary of that. Did the Church get to not forgive what I had forgiven? That notion is simply laughable.

[7]. I’m not pooh-poohing the concern that if “sinners” who have not repented are accepted at the Communion rail, it appears to reflect acceptance of their sins. However, I can think of dozens of less cruel ways for the Church to make clear where it stands than by barring sinners from full fellowship in a community whose Founder openly consorted with prostitutes and tax collectors.

[8]. And to be fair, my pastor was not party to that effort either. Knowing my story, and those of many other parishioners like me, perfectly well, he included us in every way. Well, every way but one; he could not marry Mary and me. (My thanks to David Brown, the Methodist minister who could and did!) But he did run us through premarital instruction. I served on the parish council. I have been visibly involved in many parish matters. The larger Church may have one position on people like me; my pastor clearly has another. This issue is not his fault.

[9]. Technically speaking, the metaphor of being shown the door may be doctrinally inapposite. I think divorced and remarried Catholics are still supposed to go to church on Sundays; they just aren’t supposed to receive Communion. But to me that is a distinction without a difference. Communion is the ritual which (as the name suggests) reinforces our membership in the community. The converse is also true: the absence of Communion cannot help but diminish our membership in the community. The denial of Communion would not technically amount to excommunication, then, but it would feel amazingly like it. So I believe my phrasing is correct.

[10]. We know this because the departure is followed by an arrival in America, where African American and Irish tap dance styles are compared.

[11]. The first stanza is about being forced to do something by longing for missing emotional nourishment, the second about missing someone (addressed as “Stóirín,” which I’m told means something like “dear”) though being determined to journey away from that person. If the missing beloved of the second stanza were the object of the unsatisfied desire limned in the first, then the singer ought to be resolving on taking a journey toward that person, not away, which is clearly the situation of the song. So no, it’s not consistent, though it surely is evocative.

[12]. Oh, I’ll agree that the “Stóirín” discussed in the preceding note suggests a greater remaining fondness for the person or situation left behind than I was talking about. But again, if not spot on, the lyrics are surely evocative, as I discuss above.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for album cover art

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