Editor’s Note: This is one of the Top 15 CBE Writing Contest winners.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor. 13:4–7, NIV)
There isn’t a better or more beautiful explanation of what I wanted to both give and receive in my marriage. I had spent my life aching, consciously and unconsciously, for the relationship that could follow this North Star of decency and dependability—note how “always” is repeated in the passage.
So, how did I end up in a marriage that was the exact opposite? The traditional, passive Christian and humanist ideology I grew up with ensnared me. Delving into Scripture and ritual helped me find a way out.
On a balmy summer night a few years ago, I went with my husband to a late movie downtown. It was an artsy horror film, and in it there was one loud, torturous, drawn-out scene in which a 10-year-old boy is slowly killed by demon possession, during what looked exactly like an epileptic attack.
My son has epilepsy and each time he has a seizure, I fear he will never come out of it and that he will die. Needless to say, I wasn’t up to sitting through this movie.
At first, I covered my ears and closed my eyes. When the scene kept going, I leaned over to my husband and told him calmly that all was well, but I was going to wait in the lobby.
I read in the lobby for about 10 minutes, thinking I had handled this situation wonderfully, that he gets it, and we’ll have an interesting discussion about it later. Suddenly I looked up and he was there—his athletic frame and bright blue eyes on fire—a human torch of rage.
What happened next was a blur. I followed him to the car while he yelled, calling me an idiot, crazy, telling me how I couldn’t handle anything, why I was wrong, inexcusable, and wrong. I wasn’t allowed to explain myself. Finally, I reached the same level of suffocation and need to escape that I had felt in the movie theater. I told him that I did not feel safe, and to let me out of the car.
He pulled over. I got out of the car, saying that we both just needed a minute to cool off, that I would get back in the car as soon as he calmed down. After cursing and yelling at me to get back in, he drove off.
It was around midnight and I was alone on a Baltimore street, miles from home. At first, I wasn’t too afraid, because he was my husband and love is, at its base, patient and kind, correct? I stood there and waited for him to rethink and return, while I pushed down the shame, the horror and degradation, and ignored the stares of those who now knew what my life was really like and how worthless I really was. He never came back.
When the taxi dropped me off at home, he was in the living room watching TV and did not speak to me. As he prepared for bed, his demeanor was relaxed, and he explained with satisfaction that I had gotten what I deserved, that I had brought it on myself. I still, to this day, don’t know the nature of my transgression.
Soon after, the beatings started.
This is where the beautiful passage from Corinthians becomes complicated for me. I understood this passage as a guide for how I should live out love, but the phrases “keeps no record of wrongs” and “always perseveres” trapped me in a cycle of forgiveness toward a person who did not acknowledge or respect my humanity, or my basic need for voice and safety. I would only be persevering in clinging to a loose cannon. He had no interest in changing.
At some point, I realized this passage is also a measure of others’ actions, and it could have served as a warning to me that my marriage was not based in love.
Nowhere in the many articles and sermons from faith leaders about forgiveness and the dangers of holding on to anger have I heard any discussion of relationship abuse. In order to escape from the abuser who sleeps next to you and is part of the very fabric of your life, you must garner fury and the discernment to say this is evil and unacceptable. In order to really get away, you must be able to hold on to that outrage and its courage for a long time.
I needed tools to help me escape while still holding a job and being a mother, and these tools had to be free, frequent, and founded on strong moral principles. I found them in prayer, the foundation of scriptural principles, and the daily Catholic Mass.
I began reciting an amended version of the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel:
St. Michael the Archangel,
defend me in Battle;
Be my safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke Him, I humbly pray,
and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host,
by the power of God, render powerless my abuser…
—Pope Leo XIII
This prayer quelled the fear, cleansed places, allowed moral power to take form as a sword in my hand, and put words to the war that was waged against me.
It wasn’t until I heard the verse, “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps 84:10), that I received my first jolt of confidence that my divorce was right and good. I might never again enjoy the companionship and comforts of marriage, I might stand at the door of a full family life and never enter, but it will be a mindful existence, free from the crushing daily degradation of remorseless wickedness.
The detailed instructions in Ephesians on how to withstand attack and degradation were particularly helpful:
Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace…Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel…that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Eph. 6:13-15, 19-20)
Truth, righteousness (i.e., a recognition of right and wrong), peace, and speech free of fear are the very qualities lost in a controlling and coercive marriage. I have never heard a spiritual leader invoke this passage about spiritual warfare to empower women against their abusers, but it fits.
The Divine so comprehends our pain in life, that God mingled with us in human form to carry some of that suffering for us. I seek out the ritual of the Eucharist in Mass in part because it enacts the concept that there is resurrection (recovery) after betrayal, physical torture, and abandonment, to which each of us has access if we live mindfully. The Catholic Mass is also uniform and predictable, which is reassuring to me and others who suffer from PTSD. There, I can remove my husband’s demons from my soul and hand them over to God.
All the corruption, destructiveness, and misogyny of many in Christian denominations belong to the flawed humans who carry them out. But the beauty and transcendence of worship are still ours to experience, because the gospel and ritual remain intact.
Now, I find that phrases from Scripture appear in my brain when I need them. One morning, as I awoke with my usual dread, the words “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4, KJV) popped into my mind, and the fear came down a peg. I want to give thanks to God and the humans who penned them millennia ago, for responding to my struggle, so long before I existed.