Real parish life isn’t as tantalizing as PBS’ “Grantchester” (nor most clerics the eye candy of James Norton’s priest, Sidney Chambers), yet parish life and intrigue are fixtures in literature. You get highbrow puzzles in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and ribald sadism in Denis Diderot’s The Nuns; you get the earnest epistling of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and the page-turning mysteries of Julia Spencer Fleming whose Clare Fergusson stories are set in a fictionalized version of Corinth, NY.
Maybe that’s why clergy tend to tell stories rather than see themselves as part of the stories. So these days I don’t recognize my role: I am accustomed to pastoring to the grieving parishioner whose official assigned role as partner doesn’t exist—perhaps because they were gay and closeted, or because they were divorced.
So I am not accustomed to being the griever who apparently shouldn’t grieve, the griever who has no sanctified or official role. But I am that now. And there are no rules or rubrics for how to live into and through it.
My ex-husband was a public figure; some readers will have known him. I have no need to air laundry; suffice it to say that most people resist to the bitter end the need to divorce. Surely ours was a critical and necessary heartbreak. And I have never made peace with it; for three years it has pained and saddened me.
Though it often can, divorce doesn’t always cancel love. The Hebrew book, Song of Songs gets it about right: “Set me as a seal upon your heart….for love is as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.”
Death, of course, almost never cancels love. More likely, it augments it. We long for the lost and remembered goodness, become amnesiac over bitternesses and betrayals. In the end, in the face of death, what we want is a do-over, a make-over. We want to give it another go, have a second chance, make a further try. At the very least we want one more conversation.
I want one more conversation. But I am an ex. And he is gone. And there is no community in which I can mourn.
Naturally, I try to put a callous over all of this. I ask myself, how can I be a better pastor to people who are experiencing this kind of grief? I tell myself, well after all, you were divorced. And he is dead. You are not even the next of kin anymore, despite that in so many ways you were. So—I tell myself: get on with things. Don’t look for signs and wonders. Do your job. You don’t need coffee with every single friend. You don’t need a wake, a tolling bell, a ceremony. You don’t need to sit in the cemetery, as my mother did after my father died, getting grass stains on your bottom.
I long for this experience to impart wisdom I can share, as if my role is to be some kind of clearinghouse for wisdom. Isn’t that what ministry is supposed to be, if nothing else? Isn’t that why an undereducated, politically co-opted clergy pisses me off so much? Because clergy are supposed to work hard to both ferment and foment wisdom; we are to be of use, to be inspiring as much as possible, yes?
But I got nothing these days. Just sadness and a weird loneliness.
Still—I will put it all to use next time I am called to pastor into such circumstances. I can and I will.
But right now I really do need widow’s weeds, an undertaker in a top hat, a tolling bell. I need those literary and sad clichés. My ex-husband would approve. And they would probably even make him laugh. And I would, too.