In several posts last week, I reflected on the role ritual has played in my family, and about both those times when it has been strengthening and when it has been divisive. Thanksgiving has always been in our family, as among many families across America, a time to get together, to celebrate, and enjoy each other. We’ve had our traditional dinner at my grandmother’s house down the road, sang our songs around the piano, and on Fridays, weather permitting, went for a walk in Virginia Kendall Park.
But this idyllic scenario was threatened to be ripped apart when my brother Tom got a divorce and then remarried. By then, my grandparents had died but Thanksgiving continued to be hosted by our unmarried Aunt Tillie who still lived on the homestead.
The problem was that Tillie believed the Catholic teaching that divorce was bad enough but might under extreme circumstances be justified. Remarriage, however, was always a grave sin – a mortal sin which condemned the unrepentant to eternal hell. It is not mandated by Rome, as far as I know, but where I came from, many Catholics believed that divorced people who remarried must not only be refused communion, but should be expelled from the family and community.
Tillie was a very good, very earnest Catholic. She was also a person whose love and open door to her nephews and nieces was a life saver after my mother died. Especially for Tom who also was particularly close to her. Tillie’s problem was that she thought on the one hand religious teaching demanded that she refuse to continue to relate to Tom, and on the other, she knew how devastating a decision like this would be for both of them and for his children.
On pain of fearing that she herself may be condemned to many long years in purgatory, if not an eternity in hell, she simply said she loved Tom too much. She never closed her door to him.
Tillie did not have the analytical skills that some of us have. I have discovered about myself, for instance, that I can rationalize almost any course of action, and I cannot imagine suffering any torment in relation to a decision like the one Tillie made. All she had was her conviction that to hurt someone she loved and who depended on that love as much as Tom and his children did was wrong. Period. She couldn’t explain it.
She just knew that, whatever the price, she wasn’t going to do it.
I know several other instances of people who have made similar decisions. And I admire them beyond words. I fear that I myself do not possess this arrow that goes to the heart of the issue so directly, so honestly. I twist and turn, looking at every aspect of the situation, even when we are talking about something as basic as simply continuing to love someone.
Most great religions teach that loving our fellow-man is fundamental. Tillie was one of those people who, whatever the cost might be to her, just never lost sight of that. She anguished, she kept going to church, I believe she lay on her deathbed fearing she was going to hell.
But she never stopped loving.
When I was growing up, I thought this kind of steadfast love was rather simple. Not that Tillie was unintelligent – she was, actually, a gifted musician and teacher. But, forgive me, I took it for granted. I might even have felt that my own analytical approach was superior.
Addendum: since this is a story about religious dogma and self-righteous rules, it might sound as if I am attacking religion. But I think the problem is much more complex than religion. It seems to me that in all groups one can find sanctimonious people who lose sight of the reason for rules and become obsessed with enforcing them to the letter for their own sakes.
A small example of this was featured in the news recently, when garbage men refused to pick up the bins of an elderly woman because the lid was slightly ajar. “The rule,” they said, “is that bins must be securely closed.” To their credit, the local authorities suggested that in the future the men use a little bit of common sense and compassion.
Maybe even a little brotherly concern. Sounds like a sort of secularized version of the command to love ones neighbour, doesn’t it?
Tillie would certainly have understood.
Addendum II: I have only in the last several years really understood that authentic religion is not about belief. It’s not about dogma and doctrine. It’s not about power or social control or converting others to the ‘true faith.’
It’s about loving.
If it gets in the way of loving, there’s something terribly wrong.