The priest nods. I think he understands what I mean. The priest and I speak a language that had enveloped me as a child like a security blanket. It was the language of the Holy Roman Catholic Church (HRCC), a language developed over the centuries both to reassure and instill fear. Though I had not spoken the language for several decades, it had been pounded into my young, pliable mind, and its familiar rhythms and syntax came back to me pretty quickly.
“What parish are you in?” he asks.
“I am not Catholic,” I answer.
The priest looks at me quizzically. My name and face scream out “former altar boy.” However, I speak the truth. I had been raised in the HRCC, but left the church many years ago and joined a mainline Protestant denomination. Some people tell me that I am still Catholic and always will be, but I think that’s the same as stating that I am Californian because I was born and raised there even though I have not lived in California for more than 30 years.
I am not convinced that the priest believes me, but he and I are here in the same room because we both volunteered to talk about Ethan and Natalie. If I allow it, and succumb to one of my personality flaws – the overwhelming desire for others’ approval — the priest and I will speak for hours. The priest will take me down that dark tunnel, back in time, back to the cult I thought I had escaped. However, I reinforce my resolve. Stick to the plan. Get in, talk about Ethan and Natalie, get out with my Protestantism intact. No blessings. No holy water. No devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mother of God.
Ethan and Natalie had divorced several years ago, and Ethan had met another woman, an observant Catholic woman, and they planned to wed. Though neither Ethan nor Natalie was Catholic, this new marriage could not take place in an HRCC rite without an annulment.
In popular circles, “annulment” is like a curse. It’s the thing Teddy Kennedy did to his first wife, Joan, and his children, so that he could remarry with the approval of the HRCC. In popular circles, that means the Teddy was never “actually” married to Joan and that their children, in the eyes of HRCC, were born out of wedlock, aka “bastards.” HRCC protests loudly that this characterization of annulment is not accurate. Bullshit.
The annulment is actually like a tool that you keep at the bottom of the tool chest. Not a hammer or screwdriver, it is a tool that you have to search hard to find, and use only in special situations. The special situation involves counterparties in sex and money. One of the counterparties has money and wants sex. The other wants money and has can provide sex. HRCC is willing to allow Ethan to have sex with one of its daughters if he forks over the money. Even the guy who cuts my hair, a devout Catholic, understands. “It’s all about money,” he says.
HRCC attempts to distract people from the truth of this exchange through use of “witnesses” who will provide testimony to the effect that a marriage had never” actually” existed. In spite of my own personal feelings, I have agreed to be one of Ethan’s witnesses so that he can move on with his life.
And so the rotund, fossil of a priest begins to ask me a series of 16 questions, taking me down another dark tunnel, that of Ethan and Natalie’s marriage.
Some of the questions are perfunctory, but others tear away at the scab formed over their marriage. Did they have problems in their courtship? Where you surprised at their decision to get a divorce? Why do you think they broke up? What kind of tension existed in their marriage? A nave or a clever man would treat this like Kabuki theatre, but I am neither. I am an earnest traveler given to meditation.
The memories flood my mind. I remember Ethan and Natalie when they were happily married, both full of energy, ambitions, and plans. Then I remember when things became difficult for Ethan professionally, and how hard Natalie worked to keep Ethan afloat. And, lastly, I remember when Ethan came to me and asked if he could stay with me for a while. He was so confident that he would be moving back in with Natalie soon, but after a few months, he realized that he would never be going back.
The priest sits with me, quiet during my long pauses between answers, as I walk through that dark tunnel.
The thing the priest does not understand – nor does Ethan– is that I am approaching another dark tunnel. As I recount the joys and ultimate sorrows of Ethan and Natalie’s marriage, I also walk through the dark tunnel of my own marriage that had begun with such promise, like theirs, and crashed 20 years later, like theirs. My hands begin to tremble.
And then I exhale in the knowledge that I have emerged from the dark tunnels an am in a better place. Ethan has emerged from his dark tunnel. So has Natalie. However, mercifully, the priest is finished with me and I finished with my testimony. My witness is over. What I want more than anything else is a drink. Maybe several.
*not their real names