This is the fourth article in our Christian Unity Series.
I’m a marriage and family therapist. Imagine for a moment that my first couple client of the day is the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.
These two Churches have a long and complicated history that ended in divorce and estrangement. In recent years there has been a great deal of rapprochement, but there are still many obstacles. Is a remarriage even possible?
I would begin by asking them to remember the early shared experiences. We could reminisce about the early tumultuous but inspiring first few hundred years of Church history. Remember how we developed into a universal Church? We would reflect on the early mission work, the shared Eucharist and developing liturgies, and the writings of the Eastern and Western church fathers. We were both inspired by the lives of the saints, the wisdom of the desert fathers, and the development of monasticism. We experienced some anger and confusion when we had to deal with the first christological heresies, but we worked together and united in Councils. We felt joy when we witnessed the birth of Christendom and the transforming of pagan culture. We experienced fear during the persecutions, but we also had courage and often embraced martyrdom. This is our shared heritage. We experienced all of this together.
Next, we would practice active listening. I would help them listen to each other share about their past wounds. It might be difficult, but we need to listen to these stories non-defensively. It is okay to say: This is how I’ve been hurt and this is how you hurt me, as long as we know the other side will try and understand where we’re coming from. In this way, we are practicing empathy. We listen for understanding, not to prove a point or develop a counter-argument. We listen in a way that shows we care and the others’ experience is important to us. We don’t necessarily have to agree with the perspective. Disagreements are allowed. But we are saying that we respect the other enough to recognize that they have feelings about the past that need to be acknowledged. Here it is critical that we offer goodwill—even if the other side has a fact wrong, or is missing a piece of the puzzle, or has made a serious error—and that we acknowledge that they are coming from a sincere place.
But what if we sometimes don’t feel the other side is coming from a good place?
And so we need to process our trust issues. We don’t have to believe that we or anyone has all the answers yet. We can begin by hoping that the other side is here because this is important to them—that I’m important to them. It might be hard, but we can express our hope that the other means well and wants what is best. We both want to love and serve God—and we try to trust that this is an authentic desire.
But we need to be honest about this mistrust and frame it in terms of our wounds and our feelings, yet also in terms of hopes and desires. And so I would coach the Orthodox Church to express: I fear that you want unity in order to control me. I have been hurt in the past and felt betrayed. But I long for a time when we can trust each other, respect each other, and share our resources to transform our world into the Kingdom of God. If I trust you now, you might let me down again. Let that sink in.
What happens to the other side when they hear this? Here, I would coach the Catholic Church to express: I am sorry for the past betrayals. I don’t like it that you have trouble trusting me now, but I understand why. I want to show you that I can respect you and that we can start working together. I have learned from the past and don’t want to make the same mistakes again. I too want to build that Kingdom. And again, let that sink in. We don’t need to rush or make any decisions yet. Trust takes time.
I would then ask them to spend quality time together. As homework, I would ask them to work together on projects that matter to both of them: protect the unborn, feed the hungry, improve the environment, strengthen the family, fight unemployment, visit the sick and imprisoned, etc. I would also ask them to start praying together: perhaps they could start with the Liturgy of the Hours.
In the next session, we would take it to an even deeper level and really express the more difficult emotions. We would address the sticky and controversial things that might stand out. These might be doctrinal differences, or political grievances, or deep fears and resentments. When these are expressed, the other side would be assisted to see this as a choice to be vulnerable rather than an attack. The response by each Church needs to be from a place of compassion. I care about your concerns so much that I am willing to listen and respond. And this needs to be a 2-way street. I would help them learn and practice mutual empathy so that they might actually experience genuine love and caring.
I would remind both parties of something they already know: marriage means sacrifice because we put the interests of our partner ahead of ourselves. We must be willing to die for the other. We acknowledge that we are doing this hard work to honor our Jesus Christ. This does not mean that we ignore serious doctrinal differences, but it does mean that we put aside our own agendas and overlook non-essential differences for the greater good. It means that we can be influenced by the other side without losing our own core identity. We also want to offer ourselves to the other. Rather than a fear-based entrenchment that leads to isolation, we acknowledge that we have something to give.
In time an important shift will take place. Rather than focusing on what separates us, we begin to see the beauty of the other. What are they doing well? How are they successfully honoring God, building His Kingdom and serving His people? How can we learn to appreciate the spiritual differences rather than dismissively shun them?
We want to know how our partner is struggling because we want the best for them. We want to promote positive growth in the other. We aren’t trying to change them into us. We appreciate their uniqueness and we appreciate what they offer that is different. We might still have serious issues that need to be addressed, but these are kept in perspective. I do not only see your blemishes, but I see your greatness and our potential to be even greater working together.
In time, we will also create a new and shared vision for the future. We imagine what the future could hold if those differences were resolved. How can we learn from each other? How can we better witness to the world? How can we serve God more fully together rather than apart? In time as we are working together to achieve God’s plan for His Church we are more motivated and filled with hope.
And even if a remarriage is not possible, perhaps a beautiful incense to offer up to Christ will be our love for one another.
Gerry Ken Crete holds a PhD in Counseling and Human Development from the University of Georgia. He serves as clinical director for Holy Family Counseling Center, which has its headquarters in Duluth. He was raised Roman Catholic and now attends a Byzantine Catholic parish.