Reviewed by Caitlin Dwyer.
Marriage is forever. At least, it is supposed to be. But in our broken world, large numbers of couples experience separation or divorce. Does this mean their marriages are really over? Has the sacrament of matrimony failed? What is a spouse to do who has been dealt a separation or divorce who didn’t really want it? Can abandoned spouses still live out their marriage vows in a meaningful way?
Maria Pia Campanella seeks to offer a lifeline to separated or divorced spouses who desire to remain faithful to their marriage sacrament with her book “The Gift of Self: A Spiritual Companion for Separated and Divorced Faithful to the Sacrament of Marriage.” (Note: this review will use the term “separated spouse” to refer to spouses unwillingly separated from their husband and wife, both those who are civilly divorced and those who are not.) The book’s purpose is two-fold and addresses two distinct audiences. First it advises pastoral workers on how to assist spouses experiencing separation. Second, it reaches out directly to those suffering spouses and offers them a spiritual path to wholeness, forgiveness, and the renewal of their commitment to their marriage.
Campanella takes the Church’s belief that marriage is indissoluble as her starting point. Marriage is not, as modern society perceives it to be, a contract which can be broken nor is it simply an ideal. It is a sacrament in which God endows a couple with the grace to form a life-long covenant with each other, even in the face of severe adversity. Thus, although it is “absurd in the eyes of the world” (3), separated persons can remain faithful to the sacrament of matrimony and they can continue to live out the sacrament as “a total gift of self, fidelity, and fruitfulness” (CCC 1643). No marriage is a failure because a sacrament cannot fail. God has given the couple the grace to pursue the task of marriage—the imaging of His love through a complete gift of self to one’s spouse and children—and an abandoned spouse can still draw upon this grace and do this work. In so doing, he or she reflects the eternal love of God for fallen, unfaithful humanity as it is presented in the book of Hosea.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, “A Spiritual Path for Separated or Divorced Faithful to the Sacrament,” is addressed to the Christian community and pastoral family workers in order to help them better serve separated people. Campanella emphasizes that the Church has a responsibility to help married couples live out the vocation of marriage, particularly in the difficult circumstances of separation. She encourages workers to greet separated persons with expressions of empathy and solidarity and to attend immediately to their material, emotional, and spiritual needs. Often an abandoned spouse who previously stayed at home with the children must go back to work and therefore make childcare arrangements, or they may be in a state of such deep depression that they feel they can do almost nothing. By attending to these needs, the pastoral worker becomes a sign of hope in the midst of the crisis. The worker can later help the separated spouse begin a spiritual journey of healing. Just recognizing the value of the spouse’s witness of fidelity in the midst of a world which rejects it can be a great help to the injured spouse.
The second section, “Stages in the Journey” is primarily addressed to separated spouses themselves. It is essentially a “how to” manual on the pursuit of a spiritual path out of the unspeakable pain experienced in the wake of a separation to a place of peace, forgiveness, and renewed commitment to the sacrament of marriage.
Campanella outlines seven stages of this journey: Separation, Rebirth, The Desert, The Group, Reconciliation, Renewing the “I Do,” and Gift of Self. At the beginning of the journey, a separated spouse must seek to restore his or her dignity as a child of God in the midst of intense suffering, raw emotions, and the tormenting question of “where did I go wrong?” Gradually the spouse must seek to entrust himself or herself to God and to cultivate a deeper relationship with Him. Through personal prayer and group support, the spouse may then reach a position where he or she is able to forgive the offending spouse and even renew his or her commitment to the task of marriage. In this way the spouse becomes a sign of God’s merciful love. Just as Christ taught us the meaning of love by forgiving us and inviting us to eternal life after we sentenced Him to death on a Cross, an abandoned spouse can continue to love and give himself or herself despite rejection.
The book ends with a substantial appendix which includes additional advice for pastoral workers, hope-filled testimonies of spouses and children, and beautiful prayers that could be used for Eucharistic Adoration or retreats for separated spouses.
The greatest strength of Campanella’s book is her articulation of the vocation of the separated person to live out his or her marriage vows as a particular witness of God’s eternal love for fallen humanity, and the practical path she offers to the realization of this call. Although she does not include personal details of her own situation, it is apparent that Campanella has walked this path herself. This imbues a sense of hope and inspiration to the reader. Between the lines she seems to say, “However bad you feel at the moment, this path is possible; I walked it, and with God’s help, you can too. Your home will not always feel as though it were ‘destroyed by the effects of an earthquake’ (25). It will be rebuilt as a ‘castle on a high mountain with a broader horizon’ (65).”
One minor weakness of the book is its failure to completely distinguish the content for her two audiences. Campanella inserts some content for pastoral workers into the section for separated spouses. (The “Possible Aids” and “Mistakes to Avoid” subsections of the “Stages of the Journey” are intended for pastoral workers).
That being said, the entire book would undoubtedly be helpful for individuals seeking to provide pastoral assistance to separated spouses. Campanella helps the pastoral worker better understand the position of the separated person and offers advice on everything from helpful language, words of encouragement, and ways to practically assist the separated person to, most importantly, ways to assist the separated person on their spiritual journey.
The “Stages of the Journey” section of the book (with the exception of the aforementioned subsections) is a valuable guide for separated spouses themselves, and could easily be used in a parish support group with a leader or privately with a spiritual director. A director could prove indispensable because although the book is filled with many spiritual gems that could be of great help to suffering spouses, if certain sections were read prematurely they could be less helpful. Campanella herself says that this part of the book provides about a year’s worth of material and encourages her readers to “proceed without haste” (7).
Campanella’s reflections are an inspiring reminder to married persons of their spiritual duties to their spouses and children and the special graces available to spouses, no matter what state a marriage is in. If you are a pastoral worker looking for a go-to resource for outreach to separated spouses or a separated spouse looking for a spiritual salve, this book is worth your while.
About the Reviewer:
Caitlin Dwyer is a freelance writer and editor. Caitlin holds a Masters in Theological Studies from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.