Grief is a strange thing in that its memory is more characterized by what the relationship was or was not than by what characterized the death.(1) You look forward and ache over what has now been lost for the future. You look backward and grieve what never truly was and can now never be.
The award-winning author Paulo Coelho is a beautiful writer, and his lines of pure poetry are disguised as novels. His book The Witch of Portobello, a mystical story with many unusual turns, remains on my shelf, no matter where I live. I often pull it off, brush my hand across the cover, and flip it open to a page I have nearly memorized.
The story begins in Beirut, Lebanon, a country that boasts of warm hospitality, platefuls of hummus and tabouli, the Mediterranean coast, and beautiful cedars. Coelho describes his heroine, Athena, as an unusual girl who possessed a sense of spirituality from the time of her youth. She married when she was nineteen and wanted to have a baby right away. Her husband left her when the baby was still young, and Athena had to raise him alone.
During one Sunday Mass, the priest watched as Athena walked toward him to receive Communion, and his heart was filled with dread. Athena stood in front of the priest, drew her eyes closed, and opened her mouth to receive. I picture her standing there in vulnerability, asking to receive Christ’s body, given for her. She was hungry for the grace that it offered.
But he did not give it to her.
The young girl opened her eyes, terribly confused. The priest tried to tell her in hushed tones that they would talk about it later, but she would not be turned away. She persisted until she received an answer.
“Athena, the Church forbids divorced people from receiving the sacrament. You signed your divorce papers this week. We’ll talk later.”(2)
She was crushed, speechless, numb. People began to step around her, an obstacle in the way of their path.
I imagine Athena devastated. She had lost something that mattered to her, something she thought would always be hers. And when it was gone, it claimed her dreams, her respect, her ability to hope, her very sense of self. I imagine that many of her friends turned against her. Some saw her as tainted, regardless of the details. I imagine that her marital status became part of her name, as in “Athena, the girl who is divorced.” I wonder if they told her there was no place for her in ministry, if they sat in comfortable chairs, dressed in their suits, and held meetings behind closed doors to decide, while their own stories remained tucked away with their coordinated handkerchiefs. Did someone say, “Do you know that God hates divorce?” And did she answer, “I know. So do I. Possibly even more than you”? I wonder if it hurt when they pinned the Scarlet D on her, or if she was so wounded and fragile that she added the pain and guilt to the shame she had already inflicted on herself.
Did they know how hard it was for her to come to church that day? And now, in a final act of driving the knife into her gaping wound, she was told she was no longer worthy to come to Christ, the one who could give refuge in her anguish. For unlike them, he did know all that lay within her heart. And it was to him that she actually answered, not the masses who tried to occupy his place.
As the priest finished administering the Sacrament, he slowly stepped back to the altar. Athena stood where he left her and cried out what many have only cried on the inside: “A curse on all those who have never listened to the words of Christ and who have transformed his message into a stone building. For Christ said: ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Well, I’m heavy laden, and they won’t let me come to him. Today I’ve learned that the Church has changed those words to read: ‘Come unto me all ye who follow our rules, and let the heavy laden go hang!”(3) Athena vowed to never set foot in a church again. She turned on her heels and left with her crying baby, tears streaming down her own cheeks.
Years pass within this single chapter, and the priest cannot forget her face, the forlorn look in her eyes, the poignancy of her words, and Christ’s: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” As he looks back on life and ministry, the priest affirms his confidence in God and in a practice of faith made up of human beings trying to do the best they can, though they fall short. The chapter ends with the priest’s words: “I like to imagine that when she left the church, Athena met Jesus. Weeping and confused, she would have thrown herself into his arms, asking him to explain why she was being excluded… And looking at Athena, Jesus might have replied, ‘My child, I’ve been excluded too.”(4)
As for me, I imagine that Jesus took her broken heart and held it carefully, gently. I imagine he called her by her first name, and it was not followed by any failures. I imagine he loosened the Scarlet D they had pinned to her and told her she carried his image and his name. I imagine he opened his hand to show her the scar of a nail, maybe he pointed to the mark that the spear had left in his side. And then he called her to his table and told her that his broken body was also offered for her.
And I imagine she left with a grace all-sufficient for her broken story too.
Naomi Zacharias is director of Wellspring International at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) The following essay is an excerpt from Naomi Zacharias’s The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).
(2) Paulo Coelho, The Witch of Portobello (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 44.
(3) Ibid., 45.
(4) Ibid., 46.