The following articles were printed in the The Vermont Catholic magazine (Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, VT).
by Cori Fugere Urban
When a marriage ends in divorce, oftentimes a spouse can feel completely abandoned. “But God has not abandoned us,” said Gail Thompson of North Troy. “In fact, He is waiting, thirsting for our love, a love that comes through faithfulness and forgiveness.”
The parishioner of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Troy was married in 1970 and divorced in 1991. “When my husband left, I was devastated and shocked that I was to be a ‘divorcee,’” she said.
She and her husband were having marriage difficulties and were in counseling when they separated. She wanted to continue working on the marriage, but her husband was not prepared to continue the work needed to come to unity again, so he made the decision to leave. “Working on a marriage and leaving a marriage are two very different things, and when the other spouse makes the decision to leave, the remaining spouse feels so totally abandoned,” she said. “At least that’s the way it was for me, and I have come to see it is that way for many others as well.”
The mother of two and grandmother of one continued to attend Mass and stay faithful to the Church, but she was angry with God. “It wasn’t really His fault, of course, but I just felt that our marriage was not supposed to end this way. We were practicing Catholics and somehow it would work itself out.”
Thompson took her pain to prayer, and during the early years after the divorce she began to align herself with the sufferings of Christ. “I sometimes imagined myself literally clinging to the cross,” she said. “Somehow it helped to assuage the pain I felt in my own chest.”
It was a period of growth for her in her relationship with Christ. At the time, however, it didn’t feel like it. She felt as though she were hanging onto her faith by only the tips of her fingers.
Thompson had left the Church as a young woman and returned in her early 30s. “At that time I was so happy to be ‘home’ again, I promised Jesus that I would never leave,” she said. “There were days during the separation and divorce when that was the only thing that kept me faithful.”
At Christmastime in 2002 she heard about a group called Solitude Myriam, a spiritual family of healing and hope that welcomes those suffering from separation or divorce.
Through the group—which has more than 400 members—divorced men and women gain freedom to choose not to begin a new life with another partner but to continue their vocation of marriage. They learn to receive grace for their family in faithfulness to their sacramental marriage vows, even as they live “in solitude” without their spouse.
Solitude Myriam has four houses in Quebec and groups that meet in several cities in Quebec and Ontario, as well as in France, Guadeloupe, Reunion Island, Martinique, Switzerland and Argentina.
Although French is spoken in most of the groups, Thompson has formed an English-speaking group in Vermont.
In June 2006, she made her first commitment with Solitude Myriam in Montreal as the only English-speaking lay member from the United States. Though most members are separated or divorced laypersons, the group does include a few priests, married couples and singles who have never married.
Solitude Myriam began in 1981, the result of the work of a never-married man and a divorced woman who had been living a common-law marriage in Canada. They began to live a celibate life, she in fidelity to her original marriage vows.
The goals of Solitude Myriam are to revitalize the spirituality of Christian marriage, renew the sense of unity in the family, revalorize the indissolubility of the Sacrament of Marriage, help couples experiencing difficulties to overcome their problems and give meaning and sense to the solitude of persons who are separated or divorced and to help them to live this solitude in faith and in fidelity.
Members make a one-year renewable commitment to fidelity to Christ by taking a vow to live in chastity according to their state in life, to abandon themselves to the Father by the Virgin Mary and to be faithful to the Church by committing themselves to live in charity and joy. After five consecutive annual commitments, members can request to make a permanent commitment.
Members support priests by prayer, pray for vocations, pray for the unity of families, and encourage the people of God by evangelization and living out a consecrated life according to their state in life.
Solitude Myriam has brought Thompson a spiritual family that offers support and understanding of her life as a divorced Catholic. “I have also gained so much more understanding of the meaning of forgiveness,” she said.
Susan Gonyaw of Newport, a member of St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish there, was married in 1975 and divorced in 2008. Mother of one and grandmother of two, she was devastated when her husband moved out three years ago.
Her pastor and Thompson advised her to pray for her husband, but she was so angry all she could muster was a one-sentence prayer a day for him. “Now I pray for him constantly,” she said.
So even though her husband is not living with her, Gonyaw said she is still fulfilling a role by praying for him. “God brought me to a place of forgiving him,” she said. And that makes it possible for the family to still come together.
In the years following her divorce, Thompson received the sacrament of reconciliation often to help her work through the anger and to come to forgive her husband. “I thought I had done that fully when I met the (Solitude Myriam) community, but the forgiveness has come to a deeper level with their help,” she said. The members helped by sharing their journey of faith and giving example, and Thompson hopes to be able to do the same for others.
“In choosing to live out the marriage vows, we choose to offer to God our sacrifice of living alone without our spouse for the sake of our spouse,” she said. “By making an offering to God of our vows, we ask for true reconciliation in the Heart of God for our spouses, that they will be reconciled with Him. Whether or not they are fully reconciled with us is not the primary issue; oftentimes they have new families and that would not be possible. However, by keeping the vows, we can love them now in a sacrificial way with a love that comes from Christ and is not our own human love. It is certainly something I was not able to do before.”
Gonyaw, who made her first yearlong commitment in Solitude Myriam in June, believes marriage vows are forever, and she never imagined herself not living as husband and wife. Even though she has a civil divorce, she is still married in the eyes of the Church. “Even though I am divorced from my husband civilly, he is still my husband in the eyes of God,” she said.
People have told Gonyaw, a day-care provider, to “move on,” and she said she has, even though she holds to the vows made to a man from whom she is civilly divorced. “If you hang on to anger or bitterness or jump into another relationship, you don’t give yourself time to heal,” she said. “I feel like I am evolving more and more into who I’m supposed to be as a godly woman.”
She has been able to “move on” because she is “not crippled by unforgiveness,” she said. “I’ve been set free by forgiveness. I’ve been able to continue to love my husband and that has been freeing for me and for my family.”
Diane I. Bartlett of North Troy, a member of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Troy, was married in 1972 and divorced in 1994. “Because I have chosen to be faithful (to her marriage vows), it leaves me available to my family with no distractions,” she said. “I haven’t gone to a new relationship so I’m focused on my family.”
The mother of three and grandmother of five said that because there are no distractions in her life she can be available to her family whenever needed. “I’m always the mother they need me to be.”
In addition, by being faithful to the marriage vows to her husband, “if he ever had a conversion, he’d realize I was always available for him,” she said.
She hopes her faithfulness and sacrifice will help in his salvation.
Bartlett, a drugstore cashier who made her first one-year commitment in Solitude Myriam in 2008, said she has found unconditional love, joy and hospitality within that community, and she experienced there a healing of childhood trauma; she found a place where she is nurtured.
“I’m blooming,” she said. “I am becoming the woman I was intended to be.”
Thompson, a bookkeeper, hopes to have a Solitude Myriam house in Vermont where members can live together in community and be of service to their brothers and sisters who need a place to go and be renewed. In the meantime, she hopes to reach other Catholics, especially those suffering the pain of separation or divorce, and to tell them there is great hope and a life of healing and love for them in the future.
“Solitude Myriam points the way to resurrection,” Bishop Salvatore R. Matano, Bishop of Burlington, said at Thompson’s 2007 commitment ceremony. “Solitude Myriam points the way to new life.”
Being civilly divorced can be a lonely walk, Gonyaw knows. “If you make a commitment and draw closer to the Lord, He becomes your forever companion,” she said. “We offer our loneliness up for our husbands, and that gives (the loneliness) purpose and meaning.”
For more information about Solitude Myriam, e-mail Gail Thompson at email@example.com, or call her at 988-4041.
by Cori Fugere Urban
"I renew forever the promises of my marriage and I commit by oath to be faithful to my spouse," three women promised during a June 30 ceremony at a Mass in the chapel at the Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Westfield.
The three women-all divorced Catholics-also renewed the promises of their baptism, committed themselves to be faithful to God and the Church and promised to live charity, abandonment to Divine Providence and joy according to the spirit and statutes of the Solitude Myriam family for one year.
Solitude Myriam is a group of more than 400 members, mostly divorced men and women, who gain freedom to choose not to begin a new life with another partner but to continue their vocation of marriage. They learn to receive grace for their family in faithfulness to their sacramental marriage vows even as they live "in solitude" without their spouse.
Solitude Myriam has four houses in Quebec and groups that meet in several cities in Quebec and Ontario as well as in France, Guadeloupe, Reunion Island, Martinique, Switzerland and Argentina.
The first group in Vermont consists of the three women whose commitment ceremony took place a the monastery: Gail Thompson and Diane I. Bartlett both of North Troy, and parishioners of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Troy, and Susan Gonyaw of Newport, a member of St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish there.
During the Mass - celebrated in Latin - each woman read in English her commitments as an external member of the Solitude Myriam family and signed them in the presence of Bishop Salvatore R. Matano, Bishop of Burlington, and Danielle Bourgeois, foundress and superior general of Solitude Myriam.
"The suffering that comes with separation and divorce increases more and more in the world," Bourgeois said. "A family like ours is definitely important to greet all those with broken hearts."
During his homily at the Mass, Bishop Matano said members of Solitude Myriam imitate spiritual martyrs who "in the midst of turmoil, heartache and hardship never lost faith in Jesus Christ and never stopped loving Jesus Christ. and taking up their crosses and attaching themselves to the suffering of Jesus Christ."
He said the women, because of their divorce, had suffered hardship and disappointment "in terms of love they thought would be unchanged."
They are not bitter or hostile despite the change they endured, he said, "but have taken up their cross and remained faithful to their commitment to marriage and remain in solitude, offering their solitude for all those entering married life."
Human love left to itself can become unbridled, Bishop Matano said, so it need direction. "Who better to guide love than He who is love? Jesus is the incarnation of that love. Who better then He to direct that (human) love so it is always pure, chaste and undefiled?"
Members of Solitude Myriam, with Jesus, are able to take their hardships and disappointments and transform them into fidelity, faithfulness and hope, he continued. "In our life, we can love deeply. But it is unfortunate when that love is not returned, especially when that love was solemnized according to Christ and His Church.
He told the members of Solitude Myriam that the Church prays for them, and that "[i]n the Eucharist we all find strength for our journey, and we all become companions as we go forth to meet Christ forever...."
About 20 family members and friends joined the Benedictine nuns of the monastery at the Mass.
"I really feel the grace of God on me more than I ever have," Gonyaw said after Mass. This was her first commitment to Solitude Myriam. "That grace is enabling me to draw into a deeper level of love and forgiveness for my husband and to realize that he is a person who deserves love."
She said there are many people who are hurting because of separation and divorce, so she hopes to ring them the hope she has found in Solitude Myriam: "There is life and hope" after separation and divorce.
Thompson said she is excited to have other members join the Vermont Solitude Myriam family and "to see this beautiful; work of the Holy Spirit growing."
Said Bartlett: "It's a consolation from heaven."