The Invisible Child

I have been thinking lately about marriage and annulments, and our Lord’s command that we should go forth to seek the one lost sheep that has wandered in the desert, far from the ninety-nine. I believe in that command with all my heart, because I’ve been that lost sheep.

But what happens if it is through our own negligence or disobedience that the sheep is lost? Does the hireling go after the one lost sheep, because that is easier than to shore up the pen-fold that he has allowed to fall into disrepair? Does he go a-singing through the countryside, while the wolf comes prowling? And when he returns with that one bleating and blockheaded sheep, does he bother to count the sheep remaining? Does he even notice the blood and the entrails smeared on the broken post?

There was a child who had a mother and a father. They had promised to love one another and be true to one another until death alone should part them. They were not feeble minded; they knew what the words of the promise meant. And the boy was happy.

Then came the Father of Nuances, whispering to the husband that words were words and not things, and that words were open to interpretation, and that a word uttered with complete confidence in one context need not mean the same thing when the context had changed. And changed it had: for the wife was older now, and the pretty womanish habits that once fascinated the husband were now constant pinpricks and pinches. So he began to cast his eye elsewhere, and his heart grew hard.

“Wife,” he said, “I am going to take my half of the estate, which belongs to me.” And she could do nothing about it, because of the lawlessness of the land where they lived. So he sold their home, even the home the boy loved, and took half of the estate, and traveled into a far country. But he did not travel alone. He brought another woman with him.

And the boy loved his father, because he was his father, and he hated him, because he had abandoned them. Nor could he find comfort from anyone. His teachers went so far as to tell him that he was fortunate, because now he would have two mothers instead of one, and two homes. Soon enough he had two fathers also, because his mother lost heart.

She went to a priest, and said, “See, my husband has left us bleeding in the ditch.” But the priest said he could do nothing for her, urged her to forgive her husband, and suggested that she join a group for single adults. She went to a scribe, expert in the law, and said, “See, my husband has broken our vow, and we are bleeding,” but the scribe smiled, and said that she should be satisfied with her settlement, which was generous enough.

“Divorce” by William Holbrook Beard, c. 1880
“Divorce” by William Holbrook Beard, c. 1880

That is why she lost heart. And one day when she and her son were in the Temple, gathered with others for prayer, they heard the words of the One who said, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

Then the priest said that words were words and not things, and that words were open to interpretation, and that a word uttered in one context need not mean the same thing when the context had changed. And changed it had: for the priest urged the people to open their minds and accept the fornicators in their midst, and the sodomites, and the adulterers. And the boy heard it, and he came to believe that the whole thing was a lie.

He was supposed to say that he enjoyed visiting his father and the woman who helped to ruin his boyhood, and that was a lie. He was supposed to say that he believed in the words of Jesus, but evidently nobody believed them, but instead they lied continually.           His mother took up with another man, not bothering to marry, because nobody believed that marriage and the marital act were connected, but instead they all lay in their sins as a matter of course, continually. He was supposed to love that other man, and he did, in a way, but he had also to pretend that it had all worked out for the best, which was also a lie.

When his body was ready for fornication, so was he. He grew practiced in the art of saying, with his body, “I am yours forever,” when “forever” meant “until I am weary of you,” which sometimes was soon enough, sometimes even in the act itself. But the girls were liars too, so one needn’t feel too sorry for them.

Then one day his father returned with his stepmother, and all the people were instructed to celebrate, because he had returned. He had not returned to his wife, and he did not seek to make up for his son’s sadness and abandonment and loss of faith. He did not say, “Treat me as one of your hired servants, because I have sinned against God and against you.”  He said, “Come and feast with me, because I have returned!”

And the fatted bishop said to the son, “It is right that you should feast with your father, because he has returned.”

So the boy went in to the feast and got drunk. He put out of his memory the many times he wept at night, because his father was gone. He put out of his memory that first terrible day when it occurred to him that no one ever told the truth. He put out of his imagination that Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me.”

He hung a millstone round his heart. He did not forgive, because everyone was telling him that there was nothing to forgive. So he got drunk.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.