I drove to a retreat house in Wilmington, Del., wondering how I had come to this point in my life. Up until two months earlier, I felt only animosity for the Catholic religion and disdain for its teachings. But now I had driven an hour away from my home, to be with people I didn’t know, on a retreat called Rachel’s Vineyard. I worried that they would condemn me for my past sin. I had an abortion 28 years ago, which I had confessed three or four times. The first priest would not give me absolution. The last priest, who heard my confession after two decades, told me that if I repeatedly confessed this and did not feel forgiven, perhaps Rachel’s Vineyard could help.
After some investigation I found a retreat near my home in the outskirts of Philadelphia and signed up. A bit apprehensive about what might take place, I reasoned that, as an adult, I could leave at any time. So I turned off the ignition and went up to the door. I had no idea what a surprise was in store for me. My spiritual life would change forever.
After unpacking and some idle conversation with friendly women who were running the weekend, I sat down as others began arriving. I was surprised at the various ages of the attendees. Although I usually find it easy to talk to strangers, this time was different, because I was a recent returnee to Catholicism. The events of Sept. 11, however, shook my renewed faith. As the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed before my eyes, I thought it was the beginning of the end of the world. I saw an image of myself as an elementary school child reciting the rosary, and the image would not leave.
I had been studying many religions for the past 18 years, since I found recovery in a 12-step program for my alcoholism and drug addiction. Before Sept. 11, I had decided to find a consistent practice. After that day, I made up my mind that my practice would be to go to Mass and Communion. And since Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of the Americas, I also started to pray the 15 decades of the rosary. I believe she guided me to Mass and to the confession where I had told about the abortion yet again. I believe too that she had guided me to this retreat and perhaps would give me a sign.
So I sat with the nice women and talked about generalitiesthe ride here, the traffic, the weather. After years of 12-step, gut-level honesty, this conversation bored me, but at least my thoughts and feelings were calm and congenial, and at the very least, I would get some much-needed rest here.
At our first session, there were lit candles (one to Our Lady of Guadalupe), and the leader spoke about abortion’s traumatic effects on a woman. Well, I thought, this certainly didn’t applymy abortion was quick and dirty; I remembered being angry at my husband. As the moderators talked about a sense of alienation from the spouse, alienation from the church, alcoholism and drug addiction, I started to squirm. These reactions were a composite of my adult life. Hadn’t I loved my husband? Yes. Hadn’t I loved the Catholic religion? Yes. I remembered asking my husband for a separation, then my life taken over with drinking and drugs. I, who was once so innocent, had turned into my evil twin. Sadness and remorse settled over me.
During the next 18 years I never gave the abortion more than a moment’s thought. Hadn’t I made the phone call as soon as I thought I might be pregnant? Hadn’t the nurse at the clinic told me that at six weeks the fetus was a blob of muscle and tissue, not a real person yet? Isn’t the discussion on when life begins being argued in worldwide circles? Because I was so quick to act, the abortion had little effect on meuntil I became sober.
It was then I knew I had done something terribly wrong. I couldn’t find a way to make amends for taking a life that God wanted in this world. There was a saying in my recovery group that if the program wasn’t working for you to look back on your life and find something you didn’t think important at the time. After almost two decades of prayer and meditation, living a good life and making amends for harms done, something was still wrong with me. I had a picture-perfect sobriety, yet all was not right. Could the quick abortion in January 1973 when I was 27 be what I thought wasn’t important? Well, maybe.
One component of the retreat was called Living Scriptures. The first night was The Woman Caught in Adultery, where we were put in the place of the woman who was being stoned. Then we went on to The Blind Man, where we sat in the room with our eyes closed as Jesus passed by. I had never experienced such a heart/mind/soul closeness to Scripture as I did then. Afterward we passed around a cup, into which each one of us poured our bitterness.
Early the next day we got a chance to share our individual stories. I went first in my group, since I had told my story often in the 12-step program. Because of that, I wasn’t prepared for the effect it would have on these women. It was easy for me to talk about my alcoholism, drug addiction, failed relationships, immoral behavior. But it was not easy for me to talk about Sept.11a moment of surrender to the Catholic faith. I had distanced myself so far from the religion that, despite many attempts to return, I went out again with more bitterness. I was surprised at the others’ strong reaction to what I lived through. Although it didn’t seem shocking to me, it left them in tears.
During one quiet, meditative time we were asked to imagine our baby. We were told to give that baby a name. I saw my baby as a girl. (I already had a son.) A girl would have been perfect. I called her Jane MarieJane after my father, John, who’s nickname was Jaynor; and Marie after Mary, to whom my father had great devotion but whom I didn’t understand or even like until very recently. (When I began my practice of the 15 decades of the rosary I said, Listen, Mary, I don’t even know who you are, and, to tell you the truth, I never liked you; but here goes!)
I first envisioned Jane Marie today as a healthy young 27-year-old woman. Then I saw her as an angel with a lot of little children around her. She seemed to be guiding their play. Christ stood off to the side of the field watching. All were happy and busy in their play. Then she looked at meit was a look of ecstasy. She came toward me along with all the children who were just as happy to see me. I was Jane Marie’s mother! I felt so loved. At first I couldn’t imagine why they would be so happy to see me. But then it came to me: the children and Christ were happy for Jane Marie that her mother finally acknowledged her existence. It was all she ever wanted, since I had made her unimportant, nonexistent. At this moment of acknowledgment I felt a release I cannot explain, as if a plug had come out of me and let the clean air of truth run throughout my mind and body. When finally I opened my eyes, I shared the experience with the other women. I didn’t know, I said. I just didn’t know. I had always tried to let people know how important they were to me, yet I had never acknowledged my own child.
After dinner on Saturday night, we had more Living Scriptures. This time it was The Woman at the Well. I could sense the woman’s awe at this Nazarene who knew so much about her personal life, because I believe God knows us intimately. Also, I learned that evening that the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the only image of a pregnant Mary. This signaled to me that the Mother of God, whom I didn’t acknowledge either until Sept. 11, was now guiding my life.
The following morning we had more Living Scriptures: clothing ourselves in Christ, cup of grace and breath of heaven. Following lunch, we attended a memorial service for our children, where we read a letter we wrote to them. My letter asked for Jane Marie’s forgiveness for not making her important in my life, for not giving her any attention. Many people brought loved ones to this session. I knew I could handle it alone (although another woman stood by in support). I was wrong. I could barely read the letter through my tears. Each of us received a certificate of life. Mine stated that Jane Marie was a full member of my family and an equal creation deserving of the same inherent and immeasurable value and capacity to be loved as all other human beings created in the image of God.
After the memorial service, we attended a Mass of Resurrection and received an anointing of the Holy Spirit. It was at this service that I saw the spirits of my mother, father and Jane Marie leave the earth. It was my fullest moment of grace.
By the conclusion of the retreat, I knew my life had been touched by the Holy Spirit. I framed Jane Marie’s certificate of life, which hangs just under the crucifix in my bedroom. Finally I had discovered, after 18 years in a recovery program, what it was that I needed to address. In all my searching, all my uncovering, all my discovering, all my discarding, I never once gave Jane Marie the credit she deserved as a child of a loving God. Now I converse with her. She truly is my daughter and, to me, an angel who guides me and waits for me to join her.
If I were to speak to any woman thinking about an abortion, I would put my arm around her and tell her about my abrupt alienation from my husband, my alcoholism, my drug addiction, the period during which I hated the church I had earlier loved, the dark life of sin. Then I would urge her to choose life. If I were to speak to any woman who has had an abortion, I would share with her my experience, strength and hope and urge her to call Rachel’s Vineyard. And I would read to her this excerpt from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical The Gospel of Life (No. 99):
I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try, rather, to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the sacrament of reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost, and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.
What remains of my life I owe to the memory of Jane Marie.
Editors note: This article won the Catholic Press Association first place award for best essay.