It is pertinent to what many of us in the United States commemorated with sorrow, prayer, and penance last week. But it also pertains to a reality that is worldwide.
Its a story about the mysterious and enduring bond between a mother and her child.
Some would have us believe that this bond can be cast aside or terminated by a procedure that in reality is a terrible act of violence. This act, known as abortion, succeeds in killing an innocent human being.
But it fails, utterly, to break the bond between the mother and child, a bond that is more profound than physical death.
The mother remains, in the depths of herself, mother of the child that never sees daylight. She remains a mother, and she lives with this fact no matter how much she may deny it, and even if no one else knows about it. The relationship remains; it is greater than any human power, and it cannot be unmade by any human power.
These mothers are everywhere; they live on your street, they pass you on the sidewalk or in the aisles of the grocery story, they are your co-workers, they are sitting in the subways you ride, they are at the gym, the restaurant, the tennis court, the pool. They are in every crowded room, in the building where you work, they are your doctors, lawyers, teachers, classmates, they are members of your church, they are your friends.
They are often accomplished women; they may be full of warmth, genuine affection, and empathy. They may be social, outgoing, witty, expressive and full of laughter and smiles. They hide from us their dreams and their tears. Sometimes they succeed in blocking it from their own awareness for years. But it never goes away.
Millions of these people wander through all the world: the mothers of the lost, the mothers of the nameless ones. We hear statistics, and we should remember that behind every one of those numbers there is a mother who has failed, and who carries the weight of that failure. It has become her awful burden. But it also remains as a possibility for hope.
The relationship between mother and child remains, and so there is the possibility for reconciliation and healing. Still, the mother needs help. She needs someone to listen to the agony and sorrow that pour out of her soul. She needs to know that she is loved, not in a condescending way, but in a humble companionship that affirms that we all depend on an ineffable and inexhaustible mercy.
I hesitate to tell this story, because it touches upon a kind of suffering so profound and so personal that I do not wish to presume to expose anyone's pain "from the outside." I tell this story only because I am willing to share the burden with them, and walk with them on the road to healing.
There are roads to healing, and I believe that we must devote much energy and sacrifice to building up these roads and being companions with those who are traveling them. We must indeed seek out so many who don't even know these roads exist. There are so many who bury their anguish, distract themselves, and pass through life with a dark sense that their loss is forever, that they carry a deep and excruciating pain that must remain hidden, that they cannot speak about even to themselves.
But there are roads to healing, and places of healing. We must all do what we can to help people find the way. We must invite them to be with us and to walk with us on the path of Love. But there is no place on this path for the self-righteous, for we all stumble, and we all fail in our responsibility to accept and bring to fruition the gifts that have been given to us.
We cannot "help" anyone except out of the awareness that we ourselves need forgiveness and healing for so many things. Our task is not to put ourselves forward as superior to others, but rather to indicate--in poverty and humility, but also with unshakable conviction--where hope can be found.
Who am I to speak of any of this? I'm just a poor man with a blog, a disabled man, still crushed by the fact that he is incapable of doing the job he loves. What do I have to offer? I've tasted the bitterness of life, but I have been healed and wounded (in a different way) by Mercy; I have a heart, I can listen, I am not shocked or surprised by anything, and I condemn no one.
I know that every person I meet is broken and yet loved by an Infinite Love. I haven't always known this. I've had to learn it, and I continue to learn it every day. This story is about a particular moment in this learning process, a moment that has grown deeper with time and the unfolding of events. Here is the story:
Many years ago, when I was a graduate student living in Texas, I used to meet on Saturday mornings with a church group. We would pray the Rosary together in front of the local Women's Health Clinic. It was a small building with a path from the sidewalk directly to the front door. Next to it was a parking lot.
We were gathering in a public space in front of the clinic to pray. We also brought literature from a nearby Crisis Pregnancy Center, where some of us had connections. The brochures of the center were not shocking or upsetting. They offered other possibilities, concrete possibilities for pregnant mothers facing all sorts of difficulties. They offered committed personal support, as well as financial and other life-situation support, real support for the mother and her child.
Many pregnant mothers are driven to desperation because they don't know that there are people who will stand by them and help them. And it can be very difficult to reach these mothers to offer this kind of help. For us, the only practical way was to approach, gently, the women who were walking on the sidewalk from the parking lot to the clinic entrance, listen to them and talk with them if possible, or at least hope that they would take the brochure and consider it.
What we had to offer was real help, from a network of good and loving people. Its sad this offer was sometimes misunderstood, and that it was necessary to present it in such an awkward manner. But here were these women, these pregnant mothers, wrestling with so many pressures and influences: the pressures of insecurity and self-image, of society's expectations, or even the pressure of those who were supposed to be loving and taking care of them. Or perhaps they were ashamed, or angry, or afraid, or simply allowing themselves to believe the lie, and falling into the abyss of violence that opens up under the thin veneer of apparently easy solutions offered by this brutal and manipulative society. In such circumstances, one must risk offering help, even at the price of being awkward or misunderstood.
Not many women came to this particular clinic on Saturday mornings, as I remember. Still we prayed. Sometimes our turnout was small too. On this one Saturday morning, it was just myself and a little Hispanic woman who barely spoke English. After a little while, she told me that she had to go.
It would just be me, alone, with the brochures. It hardly seemed worth staying. But before she left, the woman held out a card to me and said, "take this."
The card had a picture of Jesus on it, patterned after the painting of St. Faustina, with the inscription "Jesus I trust in You." There were prayers on the back of the card. The image was of the blood and water pouring forth from the heart of Jesus. The image of the Divine Mercy, the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness and healing. Mercy.
Today, this icon, its prayers, and the chaplet of mercy are central to my life. But back then I did not know much. I thought, "Oh, another one of these cards; I have some of these at home and I really don't need...." But I took the card and thanked her. I wanted to be polite. After a moment of fiddling with the card, I stuck it in my back pocket and forgot about it.
Really, I just wanted to go home. I was not an experienced "sidewalk counselor" and I am not confrontational by nature. As I mentioned before, offering this literature was awkward. It was a gesture all to easily misunderstood.
Then a car pulled into the lot and parked. A woman got out of the car and began walking towards the clinic. I was terrified. "Why am I here by myself!?" I thought. But somewhere in the midst of all this I remembered that I was not alone. I represented the Pregnancy Center; I was there on behalf of a community of people who cherished the mother and her child, and were dedicated to fostering this relationship--with friendship and with material assistance--from the beginning. So I held out my trembling hand....
The woman was smartly dressed, and walked with a confident stride. She was probably in her thirties. I felt a certain relief just looking at her. And then she gave me something like a smile, and said, "Oh you don't need to worry about me. I'm just here for a pregnancy test." She looked at me with a bright, benevolent face and nodded to me.
I won't deny that I breathed a sigh of relief. She seemed kind, and very self-assured. A few minutes later she came out the door, and seemed to nod and smile at me again. I smiled back as she walked toward the parking lot. And I remained standing there, with my brochures and my rosary beads, looking at the clinic and thinking about how I really should be going home. The place was closing soon and there wasn't any reason to hang around....
"Excuse me," I heard suddenly, from the parking lot. "Excuse me, I want to ask you a question."
I looked over at the parking lot, and there she was, the nice woman who had come for a pregnancy test. She was sitting in her car with her window down. She must have been waiting in the car for several minutes, but I had not noticed.
"Sure," I replied.
"Who the hell do you think you are?"
I was taken aback. "Sorry, what?" I replied, a little confused.
The kindness and the smile were gone. Instead it was controlled (but very strong) anger and confrontation. "Who the hell do you think you are?" She yelled from the car.
Oh boy, I was thinking. This lady sat in the car for five minutes and then decided to have an argument with me? As I said, I'm not the confrontation type, but I knew my facts and I was ready to have an argument if that's what she wanted. So I walked toward the car in the parking lot and said something like, "What do you mean?"
The woman's features had changed. Her expression was full of righteous anger, and she was positively intimidating to this graduate school kid who spent most of his time reading books. Still, I went right up to the window of her car.
"Who the hell do you think you are?" She roared at me. "Trying to impose your beliefs on other people!"
I can't really explain what happened inside me at that moment. Part of it, frankly, was that I didn't want to get into a verbal slugging match with this lady. She was angry with me, I thought. But there was also something else; something inside me gave me the sense that this frequently hashed out "argument" that seemed about to begin wasn't really an argument. It was something else.
Who do I think I am? I wondered. Not much, but I am here to represent the pregnancy center. I don't even work at the pregnancy center, but I'm here to deliver their invitation, their offer of love.
And then some very gentle, unpremeditated words came out of my mouth. I spoke without any tint of argument, and I realized that I was speaking sincerely: "We are here to offer opportunities for the mother and the child. All we want to do is to love both the mother and her child."
She was not impressed, and continued to speak angry and confrontational words that I don't remember. Again and again I said (as if I were somehow being moved to say it), "All we want to do is to love both the mother and her child."
"All we want to do is to love both the mother and her child."
Her anger began to abate slightly. "Well," she said, "You don't sound like most pro-lifers I run into!"
I was not going to go down that road. I only had one thing to say, and every time I said it, it came straight from the heart and filled with some mysterious compassion that was not my own. Love.
"All we want to do is to love both the mother and her child."
"Well," she said, "if more pro-lifers talked like you, maybe people would listen." She had calmed down, and was making an effort to continue her remonstrative tone.
I didn't know anything about who she may have encountered in the past. I just kept listening to her, and spoke quietly about giving help and love and support to the mother and the child. I was just a kid barely out of college who didn't know much about life, whose own heart was crying out for mercy, leaning at the car window of a professional, accomplished woman who looked like she could have been any of the women that I see every day.
It seemed like she was having a burst of temper about issues and people who bothered her. But she was cooling off. It was clear that, really, she was a nice lady.
She was just a human person.
I was someone who gave out literature for the pregnancy center. I didn't work there. I was someone who read (and occasionally wrote) articles, and voted pro-life. I also prayed and carried signs. I'd prayed at many clinic buildings, but someone else was almost always giving out literature, trying to communicate with the women, the mothers. All of these were worthwhile activities.
I knew the issues. I had read many things. I certainly had empathy for the poor women, in a kind of abstract way.
But I had no experience whatsoever to prepare me for what was about to happen. I had no idea....
"All we want to do is to love both the mother and her child."
The falling water came suddenly, like the bursting of a dam. The water gushed. Suddenly this woman was crying and sobbing, crying with a deep sadness, weeping, sobbing. I was stunned. What was happening? I had never in my life seen a person weep with such desperation and pain and sorrow.
I said nothing, but I found that I was not "uncomfortable" or embarrassed. I simply stayed there with her, present to her, a companion to her anguish. At some point I had begun to realize that grace was at work. This was grace. I was a stupid sinner, but it didn't matter. The Holy Spirit wasn't being picky. God wanted this woman to know that she was loved.
She slowly struggled, attempting to regain the control that she had practiced for so long. She struggled, kept weeping, then breathed and tried to speak to me.
"When I was... ... ... in high school... ... ... ... ... I had... ... ... ... I had an abortion."
And she wept more. And with the tears she continued, "my parents... I was so afraid... I just couldn't tell my parents... I couldn't...."
Then she looked at me with her great wet eyes and asked, "What can I do?"
I didn't know anything about the beautiful ministries that help women to find healing after abortion (see links below). This was many years ago; I'm not sure what was even available for something like this. I certainly didn't know about it. I stood in front of the unimaginable pain of another person who was seeking something from me. Where had it all come from?
"Love the mother and the child."
Love. Was it really so powerful, after all? Was this what was at the root of everything, this starvation for real love? What would we discover if we could all see behind the faces of one another for a moment? How poor we are in front of each other. We want to love and be loved, but the hunger seems overwhelming. Its not surprising that we are so afraid of life, so afraid of love, so afraid of one another. Such a vast hunger. How can we be fed? What do we have to give?
"Ask God to forgive you," I said, "pray to God and ask Him for forgiveness." The words came very simply. Ask God.
And then I suddenly remembered. The little Hispanic lady. She gave a card with the image of Divine Mercy. The image of Jesus. It was in my back pocket. I grabbed it.
"Here," I said. "Take this. Pray to Jesus. Ask Jesus to forgive you."
"I will," she answered, looking at the card, at that Face. "Thank you."
"I'll pray for you," I said.
"Thank you." And she drove away. I don't remember, but its possible that the motor had been running all along.She drove off into the enormous city, so many years ago. I never saw her or heard anything about her again. I am ashamed to say that, over these many years, I have too often forgotten to pray for her, for this woman, this broken mother whose name I never knew. I pray for her now.
Since then I've come to know quite a few women who have had abortions. They are among my friends and family. I probably know many more than I realize, because there are so many, and it remains such a secret pain in a society where "everything is permitted but nothing is forgiven."
I've also learned about the tremendous healing work done by ministries such as Project Rachel and Rachel's Vineyard (please click these links, look at them, and go to them if you or someone you know has need). Forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing really can happen for mothers, and also for their husbands or boyfriends (i.e. fathers), or anyone else who has shared in this kind of trauma.
Please pray for my friend in the parking lot on that day long ago, and for all mothers of the secret pain.