One of the greatest and most awesome privileges that comes with working within the institutional Church is being made privy to countless stories of the human encounter with God, and on occasion I am given permission by some of those I meet to share their stories with others through my writing and my teaching. As yesterday was a day dedicated to overcoming the culture of death with prayer, penance and the witness of lived proclamations of the Gospel of life, I thought I would share the very personal and powerful story of a woman whom I also count as a friend. Though she will remain anonymous, her voice is clear and real and powerful and I have the honor of sharing it with you today. May it bear abundant fruit.
I had two abortions. I was young and unmarried. Though my boyfriend and I had taken every care with contraceptives, something went amiss. We didn’t really want the abortion but we didn’t want to move from our single life into the complexities of family life. We were fortunate to live in a state where abortion was legal. I remembered vividly my high school health class textbook. The section on abortion was illustrated with a shocking photo of a dead, naked woman lying in a pool of blood. That was what happened when abortion was illegal.
My fears were only about myself: that it might hurt, that I might be endangered by the surgery, that it would be embarrassing. I told no one besides my boyfriend. I went to the clinic alone. It hurt terribly and I cried in fear and pain. The woman assisting the doctor chastised me impatiently. “You wanted this, right? So what are you crying for? Settle down.” I hated her. When the doctor was finished she held a dish by my head, so I could see that they had done the job. The fetus was too small or too damaged for me to recognize, but I nodded anyway.
The second time was like a bad dream revisited. Same boyfriend, same mysterious failure of contraceptives (now used with even more care, since that first accident). Same tears. Impatient words from the assistant: “You’re upsetting the other girls. Calm down. What are you crying for?” I hated her, too.
I did feel relieved after. The problem was solved. It was not unlike finally getting the mouse or bird out of your house: it’s not that you want to harm it. But it just can’t stay. The only way to get rid of it is to keep whacking at it with a broom or towel or call the cat in. Then it’s dead and it’s kind of gross and you feel bad, but at least the problem is solved.
I assumed I’d forget about it. I certainly tried to avoid thinking about it. I skipped any articles about abortion in the news and crossed the street if anti-abortion protestors were out. Though I eventually married I never had children.
Decades later I discovered that God existed. Through His gentle nudges I entered the Catholic Church. I was initially happy to be “mostly Catholic.” I turned my eyes and ears away from the harder words about the dignity of life. After all, lots of Catholics didn’t really buy into all the details. There was room to keep my own opinions, especially about my rights as a modern woman.
The problem was God didn’t share my agenda. I wanted Him. I loved Him with all my heart. I wanted to give Him every breath, every heartbeat, every ounce of my body and soul and mind. I still thought some of it was mine to give. But slowly I realized that it wasn’t. It was all His to begin with. I had no claim to my own life whatsoever. And as that sank in, the ghastly awfulness of what I had done so many years ago became clear.
The most profound expression of God’s love is His creativity. He cares for every hair on our heads, He draws each flower from its bud, He lifts each nestling from its egg, He brings each worm out of its mud-puddle. He loves his Creation. He made me. He loves me. I began to see that the ugliness in what I had done was not in the fact that it left me sad, or hurt, or was unpleasant and a bit shameful. The ugliness was that God had drawn life into my womb and I had spit in His face. He had given me a treasure crafted with the greatest care and I had thrown it in the trash.
My excuses were immaturity, ignorance, self-interest, financial woes, shame, anxiety. My excuses were a defensive maneuver. My excuses were a way of trying to protect myself from the pain of the truth. The truth was I had sinned so enormously that forgiveness was unimaginable. That was terrifying. I deserved an eternity in hell. God had given me my very own existence and the beautiful awakening awareness of His real presence in my heart. And I had despised Him. I was absolutely horrified. That newly recognized truth burned through me like invisible fire. I wept and prayed.
I finally found the courage to tell my confessor. I did not do the clever trick of going to a big city cathedral where the priest wouldn’t know me. I told the priest who knew me. He had heard my many piddling confessions in the past. I went to him for spiritual direction regularly. He took confessions in his office, face to face. I got straight to the point, already in tears, hand over my face in shame. He cut me off after the kind and number so I wouldn’t have to go into painful details. I wasn’t the first woman to confess this in his many years of priesthood. We prayed together. God heals.
The fullness of the healing was not instantaneous, but it started that day. It is one thing to know that God forgives, and another to accept His tender touch. My heart is still wounded. I expect it will be forever, and that seems right and just, as does any reparation my Lord deems fit to require of me. Other women I know who had abortions carry wounds in their hearts, too. I have never met a woman (or man) who found abortion forgettable. Even in old age they remember and regret. What seems possible, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is a healing of the relationship with God, so that in honest acknowledgement of our sin and pain we are brought closer to Him instead of driven away from Him.
In hindsight – after the dust settled and I saw with clearer eyes – I realized there was something unexpectedly beautiful that came out of that difficult confession. We don’t often let ourselves be so broken down. I’m sure it must be similar for those struggling with any mortal sin. It’s so very frightening to drop the justifications and admit how deeply we have offended God. That, truly, must be the transformative moment: not the fear that Father Smith might cringe inside and think poorly of us, but the horror at having offended our Lord and Savior. That is, I think, the acceptance of God’s judgment. God’s agenda, recognized as superior to our own, means a raw reassessment of all our values and priorities. Especially the ones we’d rather not sacrifice.
When we surrender our defenses, give up our pride and throw ourselves in desperation and shame upon His mercy, I think He must weep with joy. My conversion opened the door to go into a terrible darkness I had avoided for many years. Once graced with the courage to go in, the way out was illuminated, and led to the discovery of such an in-pouring of mercy and forgiveness and love that words hardly do it justice. I am so very grateful for that. It has been a few years since that confession, and I am still moved to awe and wonder when I reflect on it.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.