Monday, January 29, 2007

My Love: An Account of and Reflection on a Rachel's Vineyard Retreat

I've been debating for a while whether I should post this. The recent anniversary of Roe v. Wade and my attendance with the seminary community at the March for Life has kept this in my head and on my heart though. I want to increase awareness of this ministry even if its just through this little 'ol blog. I'm talking about Project Rachel/Rachel's Vineyard, the Church's ministry to women and men suffering from abortion. In the last couple of years, I have discerned that this is a strong "call within a call" that God wants me to be a part of. I feel like he is giving me something he wants me to pour my love into, to be fruitful and creative in the truest sense of the word, to be a spiritual father now.

Below is an account of and a reflection on a recent Rachel's Vineyard retreat I went to in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. These are weekend-long retreats that women and men go to in order to receive healing from their abortion. Granted, it's not a step-by-step account or a run-through of the entire retreat. But, I don't want to ruin the experience for anyone who has had an abortion, may read this, and then go to a retreat. Therefore...

NOTE: If you have had an abortion, leave a comment anonymously and tell me the diocese you are from and I will also post with contact information for your local Project Rachel. You may also not want to read the below so that you don't ruin the surprises that God has in store for you during such a retreat.

That said...

In Ramah is heard the sound of moaning,

of bitter weeping!

Rachel mourns her children,

she refuses to be consoled

because her children are no more.

Thus says the Lord:

Cease your cries of mourning,

wipe the tears from your eyes.

The sorrow you have shown shall have its reward…

There is hope for your future

- Jeremiah 31:15-17

The Rachel’s Vineyard retreat has always been a very powerful experience for me. I have been to two retreats in the Diocese of Raleigh, NC before this latest one, my third, in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, MD. My first retreat developed from a simple, gut reaction when Jeff Bobby told me that he was helping to administer it: “Oh, I’ve been wanting to help out with something like that.” He asked me in reply, “Well why don’t you come?” I was very hesitant because I did not know much about it. After he informed me that my first retreat would have to be as a retreatant (with the other women and even men) in order to familiarize myself with the program I was even more hesitant. I had never had direct experience with abortion before, what could I possibly contribute? But, then I remembered a dear friend in college who had an abortion. This happened before my senior-year conversion (or “reversion”) to a serious practicing of my faith. I think I may have told her that she shouldn’t do it, but I certainly didn’t try to help her as much then as I would today. And since that conversion, and upon reflecting on my life that preceded it, I had a growing sense of guilt ever since college that I could have done more to help her or to convince her not to go through with it. So that experience is what I brought to my first Rachel’s Vineyard retreat. During that retreat, last year, I received much healing as the activities, reflections, rituals, and sacraments of the weekend became instruments of God’s abundant grace, healing, and divine mercy. But I would like to here discuss and reflect on this most recent retreat in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

I try to never give the Devil too much credit, but I think he tries earnestly to keep the participants from it! The journey to my first retreat was met with dark night skies and pouring-down rain. The second was met with pouring rain and a blocked road that Jeff and I had to find our way around. And here the third, I should have known, was met with another roadblock which demanded a lengthy, windy, detour. And it seems that at each retreat I was not the only one that was met with difficulty. But, this external difficulty of mine pales in comparison to the interior “difficulties” each of the women bore.

At this retreat, like my second one, I brought a different particular struggle on which to apply the graces and healing of the retreat. This is what many Project Rachel team members do, many of them having administered several retreats. In the words of the director of Project Rachel for Baltimore, Denise Douglas, “We all abort God’s Will in some way or another” and His Holy Spirit always wants to heal us. But, not only did I receive many spiritual fruits from the retreat but I also gained invaluable experience, knowledge, and grace that will help my coming priesthood, God-Willing. This too is one of my primary motivations for attending these retreats. I want to be able to reach out to women (and men) suffering from abortion. I want to be able to recognize the symptoms of Post Abortion Syndrome, as therapists are now calling it. I want to be able to recognize the patterns of behavior that lead up to and result from abortion and that are often repeatedly confessed. Many women will confess their abortion over and over, never able to accept God’s forgiveness and mercy, never able to overcome their guilt, anger, and grief. Many women sit in our congregations with their abortion weighing heavily on their hearts wondering if their pastor really cares: “Does he know I’ve had an abortion? Can he see it on my face? Does he care? Will he reach out to me? Will he address my situation from the pulpit? How would he react if I told him? What on earth should I do?”

These retreats mostly have women in mind but men certainly suffer from abortion as well and are welcome to attend. When they do they are often boyfriends or husbands who suffer alongside their girlfriend or wife. They react less emotionally but still experience much heartache and disappointment over “not having a son of my own”, not being able to do typical American “dad things” like pitch-and-catch and baseball games, and feelings of ineptitude over not having been able to protect his wife or girlfriend and/or their baby. They are also less likely to be open to a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat than women. But it is still often a very difficult decision for women to make too. Many will hold on to the Project Rachel Hotline number from the Church bulletin or the flyer from the vestibule for months before they finally make the call. When they arrive at the retreat they come from various places, ages, and circumstances (some are even grandparents grieving the loss of aborted grandchildren) but all have somewhat similar experiences or patterns: childhoods of neglect (or what seems to be neglect), abuse, single-parenting, sexual abuse from friends or relatives, and even incest. And their abortions often lead to downward spirals of depression, anxiety, drugs, alcohol, abandonment, promiscuity, and neglected faith lives or disbelief in God. I am not a therapist and I have had very little experience with post-abortive women compared to others in Project Rachel and in other Pro-Life ministries, but this is what I have gathered from over 30 different abortion and life stories I have heard across all three retreats.

A Rachel’s Vineyard retreat is broken up into several components. There are “Living Scriptures” which are readings of certain passages from the Bible that pertain to Christ’s healing power, like the woman at the well, the hemorrhaging woman who touches Christ’s garment, the healing of the blind man, the woman caught in adultery, and the raising of Lazarus. These are followed by a meditation in which one imagines herself as the character in the account receiving Christ’s healing, mercy, and/or forgiveness. Then the passage is acted out in some way. For example, after the Living Scripture of the woman caught in adultery, each retreatant is given a large rock symbolizing whatever dominant struggle they have brought to the retreat. This could be anger, guilt, grief, or even close-mindedness, blaming others, stubbornness, etc. They must carry the rock throughout the weekend to all activities, and even to bed, the bathroom, chapel, etc. When the person is ready to let go of this burden, she gives it to the priest in attendance who asks her “Is there no one here to condemn you?” She replies, “No sir.” “Then neither do I, go and sin no more.” Then the group applauds the courage and newfound relief that this brings.

There is a Dear Children video, a special Project Rachel video that shares the stories of a woman, a man, and two couples. This video explains the effects of abortion, what leads up to it, and Post-Abortion Syndrome and gives an example of how one could tell her story. There is also a moving part of the video in which the woman featured names her children that she aborted and writes a letter to them. This serves as an example for later activities in which the retreatants will do those very things.

The opportunity the women have to name their own babies and write letters to them forms the focus of the retreat: To take the emphasis away from the abortion (but still taking responsibility for it) and put it toward the child who is now in heaven where he knows no pain, sorrow, or resentment and who is forgiving and happy with Christ forever. This is a very powerful exercise for everyone at the retreat. The women and men get a chance to reclaim the parenthood that they’ve always had. At the moment of conception they were mothers and fathers, a reality that their abortion once robbed them of but which cannot take from them for good. Naming the children makes this reality concrete and brings it alive. And writing a letter to the children gives the mother an opportunity to address the child as she has so much longed to do, ever since. It allows her to express her sorrow and regret, to ask for forgiveness, to ask for prayers for herself and any siblings, and to entrust her child to the maternal care of our Blessed Mother and the eternal Fatherhood of God.

Another important component is the Memorial Service which gives the retreatants an opportunity to grieve their children in a way that society has not allowed them to do. Their other deceased friends and family often receive a funeral Mass or service but when a mother has an abortion she feels as if she is not allowed to grieve: there is no funeral, there are no sympathy cards, she often cries alone. After-all, many of her friends and family wouldn’t understand to begin with and Planned Parenthood tells her constantly that her abortion was for her own good. The Memorial Service gives them and their babies the recognition that they deserve.

While the first day of the retreat has all of the character of Good Friday, Sunday brings new life and ends with the Mass of Resurrection which highlights the grace, mercy, healing, and forgiveness of God and the presence of their babies with Him. This brings much happiness and joy to the end of the retreat, thankfulness for healing and grace received, and hope for continued fruits from the retreat. It also calls to mind an earlier reflection in which the retreatants break through a wilderness of loss and confusion and into the light of Christ who introduces each one of them to their children who are alive and happy in heaven with Him. Finally, it allows each person to joyfully celebrate communion with each other, their babies, and the Church, communion that was re-established and strengthened through the Sacrament of Confession and an hour during all-night Adoration.

It was such a privilege to be a part of this retreat, to be there to listen and support the women participating. For some of them it was the very first time they’ve ever told their abortion story… and right there in front of me! I couldn’t believe what some of them have gone through. Some even had very strong faith lives, despite all the hurt they had experienced, because the grief and guilt made them take a long, hard look at their relationship with God, a God who was their last resort but ended up being the Best Choice they ever made. The retreat helped them concretize this and affirm the path on which God’s Grace had led them.

I didn’t anticipate being as deeply involved in the retreat as I was, opening myself as wide as I did, sharing as much as I did. But I think it was how the Holy Spirit wanted me to participate at that time. He wanted me to experience some of what the women were going through so that I could in turn share in some of the graces, the healing, the new life he had in store for them. He wanted me to know this movement thoroughly so that I could then go out and share it with others who are suffering from abortion.

For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

-1 Cor. 1:5

1 comment:

Laura said...

That's beautiful, Matt. It brought tears to my eyes.