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 generalities--the 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.
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 me--until 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.11--a 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.