It is one of those weekends in Walsingham when showers and gusting winds set in with a ferocity which must eventually spend itself. The tempest seems to wash the sky and earth, leaving them sharp and cleansed. I am here to pray and reflect with the leadership of two apostolates dear to my heart: Grief to Grace and Rachel’s Vineyard.
Often people tell me that they have heard of Rachel’s Vineyard, but as I start talking about it enthusiastically I realise that they are actually thinking of Martha’s Vineyard, the island playground of wealthy Americans off the coast of Massachusetts. Rachel’s Vineyard is, in fact, a programme of healing for women (and men) whose lives have been damaged by abortion, and which is now operating all over the world – even underground in China.
I still remember how, as a hospital chaplain, I would struggle with requests to visit patients who had had (or who were in the process of undergoing) abortions, who wanted me to “baptise” or bless their child’s remains. I would patiently explain to the nurse summoning me that I couldn’t do this as it would serve to condone a choice I believed to be wrong. That is why I would never be called until the procedure was either over or in process. I was being called to “baptise” the choice, to give it a seal of approval – I was not allowed to question it. I would also explain that we do not baptise dead people and that I would pray for the child and the child’s parents.
Rachel’s Vineyard does not condone abortion, but reaches out to women who are struggling post-abortion and by doing so holds up a mirror to their choice. In a weekend retreat programme it provides a place of safety and a skilled process for women to grieve that choice; letting them hear that God does not reject or damn the repentant sinner. It encourages them to connect with the child they aborted, to name and entrust him or her to God. Enabling the grief that is the natural reaction of a mother who has lost a child serves to bring home the morality of abortion far more powerfully than any preaching. It is a side effect of the love and compassion shown them for what they have lost, and as a result of daring to look at what could have been and what will be in heaven. It is like heaping coals of love upon their heads when they expect and feel they deserve fire.
Like the pain of abortion, the pain of physical, emotional or sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence can be so overwhelming that the person may never have fully confronted it. Reflexive defence mechanisms which protected them from the initial overwhelming fear and outrage may have defined their thinking and acting for years. The pain may have been medicated with addictions or compulsive behaviour around drugs, alcohol or eating. The body and the unconscious may have sought to tell a story for which the mind had no words by engaging in risk-taking behaviour, promiscuity or other forms of self-harm. Grief to Grace is a programme for bringing healing to the survivors of abuse. Like Rachel’s Vineyard, it integrates a sound understanding of the psychology of trauma with a Catholic anthropology. Both use meditations and activities derived from Scriptural themes to allow participants to confront the feelings they thought overwhelming, grieve them in a supportive environment and see what lies beyond them. The programme allows them to “feel, deal and heal” – a phrase which betrays the American provenance of these amazing programmes.
Grief to Grace is the life’s work of Dr Theresa Burke, a psychologist and woman of faith from Pennsylvania. It is her skill in designing a process which facilitates the exploration of excruciating memories by calming and soothing the autonomic nervous system’s fight-or-flight arousal as it does so, and so allows good psychology to clear the way for the action of Christ, the Divine Physician whose presence in Scripture and the Sacraments is the foundation of these programmes.
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