Once, across a crowded meeting room, I recognized a face. Our eyes locked. Weeks earlier, this person and I had attended the same retreat. We both knew we needed to steal away and talk, as soon as possible.
When the opportunity came, each of us took it immediately. We found a quiet place. We talked as though we’d known each other for years. “I had to speak to you,” said my new old friend. “I feel as though we met in Narnia, and back here in the regular world I have to touch you to know it was real.” I understood instantly.
“Was it real?” my friend needed to know. What was it this person had glimpsed that needed to be touched again, here in the ordinary world where it’s hard, sometimes, to remember, to hold, not to doubt?
Such, perhaps, was the anguish of the apostles when the Lord — breathtakingly returned to them beyond death, alive and eating fish, giving them a mission — was taken away again, ascending to the Father, never to return in the same way. What happens now? How could they possibly tear their gaze away from the cloud that hid him? How could they bear to look upon a world he’d blazed into life, now seemingly emptied of his face, his word, his presence?
The retreat my friend and I shared was a Project Rachel retreat. For several years I’ve co-facilitated such retreats, a ministry for those who’ve suffered through having an abortion. Whatever may be said about the politics of abortion, this healing work is graced and powerful. It’s hidden and small, funded only by nickels and dimes and personal sacrifice; and it’s huge. In the work of Project Rachel, Catholic laypeople, nuns, and priests embrace the truth of John Paul II’s prophetic words (Evangelium vitae 99), addressed to women who’ve had abortions: “You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost . . . you will become promoters of a new way of looking at life.” I don’t know how he knew this, but I can vouch for its truth. I’ve seen the courage and faith that leads these women through death to life. And I’ve learned that the price of being changed is to return to the world and help change it.
It’s the commitment to life itself — says John Paul — that gives power, making these women into agents of new life.
Our Project Rachel retreats are a hidden, glistening experience. They’re profoundly beautiful, a beauty wrested out of anguish, with sweat like drops of blood. Most of all, they break the lie we dwell in, which binds us and locks us away in separate little chambers.
That lie doesn’t like being broken, and keeps testing us. My friend had to touch again, to know whether it was real. This is understandable.
I recall Sandra, for example (no real names are used here), preparing to return home from a Project Rachel retreat, where she’d encountered the truth that there is infinite forgiveness, that her abortion matters, her child belongs to Christ, that love is stronger than death. She was not alone in this truth, for it was received and held by the community. She went home changed, entrusted with a difficult, urgent mission. I recall Eleanor, who had the burden of her abortions — carried all alone — lifted after 50 long, painful years. Don’t doubts come afterward, back home? Don’t we need another person who was there with us, touched the truth, and carries it also as a flame?
It’s in the community, the church, that this new life is held. One of the many kinds of pain that can come with abortion is isolation. Project Rachel extends the community, little by little. It’s a place of witness, that only the church can really bear for the world.
How do we know what’s real? By what we live. For the disciples after the Ascension, it was by turning away from the clouds, and living Christ here on earth. At Pentecost, it was by pouring out of their upper room into the crowded streets, letting the Spirit flow out of them so rambunctiously that people thought they must be drunk. Ascension calls for Pentecost. It’s the church, born at Pentecost, that carries this new life out into the world.
The saddest thing is to be a comfortable Christian. Equally sad is to be a “correct” Christian with all the answers, but blind and deaf to the power of life. Joy came in my discovering, across a room, the face of one who had touched the truth, been changed by it, and risked everything to let it into the world.
These Pentecost days are “ordinary time,” counted time, time that counts. Time to commit to the new life, here in the old places. Time to share, on the streets where we live, doubting sometimes but strengthened by the community, the forgiveness and joy that have touched us and raised us up.
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at email@example.com