Notes from Across The Atlantic
Peter Mitchell FAITH Magazine November – December 2011
Healing the Pain of Abortion
In a nation where about one out of every three women has had an abortion, one bright light in pastoral outreach to women wounded by the culture of death is the Rachel's Vineyard retreat. Founded in 1996 by Theresa Burke, Ph.D., it is now offered in numerous dioceses throughout the United States. The retreat invites women who have been wounded by abortion to enter into three intense days of prayer in a group setting, led by professional counsellors, clergy and, usually, other women who have had an abortion. The safe and affirming environment of the retreat enables healing to occur in a beautiful and life-giving way for the retreatants, many of whom have never felt that they had permission to mourn the loss of their child. Often such women have struggled for many years to move beyond thetraumatic experience of their abortion.
The Rachel's Vineyard retreat employs creative "living scripture exercises" which help bring about a transforming encounter with the Word of God through the imagination and the senses. On the first night the story of the woman caught in adultery from the Gospel of St. John is read, followed by a guided meditation in which the retreatants are invited to enter into the woman's experience of shame and despair. The words of Christ are repeated to each participant: "Is there anyone here to condemn you?" Each retreatant responds with the words of the woman, "No one." Then the answer is given to them, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." Their spiritual burden is physically symbolised by a heavy rock which is passed around and taken from each participant as the merciful words ofChrist are spoken to them. The very tangible experience of the weight of the rock leaving their hands expresses the possibility that the weight of guilt and shame that they carry is able to leave their souls through
encounter with Christ. Similar exercises are conducted using the stories of the healing of Bartimaeus (Mark 10), the raising of Lazarus (John 11) and Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well (John 4). These meditations with the Word lead to an invitation to each retreatant to share the painful story of her abortion(s) in the context of her life. Each story is listened to by the retreat community without comment, allowing each woman to tell her story for what is often the first time. The powerful experience of group sharing enables an atmosphere of trust and healing to pervade the retreat. Following further prayer and meditation, the retreatants are given the opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Penance, and then to spend time with the healing love of Jesus in Eucharisticadoration.
Rachel's Vineyard moves systematically through a process allowing the retreatants to express grief at the loss of their children, something that the anti-life culture rarely, if ever, encourages them to do. One of the most important steps in this grieving process is the giving of a name to each child lost through abortion. This important action enables the retreatants to restore their relationship with their children through an understanding of Divine Mercy. Drawing on the beautiful words of Blessed John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae paragraph 99, the mothers are encouraged to have hope that their children are with Jesus and to trust that he is taking care of them. A guided meditation helps them to imagine Jesus introducing them to their children, and to realise how much God lovestheir children and how powerfully his love overcomes the past. The meditation emphasises to the retreatants how much their children love them and how much they are looking forward to being reunited with them in eternity. Each retreatant is then invited to take a bereavement doll for each child they have lost. Participants naturally hug
and kiss the babies, rock them, cry with them, and hold them lovingly. The therapeutic interaction with the bereavement dolls enables the retreatants to release the love and tenderness for their children which has often been frozen or blocked by traumatic memories of the abortion.
At the conclusion of the Rachel's Vineyard retreat, a memorial service is held at which retreatants are invited to read letters which they have written to their children, expressing love and sorrow and asking for forgiveness. In union with the entire retreat community, they ask their child to pray for and with them, begging God for strength and courage to continue on the path of faith and hope. The memorial service is then followed by the celebration of a "Mass of Entrustment," in which each retreatant is invited to reconsecrate herself body and soul to Christ and to entrust herself and her beloved children to the Infinite Mercy of Jesus.
Women who have the courage to make the Rachel's Vineyard retreat invariably find that they rediscover hope and a new freedom from the burden they have silently carried, sometimes for many, many years. Its mission was affirmed in its infancy by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who wrote a letter to Dr. Burke encouraging her work: "Jesus Himself said that He came to call sinners and not the self-righteous. I pray that all who participate in Rachel's Vineyard with the longing to be free and healed by Jesus, may find Him, the source of true joy, peace, and love, and allow God to restore them to wholeness and happiness. I am praying much for you." With that kind of endorsement and heavenly assistance, the mission of Rachel's Vineyard is sure to be abundantly blessed as it continues toprovide hope and healing to those most wounded by the culture of death.
For more information see www.rachelsvineyard.org.