Our administrative assistant stopped me as I was returning to our office. “Short Stay called with an unusual request. They have a patient who’s done with surgery but doesn’t want to leave until she speaks with a chaplain.” I checked and learned that Carmen, in her late 30s, just had a D&C in follow-up to a miscarriage a month earlier. I headed right down …
I find Carmen lying on a gurney in a small curtained-off space, still in her surgery gown, with a blanket pulled up to her neck. I take a seat by her side.
“Greetings, Carmen,” I begin. “Thanks for inviting me to be with you today. What would you like me to know about you, so that I can be of help to you?”
“Well, I’m Roman Catholic, and that’s very important to me, though I don’t attend church as often as I should—maybe once a month. What about you?”
“I was raised Catholic, though I’ve been a Quaker in my adult life. Still, we read the same Bible and follow the same Jesus.”
This seems to put her at ease, and she begins. “I’m here because I had a miscarriage a month ago and I never stopped bleeding. It’s just really hard … I’ve been reliving that day again.” She begins tearing up.
“That’s a huge loss, and I can understand how your procedure today would bring it up all over again.”
“What’s even harder for me right now is feelings of guilt I’ve been having over poor decisions I made a long time ago … I think I’m still dealing with those decisions today.”
“That guilt sounds like a big burden to carry. Is there anything more you want to say about it?”
She looks away. “I got pregnant and had a baby when I was very young. I raised him myself, and he’s been the greatest joy of my life, but he’s all grown up. Now I’ve finally found a good man—Victor—and we want to have a child together, but I keep having miscarriages. I think maybe it’s because of the decisions I made when I was younger.”
“So … you think that maybe in some way you are being punished for becoming pregnant when you were a teen …?” Carmen nods vigorously, and tears flow abundantly. I offer my hand, which she takes, and we sit quietly for a bit.
“Tell me, Carmen,” I finally say, “do you think the Jesus you know from the Bible would punish you today for mistakes you made as a teen?” Carmen shakes her head no. “I don’t think so either,” I continue. “In fact, Jesus says many times that he didn’t come to condemn, that what he really wants for us is new life.”
Carmen visibly flushes with relief. Her tears continue to flow, but her breathing becomes more relaxed. We sit in silence again, and soon a look of peace graces her face.
“I’m not a Catholic priest,” I say at last, “so I can’t offer you confession, but let me ask you this: if you feel clear that Jesus would offer you forgiveness, do you think you can offer forgiveness to yourself?”
Carmen draws a deep breath, then nods and offers a shy smile. “Yes, that feels right. It feels so good to get this off my chest.” We sit for another minute, then she says, “Do you think you could say a prayer?”
“That’s my job!” I say. “Dear God … thank you for your presence with Carmen and me today. Thank you for the gift of Jesus, who reminds us of your unconditional love and your desire for us to be healed. Please help Carmen to accept your forgiveness and to forgive herself. You have blessed Carmen with a beautiful son, and you have heard of her longing for a child with her husband, Victor. Help them to know that, whether they are able to have a child or not, you are always with them and will accompany them for the rest of their days. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
I watch as Carmen makes the sign of the cross, then looks up and smiles broadly.
“Thank you so much for listening! I feel like now I can go out and be a better version of myself for my husband.”
My relationship with Christianity is complicated, to say the least, but over time I have found a place of peace. As a chaplain, though, I watch people struggle with the blessings and burdens of their faith—or lack of faith—every day. My hope is that, by listening and offering reflection, I can help them untangle a small piece of the knot, so that they might feel less torment and more comfort going forward. It was a blessing to be invited to do this work with Carmen.
My own upbringing exposed me to some of the best and some of the worst of Catholicism. My mother’s parents were Irish immigrants, and she embodied what I consider the best of Catholicism. Still, in middle school I pushed back hard against doctrines and practices that I abhor to this day. My mother debated me at length about faith, to see for herself what kind of foundation I had formed, then she finally said, “You can leave the church, but I hope you keep searching for a faith to call your own. I have never mistaken the Catholic Church for Jesus Christ, and I hope you don’t either. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” I’m forever grateful for that guidance.
For me, the life and teachings of Jesus are the core of Christian practice. This might seem obvious, but I never cease to be amazed—and troubled—by how often they get overshadowed by the doctrines and practices of Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant alike. I listen to many good people like Carmen who suffer from guilt over past actions, a sense of moral inadequacy, and the expectation of punishment that they think they deserve. I understand where those who instill such beliefs find biblical justification for their doctrines, but in doing so I see them ignoring the “good news” at the heart of the faith. I can’t help but see this as losing sight of the forest for the trees—or the baby for the bath water—and it breaks my heart every time.
These misguided doctrines—and the behaviors of so many leaders of Christian institutions—have been leading people to disassociate from religious faith and institutions for several decades now. I did so, too, as a young adult, but the life and spirit of Jesus, and the wisdom that Christianity shares with so many other faith traditions, keep drawing me back to study and practice. More important for chaplaincy, these teachings provide context for building bridges with many patients I see, whether those like Carmen who are still engaged in institutional religion, or those who have left, or those who have never paid it any attention. The goal is not proselytizing, but rather helping the patient to use the best parts of their own faith or spiritual identity to do the work of healing themselves.
At one point I asked Carmen if she’d ever had any of this conversation with someone from her church; she replied “no,” and left me to imagine why that might not have felt safe. I don’t know why she decided to have it with a chaplain who could not offer her the sacraments of her church, but I’m glad she did. I have no idea if she will ever seek out a Catholic priest for the sacrament of reconciliation, but I hope our conversation strengthened her relationship with God. As a Quaker, I don’t believe we need a mediator in that relationship, but I do think the company of fellow believers is a great asset in one’s faith journey. I hope Carmen can find that in the faith tradition that means so much to her.
In awe of the complexity of motherhood, and with admiration for all who pursue this path …
4 thoughts on “A Mother’s Longing”
Beautiful experience you shared, Greg. I am filled with gratitude that she expressed this at that moment, and not at the end of her life.
I was also moved by your words that Jesus is not the Catholic Church. I also believe there is one God for whom we each individually have a unique understanding of throughout our lives. That understanding, evolves as we evolve physically, emotionally and spiritually.
I agree that “company of fellow believers is a great asset” to possess on our individual spiritual paths.
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Greg, thank you for this post. I want to try to remember those same questions when I am with people who have a hard time forgiving themselves for something they did years ago. I also want to allow myself to forgive myself when I am not being the best me I can be. Thank you. sincerely.Love, Kay Ellison
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Bless you, Greg!
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Growing up in China, I was not raised nor permitted to have the religious beliefs. While I can’t relate to the religious experiences or the scriptures, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” resonates with me as I am living in this one precious life. For me, it is that “baby” who led me to understand our shared humanity and to appreciate the meaning, the relationship of the “I”, the “We” and the “It” in space-time. Thank you for your story telling to promote us for contemplation.
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