My mother was a pro-life activist. She showed me if you hurt people, you hurt it
My mom, at her best times, was Veronica.
When she could still write and speak, she was wonderfully articulate, even brilliant. She can’t speak now. But here I am, learning from her how to be Catholic – not so much from what she said but from what she did and what it showed me.
My parents were pro-life activists. As adult converts, they had already spent many years among evangelicals, some more serious than others. They had encountered true holiness and Christian simplicity; and they had also met people like their owner, who preached the gospel and then told my mother that she had to hang up her hand washed diapers to dry them in her little kitchen all winter because the wet clothes on the porch looked too poor. Happy are the elegant, for the value of their property will not depreciate.
Eventually, they made their way into the church, and once their Howard Johnson pool baptism was conditionally repeated, they waded ashore as Catholics around 1978 – in the midst of silly liturgical season. I remember a Snoopy themed catechism, altar balloons and some of the most Caucasian dances known to mankind. My mother, praying in her makeshift chapel on the dark staircase at the back, struggled with the homoousion late Saturday night, then wake up early for Sunday mass, which turned out to be clowns. And sometimes real heresy.
You can’t just hurt people who are already hurt and call it “Christian.” It’s our job to heal, not to hurt.
I was young and barely aware of what my parents were facing as they tried to anchor their spiritual boat in such rough waters. They tried. My mom wrote about some of his efforts in this hilarious short essay: “How I destroyed two parish ministriesWhich you will jump at your own risk. If I remember correctly, she struggled to maintain her own massive hunger for truth in proportion to the equally urgent mandate to treat other human beings with love. Yes, even those who laughed at her and resented her for having given up everything to follow Christ. Yes, even those who said they loved him and then told lies on his behalf. In all of her many spiritual incarnations, my mother has always been a personalist, long before I knew there was a name for it.
She was, as I said, a pro-life activist, who took many different forms. She prayed peacefully outside abortion centers. She wrote letters to the editor. As shy as she was, she took the booth at community health fairs and showed teens specific models of fetal development. I think she tried sidewalk counseling, but decided it wasn’t good for her, so instead she worked with agencies that helped new mothers with clothes, shelter and food. She spoke out against her share of profanity and abuse from abortion activists. And she angered her conservative friends by insisting that we recognize the chastity of Jesus, not just the purity of Mary. She knew what so many of her Catholic brethren seemed to have forgotten: that Jesus was a real man, a virgin, and that the way he behaved in his real human life meant something.
She believed you could touch her face.
Our minivan had a bumper sticker that read, “An abortion: one dead, one injured.” My mom especially liked this post because it wasn’t about society or politics, but it reminded us that every abortion represents a massive failure on a particular woman.
One day on the highway, we passed another car, and my mom thought she saw a short sticker playing: A woman saw the bumper sticker and started crying, and the man behind the wheel tried to comfort her while he was driving.
If you want to serve Christ, you must serve the human person. You have to see the human person. You must not forget how personal it is.
Who knows what really happened. But as soon as she got home, my mom removed the sticker from the car. The last thing she wanted was to hurt someone. That was the gist: it doesn’t matter how right you are. What you do must concern the human person. You can’t just hurt people who are already hurt and call it “Christian.” It’s our job to heal, not to hurt.
My mom was so socially confused at all times. She could talk about ideas, but little chatter left her stuck. As if they realized it, the needy and disabled who were too bizarre and smelly for everyone were drawn to her in droves. I always imagined her in heaven, followed, like Sarah Smith in The great divorce, through an adoring and chatty crowd of all the unhappy and ungodly outcasts, she awkwardly welcomed and comforted, fed, clothed. The social claims that she did not understand at all, but a person in need or a person in pain fully claimed her. It was always about the human person, the real human person. When no one else would touch their faces, she would.
My mom had a drawer where she kept her pro-life materials – her posters, brochures, reams of facts and resources mimeographed in purple. At the bottom of the drawer was a box and in the box there was an envelope. This is where she kept pictures of aborted babies.
My mom, at her best times, was Veronica. She stepped forward to wipe the face of the suffering Christ wherever she found it.
It was a hardship for her to get them out. I remember seeing them for the first time, and I remember the shock and the misery of fully realizing what abortion was. You could see it right there: The little translucent, severed foot. The miniature hand so delicate, spilling its small portion of blood. The devilish stew of tangled body parts in a black garbage bag. I needed to see this. Everyone needs to see this at least once, to eliminate the euphemisms and pretensions that swarm around the topic of “choice”.
And everyone needs to see something like my mom’s heartache and pain when she had to pull out those photos. She treated them with respect and care. She never wanted to use them but sometimes felt she had to do it so that we know what we are talking about when we talk about abortion.
And here’s what I mean when I say she’s Veronica. The creepy blood in his carefully guarded footage showed me that what happened to these children was a crime. But his holy fear surrounding these images showed me that the victims were real children, specific human beings. Not a political statement; not social problems. My mother saw real human faces. She was afraid to touch them, but she knew she had to.
His holy awe taught me the most important thing I know about the pro-life movement – and our faith in general. If you want to serve Christ, you must serve the human person. You have to see the human person. You must not forget how personal it is. If you are pretending and putting it mildly, you are using ropes to tie the hands of Christ. If you roll around hurting people in the name of truth and justice, you are wielding hammer and nails. Either way, you are an accomplice in the crucifixion.
My mom, at her best times, was Veronica. She stepped forward to wipe the face of the suffering Christ wherever she found it. Veronica was a simple gesture: a small comfort action, not overwhelming, but so personal. This is how my mother spent her life, time and time again. And from her clumsy efforts to give another person a moment of relief, what did she take away? The holy face of Christ.
Now she’s speechless, like Veronica. But she still shows me that face.