Fulton Sheen is reputed to have said, “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.” I can’t remember where I read it or why it stuck in my mind, but the words came back to me as I waited in line to make my first confession in more than 20 years.
It had taken several days to gear myself up for Confession, but when I arrived at the National Shrine in Walsingham a coachload of nuns had just disembarked and got to the confessionals ahead of me. I was at the back of a very long queue, and the nuns were taking their time.
“What can nuns possibly have to confess?” I thought testily, before telling myself off for ignorance and impatience. I silently recalled Sheen’s words. After all that nun popcorn, the priest wouldn’t know what had hit him when I walked in with my confession.
I was on holiday in the area. Walsingham was a place my mum used to take me to as a child and we used to have frequent family holidays on the north Norfolk coast. I’d always loved the shrine at Walsingham; its silence and simplicity. So when I found myself alone in the area for a week, it seemed the obvious place to go.
At the time I was being slowly drawn back to the Catholic Church after years of estrangement during my teens and twenties. I’d started praying and saying the rosary again, and skulked at the back of the church during Mass, reminding myself of the liturgy and what to do. The last step before receiving Communion again was Confession. And boy, was it going to be a big one.
It felt as if I had fallen so far. I knew objectively that God’s mercy was assured, waiting for me if only I reached out and asked for forgiveness. But really feeling it – feeling myself truly forgiven – was something I could scarcely believe possible. My sins were just too big. How could He possibly forgive what I was about to confess?
I had killed someone. Worse, in fact. I had killed the most vulnerable someone it was possible to kill: my own baby, at eight weeks gestation. And in the years following that abortion, I’d gone off the rails and totally lost my way. The sin just spiralled until I was in such a dark place there seemed no way back.
The turning point came one day out of the blue, sitting on my own in a coffee shop, gazing out of the window. As I nursed my latte, a crocodile of primary school children filed past. Suddenly, I burst into tears.
The emotion caught me by surprise. Why on earth was I crying? One minute I was feeling fairly strong and together, the next minute I was crying in public, and for no reason I could work out. Then I realised: those children were about the same age that my child would have been if I’d carried on the pregnancy. I was crying for my lost child.
It gave the lie to everything I’d been told about abortion by secular liberal culture: that abortion is good for women, a “right” no less; that it’s merely a medical procedure with no lasting detrimental psychological effects; that the foetus is merely a “bunch of cells”.
At that moment I stopped trying to outrun the lies, and let the truth sink in.
I thought about the reaction I got when I revealed I was pregnant. “You’re not seriously thinking of keeping it?” someone asked me. I had been, until I heard that. I felt that I’d be getting no support. It made me realise that, while abortion is called a “choice”, it’s often a choice women take when they feel they have no choice.
As for the narrative about abortion doing no long-term psychological damage, my own experience had shown me otherwise. It was surely no coincidence that within a year of the abortion I was on the maximum dose of anti-depressant drugs, and engaging in self-sabotaging behaviour.
Real healing only began when I confronted the shame and guilt I felt, and when I acknowledged to myself that what I’d done had been morally wrong, and had, in fact, been an act of killing for which I had to take full responsibility.
Those given the task of assisting and performing abortions use language to disguise the truth of what they do. For them, there is no “baby”, only “products of conception”. But women know. Euphemistic language might make it easier to bury the reality of what’s happening, but deep down women know that what abortionists and activists call a “bunch of cells” is ultimately a baby.
Watching those primary school children file past, innocently holding each others’ hands, I was confronted with an image of who my child might have become had he or she been allowed to live. I realised that the embryo I’d been carrying was incontrovertibly human tissue, and that human tissue and the human form are the outward signs of human dignity, and worthy of deep reverence, gentleness and love.
What damage had I done to the dignity of the human person in allowing an embryo, the human form in miniature, to be ripped apart and thrown away like rubbish? The enormity of the sin struck me with full force.
It was the beginning of a conversion. I had started engaging with questions of faith anyway. But as I became convinced that abortion was a moral wrong I began to think, “If the Catholic Church is right about abortion, what else is it right about?”
Raised with all the assumptions of the secular liberal intelligentsia, I’d taken it for granted that the Church was the last stubborn obstacle in the way of a tide of Enlightenment values. Now I was beginning to understand that the Church’s stance on abortion was actually protective of women, and of human dignity. My world view was being turned on its head.
Shortly afterwards I attended Mass for the first time in years, hovering at the back, observing rather than participating. That night I had a dream in which I was in a chamber with a high ceiling and walls covered in soot and dirt.
Above me, a hatch suddenly opened, and the rush of air sucked all the soot and dirt out of the hatch, revealing a beautiful circular stained-glass window at the apex of the roof. It had been there all along, obscured under all that dirt, and now it was revealed. In my dream, I couldn’t but be transfixed by its beauty.
It seems obvious, really, why the image of taking away layers of dirt to reveal beautifully translucent stained glass beneath should have spoken to me at that particular point in my life. I needed to confess. My soul was in a state similar to that chamber before all the dirt was sucked out.
There were tears during and after my Confession. I emerged into the sharp sunshine of a north Norfolk winter’s day feeling utterly wrung out, but also lighter, and as if bits of my soul had just been pieced back together.
The coachload of nuns milled about. I took myself off to the Slipper Chapel to concentrate on my penance, scarcely believing that I could have got off so lightly with only an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be (“But really think about each and every word”). I’d been expecting a full rosary at the very least.
In the event, I only got as far as “Forgive us our sins as we forgive…” before the tears came again as I stopped to think about the full magnitude of those words. I was forgiven. God had forgiven me, but had I also forgiven myself? What did God’s mercy mean to me if I couldn’t forgive myself, or if I couldn’t quite believe myself worthy of forgiveness? After all, the prodigal son didn’t go back to the father the next day and say: “But father, do you really mean it?” The utter gift of His mercy seemed so large, so uncalled for, given what I’d done.
And yet the gift was bestowed… When Pope Francis announced that as part of the Year of Mercy he would allow priests to forgive the sin of abortion, where priests have not already been given standing permission by their bishops to do so, I was reminded of the extraordinary grace of that long Confession at Walsingham.
It was the start of real healing for me. As the Holy Father said when he made the announcement, “I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonising and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.”
Understanding the truth of abortion is just the beginning. With absolution, the weight of shame and guilt is lifted forever.
Laura Keynes is a freelance writer based in London