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The Paschal Mystery of Rachel's Vineyard: Lent is the perfect Time for a Deeper Healing of Abortion Loss

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"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower... Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me." - John 15:1-5

Photo credit: Dan Meyers

Photo credit: Dan Meyers

Highlights

By Theresa and Kevin Burke
2/23/2024 (1 month ago)

Published in Marriage & Family

Keywords: Rachel's Vineyard, abortion, pro-life, family, support, recovery

During the season of Lent, we journey with Jesus from his temptation in the desert, the final days of his public ministry, and the dramatic events leading to the great Paschal Mystery of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Beginning in 1986 Theresa Burke developed the Rachel's Vineyard for healing after abortion. The theological framework for the weekend retreat is centered upon this same paschal mystery of Jesus - as revealed in the paschal mystery of one's life, touched by abortion.

The weekend program is an integrated emotional and spiritual process to bring a deeper peace and healing for mothers, fathers, grandparents and others wounded by the loss of a child from abortion. Rachel's Vineyard is offered by sites across the U.S and around the world.

While nothing can compare with the lived experience of the program, let's take a journey through the Rachel's Vineyard Weekend. It is our hope and prayer that this may inspire you to consider attending a healing retreat, or to recommend this for a friend or loved one hurting after abortion. The Lenten and Easter season is the perfect time for women and men wounded by abortion to enter a process of deeper reconciliation and healing.

Blind Bartimaeus

The retreat begins Friday afternoon or evening with a Living Scripture meditation about blind Bartimaeus: The scripture is read followed by a meditation where all are invited to imagine themselves as the blind man. Following the meditation, facilitators go to each person, calling them by name as they say:

"Take Courage he is calling you."

The participant responds: "Jesus, son of David, have pity on me."

The priest or Deacon places his hand on their head and asks the question: "What do you want me to do for you?"

All are invited to make their response to the Lord. The honesty and desperation expressed in this first exercise sets the tone for the work that follows. Jesus does not impose himself on us -- he waits to be invited. He respects our boundaries and allows us to decide what it is we search for.

After everyone has spoken, each person receives a candle to represent the light of Christ. We pray that this candle would illuminate our way into deep memories and emotions that we have forgotten or tried to hide. We ask for courage, strength and the truth.

Each Living Scripture exercise is followed with discussion questions and sharing. Each reflection ends with a closing prayer and a ritual to further help participants comprehend and feel the words of God being planted in their hearts.

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Is There Anyone Here to Condemn You?

The next Living Scripture meditation is the woman caught in adultery. This exercise gives the women and men an opportunity to observe the mercy and compassion of Christ who sent away the accusers. They also reflect on the condemnation and judgments they have experienced from others and themselves.

We repeat the dialogue as we pass a large rock around the room from person to person asking the same question Jesus asked the woman caught in adultery:

"Is there anyone here to condemn you?" "Go and sin no more."

Many people know God forgives, but they just cannot forgive themselves. This seems to be one of the most common struggles. The bitterness and guilt is the only way they have known to remember their lost child.

In the exercise that follows this meditation, participants are invited to pick up a rock and carry it with them throughout the weekend, to represent the burden of not being able to forgive themselves or others.

As the weekend progresses, they have a very tangible reminder of the ways that unforgiveness is interfering with their lives and actions. They feel compassion for others who struggle to carry the rock and begin to perceive self-loathing, self-condemnation and anger in a different way.

The processing of these emotions through Living Scripture and the retreat rituals begins to release painful emotions, create new insights, and make room for a healthy expression of grief and later in the retreat, a more loving and healthy way to embrace and honor their unborn child that will not demand a living memorial of self-destruction or self-hatred.

The Cup of Bitterness

Before the closing on Friday evening, we pass The Cup of Bitterness. Each person names the feelings of guilt, shame, grief and self-hatred as they pour non-alcoholic wine into the cup.

This passing of the cup is filled with all the distressing and bitter feelings carried by each person present. We pass the cup around again, this time drinking from the Cup of Bitterness, signifying our willingness to share in each other's secret suffering.

The exercise symbolizes the cup of bitterness shared before the great Exodus, when Moses led God's people out from captivity. The first night of the retreat marks the end of slavery caused by sin and the entry into the freedom Jesus offers through forgiveness and redemption.

Sharing our Stories

On Saturday morning of the Rachel's Vineyard Retreat, participants share the story of their abortion experience as part of their overall life journey. Telling one's story is an opportunity to open all wounds before the light of Christ.

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The Tomb of Lazarus

When the stories are finished the group re-enacts the story of Lazarus. Participants are anointed and symbolically bound for burial -- naming the parts of themselves which have died because of sin. This ritual makes the visible the wounds which have been invisible.

Participants ask to have their eyes wrapped if they have lost sight of God or their own goodness. They might request that their heart be wrapped with a gauze bandage, to symbolize a broken and fractured heart. They might request their feet be wrapped if they have felt stuck in life, incapable of moving forward. A couple may request that their wedding ring hand be wrapped to demonstrate the symbolic death of their marriage that followed abortion.

Once everyone has named the parts of themselves that have died, two facilitators take the place of Martha and Mary who begin to grieve:

"Lord, if you had been here, our brothers and sisters would not have died! If they had not lost sight of you, their children would not have died!"

In this exercise they express their dismay as the Lord joins them in grief. This Living Scripture exercise gives everyone an opportunity to recognize that God weeps with them. He is the God of Life and he came that we might have life -- yet as he looks upon all the signs of death before him now wrapped in burial cloths, he weeps.

This exercise reveals the consolation of the Lord as words of life are spoken by the priest or Deacon, who stands in the place of Christ, revealing the broken heart of God who shares in their suffering. They discover that this is a God that looks upon his children with love and compassion and longs to restore and redeem them.

As Jesus weeps outside the tomb of Lazarus he gives validity to the great need for grief work before resurrection. He invites each participant to proclaim their faith -- just as Jesus did to Martha and Mary outside the tomb

-- The priest/deacon or minister says:

"I am the resurrection and the Life -- He who believes in me will never die -- Do you believe this?"

Participants are invited to express their belief. Following this, the priest calls them by name and says:

"Come out - In the name of Jesus Son of the Living God, I unbind you and set you free."

Facilitators then help to unravel the burial cloths and bindings.

The Living Water of Christ

In the exercise, they are invited to come up to a large crystal bowl, the "well of Jacob," husband of Rachel. It is here where Jesus told the Samaritan woman all about her life; that she had lived with many husbands and suffered an abusive history with shame and humiliation. There Jesus promises us Living Water, the opportunity for grace and pointing to the future reality of eternal life. "If you drink of this water, you shall never be thirsty again." Participants then come to the well and pour water into a glass bowl as they say...

"Lord Jesus, I accept your living water."

All the exercises touch upon fears about new life, obstacles to intimacy with God, and working through deeply repressed memories and feelings of grief.

The Meaning of My Child's Life

Following this exercise, the journey shifts as the participants are invited to develop a spiritual relationship with their aborted children. The activities that follow help them begin to focus on their child's life. This is an important stage of grief work, because all previous reflection has been focused on the child's death.

As they search for that meaning, they see that the loss of that child has caused tremendous heartache -- sometimes a lifetime of sorrow -- and as they begin to reconnect spiritually, they discover that their journey has brought them before God. This connection would never have been made in such a real and profound way if it were not for that child's life.

You will notice that two days of work have been done prior to entering this time of reflection on the child's life. The retreat process gently leads them to the truth with plenty of preparation so that when the moment comes, they are ready and eager to embrace their son or daughter.

Naming the Children

This is the appropriate place in the retreat when participants will name their children. Then they come back up to the water representing the Well of Jacob, which now becomes a symbol of the baptismal font.

We read a passage from Lamentations:

"Rise up, shrill in the night, at the beginning of every watch -- pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your little ones."

Following this, the mothers and fathers name their children and say:

"Lord Jesus, I pour out my heart to you and I give you my child"

They light a floating candle and name each child aborted, placing the light into the Living Water of Christ that they accepted in the preceding ritual.

Once all the candles honoring lost children have been lit and placed into the bowl, the priest will bless the water as everyone renews their baptismal vows and entrust the children to the mercy of God. This is a beautiful ritual for grieving. The little lights floating on the water represent the souls of the children now with God./p>

In the next Living Scripture, there is a meditation where participants actually meet their aborted children who they now trust are with the Lord. This is an amazing meditation during which parents and grandparents have a visceral experience of their child. We can't accurately describe the revelation and miracles that occur during this encounter, but it is a tremendous outpouring of grace.

Bereavement Dolls

Following this meditation, they take a bereavement doll for each child lost. During this therapeutic activity they are able to release the love and tenderness which has been frozen in traumatic memory. This activity helps to reveal the truth which has been buried in their hearts and rejected from the mind when they surrendered to abortion. The lie was that they did not love or want their child.

Once the child has become real, they can be mourned in a very deep and authentic way. Being able to physically, emotionally and spiritual express their love and tenderness toward the child is in itself a healing experience./p>

The exercises and meditations continue to proclaim the reality of the child's life in Christ and to help the parents develop a spiritual relationship with their aborted children, embracing them with truth and love.

They write letters to their children that will be read at a Memorial Service at the end of the retreat.The letters express love and loss -- uniquely written in a way that describes how they envision that child, what they wish they would have been able to enjoy together, and express deep sorrow mixed with love. They ask their child for forgiveness, explaining their weaknesses and failings, while begging God and the child through intercession to grant them strength and courage in the days to come so they can be reunited in heaven.

On Saturday night there will also be an opportunity for the sacrament of reconciliation for Catholic participants and pastoral guidance and support for Protestant participants. (Rachel's Vineyard is offered in both a Catholic and Interdenominational model.)

Memorial Service and Mass

On Sunday there are some closing exercises and Living Scriptures. There is an opportunity to exchange affirmations and encouragement to the members of the group.

The retreat team shares suggestions for aftercare, books and resources for ongoing healing, a list of counselors, addiction programs, marriage resources and spiritual directors is provided. Retreatants make commitments to continue growing in faith and wholeness and information about follow-up reunions are distributed.

The retreat culminates with a Memorial Service and a Mass of Entrustment. Family members can be invited to these services and are prepared with some guidelines on confidentiality and what to expect.

During the memorial the participants read the letters they have written. Next they place their bereavement dolls in a cradle at the altar, light candles, and recite prayers. At the close they receive a rose and a Certificate of Life that recognizes the child and the parent's deep love for that unique and precious life.

Have a blessed Lent and Easter season!

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