I can’t summarize eight weeks of conversation, but perhaps I can give something of their flavor. Often Richard’s answers to my questions surprised me. Midway through our first one-to-one session I asked him what areas of his life had changed since the abortion.
He considered my question.
“Trust,” he said.
“I used to trust people.”
“I’m finding it hard to trust certain people any more.”
“What people do you mean?”
“My girlfriend.” he replied. That made me wonder. Young women often find it difficult to trust boyfriends after abortions, but it had never occurred to me that this mistrust might also work the other way around. Did he mistrust her because when he had proposed an abortion, she agreed? Because the proposal had come from her? Because when he became suicidal over it afterward, she told him it was no big deal? Because she got pregnant in the first place? Because she had yielded when he pressured her for sex? Because she had pressured him for sex?
“You said ‘people.’ She’s only one.”
Long seconds passed before he answered. His face was getting blotchy again. “Myself.”
Richard was trying to name someone else. His mouth shaped the words several times before they came out.
I waited for him to bring his voice under control.
“Will God send me to hell for what I did?” In that quiet room, the word “hell” came like an electric shock. I hadn’t mentioned hell, I wouldn’t have mentioned hell, and I certainly hadn’t expected the question; the idea was all his. We’re told that modern people from non-religious backgrounds don’t believe in things like divine judgment. But when their consciences accuse them, sometimes they do.
I thought rapidly. Typically, a man who has been involved in an abortion takes much longer to recognize his problem than Richard did. It doesn’t usually surface in a dramatic fear of hell, but in something vague, like the feeling that his manhood has been impaired. The counseling guidelines I was using didn’t even take up the topic of forgiveness until week seven. Not that I had any desire to drag things out — but it was happening too soon. Just a few minutes earlier Richard had been telling me that the abortion was the “right thing to do” and that he and his girlfriend “didn’t have any choice.” He wanted forgiveness without repentance.
“Richard,” I said, “I won’t tell you there is no such thing as God’s judgment, but there is also such a thing as His mercy. How Christ opened that door is one of the things we’ll be talking about.”
“God can’t forgive me.”
“There is nobody God can’t forgive, if only you walk through that door.”
“Not for what I did. God would never forgive that.” Not only had Richard not repented, he didn’t believe in divine mercy. Now I understood why God was on his “can’t trust” list.
But this eventuality had been anticipated and provided for. My respect for the far more experienced folk who had worked out the counseling sequence soared upward, for the scheduled theme for the next week’s session was “The Character of God.”
* * *
Now take a flying leap. Five weeks later, we were talking about anger. At the end of our previous session I had suggested a number of Scriptural passages on the subject. Since then, Richard had looked them up and written them out. We were going through them one by one.
For the first half hour you would have thought we were in a theology seminar, as we talked over God’s anger, Jesus’ anger, the anger of ordinary people and how to deal with anger. He was interested — but I could tell that he was wondering what any of this had to do with abortion.
It was when we took up the subjects of bitterness and the desire to get even that everything changed.
“Are you still angry with anyone because of the abortion, Richard?”
“Still angry? I never said that I was angry.”
“I’ll rephrase, then. Are you angry with anyone because of the abortion?”
“Why should I be angry with anyone because of the abortion?”
I shrugged. “People often are. For various reasons.”
“All kinds. A man might be angry with friends who encouraged the abortion. Or with himself, for getting the woman pregnant. Or for not protecting her. Or for not protecting the baby. Or with God, for —”
“I get it. So am I supposed to be angry?”
“There’s no ‘supposed to be.’ I’m asking.”
“But you think I am.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I’m not.”
I was silent.
“Why aren’t you saying anything?” he said.
“Should I be saying something?”
“Yes. Say something.”
“Do you think you have any anger about the abortion that you’ve tried to cover up or keep in the dark?”
“Why do you ask that?” he demanded.
“I would have asked in any case, because sometimes people do cover up their anger. We were talking about that just a little while ago. But another reason is that you seem angry now.”
“All right, I am!” He pushed back from the table, stood up, and paced about the room. His forehead and cheekbones were flaming red.
He hurled himself back into his seat and pushed his hands against his temples. “I don’t know. Yes I do. With everyone. No. Society. No.”
“I mean my parents’ generation. The one that raised us.”
“Because of how they raised you?”
“No. My parents were great.”
“Because they made it legal!”
“You’re angry because the law didn’t stop you?”
He shook his head. “That’s not it. It’s that when they changed the law so people could have abortions, they lied to us.”
“They lied in order to justify changing it?”
“No. Changing it was the lie. Doing that was like saying that abortion wasn’t wrong. Or at least not very wrong. And that’s a lie. So they lied to us. All our lives.”
I nodded. By the year of Richard’s birth, abortions had been legal in the country for seven years. By then, I knew, there were more than 4,200 every day.
Richard was pressing his temples so hard that he seemed to be squeezing the tears from his eyes. I listened as he talked himself out.
When he had run out of words I alluded to Hebrews 12:15, which we had discussed earlier. “What are you going to do about this ‘bitter root’ in you?”
“I suppose I have to —”
He paused for so long that I thought he was finished.
“— pull it up.”
“Are you saying that because you think it’s what I want you to say?” This had been an issue in our conversations. Richard had a strong desire to “do the right thing” and an equally strong desire to be recognized as doing it by others. It wasn’t always clear which was foremost.
He was silent for a minute. “I don’t think so. I’m afraid of it poisoning me.” He looked up. “That’s what happens, isn’t it? Anyway that’s what the Bible said. It made sense.” He swallowed. “So I have to pull it up.”
“The Bible also talked about how to do that.”
He was looking at the floor. “Forgive all the people I’m angry with.”
“Are you willing?”
He didn’t answer my question directly. Maybe he didn’t know the answer. What he said was, “I don’t know how.”
“That’s what we’re talking about next week.”
I nodded. “And being forgiven by God.”
* * *
I don’t have words for weeks seven and eight, and I’m not sure it would be right to write them if I did. But I think I can tell you what happened some time later.
The telephone rang. It was Richard. He was doing fine. I was glad to hear from him. That sort of thing.
Then he came to the reason for his call. “Maybe you remember that my family background is — I guess you’d say ‘lapsed Christian.'”
“Now that I’ve — unlapsed —” He cleared his throat and started over. “There’s something we do in my denomination called the Reconciliation of a Penitent. Kind of like where the Bible says to confess your sins to one another.”
“I’m familiar with that ceremony.”
“It would be just me and the minister. You wouldn’t be in there with us. But I wonder if you — I was hoping you would be willing to be — what I’m trying to say is that I’m going to do this tomorrow, and I’d like you to be around when it’s happening.”
So it was that the next day, at three o’clock in the afternoon, I met Richard in a waiting room at a local church. After introducing me to his father, he disappeared into the minister’s study.
Mr. Tshuv and I sat down. The resemblance between him and his son was unmistakable. He was tall, very fair and vertical in bearing. We made a bit of small talk — I complimented his son and told him how highly Richard had spoken of him — then lapsed into silence.
There was nothing to do but wait. An onlooker would have said nothing was happening. Yet I had an overwhelming sense that afternoon of things happening invisibly, unseen.
A single sunbeam poured through the window. Mr. Tshuv picked up a magazine. I watched the dust motes gliding slowly through the air, glittering golden in the beam.
He cleared his throat.
“I wanted to thank you for coming today.”
“I’m honored to be present.”
Maybe he thought I was just being polite. “No,” he said, “I mean that.”
The quiet gathered itself.
“And for talking to my son.”
The door to the study opened. Richard and the minister passed through the waiting room and went outside. I knew they were going to the sanctuary. The dust motes swirled for a moment as they passed, then resumed their stately glide.
“His mother and I had high standards for him.”
“He told me you did.”
“I don’t know how he knew.” He cleared his throat again. “We never told him what they were.”
My eyes fell on a plaque alongside the door.
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
The church secretary came in, smiled, opened the window, and went out.
Mr. Tshuv said, “I guess we just thought that he’d know.”
Several minutes passed.
“You must have talked with him.”
“Not about what mattered.”
The sunbeam widened and collected in a pool. Outside were crocuses. I felt the breeze. My mind turned back to Deuteronomy.
This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.
A bird sang somewhere.
“Did you worship together?”
A third time he cleared his throat. “We’ve started again.”
The outside door opened. “I’m ready, Dad.”
We made our farewells outside. As the sunlight shone down on us, I reflected on the change in Richard’s bearing over the weeks, remembering how much shorter he had seemed at our first meeting, with his brother, two months ago. The blotches in his face were gone. He looked straightened, repainted, remolded.
Glancing away, I saw his reflection, in the look on his father’s face.
Meeting my eyes, Richard shook my hand. We didn’t speak. He took his father’s arm, and I watched them walk away together.
Copyright 2001 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.