There are those rare, fleeting moments in family life where all is strangely calm and even peaceful. Amidst the chaos of continual spats, boundless horseplay, jockeying for position, and a whole lot of random noise, quiet contentment is like a refreshing, cool rain after a stretch of oppressively, sticky-hot weather.
I can probably count those occasions on both hands. Don’t mistake me. It is not the stillness that occurs after a trip to the library when we are all happily, individually ensconced in our reading, or the brief, eerie quiet before an epic fight erupts. It’s those extraordinary times when we are resting in each other as a family. Picture a tranquil moment between a nursing mother and her baby. I remember the hours right after my dad died, when my brothers and I, a disparate group, to say the least, sat in a Denny’s, saying very little, yet joined together so profoundly. I’m speaking of a muted, but powerful connectedness—a surrender to love and understanding. Peacefully unified as we engage with one another. No one left out. It’s what I imagine to be a mere taste of the eventual glorious coming together with the Triune God in heaven.
My family of five unexpectedly experienced one of those moments outside an abortion clinic one Saturday evening recently. I had signed us all up for our parish’s prayer vigil outside a Planned Parenthood as part of the 40 Days For Life campaign. When I mentioned to the kids that this was on our calendar, I was met with some reluctance and cynicism which immediately bothered me. It annoyed me because that was exactly how I felt when I signed our family’s name to the list. There was no enthusiasm or vigor. If I’m totally honest, it was with a whole bunch of uncertainty and reserve that I committed to that hour. When my family responded in kind, it was personally convicting. I saw my own hidden sentiments in their visible reactions. I didn’t share with them my worries. Instead, I played it off as if they were not as morally courageous as I.
Eons ago, in my college days, I had been extremely active in the pro-life movement, attending rallies like the March for Life in D.C., bringing pro-life speakers to campus, volunteering for pro-life political candidates. I was one of the leaders of my University’s Alliance for Life. We organized meetings, fireside chats, and painted the university rock on parents’ weekend with the slogan, “Thanks mom & dad for being pro-life.” But I had never prayed outside an abortion clinic. Once while attending a rally in downtown Chicago, a big, bearded fellow repeatedly shouted an inch from my face, “keep your rosaries off my ovaries!” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t pray the rosary (this was before my Catholic “reversion”) and that he didn’t actually have ovaries. As an introvert, this interaction made me recoil. And more than 25 years later, it remained in my mind’s eye when I committed to praying outside the Planned Parenthood. I considered going by myself, but I wanted the safety net of my family with me.
If I tipped off my kids and husband to my own anxiety about praying on the sidewalk in front of the second largest abortion clinic in the country, they’d never agree to it. So, I kept my concerns to myself. Normally our Saturdays fly by in a haze of countless activities. This particular Saturday, however, seemed interminable. I watched the small hand of the clock inch towards the time when we would pack into the minivan and head to the clinic… into the unknown.
The drive there wasn’t much better. If my memory serves, we were all a little snippy with one another. My patience had already run its course trying to corral everyone into the car on time. I turned up the radio and we were all left to our own thoughts.
We made the final turn and heard the google maps lady say “your destination is on the right.” Gratefully, a quick scan proved there were no crowds, angry protesters, or disturbing signs to be found. I zeroed in on a couple of women in front of a building surrounded by tall black fencing. I didn’t recognize them from our parish. “Were they customers or fellow prayer warriors?” I wondered. As our car slowly passed them, I noticed their rosaries. I let out the breath I had unknowingly been holding.
“This is it,” my husband stated matter-of-factly as he slowed the car to a stop. I made a beeline to the two women. My angst may have been off the charts, but I would not be counted late.
After a brief introduction, I tentatively asked them how it had gone for them. No activity. They cautioned us against standing on the gravel landscaping around the fence because it was not allowed. So I, in turn, reminded the kids to remain on the sidewalk. To emphasize the point, I nodded towards the security camera mounted on a pole above us, “we’re being watched right now. Just so you know… and maybe being listened to.” I gave them serious “mom eyes.” (It’s the same look I use when I’m on an important phone call and I don’t want to have to yell at them to quit screaming because that would make me sound like a crazy lady, so I just give them “the eyes.”) It worked.
The nice ladies offered to stay and pray one rosary with our family. I was a little nervous leading and could hear my rapid breathing as I sailed through the Hail Marys. My husband and our oldest led one decade each, but our other kids were too shy.
We said our goodbyes to our new acquaintances. Now it was officially our watch. As we stood, huddled in a circle on an otherwise empty street, we began to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet. When we got to the Our Father, my son pointed to the words on the sign hanging from the iron bars of the fence, announcing “No Trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted,” just as we finished the words “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The two of us shared a knowing look as we continued in prayer.
“For the sake of His sorrowful passion. Have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
There’s something so comforting in saying those words over and over. We have all fallen short and turned our backs on God.
“Not much separates those people in there and us out here.” I thought. We took a breather and looked around. We wondered if anyone was looking down at us from the darkened windows.
“How about we say another rosary? This time just our family? Let’s witness to whoever is watching. Maybe we’ll plant some seeds. Who knows if the security guard watching has a change of heart because of our praying…” Surprisingly, they all agreed to it.
This time we started with intentions. Extemporaneous prayer is not my strong suit. But at that moment, I felt the Holy Spirit providing the words as I lifted up the people who worked in the clinic and their families.
That they might experience peace and healing and conversions of heart. For the women who feel cornered and without choices, that God’s love might surround them and show them another way.
Each family member went around naming their prayers, one more beautiful and touching than the next. We prayed our rosary and it was… amazing. It was that rare moment I mentioned above. Familial calm as we rested in God and one another. No goofing around, no whining, no one required any coaxing. We said it together as a family. We were inextricably linked.
“How about a Mother Teresa mini-novena?” I had read that she and her sisters when facing an urgent need, often prayed nine Memorares and with great confidence that God would provide, they prayed a tenth as a thank you to the Blessed Mother for her intercession. We were about eight in when a couple who I recognized from church pulled up and walked towards us. We finished the last two prayers and said hello to our relief crew. They informed us that the clinic had been closed since three. That explained the lack of activity. After a little chit chat, we left them to pray.
Our hour completed. Our hearts full. My 10-year old summed it up as we settled back in the car. “That was… really nice.” Standing outside the abortion clinic and praying as a family surprised us. We found unplanned peace.