Lessons from St Augustine

St Augustine of Hippo, arguably one of the greatest doctors of the Church, is one of my favourite saints, not only for his blinding theology, but also because of his brutal honesty when describing his previously rackety and louche lifestyle before being converted to Christianity by the grace of God.

Confessions, his apologia which is a spiritual classic, does not hold back when it comes to describing some of his past sins. He writes about taking pleasure in stealing, how he revelled in a self-indulgent lifestyle, enjoying chariot-racing, gambling, the pleasures of the theatre, played rude and unkind tricks on people and his sex-life was legendary. Augustine recounts how he spent thirty years of his life lost from God and Confessions reflects upon this time and how he believed that God had used this period to save him, but far from being a navel-gazing autobiography, Confessions is a work that seeks to praise God.

Some scholars believe that one of the reasons that St Augustine wrote this defining work, was because he was attempting to give an answer for Catholics in response to the Donatists who had a legalistic approach and did not forgive sin very easily. Augustine had been building a solid reputation as a faithful convert, he’d been baptised ten years previously, but at time of writing his Confessions had only been a bishop a few years and therefore was encountering much jeering from the Donatists who did not afford him much credibility because his reputation as a past sinner preceded him.

I could never hope to attain the intellectual brilliance of Saint Augustine although I aspire to his holiness and have great sympathy with him, not least because like him I have a ‘past’.

Today, on Twitter, once again the same group of people comprised of a hotchpotch of gay activists and disaffected Catholics, launched one of their attacks and did so very publicly and very specifically, using my name and hurtful events in my past as a means to attack. The accusation being that due to having behaved in a less than holy way in the past, I am now a terrible example and appalling representative of my faith.

I don’t claim to be a plaster-cast saint and like Saint Augustine I have made some disastrous mistakes in my past. I told a few people about this in confidence, and on one occasion briefly went public on this for about 2 minutes, before deleting a post, as I was advised that I was opening myself up to a lot of personal attack and would need to ensure that I had the necessary emotional strength to cope with it.

Those who scan my feed with gimlet eyes 24/7 obviously saw it and/or they were informed by the former friend whom I once told and now toss this about with impunity, believing that it validates their contention about the state of my soul. When I did an interview for Vicky Beeching’s faith in feminism site, within 5 minutes, a commentator steamed in with a comment containing personal information, then complained bitterly when upon my request Vicky kindly deleted it, appreciating the inappropriate nature of the remark. She later related how she was repeatedly emailed and told about my past, the claim being that I was a secret pro-choice advocate!

So here are the three accusations. I have screenshots of the vile tweets, but I won’t use them here because I don’t want to make this about personalities.

Divorce

1) I have divorced and re-married. That’s not very ‘Catholic’ is it and in reality I’m still married to another man and committing adultery. Yes really, that’s what a fake account set up using the name @realfarrow and my photographs said. As did another fake account @stain_of_sin which tweeted bible verses from Revelation about the ‘hating the whore’ and ‘her flesh burning’. Really. The latter account still exists at time of writing. It made a list called ‘mummy’s friends’ and made threats that they should all be told the truth unless I got off Twitter.

I’ve written about this before. I was never validly married in the eyes of the Church and for reasons I’m not going to go into, there are doubts surrounding the civil legality of my former marriage.

I’m not going to get overly defensive about the affair because I turned it over to a Church marriage tribunal who ruled that no marriage ever previously existed. I have to bear some blame because I did not understand the nature of the sacrament of marriage, that it entailed being open to children, was life-long and unbreakable. Neither did my former partner who still believes that marriage should have nothing to do with children.

The lesson I have learned from that is to ensure that my children fully understand what marriage is all about and take real care in discerning whether or not it is for them as well as in discerning a potential spouse. Like many people of my generation I suspect, I walked into something, without thinking about what came beyond ‘the big day’, because I was cohabiting and it was believed to be the ‘next step’ and because I felt under pressure from family that it was the right thing to do. I also liked the idea of respectability that being married and having a nice flashy ring afforded. Yes, I was that shallow.

Relationship breakdown is always a painful experience, especially when children are involved and mine was no different. Had the pair of us been more honest with each other about desires for children, then a lot of heartbreak would have been avoided on all sides.

Dodgy Bar job

2) I once worked in a bar called Hooters in another country. At least three different people have made specific reference to this, it stems from something I told a former friend a few years ago, not being public information. The reference is used frequently in an attempt to shame and humiliate me, because those familiar with said establishment will know that their gimmick is to employ attractive women who wear a relatively sexy uniform.

Hooters is billed as family restaurant. Kids eat free there. So basically I served beer and food at the age of 18, whilst wearing short shorts and a vest top. Big woo!

Abortion

3) Most seriously, and there is a whole other post in this, when I feel emotionally ready and strong enough, as this group frequently  tells people privately and now publicly, I had an abortion in 1997. I am one of those ‘baby-killers’ who I allegedly judge and despise. Except I don’t because I’ve been there.

Some of the factors that influenced my decision was that the baby was the result of a non-consenual encounter and it was clear I would be bringing up a child alone. I was on a six-month temporary contract at work and would undoubtedly lose my job. I was scared of the stigma of being a single mum on benefits as well as the reaction of my family and my reputation. I knew one day I wanted to get married and had been told that “no decent man will look at you twice”. There is something of an irony in that I eventually went on to marry someone who was delighted that I had a beautiful daughter and couldn’t care less that I was a single mother.

Adoption was dismissed as “you don’t want someone knocking on your door in 18 years time” and thus I found myself at  the door of the Marie Stopes clinic Whitmore Street in July 1997.

I had been warned to expect protestors or demonstrators by the clinic and was almost disappointed that there was no-one there. There was a part of me that wanted to be confronted or challenged, I don’t know what the result of that encounter would have been, but my feeling is that I would now have a 17 year old child who was alive.

What bothered me was not the circumstances of conception, but the idea of coping alone with a baby along with the accompanying shame and stigma.

I used biological sophistry to defend my decision, despite knowing inherently that this was a human life who deserved the same protection as everyone else. The ‘counselling’ in Marie Stopes consisted of a woman telling me that ‘there is no other choice, it’s clear-cut, you’re obviously in no position to be able to look after a baby’.

There’s a lot more for another time about the horrors of the procedure itself, the way that Marie Stopes treated me like a contemptible stupid piece of meat, from the monosyllabic person who carried out the scan, to the aggressive woman on reception who shouted at me the morning of the procedure, for not having brought the right piece of paperwork, one which she subsequently found she had all along. As I burst into tears, she then looked at me with a hint of remorse and said “are you sure you’ve made the right decision”? It was too late, I’d already taken the tablets to poison the baby and cause the foetal sac to detach from the placenta the day previously. One memory that stays with me is of the slightly chubby West Indian girl, listing like a beached whale, stretched out flat on the bench to entrance, vomiting profusely into a kidney dish and crying, all alone, whilst everyone looked on rather nervously. I wanted to reach out and touch her hand, but I didn’t.

Despite the fact that I thought abortion was the ‘right’ decision for me, that I didn’t believe that the baby could feel any pain and walked out of the clinic, physically traumatised, but too exhausted really to think or absorb what had just happened, it hit me the next day.

I was at home, sitting watching Coronation Street with the family, when all of a sudden the after-pains kicked in and I experienced stomach-wrenching contractions, which caused me to writhe in pain. It hit me. What the hell was I doing watching Coronation Street, pretending everything was alright when really my baby was dead? I ran to my bedroom lay on my bed and howled pitifully, like a wolf at the moon. There was a palpable, visceral sense of emptiness and loss, which no-one had warned me about and which I didn’t expect.

My baby was dead and gone, would never come back and I had killed him or her. I would have given anything to turn the clock back 72 hours just to have my baby back, to hold them in my arms, to see them, but it was too late. I couldn’t actually believe what I had done. The best analogy is that of the character of John Coffey in the Green Mile, when he discovers the bodies of the dead children and desperately cradles them and attempts to use his supernatural power to save them.

“I tried to take it back, but I couldn’t”.

I vowed then, that I never ever wanted any woman to suffer either physically or emotionally in the same way that I had, and it’s one of the reasons that I am so passionately and vehemently pro-life.

I am ashamed that I did such a dreadful thing, but equally I brought this all to the Lord in the sacrament of confession many many years ago. The thought of confessing to having killed my unborn child was terrifying and deterred me from going to confession for years, but once I had done so, it was the most beautiful, liberating and healing experience of my life. I walked out feeling 10 stone lighter, knowing and trusting that I had been forgiven.

I am as healed as one can ever be from such an experience, although there is always a sense that one (now two) of my children are missing, I should also have a seventeen year old who isn’t here. I know one day I will have to look that child in the face and apologise for the fact that I deprived them of the chance of life, and I cannot justify my decision. There may have been mitigating circumstances but it was the wrong thing to do nonetheless and I accept that, which is why so many women struggle with the healing process. It’s a delicate balance of accepting that one has lost a baby, accepting your personal responsibility in that, but at the same time being gentle with yourself.  Looking at teenage mothers who had the courage to continue with their pregnancy fills me with a sense of awe, inspiration and shame.

Going through the recent experience of a managed miscarriage, which had many similarities to the abortion, has thrown it all into sharp and painful relief – the contrast of giving birth to a deceased child, instead of one that you had caused to die, along with according him or her the respect and dignity that they were due as a human being, rather than allowing them to be discarded as a piece of clinical waste in the incinerator.

Conclusion

I’m coming clean as this has been repeatedly used to attack me over the past few months in an attempt to shame and hound me off public forums.

I made some hideous and reckless decisions when I was young, which inflicted some lasting damage. Like all of us I am wounded, but it’s Christ who heals our wounds and like his they can be transformed and glorified. One of the reasons I deviated so far from the path of God, was not just my own sinful nature, but because I hadn’t been brought up with strong faith foundations and didn’t understand the teaching of the Church or have any vision to aspire to.

I look at certain members of Catholic youth with a certain enviousness; armed with similar grace, faith, trust and certainty at that age, I could have prevented a lot of heartbreak and unnecessary mess.

And funnily enough, the only people who wish to berate me for my past are those who are outside the Church in one way or another, who are living irregular lifestyles. From those so-called orthodox, traditional Catholics, I’ve had nothing but acceptance and love. It isn’t Catholics doing the ‘judging’.

Like St Augustine I learnt that our hearts are restless until they rest in the Lord. And if my painful experience deters just one person from entering through the abortion clinic doors, if my witness inspires others to learn why it is I am so passionate about our faith, or to make people approach the faith with an open-mind or concede that my ideas are based on reason and truth, then the psychological cyber-bullying is worth it and will no doubt continue.

But yes, I made a mess of my life, including an attempted marriage and an abortion. But I am secure in the knowledge that I’ve made amends, conformed my life to God and that His love for has not diminished. And if there’s hope for me, then there’s hope for everyone.

Pray for me.

21 thoughts on “Lessons from St Augustine

  1. Sending you love and hoping that writing this post proves helpful to you. I’m so sorry that some people are such exemplary Catholics and Christians but fail to understand confession, forgiveness and all that business about logs in eyes and whited sepulchres. love from another sinner, forgiven and redeemed xx

  2. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been to write. May God bless you and give you strength. My prayers are with you and your family.

  3. My prayers too. A brave and touching post that speaks to us all and confirms that you are doing exactly what you are called to do.

  4. Dearest Caroline,

    Peace be with you. This is the first time I’ve read your blog and it’s this post. It’s so difficult to type because I can’t even form the right words to say. I’m 23 years old, Catholic, saving myself for marriage, I attend daily adoration & mass. If you probably put your life and mine side by side, it is vastly different I’m sure but the point I want to make it God’s amazing grace. Oh, how beautiful it is! How amazing it is!

    Whenever I think of God’s love I always think of Judas. God loved him too but Judas still in the very end did not believe that even his sin would be forgiven and he hung himself. And this is Judas we are talking about!!

    Caroline, amen amen amen. I am certain many have prayed for you & our good Lord is certainly with you always. I pray daily & earnestly for those struggling & fighting for purity, those who are lost that they may seek Him.

    As difficult as it is, I have always found living openly and truthfully the easiest and simplest way to live. Be comfortable with being ‘vulnerable’ because that’s when you truly need God. And I know God will deliver always. Do not fear for you are doing our Lord’s work. Our good Lord WILL deliver you. Just set your fears aside and rest with him.

    Much love & light. Do drop me a line 🙂

  5. That was a very brave post – to expose your past so publicly. It is testimony to the fact that there is no sin so bad that it cannot be forgiven when somebody turns back to Christ. The Church is only a school for sinners who are trying to be holy and trying to get their lives back on track. The love and grace of Christ are so great that there is nobody who is beyond his reach.

    Your witness against the evil of abortion is only made more powerful by the fact that you have first hand experience. The enemies of God know this, and that is why they will be all the more determined to drive you out of the public forum. Don’t let them do this, whatever the cost. Know that you are doing God’s will and that counts far more than all the petty insults, gibes and calumnies that will come your way.

    May the Immaculate Mother of God, and the Archangel Michael protect you and pray for you and your family. God bless you.

  6. Caroline, I prayed for you at Mass this morning.

    You are a very courageous person.

    You are doing very important work in trying to help people see the error of their ways.

    God bless you.

  7. Thank you for writing this, Caroline. Your story was harrowing to read, but truly inspirational – if only more people thought the way you do, were as committed to correcting themselves as you are, and had the overarching presence of the Church and God in their minds everything would be fine. Keep fighting.

  8. One of the most beautiful blog posts I’ve read, in a very long time.

    I read it and thought of that slightly cheezy but oh-so-true song; Turn your eyes upon Jesus…and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace’.

    You’ve made your peace with the past and because of the amazing sacrifice of Jesus, you’re free to live in it. That is what it’s all about.

  9. ‘Remember me, when you come into your Kingdom’ – surely He will. The thief who did not repent and mocked should be a warning to the trolls. Bless you and your family.

  10. Awful people.

    There is some value in contemplating those sculptural friezes above the south doors of gothic cathedrals: the Last Judgment. These ghastly people will be judged one day, but not by us – by Him. He will show them compassion but He will also show them their sin.

  11. This brave post will bear fruit. I think it may lead many to the confessional now, to put things right and start afresh. What timing, as well, at the start of Advent.

  12. Caroline, I can’t believe that you have been bullied into revisiting old wounds and laying your soul bare to appease these people who really have nothing better to do than to hound and persecute others. You are a human being; fallible, weak and gloriously, magnificently, miraculously, incomprehensibly forgiven and SAVED. These people have no right to judge you. No right at all. We have ALL sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and yet if we confess our sins he is quick to show mercy and MIGHTY TO SAVE.
    I can see why you have written this. I understand. Don’t waste any more time on justifying yourself. The only one who you need to do that to has already heard it and forgotten.
    Much love for all you have been through X

  13. Caroline, I can’t believe that you have been bullied into revisiting old wounds and laying your soul bare to appease these people who really have nothing better to do than to hound and persecute others. You are a human being; fallible, weak and gloriously, magnificently, miraculously, incomprehensibly forgiven and SAVED. These people have no right to judge you. No right at all. We have ALL sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and yet if we confess our sins he is quick to show mercy and MIGHTY TO SAVE.
    I can see why you have written this. I understand. Don’t waste any more time on justifying yourself. The only one who you need to do that to has already heard it and forgotten.
    Much love for all you have been through X

  14. The objectively disordered and those in irregular relationships hate to see someone who throws off their burden of sin, because it challenges them directly.

  15. Have you read Abby Johnson’s book “Unplanned”? She not only had two abortions, but was an abortion clinic director with Planned Parenthood. I think you’d recognise a lot in her story and she, too, gets a lot of flak for her past although, like you, she is now in communion with the Church. (She wasn’t a Catholic to start with.)

    Don’t get me going on the lack of Catechesis since Vatican II …. I could write a whole saga on that! I haven’t got anything spectacular in my past, just a mediocre one that would have been much better if I had been more committed and understood my Faith (and faith) in the way I do now – sins of omission rather than commission (though I’m sure there are more of those than I think that I ought to address). I could have been so much more useful had I not left it until the autumn of my life to do more than the minimum as regards my Faith.

    Because I was preserved from any spectacular mistakes, having been brought up with a very strong sense of right and wrong, my responsibility may be greater than the more obvious candidate. Those who see fit to comment on the sins of others should remember that in order to commit a mortal sin one has to do so with full knowledge and consent. I wonder, given the widespread acceptance of what are in fact mortal sins, (homosexual practice and abortion being the two most obvious) and this acceptance being not only endorsed in law, but preferred over Christian conscience, just how much knowledge and consent any of our young people have. And then there is the little matter of who should throw the first stone …..

    I am so glad you were able to go to confession. I have known that tremendous feeling of a burden having lifted off your shoulders as a result, and that on more than one occasion, so would encourage anybody to go. I remind those that are too critical that there was a Catholic nurse at Auschwitz who returned to the practice of her Faith; if someone can have (presumably) worked with the infamous Mengele and return, there is hope for all of us. That we return is more important than what we did while away or there is no hope for any of us.

    Do look up Abby Johnson. She now has a ministry to abortion clinic workers – having been there she can speak to them. That has been up and running for a year and has had 90 people come through the door. One of the reasons I am against abortion is because of the brutalising effect it must have on medical staff – I come from a line of doctors (trained in Edinburgh) on my mother’s side.

    Welcome back, and God bless!

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