My Journey to a Brave New Pro-Life Ethic
Back in the day – the mid ‘70s, that is – we kids at St. Joseph Elementary did the March of Dimes. We went from door-to-door, getting money-per-mile pledges for up to 15 miles. One year, the school stopped participating. A girl in my class – Wendy was her name – asked, “Why?” The teacher said, “They support abortion.” Cajun bluntness. Everyone went silent. None of us knew what that was. I’d never heard of it before. I recall a flash of sadness. There was darkness in the word. Time went on.
In my early teens, I noticed that mom and dad were involved in the “Right to Life” movement. Nothing strident. Rather, my mother had delicate sensibilities. She was all artist, empathic toward anything vulnerable and dependent. She was tender with poverty and smallness. It was like she read everything’s soul. She was horrified that any unborn baby would be violated in its mother’s womb. Or that any child – or anything at all – would be violated. She metaphorically revealed this sensitivity during Gulf Coast vacations. She’d comb the beach for the smallest seashells, collecting them and contemplating their intricate colors, curves and textures, like St. Teresa contemplating God. She’d watercolor her observations. Her moral conscience was affected by her artistic sensibilities: destroying “the delicate” was repugnant. Her “Right to Life” involvement was a response to the times: the wake of the Supreme Court’s infamous Roe vs. Wade decision on January 22, 1973. Metaphorically, in her sense of things, the seashells were being smashed by “progress” before nature, grace and time could bring their beauty to completion. I’d only begin to grasp this in my later high school years. I’m still trying to grasp it, despite age and Holy Orders.
This rubbed off on me. As a boy, I was an environmentalist, you might say. I loved unspoiled nature and the wild outdoors. For me, skiing and boating on nearby Lake Verret – and ending the day with piles of boiled crawfish, crabs and beer – was heaven. On other occasions, we’d head down LA 1 to fish the vast prairie marshes near Leeville, not far from Grand Isle. It was fun, and the landscape was exotically resplendent. After a good night’s sleep at Boudreaux’s Motel, with signs saying, “NO CLEANING FISH IN THE ROOM,” we’d rise at 3 AM and boat through canals and bayous to our fishing spots. Warm, damp, salty breezes blew from the Gulf over the grassy wetlands, through the oaks of Cheniere Caminada to the south. We’d cast lines in brackish estuaries, little bays, hidden ponds and channels and bayous full of redfish, sheepsheads, speckled trout and flounder (occasionally catching a noxious garfish, stingray or eel). Sunrise gave us permission to break out the Old Milwaukee, known as Vitamin M. On some trips, we’d pull in over a hundred fish. I loved the lucky spots where, the second my shrimp-bait hit water, a redfish took the line and tugged-and-pulled until I got it to the boat, where dad scooped it in with a net. It was the way life ought to be.
In 1977, we vacationed to Rocky Mountain National Park, via Denton, Texas and Raton, New Mexico to Estes Park, Colorado. Those were the days of the CB radio, for which dad took on the embarrassing alias “Captain Crunch.” Until then, I’d only seen snowcapped peaks in National Geographic and picture books. I recorded our arrival at Estes Park in my “Trevelog” journal, dated Friday, June 3, 1977: “In Denver we saw a magnificent view of the Rockies. We saw an area to take pictures and we did take one of the snow-capped mountains. This was just before we hit Boulder. After Boulder, we took a breathtaking ride in the mts. We were in Roosevelt National Forest when we saw some more magnificent mts. We took pictures of that. We arrived at the Fall River Inn. We have a cottage on the clear brook (Fall River). We fished – took pictures of the brook and I sketched the brook and its surroundings.” Such were recollections of an almost 12-year-old environmentalist, of sorts.
The sensitivities of growing up were given to noticing little things. Today, I have a print of Giovanni Segantini’s “Ave Maria at the Crossing.” It’s a painting of a peasant couple crossing a lake in a sheep-filled boat while the Angelus bell tolls from a church in the background, whose steeple is set off by the sunrise. The husband, in the stern at the oars, bows his head in meditation. His wife, in the bow, embraces her baby while meditating on the “Word made Flesh.” Some big sheep are drinking water. There’s a petite lamb in the bow resting his nose and ears on the hull’s ledge. That’s the one that gets my attention whenever I look at the painting. I think I got that from mom.
The world is full of delicate freshness that invites us to form a perceptive “sense,” so that all goodness may be noticed, appreciated and loved. One wound stunts everything. Insensitivity to this is rooted in a primeval callousness, a defection from God. Avarice and pride assault vulnerability and corrupt life, from babies to entire civilizations: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ill a prey, / Where wealth accumulates and men decay” (Oliver Goldsmith, Deserted Village). But the Word who created this now-marred Paradise became man to heal these wounds. His heart was pierced so ours may be too. He suffered, died and rose. Scarred beauty is redeemed. Innocence restored. The Christian’s life is being renewed by this grace, again and again.
I was probably in high school when I heard my mother say that January 22, 1973 was the only time she felt no loyalty to her country. We had done something cowardly, she felt: we turned from life. She cried when the news broke. She was depressed for a long time, she admitted. The reasons were personal. She was not able to have children, save for the inexplicable surprise of ’65 when I somehow made it into the world. But that was it. Mom and dad tried adoption. We lived in New Jersey. In 1970, New York passed a violent abortion law, with no residency requirements. No more babies. In June of ’72, we moved to Louisiana. We went back on the adoption list. Rove v. Wade passed in ’73. The “Darkness of Egypt” settled over our land. Five years later, and twelve years after ‘65 (the Fall after our Colorado trip in ‘77), we adopted Kirsten.
In high school, my sensitive soul was hit from a different angle. Our Catholic high school collected Christmas gifts for poor children in the “projects.” Our family participated. What did this simple-minded, middle class 14-year-old feel when we brought our gifts? Convicted. Who am I to enter these peoples’ home with presents? Is this condescending? Who am I to come into this kitchen and be “generous”? Who am I to presume that they wanted charity? But no, I also saw children who had nothing and who seemed happy to get something. I never expressed these conflicted feelings and reflections until now. Today, at age 53, I’ve come to believe that there’s an art to loving the poor without violating their dignity. Fruitful love is delicate because it’s not presumptuous. It doesn’t presume to love another in a way that doesn’t give life, even with the best of intentions. The other may need a kind of love that differs from what we want to offer. What we think is love may in fact be a subtle selfishness or an illusion, if we don’t first consider what the other really needs. Pretenses of love, even with the best intentions, are fruitless. Real love respects the other’s space. It doesn’t force itself or crash a party. It awaits an invitation to give. It respects freedom.
Once a baby comes from the womb into the world, it must be given life again and again, all the way through old age, again through the birth of “death” into another life. Yes, life must be given again and again. Life is intrinsically and always “new.” It’s not just about “giving birth” in the usual sense. It’s more than stopping homicide or abortion. Life is a “way of life.” It’s the outlook I now call, at age 53, the “Brave New Pro-Life Ethic.”
Post Script: Brother John – a Brother of the Sacred Heart – moderated our high school’s Key Club, which at the time was an all-boys service club. Under his leadership, we buddied with the handicapped, the elderly and the poor. A few times a year, Brother John would take a big group of us to a “home” for the mentally and physically challenged in Hammond, north of “the Lake” somewhere off of I-12. We left early for a 90-minute bus ride, stopping for donuts before arriving at Hammond. We cleaned out the donut shop before 9 AM on a Saturday morning, to the sales clerk’s annoyance, leaving behind not much more than a few sprinkles, some powdered sugar and a rancid men’s room. [I’m not sure what was more urgent, the need to eat or the need for a pit stop. Brother John was indifferent to creature comforts. On evening trips with the Key Club, we’d sometimes stop for dinner at Duff’s: a “good deal” (said Brother John) cafeteria with cheaper eats than Piccadilly.] The first time we visited the “home” in Hammond, we walked into the uninhibited excitement, guffaws and bellows of the residents. Some were buckled in electric wheel chairs, which could barely restrain them. We started to laugh. But we sensed that our laughter wasn’t the right reaction. At first, we couldn’t distinguish between someone acting that way due to a condition and someone trying to be funny. We weren’t scolded. Brother John understood. He said nothing. Youth are at times scolded for reactions and behaviors they’d naturally get over, if only the “righteous” wouldn’t over-police. We sobered up and played football and games with the residents, who were the next ones to laugh. Life is given to be given away. Not long after Brother John left our high school, he spent a few decades on an Indian Reservation in Arizona, among the poor. That’s the narrative of the Brave New Pro-Life Ethic.
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor