In the classic story Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo and set in France in the 1800’s, Jean Valjean is convicted for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child, and spends the next nineteen years of his life enduring slavish, manual labor. Finally, he is released on permanent parole, only to be chained to the stigma of an ex-con, and distrusted by employers and inn keepers. Condemned to the streets, he is taken in by a Bishop, who invites the ravenous man to a meal at his own table, and gives him a bed for the night.
Valjean cannot sleep. Anxiety about his present state and the temptation to steal overcome him. Taking the silver from the cupboard, he escapes into the foggy darkness. Authorities find him, beat him, and drag him back to the home of the Bishop. Returning the bag of silver, they scoff, “He had the nerve to say you gave him this!”* The Bishop surprises them all and replies, “That is right…you forgot I gave these also,” and picks up his pair of silver candlesticks from the table. Jean Valjean is freed, and left alone before the Bishop. Stunned with disbelief, his eyes turn to the one he has just betrayed, searching for the meaning behind this inexplicable and unprecedented act of mercy.
The Bishop, with love’s gaze, is able to recognize a hidden potential beneath Valjean’s disfigured dignity. He willingly takes a risk, staking a claim into the heart of Jean Valjean with these words, “Remember this, my brother- see in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, God has raised you out of darkness: I have bought your soul for God.”
In the following scene, Jean Valjean, staggering over the blow of this piercing, pure, and unmerited gesture, turns to Jesus in prayer, “…why did I allow that man to touch my soul and teach me love? He treated me like any other. He gave me his trust. He called me brother. My life he claims for God above. Can such things be? For I had come to hate the world; this world that always hated me… He told me that I have a soul, how does he know? What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?”
This very scene plays out on the sets and stages of human hearts around the world. In a particular way, in each Christian soul, whose redemption was won by the blood of God’s Only Begotten Son. Knowing our great dignity and whose image we bear, Jesus frees us from the grip of darkness, bestows on us a treasure, and shows us another way. In St. Peter’s words, “You were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a spotless unblemished lamb.” (1 Peter 1:18b-19)
It takes great courage to receive such a gift, knowing that I cannot both receive it and remain unaffected. I am no longer the same person. This “yes” will require all that I am and have, transforming me therein. In receiving mercy, Jean Valjean was utterly reborn, and a new man emerged that fated night, the man he was made to be. As a result, he spends the rest of his life as a response of gratitude. The lives of so many were relying on this yes…unbeknownst to him.
Many of the women we serve experience similar fears over their circumstances, temptations and uncertainty as to where to turn for help and support. They find themselves swarmed by the negativity of those closest to them, and unable to see the possibilities, begin to believe they have no choice, except the one they never wanted to make.
When Jenna* first called the Sisters, she was six weeks pregnant. Pressured to have an abortion by every member of her family, she had even received money to cover the cost from the father of the baby. She had already suffered once, and knowing all too well the regret of that decision, knew she didn’t want to go down that road again. So scared of the thought of raising a baby on her own, she recounted that it was the fear of being alone that drove her to schedule an abortion. After talking to the Sisters for hours, Jenna still felt uncertain. Could the Sisters be trusted? Would they just leave me after? “I wanted to talk to someone who knew my experience.” The Sisters put her in contact with two of our former guests, women who had lived with us at Sacred Heart Convent, and were now each raising their child as a single mother. These conversations moved Jenna powerfully. “Looking back, a few things really struck me. One said, ‘There are so many women in the world unable to have children, and God picked you and gave you this baby. You have been given this chance for a reason, and God wouldn’t give you something you couldn’t handle.’ What she said was true, and you can’t take back an abortion, because you never see the baby again. I began to realize there were other options too.”
The next day was the scheduled abortion, and Jenna describes the mysterious working of grace that changed her life: “Something came over me that morning. I was about to walk out, and something kept me. I couldn’t walk out the door. I just couldn’t do it. Hearing their stories helped me a lot. I became strong enough at that point to decide I couldn’t live with that reminder, wondering every day what she would have looked like.” For Jenna, the truth resounded and settled firmly on her heart and she knew, “God had chosen me, and wanted me to have this baby, and it was such a special thing.”
Throughout the next two and a half months, Jenna found the courage to rise above the opposition and fully embrace her maternity. When she was 20 weeks along, her sonogram showed she was carrying a baby girl. Feeling overjoyed and excited, they assured her all was fine. The next day, at her routine check-up, Jenna’s world was rocked. The month prior, the doctor had taken a blood test, without telling her what it was determining. Now, the results were in, and she was shocked to be informed that the test had come back positive for spina bifida. They recommended a follow-up to confirm, eventually suggesting that she see a genetic counselor. Heartbroken, knowing what they would likely recommend, Jenna felt within herself a need to protect her little one from further harm. She was adamant and said, “I’ll do one more sonogram….but after that no tests. I’m not having an amnio. If she has spina bifida.- she has spina bifida. Even the sonogram isn’t going to change that. And if she does have it, that’s how God made her. She is still my child.” The doctor, not knowing what to say in response, asked pointedly, “What are you going to do?” Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied, “I am going to be a good mother- that’s what I’m going to do! I am going to love her and raise her.”
When later asked how she could surmount such incredible odds, she said, “Everything was for her. I did it for her. I had to fight for her my entire pregnancy, and she kept me going.”
At her check up the following month, the doctor approached her with news that still brings tears to her eyes, “The test was a false positive.” Her baby was healthy!
Days before the birth, Jenna told the Sisters, “If you ever have another woman who needs to talk to someone, I want to be that someone.”
Weeks later, that other woman stepped into our lives. Nineteen and pregnant, Alicia* had made and cancelled multiple abortion appointments. The Sisters called Jenna, who instantly recognized herself in this young woman and reached out to her. “I’ve been through it. I know that speaking to someone who has been through the same thing helps so much. When everyone is pressuring you, and when the father of the baby is not with you, it is so hard. I felt like I could give her advice, because I had now experienced both decisions.”
Jenna had suffered her abortion at 19, and was calling Alicia just two days before her scheduled abortion. Alicia’s mind was telling her to have the abortion, but her heart was urging her to have her baby. Jenna told her calmly, “You have to go with your heart…what you know to be true. You can’t worry about everyone around you, and you can’t make that life- changing decision based on what they think. You are the one who lives with it…they don’t . They move on, that day. And you live with the guilt, always wondering. I think about it every day. It’s not their baby, and it’s not their body. You know what’s best for you.”
When Jenna didn’t hear from Alicia on the day of the appointment, she called the Sisters in a panic, thinking that she had gone through with it. After a few days, something told Jenna to reach out, and she called again. Alicia picked up and said, “I cancelled it! I didn’t go.” She had decided to have her baby, and was even opening herself to the possibility of adoption. Jenna was ecstatic, and called the Sisters, “I’ve never been so worried about someone I didn’t know. I know it’s all because I’m a mom now.”
Reflecting on her experience, Jenna shares, “The love between a mother and a child is beautiful and unbelievable. It’s a bond, and one of a kind. How you can love someone you’ve never met before? People say, ‘Life is over’…but, life is just beginning. Everything happens for a reason. What if I had gone the other route when God had this plan for me? What if I had had the abortion? Or if something had happened to me? I feel like God sent this baby to draw me to good. Becoming a mother has changed everything- my whole outlook on life. And not in a bad way, in a good way! I grew up. I’m a new person. Honestly, before, I was party central. I don’t even care to go out anymore! You want to do better for your child. Even my appearance has changed and the way I represent myself, because I represent my child too. Before pregnancy, it’s only about you. Now, it’s all about her. She comes first. It is really hard work, but rewarding.
Women need to know it gets better; it gets easier. There is support. They’re not alone. Other women have been through the same thing. You have to have hope. Believe in yourself and be strong. Even if you have just one person to support you…that’s all it takes. Anyone. One is all you need. If you can’t find someone, if you have no family, the Sisters are here!”
Just as Jean Valjean, who, having been entrusted with something so great responded with the decisive choice to live for others, so too Jenna gives generously and freely what she has herself received. Her own baby girl was relying on her mother’s heroic yes, but without knowing it, so was Alicia, and her little one. How many lives will be touched by this one woman’s yes?
*Quotes taken from the Universal Pictures release of the movie Les Miserables in 2012. Directed by: Tom Hooper. Screenplay written by: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer.
*Names have been changed for anonymity.
Originally printed in IMPRINT Magazine F all 2013.