Dr. Brenda Davies is a prominent and respected psychiatrist who has written extensively on mental health and helped countless individuals navigate through some of the darkest days of their lives. But her professional training, experience and expertise could not possibly prepare her for an encounter with a patient so powerful and heartbreaking that she decided to share it with the world. The result was a highly acclaimed novel based on true events, telling a story of shame, indifference and lack of compassion. The events in her book, ‘The Girl Behind the Gates,’ take place in 1939. Nora Jennings is a smart and hardworking seventeen-year-old girl who has everything right in her life, hoping and working towards a bright future. But then, one night of passion led to a pregnancy that her family was not about to accept and support her through. What follows is an emotional turmoil and rollercoaster as her family and friends try to persuade and pressure her to terminate the pregnancy. Without any support, understanding and compassion in her life, Nora soon finds herself in a mental hospital where she spent forty plus years – most of her life – bouncing from one diagnosis to another and from one set of pills to another. That is when she finally meets the psychiatrist, the first human being who seemed to understand that her pain and suffering, her mental collapse and torment were caused not by a chemical or biological imbalance, but the result of human indifference, unjustified and unhealthy shame and absence of compassion.
In today’s Gospel reading St. Mary travels to meet Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the forerunner. There is so much to discern and learn from from the brief description of their meeting. St. Mary was pregnant at the time but not married. If a pregnancy out of wedlock can ruin lives and tear apart families in modern western society, imagine what it could do back then in the middle east. It would mean instant annihilation from family, friends and society, a permanent seal of shame, guilt and judgment for the rest of the life. But there is no judgment and shame in this story. Instead, we see Elizabeth embracing St. Mary with love and compassion, recognizing that there is something profoundly beautiful, mysterious and divine in this pregnancy and turn of events.
We have all seen and witnessed people being labeled, judged, cast out of families and communities because their choices and decisions did not reflect others’ understanding of what is morally justified and acceptable, what is right or wrong, what is sacred or sin. Maybe this is even something we had to go through and experience. And while our understanding of what is right, good and noble may vary, it is never acceptable to stop loving, embracing and accepting a human being simply because of their decisions, choices or turn of events in their lives. It is important to remember that there is more to a person than their decisions and lifestyle choices. It is important to recognize that part of our lives is a mystery – a domain and reality beyond understanding and comprehension, full of divine presence and providence. And what we might see as unacceptable, shameful and foreign might also be a beautiful and magnificent miracle being forged and shaped by God himself. By continuing to support and love, we become instruments of divine healing and miracle as we help such individuals to convert and transform their shame into a beautiful and brilliant new reality and new life.