If it sounds like a daunting task, it was. For everyone involved. After a few months, he advised us to get civilly married so that we might begin to rectify our lives publicly and legally and to live together as a family after the marriage . . . not as brother and sister. He very gently told us that the great strain it would put on us both at an already intense and tumultuous time would likely be too much for us to bear and that it would be better for us to slowly bring our lives into conformity with Christ. Of course, the Ogre would not be able to receive communion, which was a burden the weight of which I'm only now beginning to realize.

Not everyone agreed with our priest's advice. Few people did, actually. There was talk of "giving scandal" and avoiding our company so as to not participate in our sin. At the time, that criticism hardly even registered with either of us, consumed as we were by the staggering difficulty of what many saw as "baby steps" or "too-weak correctives" in our lives. There were later critics, though, whose disapproval seemed to be channeled into attempts to hurt or punish us for not trying hard enough, for being too weak. The parish we belonged to refused to baptize our daughter, and our Cistercian priest did her baptism himself, at a parish half an hour away, in a private ceremony. After that, when I was finally entering the Church, the marriage preparation couple at the diocese officially recommended that I not be received into the Church, as they did not find evidence of "sincerity" in me during the three-hour class they taught to twenty couples. They also recommended that the Ogre and I not be allowed to marry in the Catholic Church, again citing my apparent lack of sincerity. Once again, our priest stepped up to the bat, writing a vehement letter to the bishop detailing his careful guidance of us both and the long, arduous path we had taken to rectify our lives.

Our priest knew us. He loved us. He was given immense wisdom, I believe, in everything he said to us and every step he recommended we take. After the birth of our daughter I plunged into crippling post-partum depression that left me quite literally unable to care for her until I was put on medication. The medication, in turn, numbed me so completely that I would sit and stare out the window for hours at a time, barely able to complete the most basic tasks required in her care. I shudder to think what might have happened had I been living alone, or with anyone other than the one person I needed the most, the one person who believed in me more than anyone, the one person who knew even when I didn't that I would pull out of it and recover.

I believe with all my heart that any path other than the one our priest set us on would have ended disastrously for our family. "Scorched earth" is a pretty apt term for what would have been left of the three of us if the Ogre and I had been pressured and brow-beaten into attempting to correct our lives at once. I believe that because even being on the slowest path possible out of mortal sin was almost too much for us. There were so many close calls, so many narrowly averted crises. We almost didn't make it to a place of relative stability, and we wouldn't have if weren't for God's infinite patience, mercy, love, and grace. He let us move slowly, and he loved us in spite of it.

I've heard many people soundly denounce couples who are in the situation we were in, people who don't know the details of the situation, who don't know what roadblocks the couple is up against, and some who don't even know the couple at all. It hurts to hear other people judged so easily and with so much confidence, and I often wonder if those doing the judging would think twice if they knew even a fraction of the long-term suffering, pain, and humiliation that accompanies an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the subsequent attempt to right the wrong. A few people have even insisted that our priest was wrong, that we should have been ordered to bring ourselves away from mortal sin no matter the cost, that God's grace would surely have been sufficient to save us both if we had only made the effort.

I can't say that God's grace would have been insufficient if we had chosen a different path. I can say, though, that I do not believe that either of us were capable of choosing a different path at the time. The road we took was long, and to those on the outside it doubtless looked slow and meandering. But every step we took on that road, and the many we took backward, were excruciating for us.

Looking back, I see two people trying to wrench themselves out of sin without much hope of success, but with the unshakeable confidence of a gentle and loving priest to guide our steps. I know that even on that long road, in which we were still shadowed by sin, God's grace was there. I know that he never condemned us, withdrew his company from us, turned his back on us, or abandoned us to our sin. He walked with us, patient and merciful, just as he walks with us now. And I am so grateful that this is the God we serve: a God who is both just and merciful.