September 11, 2009

Finding My Voice as a Feminist

Posted in feminism, feminist theology tagged , , , , , at 6:37 am by Gina Messina

Woman Power

Woman Power

I was introduced to feminism as a freshman high school student and have considered myself a feminist ever since.  Graduating with a BA in Sociology, I chose to focus my career in the social services field working with women.  Feminist Theology first became of interest to me during my decade long career as an advocate for survivors of rape and domestic violence.  Throughout that time I worked with many women who had images of the divine that I found very troubling.  Particularly many women believed that either they were being punished by the divine for some misdeed they had committed or believed that remaining in an abusive relationship was their “cross to bear.” 

After ten years I was experiencing burn out from the high stress of the field and was also very perplexed by the images and questions regarding the divine I had encountered.  I decided to change my career focus and applied to a graduate program in Religious Studies at John Carroll University.  It is a Jesuit University with a strong Catholic foundation.  I was able to explore Feminist Theology, but mainly in a Christian context.  That being said, I focused on feminist hermeneutics, women’s role in the Church, and the problem of suffering for women. 

Within the program I was introduced to many new concepts that I was greatly impacted by, in particular the idea that I could call God “Mother.” It seems ridiculous to me now that I did not challenge God language sooner; however my Catholic upbringing kept me from exploring anything outside God “Father.”  I found myself trying to image God as woman, God as mother, and comprehend what exactly that meant for my own faith. 

  Following the completion of my degree, just before I moved to California to begin the Ph.D. program, I lost my mother to domestic violence.  It was a shocking and devastating moment in my life, and one that informed my overall view of women and suffering and Feminist Theology.

Coming to CGU, I was able to move out of the Catholic box that I had been stuck in all my life.  I had never attended a church that was not Catholic, but here in Claremont I attended a Presbyterian church, and Episcopalian church, and of course Woman Church.   Attending these other types of worship helped to further my journey and once classes began I was exposed to an entire world of Feminist Theology that embraced other religious traditions.  For the first time in my life I began to feel that perhaps Christianity should be abandoned by women all together.  The tradition’s call for women to be passive, meek, and acceptant of suffering is incredibly damaging and lead many women to mistakenly believe that they must remain in abusive situations and suffer as Jesus did, a model that reinforces women being scapegoats.

Rejecting the culture that shapes the abuse for women and glorifies women’s suffering seems to make sense to me now.  It has been difficult for me to separate myself from my Catholic identity; however I feel more strongly than ever that women cannot be liberated by a tradition that perpetuates their abuse and suffering.  That being said, this is not simply a flaw of Christianity, but of all patriarchal traditions.  I find myself now looking towards the Goddess tradition as a source for redemption.  I have changed my God language and now utilize the term divine.  I have rejected the term “Father” as one representative of the divine, not because I do not think that a male can embody the divine, but because it was part of my vocabulary for long that I now feel I should give equal time to the term “Mother.”  In addition, when I think of my own mother and her nurturing ways I truly believe those are the characteristics that exemplify the divine.    

Feminist Theology has led me away from the traditional Western thought of classical dualisms and I now recognize that my personal faith in the divine is open to my interpretation.  I have no longer felt guilt over not connecting with tradition Catholic masses and have found that prayer for me is something very different than what I was raised with.  For me, Feminist Theology has allowed me to experience a relationship with the divine, a relationship that I have not had before in my life.  It is through that relationship that I remain connected to my mother.  In addition, Feminist Theology has given me the strength to move away from a tradition that I feel is inherently damaging to women.

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August 26, 2009

Recollections of a Catholic Girl-Womanhood

Posted in Faith Transformations tagged , , , , at 8:34 am by Gina Messina

Catholicism was a major part of my upbringing.  My entire family is Sicilian/Italian and from the “Old Country,” I was a first generation American; being Catholic was simply who we were.  I received the Catholic sacraments, attended Catholic schools, including graduate school, and was married in the Catholic Church.  When I was a child, being Catholic gave me a sense of pride.  I was mesmerized by the rituals and regularly had theological conversations with my father about why Easter was the more important holiday.  I felt very connected to the Catholic community and spent much time wondering why anyone would not be Catholic.  However, once I reached school age, everything began to change and slowly but surely I started to question everything I had been taught.

My brother, sister and I attended Catholic school and started learning about the Catholic faith in school in the first grade.  After my first week of school I came home terrified believing that Satan would burn our home down because we were good Catholics.  I still wonder why a teacher would be discussing concepts like this with first graders, but they did and I was traumatized.  I started refusing to get out of the car each morning because I was fearful of what I might learn next, I nearly failed the first grade because I had so many absences.

During this time it was still acceptable for the nuns to hit their students.  While we had some kind and compassionate teachers, we had several nuns who can only be described as being cruel.  My poor brother vomited every morning of his second grade year because he was so terrified of his teacher. I often wondered why the nuns did not have to follow the rules of the Church like I did, I also wondered if they acknowledged hitting us as a sin when they went to confession.

Growing up I distinctly remember thinking about the concept of the Trinity, acknowledging that it did not make sense, and then accepting that it was not my place to question.  I thought about faith quite frequently and what exactly that word meant, and for me it implied that I should always accept what I was told and never think about anything outside of it.  That line of thought worked for a while, but once I made my First Confession, I started to have questions.  By the time I was twelve I started to make stances.

In the Catholic tradition, you must confess your sins with a priest before receiving Communion.  Confession was a ritual that I found incredibly problematic. Why should I confess my sins to a man, priest or not, who was clearly also a sinner?  Why could I not simply keep my sins between me and God?  Confessing to God made much more sense to me and because of that I refused to go to Confession.  At the age of thirteen I was becoming a rebel in the Church. 

Receiving the Eucharist in the Catholic Church also became a major struggle for me.  My parents divorced when I was twelve and were refused Communion from that point on, I was devastated.  I felt that the Church had labeled my parents sinners and refused them the opportunity to be nourished spiritually and develop a closer relationship with God.  How could I possibly participate in this sacrament when my parents were being so unfairly denied?  After the divorce, our church attendance was scattered and did not spend as much time thinking about how I felt that our family had been rejected by the church or whether or not I should go to communion.

Although it felt as if my family’s relationship with the church changed following the divorce, my father still referred to himself as a strict Catholic and demanded that we maintain our Catholic identity and be married in the Church as adults; after all, a marriage would not be valid had it occurred in any other fashion.  My brother, much braver than I, chose to be married outside of the Church and had the wedding performed by his World Religions professor.  He and his wife had chosen prayers from different traditions and crafted an incredibly unique and beautiful ceremony. Rather than being appreciated for its spirituality and celebration of the bride and groom’s relationship, it was the gossip of our family for quite some time.      

I was married in the Catholic Church three weeks shy of my twenty-sixth birthday.  Naturally, we had to attend the Pre-Cana course before receiving permission to marry. I was shocked when I was told by the priest that it was expected by the Church that I quit my job and stay home to have children immediately, anything less would be frowned upon.  The work I was doing as an advocate for rape and domestic violence survivors was not nearly as important as bearing children to bring up in the faith.  On our wedding day, as my husband and I received the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church, a marriage that of course would be recognized in the eyes of God, my husband was denied the right to receive the Eucharist.  He had been baptized a Lutheran and therefore was not a welcomed member of the Catholic community. 

It is interesting to note that the priest who was supposed to marry us did not because he had committed suicide after two children he had molested came forward.  While the Church was very concerned with whether or not I was going to work or have children and that my husband not receive the Eucharist because of his Lutheran background, our pastor was sexually abusing children. 

Following our wedding, because I felt strongly that the Church clearly did not practice what it preached, repeatedly discriminating against its members and labeling them as it chose, I decided to no longer attend mass or receive the Eucharist.  With that action I let go of part of my cultural identity and wondered if I was distancing or perhaps even severing my relationship with God.  Regardless, I had to stand firm and not participate in a system that seemed broken. 

There were so many reasons I felt that I just could no longer be proud of being Catholic; the Church’s refusal to ordain women, its patriarchal structure, condemnation of the use of birth control, the sex abuse scandal, the new ultra conservative Pope Benedict XVI, and my list continues.  I began to question my faith and eventually felt comfortable calling myself an agnostic at best, but likely an atheist.  If truly there was a God, why is there so much evil in the world?  How could God stand by and watch the brutality, oppression, poverty, and death that transpired continuously?  I took my faith and put it in myself and believed that if I wanted to see change in the world I needed to act responsibly and be part of the process rather than saying prayers that fell on deaf ears.

 I did not receive the Eucharist again until my Great Uncle Stash’s funeral in April, 2007.  I attended the Catholic service and as I stood watching the lines for Communion form, I wondered if I could again partake in this ritual; if I could celebrate the life of Uncle Stash and commune in his honor.  It was at that moment that I decided that I did not have to abide by the rules of the Catholic Church.  It did not matter that I had not been to confession in more than ten years nor did it matter that the Church said that my parents and my husband could not participate in the ritual.  At that moment the Church had no authority over me and I received the Eucharist. I began to heal my relationship with God, not through the Catholic Church, but through my own agency. 

Agency to leave the Church and then reclaim a spiritual life on my terms is what has been my saving grace.  Coming to California gave me the freedom to explore Christianity outside of Catholicism and to explore spirituality outside Christianity.  I am still fumbling around trying to figure out exactly what spirituality in my life is.  I have found the Goddess tradition to be very redemptive in my personal struggles and honestly feel that I am in prayer when I am listening to a good DMB song.   I find that living in the question and continuously exploring my beliefs is where I need to be.  My graduate school experience and the community of women I have found here has offered me a greater spiritual awareness than I ever had in the years I belonged to the Catholic Church.  I feel that I am finally in a place where I can grow and evolve and although I still sometimes question my identity as Catholic, I know that I have an incredible spiritual journey ahead of me.