Monday, January 15, 2018

The Trial - Chapter Two

“You are an evil, spiteful creature.” The head of her tribunal spat just as a viper would spit venom.

She regarded him for a moment before speaking. He was a fat little man, bloated with noxious gases and self-worth.

“Sir, if it were possible for you to remove my heart and examine it, you would find within it no amount of malice.”

“My dear girl, please.” Another of her judges spoke in a voice meant to lull and calm. “This will go much easier for you if you admit your guilt and repent of your sins.” He was thinner than the first, younger, but much more dangerous in his false kindness. Her confession would be their triumph, but it wouldn’t save her from her fate.

“I have nothing to confess. All I have done, I have done to achieve God’s will.”

“She is mad,” the final examiner declared with a shake of his head. He was not so fat as the first man, but not as thin as the second, and clean shaven. Just as his appearance appeared halfway between the other two judges, so too did his demeanor. He exuded neither great rage nor false care, but instead appeared almost indifferent to her plight. She took him to be the most honest of the three, unconcerned with impressing the witnesses around them, or trapping her in a web of deception and twisted words.

“She is possessed,” the first judge countered. “The Devil himself resides within her.  She is his instrument.”

“She is a woman.” The second judge nodded in agreement. “Her whole sex is far more delicate in constitution, and so much more susceptible to the powers of Hell.”

Isabel stood silent, waiting as the three men bickered back and forth about her state of being. They were like children who had been caught in mischief, and were making excuses for their behavior, convincing their own selves of the truth of their words.

Let them bicker. Let them believe her possessed, or weak because of her sex. In the eyes of God, there was neither man nor woman. God did not limit grace to one over the other. God had chosen her, as God had chosen so many men before her.

When the three continued in their bickering, Isabel fought back a sigh of frustration. Could they not get this over with?

“What proof have you of the crimes I am accused of committing?” she demanded to know, interrupting them.

All three turned to stare at her, no doubt shocked by her authoritative tone. She spoke to them as she imagined the great Queen Isabella might, with strength and confidence. A greater authority than these men possessed stood at her side, guiding her way and clearing her path. They would continue to hurt her, there was no doubt of that. Kill her, even. But they would never break her.

Only one person had ever come close to accomplishing that.


“But, mama, why can I not?”

Isabel’s mother let out a deep breath of frustration, pausing in her work tending their small garden to glance over her shoulder at her daughter.

“It is not allowed,” she answered in a firm tone. “Tis blasphemy to even speak such a thought, but you are a child and cannot be blamed for your ignorance.”

A warm spring breeze played with a tendril of her dark hair, but Isabel swiped at it, annoyed and unsatisfied by her mother’s response. “I am not a child! I am thirteen years this summer, and know my own mind and my call. It is God’s will…”

Image result for medieval garden“Enough of this!” her mother snapped. She stood from her crouch over the soil and turned fully to face Isabel. Her expression was severe, tightening her weathered face, which had once held such beauty before life had imprinted its hardships on her. Her bright dark gaze was tinged with worry and impatience, her full lips thinned into a tight line. “You are just a girl now, but you must learn to mind your tongue and not speak of such things. God’s will for you is to someday marry and bear your husband children. He would not call you to a station so impossibly out of your reach, contradicting the teachings of His Own Church. This is a foolish fantasy, and you must put it aside and face reality.”

But it was not a foolish fantasy. Isabel was certain of that. When she had first been graced with God’s call to her, she had been so young, and oblivious to the difficulties that lay before her in answering that call.

She had told her mother and father about her path that same day it'd been opened to her. They had dismissed it as childish fancy.

When she continued speaking of it, their dismissal evolved. For her mother, it had turned into a fear that she tried to temper with maternal affection. For Isabel’s father, it had turned to anger.

She suspected, though, that his anger was also rooted in fear. It was a fear she had never understood. If God had shown her the path of her life with such vividness, what had she to fear by following it?

“Mama, I…”

Her mother shook her head sharply. “I said no more. One more word, and your father will hear of it by day’s end.”

That did make Isabel pause. Not with doubt, but from fear of a lashing. She dropped her chin and stared at the ground, fighting to keep the tears that threatened to fall from spilling.

“Yes, mama,” she murmured.

There was a pause, and then her mother drew close, her hand coming to rest on Isabel’s shoulder. Gazing up, she met her mother’s saddened eyes and soft smile.

“You are a good girl, Isabel.” Her tone was gentle and soothing, but layered with unmistakable sorrow. “Strong, and faithful…and I have no doubt you truly believe what you say God has called you to. You must understand, my sweet, that it is simply not possible. To even attempt to pursue that life would mean your death.” She wrapped both arms around the girl in a sudden and desperate embrace. She smelled of freshly turned earth and sunshine, the comforting scents at odds with her pleading whisper. “Please, put it from your mind. For my sake, if not for your own. I could not bear it if I lost you.”

At a loss for words, Isabel encircled her mother’s waist with her arms and returned her embrace. Could obeying God in this matter truly lead to her death? The idea had never occurred to Isabel before.

And if her call was meant to bring joy…why was it causing her mama such pain?

As she stood surrounded by the warmth and safety of her mother, Isabel felt the first tendrils of doubt begin to unfurl within her.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Trial - Chapter One

“Heretic…”

The word seemed to echo around her.

“Heretic…”

It echoed because the witnessing crowd chanted it, slapping her with the word as if to brand it onto her.

“Heretic…heretic…heretic…”

The horde fell silent when another voice, brimming with hatred and authority, spoke.

“Isabel Andreu, you stand before this tribunal charged with heresy…”

She knew that. They’d told her as much when they’d dragged her from her cell the first time. They’d wanted her confession. She’d given them none.

They’d hurt her for her silence.

“You are accused of heretical propositions, having blasphemed on multiple occasions against our Holy Mother Church…”

She’d never spoken against the Church. It was her love of the Church, the true Church, that had driven her throughout her life.

“…as well as the desecration of the Holy Sacrament through your actions.”

She’d done God’s will, though the men before her would never admit that fact.

“What say you in response to these accusations?”

At length, she raised her head to find three pairs of dark eyes glaring down at her from their lofty seats of judgement. The finery of the men’s garments did little to hide the malice of their souls as they regarded her with open hostility. She could see her fate in their stares, the condemnation that would befall her no matter the defense she offered.

No matter the truth of her words.

Her body ached. Her arms hung shackled before her, the weight of the chains an agony on her torn muscles. Her legs shook as they fought to keep her standing. She had been given no stool to sit on, no platform to even rest against to relieve her distress.

They’d made sure she’d be able to stay upright, though the pain would be enormous. It was yet another form of torture, subtler and crueler than the rack; to force her to stand throughout a sham of a trial, when all her body desired was the bliss of unconscious oblivion. To give in, though, was to prove that she had been broken. That she was weak, when she must be strong. God had set her on the path to let the Almighty’s will be known, and she could not falter in her task. Though it cost her much to even speak, her words rang out strong and true.

“My lords, I deny these accusations against me with the utmost vehemence. I have spoken no blasphemy, committed no heresy. I have simply done what God has willed of me, and nothing more.”

They stared at her, their expressions ones of mingled disbelief and fury. She could only imagine the thoughts that must be racing through their minds. There she stood, a girl broken of body, but fortified of mind and spirit, challenging their power in front of a mass of witnesses thirsting for her blood.

Who was she to speak against them? Who was she to speak against a thousand years of teachings and tradition?

She was nobody.

She had no power. No wealth. No title. She’d been born into nothing, and would leave this earthly plane with nothing.

Yet, despite her apparent lack, she knew she possessed something far more valuable than gold or prestige. It was something the men before her would never know, would never find for themselves.

Purpose.

Blinded as they were by their own greed and ambition, they would never be able to see their true paths laid out before them. They would never know the true purpose of their lives.

She knew hers. God had show her what she was meant for long ago. She was assured of God's will for her, and no amount of pain or humiliation would make her doubt it.

As Isabel met the gazes of the men who sought her ultimate destruction, she remembered the day a nobody little girl first felt the life-altering, guiding hand of God.  


Isabel was shown her purpose in life for the first time when she was nine-years-old. 


Her mother and father had taken her, and her brothers and sisters, to the Catedral de Ávila to offer praise and thanksgiving for yet another victory by their illustrious warrior Queen and most holy Catholic King. Though they worshiped and celebrated, the battles of their sovereigns felt distant and foreign to young Isabel. She knew only the safety and peace of her home, the beauty of her family’s love, and the security of her faith. The dangers of the world could never breach the sturdiness of her city’s walls. Of this, she was sure.

Her family didn’t often go to the Catedral. It was only the most special of occasions that drew them away from their smaller parish to the more imposing fortress. Yet, this day they went and knelt with the countless others who had come to pray and receive Christ’s flesh.

Isabel was too young yet to understand the full majesty of her faith and the complexities of her Church. She knew that God was mighty, and was willing to punish as quickly as to bless. She knew that Jesus was God’s Son, but also somehow God. That part remained confusing for her. She knew that Mary, his mother, had been a Virgin and that she was made special above all the other saints. She knew her faith protected her from damnation, that she must be sorry for her sins and seek God’s forgiveness, but she did not yet know what either of those things, damnation and sin, were.

Above all, though, she knew that she must listen to the priest, for through his direction she could come to know God.

Perhaps it had been the setting of the Catedral. Perhaps it was that at nine, she was so much more aware of the deference she must show at Mass than she had been in years past. Perhaps it was simply that God appointed that moment to reveal Godself to her. Whatever the reason, that day, at that Mass, as the priest prayed over the bread and the wine, Isabel found she could not look away. She was riveted by the site of the ritual, captured like she had never been before by the motions and the recitation of the proper words. As she knelt with her family in the middle of the cavernous cathedral, the priest raised the host above his head and Isabel felt her breath leave her. A warmth engulfed her, and it was as if a light shone down on the priest and the host, illuminating its transformation from mere bread into the body of the living Christ right before her eyes.

Isabel stared in awe, and a realization struck her like a physical blow. The path of her life opened before her, and it was as if God spoke directly to her. She recognized God’s will for her. It was her vocation to bring that light to the world. That grace. To deliver God’s holy sacrament to the faithful and beyond.

She understood, in that moment, what God’s purpose for her would be…though she was still too young to understand the trials she would be forced to face.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Birth Control, Religious Freedom, and the Systematic Policing of Female Sexuality

The recent rollback of the Obama administration's mandated birth control coverage is being hailed by some as a "victory" for religious freedom.  After all, if you're an employer and access to birth control goes against your religious beliefs, you shouldn't have to provide coverage to your employees, right?

Image result for birth controlNever mind that birth control isn't just used to prevent pregnancy, but (among other things) to regulate women's menstrual cycles, help clear up severe acne, ease menstrual migraines, reduce/ease the effects of PMS, PMDD, menorrhagia, dysmenorrhea, polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, reduce the risk of ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer, and even reduce the risk of breast cancer for women with the BRAC1 and BRAC2 gene mutations.

Never mind that abortion rates drop when women have easy access to affordable birth control and reproductive health care, and teen pregnancy rates drop when they receive comprehensive safe sex education that includes birth control use.

Never mind that birth control restrictions have a greater negative impact on women physically, emotionally, spiritually, and professionally than on men.

Never mind all of that, because we must maintain our religious freedom even if it means denying women the healthcare that they need.  Right?

Wrong.

Despite what the religious right and even what such institutions as the Catholic Church would have us believe, the issue of birth control access isn't an issue about religious freedom.  It's not an issue about faith at all.  It is, and always has been, about control.

It's about controlling women's bodies.

It's about controlling women's sexuality.

Our modern debate over birth control has its foundation in the antiquated belief that female sexuality is something to be feared and contained.

A few clarifying points before I continue: In this discussion, when I use the term "sexuality", I'm not using it to refer to an individual's sexual orientation.  I use it to refer to the innate sexual nature that most (not all!) people possess.  I'm focusing in on faith perspectives, broadly Christian and at times specifically Catholic, because it is on these beliefs and perspectives that our current views on sexuality are founded.  Finally, I'll be talking specifically about the way women within the Christian faith are told to act and be in terms of sexuality.  When I use the phrase "women of faith" I am referring to the Christian faith broadly.  While much of what I will talk about crosses over and effects women outside of the Christian faith, they are the ones primarily impacted by the beliefs I will expound on.

All right, so let's begin with a simple question.

Can women of faith also be sexual?

Were you to ask most people of faith if they believed a woman's sexuality was an inherently bad or evil aspect of the individual, they would probably say no.  Ordained, lay, somewhere in between, whatever...ideally, most people of faith would not believe a woman's sexuality is a bad thing.  But as an organization...as a system of belief...that's another story.

It's not just that we're told not to have sex outside of marriage.  Sexuality isn't always about sexual acts.  It's about how we present ourselves...how we embrace and accept ourselves.  Yet piety and sexuality don't seem able to go hand-in-hand in the Christian faith.  We regulate sexuality, confining it to the bonds of marriage, and shaming those who step outside of those bonds.  The notion of sexual inequality between men and women is nothing new, but it's made starker in the Christian faith where the male form remains firmly the ideal and the female form somehow lesser.  Women are told to act a certain way so as not to cause temptation.  To dress a certain way so as not to draw attention.  To have certain expectations of ourselves and our "purity".  To be humble, and gentle, and loving, and submissive because that is simply our feminine "nature", whereas men are aggressive, and outspoken, and dominant.

The Christian Church is built on the foundation that sex is wrong, and female sexuality is particularly dangerous.  Though our modern ideals would shirk from these notions, we still maintain antiquated beliefs in what is good and bad about the human body based on the works of men that lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago when women were no better than property and God was firmly male.  St. Paul, Augustine, Aquinas...the patriarchs of our faith all held the view that there was something inherently sinful about sex, and that it needed to be contained.  St. Paul wrote that it was better not to marry, but if you couldn't control your sexual desires, better to be married than to burn.  Augustine believed that original sin was passed from generation to generation through the act of sexual intercourse.  Aquinas wrote that, according to natural law, sex must be used for the act of procreation, and anything outside of that intent is sinful.

Still, even sex within the bonds of marriage is not the ideal for some.  In the Catholic Church, celibacy is a mark of leadership.  Virginity is a mark of sainthood (though how often to we elevate a man to sainthood because of his virginity?).  Women religious were once cloistered away behind high convent walls and body-masking habits to preserve their purity and hide them away from prying eyes.  The Song of Songs is held up as some kind of love letter between God and the Church, or God and humanity, instead of the erotic poetry between a woman and her lover (doesn't ever say they're married) that it is.  We even stripped Mary of her sexuality, perpetuating her virginity though she was married, because sex was too great of a distraction from her work as Christ's mother, and too dirtied with sin for her to partake in it and still remain the pure image of femininity the Church wanted her to be.  And so, the feminine ideal we are presented in the Catholic faith is that of the humble, quiet, pious, virgin mother who was so free of sin that even sexual desire didn't darken her immortal soul.  

Where does such negativity come from?  Why does sex so often seem the root of all that is evil?  God made us sexual beings.  It's a basic part of our human existence.  Today, you can often hear people say that sexuality is as much a spiritual experience as a physical one.  That it's a gift from God to be cherished.

So why do we continue to fear it?

Could it be because we can't always control what triggers our sexual desires?  Is it because our sexuality is such a primal, natural part of our beings that it makes us more animal than human when we acknowledge it?  Is it because it steals us of our reason and distracts us from God's will?

And why women?  Why are women of faith put under so much more pressure than men to rein in their sexuality?

Eve was the one that tempted Adam into sin.  Women are weaker and so more susceptible to falling to the sins of the flesh.  They will drag men down with them.  They must be controlled.  We must protect ourselves from them, etc. etc.

You might think that these ideas and beliefs are crazy, but they remain foundational to us to this very day even if we don't recognize them.  They are reflected in what we are told is right and reverent, and what is inappropriate and disrespectful to God.

One glaring example of this is how women of faith are told to dress.  The way we dress is dictated in such a way as to hide our sexuality from the world.  We're told to cover ourselves, to dress a certain way to maintain an appropriate "modesty" in order to really respect ourselves.  In schools, especially religious schools, girls are put under more pressure by dress codes dictating what is "appropriate" for them to wear than boys are.  Buy why is that?  Why is the girl in a long skirt and baggy blouse somehow more pious than the girl in short-shorts and a low V-neck shirt?  Why does the amount of skin we show demonstrate our commitment to our faith?  Why is covering ourselves up and hiding our bodies away somehow a sign of our self-respect, and not our shame?  One of the first signs indicating that Adam and Eve had fallen from grace was their embarrassment over their own nakedness.  They covered themselves to hide their bodies because they were ashamed.  So why, instead of allowing women to embrace their bodies, do we associate the display of naked flesh with sin?

I work out.  I have nice legs.  If I want to wear a shorter skirt to show off my legs because I'm proud of them, is that really so wrong?

Does God really care?

"But Erin, we can't have women going around half-naked!  That's just not right!"

What about the female body is so wrong?  What about female sexuality is so wrong?

We don't tell women to cover themselves and downplay their sexuality because we think that's really what is best for them.  We do it because we don't want them to be a "temptation" for men.  How many times has a girl been sent home from school because her clothing was deemed "inappropriate", and the reason given for disciplining her was that she was a distraction to her male counterparts?  How many times have we explained away a rape or sexual assault by pointing to what the victim was wearing and saying she was asking for it?  How many times has a women been judged and called a slut simply because of her outfit?

But it's not just our clothes.  It's not just how we present ourselves.  It's not just how we talk about sex.  It's how our bodies are policed.  How control over our own bodies is taken from us.  In the Catholic Church, for instance, we're told that birth control is wrong because it blocks the possibility of procreation, but these decisions are being made by an institution where women have little to no say in regards to the laws and doctrines of their own faith.  These declarations are being passed down the ladder by the celibate men in charge who've never had to worry about irregular periods, or whether or not getting pregnant would have an effect on their job or possibly pose a risk to their health.  They don't know the physical strain a woman's reproduction cycle causes, and how much emotional and mental stress trying to keep track of everything can cause.

They don't see that.  The system that has built up around them, one which fears female sexuality and bodily freedom, won't allow them to see that.  Won't allow them to trust a woman with herself.  History has shown us that the dominant don't like to give up control and power...they fear what will happen if the dominated are empowered.

What's more terrifying to a patriarchal establishment than a woman in full command of her body and sexuality?

So, I don't celebrate the mandate rollback as a victory for religious freedom.  I see it as yet another form of oppression.  Another way to stifle female sexuality and belittle a beautiful gift from God.  Another demonstration of the power of those who are dominant in our Church and society, and what lengths they will go to to keep it.

But at the end of the day, aren't those the people who Jesus spoke out against the most?

Until next time,
Erin B.         

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Aftermath of Las Vegas: Recognizing our Own Role in a National Tragedy

I honestly don't know how to comprehend today.

When I woke up and heard of the horrors that took place in Las Vegas, I was heartsick.  My first thought was "How could something like this happen?"

My second was a prayer for the victims and their families.

My third was "What excuses will people make this time?"

I dreaded going onto any social media sites because I was afraid that, among the heartfelt prayers and acknowledgements of the tragedy, I would also see excuses being made, accusations being thrown, and a side-stepping of the issues underlying this terrible event.

Or worse, I'd see nothing.  I'd see that we, as a society, have given up.

We need better gun control, and greater support for the mentally ill in this country.  That's it, the end.  I don't want to get into arguments with anyone about this right now.  Those facts are not the point of this post.  Those discussions...those arguments...will be had over and over again in the coming weeks, I'm sure, just as they've been had over and over again following every mass shooting that has happened in this country.

There's a bigger problem, though, that I want to focus on because it's one that no one talks about.  I think it's because no one wants to put a spotlight on it and highlight one of our greatest shames.

It's us.  It's we, the people.

It's the society we've allowed to build up around us.  The awful things we've normalized for ourselves.

It's our lack of empathy.

Our lack of reason.

Our lack of compassion.

Our lack of recognition that the world does not revolve around us.

We are selfish.  We are bullies.  We value our own privileges and comforts far more than the lives and well-beings of others.

You might be reading this and thinking, "That's not me!  I care!"  And I have no doubt that you do.

Individually, most of us aren't terrible people.  Most of us are good, loving, and just want the world to be a better place.

But have you ever avoided a conversation about gun control because it made you uncomfortable, or you didn't want to get "too political"?  Have you ever voted for someone you know has cut or plans to cut mental health services or support programs for the poor and disabled?  Have you ever hidden behind the words "We can't know God's plan" because it takes the responsibility to create change out of your own hands?

We might not think our actions and reservations have much effect on an individual level, but we don't exist in a vacuum.  We impact the way our society is shaped, even the things we don't say or do leave a mark, and our society reproduces the values and norms we feed into it.

What do the values and norms we see within our society say about us as a people?

As a whole we're broken.  As a collective, as a nation, we've created a society where this kind of tragedy is allowed to happen...and not just once.

It's allowed to happen again...and again...and again...

Las Vegas may be the deadliest, but it's not an anomaly.  Mass shootings have became a part of the cultural landscape of this country...and it's our own fault.

We don't care enough.  Not as a whole.  If we as a nation truly wanted to stop these tragedies from happening, we'd figure out a way to do it.  We'd come together...we'd work together.  We'd stop making excuses and actually do something.

The facts are we need more sensible gun control and greater support and care for the mentally ill.

But we also need more compassion.

More reason.

More empathy.

We need to see that this isn't an individual issue.  This isn't about us on a personal level, but about all of us together.  We need to recognize the broken society we've erected around ourselves and how deadly it's become.

These types of horrors will continue to plague us until we recognize that we, as a whole, need to step back and look at how we are systemically failing.  As individuals, we can send prayers, we can work to change laws, or keep them the same, but if we can't figure out how to work together...how to hold each other up rather than tearing each other down over and over again, nothing's going to get better.

We have a major problem in this country...we simply don't care.

This isn't how I originally intended this post to go.  I wanted to offer a prayer, some words of comfort for those struggling to wrap their minds around Las Vegas, but then I realized I'd said it all before.  I'd prayed it all before.  That doesn't mean I'll stop praying.  I will pray that the victims and families are able to find some comfort and hope in God, or whatever they maintain gives them life and purpose.  I'll continue to pray for this nation in a desperate hope that we figure it out and are able to heal ourselves.  I don't want to hide behind those prayers, though.  I don't want to say I've offered them, and then think I've somehow done my part.  I don't want people to just speak some nice words that give more comfort to the ones saying them than the actual victims and think that's enough.  More than prayers, right now we need a reality check.  We need to recognize this kind of thing isn't just going to go away, or that because we have not been personally affected that we can just easily forget it and go on with our lives.

Tragedies like Las Vegas will only keep happening until we as a collective come together and say "enough"...and actually mean it.

We have to refuse to let this be a norm in our society.  We have to refuse to let ourselves grow numb to it.

Until that day comes, until we can see beyond our own tiny worlds and understand that we're part of something bigger than ourselves, that we should care about something other than ourselves, nothing will change.  Nothing will get better.  It will only be more of the same.

Pray for Las Vegas.  Pray for our nation.  But then actually do something to make it better.

Amen.

Erin B.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Reconciliation Does Not Mean Compromise: Thoughts in the Wake of Charlottesville

It's been a week since the events in Charlottesville took place.  Emotions are running high across the country.  More protests, both by Nazis and those brave enough to oppose them, are planned for this coming weekend.  People are afraid that last Saturday's violence will be repeated.  People are afraid that this country is crumbling at the seams.

There have been a lot of reactions to Charlottesville.  There have been a lot of opinions.  There's been a lot of blame.

I want to state a few things right away, before I get at the heart of my post.

First, what happened in Charlottesville wasn't as simple as Republicans versus Democrats, or Right versus Left.  This was a clear case of good versus evil.  Racism and white supremacy are sins.  They are evil.  They are a cancer in our society that is rotting us from the inside out.  The people that stood up to the white supremacists and Nazis parading their hate through the streets of Charlottesville carry no blame in what took place.  They were standing up to evil.  They were standing up for what is right.  They were protecting our values as Americans, and facing down an enemy we've fought before.

Second, the white supremacists and Nazis who gathered to protest the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee were not doing so to try and "protect" national history.  Whatever General Lee's strengths may or may not have been, in the end he was a rebel, fighting against the United States to maintain an economic system literally built on the backs of slaves.  Whatever good he may or may not have done before or after the Civil War, his image is not one to be honored and memorialized.  He is an important figure in our history, but he is ultimately a villain in our history.  And now, whatever positive legacy he may have had has been forever tainted by Nazi ideology, and because he is now a rallying point for them and other white supremacists, his image must be restricted to our history books and museums, and not be immortalized in our public parks and town squares.

Third, there is no comparison between the Alt-Right, Neo-Nazi, and white supremacist protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.  The white supremacists movement wants to maintain a racist system that keeps white people in power at the expense and exclusion of all other groups, and for some there is even the desire to exterminate those other groups.  The Black Lives Matter movement demands that the lives of black and other people of color be as equally respected as white lives, because the lives of people of color have been historically and systemically devalued in this country in a way white lives simply haven't.  White supremacists are about just that, maintaining white supremacy.  Black Lives Matter is about equality and recognition that black lives matter just as much as white lives.

Fourth, we must be very careful when we call for reconciliation, and this is what I truly want to emphasize with this post.  Since Charlottesville, I've heard many people say that we can't give into the hate and violence.  I've heard Church leaders declare that we must seek reconciliation and peace.  I agree with this.  I agree that our ultimate goals should be reconciliation and peace within our divided country, and violence should not be depended upon in this pursuit.  However, we are nowhere close to these goals, and anyone who thinks the problems in our country have an easy fix are deeply mistaken.

We must be very careful to not confuse reconciliation with compromise, or peace with quiet.  There can be no compromise with the ideologies that white supremacists and Nazis propagate.  We cannot be silent in the face of such hate and racism.  Many people have the misunderstanding that we just need to agree to disagree, that there are two sides that simply need to reconcile with each other.  This cannot happen.  White supremacy and the racism essential for it to thrive cannot be tolerated ideologies.  There can be no reconciliation until such beliefs are given up.  To settle for anything less only perpetuates the problem, and we'll be facing the same discrimination, hate, and violence in another hundred years if we bend in this.

Many people believe that if everyone just calms down, if we just stop talking about it we'll stop feeding the hate and we'll be able to make peace once more.  That's not true peace.  That's willful ignorance of the evil that surrounds us.  We've never had true peace in this country.  Groups of people, especially people of color, have always faced violence, discrimination, and subjugation in the United States.  It started when European settlers first arrived here and declared themselves superior to the Native Americans, and it's never stopped.  Speaking out against white supremacy, racism, and discrimination isn't feeding into the hate.  It's looking that hate in the face and saying "We will not stand for this!"  Peace cannot happen without confrontation.  I do not advocate for violence, and I do not wish for violence to be used to bring about peace.  Confrontation doesn't have to be violent, but it must be firm.  It must be unceasing until the ultimate goal of change is reached.

This isn't as simple as changing someone's mind or politics, however.  This is about changing hearts.  This is about showing the coming generations that these ideologies are evil, and that we don't back down from evil.  We fight it.  We oppose it.  We stand counter to it in our streets.  We blockade it to protect the defenseless.  We give it a name, and we shout that name as loud as we can so everyone knows exactly what the evil is we are fighting against.

Violence will not lead to reconciliation and peace, but neither will silence or compromise.  All good and decent people, all people of faith, all people claiming to uphold the ideals of America must be willing to engage in confrontation when faced with such clear and present evil.  There is no reconciling with it.  We must condemn it outright.  We must work to change the hearts of those who feed it and allow it to thrive.

For white Americans, much of this means recognizing how we benefit from systems designed to blockade everyone else, and being willing to tear those systems down in order to start anew.  It means not hiding behind our own privileges and pretending we don't see all of the wrong in our society because acknowledging and confronting it makes us uncomfortable.  

For people of faith, this means remembering that Jesus himself drove the merchants from the temple because they desecrated his house with their actions and greed.  There was no compromising in his dealings with them.  He restored goodness with direct confrontation.

For people who claim to uphold the ideals of America, that means remembering that America isn't perfect.  It never has been.  Any greatness it's had has always been tainted with the racism and subjugation of groups of people that has always existed in this country.  It means recognizing that the only way America can ever be truly great is if we give up the notion that only one group can lay claim to it.  This is a land of immigrants.  A land of diversity.  A land of opportunity.  If we wish to truly embrace our values and be the country we claim we are, we must not allow racism and hate to have any further hold on us.  We must hold ourselves and those who lead us accountable when it comes to condemning such evil and standing against it.  We must put our words into actions, speak truth to power, and shine a bright light on the evil that permeates our society so that we can more easily combat it.

Reconciliation and peace are our ultimate goals, but they cannot be excuses for inaction, silence, or compromise.  If we want to truly achieve either of them, we must not hide from the evil that infects us.  We must confront it.  We must condemn it.  We must defeat it.  Only then can we make America great, truly great, for the first time in its history.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Reality of Infertility: A Response to "Making Sense Out of Bioethics: Considering the Options for Infertile Couples"

Recently, I was home visiting my parents for a long weekend.  One night, as I was lying on their couch watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory, my mom came storming into the living room and slapped a newspaper down next to me.  I looked to see that it was the Catholic Globe, the paper produced and distributed through our Diocese.  Upon seeing the paper, I knew in an instant what had upset her.  She'd been reading an article that I'd attempted to read myself, but hadn't been able to get through.  It was an article written by a priest, a Bioethicist, entitled "Making Sense Out of Bioethics: Considering the Options for Infertile Couples". Follow this link to read the article in full.

To anyone who hasn't experienced infertility, the article might seem rather practical and straightforward.  The author states that some couples experience infertility, that the Church is morally opposed to certain medical practices to counter said infertility, and then lists other possible options for those couples to "still realize their parental and maternal desires".  At first read through, it might be hard to point out anything particularly offensive or insensitive.

However, break it down and read it through the eyes of someone who has suffered through infertility, and it comes off much differently.  I myself have not had this experience because I've not tried to have children yet.

But my mom has.

I won't lie, this post proved very difficult for me to write.  There's so much about this article that angered me, and I found myself going on and on about the Church's stance on IVF and the author's claim that such treatments "produce" children rather than conceive them.  I struggled with what angle to take, thinking first to go paragraph by paragraph through the article and basically write what I found wrong with the statements and claims made.  I couldn't seem to wrap my head around everything that's in the article.  There's simply so much I could say.  So much I could write.  But then it dawned on me.  It's not about me.  This blog post isn't about me.

It's about my mom.

It's about my dad.

It's about every couple that has struggled with infertility.  Experienced the pain of knowing they can't have children the "natural" way.  Known the fear that the biological children they long for might be beyond their grasp.

This post is about my mom's reaction to the article.  Not mine.  It's about what she found offensive and painful.  What she objected to because of everything she's experienced.  In the end, it doesn't matter what I think.  It matters what she knows.

The author of this article spends much of his time writing about why IVF is considered immoral to the Church and listing other treatments that are basically Church "approved".  Even now as I write, it's very hard for me not to go off and rip into his statements.  But again, it's not about me.  I've never had to choose whether to do IVF or not.  My mom has.

Image result for infertilityMy mom and I never really talked much about her struggles before she and my dad pursued adoption.  She's never really told me about the other options they considered.  All I really knew was that it took them a long time to come to the decision to adopt, and that that decision was preceded by several years of pain and disappointment.  I never understood just how painful, though.  How disappointing.  I still don't understand fully, but after reading this article, my mom shared some more with me about that time in her life.  That time before I was even a thought.  When conception, not adoption, was the ultimate goal.

She told me that IVF had once been on the table as an option for her and my dad.  My mom will admit to having mixed feelings about procedures like IVF.  She isn't completely okay with it, but also isn't completely against it.  What she would never do is presume to think she can tell another couple whether or not they should do it.  She just knows, in the end, it wasn't the path for her and my dad, but not for the reasons I would have guessed.  She talked about the emotional roller-coaster she was forced through when she was going through fertility treatments.  About the hope when the doctor told her she might be pregnant, followed quickly by the despair when sometimes mere days later her body proved she wasn't.  She told me aside from any moral objections, what really kept her from pursuing the treatment was the fact that she simply wanted off that ride.  She couldn't take the sudden up and the crashing down anymore.

Infertility is not an uncommon condition in my family, and we are not unfamiliar with the medical options available to suffering couples.  It's important to highlight the fact that infertility is not just a female issue.  Men suffer from it too.  Men I know and love right alongside women I know and love have had to deal with their body's inability to conceive.  Though my parents eventually chose to go the route of adoption, I have several family members who were conceived using IVF, and no one will ever convince me that their conceptions were any less meaningful than if they took place naturally.  I saw the pain their parents went through.  The struggle.  They tried to hide it from the rest of us most of the time, but the frustration and despair slipped through the cracks every now and then.  If anything, the pain they went through, the disappointment, the perseverance in achieving their goal of conception is so much more meaningful than a lot of natural pregnancies that happen because someone forgot the condom.  Their use of IVF wasn't a way of "producing" children rather than conceiving them, or made their pregnancies any less meaningful than if they had happened naturally.  It made those pregnancies miracles.  The children born of those pregnancies are miracles.

Okay.  So, I managed to slip in a little something about IVF.  I simply couldn't help myself.

My mom was angry at the article for what it said about IVF and similar treatments, but it was the last few paragraphs that really pushed her over the edge.        

"In some cases, a couple’s infertility will end up being irresolvable. Even as a husband and wife face the grief and sorrow of not being able naturally to conceive children of their own, they can still realize their paternal and maternal desires in other meaningful, fruitful and loving ways. For example, they may discern a call to adopt a child, providing a mom and a dad to someone whose parents have died or felt that they could not care for the child."
Why did this paragraph set her off in particular?  Adoption is obviously a wonderful thing!  She ended up adopting three children and thanks God everyday that she did.  So what's the problem?
Read it again.
Read the last sentence.  Look at the part that says "providing a mom and a dad to someone whose parents have died..."  Again, if you haven't experienced adoption, you might not catch it.
"to someone whose parents..."
My mom isn't raising anyone else's children.  She's raising her children.  She and my dad are our parents.  You might not think the wording of this sentence is that big of a deal, but when you've grown up constantly correcting people about who your "real" mom is, it's a knife to the heart.  To me, this paragraph says "well, if you can't have your own children, there are plenty of people who don't want theirs so you can have them".  My mom read it in a similar way...these kids aren't really yours.  You're just the back-up mom.
"They might decide to become a camp counselor or a schoolteacher, or provide temporary foster care to a child in crisis, generously taking on an authentic parenting role. They may become a “Big Brother/Big Sister” to youth in the community who yearn for a father or mother figure in their lives."
I need to start this paragraph off by saying that these are all wonderful pursuits, and more people should take on such roles as camp counselor, foster parent, or Big Brother/Big Sister.  However, how dare the author assume that these roles will in any way compare to having children of your own, whether adopted or conceived?  It's comparing apples to oranges.  Foster parent comes the closest, but it's not the same.  Couples who suffer from infertility can experience years of physical, emotional, and spiritual agony, the effects of which can linger the rest of their lives.  My mom is so happy that she has my siblings and I, but she still experiences mixed emotions when she thinks about the fact that she never was pregnant.  She'll never know what it's like to carry a child.  When other women talk about their pregnancy experiences, she can't participate in the conversations.  She simply doesn't know, and as completely happy as she is, and how certain she is that she wouldn't change a thing about how we became a family, those feelings simply don't disappear.  That hurt and disappointment lingers.    
"Although these solutions do not take away all the grief, they are a means by which God helps to draw good out of their situation. By these means, couples are challenged to “think outside the box” and enter into the mysterious designs of God within their marriage. By stepping away from a desire to conceive and raise biological children of their own, couples facing irresolvable infertility can discover new and unexpected paths to marital fruitfulness, paths that bring great blessings to others, and that can lead to abiding joy and marital fulfillment."
Move on.  Get over it.  That's basically the gist of this final paragraph.
It's easy for someone living a celibate, unmarried life to write this.  Children aren't in his future.  He doesn't have the feelings of a spouse to consider.  His hopes for a family aren't unexpectedly crushed because his body has betrayed him on a primal level.  It's easy to pass judgement when you haven't been personally drowning in the experience.
Infertility is traumatic.  Grief is not the only emotion that couples experience.  Grief barely scratches the surface.  Disappointment.  Frustration.  Physical agony.  Hopelessness.  Guilt.
The guilt surprised me.
My mom told me how guilty she felt.  She said that when you go in to be tested for infertility, as bad as it sounds, you hope it's not you.  But if it's not you, then its your spouse.  It was my mom, not my dad.  He was perfectly capable of having children.  The guilt that she couldn't give him what someone else could was one of the hardest things for her.  The physical pain, the emotional strain...all of it was wrapped up in guilt.
I had never considered that.  I'm not at that point in my life yet.  I haven't been in a committed relationship where it's not just about what I want.  Whenever I think of having children, it's always with just me in mind.  I've always thought, if I have trouble conceiving, I wouldn't have a problem adopting.  But what about my spouse?  What would he feel?  What would he want?  What would he be capable of?
It's complicated.  Infertility is complicated and difficult.  People do almost unimaginable things to their bodies to try and overcome it.  You don't put yourself through that kind of pain for nothing.  The desire for children for these couples is so great, so all-consuming that they will put themselves through torture to achieve their dream.  I've heard people dismiss these efforts as selfish.  Unreasonable.  But they don't get it.  They haven't experienced the desperation these couples have.  This author has never and will never experience this first hand.  So it's easy for him to write about it.  To be practical and reasonable to the point of dismissive.  It's easy for him to pass judgement.  It's easy for him and the rest of the clergy to pass judgement on the way our families are made  in black and white terms because they don't know the gray.  They haven't lived it.  They haven't suffered through it.  Not the way some couples have.  Not the way my parents have.
Their pain isn't yours to dismiss.  Their experiences aren't yours to undermine.  Their tragedy is not your "mysterious design".  Their marital fulfillment is not your soapbox.  Their fruitfulness is none of your business. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

God Is Not My Father

I remember the first time I heard a priest refer to God as Mother from the pulpit.

I was in grad school, and was attending a special visit-day Mass with most of the theology school.  During his homily, the priest very casually switched out "Father" and used "Mother" when talking about God.  He didn't point it out.  Didn't say "look at this cool thing I'm doing."  He just did it, right there, in front of a Church full of theology students and prospective students, as if it were the most natural, normal thing in the world.

It blew my freaking mind.

I had, of course, heard people refer to God as Mother many times before this.  It wasn't a new concept to me.  I'd attended a non-Catholic undergrad, studied Feminist Theology in various forms, and explored the power of liturgical language over and over again.  Yet, I'd never ever heard a priest call God "Mother" in a formal Mass setting.  He knew what he was doing.  His casualness was intentional, meant to shake us up and make us think.  And for me at least, it worked.

Fast forward a few years, and another priest lectures me about why I should always refer to God as Father in the liturgical setting.  During a reading, I'd intentionally used non-gendered words to describe God in place of the gendered ones because I was no longer able to view God in that singular way.  According to this particular priest, however, I shouldn't do that because it somehow disturbs the community.  It's all well and good if I think that for myself, but I need to fall in line with everyone else.  Don't question, don't challenge, just do what I'm told.

I'm not very good as doing what I'm told when I don't think it's right.

Here's my issue with referring to God strictly as "Father".  It's so constrictive.  It limits my understanding of God and puts God into a tiny little box that defines how I always and forever view God.  That's not to say I always refer to God as Mother instead.  I don't.  I still don't think that's enough.  I try to use gender-neutral descriptions as often as I'm able.  It's not easy, and it usually sounds awkward, but I also know that my abilities as a human to comprehend God are limited.  So, in order to force myself to expand my understanding of God, I need to take God out of the tidy-little box that I grew up with.

Now, please don't take that to mean anyone who views God as "Father" is small-minded in any way.  If understanding God as a father-figure is the best way for you to develop a relationship with God, then that is what you need to do.  My main concern in this post is the ingrained patriarchal language used at the institutional level of the Church to describe not just God, but humanity in general.  So much of the tension in the Catholic Church can be boiled down to how it restricts itself by insisting on constantly portraying God as male, and only male, and upholding antiquated language that no longer reflects the complexity of human nature.

I get why God has been seen as male for so long.  God is the ultimate authority, and men have historically dominated society as its authority figures (because patriarchy).  Our understanding of humanity has also been extremely limited for most of our short time on this earth.  We used to think in much more black and white terms.  There were men, and there were women, and both sides had specific roles to play.  To deviate from those roles was to go against the "natural" order of things.  But, as we have found throughout the years, humanity is much more complicated than that.  We're not as binary as we once thought (though many continue to insist that we are).  What we've learned from science (which is not the enemy of religion, just by the way) and the observation of the human experience is that gender isn't as simple as men and women, and sexuality is a spectrum that we all fall on in different ways.  Our faith tells us that we are made in God's image.  So, if humanity is complicated, why do we insist on making God so simple?

It's impossible for humans to fully comprehend God.  We haven't had, and still really don't have, the language to describe God in a way that doesn't confine God to any one particular image.  We talk about God in ways that make sense to us, but in doing so, we risk closing ourselves off to other manifestations of God because what we imagine God to be cements itself in our heads as a result of the language we are constantly using to describe God.  Language is a powerful tool.  As we learn and develop, explore and grow, our language expands with us.  Words, phrases, and their meanings shift and evolve as our understanding of the human condition becomes more and more intricate and sophisticated.  Human beings need language to define our existence.  We use language to bring order to the chaos that surrounds us, sometimes to our detriment.  We use labels and categories to keep individuals in place, to separate the us from them, to create hierarchies of the privileged and the unprivileged.  We value some variations of language over others to create structures of power for a few and barriers for those whose personal language doesn't match up.

Once upon a time, God was a man because that made sense.  God was Father because that was how the people who worshiped God could begin to comprehend that awesome mystery.  But that's not enough anymore.  We need a broader understanding of God.  We need to stop trying to define God through our own, limited lenses.  What was once a way for humanity to better appreciate and relate to God has become a restrictive, damaging trap that creates greater opportunities for oppression than for redemption.

When God is only "Father", women are secondary to men.  Some would argue otherwise, but it's true.  How can it not be true?  If we worship a male only God, then it's easier to enforce and justify the submissive, subordinate roles that are so often forced on women within the Church, and within society at large.  It's easier to lock them out of leadership within the Church.  To deny them the right to fully participate in the sacramental life of the Church.  We're given excuses like "Jesus only selected male followers", and if you're reading the Bible literally, then yes, Jesus did only choose male followers.  But Catholics aren't supposed to read the Bible as literal history.  The Bible was written within the context of human history, in a certain time and place where societal norms would dictate how the story of Jesus would ultimately be told.  As the norms shift, as we learn and grow, our readings and interpretations of the Bible must also shift and grow as more truths are revealed to us in the world.

We're also told things like "only men can appropriately represent God because of the natural differences between men and women."  Yes, there may be natural differences between men and women, but both are necessary in order to fully understand God.  There may be differences between the genders, but all of those differences reveal a different facet to the mystery of God.  We need all sides to appreciate God.  God is all things, all people, all genders, and by insisting that God be always one way, we lose out on everything else that God is.

Granted, it's not an easy shift to make.  I still catch myself shifting back to male-specific descriptions of God when I'm not paying attention.  It's been ingrained into me my whole life, so it's my automatic reflex when my guard is down.  Just because that's how it's been so far, though, doesn't mean that's how it always should be.  God is more than we let God be.  The Church, as a whole, needs to do more to explore the many faces and facets of God, to recognize the true complexity of the human existence, and to appreciate the great beauty and freedom that lies within this broader understanding of God and of ourselves.  It is only when we allow ourselves the opportunity to see beyond our own limited scope of the world that we can come to truly encounter the divine.

In the name of the Creator, the Word, and the Holy Spirit.

Until next time,
Erin B.