Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Trial - Chapter Five


The girl finished her story and waited, head bowed and trembling hands clasped in front of her.

“Very good, my dear,” the second examiner said. “Your testimony is accepted with our thanks, and the thanks of Holy Mother Church.” There was no need to even pretend at a cross examination. The girl scuttled back into the crowd without so much as a glance towards Isabel.

“Bring out the next witness…”

Isabel stood as witness after witness was paraded through to give testimony to her supposed sins. A few more were her own parishioners. Men and women who had come to her seeking guidance, prayer, and compassion were now turning on her as if she were a stranger they cared nothing for. Several fellow priests also testified, claiming to have suspected her all along when Isabel knew none of them had ever had a clue as to her true sex. They’d called themselves her friends. Her companions.

Now she could see them for what they truly were. Liars and cowards.

None of the witnesses’ words truly mattered that much, however. The first girl’s story had been more than enough to justify a conviction. The rest were just for show. A way to humiliate her and isolate her before she was marched to the pyre.

When the last witness had finished his statement and been dismissed, Isabel’s three examiners gazed at her with looks of triumphant self-righteousness. 

“I believe we have plenty to make a final judgement,” the third judge declared. His tone was neither outraged nor exultant. He spoke as if stating a simple fact. As if he were announcing that the sky was blue, and not signaling the start of her official condemnation.

They’d passed judgement on her long before that moment. It was merely to maintain the pretense that their justice was fair that a trial had been held for her at all.

The first of her condemners nodded in agreement with the third.

“We are all three in accord then?”

The fact that they didn’t even take time to confer was proof Isabel had never stood a chance before them. Anger and frustration sizzled in her blood, but she forced a deep breath, biting back a moan as it rattled her nearly broken body. 

She must remember that no matter their sentence…no matter her fate…God was with her. God had always been with her. They could hurt her, condemn her with earthly punishments, but her ultimate reward would be worth any pain she endured. She was right. Her path was good and true, and they were simply wrong.   
    
“Do you have anything you wish to say before your sentence is laid before you?” the second judge asked, his face a mask of false kindness while his eyes glittered with malice.

She did have something to say. She had many things to say, in truth, but so few of them actually mattered in that moment. Knowing nothing she said would lessen the severity of the punishment she must face, she settled simply for the truth. The truth she knew, deep down in her heart.

“I have broken the laws of man, and so it is man that punishes me. But I have done the will of God, and so God shall reward me just as surely as He shall condemn each of you.”

Their individual looks of rage were oddly satisfying, which she knew was spiteful of her. She thought that perhaps God would allow her that one sin, though, in the face of what was to come.

“Isabel Andreu,” the first examiner spat. Literal spittle ran down his chin, he was so infuriated. “This tribunal finds you guilty of all the crimes to which you are accused, foremost being that of heresy against our Holy Mother Church…”

I am no heretic. But you will never admit to it. None of you will.

“You refuse to repent of your sins. You refuse to acknowledge your transgressions against God and His Holy Church, and so we have no choice but to deliver upon you the most grievous of punishments…”

I will walk in the light of the Lord. I have done what has been asked of me to the best of my ability. My reward will be worth your punishment.

“We sentence you to death…”

In dying he destroyed our death…

“We sentence you to burn.”

In rising, he restored our life.

“May God have mercy on your soul.”

I am the Lord’s vessel. My soul is His to do with as He wishes.


She had to be taken to her execution in the back of a cart. After her trial, it no longer mattered if she could stand on her own. She’d be supported by the pole around which the fire would be built.

“Heretic! Heretic!”

The crowds had returned. This time, their cries were fevered with bloodlust. For the common people, executions could be so exciting, a breakup of their regular, often harsh lives.

They could be as entertaining for the people as a festival, especially when they weren’t the ones about to die.

Isabel barely registered their cries, however. She floated in that strange haze that existed between consciousness and oblivion. They’d tried again to break her, and by all accounts she had been broken. Her body was no better than a sack of loose bones. She should feel pain, but she only felt numb. The numbness was a blessing, she supposed.

Yes, they’d broken her body…but they’d never broken her spirit.

As she rattled down the cobblestone streets, jolted this way and that like a rag doll, she found herself oddly at peace. Even as the crowd began to pelt her cart with stones and rotten vegetables, her soul was untroubled. She was going home, she realized. She was going back to God. Why should she grieve at the prospect of such joy?

The cart came to a lurching stop that tipped her fully onto her side. Still, there was no pain. No sensation of any kind. Perhaps it was God’s own mercy, alleviating her agony in her final moments.

Image result for medieval execution burningTwo guards pulled her from the back of the cart. Her feet dragged uselessly behind her as they carried her to the large wooden pole that would serve as her vehicle into the next life. Neatly piled bundles of wood surrounded its base. It appeared someone had taken great care in their arrangement. That thought made her want to smile.

They tied her to the pole, tight enough that she wouldn’t slouch. Her legs offered her no support, so she was bound from ankle to neck. Even with her death imminent, that sense of peace remained.

Blinking, she tried to clear her blurred vision enough to see out into the crowd. They were many faces she recognized. Members of her parish, their expressions ones of disgust, rage, and relief. That last was no doubt because it was she who was tied to a pole and surrounded by bundles of wood, and not themselves.

Yet, there were others. Eyes wet with unshed tears. Faces filled with sorrow. Faces she’d gazed upon not so long ago from the pulpit as she’d preached God’s Word.

She would be grieved, then. It was a comfort to know…though she found she needed little comfort.

Her executioner asked her for forgiveness.

She gave it, readily.

He took a burning torch in his hand and touched it to the bundles at her feet.

Isabel closed her eyes, but not in fear. The heat of the fire caressed her face as it caught and grew around her. It reminded her of the Holy Spirit, manifested as flame as it descended on Christ’s disciples at the Pentecost. It was not the fires of Hell that surrounded her, devouring her flesh as a mob of her Christian brothers and sisters gazed on. It was a holy fire. A baptism. She was being reborn.

She felt no pain.

She felt no regret.

In the end, the blaze of her destruction faded away into the brilliant light of her salvation.

She’d done God’s will…and God was welcoming her home.        
  
The End

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Trial - Chapter Four


The girl jerked as if startled to be addressed. When she managed to speak again, her voice was a barely audible murmur…but Isabel could hear every word as if the girl stood right beside her, speaking into her ear.

“I…I was at the Church one evening…I was bringing medicine to the Father…err…to this woman,” a quick glance towards Isabel, and then a downward sweep of lashes, “who was sick…I was walking beside the Chapel…it’s closed off from the rest of the Church, and I heard something. I thought it was just someone at their prayers, but then I recognized the words spoken over the Blessed Sacrament…”

Though this girl would have no understanding of the Latin, she would be able to identity that part of the Mass, having grown up hearing it.

The girl continued. “It was not uncommon for the Fathe…for the accused to hold private Masses, but it was growing late and he…she had been so ill, I did not think it good for…her to be alone. So I entered the chapel…”

Isabel stopped listening. She didn’t need to hear the rest. She remembered it all too well. The girl had entered the Chapel and found Isabel at the altar, performing the Eucharistic rites. Startled by the sudden and unexpected interruption, Isabel had whipped around, forgetting that she was not in full disguise. Why should she be? No one had dared disturb her when she was at her private prayer before. She had been ill that day, and so had forgone her formal priestly robes in favor of a worn Alb cinched tightly at the waist. The girl had seen Isabel’s outlined figure, illuminated by the candles lighting the altar, and her eyes had gone wide with comprehension and shock. She’d fled the Chapel before Isabel could speak a word to her.

Isabel had known it’d only be a matter of time after that. The Inquisition had come pounding on her door the very next day. She’d imagined them darkening her doorstep many times before, wondering how she would be caught, because she never doubted that she would be.

She’d just never thought her downfall would be at the hands of one of her own flock.


“Are you not nervous today, Juan? I admit to being quite terrified myself.”

Isabel turned to look at the young man who stood next to her, dressed in robes that matched her own. His bright gaze showed his fear, and his clasped hands trembled. Isabel offered him a kind smile.

“It will be all right, Mateo. This is a joyous day! We are about to commit ourselves and our lives to the work of the Lord!”

Mateo gulped, but nodded, offering a tremulous smile at her words.

“You are right of course, my friend. This is a joyous day indeed.”

It was the day of their ordination. The day they would officially enter into the priesthood, and be granted the authority to bring God’s grace into the world.

Isabel and Mateo stood with several others as they waited to process into the Cathedral as a group. Quickly and subtly, Isabel checked to make sure her disguise was thorough, but of course it was. She had lived as a man for years as she’d prepared for her ultimate destiny. It had become second nature to her to hide her figure, masking her breasts and hips with robes just slightly larger than was necessary. She’d allowed her hands to become roughened over the years so that some of their delicateness was hidden by calluses and cracked palms.

Hiding had been easier than she’d initially anticipated, especially within the walls of the humble seminary she’d run away to not long after she’d spoken with the old priest. There was no communal bathing, no show of nakedness. There was no concern of prying eyes as long as she was obedient, humble, and holy. She had been all those things, and so had managed to blend into her new identity as Juan, the eager seminarian.

Now, she would be Fr. Juan, and she would see God’s will finally done.

“It’s beginning!” Mateo whispered, excitement lacing each word.

Isabel drew herself up and folded her hands in front of her as the doors to the Cathedral’s sanctuary opened. Warmth filled her as she made her way down the long aisle towards the altar. In that moment, she felt nothing but absolute joy and the unwavering love of God shining down on her.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Trial - Chapter Three


The third examiner regained his composure the quickest.

“We have several witnesses willing to testify to your various acts of blasphemy.”

She could only imagine who they would bring in to condemn her. She was not without enemies. Not all appreciated her stalwart faith and assurance of God’s blessings, even if they had believed her to be a man all along.

“Bring in the first witness,” the second judge ordered.

Isabel waited, her chin high though her shoulders trembled with the weight.

A young girl stepped forward. Isabel hid her surprise, but felt her heart break. She recognized the girl from the parish she had been serving. She could not be that much younger than Isabel herself, probably fourteen or fifteen years of age. The girl looked terrified, her small frame shaking as she slowly moved to stand between Isabel and the judges.

She wouldn’t look at Isabel.

“Tell us child, have you ever witnessed this girl commit an act of heresy against our Holy Mother Church?” the third examiner asked, wasting no time.

Isabel closed her eyes and offered a brief prayer before the girl spoke. It was not a plea for help for herself, but one of forgiveness for the frightened girl. Isabel knew how it was to be so young and ignorant…to fear those who maintained such power over others. The girl’s words would no doubt prove even more ruinous to Isabel, but they would not be spoken out of hate.

They would come from a place of fear…a fear of powerful men who believed it their rite to dictate the lives of others. To promise salvation or condemnation, depending if their rules were followed. To proclaim what would be holy, and what would be profane.

To presume to know the will of God more thoroughly than those who have heard the direct voice of the Almighty.


For several years, Isabel tried to ignore the voice of God. Her mother’s words of warning and fear proved powerful enough to drive a spike of doubt into Isabel’s mind. Yet, she couldn’t make the voice disappear. It was persistent, first cajoling, then demanding. The call was relentless, always there in the back of her mind, never leaving her for a moment.

It was maddening.

At last, Isabel reached a point where she could take no more. She opened herself back up to her calling, and resumed walking the path made clear for her. Though her own acceptance of her call brought her peace of mind and calm, she worried what her mother would think.

What her father would do.

No. Isabel knew she could not go to either of them, but she felt she must speak with someone. She had no idea how to proceed on her own. So, she sought guidance from the priest of her small parish, believing if she explained it all, he would offer her direction and guidance to help her succeed.

Isabel was left disappointed.

“Our Lord, Christ Jesus chose only men to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ's return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason, the ordination of women is not possible.” Once he had finished speaking, the old man stared at her, wrinkled hands folded in his robed lap.

Isabel blinked at him.
 
“Ummmm…but, Father, what of Saint Mary Magdalene?” 

It was the old Father’s turn to blink as if he did not comprehend her words.

“What about her?”

His tone was gentle, but patronizing. Isabel sensed that he did not take her seriously, but was humoring her.

“Was she not a favorite of the Lord? He appeared to her before any of the other apostles in his resurrected form, and she had the strongest faith of any of those close to him. Surely, she continued as a leader in the church after playing such a vital role in Christ’s ministry?”

The old priest smiled at her, but it was an indulgent smile. The kind an adult bestows on a child for doing something out of joyful ignorance.

“You are a clever girl, there is no doubt about that. However, Saint Mary Magdalene was not an apostle, and so not an official minister of the church in the way the other apostles were, as they were each appointed by Christ himself. She was, perhaps, a great helper to Peter and the others, but not a leader in her own right.”

Isabel opened her mouth to voice another question, but the old Father continued without noticing her.

“I can see how it would be confusing for such a young girl. Rest assured, my dear, that these issues and clarifications are made and resolved on your behalf by men with much more education and experience. It is the burden of those within the religious life to ask these complicated questions and determine God’s will for mankind. A burden, and a great privilege. We take on this responsibility so that you and the rest of the faithful may feel free to worship God with peace of mind, and with no distraction.”

“Yes, but Father, my question is not one of clarification…”

“It is natural for someone so young to have questions, and it is good that you have come to me seeking answers.” He reached out and patted her hand. “You are a good girl with great faith, I can see that, and I can see that you want to live your faith in the way you believe God is calling you. You have simply become confused, my dear. It is not to the priestly life that you are being called. It is impossible, and heretical, to believe such a thing, but you are young, as I have said. Your mind is easily clouded.”

Isabel frowned, but again, the old priest was speaking before she could force a word in.

“Perhaps you are being called to the religious life, in that the Father wishes you to take the veil and become a bride of Christ? There are many orders in the city that would be…”

Isabel stopped listening, frustration making her teeth clench. Though the life of a religious sister was a good and joy-filled calling for many, she knew it was not what she was meant for. With a sigh, she recognized that the man before her would prove no help. He did not believe her. He thought her a foolish child, and was too set in his ways to open himself to something new. To a different way of interpreting God’s word.

Would this always be the reaction to her call? Disbelief and dismissal?

Her frustration was overthrown by her growing anger. If she had been born a boy, there would be no question of her path…no barriers to block her way…

If she were a boy, no one would tell her she was wrong, or confused.

If she were a boy…

She shoved to her feet as an idea struck her, startling the old priest from his unending droning.

“Thank you, sir!” Isabel exclaimed, moving towards the door.

He stared at her with wide-eyes and a gaping mouth. Before he could say one more word, Isabel hurried from the room.

She knew at last what she must do, and she had no more time to waste with those who doubted her.

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.