{Maria Clara Speaks} In The Faith I Follow

Maria Clara Speaks is a sub-blog for my master’s thesis project, containing personal reflections and recollections pertaining to the research on the Maria Clara archetype. This is also where I will share some embarrassing stories about my life.

Many are ambivalent about the topic of religion and faith. Often it invokes memories of being raised in a strict religious household or passionate opinions tied to politics and world affairs. Those who are deeply attached to their affiliation will defend it, sometimes blindly, if they take things out of context or disregard the true message for the sake of supporting their own agenda.

Whatever you believe (or do not believe), that is your own. And here I will tell you my story. But I want you to believe that this story is not for the purpose of trying to “convert” anyone or impose my beliefs on anyone. (I do not like that being done to me, so I will never do that to anyone.) Because I am telling this story, it may not be like typical stories of faith that are told with such religious fervor.

I was raised Catholic and Filipino. These two identities are difficult to separate because they are conjoined identities that have survived Spanish colonization and American occupation. In recent years, I met with people who follow the de-colonization/re-indigenization movement and share my experience in being raised in a Catholic Filipino setting. Some have walked out of the faith, some have stayed but remained at arm’s length. I was not sure what position to take, mainly for fear of being seen as too strapped to the Bible (which, until I became a Lector, I did not read or follow very closely as recommended).

The story begins when I was ten years old and had left Catholic school. I attended this particular school for four years, which is a good length of time to teach a little girl how to love and pray to a divine power that she learned to call “God”. By then, I had received the Holy Sacraments of Baptism (as a baby in Queens, NY), Eucharist/”Communion” (2nd grade), and Reconciliation/”Confession” (3rd grade). In conjunction with regular school subjects, I learned to memorize important prayers and recite them at appropriate times. I had taken religion exams mandated by the Archdiocese to show my knowledge and practice of the faith. In short, I was the model “Catholic (school) girl”.

But at this age, I found myself at the fringe where I was not sure if what I had been told was true. At the time, I was being bullied by classmates and eventually shunned by almost everyone in my grade. While I cannot divulge details (mainly because they are still painful to recount), I can only say that it was the first time I had faced distress and did what any young Catholic child was told to do, in those times: pray.

I remember sitting on the floor of my room and crying with my hands folded in prayer. I had believed that if you prayed hard enough for something, God would provide because He always listens to our prayers. But the words I spoke were not taught to me by the teachers, priests, or nuns. My “tiny heart” spoke out of anguish because of the heavy burden I did not know how to bear yet at that age: “God, please take away my life…

Granted, in the case of bullying, one experiences intense emotions that are difficult to discuss with anyone, even with trusted friends or family. The situation gets even worse when one begins to internalize the hateful mistreatment, and we become our own worst enemy. The feeling of being stuck and trapped invokes thoughts of “exiting early”, and sadly it can happen at a very young age. And I was one of those cases. Instead of taking certain action (which would have had dire consequences to those who cared for me), I “prayed”. But I was not aware, at the time, of how selfish and wrong it was to ask for such a thing in prayer. And that was how my relationship with the Divine started to falter…

At the beginning of freshman year in high school, I was preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation–the final step of becoming a fully recognized member of the Catholic Church. By this time, I was unsure if I was ready to call myself a Catholic.

Since being enrolled in public school, I slowly veered away from the “Catholic (school) girl” demeanor. Reciting prayers became more of a chore than a devotional practice. Attending religion night classes, with other public school kids that were more interested in cracking jokes at teachers than reading about Scripture, decreased my enthusiasm to learn more about or practice the faith. And while still carrying the heavy weight of being bullied in Catholic school and praying that selfish prayer at ten years old, I became silent towards God. It was at this stage that I felt I became “a lost soul”.

Sounds over-dramatic, given how there are worse cases of “lost souls”; but for someone who was devoted at a very young age, it felt that way. Not to mention, for a young Filipino Catholic, who was accustomed to reciting long devotional prayers to numerous Catholic saints and Mother Mary, for relatives back in the Philippines, for gratitude of living a fruitful lifestyle in America, for those less fortunate, for many other people we may never meet but keep in our thoughts and prayers. (Also, ending these prayers of devotion with a feast, which is what mainly draws the crowd…)

Given the position I was in, when it came to becoming Confirmed in the Church, I felt burdened by the uncertainty of actually going through the ceremony. How could I tell my family that I was not totally sure about being Confirmed? Would that also mean I was denying that aspect of my Filipino-ness, if I chose to delay or cancel this rite of passage? When will I ever fix my ambivalent feelings toward my faith? Ultimately, I went through the ceremony, with a shaky feeling in my heart but also with a small speck of hope that, over time, it would be restored because I was now an official member of the Catholic Church.

For the remainder of my adolescence, and coming into my young adulthood, I had kept up that image of a praticing Catholic. It was important to portray that image in the case of Filipino parishioner gatherings. For every feast day of Our Lady of Manaoag, San Lorenzo de Ruiz, San Pedro Calungsod, and celebration of Simbang Gabi, I had to project a certain reverance, humility, and humbleness that proved to everyone that my parents had raised “a pious young woman”. The one who attended those feast days and celebrations with her family, almost always the only attendee of her age group within the congregation. The one who always had to carry a rosary in her purse, whether or not she will use it, but it was a gift from Mom. The one who would respectfully greet the elders with a “mano po” and politely smile whenever well-meaning adults inquired if I had a boyfriend or was studying nursing (and it was always those specific questions with that specific wording).

There were times of spiritual crisis that always brought on cultural anxiety. One of those times was when I had to come to terms with the fact that Catholicism was used as a colonization tool in the Philippines for more than 300 years (or, more than 400 years, considering how Spain “transferred” power over to the U.S. with the Treaty of Paris in 1898, and the effects of colonialism still persist today). With my involvements in young Fil-Am community gatherings, I became aware of how our ancestors held animistic beliefs that more or less resonate within our adopted Catholic practices (i.e., the belief in deceased relatives visiting us through other living beings, such as insects or stray animals; the practice of atang to invite our deceased loved ones to join us for meals; the use of religious icons–images of holy figures, medals, scapulars, crucifixes–that contain spiritual properties akin to anitos).

It was at this point that I faced a crossroads in my faith: should I walk away from the Church, knowing how it deeply affected my ancestors that may have faced persecution for going against institutionalized religion; or should I stay, knowing how it is intertwined with my cultural identity and connections to community?

I am still figuring this out…

I am neither atheist nor agnostic; I do believe in a Divine. But it feels like nowadays, the name “God” has lost its meaningfulness. That is because what people preach does not always reflect on how they practice.

My God may be different from yours. My God is loving, caring, understanding. My God is not vengeful or demanding. I have made mistakes, or “sinned”, and I have felt immense guilt for my “sins”. But my God did not make me feel like a horrible person because of them. Instead, my God reminded me that I am still a human being, full of light and love. My God told me to always ask for help and to not be ashamed of myself.

I used to fear God because people have told me that He is powerful and could send me to Hell if I ever sinned and did not ask for forgiveness. But in my years of searching on my own, I learned that nothing can be gained if I lived in fear. Yes, God is powerful, but I know that such power should not be feared. Rather, it should be admired because, in my eyes, that power can be passed through me, during my times of distress.

I had to change my use of language, with regards to spirituality. I do not use a proper name, but I do call to a “Divine” because it is difficult to imagine a higher power as a mere physical entity with a name.

I want to be able to approach my faith in my own way. I want to be able to approach my faith, in a way that makes me feel comfortable, uplifted, enlightened. I want to be able to hold the space as sacred, for my own sake.

But I still call to Mother Mary and the archangels because I feel that I have a personal connection with them. I learn about the canonized Catholic saints because they were real people who lived certain lives before they were touched by a Divine and became inspirations for those of the faith. I try to learn about other faiths on how they approach the spiritual path.

It all comes down to how we approach life through certain paths. Mine had to change in order for me to go in the best possible direction. It may seem unconventional to others, but to me, it feels right. As long as I have faith, I will not lose sight of where I have to go.

“Prayer is listening.”

My God knows me.
You do not.

My faith is my own;
It is carved into the shape
of what gives me

My prayer is breath;
Pre-made words fail
to articulate
the language of
my spirit.

My rosary
reminds me of
my present,
that I can count,
that I can touch,
that I can feel.

{(re)claim(ation of) faith}

— amenaje 09/28/17

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