CHARCAS: Reclaiming Autonomy in Faith Formation

My identity as a woman of faith was once determined by the men in my life. My uncles, my grandpa — even my own father. These men had tattoos of the Virgin Mary on their chests, wore chains engrained with crosses and never missed Sunday Mass. But these men also abused their wives behind closed doors and belittled their sons for crying. Armed with the knowledge that no one could resist complying when the prize at stake is salvation, many of them used religion as a tool to uphold traditional gender dynamics. They used the monotony of the “kneel, stand, sit” rhythm during Mass as a surrogate for their understanding of the spoken words — while at the same time using depictions of virginal, pious women as ornaments to validate their faith. From a young age, I realized that as a woman, if I wanted to be valued by my family, I had to act like the only other woman that they valued so deeply: the Virgin Mary — or rather, their perception of her. To gain respect from those I loved the most, I needed to give up autonomy over my own faith formation. I needed to be as still, silent and visible as the tattoos of Mary on their chests: piety measured by silence, faith by obedience. Those tattoos became my expectations. Be visible. Go to Mass. Better yet, shame those who don’t. Wear your faith as an accessory. Pray loudly. Make sure everyone knows. Be as perfect as the image. Follow these rules and men won’t hesitate to cherish you. My faith did not belong to me. It belonged to my dad. It belonged to machismo. It belonged to my desire to conform, to my fear of questioning. It belonged to everyone and everything except for me. My siblings and I went to Sunday school and did our sacraments. We followed the rituals and sang the songs and knew that an hour of our Sundays would always be filled. In high school, I wanted the autonomy to choose my faith. Had my parents given me the choice to go to Mass, I probably wouldn’t have gone on some Sundays. The consequences of questioning the rigidity of this lifestyle weren’t apparent until my older sister took a leap — not of faith, but rather of doubt. “I don’t really know what I believe in,” she said one Sunday, adding to my parents’ shock when they saw she was still in her pajamas five minutes before we were supposed to leave for Mass. “It seems wrong to go through the motions without understanding any of it.” My sister, the martyr, sacrificing her relationship with her parents for her right to form her own relationship with God. My dad, unsurprisingly, was the angriest. He would not grant us the privilege of discovering our own faith if it meant temporarily departing from his rigid expectations. Coming to college meant acknowledging that I understood very little about the faith I had claimed as my own. I felt guilty and blamed myself for not taking initiative. Why wasn’t I taking more theology classes at Georgetown? Why didn’t I pray more? I felt like an imposter when I’d sit in the chapel. Those stained-glass windows and wooden ceilings were not for me. I have not yet reclaimed my faith in full — nor do I think I ever will. Faith is our relationship with God, and reclaiming my faith has meant knowing I can attain knowledge of God only through my human experiences. However, because I am human, these experiences are marked by distrust, negligence, questioning, anger and — most importantly — love. I think of the love I have for my little brother — taking a bullet is the least I’d do for him. I think of my parents’ selfless love, a passion that drives them to do things I sometimes disagree with. My sisters’ and friends’ love feels so rich and abundant, so expansive and all consuming, that it’s difficult to imagine that this love is also constrained by the limits of my humanity. If this is how it feels to love despite my humanity, then I can’t imagine how incredible being surrounded by God’s love would feel. The hope of one day being able to feel this love is enough to help me reclaim my faith, a faith that is mine despite the shortcomings of my human experiences. My religious role models of the past had strong faith in Jesus but would seldom live out his faith. Understanding this distinction has made all the difference in my relationship with God. Andrea Charcas is a senior in the McDonough School of Business. Into the Feminine Genius appears online every other Monday.

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