Religion is messy. Here’s to grey spots and question marks!
I came home the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college to a painting of Jesus hanging in the center of the biggest wall in the living room. His hair was shoulder length, the perfect shade of brown. The gentle waves framing his face perfectly. He had pale skin and wore a white and red tunic. His eyes seemed to be looking right at me as he held one hand to his glowing heart.
Jesus and Saints where suddenly sprinkled everywhere. Desperate for a change of scene I went to my room when I could. When I walked in I saw a smaller print of Jesus, a cross at the head of the bed, and ceramic looking thing with a bible verse inscribed. Both of my parents were championing the church and religion in a new way. I was still confused about where I stood in terms of what I believed in, the limits of it all blurring between a general something and hard Catholicism. Despite that blurring, I refused to consider myself a catholic, the sheer idea of being associated to the religion who taught me to hate my sexuality, sex, the good things in life, and that suffering is the only true way to salvation, made my skin erupt in pimples.
Catholicism, because of many fucked up reasons, is an integral piece of Mexican culture for many. Catholicism is something that informs a lot of the way of life and the way people function. My mother often talked about how God gave her signs throughout her life, the things she wants to talk to God about, and always sang at church. She taught me how to pray and instilled that very righteous fear of God in me. My father almost became a priest so it’s safe to say that his faith has been something near and dear to him.
I grew up going to church, loving it even, praying all the time, honestly believing that I was able to commune with God. Let me tell you, that’s a hefty thing to think when you are only a kid. Of course, as you all probably saw coming, I started learning about myself, the institution and suddenly God and Jesus and Religion didn’t sit right with me. I was just a young little gay girl confused and filled with so much shame, guilt, and self hate that happiness feel very far away from me. And for me, religion played a really big role in doing that. So in my teen years I rebelled quite loudly, the anger and frustration with the religion I grew up with bubbling over.
It was in teenhood that I discovered the term agnostic. It fit perfectly. It worked for me, made me feel comfortable, and gave me the freedom to stop associating my happiness with shame. So coming home was hard. I always knew it would be. I just did not expect to be greeted with even more of God. I have to say the moment I saw the billowing brown hair, the rays of light from his heart in that living room, I felt like I should have never come home.
I was — and am- tired of the institution, the way it policies certain bodies, actions, and gives way to ideas that only work to hurt and take advantage of others here and abroad. It is why when I went to college I gave myself the freedom to express and feel comfortable in my agnostic identity. I was determined to break free and run away from all of the pressure, heteronormativity, patriarchy, and homophobia of Catholicism.
Except when I was scared. It was in these moments of vulnerability that I still turned to what I knew to be comforting. And that was the religion my mother preached and taught me. However, instead of accepting it or letting it happen, I decided to push it aside. Determined to distance myself from something that had taught 14 year old me to hate myself, to think that I was truly undeserving of being love. I had not learned how to appreciate the role this religion and God had played in shaping me. Of course, it broke my mom’s heart even when I lied and said I prayed. She knew that something had changed. She blamed college.
I remember after coming home that summer and my parents asked and asked about my relationship to God, waiting for me to have some epiphany about the love of Christ. I never had it. As with most children, I didn’t want to disappoint them, but I could tell that with every half hearted answer they believed they failed me somehow.
That same summer I came home to a very big painting of Jesus was also the summer my grandpa passed away. My mother had always tried to be understanding of the way I viewed religion and God, however, after losing her dad, her faith became more fervent. She no longer was as understanding or as patience.
As a peace offering I went to church with them on Sundays every once in a while. To protect myself I nodded my head as they talked about God and Jesus and played songs that were all about praising our savior. I hoped that maybe in exchange they would stop asking questions and stop pushing ideals on me. All the while it felt like Jesus with his perfectly styled hair and beard, was judging me, waiting for me to realize I was wrong for not believing in him. I couldn’t meet his gaze whenever I was in the living room. He was waiting for me to come back to him. So was my mom. It made home feel heavy, shrouded in expectations, in grief, in disappointment.
If I thought my feelings were loud, my mother’s were even bigger. Her pain and grief were big. In the times she let me be there for her I saw just how deep the fault lines were. There was little that helped ease her out of the house. There was little that helped her find calmness underneath the weight of the loss. But religion gave that to her. Her belief in God and Heaven, while also worked to criticize me, gave her the patience to sit with that pain. She listened to christian songs and catholic salsa jams while she cooked. Definitely a change from her usual mariachi and Juan Gabriel but it made her smile. Regardless of how she felt, she got up every Sunday and went to church. She would listen and pray about that week’s sermon, and she started to have more energy. By the end of that summer, she was in better shape.
My mom explained to me that it allowed her to try and let go of her grief, that it helped her to know he was in Heaven, and it helped her to know that God and Jesus was looking out for me and my siblings. It gave her the peace she needed to let go and let life happen, at least in her own way. It was as if for once I saw what religion, and Catholicism in particular could be. I remembered why It was so important to me as a child. Back then I knew that being a Catholic was about being a good person and having love for the world.
I used to be so angry that my parents didn’t know life without religion. Without Jesus and dogma. I thought I was better for cutting ties with God and religion. I was starting to see that it wasn’t nearly that simple. A lot of Catholicism (and religion in general) has to do with comfort, healing, and a power that encouraged goodness, kindness, and love. Perhaps, I was the one in the wrong. Anger, hate, frustration, no longer had a place. They had served their purpose.
So I decided that couldn’t hurt to try and understand it better. To try this out again. As if Catholicism was an ex I was finally willing to get back together with. So me and living room Jesus became friends. I went to church, I prayed, I went to confession. I talked to my parents, allowed them to share in this with me. It wasn’t all bad. There was some good here and there. I knew it made them happy. I said hi to Jesus in the living room, I told him what made me anxious, I told him that he needed to help out down here with all of the horrible things happening. Looking back I’m not sure those living room chats truly helped me.
But, and here it is, the but of it all, I couldn’t shake this itchy feeling. This uncomfortable feeling. Like something fitting too tight, the scratchy threads of a shirt pulling, making every movement awkward and ugly. After most of my encounters with Catholicism and that big painting of Jesus that summer I felt my heart squirm. Finally, one August night, after my parents had gone to bed, I looked at that painting. Hardcore stared at it. Waited for something, maybe nothing. It didn’t last long. I am not a very patient person.
I soon looked away and shook my head, frustrated. I didn’t want this. I wasn’t this person. This church going girl, who prayed, who believed that the only reason we are here is to try and save our souls. Yet, I couldn’t shake Catholicism from myself. Part of it, it’s rituals, its teaching, seemed so imbued in my consciousness. I can’t tell you if I resented it or not back then. I can tell you that you that I appreciate it now.
After seeing my mom build herself a space where she could be. Where she could cry and find laughter. I saw that perhaps my anger with God and with Catholicism while was partly justified, wasn’t needed anymore. While there is still so much I take issue with, I learned how to take a step back, in certain situations, and appreciate the Jesus of it all. After all, he was a pretty cool guy.
At the end of that summer, after feeling so foreign in my house, after trying so hard to make Catholicism work for me, I realized that there are so many more grey bits to religion than I thought. I don’t not believe in god. I do believe in divinity. I believe in tarot cards and energy. I believe in La Virgen de Guadalupe and rosaries. I believe it’s all the same thing. Praying, meditating, it’s all a space to think, to ask, to heal. Maybe we should change the conversation to something more akin to healing. Just leave behind all the sucky bits, and make it a space to find the calm underneath the heaviness of life. I think that’s more than enough.