CULTURE

What the pandemic did to my faith

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“In the pandemic, just as there are those whose beliefs grew stronger and richer, serving as a balm through their losses, there are those of us whose beliefs provided a deafening silence.” Illustration by JL JAVIER

Trigger warning: sexual abuse and assault.

I’ve visited a church five times since March 2020: twice to attend a wedding, once to celebrate my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary with my family, and twice simply because I wanted to. The first time I went out of my own volition, it was a sunny Saturday morning in November. The church was large, empty and quiet. Plastic covered the spaces on the pews in which we were to distance from one another. I sat at the very back of the church, gazed at the vast space between the crucifix and me, and, praying for the first time beneath a mask and face shield, began to cry.

On another Saturday eight months later, I visited a church again, this time inside a mall. Save for a few people, the chapel was still largely bare. As I sat in one of the back pews, I could feel my eyes swelling up with tears, but I tried to hold it in. Perhaps I was a little embarrassed to cry again beside my boyfriend, an agnostic who had accompanied me, because I could not explain why such visceral tears came whenever we visited a church at this time. I am lucky to not have lost anything or anyone during the pandemic — but why did this emptied, sacred space make me feel like I have?

When I was a kid, my parents were active in a Catholic charismatic community, whose members became my extended family. My Sunday mornings then were devoted to Hillsong-esque worship. I listened to talks and conversion testimonies. I made pretty bookmarks with Bible verses. I attended youth camps and retreats, where preternaturally cheerful leaders would pray over us in that mysterious, magical language of tongues. Meanwhile, my weekdays were spent in a different, but no less devoted religious environment. Insulated within a sprawling suburban village in the south of Manila, I attended a brick-walled, all-girls school that aspired for the solemnity and discipline of a medieval convent.

Teachers and priests taught us the intricacies of Catholic rituals, showing us, for instance, the preciousness of the Eucharist during a school tradition in which we decorated campus floors with lovely petal carpets to adore the holy object. During my first confession, I counted with my small seven-year old fingers all my seven sins, learning not to hide one from the priest lest I be guilty of dishonesty. Since then we learned to remember all our wrongdoings, big or small, from overeating to fighting with our parents.

As we blossomed into teenagers, our school focused more and more on sexual morality. Teachers drilled in us the virtues of chastity and purity during religion classes; school administrators reprimanded us if our long checkered skirts ever hovered too close to our knees. We resented this, for the most part, but morality would still animate our lunchtime conversations, where my friends and I would ruminate on whether or not French kissing was a mortal sin. In college, I found out that students from other schools could identify the girls that came from my high school by our alleged signature look: pearl earrings and a scapular around our necks.

None of this felt strange. For most of my life, religion was as normal as the air I breathed. Studying in a Jesuit university after high school then made it easy to look for it, find shelter in it, and embrace it as my own. I realized that the charismatic spirituality of my parents simply did not match my temperament, but I retained a love for the Catholic sacraments that my high school exposed me to. I went to confession regularly — at times, obsessively — addicted to the pure feeling that would immediately wash over me, as if my newly cleansed soul were bright and glowing. I visited the adoration chapel every morning before my first class, finding solace in the Eucharist. I brought with me all my fears and sorrows, praying through exams, heartbreaks, broken friendships and failures, and always left that small, dark room more grounded and light.

Mandatory theology classes reconciled this interior religiosity with my growing concern for the world beyond my bubble, turning faith outward. Professors opened us up to the plight of the poor and marginalized, and instilled in us the importance of a faith not divorced from justice. I began to understand that with the freedom God gave us came the responsibility to help him alleviate the sufferings of others.

But as the months dragged on [during the pandemic], I began watching the shortest Masses I could find online. I would delay it to the end of my Sundays, and end up falling asleep during the ceremony. Recently, I started skipping Sunday Mass altogether — the first time I have ever consciously done so in my life. My prayers have become dry and impersonal, barely there. I stopped attending Zoom calls with my faith group, even as they continue to hold it every week. And, I did not re-enroll in my theology classes.

I believed so much in the beauty of my Catholic faith, felt so much spoiled by my spiritual heritage, that two years after I graduated college, I left my job in the art world to study theology. I was convinced that I was called to teach it. In 2019, I spent most of my days in a tranquil school overlooking mountains and clouds and the colorful roofs of Marikina, amid seminarians and nuns being groomed to be the next shepherds of the Church. As I retreated into the lives of the prophets and Jesus in my classes and read for hours in the old school library, I felt safe and detached from the world. More and more, the place became my escape.

Religious practices changed drastically when the pandemic hit. Churches closed, Holy Week services were cancelled, and all Masses and celebrations moved online. In predominantly Catholic Philippines, where especially amid tragedy people rely on carnal manifestations of faith — receiving communion, worshipping amid masses of people, touching icons of Jesus and Mary — something dimmed.

In the beginning, I would attend the live-streamed Masses of Pope Francis with my family, and listen intently to the translations of his somber homilies. At night, my prayers felt raw and real, as if they were part of a larger cry of voices pleading to God for consolation. I joined Zoom calls with friends in faith, comforted by their check-ins and awed at the urgency in which they moved to help those in need.

But as the months dragged on, I began watching the shortest Masses I could find online. I would delay it to the end of my Sundays, and end up falling asleep during the ceremony. Recently, I started skipping Sunday Mass altogether — the first time I have ever consciously done so in my life. My prayers have become dry and impersonal, barely there. I stopped attending Zoom calls with my faith group, even as they continue to hold it every week. And, I did not re-enroll in my theology classes. I returned to my previous job in the pandemic, and told myself that online classes weren’t for me.

But deep down, a part of me felt betrayed; ashamed by how easy it was for me to slip away from piety, when striving to be holy had been so much a part of my identity. I want to go to heaven, I would say to myself everytime I had to make a wish as a kid. Without the physical spaces that attempted to recreate that heaven on earth, the routines that made me feel I was drawing closer to that warm place with angels and saints, this abstract dream was made even more abstract, the invisible God I prayed to even more invisible, absent. What I was left with instead were realities about my faith that I had, perhaps unconsciously, long tried to bury.

In 2018, new revelations about clergy sexual abuse and systematic cover-ups in the Church hierarchy emerged. It was the first time I had ever allowed myself to be angry at the Church. It pains me to hear the news of abuse protected by the institution that led me to you. How do I begin to come to terms with this? I wrote in my diary where I recorded my conversations with God. I attempted, but never came to terms with it. While I was in theology school, I began working on a research paper that explored the Philippine Church’s role in contributing to the silence of sexual violence survivors, hoping to undo harmful theologies that glorified suffering and cheapened forgiveness. I never finished the paper, stunted with no adequate solution or conclusion.

In my Prophets class, I channeled my discomfort at the fact that I was the only lay woman in a sea of religious men into writing papers about strong, misunderstood women in the Old Testament. This harkened back nights in college, when I would argue with my dad for hours, lamenting how his charismatic community discouraged women to be leaders.

The more I look back, the less idyllic were my years growing up in such conservative religious atmospheres. I was sexually assaulted in my senior year of high school. It was in large part because of our school’s culture that shifted the blame on us, girls, for tempting boys with how we dressed or behaved that I repressed my rape for six years. The pandemic forced me to confront if my outward acts of piety through all these years were indeed born out of something pure and true, or an obsession with convincing others — and most of all, my 17 year-old self — that I am good.

During lockdown, I found myself drawn to films that wrestle with some kind of spiritual tension. I watched “One of Us,” a haunting documentary that follows the lives of three Hasidic Jews as they leave behind their ultra-Orthodox community. Gradually, they become what staying could not let them be, from an actor to a woman free from an abusive marriage. I watched “Pray Away,” another documentary that interviews ex-leaders and survivors of the conversion therapy movement, which believed that you could pray the gay away. Exposing how these ministries coerced young people to shun their identities, the film captures the irreparable guilt and trauma caused by hatred cloaked in religious devotion. I re-watched “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning film that revealed how five Boston Globe investigative journalists, with stunning modesty and dedication to their jobs, brought to light a dark web of secrets within the Catholic Church that allowed priests to molest children for years.

Without the physical spaces that attempted to recreate that heaven on earth, the routines that made me feel I was drawing closer to that warm place with angels and saints, this abstract dream was made even more abstract, the invisible God I prayed to even more invisible, absent. What I was left with instead were realities about my faith that I had, perhaps unconsciously, long tried to bury.

Watching these films, I was glued to how characters dealt with the precise moment in which a veil was lifted, and they could no longer unsee the wounds that their religions had inflicted. But I also felt their deep loss — their longing for the solace their churches once gave them. Their instinct to preserve something sacred.

Julie Rodgers, a lesbian advocate whose story was featured in “Pray Away,” shared about learning to separate Jesus from the Christians who hurt her. In “Spotlight,” the journalist Michael Rezendes (played by Mark Ruffalo) remembers how he enjoyed going to church as a little kid. He stopped going because of “typical shit,” but admits that he always thought he would one day go back. “I was holding on to that,” he tells another journalist, in a particularly poignant scene towards the end of the film.

There are no neat conclusions to their moral dilemmas, most of all not returning to the innocent, insular worlds of their childhoods, shielded from the truth. But whether or not religion remained part of the picture, watching some of them gently grow more honest and compassionate with themselves was soothing. As they let a part of themselves breathe, so did I.

On my first day of a Revelation-Faith class I took in theology school, my teacher, a Jesuit priest, emphasized the importance of engaging with a tension between devotion and doubt. One of the hardest things to learn as a person of faith is that it takes more courage to doubt. It takes courage to step outside the comforts of our certainties, and into the shoes of those who have long felt harmed by the Church, abandoned by God. In the pandemic, just as there are those whose beliefs grew stronger and richer, serving as a balm through their losses, there are those of us whose beliefs provided a deafening silence. For me, it has become increasingly hard to avoid that silence. I am left with no choice but to sit with it, and listen to what it is doing to me.

“To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love,” French philosopher Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace, a book I borrowed from the library on one of my last days of attending theology school. I began reading it during those first hazy mornings of the lockdown, when I had to remind myself that the pandemic was real, and not a dream. Looking back now, Weil’s words feel particularly prophetic for how piercingly she speaks of void, of God’s absence, of atheism as a kind of purification. Writing this essay, I remembered how there was a line in the book that I found deeply moving, so plainly true, that I took a picture of it back then and posted it on my Instagram Story. “I am also other than what I imagine myself to be,” writes Weil at the end of the chapter “Void and Compensation.” “To know this is forgiveness.”