Note: names have been changed.
“After Mass, I went up to her and told her that because she’d dressed immodestly, I had been unable to receive communion.”
I was seventeen years old to Ray’s twenty-two when he told me this. We’d known each other for a couple of years and had grown close after I asked him to sponsor me during my conversion to Catholicism. At the time, I looked up to him like a big brother and even though we haven’t spoken in over a decade, part of me still does. It feels strange, but I sometimes feel nostalgic for relationships I no longer want in my life. Time and distance have a way of fuzzing out the sharp edges like a glamour filter on a camera so that you find yourself missing people before remembering why you left them behind in the first place.
When Ray made his comment to me about the woman he’d seen in Mass, he didn’t explicitly say that it was a lesson for me. He didn’t have to. By virtue of genetics, I was curvier than a lot of my friends in my church’s youth program, and comments about chastity and modesty were often directed at me as if the size of my chest was my fault, like I’d filled out a request form at puberty for DDs with the intent of leading teen boys astray. With each comment about modesty, I tried harder to comply. My wardrobe included many shirts related to my faith, but, as it turned out, a scripture verse that looked holy and “correct” on a flatter chested friend’s body was still seen as obscene and pornographic on my body, virginal though I was. I was told that the neckline of my shirts should go no deeper than the length of my middle finger from the base of my throat, so I adjusted as best I could, layering undershirts in the Phoenix summer heat that soaked with sweat so I wouldn’t inadvertently lead others into sin. But none of it mattered because my tits were still large and in charge and even though God supposedly made me in his image, my body was wrong and sinful. Clearly, I had done something wrong to have the body I had. So I shrank, hunching my shoulders to make my breasts less prominent, my shape less appealing. Years later, as my back was stretched into place at a chiropractor’s office, the force of the traction causing me to faint on more than one occasion, I wondered why it had been such a big fucking deal to simply live in the body I had been given.
Matthew 18:8-9 says, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” There is no follow up to these statements from Jesus to his apostles in which his apostles say, “But what if I think a woman is hot and I start thinking sexy thoughts about her? That’s her fault, right?” But, if there was, I imagine Jesus’s response would’ve been something along the lines of, “Did I fucking stutter?”
It took decades for me to realize exactly how inappropriate and condescending Ray’s comment to me was when I was seventeen. At the time, I remember agreeing with him, siding with him like the good little Serena Joy I aspired to be. I hadn’t even seen the woman in question that had caused Ray to sin, but instead of telling him to pluck out his own eye and take responsibility for his own thoughts and actions, I blamed her. It’s taken a long time to realize how deeply indoctrinated I already was at seventeen to the point of wanting to subjugate my own existence as a young woman, to make myself smaller in order to appease the men around me. But Ray had guided me during my studies towards joining the Catholic church—who was I to question him? At the time, I didn’t have any reason to believe he might be wrong, so I blamed this nameless, faceless woman who had the audacity to go to church and I did not wonder why a man in his twenties was telling a teenager that he had felt aroused during Mass.
Ray has since become a priest and I have long since left the church. As circumstances would have it, Ray is now the head pastor at the church in the town where I live. I have not attended any of the services he has presided over, and it’s not just because my wardrobe now primarily consists of t-shirts that say things like “WOMEN DON’T OWE YOU SHIT.” Despite the town feeling almost claustrophobically small at times, I’ve only seen him once. I was downtown, picking up some food to take home from a local pub, and when I walked out the door I practically ran into Ray and a man he was deep in conversation with. Ray did not so much as glance in my direction, but I recognized him immediately, even with the large beard I’d only seen in pictures. I could’ve stopped him, could have said hello, but I chose not to engage and instead paused on the sidewalk as I watched him walk away. The interaction was a nonevent, barely worth noting except for the odd sense of nostalgia I felt upon seeing someone I have no interest in returning to my life.
Although I see some merits from my time I spent as a member of the Catholic church, I do not miss the person I was then. My journals from that time are painful flagellations in which I continually curse myself for not being holy enough or devout enough or good enough for a god who is supposed to love me unconditionally. At the time I hated myself, but when I look back now I felt sorry for myself. At the time, my abuser and their impossible standards still loomed large in my life and I’d turned to the church for comfort, only to end up punishing myself for not living up to impossible spiritual standards. As a teen, I spent hours in confession, exhausting priest after priest as I tried to understand the warfare I waged against my own failings. They were patient and kind to me, reminding me that God knew I was trying and that he loved me, but I couldn’t believe God loved me when he’d given me a body that was cause for derision and constant reminders that if the boys and men in my life sinned, it was my fault because I was there.
“Well, what was she wearing?”
“Why did she go to that party?”
“She shouldn’t have been drinking that night.”
“She’d flirted with him before, what was he supposed to think?”
When men sinned, I cut off the hands and plucked out the eyes of the women they’d hurt. I am not proud of this and it makes me sick to realize how many times I was complicit in punishing women for existing when I should’ve been defending them. I was not just Serena Joy any longer, I was Aunt Lydia with a cattle prod, agreeing with the men that yes, these women were the ones who were wrong and I will help you punish them. Boys will be boys, right, Commander Waterford? Those girls should know better.
Ever since I started attending Catholic school in the sixth grade, I’d been told that the second commandment, do not use the Lord’s name in vain, meant don’t swear or say, “Oh my god!” Having had a raging potty mouth since the fourth grade, this was a sin I confessed nearly every time I entered the booth. I was given Our Fathers and Hail Marys to recite, but I always came back, my tongue slipping into sinful expletives. However, years later, I learned of the rest of the commandment’s intent. The name of God is still not to be used lightly or profanely, but God is also not supposed to be used to justify evil behavior. For example, if you are the former vice president of the United States and you hide behind your supposed faith in Jesus Christ while gazing at immigrant children in cages like Heinrich Himmler coldly observing Jewish people in concentration camps during Nazi Germany, the second commandment says you’re being a dickhead. On a smaller scale, I would assume that interpretation of the second commandment would apply if one were to use their self righteous faith in God to shame women for existing in bodies that one might find attractive. I imagine that would be taken a step further if one were to use this moment of what he considered justifiable misogyny to instruct a teenager to sow disdain against her own gender, who would in turn use this learned behavior against women because that’s what God said, as told to her by people who know.
But what do I know? I’m not a priest—Ray is.
Since then, I have run hard in the opposite direction. I fight for women, I loudly stand up for them, I support women’s choices and rights, and no TERFs or SWERFs are welcome in the intersectional feminism I strive for. But it’s never enough because I feel like I’m still fighting against that internalized misogyny I once had, and I’m not sure I’m ever going to feel like it’s enough because I can’t undo what I’ve done. I can’t erase the lies I told myself. Much like Serena Joy, I told myself I was doing what was right, that I was simply holding myself up to a godly standard. I didn’t realize I was building my own gilded cage, wrapping the bars around my own neck, tighter and tighter until I almost couldn’t breathe. I broke out before I lost myself completely, but I still feel the pain of what I did to myself and others. Even now, I realize I take on all the blame without giving at least some of the responsibility to those, like Ray, who were meant to guide me but instead showed me the blueprints for my cage.
It has taken a long time, but I have slowly come to love my body, and in finding my body, I found my voice. If I were to have that same conversation with Ray now, I would tell him, without hesitation, that if he sinned so hard because a woman’s God-given body existed in the same room as him, then he should pluck out his fucking eye like Jesus told him to do. I would tell him that I and other women will not be blamed for men’s lack of self control, that I am not responsible for a man’s faith-induced shame or shitty behavior simply because of my gender.
But, if it helps, you can borrow my spoon if you need to pluck out both of your eyes. I’m here for you, buddy.