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Catholicism and Women
"Give me a child until he is seven and we have him for life", used to be the rather chilling claim of the Jesuits, essentially recognising, as any therapist would, the formative nature of the early years. If you were brought up as a Catholic then I suggest you think back to your earliest memories of church or priests or nuns; if possible to when you were five or six years old. The memory might have the smell of incense, hymns, learning the catechism, or images from posters or stained glass windows or of candles. It may also include stories from the Bible, or the life of saints and people you encountered connected with the Church.
Amongst the most powerful are the smells of incense and the images as well as the people you remember. These things go in more deeply to the mind than words. To a small child, many of the words make little sense; but the images and some of the stories told go in deeply.
As a girl, what images of women do you recall? You may recall your mother in Church. How was she; humble, devote, bored, deferential, celebratory? Another image that will almost certainly come to you is of the Virgin Mary. She was probably rather pale, holding Jesus, and a symbol of purity, patience and motherhood. There may have been pictures or stories of female saints, St. Theresa, Joan of Arc, and there will have been your perception of the women who supported the church, helped the priest; arranged the flowers. It is from these images, these people and these stories that you will have got a sense of what it means to be a woman in a woman's body and most of this will have been absorbed quite unconsciously by the age of six. In particular you will have absorbed from the real women you met; how they were in their body. If they moved and breathed and lived from the passion in their belly and yoni or were they stiff, dried out and perhaps resigned. In Catholicism it is very easy to get the message that women are best as virgins or martyrs or at least Bride's of Christ, or failing that their job is to invisibly support the male priests who is God's true representative and on Earth. He also reminds you that God is obviously a man. By example and by omission you have a sense - often from what is not said; that purity, service, humility and martyrdom or at least motherhood is your highest calling.
Of course this isn't the essential message of Christianity - a religion based on love but without any clear prescription of how to make love or transmute the energy of love within the body. It is also a religion which rapidly got taken over by a male dominated hierarchy which was adopted by the expansionist, military Roman State. There have always been the mystics; men and women who were different and some of the passion and the feminine crept in, for example to the Songs of Solomon and in the inspiring music and the paintings of Hildegard of Bingen. I am sure that this yearning for the feminine in Christianity is behind the huge popularity of the fictional Da Vinci Code book. The picture below is by Hildegard of Bingen and shows a yoni shape complete with clitoris as a wonderful vortex of colour!
Unlike Mediterranean countries, Catholicism in UK and Ireland seems to have been dominated by sin, guilt, shame and fear and, particularly in Ireland, by far too many people who had severe problems with their sexuality and relationships resulting in abuse, paedophilia and some very sadistic behaviour towards children. In Spain or Italy, Catholicism seem to have been able to acquire a more celebratory, sensuous aliveness at least in some areas.
The oppressive message usually goes in deeply and early that as a girl, you will become a woman and then best role is as virgin, martyr, or a behind-the-scenes servant of men. God, the Pope and the priest as His representatives are supreme and are all male. Somewhere as a subtext, you get the sense that being a woman is something shameful; to do with sexuality, unclean things and the power to corrupt and lead men astray.
At adolescence with the blossoming of sexuality, these messages are usually reinforced at a conscious level leading either to more sense of shame and guilt or to a rebellion and loss of belief. However the unconscious messages remain after the conscious mind has arrived at different beliefs. The escapes can often be in to promiscuous rebellion or in to anorexia; a secular version of fasting to death and the denial of adult sexuality. Occasionally it leads to an obsession with “Dark Eros” and the forbidden in sex.
The traces all this leave in the adult woman are guilt, shame and fear in various mixtures locked in the body and the mind. Guilt is about what we have done and the Catholic Church creates guilt from its prohibitions and also provides a remedy in confession and absolution. If you leave the Church you are left with the guilt without the relief. This guilt can become unconscious. Shame however is deeper; it is not about what you have done but about who you are. It is often connected with our bodies as the visible embodiment of who us. Sexuality, and for women menstruation, tie you even more in to the body and therefore closer to "sins of the flesh" and desire. No wonder that so much religious fervour is directed at the body, through chastisement and towards women as literally embodying the flesh, desire, sexuality and temptation for the priests and the pious. As shame is about who you are not what you have done; there is no escape.
The ways in which shame and guilt can be held in the body are through muscular tensions and disconnections. In terms of tension the inner thigh muscles can hold the legs closed, the lower back muscles can retract the pelvis and hold it immobile preventing the natural movement of the pelvis. General tension in the area of the diaphragm can reduce the breathing, damping down energy and cutting it off from exciting the lower belly and the genitals. The muscles in the chest area can cause the shoulders to round forward hiding the breasts. The experience of shame in particular leads to a wish to hide and therefore a contraction of the body as if trying to occupy a smaller space. Hiding means avoiding eye contact by looking down and also by not being present in the eyes; blocking real contact and seeing ourselves being seen. Tension in the diaphragm is also likely to block the voice as a powerful force, sometimes resulting in a voice that can barely go above a whisper. In disconnection which is rarer, there is dissociation from the body as if the person is not really present. Instead of being tense and contracted the body can be open but rather lifeless and the joints too loose. This may happen more in women where they rebel against the restrictions by for example becoming promiscuous in adolescence and the although physically feeling free energetically abandon their body perhaps from shame and dissociate. They may then also have experiences for which they were not prepared and which can further traumatise. You may wish to look at the question on this page Quiz .
It is certainly possible to reclaim Christianity as a celebration of life, love and incarnation. Such creation centred spirituality (as developed by Matthew Fox and others) can provide a positive experience, but therapy and forms of healing which include the body are important to remove the imprints of the past. Putting the body and pleasure as central and not colluding with shame; are essential and tantric healing massage is the most direct way for those who have the courage to heal.