The Search for Belonging by Cynthia Garrity-Bond

My life today is a continuation of the desire to belong I felt as a child, only the terrain is now a spiritual homelessness of sorts, the inability to feel welcomed and accepted in what seems to be an oxymoronic state, a feminist woman in the Catholic Church.  

Family vacations in my childhood usually took the form of camping.  This was an era devoid of seat belts and car seats, where we rode unrestrained in the back of our parent’s pickup camper like pieces of discarded luggage.   One trip found us deep in the Baja coast of Mexico.  At that time I was four years old with three older brothers, one younger and one on the way; who in spite of my repeated pleas to the Blessed Virgin Mary, turned out to be yet another brother.  Sandwiched between all this testosterone was me, the only girl child who continually failed to fulfill her parent’s dream of the quiet, sweet, and passive daughter.  This would be one of many family job descriptions at which I would fail.

As vacations go this had been rather uneventful until our return trip home.  Dad (as so many fathers are compelled to do) drove hours without stopping, ignoring until the last possible moment the cries of his children to withstand the call of nature.  As we pulled into the gas station, each bounded out of the camper like greyhound dogs at the starting gate.  My mother’s voice ringing in the distance to one of my brothers to watch over me hung in the warm, humid air.  Even at the age of four I felt an exaggerated independence from my family, so it was not out of the ordinary for each brother to ignore her command or for me to take matters into my own hands without her presence, (as I recall Mom was busy with the details of my two-year-old brother). The following sequence of events are like telegraphic messages, short and dissected, a montage of selected or perhaps even crafted memories that served as my initiation into exile.  Coming out the restroom I was met with the intense light of the setting sun.  Squinting my eyes I strained at the sight before me—a cloud of dust carrying my family away from me. A kin to a scene from the movie Little Miss Sunshine, I had been left behind in a remote gas station deep in the rugged terrain of Mexico.  My vocal cords failed to react as quickly as my pounding heart, where silent screams of terror and fear inevitably found there way out.  In what felt like an immediate response, multiple women swopped me into their arms, taking turns at holding me in futile attempts to soften my cries.  Gifts of ice cream found there way into my hands.  A funny hat with multi-colored dingle balls was placed on my head, as well as a plethora of other objects used to divert my attention away from the fact my family had driven off into the Mexican sunset absent one of their children.  And as I watched my family drive away without me, a strange admixture of emotions swirled within me of fear and terror yes, but also a whisper of confirmation of my struggle to find belonging and acceptance with my brothers.  At least this is what I pinned my newly acquired state of homelessness on, a perceived absence of love.  But the logic of a four-year-old can be overly simplified, a straight trajectory unclouded by reason or even truth.  This notion of not belonging, of homelessness, locked itself into my self-consciousness, defining and following me to this day.

From bottom: Cynthia (4), Charlie (9), Timothy (2), Dad (38), Bill,(11), Michael (7)

It took a fair amount of time before one of the boys confirmed my absence, and then I imagine an equal amount of time to decide who was responsible and who was going to be the messenger of bad news.  In the end my family came back to reclaim their daughter/sister the same way they left me, in a huge cloud of dust before my eyes.

There are moments in our lives when we are present to our own waking up, when essential connections are made from within the eye of the storm, rather than from a distant plateau.  I stumbled on this when my brother Michael died 18 months after the death of our mother, and ten months after the death of our father.  On the day of Michael’s funeral, when what remained of our family gathered together, I flashed back to our camping trip in Mexico and I knew.  I knew that I had collapsed being loved with the desire to belong, and while closely related, I understood it is possible to be loved while not belonging. As a child I could not differentiate between the two, they were simply one and the same.  Since I felt I was the one who did not fit in, the difference must lie within me.  This real or imagined defect slowly sifted me out and away from those I loved.

My life today is a continuation of the desire to belong I felt as a child, only the terrain is now a spiritual homelessness of sorts, the inability to feel welcomed and accepted in what seems to be an oxymoronic state, a feminist woman in the Catholic Church.  Here as in my childhood, I recognize that while I may be loved, I may not necessarily belong.  I am caught within the painful web whereby I am neither fully at home in the present institution nor able to abandon the church I love. And this inability to find a home within my home is both vexing and sad, leaving me ragged and scarred. But I also know that my state of being is not the complete picture.  I also carry within me memories of church as home, sustaining me in ways when others could not.  Just as it is impossible not to be in the love of God, I find it equally impossible not to be Catholic.  To the surprise of some, I love my church and to the dismay of others, I choose to remain.  The church needs the voices of women like me and other’s, who in the words of Mary Jo Weaver “Long for something they cannot name, while desiring a community of belief and celebration they cannot describe.”  While everything I just said is true, the deeper truth is I am still looking for home, for a place where I can belong just as I am and not as others would want me to be.

Cynthia Garrity-Bond: Feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past three years Cynthia has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthia is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.



Categories: Catholic Church, Children, Family, Women in the Church

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16 replies

  1. “I understood it is possible to be loved while not belonging.”

    This is a puzzle I struggle with too. I think one of the reasons “sisterhood” was powerful in the 70s, was that for a short time, anyway, some of us felt we had found a place where we “belonged.”

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    • Yes, I can only imagine how that sense of sisterhood must have felt, at least in the beginning. Do have a sense that within your own Goddess thealogy and community, a way of being that unites is manifested differently from feminist Christians who struggle yet remain?

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      • Those of us in the Goddess community don’t struggle with doubt about dogma or anger at tradtition or having to worship with words that make us sick. This is a big plus. However, community is not always there and takes a lot of work to keep going. For myself, I feel that I belong to the Earth which is the Body of Goddess and that is the greatest sense of belonging to have, because all diversity and difference are included within the earth body. I do not have any regular worship community…except on the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete twice a year. I can also truthfully say that I have never longed to be part of a church again, though I do pray in shrines to the Panagia. In my case, my family had mixed religious heritages, so we didn’t all belong to the same church. And the church my family did belong to looked differently upon those who came from the “other side of the tracks” which we did. So there never was a complete sense of belonging in my home church either. I suppose I felt most at home in the RC folk mass when I was at Yale, but I came to not be comfortable with images of God as a warrior or violent and with all the male imagery too. Don’t wish to relive any of that!

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  2. Your story reminded me of the day I was lost in a mall. I was so so terrified and definitely couldn’t understand why my mom had left me in the store I was in (she of course, thought I had left). And, shy and terrified as I was, I hid behind a display near the entrance to the store instead of talking to anyone. Eventually an old couple found me and took me to mall security. They brought me to my mother.
    I had a home in my mom; but my brother persisted for years in telling me that I had been taken to the wrong home (as in, they were not really my family, they only looked like it), that I was adopted and that the orphanage was hiding in my closet (with all the other monsters). He often liked to do that– tell me that my reality was somehow untrue…. I had not thought about the significance or irony of that until you posted this piece here. I have spent too much of my life doubting my reality… and also, not belonging. Actually, I spent most of my young religious life trying to work hard enough and be a good enough Christian to fit in– my eventual rejection in and of my church relationships actually has been sort of a relief. It was a confirmation of a part of my reality: there was a reason I didn’t fit in and (though only a little bit of me knew this) that my not fitting in didn’t mean I was “wrong” or “bad.” However, I still definitely identify with the homelessness that you describe… and the way that this sometimes makes connection an excruciating process for me.
    I am glad that the Church has your voice; and I want to say– from someone who’s also in-between though now outside– thank you for sharing your story here.

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    • Sara,
      I feel your story about being lost in the mall is a great metaphor for many women who recognize their discontent but are not yet ready to speak up. For some its a matter of not having the language or a strong fear of going against the grain. So we hide out, until our God-Parents bring us to the lost and found of our own souls!

      Yes, indeed, the doubting of ones own reality can be the very thing that keeps so many women silent to their own homelessness within their faith community and beyond. But once the state of not fitting in is recognized for what it is, as a path way to wholeness, it can be integrated into the self, which I believe, initiates change.

      Someone tell me why brothers place so much energy on trying to convince their sisters they do not belong? Growing up with five brothers, I was very, very sure I was switched at the hospital!

      Thank you for your comments and insight.

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  3. Cynthia, thank you for sharing your childhood story. I liked the way you mirrored it with your current situation in the church; beautiful writing. You said “the deeper truth is I am still looking for home, for a place where I can belong just as I am and not as others would want me to be” — may you find your home. I feel blessed that I was spiritually home the instant I read my first book about the Goddess Path, and I am always home in nature; I’m quite solitary, but whenever I have felt the need to sit in a sister circle, and I visit one I have just looked up wherever I’m currently living, I always feel ‘home’ in Spirit (even if my social insecurities sometimes leave me feeling a bit off).

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    • Darladiane,
      I’m so thankful you have found your spiritual home within the Goddess. In my own way, I envision The Blessed Virgin Mary as my Goddess and strength. This is one of the richest legacies past on to me from Catholicism and of course my own mother. I have written in other FAR post the love I hold for her.

      As I grow older, the pull and presence of the Divine is very much located in nature for me as well. Perhaps that is why I prefer to hike and camp in the outdoors then stay at a hotel. It’s all so breathtaking–placing order and beauty in my life.

      Thank you for your rich comments.

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  4. I was so happy to be able to hear Emilie Townes speak once about the issue of homosexuality and the Anglican church. Although she was referring to schism, I believe that this “split” that she refers to be prevalent with your story:
    “Sometimes when people threaten schism the best thing you can do is to just let them go.”

    I often read stories on this blog about not belonging, fitting it, or having a voice in your tradition. I hear your pain and anguish within your story but like with schism, my question to you, and I guess others who face this same problem is why not leave and invent a spiritual home of your own? Why long for the past and things long forgotten? As Lorde said, “You can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools,” and I feel that you and other Catholic theologians are looking at the remnants of patriarchal tools in your attempt to use them to reform these traditions.

    Build your own house, your own tradition. From what I know, you already are doing that and doing it beautifully. Keep fighting Cynthie but know that the need for belonging is, in my opinion, the past trying to keep us in the past and not looking to the glorious future.

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    • John,
      Yes, I completely understand what you are suggesting to me about the master’s tools. I’d like to share two reasons why I remain a Catholic.

      A few years ago I was invited to share my journey as a feminist Catholic to sixty foreign priest. They were ordered by their very enlightened bishop to attend a cultural workshop on working with educated and skilled women in their parishes. Apparently many of these priest could not understand the notion of collegiality from women who out degreed them.

      I began by introducing them to the reality of feminist theology and spirituality. I brought loads of books to share authored by feminist theologians and introduced the hermeneutics of suspicion and more. While captivated, it was not until I shared my own personal sense of alienation from the church I had loved as a child that they really began to listen. By me sharing my own pain and hurt when I am subject to an exclusive male liturgy or when I realized that because of gender there are only six sacrements for females while seven for males (ordination equals a sacrament only for men), and how this realization made me question not only my place in the church, but my relationship to God, many of these priest began to pause and take notice. While a small step, my voice began the initiation of change many, not all, of those gathered need to take in. When I feel I can take no more, I recall those who were willing to listen and feel another’s pain and begin their own process of a hermeneutics of suspicion, I feel the grace to stay.

      If you have been following the Vatican’s condemnation of the nuns from the LWCR here in the states, you get another side of Catholicism, the side that keeps me in. Charged with “radical feminist” practices like promoting the common good, these nun will not back down. The fact is, the Catholic church has a long and rich history of women (and men) who refused to conform to the dictates of Rome. Those beautiful souls that make up the Communion of Saints, those who have lived before and those that are with us now, give me pause and inspiration that another way of being Church is possible.

      John I stay because after years and years of discernment, I know that this is where I belong. It is where the Spirit has placed me and asked me to remain. This conviction does not make it easy, and my state of homelessness can be more pronounced and painful at times. What I sometimes forget is that my state of being is not the entire picture, nor am I actually “alone” in my state of exile. Many, many others are in the same state of anxiety with the Church, but find the compassion and grace to remain.

      Thank you for your thoughtful inquiry.

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  5. A black person goes into a church that refuses to ordain black people, and gives a talk about the hurt and pain he feels being a part of a church where all the priests are white. The white priests see all the books on institutionalized racism and black liberation theology, but they only start to really listen to the speech when the black person talks about their personal experience of feeling excluded in the church that has seven sacrements for white people, but only six for black people.

    Do you know any black people who would remain part of a church that had white supremacy as the hallmark of its institution?

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  6. The black person is married to another black person. So in their own home, they have the mirror of someone who experiences the same racism they do.

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  7. And yet the oppressed do adopt and adapt the religions of the oppressors, sometimes because they have no choice, sometimes because something within the religion stirs them, sometimes because they hope that by allying with power they will become powerful…

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  8. Some months ago, I started to write an article about leaving vs. belonging and got terribly stuck. Still not sure what the sticking point is, but it was comforting to read your words.

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  9. If you ever get it done, please be sure to share it. Thank you for your kind words

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  10. Great Essay Cynthia! Loved it.

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  11. Thank you for sharing this, Cynthia. I, too, felt like I didn’t belong in the Lutheran church where I grew up, but the music kept me there long after I didn’t believe in the words we repeated, week after week. I felt like a hypocrite, and it was very uncomfortable. The tension created between feeling like I was at “home” in a church, while feeling “different” from those around me, was finally resolved when I discovered the Goddess, and I was delighted when I found Unitarian Universalism, where I could create my own theology while being surrounded by some people who shared my belief (or unbelief) and others who believed differently but celebrated my right to believe what I felt was right for me. I love being able to focus on the questions, rather than trying to hold onto answers that don’t fit any more. I think that “longing for community” is the most important part of religion.

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