I sat down with Kateri Lino, creator of and actress in a one-woman musical titled Psalms For Inside Times to discuss the performance and its relationship to Catholicism. After seeing Kateri’s musical, I believe her message needs to reach more people and begin a wider conversation among Catholics, feminists and their families, both inside and outside the Church.
Jessica Gerhardt: Kateri, can you tell me about yourself and your musical background?
Kateri Lirio: My first love is the piano. I’m a classically trained pianist who started songwriting when I was 18 after coming across Alicia Keys’ Songs in A Minor. She is proof that you can be a classical musician and have soul. I attended the Orange County School of the Arts and, in college, I studied classical piano with Grammy award-winning pianist, Dr. Nadia Shpachenko, and improvisation with David Bowie’s keyboardist. I’ve also performed in musical theater since I was 13. My first professional gig was directing music for our junior high production of The Sound of Music. I’ve produced albums for local artists, my own album in 2015 called Ultraviolet Garden, and a Christmas album in 2016 that received donations to feed people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. I’ve been involved in music ministry since I was 9 and professionally for over 15 years, so I’m familiar with community spaces. Currently, I’m an artist practicing and teaching music in the Los Angeles area and I’m developing a course called “Songwriting is Easy” for K-12 schools, juvenile detention facilities, and community groups. My work as a teacher is grounded in arts integration, constructivism, and socio-emotional learning. I’m passionate about championing diversity, inclusion, and equity in communities.
JG: As a Filipino-American, Catholic woman, what would you say about the intersection of your identities as a woman of color and a Catholic feminist? How has that affected your artistic journey?
KL: If you’re Filipino, you’re basically baptized Catholic - it’s just part of your culture. What’s frustrating about being a Filipino-American post-colonization is that, in Filipino culture, women are the matriarchs. On both sides of my family, I come from a line of very strong women. My mother immigrated to America, by herself, when she was 27 years old. My father taught me about diligence and perseverance, and my mother encouraged me to be authentically generous. Being a part of the Catholic Church, which is patriarchal, women tend to have supportive roles. I’m a strong person, a leader, but I often feel like there isn’t a place for me to fully realize that in the Church. My culture is more matriarchal, so it’s been a bit of a rub for me. I’m not entering the discussion of whether women should be priests or deacons. I don’t necessarily think that’s the answer, but I believe there could be more equitable partnerships between female leadership and male leadership in the Church. As a woman of color, generally speaking, you have to be three times as smart and work ten times as hard to be taken seriously. I spent most of my life trying to prove myself worthy. It was and is still exhausting. I want a space to create freely, as well as a seat at the table. And I want others who come from diverse backgrounds to share the table, too.
I believe there could be more equitable partnerships between female leadership and male leadership in the Church.
JG: What is the story behind Psalms For Inside Times?
KL: The story starts with a woman who wants to turn to suicide because she doesn’t feel loved. She rehashes the events leading up to the attempt. A lot has to do with her encounter with a priest who abused her and the effects of the abuse as she tries to develop relationships with others and with herself later in life. The storyline is based on a compilation of true events from child sex abuse survivors whose combined experiences are represented by the character name Anak (“child” in Tagalog). Because any sort of trauma has long-term effects, survivors often struggle with substance abuse, self-harm, secrecy, behavioral issues, and ultimately, finding their authentic selves. The premise poses the question: Were we loved before we knew ourselves?
It’s a one-woman musical. I play different characters and instruments, as well as sing, act, and dance. It’s been the most artistically challenging endeavor in my career so far. Most importantly, I’m premiering this work to begin a conversation about the healing of sex abuse survivors and the restoration of trust in the Church. I’m also seeking to raise awareness about a difficult issue that ultimately affects all Catholic families. I’m not trying to be sensational - I care about preventing future instances of abuse. Too many people already associate the Catholic Church with pedophile priests, and I’m saddened by that. Additionally, clerical abuse is not just priests molesting altar boys; it also includes emotional and spiritual abuse. Perpetrators can be church staff, ministers, and even school teachers. Spiritual spaces are often comprised of people who are vulnerable in seeking healing. Unfortunately, I've seen a lot of abuse not only in my life but also in the lives of the families affected by it.
I’m premiering this work to begin a conversation about the healing of sex abuse survivors and the restoration of trust in the Church.
JG: What was the spark for creating this musical?
KL: I’m a cradle Catholic who “did all the right things.” I was an altar server, involved in music ministry, and received all my Sacraments. Even though I checked all of the boxes, I still felt empty inside. I ended up leaving the Church when I was in college (by “leaving” I mean that I still attended church, but I wasn’t interested in living the lifestyle of a practicing Catholic). In 2013, I had a profound spiritual experience when I realized that there is a God, and I started praying again. The way I connect most with God is through song and much of my prayer is song. That was the start of writing the musical, but at the time I didn’t know I was writing a musical. I was just praying, writing, and processing through songs. I really wanted to know who God is and why Jesus is such a big deal. After my experience, I couldn’t turn back.
JG: Can you tell me more about your spiritual experience in 2013?
KL: The experience wasn’t just one event, but rather a series of events that I can only describe as a thread being unraveled on a sweater. I had just gone to Confession at an abbey by my house. For my penance, the priest told me to read Conversations With Christ: The Teaching of St. Teresa of Avila by Father Peter Thomas Rohrbach. At first, I was offended because he told me that I needed to learn how to pray. In my pride I thought, “You don’t understand, I’m a good Catholic girl! I go to Mass every Sunday. I’m a part of youth ministry and I go on retreats. I know how to pray!”
I begrudgingly did my penance and I read through the three-step process of mental prayer that St. Teresa of Avila documented, as she was known to experience ecstasy in her prayer life. So, I tried it out and I experienced a mystical connection between myself, my intellect, my body, and God. It’s called “espousal union.” It was better than any romantic encounter I had ever had and any meal I had ever eaten. Once that happened, I wanted to know what it meant to have a personal relationship with God. Nothing else mattered, and so I started making different choices. I’m not saying that everyone needs to experience espousal union or be a mystic. This is just what happened with me and what sparked my desire to know God and my life’s purpose in a deeper way.
JG: How did Psalms for Inside Times go from prayer to a one-woman musical?
KL: Two years ago, I launched a Patreon campaign. I told my patrons I’d release one song a month. I needed to challenge myself to complete projects instead of having a bunch of ideas floating around in my mind. All of the songs had a common theme: rediscovering faith. The project was originally called Songs for Inside Times and it was a concept album. I then showed the songs to a mentor who has produced many albums. He was honest with me and said, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say. The songs are nice, but if you’re going to create a concept album, you need to have some kind of story.” This forced me to look at the events in my life that would dictate a more cohesive narrative, and a musical was the decided medium.
JG: How has the process of creating Psalms For Inside Times brought you closer to God? Where have you seen God along this journey?
KL: I have a new perspective on what faith is. I was taught growing up, “Don’t worry, God will take care of things.” I was taught to dismiss my pain, suffering, and negative emotions. In the five-year process of writing this work, I cried about every day, pouring out years of repressed pain. It’s still painful today, though the pain has lessened a lot. I’ve learned that there are resources out there, inside and outside the Church, that help people like me who have been wronged. It is possible to find authentic community whether or not it’s in a Catholic environment. I go on annual retreats. I made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I have a spiritual director and a general confessor. They both keep me honest about where I am in life and I’m so grateful for these restorative relationships. I attend different support groups, which helped me process the emotions and deep healing that I needed to do (and still continue to do today). The people in my life have helped me restore trust in the Church.
The people in my life have helped me restore trust in the Church.
When I was growing up, I saw God as a judge who would punish me for doing things wrong. Now, I see God as someone who I'm in relationship with. God is a part of my creativity, my internal motivations, and my decision-making. That being said, I still have agency to make choices for myself. I find that I see God when I’m talking to people in my community. I’m realizing that my relationship with God is a three-fold process of getting to know myself, getting to know others, and finding where I feel peace. For such a long time I didn’t feel peace or joy. And now that I've experienced those things, I can return to those experiences and draw from them.
JG: If Catholic feminists see your musical, and what do you hope their takeaways will be?
KL: Voice and choice. What I hope to convey is that, as a female Catholic, you still have a voice even if you feel you don’t have a space or permission to do so. I want lay women and men to know that they both have equal voices in the Church, and that their voices matter. You don’t need to wait on a priest to make a change. I wish more laity knew that they have the agency to drive parish culture. If something unjust is happening to you, you need to speak up. I also want families to be aware of what abuse in a parish setting looks like so that future instances of abuse are prevented.
JG: What light does your musical place on the Church, and what is your relationship with the Church like now?
KL: I intentionally approach my work with the mindset of a method actor. I morph into different characters during the show. To maintain authenticity, I don’t pick sides. As I created the work, I could neither protect the Church nor try to go against it. I’m simply trying to tell the truth and the story of what survivors go through. It doesn’t mean I’m anti-Church. It also doesn’t mean that I'm trying to protect or go after clergy. I still have friends who are priests, and they’re good ones! I’m creating the show as a means to begin a conversation that I think members of the Church don’t know how to have (yet). The longer you wait to talk about the elephant in the room, the more damaging it is to the family as a whole. I want to talk about it and not brush it under the rug. That’s my hope.
I’m creating the show as a means to begin a conversation that I think members of the Church don’t know how to have (yet).
I haven’t cut ties with the Church. There was a time period where I didn’t go to Mass because I was writing the show, doing inner work, and trying to stay involved in ministry. The emotional pain was so great that I felt it in my heart every day. It felt like an arrow had pierced my chest and I was bleeding out. I remember playing at Mass and beginning to sob after one of our parish priests was recently ordained. There were so many priests up on the altar and it triggered my past trauma. I burst into tears during Communion.
I realized I couldn’t keep forcing myself to sit through services like this, so I stopped attending Mass and serving in ministry. I felt guilty because I was unable to fulfill my obligation. I felt like a bad Catholic. A compassionate friend told me that I didn’t have to attend Mass if I was sick. Just like people who are bed-ridden aren’t required to go to Mass, for the first time I saw myself as a spiritually and emotionally sick person who needed space to heal. It’s still hard for me to attend Mass sometimes, but I try to when I feel able. There is something beautiful and grounding about the liturgy, and I hope that one day I can experience Mass again with a joyful heart instead of with a wounded one. Thankfully, I’ve recently had a couple of Masses where I didn’t cry and I felt a sense of peace, which means that I’m healing.
JG: How can people support and learn more about this musical?
KL: The musical is premiering in Los Angeles on March 25, 2020 at the Whitefire Theatre (13500 Ventura Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 91423). If you’re in LA please come see it! I’m raising funds to produce the musical and an accompanying album. To find out more and contribute to the campaign, you can visit this GoFundMe. The performance will also be livestreamed for those who aren’t in LA. The GoFundMe will have a link to the livestream. Tickets are currently available.