“So, you have to talk to my colleague” A friend of mine said excitedly when he read my first article.
“She’s exactly like you. She moved from Philippines to Italy to work in fashion. She’s Gen Y, and she’s religious. You would have a lot to talk about together”
It took me a couple of months until I reached out to Maureen. Between settling down with my new job, I had been travelling, falling sick, and fixing my ailing car.
“It’s okay. Chaotic seems to be the general theme for my life in 2014 too!”, Maureen cheerily replied to me. I breathed a sigh of relief and quickly set a time for us to chat by Skype.
We settled for Saturday morning local time in Florence. A timing just nice as I was winding down from my half day job and Maureen about to start her weekend.
Like a fish out of water
“I have been in Florence for 9 years”, Maureen said as we began our conversation.
Coming from Manila when she was just 24, Maureen left for Florence after her initial plan to study Arts Management in New York fall through.
“I was working in the national theater organising concerts in Manila at the time. Long story short, I didn’t end up going to New York but I really wanted to leave Manila.”
Maureen thought of what she would like to do. Jewelry-making. “Not just design, but the actual bench work. So my mom told me that I should go to Florence,” Maureen added.
Jokingly telling Maureen that my jaw has dropped twice since the start of our conversation (I have never met a real-life working artist before, much less one that moved across the world at her own mother’s suggestion), I asked her, “have you always wanted to leave Manila or the Philippines?”
“Growing up there, I always feel like a fish out of water. I was always the weird one.” Maureen said, echoing my own feelings when I grew up – so out of place and out of touch with the majority of people around me.
“My sense of humour was off to many people,. I’m too direct and sarcastic. I don’t sugarcoat things like many of countrymen do.”
“My interests are different from those of the people I grew up with. As I always say to Maurizio, I am an European soul in Asian body”. I can just imagine Maureen chuckling on her seat as she concluded her sentence with a smile.
Faith helps me forge ahead
As we warm up into our conversation, I asked Maureen if she considers herself a religious person.
“Yes, I am Catholic”. Maureen said her parents are devout Christians, and ingrained the same values in all of their children. Maureen however quickly added that she doesn’t simply follow what was taught to her as a child. “I understand why I am like this”, she added.
“Did you have the moment when you first realised that you’re a Christian?” I asked.
“No, not really. All I know is I am a Christian since birth. But that’s not to say that I didn’t have my faith shaken up or tested”. Maureen smiled as she related how her mother was terrified when she first moved to Florence in 2005.
“She was scared that I would stop going to mass and I don’t know what else.” She laughs.
I quickly pointed out how interesting it was in many conversations I have with people about religion, mothers always feature strongly when it comes to concerns about the state of our spirituality or religiousness.
“It’s true that if a person doesn’t have strong convictions on what they do, it’s easy to get swayed when you are away from your family. But I have been here for 9 years – my faith and religions are what helping me through the years on my own here.”
I asked Maureen in what ways her faith has been tested and proven.
Maureen was gracious to answer. In the early years when she first arrived in Florence, she was just on a student visa and working part-time. Every year, there was a worry of not having her permit renewed and that she would have to go back to Manila.
“But I would just continue to pray and have faith that God would take care of me.”
And every time, at the last second, something would come up and Maureen stayed on for another year. Either her permit gets approved or she finds another job.
“Then there is the whole idea of God knowing what is best for us, and that he guides in our lives”, Maureen continued, saying when it comes to the guys she met she had nothing but disappointments.
“It has come to a point when I meet someone new, I wonder, what is the point of having met him if he was wrong for me?”
In the end, Maureen figured that since she has been taken cared of all these years alone in Florence, then there is a purpose to her meeting the wrong guys.
“I guess you can say that my faith helps me see the positive side of things and helps me forge ahead.”
I smiled at Maureen’s last sentence. Going back again and again to the notion that most of the time – the reason to believe is the simplest and most profound.
On how she prays and relates to God, Maureen said she attends the mass every Sunday, during the week and whenever she feels like it.
“Being inside the church gives me peace”, Maureen said, adding that she prays better in church than anywhere else because she is not distracted. She used to pray the rosary every day too, but Maureen quickly added it’s not something she is able to do anymore.
“I try to, but my mind drifts away. And lately I haven’t been too much in the mood to pray.”
I wondered whether her inclination to pray or not correlates with the events in her life.
“My mom referred to it as spiritual drought. The priest said it too. It’s something you tend to have when you are going through disappointments in life.”
The important thing in prayer, Maureen said, is to continue even if you don’t feel like it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the rosary, even just talking to God – then the will to pray will come back to you in the end.
A thinking Catholic
I asked Maureen if she has ever had to come to terms with conflicting views from the church with her own principles.
Maureen admitted that she is pretty traditional when it comes to many things and she agrees with the Catholic Church for most things.
“But there are some things that I am more open to and I just basically do what I want. So this is what I was saying in the beginning that I am proud to be a thinking Catholic, for things I believe in, I defend them and for things I don’t agree with, then I just do it”.
Everyone is entitled to their own views and opinions, Maureen mused, and the important thing is that no one is hurting anybody.
“Any religion should be taken as a guide. I think it’s a universal law that too much of something can be bad for you. Just like eating too much chocolate, even if it’s delicious, you can do harm to yourself and to those around you (when you get stomach problems),” Maureen said, laughing at her own analogy.
We talked for a while about how many people use religion as excuse for bad behaviour and actions. The Catholic church in the Crusades, the Sudanese woman being punished for marrying a Christian.
“This is why I say it is important to understand your belief and always ask why. I have a deep faith because I understand it, not because my parents taught it to me. My faith is a part of my everyday life.”
“My religion has taught me the proper ways to live and deal with other people. Even if many times I want to smack people in the face, for example, my religion says that’s not the proper way so I can’t”
“You must be so at home here, Italy being a Catholic country and all” I remarked as we conclude our conversations.
“Italy is supposed to be a Catholic country,” Maureen said, “but I am the youngest person in the church when I go to mass. I feel so out of place here.”
According to Maureen, most Italians nowadays are agnostic or atheist. Relating again why it is important to understand your own faith and religion, Maureen said most Italians are taught about religion either in school or in church – learning about mass and praying as a repetition of verses without being made to feel or understand them.
“So of course it’s easy to stray this way. Same with me. I never understand Algebra in school, so I had the worst grades ever.”
This article is part of the series “Growing Up in Religious Asia” to be published on http://www.insideasean.com.