Voices: Kateri Lirio - A Musician and Survivor Finding and Sharing Healing Through Art
Updated: Apr 29, 2020
I firmly believe that one of the most important things I can do with this platform is raise up the voices of survivors, giving them an opportunity to share their experiences and perspectives with a broader audience.
So, I am truly grateful to have connected with Kateri Lirio, an abuse survivor who is addressing this crisis in a unique way - through powerful personal art. Honestly, I don’t know much about the art scene, but even I can see that Kateri’s list of accomplishments is quite impressive. She is a classically-trained pianist who attended the renown Orange County School of the Arts and graduated Valedictorian in 2006. She continued her studies at Cal Poly Pomona and was named “Outstanding Graduate” at the top of her class in 2010. Kateri has worked as a professional collaborative pianist since age 14 and has also spent time in music ministry within the Catholic Church. She is currently a music teaching artist specializing in piano, voice, ukulele, and songwriting in Los Angeles. Kateri is also an abuse survivor, who has spent much of her life wrestling with the consequences of that abuse. She has given voice to this difficult journey through her art, which has taken form in a one-woman musical, Psalms for Inside Times, which will be premiering via Livestream on April 29th at 8:00pm PDT.
Update, 4/28/20: A Message from Kateri - "Due to the extended Shelter-At-Home order and in the interest of safety for the production crew, “Psalms for Inside Times” is postponed until further notice. I’m looking forward to sharing this show with you in the future. Thank you for your support and I’m excited to share this important work with you down the road. Stay safe. Stay healthy."
Kateri and I had a wonderful phone conversation two weeks ago. Her strength, courage, and vulnerability are so inspiring to me, and I am honored to bring you her voice in this interview.
Sara: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I know it’s a very busy time for you, as you get ready for your performance! How are you feeling as you approach the big premiere? Kateri: I’ve been working on this show for seven years, at first not knowing it was a show. Eight months ago I started writing out the story. So, it’s been this really slow percolating process. Now that I’m entering production, it’s like hiking Mount Whitney. You’ve decided to hike it, and you’re maybe 75 percent of the way there. You’re so tired, and you don’t know if it’s going to work, but you know you just need to make it to the summit. Nerves are part of it, but I’m excited because I have been working on this for so long and I just want to show people the truth of my soul. Showing the truth of your soul - What a beautiful expression to describe this unique piece of art. Is the story autobiographical? Can you share a little more about how this musical came to be? The show is a combination of survivors’ stories, including my own, embodied in this character that I call “Anak,” which means “child” in Tagalog. I was first abused as a child and that set the stage, physically and psychologically, for more abuse in my adolescent years. I remember graduating college at the top of my class; I was working in the field I wanted; I had the boyfriend I wanted. On the outside, the world’s perception of me was really good. But on the inside, I was very depressed, and I felt so empty. In 2013, I had a series of spiritual experiences and I started praying again. As my prayer life matured and I worked on it and sought spiritual direction, I noticed my prayers turned into songs, so I used my musical ability and talent to create songs that have been honest prayers. When I started praying again, I found the connection between these songs and what I wanted to say to God.
I had a bunch of these songs in a little folder, and I shoved it in a drawer. I wasn’t going to put it out. I wrote it, and it just sat there. But the decision to keep it buried really weighed on me. I realized I was hiding something that needs to be seen. So I showed it to a group of girlfriends in my community, and that felt good. It felt a little lighter. Eventually, I shared the songs with a mentor of mine. When I presented to him, he said that the songs were nice, but he didn’t understand what the story was. At first I was kinda offended, but I took his advice. It forced me to look at the events of my life and craft a story that would represent a woman who is faithful, loses her faith through abuse in the context of the Catholic Church, and then finds it again. The title of the show comes from the Greek word “psalmos,” which means to pluck or to strum. “Inside times” means the internal spiritual life. I feel like I’ve been working on my spiritual life and reordering it, and I know that there are people out there who will understand. I’m excited because I get to share that journey and what that looks like. You said that you have included the experiences of other survivors in this musical - How have you had the opportunity to connect with other survivors and hear their stories? What has that experience been like for you? Part of my healing journey has been attending different support groups where survivors can anonymously and confidentially share our stories for healing. In support groups, that’s where you can talk about all the gory details, because you can all be together in the same room. I found a lot of myself in everyone’s stories, a lot of similarities with what happened to me. They’re like kindred spirits. So, as I was writing the show, I realized I needed to include some of these stories, to give voice to what that actually looks like. I’ve been so thankful for those supportive spaces to just be able to process and to feel safe, without having to protect the Church or reconcile with the Church. The healing comes from just listening to each other. I’m so glad you were able to find that kind of community and support when you needed it most. May I ask, have you received any help from specifically Catholic sources - your archdiocese, for example? What’s challenging is, where I’m at, they don’t have the resources to assist victims. From my interaction, they’re still in crisis mode. Until the people on the front lines are counselors and healers, instead of attorneys and administrators, I’m not going to get the support I need. So, to be honest, no, the Church hasn’t been helpful. When I would try to talk about my abuse with people that work for the Church, it’s like they don’t even want to talk about it. I have just learned that the Church is not the place for healing because it was the place where I was wounded. There’s great opportunity where there’s great hardship, so the reason I’m talking to you and putting out this show is I want to point survivors to the resources that I had to gather myself. It sounds like you’re really hoping this show will help other survivors in their healing process. Is that your main purpose in creating this production? Well, originally I wrote this for myself, because I needed to get it out. But my hope is that survivors find a conscientious safe space to share an experience and to have it be a source of healing. It’s also a way to educate families, especially Catholic families, about signs of clerical abuse, to prevent future instances of abuse. I know that each survivor’s path is different, but are there things you would want to tell other survivors about what was helpful to you? I would say, if you were abused in the Church, just know that the Church as an institution is not trauma-informed. To deal with complex trauma (and I would consider clerical abuse a complex trauma), it’s important to seek professional guidance. Finding good mental health care has been so challenging for me, so it’s not even only the Church, humanity could be more trauma-informed. I personally have done a lot of EMDR. It was originally developed in the 1970s to help veterans overcome PTSD, but for me it helped bring up the feelings I need to process, so that I could reprocess them and integrate them. I would just tell survivors, don’t give up, because there are resources out there. Fight for what you need, even if you don’t know what you need. In the Catholic Church, we’re taught to be humble and to wait on God’s will, but it’s ok to advocate for yourself, to speak up for what you need. I’m so sorry that the Church has not been helpful to you in dealing with the trauma. Is there anything that you wish the average Catholic in the pews knew or would do differently in responding to survivors of abuse? I wish the average Catholic would know how to listen with compassion, without giving advice or having to protect the Church. I still struggle to go to Mass. There was a time where I didn’t go for about six months, and I started sharing that with some of my devout Catholic friends. Time and time again, I would hear “it’s your obligation.” Well, for someone that has been wounded through the Church, it’s going to be hard to sit there in mass. I spent decades crying at Mass. Eventually I realized that it’s my trauma that I’m trying to process, and I keep on being rewounded every time I show up in this parochial space. Other Catholics say, “there’s this healing retreat; there’s this healing mass”... Well, some survivors were abused on a retreat, so that’s not the forum. It’s not telling people what to do, it’s just listening compassionately and not expecting anything else.
Are there any spiritual resources or practices that you do still find helpful, even as someone who has been wounded in the Church? You have to experiment and find what works. I did a lot of healing through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which are great, even you’re not a Catholic and just want to find out more about spirituality. I practice a lot of Lectio Divina, which is a tool as part of the spiritual exercises. So this Lent, for 40 days, I’m going through the daily readings, praying with Lectio Divina, and writing reflections. I’ve been posting the reflections in our young adult ministry Facebook chat, just to share my faith and share my prayers. Even though I’m not physically there at mass, I can still do a daily devotional with the mass readings. We rarely see people of color speaking out publicly about their experience of abuse in the Catholic Church. Could you share about about how your Filipino-American identity has impacted your journey as a survivor? I’ve struggled with my identity in general. I’m a person of color in America, so I don’t necessarily fit the bill of a typical American. But when I go to the Philippines and talk to my cousins, I don’t feel Filipino, because I wasn’t raised there and don’t speak Tagalog fluently. So, I would always feel like an other. I’ve worked on that; I don’t feel as much like an other anymore, because I’ve accepted that I’m a Filipino-American and that’s ok. If you’re born Filipino, you’re basically baptized Catholic through culture. Filipinos love priests and love Church. Every family is different, but there’s a trend in Filipino culture to be obedient, to not talk back to your parents. So I was taught to not talk back, to follow orders. Being a Filipino-American, and then also being a Filipino-American woman, and then a Filipino-American woman who’s Catholic, obedience has been this common theme in my life - Am I being obedient to my parents? Am I being obedient to the Church? I have learned that obedience really just means listening to what God wants for you. If there’s anything that I would want survivors, especially those in the Filipino community, to know, it’s that obedience is first to God, because God is above the Catholic Church. God works through the Catholic Church, but God is above that. God works through your parents, but God is above your parents. Before we wrap up this interview, I’m wondering if there’s anything else you would like to add. Is there anything you really want to share that we haven’t talked about yet? I just wish that more Catholics - lay people and clergy - were not so afraid to talk about this issue. It’s like a dysfunctional family, where you avoid talking about the elephant in the room, and then the problem gets worse. I have had people that work for the Church approach me, and they are a little bit uneasy about the work that I’m doing. But I still show up. Just a couple of weeks ago I was at the seminary, and I put up a couple of posters. I didn’t ask permission. I just did that because I wish the ministers would be trauma-informed and not be so afraid of talking about it. On that note, let’s talk more about your show, which sounds like a perfect opportunity for Catholics to break through this fear and have honest conversations about this issue. How can people support your work? Please join the livestream of the show on Wednesday, April 29 at 8pm. You can find information and tickets on Eventbrite here. I had been using a Go Fund Me campaign to help with production of the show, but I now have fiscal sponsorship through The Grove Center for the Arts & Media. Major donors can contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) for major gifts (over $1000). I’d like to tour the show locally and nationally, and maybe internationally in the Philippines.
One last question: I know I have a lot of readers who are committed pray-ers. How can the In Spirit and Truth community pray for you right now? Thank you. Pray for perseverance and pray that my heart is in the right place. As a trauma survivor, my relationship with the Church is complex. I want to approach this artistic endeavor from a place of love and not from a place of hurt. So, just pray for an ordered heart. Absolutely. I will personally be praying for you in that way, and I know others will as well, so hopefully you can get some extra grace flowing over you in the next few weeks. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Kateri. You have so much wisdom to pass along; I’m grateful to be able to share it with the world. May God bless you and bring you continued healing and peace.
SPECIAL OFFER FOR SURVIVORS WHO SUBSCRIBE TO IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH:
Kateri has generously offered to provide a limited number of free tickets to Psalms for Inside Times to survivors who have experienced abuse in the Catholic Church. If you are interested in receiving a promo code to access the livestream, please contact me.
--- Jesus, thank you for the opportunity to hear Kateri’s voice and perspective. Thank you for her courage and vulnerability in sharing the truth of her soul. We ask you to cover you with her grace as she moves forward with her show. Give her the gift of perseverance, love, and a rightly-ordered heart, that You may truly work through her to bring awareness and healing. Amen