Driving home from another ministry excursion, I pass billboard after billboard saying there are sex shops nearby. With each sighting, my stomach turns with sickness, my face falls into a frown. I am tempted to ignore the anguish, to shield my thoughts, to avoid that which feels judgmental and ugly within me.
Instead, I take a deep breath and offer a prayer for healing and conversion: may all people revere every other human as sacred and holy. I wonder, though, what else does Christ need me to do with the frequent reminder that our culture has an unhealthy obsession with sex?
My haunted mind wanders as I continue to drive toward home. I remember when I was first introduced to what sex was made to be about, while huddled into a tiny rectory living room with other college students. Crowded together, a bunch of us awkwardly stared into…
[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for The Mudroom. Continue reading here.]
Last weekend I went to a retreat with other Catholic sisters younger than 40. I met a sister who ministers as a hospital chaplain in St. Petersburg, Florida. In addition to providing presence to all the suffering and miracles in the hospital, she listens to the prostitutes who come in for care. Apparently, pimps buy McDonald’s value meals for poor women as a way to lure them into prostitution. When the women work for the men the name of their pimp is tattooed near their private area. I had tears in my eyes as I listened to the other young sister dream about a ministry of tattoo removal and spiritual and mental healing for the women who desire to leave prostitution.
The two things that I despise most about our human sinfulness are the sins of the sex and military industries. Violence and destruction destroy experiences of holiness and dignity. We take the gift of our God-given creative power and misuse it in attempts to prove ourselves. We misuse our bodies while we live lies.
Really, though, we can give God great glory with our bodies and our lives. Alternatives are abundant. Although we are small and powerless, we can unite with Christ to do great things in Love. In chastity and service humanity is healed.
Brothers and sisters: The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body; God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him. Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body. –1 Cor. 6:13-15, 17-20
When I was a kid I was just as confused as everyone seems to be about what is right and wrong. I was persuaded by our dualistic society and its messages. Older Christians showed me that the New Testament taught me that we should live according to the spirit and not the sinful flesh. Did that mean my body was not good?
Soon, my students and I will study sexual ethics. I’ll emphasize that our bodies are really good and sex is very holy. We’ll examine how sexual desires can become destructive and dangerous when they’re not controlled: when we fail to use our bodies to glorify God. Rooted in Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body and I’ll use this book and this website. The holy power of our sexuality is alive in everyone’s bodies. As we seek union, we are capable of creating new life. As we love chastely, we can truly give God glory through our bodies.
Our bodies are holy and alive with the spirit of God’s goodness, which is why they are built for the morality of the reign of God. We are children of God. We are free. As we give God our powerlessness, God converts us into temples of blessing. When we say “yes” to God’s love our bodies are made powerful for humble service. As we serve, we build God’s reign of healing and justice now. God is glorified.
The problem is that not everyone gets this. Sins explode and people are seriously misused because of our desire to be powerful and great. Martin Luther King, Jr. calls this the drum major’s instinct:
And the other thing is that it causes one to engage ultimately in activities that are merely used to get attention. Criminologists tell us that some people are driven to crime because of this drum major instinct. They don’t feel that they are getting enough attention through the normal channels of social behavior, and so they turn to anti-social behavior in order to get attention, in order to feel important. And so they get that gun, and before they know it they robbed a bank in a quest for recognition, in a quest for importance. . . Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. . . You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.-The Drum Major’s Instinct By Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We can be the servants, who with Christ, show the world alternative ways to live. As we serve, God heals, loves, redeems. As we place our powerlessness in the hands of God’s we are set free to be temples of God’s goodness. In our bodies God is glorified. We unite together in great love and become God’s colorful, healing, chaste body of Christ- the true living God.
I was on the mountain top and things looked clear. I was watching a group of Jesuit novices in the hilly northeastern states of India who were taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows were the same I had taken four years ago and they spoke to my heart. This radical response of love and service to the world seemed so simple and easy on the mountain.
Yet one never stays long on the mountain top. The next day I descended into the busy city of Guwahati; a chaotic place of a million people of every type. There in the city understanding was limited, if not all together gone for me. The noisy traffic patterns, the many people and languages, were all beyond recognition. I had no answers for how life worked or function in such a different place.
Many groups in India do understand the problems and plagues as it is a lively democracy with protests and other political demonstrations happening every day. Some had enough answers to try to take down the system all together by blowing up trains in Assam and bombing market places in Mumbai. These atrocities were only added to by the senselessness of the Norway massacre which all displayed the brutality of Christian, Hindu, and Muslim fundamentalism. Surrounded by and listening to only like-minded people, these fundamentalists see people in the way of their ideas and answers for the world.
Being a part-time community organizer and activist, I strive also for answers and understanding to change this crazy world, but the lesson God taught me in India couldn’t be more different from the fundamentalist response. Every time my feet sank into the mud of a place where I could start to recognize, understand, and know, I moved on. I expected to be grounded in one place but instead was invited weekly to visit some Jesuit or non-Jesuit work somewhere else. I continually found myself in a new area of the northeast with its own distinct tribe, language, culture, and issues. Having tea with so many I was honored by the sense of time people gave me and the beauty of listening to the joys and struggles of their lives.
Such people and stories pulled and stretched my heart. Bouncing in the back of a jeep from one place to another I was often frustrated at my seeming helplessness always “the guest.” I realized how little I have to say to their situation and how much I have to learn.
It was beautiful, hard, and freeing. The freedom that I was being taught was something beyond control and knowledge. It was freedom of letting go of my understanding so as to listen and realize that only together, with these radically different people, can I begin to know. My cultural viewpoint, my limited range of seeing, however enlightened I think it is, is never enough. I often accompanied two young Hindu lawyers from the Legal Cell for Human Rights who put on workshops in the poorest of villages to teach people their rights. Never understanding the language, I once asked them how they can have answers for every question asked in every village. They laughed and said, “We don’t. We never really answer the people’s questions directly, because they have the answer, we just have to help them see it.”
This freedom is beyond choice. Asking a religious Sister why she organizes domestic workers, she said she was called by God to respond to the poor around her. It was not about her interests, choices, or causes, but about meeting the needs where she was. I saw this lived out by Jesuits I lived with who were invited out into the jungle to set up schools for the most forgotten villages. I walked the tea plantations with organizers who humbly spent their lives helping their own people be proud of their culture and dream beyond their near slave labor conditions. All labored in freedom with the mission not to be heard themselves, but to help nurture the poorest around them and lift up their voice. They work as Jesus did, which was summed up beautifully by a Muslim women in a self-help group who told me “As long as God gives us life, we will give our life to help others grow.”
One of the tea worker activists asked me on a bumpy car ride why God had made rich and poor, why such disparity and diversity? I didn’t know and still don’t know. I leave India still overwhelmed by such a reality, but as a Jesuit president of an all Hindu school told me once, “God is much bigger than what we do and our understanding.” I don’t have to understand, but have to listen, learn, and, as I saw so many doing, work really hard in my own particularity for the people around me. I, like those vow men on the mountain top, have been given many gifts, and out of generosity to our great God, I hope to continue moving past myself and my limited view and answers to live a life of listening and work to help others grow and have a voice in this complex and beautiful world.
This week’s guest blogger, Ben Anderson, is a member of the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and a friend to Sister Julia. Ben lives in Chicago working on his master degree in philosophy at Loyola Chicago and is a community organizing intern at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. He spent two months during the summer immersed in the Jesuit works of Northeastern India.