This is the text of the lay reflection I gave at my parish, St. Mary’s, on the feast of Corpus Christi (the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ), on embodied worship, Catholicism’s embrace of change, and an integrated relationship to sexuality.
I never expected that Catholicism would help me to love my body. I thought I knew that Christianity saw the body as dangerous baggage, a fleshy weight dragging our spirits into sin and deceptive temporary pleasures.
But as I prepared for my first sacraments at St. Mary’s four years ago, I got to love just how much the body and the senses are involved in liturgy. The kneeling and rising, the cold dash of holy water (especially the heavy dunks that Father Tony would give), the astringent smell of real incense, the bells when we sing glory, the solemn magic of adoration, the sag of real candles, the chance to kiss the cross on Good Friday, the heavy sweetness of the real flowers, and, of course, the chance at Communion to “experience in ourselves”—our bodies—“the fruits of Christ’s redemption.” This was a chance to praise God with my whole embodied self, and it was mind-boggling to someone like me raised in a Presbyterian church that was all silk flowers and grape juice, strictly neck-up worship. I loved the chance in Catholic mass to long for God with all of myself, especially in a parish that also gave out so many hugs and poured a little Irish into my coffee on St. Patrick’s Day. Today, as we celebrate Christ’s body and blood, I’m grateful for how much we like pleasure at St. Mary’s.
In my preparation for my first sacraments, Tricia told me that she loves how Catholicism embraces change, and this has always stuck with me. The real candles burning down, the real flowers: they’re a reminder that transformation is slow and that there’s a season for all things. Being born again isn’t an instantaneous transformation but a daily labor, one with seasons of desolation and uncertainty as well as of consolation and of intimacy with God’s living presence. The truth of the body is the truth of the wilting flower: we’re incomplete, and things change.
God wove us and God loves each fiber of his creation. It took me a long time to learn to read St. Paul’s admonitions against “the works of the flesh” to be warnings not against pleasure but against the works of the ego, the small, greedy self driven by fear. How often do we indulge ourselves in something we think is a pleasure to avoid facing something we’re scared to examine, or to avoid acknowledging a deeper, unfulfilled hunger? How often do we mistakenly idolize what’s temporary, believing that it can protect us? As if candles never burn off and flowers never wilt.
Christ’s embodiment and Christ’s sacrifice have redeemed all of us, down to the earth we’re made of. So, if our bodies are a gift, what spiritual lessons can we derive from pleasure? I’ve been thinking of a book excerpt that Kirby shared with me by Sister Ilia Delio, a Franciscan professor and theologian. She writes that “sexuality presumes that we are part of a whole and have been separated from the whole. Hence our incompleteness makes us long for wholeness and union.” This beautiful thought shows me just how much a sacramental and mutual understanding of sexuality—one great gift of our embodied selves—can resemble spiritual longing. We desire God, and that desire instructs us. I’ve come to believe a healthy relationship to desire is expansive: a longing for God teaches us not to shun the world, but to treasure God’s presence in creation and in each other. Likewise, the desires of an integrated sexuality can expand our heart, teaching us to be not greedy but loving toward neighbor, friend, and stranger.
The promise of resurrection isn’t a rescue of our pure spirits from our dangerous bodies, but a redemption and a new creation of both spirit and body. What does this mean? I don’t think any of us know for sure, but it enables me to trust that pleasure can heal, and that my incomplete, changing, desiring self is part of an incomplete, changing, desiring cosmos. In the Eucharist, we get a foretaste of this new creation, this consummate completeness, and I go forth after Mass not satisfied but joyfully stung by desire.