Note: I had the pleasure of being a speaker this past Thursday at the most recent installment of Queer Voice in the World, which is a social justice-oriented, TED-talk style program highlighting LGBTQ perspectives, held at the William Way Community Center here in Philadelphia. The theme of this month’s event was “Body”, and so I gave talk on my recent spiritual journey and how it is so intricately and intimately tied to healing the divide between body and spirit in my life. The text of my talk follows.
I was born and raised as a Roman Catholic, and I loved Jesus. Still do. I was really into church when I was younger. I memorized all the prayers during Mass and would recite them under my breath while the priest was saying them. I’m Puerto Rican, so you know I learned all of that in English and Spanish.
I was educated in Catholic schools for most of my life, so I had to go through abstinence-only sex education, and let me tell you, that worked out really well for me. Abstinence only sex ed was a trip. I remember the instructor telling my class that our bodies are like pieces of ‘beautiful white fabric’, and if we had sex before marriage, it would be like tearing a hole in that fabric.
And then he told us, “Now who wants something with holes in it?”
This left quite the impression on me. Every time I had a sexual or even romantic thought, I felt unclean. As you can imagine, realizing that I liked dudes didn’t help. Now I personally felt like Jesus didn’t really care that I was gay, but everyone else around me certainly did. My pastor, my teachers, my classmates all went out of their way to tell me about the “proper use” of sexuality, and evidently me being gay was not “proper”.
Some time later I decided to look for another spiritual path that I felt would affirm who I was, because I’ve always felt that God can’t be encapsulated by one religion. After a lot of searching I eventually converted to Hinduism, and I was a practicing Hindu for 8 years of my life. During that time I became a priest and started a community for queer Hindus.
But I also struggled a lot with some of the theology. There was a lot of negativity around sex, like I had encountered with my Catholic upbringing. There was also this belief that we’re not these bodies. Many of the Hindu scriptures state that our true identity is the soul, not the body or the other aspects of ourselves go with it, like our sexuality, ethnicity, gender, and so on.
This teaching is supposed to be liberating – because if we’re all made of the same spiritual essence, then it means everyone is equal, right? But this teaching also gets misused. Because when I would try to talk about queerness, or race, or gender with folks in my religious community, a lot of times I would get shut down. People would tell me, “You shouldn’t talk about these body things so much. It’s divisive.” As a queer person of color, being told that sharing your experiences is ‘divisive’ is hurtful and frustrating. This teaching that was meant to liberate is used as a tool to silence and oppress.
So as you can see, I was still being confronted with this tension, this division between the body and spirit. And it really sucked, because with both of these religious traditions I was in, I was being told to affirm my spirit at the expense of my body.
Recently I had a bit of a crisis of faith, and if you haven’t had one before, they’re a lot of fun, I assure you. I actually ended up opening the New Testament again for the first time in years. I found myself being drawn to Jesus Christ again. I’ve been going to Mass at LGBT affirming Churches, praying the rosary, and reading a lot of theological works by queer-identified as well as affirming Christians about the body and sexuality. They’ve been really helpful in helping me to reclaim my faith.
One of the most healing things for me during this time has been remembering and meditating on the fact that Jesus had a body just like ours. A favorite writer of mine, Father James Martin, wrote an article reminding people that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, even if we don’t always emphasize the human part as much. He wrote:
“Jesus had a human body. Like you and me. That means he ate like us, drank like us and slept like us. He went through puberty. As a human being, he would have experienced sexual longings and urges. We know he was unmarried and celibate, but he would have, as a human being, felt the normal sexual attractions. Those are not sinful, after all. Far from it.”
Let me telling you, reading those words – especially that part about sexual desires – and realizing they were coming from a Catholic priest blew my mind. I thought to myself, you know, if Jesus did it, maybe this whole having a body thing isn’t so bad after all.
So how do we begin to heal this division between body and spirit? I don’t have an easy answer for that. But I think for those of us who are religious or spiritual, we need go deeper with our theologies. We need to really sit with and question how our teachings can be misused and become harmful. We really need to stop seeing the body and spirit as irreconcilable. The body is the vehicle through which the spirit operates. We need the body. We need to honor and love the body.
For my own part, I’ve started to realize that my body and my sexuality are not these dirty, sinful things. The different parts of my identity are not inconsequential, they are holy. God made them and imbued them with purpose and potential. I’ve definitely grown beyond seeing myself as a flimsy piece of fabric. I am so much more than that. We are all so much more than that. And we need to seek out and lift up theologies that embrace everything that we are.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from scripture, from Psalm 139. If you’re ever feeling ashamed of your body, for any reason, think of these words:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.