By Genevieve Pollock
DALLAS, SEPT. 9, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Teenagers have a particular capacity to understand God's plan for human sexuality through John Paul II's teaching on the theology of the body, says Monica Ashour.
Ashour, executive director and national speaker for the Theology of the Body Evangelization Team, Inc. (TOBET), has been running retreats and giving talks throughout Texas in a ministry that is progressing toward becoming a national organization.
Although the organization works with both adults and teenagers, ZENIT spoke with its executive director about the way adolescents in particular have responded to this teaching of Pope John Paul II.
Ashour explained that she just finished running, along with two interns, Christopher Lafitte and Stephanie Balser, a "boot camp" for some 120 prolife youth, which was sponsored by the Dioceses of Dallas and of Fort Worth.
Next week, Sept. 18-19, TOBET will host a national conference titled "Destined for Greatness: Your Human Journey," with speakers such as Michael Waldstein and Louise Cowan.
In this interview with ZENIT, Ashour explained how adolescents are understanding holiness and moral living in a whole new light due to John Paul II.
ZENIT: Could you tell us a little about your work, especially with teenagers? How do teens receive the theology of the body? What is it in particular that draws them?
Ashour: I would say that the theology of the body, presented in a fun, thought-provoking, challenging, and engaging way draws teenagers in.
I juggle and spin a basketball on my finger, and do all sorts of other crazy things that gain credibility in the eyes of teens, and then I go deeply with them into the theology of the body.
I try to give a broader overview of theology of the body such that sometimes I don't even have to mention the words sex or sexuality -- although many youth ministers want me to get to that later in the talk -- but at first I set the foundation.
I discovered in my ten years of teaching the theology of the body to teens that the "language of the body" (Pope John Paul's term that refers to marital love -- but I have extrapolated) is the term they relate to most and can apply readily.
The body "speaks" a language such that the body and soul ought not work in contrast.
I mention how the pure heart of the person -- the well-formed conscience -- and bodily actions should always correspond. In fact, according to Pope John Paul II's teachings, we can say that the body reflecting one's pure soul is holiness. Our Lady was sinless because her bodily actions always reflected her pure heart.
Teenagers love it; they understand it. Holiness becomes concrete, attainable, and desirable to them.
I give them an example of the opposite. If they turn in a homework assignment (using their body -- their arm passing the paper forward) to their teacher, but they know inside the truth that they cheated, then it's like a separation of body and soul -- their body says, "Teacher, I did this," but they know it is a lie.
To be less than whole really hurts them; sin is not simply vague commandments but something that affects them negatively because they go against the "language of the body."
I tell them that the worst violation of the "language of the body" in all of history was when Judas kissed Jesus -- such a gesture was a sign of friendship, but inside, Judas knew he was betraying a friend.
Teens then see that sin is a kind of separation of body and soul; holiness is togetherness.
Thus I build a broad understanding of the theology of the body, which can be used as a basis for later talks on various topics such as sexuality, but the theology of the body is so much more than sexuality -- it is about the entirety of the person.
I also present the theology of the body by talking first of all about how all humans have arms and legs, which show us we're meant to be gifts.
I like demonstrating this tough concept by way of juxtaposition. I'll often have teens make ugly figurines out of play-doh, which look like orcs from Lord of the Rings, replete with spikes on the multi-headed monster and with guns for hands. If God made us look that way, then the "language of the body" would say that we were meant to be enemies, not gifts.
But the way God has made us is with arms to hug our friends, legs to walk over to help a person out, lips to kiss our parents, hands to do our family chores, eyes to see another and show we care.
They understand that we're meant to be gifts, and God in his inner life is a gift. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are gifts to each other. Giving the gift of self is the meaning of life, as "Gaudium et Spes" (24) states, and the opposite of that is using others, as Pope John Paul II says.
Then I move to the "language of the body" regarding sexuality in terms of masculinity and femininity.
I thought of a funny and easy-to-remember way of talking about the language of the male and female bodies. The male body is: rough, tough, and buff (with the caveat that this does not mean girls are wimps nor do guys have to be bodybuilders).
In other words, men are meant to protect and provide, especially for women and children. And so to engage in unchaste acts goes against the language of the masculine body, for the girl winds up hurt, not protected. Guys understand it. They rise to the occasion.
Most youth ministers want me to get into the tough subject of pornography. Therefore, I say, "What does society tell you guys to do? Society is telling you to use pornography and use girls, but that's the opposite of protecting them and providing for them. (I remind girls that they too must resist what they are taught by society -- to be in pornography as well as use it).
After exhorting them to live according to the language of their bodies, I remind them of Christ's healing power. I tell them to have that hard conversation with their parents and to go to confession. They can be healed, but often with much trial. I encourage them to never give up the fight.
Next, I point to the female body as hiding and inviting. The language of the feminine is to be mysterious, welcoming, and nurturing (of course I explain the proper view of femininity, which does not mean that they have to be behind the scenes or wimpy). I point to Our Lady as the strongest woman ever because she lived the language of her body at all times.
We know the feminine "speaks" just by looking at her body. It is mysterious; we veil that which is sacred.
We should wear modest clothes, flattering but not too unveiling, otherwise, it goes against our mystery. I received an email once from a mom who thanked me because her daughter asked to go shopping for proper "hiding and inviting" clothes.
I'll also talk about the female body being welcoming. Via our female bodies, we can see how God intended us to live out the language of our body.
Since all girls have a womb that may one day bear fruit in a physical child, this shows us that all of us, whatever our state in life, are called to welcome others in an appropriate manner. I as a single woman know this too.
They understand that and relate it to their state in life -- how girls are particularly adept at being there for others emotionally. I also challenge them, especially those who are not hidden enough in their emotions, who might exhibit them too much on Facebook, MySpace, etc.
I'll often bring up the subject of abortion, how people need healing, and how abortion is not only against the unborn baby but against femininity and its welcoming aspect. I tell stories about girls who feel all alone and how we need to show women what femininity really is about so they won't think abortion will "solve" things.
I mention Project Rachel's healing power for those who have been involved in an abortion. I show the link between sexual promiscuity -- living the opposite of t he language of the body -- and the rise in abortion.
ZENIT: How do you help the youth to understand the beauty of sexuality and yet keep those hormones under control?
Ashour: I've studied the theology of the body for ten years and have learned what to do and not do in presenting to teens. I first try to show how the theology of the body is not relegated to the area of sex and sexuality.
No matter what Church doctrine -- moral theology, sacramental theology, social ethics, Sacred Scripture, etc. -- all can be understood from the lens of the theology of the body.
My former students loved how the theology of the body brought alive, in one piece like a beautiful mosaic, the various doctrinal teachings. Cardinal Angelo Scola was right when he stated that all aspects of the faith can be taught from a theology of the body perspective. The faith comes alive. I have seen it.
This is not to say that the theology of the body is a new public revelation by any stretch of the imagination.
I have found truth in Pope John Paul's statement about his own work, "And this theology of the body is the basis of the most appropriate method of man's (male and female) education" (TOB 59:3).
The theology of the body combats today's secularism: Gnosticism -- the belief that the body is bad -- or the other side of the coin, that the body is the only good.
One of the best ways of zeroing in on the beauty of sexuality is to bring up the "language of the body."
Such a sacred act as the marital act says: "I am yours and you are mine forever. You can trust me completely. I am ready to be a parent. I renew our vows through this sacred act."
Outside of marriage, such actions are lies. I speak to teenagers about a couple at their wedding taking vows, and then with the "language of their bodies," they ratify that vow on their sacred honeymoon bed.
Marital love, I explain to them, is not a bad thing they get to do after they are married; no, it is so sacred that it is reserved for a vowed life. Teens are eager for such truth presented in a compelling way.
I explain that their sexual desire is given to them by God, thus it must be a gift, but I help them understand the proper use of that desire according to their state of life, to use that desire to love others rightly in their teenage years by being gifts to one another through service, not through any sexual act.
This rings true with the teens. Sometimes they interpret the Church's teaching regarding chastity as meaning that their sexual desire is bad, something to be repressed; I show them it is good and something to be mastered, something that can bring true freedom and proper love when used according to God's design -- within marriage.
Another way I convey this sensitive topic, always with veiled language, is to tell them that the first initial attraction to another person is good, but then I say, "Remember who you are -- you are not his or her spouse, and you are made to love the person, not to use, which is the opposite of love."
One more thing: I talk about how we can't do this on our own. We need grace.
I always bring up the Eucharist. With some humor and then a moving drama, I show them about the necessity and beauty of the Mass, with Jesus showing us how to live out the language of the body: "This is my Body, given" -- sacrificial love.
That's the theology of the body: that Christ died for us and gives his Body for us at Mass. They start understanding why Mass is so significant, not just a requirement that has little to do with their lives.
I exhort them saying, "The Church believes in you; society doesn't believe in you; society says that you cannot live according to the language of the body. But I, with Mother Church, tell you, "I believe in you." They rise to the occasion.
The Theology of the Body is, indeed, as Pope John Paul's biographer, George Weigel said, "a time bomb set to go off." I and the TOBET members are privileged to detonate it.
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On the Net:
Theology of the Body Evangelization Team: tobet.org
National conference flyer: http://www.tobet.org/ConferenceFlyer.pdf
By Genevieve Pollock