Sister Lucy’s Bible Study

Carlos notices an old file drawer in the dead space between two corner cabinets he’s moved. Putting on a dust mask, he flips through the files. Most have old-fashioned Sunday School literature, with pictures of chubby white children being carried to a bearded Jesus with wavy brown hair. He sees a date scribbled on one pamphlet: Oct., 1999. At the back of the file is a print-out typescript. Its title page has curly borders of lilies, and columbines with trailing stamens–“Nice, these old-fashioned graphics they had,” he thinks. It says: SISTER LUCY’S BIBLE STUDY. Amused, he begins to read. He always did have a soft spot for antiquarian things. He sits down smiling and mutters, “Kind of old hat what she writes–yeah, someone would have put it that way back then.” He reads on.

“. . . . The Leviticus teachings on sexuality date from the Israelite settlement of Palestine (ca. 1400 B.C.E.). Between crop failures, war-raids, and epidemics, the tribe-clans required constant child-bearing by wives and slave-women for survival. The shortness of life meant that a husband and wife were probably together only a few years.

The principle was regulation of fluids to maximize lawful pregnancies. Landowning men wanted to ensure their sons’ paternity, for inheritance. After a nocturnal emission a man had to perform a cleansing ritual; he must not practice coitus interruptus (‘spill his seed on the ground’); he must not have sex with any woman but his own wives and maid-servants; and he must not have sex with a man (the previous “people of the land” had practiced that, and the Israelites were to set themselves apart from such “uncleanness”). For a woman, the laws were that she must not have sex with any man but her husband or master, must have sex with no man during her menstrual period (after which she must perform a cleansing ritual), and must cry for help if sexually attacked. If attacked in open country she was blameless; if in town and she did not cry for help, both parties would be executed. Male-initiated divorce was allowed, with a cast off woman returning to male relatives. That two women could do anything sexual was apparently not thought of by the priests; presumably, whatever they did would not be allowed to interfere with reproduction. Enforcement of the sexual code was extreme, though no more so than for other laws, as that rebellious adolescents would be stoned to death, with their parents looking on.”

Just then a water balloon hits Carlos’s window. He hops up and flips it open. Two of the parish fourteen-years-old are laughing and waggling their fingers at him, thumbs stuffed in their ears. They’re wearing face paint making them look like honey bees with compound eyes. He yells affectionately, “Get out ‘a here, you uglies.” They throw another ballon and take off, hopping the peonies. He catches it and sidearms it back, hitting one kid on the butt and getting a yelp and a laugh. He shuts the window and picks up Lucy’s lesson. “Let’s see, where was I?”

Jesus was addressing a far different, Greek-influenced society under Roman occupation. Though he spoke within rabbinic traditions of Mosaic law, he saw its divorce practice as unjust to women and too little in touch with people’s needs for love and inner righteousness. Moses permitted this law, he said, for your “hardness of heart.” So far as is recorded, Jesus did not teach a system to replace it. He did proclaim an ideal, in saying that a man’s desire for another man’s wife is an adultery “of the heart”: in other words, physical, emotional, and marital loves should coincide, in a whole person. This teaching about sex in Matthew and Mark is qualified both before and after it. As introduction to the ideak, Jesus says that those who teach this Law in full rigor will be greatest in the kingly reign of heaven, while those who loosen it will be least in the kingdom. That evening, when the disciples say that no one would marry if matrimony is so absolute as he seemed to say, he answers that just as some are born eunuchs and some are made so for the kingdom, this teaching is for those able to receive it.

Carlos takes off his dust mask, blows his nose, and yawns . . . Ah, that’s better. He thinks how Jesus must have been good at stepping through tricky issues with a lot of savy, and then people would take what he said and start simplifying it to suit their bias. Lucky that whoever wrote down the Q source of ‘sayings’ was into fine points. He skips down the page.

. . . St. Paul referred to changes in religious teaching, from age to age, as heralded by a groaning of creation, as it waits to see the glory of God’s children in a new dispensation. Paul experienced this himself in the emergence of new, cross-cultural teachings for his converts. He fused diverse elements into one movement that transcended the Jew-Greek and the master-slave divides—a shattering process of innovation. The male lawgivers writing Leviticus had addressed land-owning males. What other people should do, they dictated only indirectly. Paul tried to talk to everyone.

At the start of Romans, he describes homosexuality— condemned in Jewish teachings but approved and spiritualized in Greco-Roman culture–as God’s punishment for people’s original sin of idolatry: worshipping images of God rather than God, a category mistake of the psyche. Paul was finding a new common ground for Jew and Greek, master and slave, man and woman. He argued that for everyone alike, it was idolatry that had led to all forms of sin, and he ended Romans Chapter 1 with a dark profile of humankind as “steeped in rottenness”: full of greed, malice, envy, murder, wrangling, treachery, arrogance, and lack of pity and mercy.

This was a melt-down of his former Hebraic view of human nature as redeemable by Law, or to switch metaphors, a leveling of the ground for his cross-cultural move: Jews were guilty of idolatry in violating their Law’s teaching to love God above all and one’s neighbor as oneself (a task of self-imaging–rightly seeing oneself in the other); non-Jews were likewise guilty, without the Law, of the same misdirected self-love through wrongful self-imaging, but in their case he said, it showed itself in men desiring men, women desiring women. So God had punished humanity with confusion, Paul argued, “because they have worshipped the creature instead of the Creator.”

Thus Paul negotiated a new spiritual union, through a psychic bargain within the cultural conflicts of his time. It associated homosexuality with sin, as something the redeemed Christian would be freed from. Greek men, with their ideal of the beautiful body, shown in their glorious sculptures, balked at being circumcised. They didn’t want their genitals cut.
Jews, in a tradition that saw children rather than beauty as the highest sign of divine blessing, balked at the Greek philosophical idealizing of homosexuality. The compromise? Worship of the idealized body must cease; no active homosexuality allowed, and no circumcision required. This was a cultural negotiation like Paul’s advice not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to ‘idols’–those gods are only statues, he reasoned, so the meat has not really been harmed, but if eating it would confuse someone’s faith, avoid it.

Carlos looks at his wall clock, built into a figure of St. Antony with his arms extending into a circle of arrows around the rim of the clock, and flips over a few pages. He wants to see how the “Bible Study” ends and whether it’ll give a clue who Sister Lucy was. A feisty old bird, she seems. Now that he thinks of it, he remembers hearing a story from an old-timer in the parish about a Dominican sister working here who couldn’t get along with the priest. When the bishop came to celebrate a confirmation mass, her sixth graders hung a banner that said HOLY WOMEN RULE! Maybe that was this sister. He starts the conclusion.

. . . . Now, we need new entryways into God’s love, celebrated by Paul with soaring passion when he says that in Christ there is no condemnation, and nothing can separate us from the love of God. Now there is another groaning of creation, until a new Christian identity becomes thinkable for our life conditions, so different from those of ancient Rome and its provinces. Extended life poses challenges of periodic renewal and balance. How to maintain and sometimes remake the very self that must exist so that one can know committed love, and rich use of talents? Identity and selfhood are getting ever more complex in pluralistic societies, because people are constantly pressured to broaden their self-concept, to be tolerant and empathetic across racial and other divides, as our ancestors never were. This is a new task, inseparably interwoven with sexuality.

Of course no one can think that all erotic energy could go into lovemaking–we’ve become the species we are by directing most of it into family, culture, language, and art. But rules that forbid whole categories of people ever to know consummated sexuality are soul-killing, destructive of creativity, and harmful to physical health. And in a hyper-crowded world, people will have to find other forms of fulfillment than those standbys of ancient and modern times: lifelong childbearing, large-scale hobbies or property development, war-making, and rampant consumerism and waste. Rather, along with sexual love, we must learn the satisfactions of small spaces, even cyberspaces, through arts and sports, life-long education, gardening, liturgy and other celebration, group meditation and music, and shared nurture of the children of small families in well arranged living units.

Emily Bronte’s character Heathcliff in the novel Wuthering Heights is an instance of the basic problem in many cultures’ views of sex. A dark gypsy child brought home and raised by a country squire, he is possessive libido personified, a one-man wrecking crew out to ‘get’ his desired love object Catherine at any cost–even after Catherine is in her grave! Christians must have a better concept of sexuality. Billing it as the gypsy Other, the alien not-me that invades and makes me “selfish”–this sickly view of sexuality makes fullness of life impossible.

“Heathcliff!” Carlos thinks, “What the heck?!” Did people really feel that way about sex back then? He can’t quite get the gist of it. Oh well. He reads on.

Besides wealthy countries with their ideals of personal fulfillment, the Vatican must currently attend to cultures where these values are secondary for most Catholics, who would not be ready for a change in the ideals of celibate priesthood and laic chastity, no matter how few people manage to follow them. Abstinence can be a potent symbol of unviolated spirit, of exploited people’s struggle for self-determination. Such a figure is the youngest saint, St. Maria Goretti. She died just before age twelve, of stabbing by a would-be lover. What she knew of hope was to keep up with the housework and care of young siblings, to bring food to the table while her widowed mother worked in the fields. She tried to be whole and concentrated. The right arm that fended off her attacker is a relic beneath the statue of the blessed Virgin in the parish church of Nettuno. She is the patroness of those who hold up a defensive arm against a life that allows them no childhood. When a people’s life is poor and short because of economic rape, then idealized abstinence can be a glowing source of spirituality.

But now on planet earth, whether or not global corporatism can ever be managed so as to eliminate poverty, the need of utmost urgency is new life ways everywhere: small familes, and sustainable forms of personal fulfillment. The earth can no longer survive the ways of all other ages. Ethnic war, famine, epidemic, and ecological collapse are likely, on a scale far beyond even the twentieth century’s nightmares, if this issue of sexuality and life fulfillment is not taken seriously in the next century, by religious people as well as others. Scientists are pursuing the technologies for food, health, and ecology for a vastly enlarged population. The human sciences and religious leaders must face the equally crucial challenge of the dancing human libido on a finite planet.

Carlos stares at Sister Lucy’s last page and unfocuses his eyes. His stomach growls. It’s been a few hours since lunch. He pulls a waxed box of “fruitsip” from the mini-fridge under his desk, and takes a few swallows–ah, mango coconut this time. He likes to pull one without looking at the flavor, and be surprised.

For supper at the rectory he’s planning broiled whitefish filets with garlic, and sliced jicama topped with lime juice, followed by a mixed grain salad—quinoa and cuscus, with tomatoes, olives, challots, sunflower seeds, celantro, and pickled mild chiles. He shopped the ingredients at the district market this morning. Sister Mary Hildegard will clean up since it’s his turn for cooking. He muses on the Bible Study’s thoughts about St. Paul and its warnings about the twenty-first century. He wonders if Sister Lucy lived to see some of the events. He thinks about some alarming issues of his own time.

‘Highlife,’ a recreational drug that is legal and not physically addictive, is so popular worldwide that people of all ages are sitting zombied in their apartments, alone or in casual groups. They don’t learn or grow, or forge meaningful ties with anyone, so happily calm they are and pacified. Much more urgently, the mechanism of aging in human cells has been described, and a genetic treatment can now regenerate people’s bodies, expanding their lifetime to 150 years in fairly good health. Many of the wealthiest people have already undergone it. Health insurance companies refuse to fund it, but clamor for it is rising worldwide, and no one can imagine how such a population of retirees could be sustained–and who can or should support them? The U.N. has been holding special sessions on this for months, with no progress. “A good thing we’ve at least got those old problems somewhat in hand,” he mumbles, tossing Sister Lucy’s file in the recycle bin.