Rushing out of my study cave with the great cloud of comprehensive exam induced stress hovering above my head, I plotted out my plan of attack for the grocery store shopping to which I was heading. Nothing was going to stand between the milk aisle and me because any second lost was a second I would not be fervently studying.
My perfectly constructed plans reached a fork in the road after two steps into the store, when a salesman invited me to sign up for a gift card giveaway. I stood hesitating, attempting to decide between blowing off the opportunity to win $100 and surrendering some of my study time. For some reason, I chose the latter.
As I filled out the raffle ticket, the salesman invited me to sign up for a newspaper deal. Still in a hurry, I explained that I would be moving in three months, so a 26-week subscription to a DC paper wouldn’t do me much good. And like any good salesman, he began a conversation: Where was I moving? First time there? Why was I in DC? What was I studying? What would I be doing after graduation?
That was the moment when I began to realize that God was calling me to share Theology of the Body. In the middle of the produce aisle, I began explaining, now with genuine enthusiasm in my voice, how the late Holy Father spent the first five years of his pontificate developing this beautiful teaching. Instead of a microphone in my hand, I held my shopping list, and instead of standing in a room full of people eager to hear about the pope’s words, I stood amidst the broccoli, bananas and bell peppers.
“See, a lot of people think the body is bad. They assume that when we die, only our soul will go to heaven. Or they think that the body is bad, and the soul is good,” I explained.
“But John Paul spent five years explaining that our bodies are good. He talked about how we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that includes our bodies. We can tell by the fact that He created us male and female, that we are called to love. We are called to give ourselves to each other – whether it be in marriage, or even in a smaller capacity like volunteering to help others. God isn’t sexual, but He is love, and in our bodies we are able to image that.”
Surprised, the salesman (who was also taken aback at having met someone who has never left the Catholic faith) asked if Theology of the Body is only for Catholics. I assured him that it isn’t, and that it applies to everyone. I gave him the example of a Protestant church I’m aware of planning to host a series of Theology of the Body study groups this year.
And right there in the middle of the apples, asparagus and arugula, the salesman shared the story of when his father, a Protestant minister, first explained to him that God is love.
In those few minutes, the salesman wasn’t making any commission, and I wasn’t memorizing what Aristotle wrote about matter and form. But God was calling. He was asking that the work be set aside for a moment, and that He be given the priority.
As I walked away, a little slower than before, I chuckled at God’s insistence that I remember what’s really important. There I was, placing my exams above everything, nearly ignoring the opportunity to talk to a person about God’s plan. Ironically, isn’t it for people that I am taking these exams and completing these studies? Isn’t my desire to help others come to see the beauty of Theology of the Body?
It’s a lesson we need repeated frequently. When preparing Sunday’s homily, or researching for next week’s CCD lesson, or reading a new book about Theology of the Body, how often do we get lost in what we have to get done and forget why we are immersed in this work in the first place? If it’s not about our love of God and neighbor, then haven’t we missed the point?
John Paul seems a wonderful example of a man whose work was for his love of God and neighbor. His encyclicals, letters, addresses and even Theology of the Body audiences weren’t an academic exercise for their own sake – they were for people. John Paul wrote, spoke and lived for the man working in a rice field in China, for the woman oppressed in Sudan, for the Polish couple contemplating marriage, for the El Salvadorian family having difficulty putting food on the table.
In Laborem Exercens, he wrote:
[H]owever true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is "for man" and not man "for work. […] in the final analysis it is always man who is the purpose of the work, whatever work it is that is done by man – even if the common scale of values rates it as the merest "service", as the most monotonous even the most alienating work. (#6)
No matter where God calls us, reminding us of the constant necessity of reordering our priorities, it’s a lesson worth heeding.