Editor's note: Jennifer Mertens is a new Young Voices columnist. She completed her undergraduate studies at Saint Louis University and will graduate with her Master of Divinity from the Catholic Theological Union in August.
Mertens teaches religion at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati, an experience she draws on for her first column. By way of introduction, she writes: "This article is offered with gratitude and respect for my students. Beyond any individual, it reflects the collective questions, stories and experiences of teen girls in a Catholic high school. As integral members of the body of Christ, our teens' voices deserve a platform in our faith community. May we embrace their invitation to compassionate listening and prophetic response."
"Is sex gross?"
Scrawled on a folded slip of paper, the question was spelled out in painstakingly stilted caps to prevent any detection of its owner. "Can teens fall in love? How do I say no? Does sex ever hurt?" With each paper I unfolded, student questions stacked up higher and higher on my desk.
As a first-year teacher at an all-girls Catholic high school, it is probably safe to say that I entered a mild state of shock. Tackling human sexuality in a religion class filled with teenage girls? My idealism quickly wilted beneath their blunt, raw inquiries. The next few days were spent buried in consultations with my husband, trusted colleagues, and mentors. Finally, I took the plunge.
And resurfaced awed, humbled and challenged. Reflecting back on that first year, I continue to be inspired by my students' sincerity and openness. At once strong and vulnerable, tender and bold, the girls truly seek to understand themselves and to honor their bodies. Pain, too, often rises. Confusion, doubt and even self-harm. Frequently, the girls are filled with anxiety, self-consciousness and even hatred toward their bodies, their growing sexual identity, and the implications of American adolescence for their experience of power and worth. The 21st-century American girl finds herself drowning in a toxic, hypersexualized teen media culture. Too many have never been taught to swim.
Sure, this doesn't mean they can't recite perfect answers: Be chaste. Stay pure. But abstracted clichés do not equip you practically to stay afloat.
Afloat in what? Let them trust you, and they'll let you in: boys, body image, periods, kissing, thigh gaps, birth control, sexual identity, binge drinking, anorexia, bulimia, oral sex, cutting, Internet harassment, dating violence, rape. Such are the challenges our teen girls face; they can talk endlessly about it all. But if you press them, "So, girls, how does our faith fit into all this?", silence reigns. One student may venture, "No sex before marriage?"
My heart sinks. One line. One line bridges this whirlwind and our faith. Sure, it's a start. Nowhere near enough. The daily, nitty-gritty pressures of teen life generally inhabit a world severed from the life of faith and Christian discipleship. I struggle: Do we even understand what our teens face? Do we as a church truly accompany them in these messy and confusing years? Are we relevant? Practical? Prophetic?
Sometimes, yes. Colleagues and ministers in my own life offer powerful examples. As a broader church community, however, we are failing our teens. We are scared of their questions, scared to confront our own cultural and ecclesial discomfort with human sexuality and embodiment. Too few listening hearts offer safe spaces for their sharing. Too few voices decry their sexual exploitation by contemporary American culture. When offered as the only response, abstracted clichés breed ignorance, powerlessness and even violence.
We need to enter the storm. We need to listen more than speak. Ask more than preach. Standing for and with our teens, we must empower them as faithful stewards of their own bodies and sexuality. Rule books aren't enough. Young people need more. They need parents, teachers, clergy, coaches and mentors who are willing to be real. They deserve candid, honest information. Safe spaces for all the tough questions. We must learn to see their world: not black and white, but gray. Trekking it together, we must offer discernment tools for the journey, resources that equip teens to consciously and prayerfully set boundaries for themselves. Teach them how to say "no" but also how to declare "yes!" to celebrating their sexuality in healthy, appropriate ways.
Girls, especially, must learn to speak again. I am beautiful. I am powerful. I am whole. Reciting it, they cringe. Squirm at their desks. I am a unique image of God. My body is holy. My body is sacred. Each word stumbles off their tongues. A foreign language.
"Why?" I inquire. "Why is it so tough to speak kindly to ourselves? To celebrate our bodies just as God made them?"
They have barely learned how. Few girls encounter stories or images that teach them reverence for women's bodies and sexuality. Not one has ever remembered her mother, sister, cousin or friend standing in front of a mirror and daring to call herself beautiful. Sadly, as we fail to proactively model affirming, powerful and holy language for our own bodies, teen girls learn a different kind of speech. From social media to music videos, they all know this language. For so many, the words slide off their tongues with ease. Ugly. Fat. Slut. Whore. Bitch. Beautiful, talented young women step out of our classroom and are stripped by a culture whose primary speech for female embodiment reeks of violence, objectification and domination.
Blessed be the crucified body of Christ.
Wounded, yet also rising. Daughters, sisters, cousins, friends: entering locked doors, locked hearts that remain fearful of the call to holiness, to wholeness and to resurrected life.
Join Thomas. Press a hand in the wound, in all the pain and violence, suffering and struggle that permeates the human experience.
Our teens bear the markings of this wound. Perhaps we all do.
The challenges of our own human embodiment plunge us straight into that fleshy, messy Incarnation from which our faith erupts. Divine fire pulses here, flows from a Word whose flesh radically graces our own.
How to encounter it, this fire that animates our embodied, sexual selves? How to express it? Honor it? Daresay, teach it? Our grappling with these questions must happen upon no other ground then that of our own blessed, broken, beautiful bodies.
Grant us courage to accept the invitation; faith enough to tackle even the toughest stack of questions.
[Jennifer Mertens will graduate in August with her Master of Divinity from the Catholic Theological Union. She teaches religion at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati.]
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