If cleanliness is next to godliness, then parasitologists are literally in some deep $h!t
…especially if one adheres to the textbook definition of parasitologist as a person who sits on one stool while examining another stool.1 Let’s face it; the topic of parasites does not appeal to most, especially while eating dinner.2 So I dread the dinner conversation that starts with, “What do you study?” The following flowchart helps me navigate a proper response:
“I’m a parasitologist” I’ll reply.
A. If the person responds,
A.1 – “A parapsychologist? Really?!” then I reply (slowly enunciating each syllable), “No, a par-a-si-tol-o-gist. I study parasites.”
A.2 – “Eeww… parasites. That’s gross.”
A.3 – Then I ask, “And what do you study?”
B. If the person is a Jesuit and responds,
B.1 – “A parasitologist? Really? I bet you find a lot of parasites in the Jesuit community.”
B.2 – Then I reply, “Well, you know what parasitologists say, ‘A successful system attracts parasites’.”
C. If the person is not a Jesuit and responds,
C.1 – “A parasitologist? Really? I remember studying biology in high school. We dissected a frog, I think. That was kind of fun.”
C.2 – Then I reply, “Well frogs have lots of parasites.”
C.3 – Then check for glazed-over or wandering eyes. If absent, then slowly reveal more details about what parasitologists do. Otherwise, abandon conversation.
D. If the person takes a more active interest in parasitology,
D.1 – Then remember many people (unlike myself) find the discussion of feces, rats, tapeworms and parasitic diseases poor dinner conversation. Proceed slowly and with caution.
D.2 – Start with, “I studied a tapeworm whose lifecycle goes through a beetle and a rat” instead of, “I looked at how beetles infected with tapeworm larvae respond to rat feces containing tapeworm eggs.”
Of course, it’s a slightly different story when parasitologists get together for dinner. I was reminded of this when I recently attended a week-long filariasis workshop at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA. While dining at a nice Indian restaurant, the topic naturally turned to elephantiasis and prolapsed rectums as a result of whipworm infection. I think the hostess regretted seating us in the middle of the restaurant since nearby diners (not to mention our waitress) seemed slightly disturbed by our conversation.
Even among our fellow biologists, the parasitologist experiences some marginalization. Since we deal with decaying corpses and fecal matter, we end up in out-of-the-way labs, most of which are euphemistically described as “well-ventilated.” Few biologists want to share lab space with the parasitologist, but many generously offer to bring in fresh road kill3 for the class to dissect. While studying at the Cedar Point Biological Field Station in Nebraska (no, not that Cedar Point), I often thought an appropriate bumper sticker for the parasitology class van would read, “Stops for road kill.”
So anyone who gets into the habit of driving with zip lock gallon bags in their car because “you never know”, and relishes the thought of dissecting a frog, would object to the idea that cleanliness is next to godliness. Certainly I do. In fact, I not only object to this cliché, I argue that the “messy” of this world have much to hope for. And I am here to shout it from the rooftops that St. Ignatius would agree.
St. Ignatius teaches that God created all things to bring us closer to Godself. This includes the parasites, rotting corpses, putrefying smells, and shi messiness that are part of life. Equating God with what is clean, pure, pristine or even exclusively sacred – is tantamount to putting handcuffs on God, something I’ve always considered rather dangerous. Even further, it colors our thinking.
We start believing that God can only exist in the small, white-picket-fence areas of our lives. We start suspecting that God only likes to walk on manicured lawns or spend time with people who have it all together. Far be it from me to deny that God may be present in manicured places and among polished people, but I also know that God is present in the slums, among the tattered, the shambled and messy as well.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of accompanying some homeless men on a retreat as part of the Ignatian Spirituality Project.4 ISP offers retreats to homeless men and women seeking God.5 On the occasions when I was able to volunteer as a spiritual director I met many wonderful, even inspiring, men. “TJ” was typical of many of the homeless men I directed. Coming from a broken family in a poor Chicago neighborhood, TJ tried hard to go “straight.” He had a job and a house and a family for a while, but he eventually lost his job, and then his home. Family problems, combined with drinking, robbed him of the little social capital he had, forcing him to live in homeless shelters. His life, by anyone’s standards, was a mess. But God found him in this mess.
It took some time to say the least, but TJ began to sense, and then to respond, to God’s love. He became involved in some ISP programs and soon qualified to attend a weekend retreat. When I met him, he brimmed with an infectious sense of joy, forgiveness and hope. I saw how God worked in the “mess” of TJ’s life and how he became a source of inspiration for others.
While teaching biology at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, I often served as the faculty advisor for one of our Spring Break service trips. On this particular trip, however, we kept things local, even going so far as to rename our trip “Spring Break Spokane.” On the last last of the trips I was involved with, sixteen students gave up their spring break to volunteer their time at various locations around Spokane. We cooked dinner for the mentally handicapped community members at L’Arche houses, re-organized the warehouse of St. Margaret’s Shelter, cleaned out the walk-in coolers at the Union Gospel Mission, served dinner and breakfast to the homeless at Shalom Ministries, and cleaned the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery. And while performing all these services, the students and I were privileged to meet, talk with, and get to know some of the homeless men and women of Spokane. I always loved participating in these trips, loved watching the Gonzaga students listen the stories of the homeless and take the time to learn their names. I loved it because it felt like I was able to watch these students be transformed before my eyes
“Kelly” is one of the women the students and I got to know. Kelly works at Union Gospel Mission serving the homeless food. When telling her story of how she got to UGM, Kelly always began the story when she was 15, because it’s when she was 15 years old that she took her first drug. Because she was “clever” (her words) about it, Kelly was able to use drugs for over 20 years before it finally caught up with her, costing her her home and her family. One student in our group was so moved by her story that she went out of her way to talk with Kelly in more detail about her experience. This student realized that, just a few years ago, she could have been the 15-year-old girl taking her first drug. Kelly’s story helped change that student’s life.
Or consider the story of “Robert,” a homeless man. A few years ago, in downtown Spokane, a teenage boy attacked Robert, setting him on fire. He suffered severe burns, almost dying. At the trial months later, Robert refused to press charges and pleaded with the judge not to send the boy to jail. He explained that the boy was too young to go to jail. Instead, he reached out to the boy, shook his hand, and forgave him. Reflecting on these and other stories later with the students, we saw God working in our lives through the “messiness” of these homeless men and women living on the margins of society.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both parasites and the marginalized remind me of Jesus. Especially the Jesus of passages like this:
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.6
When Jesus healed the leper and warned him not to tell anyone, the leper was so full of God’s joy and love, he ignored Jesus and told anyone who would listen. With irrepressible joy, this leper reached out to others, bringing love and healing with him as he went. Just so, it strikes me, is there hope for the homeless, and for the parasitologist, and for anyone who is “messy,” even a certain editor of TJP.7
Just as Jesus meets the leper on the road, Jesus meets us in our messiness. And He doesn’t ask us to shower first, or to clean our rooms before reaching out to us. God supersedes the human categories of messiness and cleanliness to break into our lives with love. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then God is in the messiness.
— — — — —
- See Roberts, L.S. and J. Janovy. 2005. Foundations of Parasitology. 7th Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York. ↩
- Although, after a lively dinner with TJP’s own Jason Brauninger, I learned that ER nurses may top parasitologists in the inappropriate dinner conversation department ↩
- Note: It must be fresh road kill because parasites require a living host to live in. If the host has been dead for too long, the parasites will die. ↩
- You might remember ISP from this earlier piece by Brendan Busse ↩
- As you can imagine, providing such services requires much time, effort and money, and they would appreciate any help you can provide. ↩
- Mark 1:40-45 New International Version, ©2011 ↩
- Yeah, Oscar the Grouch lived in a garbage can! ↩