A life of communal celibacy

A life of communal celibacy

By Rea McDonnell S.S.N.D., c

At the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., some years ago was an IMAX production featuring the hidden Hawaii, beauty and power writ large. Lava flows, cliffs tower over the sea, and others burst up from the ocean as a new island is formed. These image for us the earthy, creative, wild and powerful core of our own being: our sexuality. At the center of the earth and at the center of each person is fire.

When Vatican II invited religious to contemplate the Gospels, we might have known we would have to pay attention more closely to our own humanity in relationship to the humanity of the en-fleshed One, and to find, at his center and our own, the beauty and power of sexuality. As religious we also gradually discover in ourselves the Spirit’s gift of celibacy, celibacy not only for mission but for community.

Celibacy in a Scriptural context

Throughout history some cultures have valued, some devalued celibacy. Some religious cultures, like Buddhism, require young men to spend some time in intentional celibacy before marriage. Other religions, like Judaism, find no value in being unmarried. The Essene community in the century before Christ was once thought to be celibate, but that is being questioned. The Therapeutae, Jews in community in Egypt, were celibate but shared prayers, meals and celebrations with their opposite sexed members. Perhaps only Jeremiah, among the many friends of God who people the 45 books of the Jewish scriptures, was celibate.

Until John the Baptist, until perhaps Jesus. We have no evidence about Jesus’ status. Was he always unmarried? Was he widowed? Could the death of his wife have propelled him out of Nazareth in a quest for meaning, with a heart alert for the suffering of others? Through the ages, the belief of Christians has been that Jesus was celibate. We do know he loved women, men and children, needed friends and intimates.

Jesus’ title of Rabbi was only honorific, but Paul was a truly designated rabbi, and thus was most certainly married. By the time he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, however, he may have been widowed or have reached an agreement with his wife allowing him more mobility than most husbands: “I wish everyone to be as I am…” (1 Corinthians 7:7). Yet in 1 Corinthians 9 he asks: “May we not take along with us a Christian gyne (wife, or woman), as do the rest of the apostles and the brothers, and Kephas?” Although Paul notes that celibacy (the state of being unmarried) is a gift given for the sake of urgent mission, particularly in the light of his belief in the immanent return of Christ, Paul also considers marriage a charism. He sees the sexual union of the partners as a channel of God’s grace, making one another and their children holy (1 Corinthians 7:14). It seems too that in the early community a man and woman may have lived together for the sake of the mission, but without genital activity. If their love leads to “improper behavior...let them marry; they commit no sin.” (1 Corinthians 7:36). It is in this context, however, that the elitism of the celibate state was cast in stone for 1900 years: “So the one who marries his virgin does well; the one who does not marry her will do better.” (1 Corinthians 7:38).

Paul would have brought to his Mediterranean mission not only the good news of Christ but also the good news of God as a passionate lover. The Jewish God of Paul is one who dances for us as on a day of joy, who weeps and rages and desires us. Paul would have met Stoic philosophers in his mission to the Gentiles. These philosophers had reasoned to a concept of one God, all powerful, all knowing, and above all, a God whose chief attribute was apatheia. God, they reasoned, was without (a) passion (patheia). Without pain, without emotion, without life, their God was an abstraction, distant. Because religious experience needs language to express itself and language depends on the categories of philosophy, Christianity began to adapt to Stoic language. Our relationship with God and all creatures was to be a-patheia. To be perfect as our heavenly Father (Matthew 5:48) was misunderstood to be a call to passionless disembodiment. To be compassionate as our heavenly Father (Luke 6:36), however, means to reclaim with God our mutual passion- with (com means “with” in Latin).

According to Paul, to belong to Christ means to experience dynamis, the Greek word for power, energy, the Spirit of God. There is no word for soul in Hebrew. In the Jewish scriptures, the human person is not dichotomized: body and soul. Rather the creative power, energy and spirit which quicken a person are bodied, firmly rooted in the earth. In our own experience, sexuality is the name for the energy which enlivens us.

What is celibate chastity?

Jesus never made a vow of chastity. Why do we vow celibate chastity as religious? Foundationally, a vow is an act of worship, a public covenant with the God who is faithful. To live within that vowed covenant relationship provides a new vision, a new way of seeing and responding to God, ourselves, all with whom we relate. We do not observe our vow, looking on like bystanders. Rather the vow of celibate chastity calls us to participate deeply in Jesus’ own passionate way of responding to God’s faithful love.

In the recent past the church viewed celibacy as a discipline, an ascetism. Now we have re-viewed celibacy in terms, not of personal ascetism, but of ecclesial (community) bonding. Celibate chastity is not a virtue, not our achievement, but God’s gift to give. To grow in wisdom and grace even as we grow in age means to grow in the gift of chastity, through trial and error and learning from reflection on our experience (wisdom); through sin and guilt and ever growing trust in God’s mercy and Christ’s power to heal and save (grace). A simple description of celibate chastity, to be reflected on and debated with friends and/or in community: chastity is that gift of God which frees us to use and enjoy our sexuality appropriately within the context of our celibate (nonmarried) commitments. To enjoy our sexuality, of course, does not include genital pleasure, but rather that sense of life in abundance coursing through our veins when we hold an infant, behold beauty in nature, feel a surge of love when we pray, or look tenderly on those whom we love. Chastity, whether married or celibate, is that commitment to relationship and to ever growing intimacy in relationships which mirrors God’s desire for intimacy with us—a passionate, self-disclosing, vulnerable and faithful intimacy.

Whether Jesus was celibate or married, virginal or widowed, he was chaste. No matter what our state of life, all of us are invited to share in Jesus’ own way of living and loving chastely, to understand from within our baptismal union with him how to put our sexuality at the service of God’s people.

Psychosexual development and a life of celibate chastity

We are born with our sexual organs engorged. Throughout infancy our genital pleasure is selfcentered, rather than relationally centered. In infancy and pre-school years we are imbibing our family’s attitudes towards sex. In our school years, the church influenced our view of our sexuality, and particularly girls suffered the stigma of temptress. In adolescence and young adulthood many of us were preparing to join our communities or discerning a call to priesthood. We were also exploring relationships: friendship, dating, physical expressions of affection, deepening self-disclosure, flirting and fantasizing, learning our boundaries and desires. Without such a period of exploration, how could we truly discern what it was we wanted? Physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual awakenings may have made our lives as exciting as a volcano’s interior. This, hopefully, is the self which we brought to our vocation directors so many years ago. Most of us, however, probably never mentioned the word sex.

And for many of us, it was probably the rare vocation director who could uncover our multiple motivations for wanting to profess this vow of celibate chastity. Under our officially recorded reasons may have lurked fear, avoidance, rejection of or rejection by the opposite sex, denial, fear and/or rejection of one’s own homosexuality; even the belief that with the vow (or as one priest hoped, with ordination) all sexual thoughts and feelings would disappear.

Vocation directors now ask possible candidates to contemplate their own sexual history, their mystery. We look for candidates who can feel the hungers of sexual desire, the pangs of loneliness, the warmth of a tender smile, the security of an embrace. As adults, whether newcomers or seasoned vocation ministers, we need to need, to feel needy and dependent as well as strong and protective. In order eventually to integrate our sexuality, we need to counteract strong and ancient messages from home and church and feel. “The glory of God is the human being, fully human, fully alive.” (St. Irenaeus). To become “fully human, fully alive,” we risk feeling all our feelings, all our passions, and that includes love and desire for sexual union.

It is important for vocation directors to spot those who want celibacy in order to avoid being what all of us are: embodied, sexual beings. Asking for a candidate’s story can reveal that, like marriage, celibate chastity is not a state of life but a life-long process of becoming, growing in wisdom and grace through trial, error and perhaps downright sin in our relationships.

The sexual development which we brought or newcomers bring to community, however, may have been drastically damaged. Thirty or 60-year-olds may be three or 12-years-old in psychosexual development. Parents, schoolmates, or older siblings who mock a child’s body can lead to anorexia or obesity in those who choose celibacy.

How do we heal? We need to ask the Spirit to teach us the truth about our bodies, our sexual experiences— the good, the bad and the painful. We need to feel our memories and our current stirrings. We, men as well as women, need to talk—both before and after we experience sexual feelings. Yes, even introverts cannot keep these urgings secret without damage. We need to speak to God of all our fears and desires. Our talking may include a confidential setting with someone trained to help us normalize our questions and fears. This is mystery with which we deal. Mystery involves risk, in this case the risk of becoming more fully human. What really fosters a life-long growth in friendship and intimacy, however, is a sharing of feelings but a mutual sharing with a peer or group of peers. Sensing, feeling, admitting need, talking are cornerstones of growth in both wholeness and intimacy. They are also the foundation for a caring Christian community.

A help toward wholeness is to see the human person whole. Our culture often, and even our magisterium at times, isolates the genital in the self and in others. To split off a body part, whether for possession or worship or condemnation, is a kind of lusting, a disrespect, a reductionism—the very opposite of integration. To refuse to see the person whole, on a continuum of homosexual to heterosexual feelings and desires, might lead to a foreclosing of sexual identity, or to homophobia. God does not distinguish sexual orientation in calling a person to try a life of celibate chastity. To refuse to consider mature, self-identified homosexual persons, when the sexual teaching of the church requires celibacy for them, is unjust.

To act justly

Justice is a matter of right relationship. As we mature, sexuality is meant to develop and deepen our relationships, both with others and with God. If God has already justified us (Romans 5), God has offered us the gift of chastity, being in right relationship through a developing integration, and all for the purpose of becoming who we are and loving as Jesus loves.

Justice calls us to right relationship to our bodies, an openness and hospitality to our flesh and skin and all that is within. Perhaps as we focus on justice toward the earth, reverence for our own earthiness will increase. Religious culture can foster workaholism, and so eating properly, sleeping enough, taking prescribed medication, exercising, laughing, playing, feeling deeply, creating or enjoying beauty could be a first step in justice. This care for the body is an expression of our sexuality, too, a chaste expression. Justice to one’s body, without self-absorption, could be an attractive sign of God’s presence within these very bodies—“ that the life of Jesus may be made manifest in these mortal bodies of ours.” (2 Corinthians 4:11)

To act justly is contrary, as Jesus pointed out, to lusting in one’s heart. Too often we link temptation with sin. To feel sexual attraction and desire for another, to acknowledge that feeling, its power and its lure, and then to decide how to channel this energy is the very process by which we become chaste. It is not lust unless we decide to act unchastely. To avoid sensing and feeling is simply to numb our humanity, which can leave us half human, edgy and unreal. An entire celibate community can be sexually repressed, as Joan Chittister, OSB warns.

Another way in which chastity has to do with justice is abuse of persons. Religious have a “fiduciary relationship” with those we serve. Because of the mystique of religion and our supposed trustworthiness, we can be sexual abusers even with lay peers because of the inequality of power. Chastity, justice and faithfulness to our vows are God’s gifts, and sometimes we have to beg for them.

To love tenderly

“Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus not only models reverent, tender care and compassion. We believe that he continues his loving in us and through our bodies. The incarnation, God’s faithful tenderness taking flesh in the body of Jesus, continues in our flesh. Negotiating the boundaries between caretaking and true care, codependence and compassion, addiction to a person(s) and love are some of the tasks of the young adult called to friendship and intimate relationship. Because we recognize that we cannot “go it alone,” we come to community, attracted to members of our same sex, whether we share values or goals for mission. Dr. Anna Polcino, MMS, named that attraction “homophilia” at a workshop attended by many women and men religious. A collective sigh of relief swept the room. We have to like, want to spend time with those of our own gender in order successfully to form community. This is not homosexuality. Rather this liking bonds us as companions with the hope that, through our deepening together in the life of the Spirit, we will find friends in that community and eventually a few intimates.

Friendship and intimacy are both gifts and choices. We know married couples who are merely housemates. On the other hand, we find celibates who choose intimate, chaste relationships, not transcending the human but discovering the wealth of human mystery in self-disclosure and mutual care with another. It is persons whom we love, not sexes, and certainly not body parts. We love persons who, in revealing their ideas, desires, feelings and memories, also reveal us to ourselves.

There is, we know well, loneliness in marriage, in the single state and in celibate community. In every way of life there is pathology and pedophilia and the idolization of human love. There is the particular pain for the celibate relationship, however, because we witness to bonds of friendship and intimacy across geographic distances. We say to the whole Christian community that there is an exodus quality to human life, that we cannot settle down and absolutize any relationship, that we are available to whomever may be in our here and now. We do not get our identity from our marriage partner, from our family. Our different style of loving is not limited—theoretically.

Theoretically. We do fail in loving, in loving well. Many religious, however, claim as their chief goal, hope and prayer to learn to love well and tenderly.

To walk humbly with our God

In actuality, we are very limited in our loving. As Roger Balducelli states it, if we fail the crisis of intimacy we ourselves become our “only child, toy, pet.” The danger of falling in love (which may recur periodically, especially for those with leaping, bounding hearts!) is that we will, like our culture, confuse love with infatuation, confuse emotional intimacy with genital expression. We may become obsessed with sex or sin, or repress sex and sin, denying one or the other, rationalizing away sin, stomping out sex. Whichever extreme, we are frantically trying to be what we are not. We do not want to be human. We are inauthentic.

To be humble is to be of the earth (humus) and know in our gut that we are creatures, not angels, not God, that we are sinners, and loved unabashedly in our sinfulness. To glory in God’s merciful faithfulness is to walk humbly, truthfully with our God. There is an emptiness in each human heart, married or celibate, a hole that only God can fill. Celibates witness to that paradoxical restlessness which is peace when it rests in God. We walk humbly on the earth when we know we are always dying, leaving, separating; that even our deepest union with one another can never satisfy us here. Celibates witness to the transitory nature of life.

While we serve as a witness, as a sign of unfulfillment in this life, we must do so with humility, remembering that we are celibate by choice. We are in no way superior to the married, the single or the single again. So many are celibate without choice, such as the single who always hoped to marry, or the cast-off spouse in a divorce, or the widowed. Celibates may want to be in solidarity with those who have no choice about their single state, and to be countercultural in a world where relationships are trivialized and exploited.

“That all may be one!” Our celibate chastity and our devotion to that unity in community for which Christ prayed may well characterize our future witness as religious. Would that the world could find apostolic religious not identified by their work, but rather attractive signs of God’s work of making the world one. We are embodiments of God’s own justice, tender love, and walking with because we are growing more chaste day by day, each day receiving anew God’s gift of celibate chastity. Only in God and in our relationship with God/Christ/Spirit does our celibate chastity make sense. As Paul wrote, “I stretch forward now to grasp hold of Christ who has already grasped hold of me” (Philippians 3:12). When our hearts have been grasped irrevocably we are chaste, loving and committed day by day to relationships in community.

Rea McDonnell, SSND, offers spiritual direction and pastoral counseling in Silver Spring, Md. She facilitates workshops on vows, intimacy and/or sexuality for newcomers to religious life, and has written 13 books integrating scripture and psychology.


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