Celibate chastity: a sacrifice because of the kingdom of heaven

Celibate chastity: a sacrifice because of the kingdom of heaven

By R. Douglas-Adam Greer OP

Once upon a time there was a young musk stag that lived in a dark wood. He led a relatively tranquil life, had plenty to eat and drink, and even enjoyed the chance company of other musk deer from time to time. One spring he began to feel restless. He didn’t know the reason for his agitation, and he was less and less at ease as the days grew longer and warmer. Life as he’d lived until then was no longer enough. He needed something more so badly that he even smelled it. So, he pursued this mystery that he sensed just up ahead.

The musk stag tore through the wood so recklessly that his antlers got caught in hanging vines and bracken, but the wood was empty. He raced across the open plain skirting the wood, but there was only field grass. He climbed the tall mountain by the plain, but it was bare as stone. As he paced the mountain summit, the wind shifted. Again, he smelled it! That maddening scent! He bolted headlong into the familiar odor, burst into the open air … and fell to his death on the rocks below, his body tattered and torn. The stag’s wounds revealed a small, golden sack of aromatic musk.

Many women and men in the initial stages of vocation discernment are like the stag. They feel called out of the self by mystery, only to encounter the most intimidating of obstacles. Vocation discernment should be classified as an “Extreme Sport!”

One of the most daunting obstacles in our culture is the belief that genital sexual expression is the sine qua non of human self-fulfillment. Given that widely-held belief, celibate chastity is radically suspect; and this undifferentiated suspicion enormously complicates the vocation minister’s task of helping others to make intelligent vocation choices.

Largely because I once shared this attitude, celibate chastity was the most difficult issue for me to address in initial discernment. I spent many nighttime hours wrestling with the realities of celibate chastity because to my mind, it was the obstacle, the stumbling block, and not just one question among many. My experience as a vocation minister tells me that others, both ministers and candidates, share the experience. In the rest of this brief reflection, I’d like to share some personal insights and anecdotes which have helped me to learn to love as a chaste and celibate religious man, to intentionally live the evangelical counsel, and to help others in their discernment as well. I’ll conclude with more practical advice.

But, before we go further, it would be helpful to clarify just what I mean by “chaste” and “celibate.” All Christians are obligated to practice the virtue of chastity. Chastity is the moral excellence that helps us express emotional affectivity and human sexuality in thought, word, and deed, and in ways appropriate to our state of life. We gradually learn to be chaste by being chaste; it’s a developmental skill. Fundamentally, this means that if one isn’t married, then one doesn’t engage in genital sexual expression, and that the practice of moral excellence isn’t left to the giants of virtue. Chastity is, in a sense, every Christian’s “default setting.” Celibacy, on the other hand, means what your grandmother thinks it means. In this reflection, I’ll use the terms in tandem in order to highlight a fundamental frame of reference for vocation discussions.

The erotic engine

Here’s a question for you: Have you ever been to hell? If not, pick up a copy of Dante’s Inferno. You’ll discover that hell’s landscape is shaped like a funnel. The least grave, but still damnable sins, are punished near the top; likewise, the most grave are at the bottom. You’ll find Satan at the bottom, imprisoned in lake of ice, eternally fanning cold blasts of air with his batlike wings. He’s condemned for his Pride. Which sinners do you think inhabit hell’s uppermost region? Is it the Wrathful? The Avaricious? No, the Lustful live in the slice of hell reserved for what is the very least of the Seven Deadly Sins.

This may come as a surprise because we often think of Lust as the most grave sin. It is a capital sin, a very deadly sin, but it isn’t the worst of the Seven Deadlies. We’re tempted to think that Lust is more deadly than it is for a number of reasons.

First, even though we’re Roman Catholics, we’ve inherited a rather pale and puritanical view of human sexuality and the erotic, given the historical accidents of our nation’s founding. Second, there’s the old bugbear asserting a radical body/soul dualism in Christianity (which is manifestly false, but still commands wide currency from those supposedly “in the know”). And third, we tend to equivocate the erotic, with erotica, here read masturbation, fornication, homosexuality, pornography, prostitution, what have you. The truly erotic, however, is not in and of itself sinful. Why not?

The creation myths in the book of Genesis, chapters 1- 3, contain the answer to the question and reveal a startling truth about human nature. According to sacred Scripture, we know that we are incomplete creatures, who are made for communion with other creatures, with one another, and with God; and, what’s more, we don’t rest in that sobering knowledge, but strive to overcome this eerie sense of absolute solitude. Thus, our basic vocation is to love and to seek communion, which includes genital self-expression for the married. This is what we mean by erōs, or by having an “erotic nature”—we exist in such a way as to experience God’s own love through other things, people, and experiences. Now, turning back to Dante and the unrepentant Lustful in his Inferno, If erōs and the erotic nature are not in and of themselves sinful, then what has damned the Lustful? Let’s take a look at two of Dante’s characters, Paolo and Francesca. They’re married, but the problem is that they’re not married to one other!

Paolo and Francesca had a clandestine affair for several years. Both were trapped by circumstance in loveless marriages, and found mad, mostly chaste love with one another. (Remember, chastity is a developmental virtue and, hopefully, each of us grows in chastity every day of our lives.) In and of itself, their “erotic” (in the classic sense) friendship was not wrong because all of us long for communion with another and with God by nature. This is truly only human in the best sense.

The fact remains, however, that because Paolo and Francesca were already married, they should’ve limited their physical expression of love to chaste celibacy. Instead, the couple committed adultery by abandoning themselves to the tempest of raging passions. Francesca’s husband caught them in flagrante dilecto and killed them on the spot before they had the chance to repent. They damned themselves.

Paolo and Francesca loved the right person, but in wrong ways and in the wrong circumstances. Adultery compromised not only the integrity of their “erotic” friendship but also a deuce of marriages, lifeless though they were.

True friends who seek communion with one another, on the other hand, delight in the good, in God. Each wants what is best for the other. They act always in ways that help the friend along the manifold paths of virtue toward God, while avoiding all harm and vice. In this way, a friend—even one to whom we’re sexually attracted—can be for us an alter ego. If I look into a friend’s face and see myself staring back, my true friend has become another self, a mirror in our mutual striving for God.

Human nature is an embodied, sexual nature, an erotic engine, which can drive us and those whom we love toward God. For the chaste celibate, this means that we continually seek to integrate our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in the company of friends.

Dynamic integration

Celibate chastity isn’t a static reality. It’s a hothouse flower whose integration requires a lifetime of hard work. Cultivation begins with the identification of one’s deepest needs and wants, and seeks to meet these in appropriate ways, ways that may sometimes cause intense suffering.

The ascesis of celibate chastity, for one who hopes to live it with integrity and sanity, doesn’t include the active suppression, or the attempted repression, of one’s erotic nature. By suppression, I mean “toughing it out;” by repression, that one attempts to ignore one’s sexuality, perhaps with a thin veneer of numinous spirituality. Both are cunning ways of short-circuiting sexual integration.

Two years before I entered the novitiate, I realized that I was straddling a fence. On one side was active discernment. On the other was the search for a lifelong spouse. Some people may, in fact, need to straddle the fence because they can’t climb down just yet for whatever good reason. But I needed to get off the darned thing because I was involved in a relentless pursuit of data. The hard reality is that I was temporizing, hoping that I would fall in love, set-up house with my spouse, complete with a white picket fence, a Subaru station wagon, and 2.2 kids in the backseat. If I were already committed, went the rationale, celibate chastity would cease to be an issue.

The greatest fear that blocked my growth was that I would end up at best a sexually frustrated man, and at worst, a lonely and bitter one. So I dated. And I dated a lot—15 different dates in 8 months! The longevity of these dalliances should’ve been a striking clue, but fear kept me closed to the real possibilities that both the chaste celibate and married ways of life offered. The only way to make a positive choice and to end the impasse was to try celibate chastity on for size, to see if it fit in all the right places, and to learn whether I could, in fact, live it joyfully and in freedom. So, I waded in.

Since entering religious life, what may be shocking for some is that I have been in love. I’ve experienced the weightless infatuation, the visceral physical attraction, and the sharp emotional response. O Cosmic Irony, I found the flesh of my flesh, resplendent in shimmering humanity, after I’d made vows! It was enough to set me back atop the fence, or to cue the music and fade to the sunset shot of a couple walking hand-in-hand with a dog. My spiritual director asked me to remember the power of words, and to consider the place of sacrifice in discipleship-life.

Timothy Radcliffe, OP, former Master of the Friars of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), once wrote that to make a vow is to commit oneself to an act of radical generosity in the present moment, being unaware of how the future would unfold. When a woman and man voice their wedding vows, they can only hope that with much hard work and even harder loving, their vision of life together will hold true. The same is true for the religious when making vows, or the diocesan presbyter when making promises to his bishop. A single moment during which a few words are uttered affect the rest of one’s life because making vows and promises is an courageous act of hope.

Love is more than an emotion, although it is a most delicious one! It’s also an act of will and of choice, rather than something that falls full-formed from the heavens. Mature love is like a covenant in that it’s unconditional. When I was both in vows and in love, I was learning what it means to do so as a chaste celibate whose life is sculpted by the power of words. My newly found romantic interest revealed God to me. As one already committed, I realized that I would have to find a way to reveal God in the gradually calming storm of emotion, so that our friendship might survive, intuitively realize its own good and holy boundaries, and draw us both closer to God, who is Love itself.

In this way our friendship has been caught up in the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it endures to this day. Christ’s resurrection from death didn’t merely sound the final, triumphant note to his life. It was, rather, the leitmotiv of his entire life, it hummed along just below the surface of the quotidian for those with ears to hear, as he preached, taught, and healed in Palestine. His resurrection was already present in the sacrifice of his life for us and for our salvation.

The sacrifice of sexuality

When we consider sacrifice it’s often accompanied by a big groan. Some take the consumer approach. I don’t have enough for both the CD burner and the DVD player, so I’ll take the burner and upgrade later. Others think about it as something to be endured for a greater good, but only for a limited time determined in advance. I gave up cigarettes for Lent. And, others just restrict themselves to the pay-off. He sacrificed a fly to right field in the bottom of the eighth. There is no joy to be found in the embrace of sacrifice if you think about it this way, especially if you want to talk about celibate chastity as a sacrifice.

God uses the sacrifice of a man or woman’s sexuality in celibate chastity as a most precious gift to be used for divine purposes, hallowed, and fruit-full for others. The roots of the Latin word sacrificium include the noun sacrum, holy, and the verb facere, to do, or to make. To sacrifice is to make holy with divine help.

We can’t know the greatness that will come from the sacrifice of our sexuality to God in celibate chastity, but we do believe that God will transform us into creatures who become, in the course of a human life, more and more diaphanous icons of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit as our discipleship unfolds itself in Christian mission. Here is the joy in sacrifice, knowing that my sexuality will be bear life for myself and for others, and will not produce an arid wasteland.

Because of” the kingdom of heaven

Celibate chastity is a way of loving God and neighbor in a most vigorous manner. It’s not just a ministerial commitment, or an ascetical discipline. This is a far more fulsome vision of the gift and potential of human sexuality than either suppression or repression can encompass. It challenges us to integrate the physical, emotional, and spiritual facets of sexuality into an holistic and life-giving whole. Let me show you what I mean.

I studied for a few years in a diocesan seminary before I left and eventually entered religious life. During one of our formation meetings, a wizened faculty member discussed celibate chastity. He was certainly well intentioned and tried “to connect with the boys,” but his advice was crass and stilted. The sum of it was that we, the seminarians, should prepare to endure lives marked by “not getting any” (suppression) and should “offer your struggles up” (repression). Both approaches, as we’ve seen, severely reduce the shelf-life of the chaste celibate’s sanity. What’s a better approach?

If we turn to sacred Scripture for insight, we might start with Matthew 19:12. The passage is the church’s classic locus for its basic teaching of religious and clerical celibacy. Some are eunuchs because they’re born that way, some because men have made them eunuchs, and some have made themselves eunuchs, “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

A better translation of the Greek is “because of the kingdom of heaven.” God has seized those called to a life of celibate chastity in a grip so strong and commanding that the only free response is an absolute, total, irrevocable gift of one’s whole self—body, mind, and soul. One can embrace celibate chastity only “because of the kingdom of heaven,” only because of God’s abiding presence in human lives, only because of one’s profound love of God and neighbor. You give your sexuality as a gift to God and allow God to decide what is to be done with it because of the kingdom of heaven.

Hints from . . .

When I was growing up, my hometown newspaper included a column entitled, “Hints from Heloise.” How do I keep meat gravy from staining a white linen tablecloth? What’s a good recipe for a bee sting poultice? In what remains, I offer what I hope to be similarly helpful hints for discussing celibate chastity with vocation candidates.

There are two groups. The first concerns the minister’s own preparation. The second contains more common sense advice for the candidate. I make no claims to originality here, but a reminder of received wisdom is sometimes a good thing in itself.

The vocation minister . . .

  • The minister should possess a wealth of selfknowledge. This is an indispensable requirement for vocation ministry. There are untold riches available via retreats, workshops, print and related media. And, it’s incumbent upon those who make ministerial assignments to ensure that a potential vocation minister knows his or her own psychosexual landscape in exquisite detail.
  • Human sexuality is not a taboo topic. Our culture has a chronic sex sickness. Today, its diagnosis is a trite banality: we’re neurotic about it, but we don’t dare talk about it in polite company. Further, the clergy sex crisis has undermined many Christians’ trust in clergy, so it’s not surprising that many vocation ministers are hesitant to discuss human sexuality candidly. Begin the conversation early and don’t wait for novitiate or diocesan personnel to address the issues. Sexual integration is a task done with the help of friends.
  • Study the widest possible array of resources and become informed. These include: The voices of sacred Scripture and the living theological tradition (broadly summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church); contemporary scholarship on the biblical and theological dimensions of human sexuality and celibate chastity; and, finally, as a vocation minister, one needs to be savvy concerning the biological, cultural, psychological, and social aspects of the issues. Spend a few hours surfing the Internet. A call to a library, or university department is also a good place to start.

The vocation candidate . . .

Good discernment means that you don’t keep celibate chastity at arm’s length. How do you vigorously embrace it? You do it practically, in the day-in and dayout of life.

  • Prayer. Prayer is a “no brainer” on a hints list, but we take it for granted. We need to constantly remind ourselves that in prayer, God anchors us to himself. In prayer, we enter the intimate conversation with God that makes us friends and lovers. Spiritual reading, finding a “home” in a particular spiritual tradition, (e.g., Franciscan) could be encouraged.
  • Thanksgiving. Christ is present to us in manifold ways, most especially present when the local church gathers to make Eucharist. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we offer our gifts in sacrifice to God, who nourishes us with Christ’s own Body and Blood so we might become another Christ for the world. Our sexuality is part of our personal offering to God, sacrificed in joy and freedom, that we might be made holy for others.
  • Rest and exercise. Play and work. The Roman poet Juvenal once wrote that while praying to God, ask for an anima sana in copore sano (a sound mind in a sound body). This little tidbit of folk psychology could be a gem for the vocation candidate. It’s self-explanatory.

To sum up, human, sexual nature is an erotic engine that can drive us toward our neighbor and toward God if it is intentionally cultivated by intentional integration of the whole person—body, mind, and soul. The daily living out of one’s sexuality sacrificed to God in celibate chastity “because of the kingdom of heaven” has the power to transform the disciple into a sign of the present kingdom, into an eschatological symbol of God’s powerful presence in a world marked by fading dreams. Celibate chastity helps us to become holy, as the Lord, our God, is holy, holy, holy.

R. Douglas-Adam Greer, OP, is a student brother of the Central Province of Saint Albert the Great (Dominicans), U.S.A. He holds a master’s in theology from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and is currently completing studies for a master’s of divinity at Aquinas Institute of Theology, and master’s in philosophy at Saint Louis University, both in Saint Louis, Mo. He may be reached at praedicator@hotmail.com.


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