Contemplation and Celibacy, part two

Fr. J writes in response to my post Contemplation and Celibacy:

Celibacy is itself a mystical reality when well lived such that it is not simply an instrument for individual holiness projects. …. If you read the best literature on religious life at the moment, it is all focused on the concept of consecration in this world for the sake of the kingdom. It is spirituality that neither diminishes this world nor the pursuit of the divine. One is not counter to the other but serves the other. In other words, even in the most eremetic of religious lives, the religious is not an isolated monad questing after some abstract holiness.

My apologies to Fr. J or to anyone else who read yesterday’s post as an attack on celibacy. That was most definitely not my intent. In implying that a celibate contemplative life could be pursued for self-involved reasons, I am merely commenting on the human capacity to distort any gift from God. Heaven knows, plenty of people get married or have children for selfish reasons as well. Furthermore, anyone who pursues the contemplative life — whether religious or married — can do so for selfish reasons. I think every contemplative needs to think about this issue, again regardless of one’s larger vocation.

I do think the church has a lot of work to do when it comes to dismantling centuries of religious chauvinism — i.e., an unspoken attitude that the religious life is higher or better than married life. Consider this little vignette from my life: the other day, a diocesan priest came into the monastery-owned bookstore where I work, and as I was waiting on him he asked if I were a brother. When I told him no, he snorted and commented to the monk standing next to me, “Hmph! Just another example of how laymen are taking over the church!” Granted, the monk was clearly uncomfortable with this outburst, and I’m willing to blow it off as evidence that the priest was just having a bad day. But I think it also points to a larger and largely unspoken attitude that prevails in the church, even here in the 21st century.

Something else to consider: Pope John Paul II canonized more saints than any pope in recent history (perhaps more saints than any pope ever), and yet it is my understanding that the vast majority of those he canonized or beatified were religious (i.e., not laypeople). If the church means it when she says that the married life is as holy as the religious life, then shouldn’t there be parity between the laity and religious when it comes to new canonizations? And as I mentioned yesterday, The Cloud of Unknowing is one obvious example of a medieval text that makes no secret of insisting that the contemplative life was “higher” than the active life. To its author, contemplative meant cloistered religious, while active would have encompassed non-cloistered religious as well as the laity (if he even were concerned about the laity at all, and I think that’s open for debate).

By pondering the question of religious chauvinism, I am not suggesting that the religious life or the vocation to celibacy is somehow suspect. What I’m questioning is the contradiction between the radical message of the gospel and a hierarchical understanding of vocations that has more to do with Greek philosophy than with the teachings of Christ. I think a similar hierarchical way of thinking lies behind the idea that the contemplative life is somehow higher than the active life — and that is a distortion which I have internalized. So, once again, my apologies to anyone who read yesterday’s post as an attack on celibacy; rather, it was part of my own attempt to unpack the distortions I carry around, within me. To what extent does my pursuit of the contemplative life, as a layperson, suffer from my own “personal holiness project” — in other words, do I neglect my family because I’m trying to be pure for God? Granted, my wife is even more of a contemplative than I am, so I write this not because she’s complaining. It’s just something that I wrestle with.

We live in a consumer society and so consumerist thinking tends to infect everything in our lives. The celibate life can only truly be holy when it is lived in a non-consumerist way. Similarly, the worst way to approach contemplation would be as a consumer: “Cool! I do centering prayer, and then I get to experience God.” The contemplative life needs to be lived sacrificially, or else it’s probably best left alone. Having said this, I believe there is no such thing as purity of motives, and most of us are driven by both noble and self-serving drives in pretty much anything we do. Probably most people who discern a call to contemplative spirituality are, I suspect, motivated both by a humble impulse to live for God, and a more egoic drive to consume spiritual experiences or to construct a self-image built around holiness, sanctity, and such. Part of the contemplative life will involve a — to use Eugene Peterson’s phrase — “long obedience” in which we slowly affirm the God-inspired impulse, while identifying, repenting of, and healing, those egoic drives. And I suspect this is true whether the aspiring contemplative is married or religious.

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