Contemplation and Celibacy

A comment thread on my post about the World Clock has me thinking about the relationship between contemplation, celibacy, and child-rearing.

If there really is going to be global population decline by the year 2100 (I’m not convinced there will be, but some people think so), then it seems that it would be our civic duty to have children. Now, consider that in light of these ideas:

Christian dogma eschews the idea of reincarnation. In other words, the life you have is the life you get, period. No second chances. So if you choose to be celibate, for all eternity you never have children. If you choose to have children, for all eternity you are denied the experience of celibacy.

Traditionally, contemplation has been the bailiwick of the celibates. It has thrived in monasteries, and, up until recently, very little was written (or said, or done) to encourage contemplative spirituality among marrieds. The Cloud of Unknowing is particularly pointed on this, where the author makes no secret of his bias that the contemplative life is a “higher” calling than the active life.

So here’s my question: if we have only one life to life, and contemplation is our highest calling, than shouldn’t we all be contemplatives? But if that’s the case, how does contemplation integrate with the messy business of marriage and family life? Of course, that is the great adventure that lay contemplatives (like yours truly) are wrestling with in our day. But if contemplation is now being integrated into the family, does this render monasticism (as traditionally understood, in terms of a community of celibates) obsolete?

Even more to the point, so much of the literature of mysticism and contemplation is so focussed on the individual: how do I become holy, how do I make my consciousness pure for God, how do I pray without ceasing — and when it does look at community, it is the community of “I”s (i.e., the monastery). Is this tradition of self-focussed purity-projects really relevant to the frontier of mysticism as deification-in-community? Think about it: deification-in-community is what I think the Holy Trinity is all about, and certainly would be the way to define a mysticism grounded in the life of a family with children. Indeed, any community where the emphasis is on mutual self-giving would be a place where deification-in-community might flourish. But doesn’t this stand in direct contrast, if not opposition, to the traditional contemplative focus on the self growing in holiness so as to partake in the Divine nature?

“Become like little children,” declared Jesus to those who would seek to enter the kingdom of heaven. Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up” and “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” In other words, why do we teach children how to paint — perhaps they should be teaching us? Back to Jesus: if mysticism is the art of living in heaven-consciousness, perhaps we adults need to learn the contemplative life from children. Even those who are celibate.

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  1. just thinking in prayer last night about the nature of children and celibacy. children do mirror part of the celibate charism – in their guilelessnes, they love pretty much anyone who comes into their world…at least until they are taught to fear others because of abuse or neglect.

    by nature children reflect God’s willingness to offer His gifts in the service of all. in a similar way, the celibate is called to reflect this same characteristic, since celibate love is always non-exclusive (in the eros sense); the consecrated celibate is free to express agape in a childlike way.

    i definately think that all people – and perhaps especially those committed to contemplation need to have opportunities to serve children. there is much to be said on this topic i believe.

  2. Being a contemplative by both temperament and calling, it seems, and yet someone who has lived a family life for many years, it seems to me that it is simply that, a matter of temperament and calling. Some of us simply cannot be who we were made to be unless we live a celibate life, others a family life. Yet we are all called to be contemplatives, to one degree or another. ‘Contemplation is for all Christians…’ (Michael Ramsey) – yet we are not all called to an equal degree.

    I don’t think the existence of married contemplatives in any way devalues or threatens ‘traditional’ monasticism, any more than I think the existence of celibate communities devalues or demeans the married condition. St. Francis saw that, and I believe when he first instituted the Third Order he had in mind both active and contemplative vocations, and any stages between. “We as Tertiaries desire to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, whom we serve in the three ways of Prayer, Study, and Work. In the life of the Order as a whole, these three ways must each find full and balanced expression, but it is not to be expected that all members devote themselves equally to each of them. Each individual’s service varies according to their abilities and circumstances, yet as individual member’s our Personal Rule of Life must include each of the three ways.” (Principles of the Third Order, 13)

  3. It seems to me that there is a misunderstanding here of celibacy. Celibacy is itself a mystical reality when well lived such that it is not simply an instrument for individual holiness projects. First, for the most part, celibacy is lived in community, within a brotherhood with fraternal correction, charity, shared labors, sorrows, joys as much as any other life. It is not a life centered on raising children or the care for/from a spouse to be sure, but it is still a life centered on a human family as well as spiritual progress. Indeed the second is impossible without the first. And this is all the more true for more apostolic communities.

    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.

    If you investigate the communities that are now growing in the Church they are all ones that preserve rather than reformulate the fundamentals of religious life.

    As one who writes on the spiritual life, your straw man set up against religious life is disappointing. This is the kind of analysis I remember reading in the 80′s. It just isn’t working out that way.

  4. I do apologize if this post leaves the impression of criticizing or devaluing the celibate vocation. My point is not to criticize celibacy, but rather to question the longstanding idea that the contemplative life was incompatible, or less compatible, with married and family life. I think you’ve described the vocation of celibacy in a beautiful and lovely way; I hope that all celibates may be given the grace to live out their vocation in a manner similar to what you’ve described.

    I’ve written a more detailed response to your comment here. I hope you can see that I’m more interested in unpacking my own inner distortions than in questioning anyone else’s vocation.

  5. does anyone knows if there is any other information about this subject in other languages?

  6. Hipolito says:

    To Carl, yes, I think an believe that it is possible to lead a contemplative life having a family and/or a very active involvment in bussiness, apostolate or services.
    I live in a Spiritual Community of celibate men in upstate New York.
    I’m interested in a dialogue on the proces of formation of Spiritual Communities.
    I very much appreciate all that has been said in this forum on this topic. I hope I don’t arrive too late with my comment.
    Thank you.

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