Chris Roberts has this thing I like, where he points out that our modern concept of being “single” is not really supported by Christian theology or historical practice. Even when we try to delineate ways that “single people” can love and serve, such as friendship, we start with the unmarried individual as an autonomous unit and seek to Lego this unit onto other units. (…Uh, I’m not liking this image. Retreat.) The celibate “single” or layperson is weird–the norm for celibate people is monastic living. The norm even for weird celibate laypeople is communal living, like the beguines, or Madonna House, or the Catholic Worker.
“Weird” doesn’t mean unprecedented. But Roberts does suggest that there are dangers in lay celibacy, especially the danger which he calls “being your own abbot.”
I talk about one part of this problem a little bit in the book, in the section on accountability. Lack of accountability was/is one of my own biggest struggles as a celibate layperson. It played a serious role in my drinking problem–there was nobody to come home to, there was a possibility of privacy which was tempting and damaging. I think this is one reason that starting spiritual direction was so foundational to my recovery and eventual sobriety. I basically went out and got myself an abbot.
But I don’t live with my spiritual director, and that does make a big difference. One reason I’m so high on the idea of people living with their parents/families of origin, or in a family household, is that it allows laypeople to be one another’s abbots, to guide and watch over one another. It requires adherence to rules, sometimes-sacrificial consideration of others’ needs, and a surrender of one’s own comfort, preferences, and autonomy. Intentional community living, which gets a nice chapter in the book, is another way to attain some of the spiritual benefits of monastic life.
I am fairly sure I don’t have a religious vocation. But I think Roberts’s framing helps to clarify a) a common problem for celibate people i.e. people who are really seriously not planning on marriage, and b) the historic Christian solution to that problem. So one piece of advice would be, “Really think harder than you want to, about whether you have a religious vocation”; and the other would be, “Find yourself an abbot or at least, like, a mini- or Fun Size abbot.”
Still, I know this post doesn’t come close to exhausting Roberts’s critique. That’s where you guys come in! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post.
Because even this guy can’t be his own Abbott: