Is Conscious Celibacy a “Yes” to Love?

I could use your opinion. Especially if you are single.

I’ve run into a bit of a sticking point in my work on my new book, “The Grace of Yes”. In one of the chapters, I am looking at the concept of saying, “Yes” to love in our lives. I want to include all kinds of love, including the choice a single, celibate person makes to express love in his or her life.

But I’m at a bit of a loss. Just as when I wrote about step-parenting in The Handbook for Catholic Moms, I need a consult. While I was a single person for the first twenty two years of my life, that was over a quarter of a century ago and much has changed in our world since then. And I must admit that I was single by circumstance, not by choice.

I believe at that time my heart was set on finding a vocation to the married life. Blessedly, I married my soul mate at a young age and love has blossomed. I often ask myself, “What if?” Had I not fallen in love with Greg, how would my life have been different? Would I have chosen a religious vocation? Would I have worked somewhere as a missionary? Would I have been happy with a life dedicated to serving others and living on my own? I don’t know…

But back to our single friends. I have many of them, and when I look at their lifestyles from the outside, it seems to me that they are people who are living lives filled to the brim with love. Let’s exempt for a moment folks who have chosen a religious vocation to the priesthood or religious life — they will be covered in another part of this chapter. Let’s talk simply about unmarried folks.

How do they say, “Yes!” to love?

It would be my contention that they affirm their love for themselves and for God through their choice to live a faithful single life. Additionally, many of the single folks I know are in a better position to serve those around them in their communities since they are free of familial encumbrances. They have solid friendships and a passion for making the world around them a better place.

Am I off base here? If you’ve been consciously celibate in the past or are single now, I would love to hear from you either in the comments here or privately to lisahendey@gmail.com. Edify me, please!

About Lisa M. Hendey

Lisa M. Hendey is the founder and editor of CatholicMom.com and the bestselling author of The Handbook for Catholic Moms and A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms.

  • dancingcrane

    I too was consciously celibate until I married at the age of 24. I remember those days well. The peer pressure was intense, and I remember college classmates, when we met, bragging about the sexual smorgasbord that college life would give them. These were the heady, freedom-y years right after Roe v Wade. I was by then a pro-choice atheist, but you know what I saw? Under the angry militant pride, under the need to not be proved wrong by those horrible Christian fundamentalists (and believe me I wanted that too), was a desperate unhappiness and sense of betrayal. I was ‘mama confessor’ to a lot of my peers, mostly women, because I ‘wasn’t Christian’ and therefore not a threat. From the girl who only wanted sex to get back at her parents, to the one who had no sense of self-worth at all unless she was luring yet another man-child to her bed (and I remember their anguished faces vividly), there was always a sense of regret (and not a little furious screaming at fate). That they actually envied the virgins they made fun of. Break ups were nasty and soul-crushing, because they involved a drug, lust, that wouldn’t let go. I realised early that I didn’t want that garbage in my life. It wasn’t until I became a Christian again (and came all the way home as a Catholic) after college, that I realised why. For all the talk of ‘love’, we really had no idea what it was.

    • lisahendey

      This is such a rich comment! I thank you for sharing your soul on this and helping me to see and hear new angles on this situation.

  • Julie F (@jfount)

    Well, here are my thoughts and you can see how they work for you.

    I am 27 and single by circumstance, not by choice. I don’t feel called to religious life, and no one has asked me to marry him yet, so here I am waiting for my call! Meanwhile I am working on an advanced degree that I hope will let me support myself while also (please God!) contributing through my own gifts and talents to our wider society and culture.

    I feel that my life involves a daily and difficult “yes”. “Yes, Lord, I accept that marriage isn’t about me choosing the lifestyle I like, and dating isn’t about me having someone to bring to parties. I accept that living chastely and committing myself to your law might drive some admirers away, and cause other people to think less of me. But I trust that you have a plan here, and I trust that as long as I focus on becoming a saint — no matter what my ‘love life’ looks like — everything will turn out as good as it possibly can.”

    Personally, I don’t struggle as much with the physical aspect as some people do (and this is through no special brilliance of my own; just grace and circumstances, I hasten to say). What I do struggle with is feeling that I’m not in control of the situation, and that other people are judging me. So I have to say “yes” to God’s loving providence, and to living joyfully in His love no matter what other people think I’m doing wrong or is wrong with me. And then those bigger “yeses” are what open me up to what I would think of as smaller “yeses” — Yes, I will give my time to help my family members or friends. Yes, I will do the work on the parish fundraiser. Yes, I will be a mentor or a chaperone or whathaveyou.

    And I will note that following God’s call can be really scary and risky for single people just like for married people. So say you feel called to become a missionary in Africa, or even just to become a Director of Religious Education in your diocese. If you’re married, this involves questions about how you’re going to provide for your family and how you can prevent this move being hurtful for them. For a single person, it involves the big scary question: if I do this, will I ever meet The One? If I’m off in the jungle or slaving away in a tiny country parish, I can’t be attending those big urban Theology on Tap sessions. So it takes a real trust in God to make that “lack of encumbrances” real.

    • Julie F (@jfount)

      Oh, I should add: Dorothy Cummings writes about how it’s not correct to say that a single person “isn’t in a relationship” because we all have many loving relationships. Brothers and sisters, friends, parents, nieces and nephews, possibly students or mentors… not to mention Jesus! So being single involves a “yes” to truly seeing these as important relationships full of love, requiring sacrifice and generosity.

      • lisahendey

        Julie – thank you for this helpful comment. All of the input I’ve received makes me realize how important this topic is.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat Katrina Fernandez

    I think it’s a fallacy to assume single folks are free from “familial encumbrances”. We are the ones that often get stuck with them – what with all our free time. Single people are expected to care for ailing family and be readily available at the drop of hat because we have no lives. No married lives. I have a kid so the expectation isn’t there so much, but I still care for my disabled mom because no one in the family will. They have spouses so they must be busier than me.

    The Church is no different. People often hit me up to volunteer for this and that because I’m bursting with singleness free time. That was sarcasm.

    I think people confuse sex with love, and since I am not having sex I must not be experiencing love. But this is silly and gross… think of all the people you love who you aren’t having sex with it. yeah… ew.

    I say “yes” to love by my obedience to Church teaching and being chaste, by serving my family and son, and being there for my friends. I love my married friends.

    There are so many ways to express love and so many opportunities to express it that go beyond just loving a spouse. If being single has taught me anything, it’s taught me that love is boundless and how to express it in different ways.

    • lisahendey

      Katrina – thank you for pointing that out (about the encumbrances –) you’re absolutely right! I think that’s an unfair assumption in so many families. I truly appreciate you sharing your perspective here.

  • Mary Donahue

    I have a friend who is a consecrated virgin .
    She lives in the world.
    She has a job. And yet, took vows to the Bishop to serve the Church though prayer.
    This seems to be a growing vocation within single life.

    • lisahendey

      Thank you for sharing this Mary.

  • Thomas Smith

    It is great you are talking about this issue Lisa.

    There are several dynamics and it is probably best to distinguish

    1) Singles who are not married but living chaste with intention (conscious celibacy?) and are actively looking for a marriage partner because they have discerned that they are indeed called to married life. This time of waiting is a huge gift. It is a time to deepen one’s life of prayer, focus in spiritual direction on areas of brokenness in their personality that can be healed and re-ordered vs. brought into the marriage covenant, and for generous service to a faith community and/or the poor.

    As someone noted in the comments, some singles may experience people trying to take advantage of their singleness (family or parishes), but that has to be countered by setting healthy boundaries with family and friends and not operating within a guilt paradigm.

    There are of course people those who believe they are in category 1 who may not actually be called to marriage but strongly desire it. Desire isn’t necessarily an indication of vocation. I’ve spoken with a fair number of men and women whose discernment of married/religious life never got beyond, “But, I really desire to be married.”
    If I, as a celibate man, didn’t desire a wife and children or possess a deep longing for spousal union and fatherhood, I would have a DISorder at a soul level.

    The second group to category 1 would be,

    2) Chaste singles who possess the charism of celibacy and direct their time/energies/affections/gifts towards spiritual fatherhood/motherhood, and spousal union with Christ and His Body (loving the Bride in the heart of the Bridegroom). That’s the category I am in, however imperfectly I am living it. In this case, celibacy isn’t simply a choice but a lifestyle charism, that is, it is given by Christ for the purpose of living out more fully one’s other gifts/charisms. For example, I have the charisms of teaching and pastoring. Celibacy is a lifestyle charism that frees me to maximize the use of these charisms for the Body that I couldn’t do if I had a young family. I am on the road, living in those gifts, 180 days a year. That is possible only because of the lifestyle charism, it is always for the sake of the other charism(s) which are always directed in service to the Body or the world. When I am walking in my gifts, I am fathering at a spiritual level, planting seeds of life, and I am drawn more deeply into spousal union with Christ and His Bride. In other words, I am drawing deeply from those fathering/spousal energies that are natural to men, but ordering them to spiritual fruitfulness/union.

    I take simple, private vows on a yearly basis on the Feast of the Sacred Heart. They aren’t properly public vows, even if I made them in front of a faith community, because that language is used exclusively for entrance/vowed life in a religious community or institute. They also aren’t permanent (although they could be), because I don’t pretend to know my future (maybe God will call me to live out my gifts within a religious community). The language is simple “Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I now dedicate, by a vow, my whole person, body and soul to You as my Divine Spouse, to live chastity, simplicity and availability* for this year, that I may please You more perfectly by a holy life, that I may enjoy more intimate and intense happiness with You in the glorious life of heaven, and that I may be able to help a greater number of fellow men to procure for themselves a peaceful life on earth and everlasting happiness in heaven. Amen.

    * Availability means a spirit of generosity to go wherever I am asked or invited to exercise my gifts.

    Anyway, there’s my two cents to the dialogue.

    Thomas Smith at http://www.gen215.org

    • lisahendey

      Thomas, wow, what an amazing response. Knowing the work you are doing, I’m so blown away by the grace of your “yes” to what God has called you to… And your vows are quite inspirational. In prayer for you and your ministry!

  • http://aNunsLife.org/ Sister Julie Vieira

    I’m not exactly the single person you had in mind, but being a Catholic Sister certainly involves a conscious choice for celibacy! One of the significant learnings for me when I was first entering religious life was that while celibacy can be consciously chosen as a good in itself, it’s greatest power or grace is in how it facilitates (for lack of a better word) a greater calling or good. Celibacy frees me to be fully myself with God and within the world, just as married people’s choices are freeing for them to be fully themselves with God and within the world. I don’t mean “freeing” as being having a lot of time on one’s hands or having few responsibilities. It’s more in that sense of a spiritual freedom or empowerment knowing that one is living fully the life God has given one. This kind of freedom is transformative and can bring new meaning and energy to how we live our life in work, relationships, etc. Having just seen a good friend get married, another become a candidate for a religious community, and still another become pregnant, I am in awe at the way our choices are transformative … and how they are inspired by and ultimately result in love.

    One additional thought … The “conscious” part of celibacy includes knowing full well what one is saying yes to, and what one therefore is also saying no to. For religious, we have to face head-on the questions of our own desire for an intimate partner, children, family, etc. This is not easy, but being real about our choices is an essential part of discernment around celibacy as well as any life commitment.

    Sister Julie @ aNunsLife.org

    • lisahendey

      Sister Julie, you know how much I respect your vocation – thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  • Amadeus

    Single, celibate, and not at all happy about it… Not being in favor of my current situation makes it all the more difficult to say ‘yes’ to love in other areas of my life.

    • lisahendey

      I’m sorry for what you are facing… and for your unhappiness.

  • Matt

    Lisa,

    I am a single, 26 year old gay man. I wouldn’t say that I have chosen a celibate life, but rather that I endeavor to live chastely, in accordance to the teachings of my church (which takes an orthodox view on sex and marriage), and as a practical result, I am celibate. If I had my own way, I’d be searching for a husband, because I feel a deep desire to “choose love” in the form of a romantic relationship. Instead I choose to live faithfully, because I ultimately believe that my desire to love and be loved finds its ultimate fulfillment in my relationship with Christ. In this sense, my choice does affirm your contention that I am choosing to honor myself and God.

    The tension created by my conflicting desire to be faithful and the desire to have a husband and family (and to experiences the physical and emotional intimacies of marriage) is the defining struggle of my Christian walk. It has caused me to question God’s goodness and the rationale behind his morality, to feel alienated and set apart from my friends and community, and to feel loneliness and little joy at the prospect of living the majority of my life alone. I want to be a faithful Christian, but too frequently I fear my choice to be faithfully chaste is not motivated by love, but begrudgingly out of a sense of pious duty and righteous fear.

    A couple years ago a dear friend of mine, a supernumerary of Opus Dei, gave me advice that has been very helpful me. He said that the truest way to grow in my love of the Lord (the point of faithful chastity) was to love my neighbors and to dedicate myself to being love in the world. I think this gets at what you suggest about single folk being able to choose love through service and engagement within our communities – how we love our neighbors becomes an act of devotion to a God we are trusting; a way of drawing close, and at the same time also opening ourselves to receive the philadelphic love of our community. It is also a pathway towards creating an identity beyond sexuality and singleness which is empowering and enlivening.

    I’d be lying if I claimed that I live the above out in my daily life, I often fail at loving my neighbors, but my friend’s advice has shaped the way I think about my relationship with my community in a way that has brought healing and hope for me personally, and which brings me closer to God. Another thing that has helped is that my particular community (family, friends, church) have been willing to walk beside me as a gay believer without demanding that I somehow miraculously re-order my desires and be “healed” so that I can eventually find a wife. I think this is key, because what they have really been doing is affirming that there is a sanctified narrative available for me as a (gay) single person. It is my prayer that more and more churches will figure out how to minister to and encourage single folk within the congregation in a way that affirms the single life as valid and equal to that of married life.

    • lisahendey

      Matt, I’m incredibly grateful to you for taking the time to respond in such a profound way to my query. Yours is the type of response I was truly seeking. Please know that you are in my prayers — you are shining a true light with your witness and example. And I join you in praying for a greater ministry in our parishes to those who walk this path, that they never feel alone.

  • Margaret Rose Realy

    At times i feel guilty for being graced with singleness… it may seem a burden to be in the world alone, but my solitary life gives my joy and time to pursue God’s will. It is freeing, demanding, frightening, and peaceable. I pray a lot. Maybe i should write about it…

  • Heather

    I thought I had responded to this but I must have closed the browser tab before submitting.

    I am a single woman in my thirties. However “single” doesn’t necessarily mean “solitary.” I don’t live alone — I’ve shared a two bedroom apartment with my best friend for over eight years. Two non-related adults living together without being romantically or sexually involved is kind of an alternative lifestyle these days, but it wasn’t always considered that odd. It’s certainly cheaper, safer, and more pleasant than living alone! (We generally get mistaken for sisters rather than any other type of relationship, for which we are grateful.)

    And yes absolutely it gives us freedom to do certain things that others might not be able to. We can help run book tables at various parishes around town for our Sister friends sometimes when she’s double booked. We run our parish’s RCIA program. But in other ways we don’t have any more time than other adults our age. We both work full time so we don’t have the daytime availability that stay at home moms, students, or retired folks do.

  • Dale

    Felipe, I wonder if the vocation of consecrated hermit would be of interest? Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean you would live isolated from the outside world, although you would renounce worldly things. You can get practical details from an internet search, but here is the relevant section in the Code of Canon Law:

    Can. 603 §1. In addition to institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance.

    §2. A hermit is recognized by law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes a proper program of living under his direction.
    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P1Y.HTM

  • Jennifer Ellen

    I’m 41 and a life-long single by circumstance, not choice. Within that circumstance I choose celibacy. I’m not wired for it – I have always had a strong sex drive, and it’s only gotten stronger as I’ve gotten older. I’m also not wired for singleness generally – as I’ve grown in knowing myself, I’ve recognized that I would be healthier, a better me, with a marriage partner. At this point, I hope for that but without expecting it to happen.

    In that circumstance, I’m committed to living a full life, and I put a lot of effort into investing in friendships with men and women, single and married. I live with roommates, but as they have a tendency to get married, they regularly rotate through. It’s hard to go through that adjustment of negotiating life with someone new annually, but I know me and it’s healthier than living alone.

    The “free-er” for ministry thing is one that is, I think different for different people, and different than it was in NT times. In the culture of the day, a single would have remained part of a household in which the needs of daily life would be largely taken care of. By comparison today, while my married friends spend time taking care of children, they also divide the obligations of a household – chores, bill paying, vehicle upkeep, etc. In contrast, there’s nothing I don’t have to do for myself along those lines.

    Additionally, for me in particular, if I could have all the energy I expend handling my sex drive as a celibate and working to keep connections with others happening (every connection has to be scheduled), I strongly suspect I would have more freedom for ministry in a good marriage (which I recognize takes a lot of work).


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