First of all, a caveat. I didn’t include a chapter on celibate partnerships (i.e. people who conceive of their vocations together in those terms, rather than in terms of devoted or spiritual friendship–I have a bunch of chapters on friendships which go beyond the modern “just friends” model) partly because I didn’t think I understood it very well. I still don’t! I’d appreciate your thoughts on all of these “dvd extras” posts, but maybe especially this one, because I do feel somewhat out of my depth here. Since I wrote the book I’ve gotten to know the great people at A Queer Calling, and have learned that I have other friends who are pursuing some form of partnered celibate life, but I am still just at the beginning of learning about this type of vocation. Nonetheless LET’S PRESS ON, forward and upward, and always twirling, twirling toward… uh, toward obedience to our call, I guess.
The best resource I’ve found for learning about celibate partnered life is A Queer Calling. If you’re just starting out with them, try the posts tagged “celibacy,” and especially “Defining Celibacy,” “Why celibacy?“, “Growing Together in Virtue,” “Ask Yourself These Questions Before Entering a Celibate Relationship,” “10 Misconceptions About Celibate Partnerships” (you can hear some of that post in what follows, since I know I had threads of some of these misconceptions running through my own thought in the past), and “10 Things We Wish Our Church Family Knew.” There’s also “The challenge of drawing ‘the line,’” which I think speaks to concerns a lot of people have about celibate partnerships; “Children, Connectedness, And Vocation“; “My Failed Celibate Relationship“; and, you know, poke around to find what interests you, because Lindsey and Sarah have really touched on a lot of important subjects over a fairly short period of blogging. If I were writing the book today, much of this chapter–maybe all of it–would just be a conversation with them. (In fact, I should probably do that, for a later post! Let’s get the bones out in this one and then maybe revisit later.) I wish that there were more resources out there, since nobody should have to be the sole (or dual!) “representative” of any vocation. But I’ve been very impressed by how Lindsey and Sarah have handled that pressure so far.
My strongest intuition about celibate partnerships is that the more unusual your vocation, the more actively you should seek out spiritual guidance from an outside party: someone deeply embedded within the traditions of your church, who knows you personally, is pastoral and open-minded, but whose mind has been formed by the church in which you follow Christ. This will help you live as a child of the Church.
Unfortunately, the more unusual your vocation, the harder it is to find spiritual guides who are open to your way of life. I’m going to do a whole post later in this series which will be addressed to spiritual directors, mentors, pastors etc, but this post is directed to people who might be seeking guidance. All I can say is that you are allowed to seek out people who offer you welcome–and who are open to the possibility that God is calling you to a committed, celibate love of another person. If the first person you reach out to for direction doesn’t buy that that’s even possible for Christians, try to find someone else. The best spiritual directors, in my experience, listen and adapt as well as challenge. They bring the wisdom of the Church while striving to get their own personal opinions out of the way.
In terms of the attitude of the partners seeking direction, obviously humility is key here. You need a shepherd. You need an abbot–you guys can’t really be abbots for one another, I don’t think, although I’d be interested to see if people disagree there.
Humility focuses outward: on the Church as community, as Body. It doesn’t focus inward–“humility” doesn’t mean you have to be self-loathing or even self-doubting, since both of those attitudes are based in judgments about the self rather than relationships to others. Your goal with spiritual direction should (I think) be conceived as, “Help me live within the Body of Christ, in the communion of the saints,” rather than, “Help me avoid mistakes.” Spiritual direction should be deepening your relationship to God and to those around you.
My tentative sense is that bringing in models and language from other vocations helps a lot. It’s so easy, in a culture which makes marriage and romantic love the crowning ideal and often the only channel for love between adults, to think of celibate partnership as “marriage minus sex.” (Outsiders, maybe including people you would like to rely on for spiritual guidance, are especially likely to see things this way. I definitely worried that people in celibate partnerships were viewing their lives this way.) Then you get all the same problems that contemporary marriage already has–viewing your vocation as the solution to the problem of the self, viewing your partner as the cure for loneliness, retreating into a private world of two–rather than opening outward in fruitfulness and hospitality. Lindsey and Sarah often bring in models from monasticism. You could also look at sisterhood/brotherhood, and at traditions of spiritual friendship.
My sense is that some partners think of themselves as closer to a “monastery of two,” whereas others think of themselves more like a spiritual friendship. Those different self-concepts are probably going to have consequences for how the partners live their vocations, although to be honest, I haven’t spoken with enough people living these vocations to feel that I have a good handle on what the differences are. The more important point is simply that if you’re going to lead a life which many people will misunderstand as a mimicry of marriage, having other languages in which to express what you’re doing will help you avoid that same misunderstanding.
Celibate partnership is neither “marriage minus” nor “friendship plus,” I think. (“Friendship plus” seems closer to the spiritual friendship model, and closer still to the vowed friendship model, both of which I discuss in depth in the book itself.) I’m still at the very beginning of learning about this way of life. I believe strongly that many people have a vocation to life with a specific other person. That calling may be best lived out in friendship, but “friendship” is simply a language, a tradition, a framework for understanding how best to love another person. If you find that other languages, such as monasticism, commitment, partnership, are better guides for loving and serving the person with whom you’re called to entwine your life, celibate partnership may be a vocation (or set of vocations) to look into.
[this post has been lightly edited for clarity! pardon our dust; we are remodeling]