This is a more tentative section of my “three false gods” presentation. It’s about what we lose when marriage crowds out the practice of celibacy.
Catholics have marriage as an image of Heaven–the wedding feast of the Lamb. But we also have celibacy as an image of the life of Heaven, where there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage. Putting marriage in its proper place means not only renewing other forms of “horizontal” love, but also a rediscovery of the beauty and passion of celibacy.
Celibacy frees you to serve and pray–I’ve written about this before.
Celibates in our role as community-makers can provide a haven for married Christians, including those who struggle or suffer in their marriages, and for those who hope to marry but haven’t been able to yet. In fact, if you look at great Christian literature so much of it takes place in the shadow of the monastery: the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
These celibate communities provide refuge and respite in Kristin Lavransdatter, Brideshead Revisited, The Brothers Karamazov, and although my opinions about Laurus are extremely mixed I think it is unquestionably a work of true Christian art so I’ll throw it in here too. In movies, too, from the fictionalized narrative in Of Gods and Men to the documentary The Sinner Teodora, monastics describe their call as a call to love more.
What if our normative image of love was not marriage but monasticism? Or, better, what if we recognized both marriage and celibate life as images of Heaven, where love can be expressed in ways that are equally real, equally intimate, and equally beautiful?
If you don’t honor celibacy, do you distort your image of Jesus? He died a virgin; if you can only see that as a lack, rather than seeing how His love flowed out in nonmarital forms, can you truly see Him as the God Who is love?
If you don’t honor celibacy, do you distort your image of Heaven? We are not married in Heaven, and yet here love is at its height.
If you don’t honor celibacy, do you distort your understanding of prayer? Celibacy recalls us to our ultimate and most intimate union, the union with God. Prayer can be a lot of things: begging, gratitude, penitence, praise. But it’s also intimate union with God. Bernini’s Teresa (here she is again, I’ve been thinking a lot about her lately) is caught in the ecstasy of prayer–the union of her soul with her divine Lover. How can we understand this form of prayer if we don’t see celibate love as real, all-encompassing (not just mental games), and passionate?
As I’ve said, these are fairly speculative points, and I’d welcome your comments. I don’t feel I understand celibacy well. But I know we need celibate witness.