These are my notes from the workshop I gave at Revoice on “ecstasy in celibacy.” Lightly edited. The handout from the workshop is here.
I opened with prayer: Jesus our Beauty, Jesus our Joy, fill our hearts. Jesus our King, Jesus our Peace, guide our thoughts. Come, Holy Spirit, and renew our hearts—renew our minds—and renew the face of the earth. Amen.
My first task was to manage expectations. By which I mean, lower expectations!
First of all, I AM NOT A THEOLOGIAN or a historian. I am a pop journalist! I mostly write movie reviews! I have tried to represent Christian traditions accurately; if I fail, I’m sorry, and if you notice me misrepresenting things, please correct me!
I’m trying to offer descriptions of the goal or ideal. This is not a road map for how to get there. It isn’t going to involve much practical guidance. It isn’t about how to have joy in celibacy. It’s more about the purposes of celibacy: Why have Christians, since the resurrection of the virgin Jesus, praised celibacy and viewed it as a fruitful form of love?
This is also only a partial sketch of those reasons. I will offer five possible meanings or purposes of celibacy, all of which are discussed in Christian tradition but which might not be the most important aspects of celibacy for you. For example, people nowadays sometimes talk about celibacy as a countercultural witness to the depth of nonsexual bonds, or a revolt against the commodification of love (including gay love—let’s all go to Pride (Presented by Wells Fargo)), and I won’t do anything with those ideas, though they can offer insights and inspiration.
The five purposes I’ll discuss intertwine at times—they’re not always cleanly separable—but I think it makes sense to talk about them separately, to emphasize different aspects which in an individual’s life and spirituality may be closely linked.
What I hope to do, above all, is to offer an approach: a way of evaluating theories and theologies of celibacy in light of what they might offer to you as you try to live celibately. I have two basic structuring ideas. First, most of the purposes of celibacy I present here hold certain especial dangers for gay Christians, as well as certain opportunities for us. Second, I’ve organized these purposes so that they work inward and upward: inward to the heart of Christ and upward to Heaven.
And finally, a note on language: “celibacy” can have a more technical or limited meaning than the one I’m using, in which it’s characterized by a vow of celibacy. I’m using it as a broader term for, essentially, people unmarried and not intending to marry. This is not the same as “singleness,” which is a state of either as-yet-unfulfilled intention to marry or ambivalence/uncertainty about marrying. As marriage has declined so has celibacy—the decline of marriage has not led to more celibate people, but to more people who feel that they have failed to marry. Nor do I want to limit celibacy to a “gift” or “calling” you discern within yourself; often our callings come to us in the unchosen circumstances of our lives.
Celibacy is an arena of love characterized by renunciation of sex and marriage.
OK, so why though????
on to part two!
Photo of light in the monastery via Wikimedia Commons