Celibacy is beautiful because celibacy is a witness to our trust in God and in the resurrection of the dead.
We witness through celibacy in three ways. First, for St. Augustine, one of the primary purposes of procreation is to bring forth the Messiah. So once the Messiah has come, celibacy becomes open to us, a new form of freedom. By living celibately we proclaim that the Messiah has come in Christ and is already among us. [I should add that you don’t have to accept this Augustinian theology! I just found it an interesting extra way one can witness to Christ through celibacy so I threw it in there.]
Second, we proclaim that our inheritance and our legacy are in God alone. We do not need to leave anything behind us here. Wes Hill often quotes Mark 10:29 – 31:
Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come. But many that are first will be last, and [the] last will be first.”
By sacrificing the form of love and family which our culture tells us to want (whether that’s heterosexual marriage or gay marriage), we proclaim our trust that Jesus’ promise is true. The sacrifice is part of the “absurdity” Johanna talked about in her keynote; the promise is part of what we meant when we sang, that same night, “All we lost, He will restore.”
To see the contrasting worldview, you can watch Pixar’s Coco! Click here for my rant about the afterlife in Coco.
Christian celibacy is a proclamation that our afterlife is not in the hands of our family, or anybody’s hands except our Maker’s.
And the third way we witness by our celibacy is that we live out a foretaste of the love we will have in Heaven, where there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage.
This life of Heaven is a life of communal love—love offered to God above all, and overflowing to embrace all people. In this way celibacy as witness to the reality of Heaven can strengthen the first and second purposes I discussed, celibacy as availability to the community and celibacy as availability to God.
The great difficulty here for gay people is that our experiences in the churches have made trust in God and His promises much harder. When the same church which seems to impose celibacy on us as a burden or even a punishment for being gay then turns around and says, “It’s a beautiful sign of your trust in God!”, both trust and celibacy become much harder and can even become forms of self-harm.
Moreover, offering us an inheritance in Heaven may become a way for churches to let themselves off the hook of supporting us in this life.
On the other hand–and here I made clear that I am speculating and speaking only for myself, not for the tradition–you know what is super nice about celibacy as foreshadowing or witnessing to the love we’ll know in Heaven? It calls into question the idea that we need to pass through heterosexuality on the way to Heaven. Why can’t I skip the part where I want to have sex with men, if that’s a way station leading to this love which is beyond marriage? Why not long directly for the love of Heaven and prepare yourself for it through growing in celibacy?
Celibacy is beautiful because celibacy is a form of poverty.
In celibacy we renounce a good which our Lord also renounced. We experience deprivation. This deprivation should not be destitution—that’s something our church should help us with. The poverty of a monk should not be desperate, should not be starvation, and the same is true with celibacy. But it is a renunciation of a good, and a form of surrender.
In contemporary America lay celibates also renounce the social status people often gain (esp in the churches) through marriage. I’m not saying married people have it easy; they desperately need our support, including our economic support. But there are ways in which being married is a little like being rich, in the sense that many people think of you as having succeeded, and think of lack of marriage as a failure. This is an un-Christian attitude but it is one way in which our obedient embrace of celibacy can be a way of “taking the lowest place,” which is always the place closest to Christ.
I quoted Christopher Roberts’s Creation & Covenant: “Could it be that expectations of erotic fulfillment, an attitude of sexual entitlement, is a variation upon wealth, a new possession modern people grip so tightly that we cannot be wholehearted followers of Christ? …As with the church’s teaching on voluntary poverty, or other types of suffering, a language will have to be recovered, to the effect that there is freedom and joy in a life without those things the world calls necessary.” And it’s important that Roberts also says, earlier: “The failure of the visible church to be sufficiently countercultural, such that a social life of lay celibacy is conceivable, is a likely reason [so many Christians reject the historic sexual ethic]. We cannot imagine existing in our culture without the haven of an erotic partnership, because our capacity to belong together in more chaste ways is so limited.” & so our proclamation of our sexual ethic “seems cruel and laughable.”
Celibacy is beautiful because celibacy, or sexual renunciation, offers a unique intimacy with Christ.
So if you read enough about celibacy you notice that there’s roughly a consensus [I think!!!!], at least up through the Middle Ages, that this is true. And yet nobody can agree on why! People come up with all kinds of explanations as to why a certain ecstatic, mystical union with Christ seems especially available to celibates. Some explanations are pretty wacky—Peter Brown cites pre-Christian beliefs that sex provokes “a warm rush of vital spirits through the body,” which keeps you from the emptiness you need to receive God; there was a theory that virgins’ voices sounded better! Or maybe if you’re not distracted by sensual pleasures, including but not limited to the pleasures of sex, your body responds more strongly to the pleasures of union with God in prayer.
But what strikes me about this multitude of explanations, some of which are kind of cuckoo, is that they are all clearly attempts to understand a phenomenon people had noticed: that celibate people had some kind of unusual access to the Lord. We were in some way vessels, receptive and ready to be filled with God’s spirit, exposed to God’s caresses. Celibates are naked, the ancient Christians say, we are unprotected from the touch and kiss of Christ on our bare souls.
Whatever the mechanism, the celibate makes of her body a secret garden, for God’s pleasure alone. He makes of his body a bridal chamber, enclosed, hushed, where his soul can embrace her Lover, her Lord.
Note that this giving of one’s body to God is about your choice, and can take place at any time in your life. The secret garden or bridal chamber in which you tryst with your Lord is created by your choice to renounce sex and marriage, so you can create it with your body no matter what has happened to your body before this. A sexual-abuse survivor can create this privacy and give her body in celibacy to God. Someone who has been unchaste in the past (a famous example many of you may know is Saint Aelred) may give his body wholeheartedly to God at any point. Celibacy is not virginity-fetishism; it honors and is dependent on your will and your conscience.
This ecstasy is not something I have experienced. I have received only the slightest hints in the sweetness of prayer or in a sudden aliveness to the created world, and these hints I think are pretty normal for everybody, common among the married and the single as well as the celibate. The tradition suggests, and this seems right to me, that I haven’t experienced mystical union with God because of my sins: my unchastity, but also, as the tradition would point out, my gluttony and my love of distraction and entertainment.
And God scatters these experiences of bliss so capriciously. He may let you feel the embrace to which you’ve bared yourself once right away, and then never again for all the long years of your obedience; He may not grant you that at all, until you rise to your reward. It can seem painfully unfair. Whereas service is something you can do right now–you can find a way to serve, through your prayers or your acts. And the fruit of service, as I think Mother Theresa says, is peace. So why not emphasize that, instead of a shattering ecstasy you may never actually perceive?
I think that this ecstatic union with Christ is what all the other purposes of celibacy lead up to: what they point to. The deepest purpose of celibacy is its most mysterious: to prepare us for the kiss of Christ.
Monastery picture is still via Wikimedia Commons.