Celibacy frees (or pushes!) us to form and strengthen kinds of relationship which might otherwise go neglected.
# celibate people are godparents, friends inc covenant friends, monks nuns and priests. Celibate partners (sometimes analogized to a monastery of two), crisis pregnancy counselors, adoptive & foster parents, wife’s or husband’s best friend (one of the pillars which helps support their marriage), “auntie,” caregiver to aging parents. Missionaries, whose relationships are to peoples who need the Gospel. Members of intentional communities, w/relationships to those most in need. Gang interventionists, mentors to lgbt teens, schoolteachers, hospital volunteers. Children’s pastors!* We are necessary elements in the ecology of the Christian community. They need us! Just as we need them.
* This was a reference to a testimony in one of the general sessions, by a pastor who several years ago would have fired any staffer who came out to him. But when someone worked up the courage to come out, instead this pastor promoted him to run the children’s ministry. The electricity that ran through the audience when this pastor said “our children’s minister” was heartbreaking.
# sometimes we can serve with especial freedom and autonomy because of our “radical disposibility”–Fr. Richard Neuhaus described priests as “radically disposable” and it is much harder to make that claim for parents. And in a much smaller way this dynamic of celibacy as flexibility, availability, freedom, and disposibility has played a role in my own life. When I lived by myself, I was able to offer my home to people in need of a safe place to spend the night, and I could offer it on a whim. If I met a woman who had nowhere to sleep, I could just offer her my apartment without checking with anybody else.
But—living alone was awful for me! Living alone protected my alcoholism. What this positive vision of celibacy calls freedom and autonomy, many people call isolation. This isolation is lack of support. It breeds anxiety about the future (who will care for me when I’m old??) and makes many sins, including sins of lust, much more likely.
And so it’s important to say that celibacy also gives us freedom to form thick, entangling bonds.
I wanted to make sure to talk about this purpose of celibacy in part because it is by far the easiest one to do: keep a place at your table for Elijah (or for the person in need of shelter), find a community that serves the neediest and start the process of investigating and maybe joining it, take your friends’ kids whenever you can so that their parents can get a break—you may not be able to do all or any of this, but if you can, it may help. For people who are experiencing celibacy as isolation, opening your life to those in need may even meet some of your own deepest needs.
Gay people may be especially drawn toward these forms of love through our longing for same-sex love (women’s community, women’s friendship). We may also know others’ loneliness well.But: This is the only purpose of celibacy which relies on other people to respond to you. So there’s potential for disappointment, misunderstanding, resentment, entitlement, rejection, despair; messiness, clinging, trying to use other people as medicine for your own hurts.
God will never reject you! God is always there to receive your love; and perhaps the most obvious purpose of celibacy for Christians is that it frees us not solely to love one another, but to love God.
Paul has this long quote from 1 Cor which is in your handouts, and honestly, I’m not sure anybody has improved on Paul in stating this purpose of celibacy.
Thomas a Kempis: “Blessed are the ears that catch the soft whisper of God’s voice and pay no heed to the muttering voices of this world…. Blessed are the eyes that are shut to things outside, their gaze fixed on inward things. …Blessed are those who long to give all their time to God and shake themselves free of the trammels of this world.”
We can see that the radical availability of the celibate for God should not turn us against close personal relationships. Jesus is the clearest example of this. His Heart was for His Father; it is true that He frequently retreated from the crowds to pray; it’s equally true that He wept for Lazarus. He loved John with an intimacy and tenderness which distinguished the Beloved Disciple from the others who lived in Jesus’ friendship. You can belong to God alone without being alone in your belonging to God. But Christians down through the ages have insisted that celibacy makes unfettered, unencumbered belonging to God alone easier than marriage does. That’s true of celibacy lived in community too.
I tried to elaborate on these counsels but to be honest, if you try to say more than “We can all think of examples where this statement of Paul’s is true,” it’s super easy to start sounding like love is a competition. Like either “celibates love God more than you!” or, “no other love could ever be as intense and entangling as marriage and parenting.” So I won’t say more! Maybe some of you understand this aspect of celibacy better and can talk about it when I’m done yapping.
The other danger here of course is that it can seem like we love God more by loving other people less. The especial danger for celibate gay people is that our loves and our longing to serve are already so often treated as suspect and we’re told to flee them and “rely on God alone”—meaning, be alone in your walk with God. However, because our closest relationships are not idolized by churches or our culture, it may also be easier for us to see that no human relationship can ever equal the astonishing, all-encompassing love of God.
Photo of light in the monastery of St Bernard of Clairvaux (Florida) via Wikimedia Commons