Being a celibate is about being in relationships and not about avoiding them. I work hard to define my celibacy in terms of availability to those who are in need. It is common for monks, nuns, priests, or lay religious to be asked what they have against marriage. The answer is, of course, that we love and revere marriage. God has simply called us to express our human love in a different way. If that’s the case, though, then what could we possibly know about romantic relationships?
To show what celibates might say to help with romance, I propose a question: “how do you make yourself attractive romantically?” The answers we receive from pop culture are interesting, and they are usually about presentation. You’ve got to project confidence, change your appearance, display qualities that impress others. These answers are harmless in small doses. On the healthy side, these steps might make the real you more visible. On the unhealthy side, they may be attempts to hide the real you out of fear. There is an unspoken assumption that if people saw your flaws, they would find you un-lovable.
A foundation of the spiritual life is also a foundation of a successful dating life: you must foster a deep and abiding acceptance that you are loved. You are not loved for what you do or achieve but for who you are. You are loved without condition: by God at least and very likely by many other people in your life. Most of us “know” with our heads that God loves us. It is a different experience to feel God loves you in your heart. Your breath slows. Your fears fade. Gratitude and contentment rise up. And you have hope for all your endeavors and interactions.
If you develop the prayer life to really incorporate the fact that you are loved into your life, you will be less afraid to be yourself. You’ll be comfortable in your own skin. And this quality makes you attractive. You give other people around you a freedom to be themselves, without fear. This is a place of comfort in which relationships of all kinds, including romantic ones, can flourish. You can participate in the excitement of getting to know another person. You can discover that divinely gifted spark of connection signifying God’s call for you to be close to someone.
Once you’re in a relationship, those celibates who live in a community might have some useful advice for you as well. Personalities are very different and people can rub each other the wrong way without even being aware they are doing it. Some people are neat and organized, others are messy and spontaneous. Some people enjoy just sitting by the water watching the clouds, others would be bored stiff. C.S, Lewis writes on this quite well from a devilish tempter’s point of view.
Love will open each partner up to sorrow, frustration, insecurity, and all the parts of life that come with taking the risk of sharing with others. An important way to live relationships is to share these feelings without necessarily having to fix them. Do you have a way of communicating sorrow with people close to you that doesn’t make it a conflict? How about frustration? It is possible. (Though you may want to express your frustration to a neutral third party and get a handle on it before you share it with your loved one.)
Living in relationship or in religious community requires a certain heroism. The smaller part of ourselves will long for the easy answer of enumerating the times when we are the wronged party. But that’s a trap! Any mutual relationship will entail many times when we are wronged or wrong the other with varying degrees of culpability. It is important not to let yourself be trampled and also to own your mistakes; but establishing blame, either my own or the other person’s, is not the goal. The goal is to reconcile. To love the other person in their flaws and to hope and seek to be loved the same way. God’s grace is a desire to love that overcomes our fear of being hurt.
I’m still developing in my celibate life: I’m still learning to live relationships in a loving way. I suspect this is a journey of development which people experience in their own way. The key is to reflect. What times in my life did relationships work really well? What habits and attitudes helped me then? What mistakes have I learned from? What kind of person is God calling me to be through these life lessons?
In the end, the best advice celibates can give you is to turn to God. Love itself is a gift from God. Pray and meditate on how God loves you: this will give you all the guidance you need for how to love others.