February 6, 2010

Celibacy and Redemption

Celibacy is a kind of loneliness. In religious life we sometimes try to deny this--even to the point of using our denial as a selling point in our pastoral care of vocations: 'Community life is there to fulfill our needs for intimacy, for human relationship.' Perhaps it's true to some degree on the natural level--if you live in a good house--but in the end it won't get you there. Anyone who comes to religious life with the hope that it will supply his emotional needs is going to be sorely disappointed.

Celibates need to get lonely; it is the way into the Heart of the vocation. I remember when I first entered religious life at the age of twenty-two, full of the zeal of the convert and without a clue. In those days I looked upon my celibacy as something I was doing. It was this heroic privation and agonistic struggle I was accepting for the glory of God.

Some years later I now realize what a tremendous vainglory and immaturity it all was. Seeing more clearly, and perhaps a little more attuned to the subtleties of the Spirit and the Providence of God, I realize that my celibacy has not been my doing at all. It is a relationship into which God has been inviting and drawing me for a long time. Even before I could even consent to my desire for baptism, God was drawing me--in spite of myself--into this exclusive relationship.

In fact, it has required me to know well my own life as a lonely person, for in my own vow of chastity I have found the redemption of my loneliness. That's the thing: if you want to be celibate you have to consent to that searing and disorienting feeling of being terribly lonely. You have to sit in it and let in sit in you. You have to resist all of the ways that would-be celibates medicate themselves against the loneliness with alcohol, anonymous sex, pornography, mania for control, overwork, eccentric and pointless hobbies, and even the internet.

You have to refuse to medicate yourself, but instead feel the pain and find in it a path into the Wounded Heart of Christ Crucified. It is the only way that loneliness gets turned into the solitude where God speaks to the heart and gives you anything you might have to say the suffering world.

Via non est nisi per ardentissimum amorem crucifixi, said St. Bonaventure. There is no other way but through the burning love of the Crucified.

This whole dynamic strikes me sometimes on nights when I lock up the church. The parish priesthood is a very social job; in the course of a weekend I might interact with a few hundred people. But at the end of day there is nobody left, and in the big church in which you have experienced so much light and sound and humanity, it is only dark and quiet and lonely. But the loneliness of it is quickly transformed by a realization that this moment is your truest identity, as you stand in the obscurity of the Presence of the One who--in his inscrutable mercy--has always been so jealous for you.


Adoro said...

Thank you, Father for this post.

Of COURSE there is loneliness in celibacy! And it's not a crime for that to be so!

But there is also loneliness in marriage, and that's something that is not often discussed.

As a single, celibate woman...yes, there is loneliness, but it drives me to realize that "man was not meant to be alone." It makes me realize that my own current state isn't "it", and even though I must pass through this, it goads me on to seek Our Lord. It doesn't drive me to marriage, but....just tells me there is *more*. And I don't find the loneliness to be abandonment or anything other than a purging that must take place if I am to truly understand the God who created us all.

For He is lonely, too...for union with us.

Thanks for this post and for letting me ramble a little. ;-) I have more to say and may email, but this may be sufficient.

Brother Charles said...

For He is lonely, too...for union with us.

That's it! Thanks for that. And he's just dying for that union, literally.

Author Greg said...

While you present the "heroic" aspect of celibacy, I have observed another side that is more tragic.

It is my prayer that the Church open the door to different approaches to the vocation. The majority of priests might be married; a minority might choose a special Order that engages in celibacy.

My observation of the tragic side of celibacy - particularly as it plays out in the parish setting - forces me to the conclusion that much more harm than good is done.

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

He longs for union with us. indeed :)

Brother Charles said...

Greg: Thanks for the comment. I can tell that it comes from some difficult places.

Celibacy--like marriage--has its tragedies. Mixed with power, these make for some real pastoral disasters, even rising to the criminal in some cases.

Nevertheless, please note that when I spoke of 'heroism' I was describing some of my own unfinished and immature ideas.

Dan Lower said...

I totally read this, and "My Catholicism" both today.

You, sir, are awesome. And to avoid neglecting your reason for being awesome: So is God!

Author Greg said...

Brother Charles, I understood the context and experience of which you speak and respect as much.

However, when we see the good in an individual case, we may need to also take an expanded view and consider the overall effect on the community.

My view has always been that our relationship with the Lord as a spirit or soul is not a sexual relationship -- and it is this eternal relationship that matters much more than the period in the flesh.

Thus, I am not sure celibacy, in the grand view, is of much consequence. In fact, it may place attention on the wrong aspects of the relationship with Christ.

Just another view for consideration.

(And, yes, I am in a situation in which I am trying to convince a member of the clergy to seek help but he refuses.)

Adoro said...

Greg ~ Marriage has loneliness, too. Anyone who says different is either lying or in denial.

Your argument is a common one but it doesn't hold up when we actually put it under the microscope of reality. When we look at protestant clergy and their family problems, when we look at the facts of married liturgical clergy...it doesn't solve anything.

And in fact, today the seminaries are BURSTING at the seams by men who are CHOOSING celibacy, many of them having actually experienced marriage....or even premarital sex. They have realized that true loneliness doesn't come from celibacy, but from sin. In ANY Vocation.

It is unfair to say that celibacy is a cause of loneliness.

Maybe you should look at the tragic side of marriage, too...which is also that deep loneliness, often one predicted by Humanae Vitae.

I am not a "holier-than-thou" celibate. I KNOW what I am choosing, and I'd rather be celibate for life and choose it than go back into the emptiness of what the world tells me is "fulfillment". I know different from experience. I was far more lonely then than I am now.

What's tragic is that most people don't understand that their TRUE loneliness is for Jesus....not sex.

Qualis Rex said...

Greg - while I respect your opinion, I also equally hope you respect church authority.

Father Charles - you pretty much nailed it on the head. Loneliness is a pervasive if not ubiquitous component of the human condition (celibate, married couples, large families etc...no one is immune). The gospels have many stories and accounts touching this theme. Two directly involving Our Lord are 1. the garden of Gethsemene, where Jesus experiences loneliness and abandonment from His closest apostles, even though they are in plain sight. 2. On the cross, in Matthew 46 where He shouts out "My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?"

It is my humble opinion that the last thing Jesus says in Matthew was a "clue"; meaning the people who heard it would have recognized it immediately from psalm 22, and they would have known the emotion of loneliness and abandonment is evokes. They would also have been familiar with the ending of the psalm, where God reminds us He has never abandoned us at all. But Jesus never gets this far...

BUT, in the same gospel, at the very end in His last words He finishes Psalms in His own, new way in Matthew 28:20; "and know I am with you always, until the end of the age." For me, this is the most important single line in the entire bible-- applicable to EVERYONE.

Julia said...

Very good post, Father.

"It is a relationship into which God has been inviting and drawing me for a long time."

I had a spiritual director ask me once about whether I had considered being a wife and mother. I told him that I would really love it if I had that vocation but didn't think it was so. I tried to explain something like what you said here. Thankfully, as with many good spiritual directors, I didn't have to explain much because he understood exactly what I was trying to vocalize.

It seems to me that celibacy is not so much about not being married as it is about that state, that relationship, where we are alone with God. Hopefully we can learn to delight in it always.

Brother Charles said...

Let us also remind ourselves that whatever the future of clerical celibacy in the Roman Church, we will always have those who will get called to the charism of celibacy, because the invitation comes right from the Lord himself. (Matthew 19)

Hidden One said...

If you want a new crisis in the Church, destroying more seminaries and obliterating the vocational discernment of more seminarians and pre-seminary discerners, if you want to cause more priests to attempt to escape their identities, allow those in the Latin rite who are not yet ordained priests to marry. Worse yet, and contrary to the normative laws of the sacraments and the related vows, allow current Latin rite priests to marry. If you think you've seen a disaster strike the priesthood of the Western Church... you've seen nothing yet.
As it happens, I know a number of Latin-rite seminarians studying for a comparatively solid diocese.

Thankfully, I don't know any who would seek to be married if the requirement disappeared tomorrow. I know there are some, though. They tend to drop out shortly before they get ordained to the diaconate.
Fact is, God doesn't anyone an unanswerable vocation.

Latin rite Catholics [exempting certain converts and future members of the Anglican Ordinariates] are incapable of becoming married priests.

Ergo every Latin rite Catholic [who doesn't fit into the earlier square brackets] called to the priesthood is given the grace from God to live the celibate life.

Margaret said...

I believe that we all encounter loneliness whatever our station in life, which calls each of us to union with God. I imagine that the loneliness experienced in the celibate life has it own unique and difficult challenges. As a married woman I am not unfamiliar with loneliness, which when I became conscious of it, surprised me. In my 6th decade, I have returned to the Church and am seeking to live in Loving His Presence.

Cole Matson said...

Thanks for this, Father.

I learned a couple of weeks ago from a canonist I consulted that I am not eligible for either the priesthood or marriage in the Church, and that religious life is almost certainly out as well. Once the initial sharp pangs of disappointment settled (I was strongly considering application to the Dominican friars), a deep sense of loneliness came next, especially since my two closest friends here are religious; whereas I had previously felt we had a shared vocation, I now felt cut off from them in a way. (They've been true brothers, though, during this process, and I think being able to share my sadness with them - and them being able to understand why this answer is so painful - has only deepened our friendship.)

I've been dwelling too much, I think, on current and anticipated loneliness, and how to fight it. Thank you for the reminder that the loneliness is actually itself fruitful, that it is the loneliness itself that 'gets turned into the solitude where God speaks to the heart'. It hurts terribly, but that helps.

God bless you.

NCSue said...

Thank you for providing this insight into the life of a celibate. It sounds like there are rewards - and privations - that I had never considered. I pray that God will fill your lonely places with his love.

for narnia said...

great topic, Fr. C! i agree with a little of what Adoro speaks of, that being "a single, celibate woman...yes, there is lonliness." for me, though, it is a choice to remain as a single, celibate person because i'm free to experience more of that "union with God," which can be so sweet at times. i don't experience too much of a lonliness at all because i think the closer we go to God, the less lonely it can be, just like it says in James: "draw close to God and God will draw close to you."~James 4:8~ i've made a personal choice to dedicate my life to the Lord in this way. i'm happy and at peace serving and loving in an agape kind of way, which is giving and sacrificing and expecting nothing back in return. here's a passage from 1 Peter 1:22 which explains it better than i can: "Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the bretheren, fervently love one another from the heart."(1 Peter 1:22) PEACE! ~tara t~

Julia said...

My comment last night didn't seem to go through, so I just wanted to say "thanks" for a very good post, Father. Happy Sunday! :)

kam said...

Great post, Fr. Even though I know a few Priests personally and a few Sisters also, being married I don't know and never will know those feelings of lonliness that those in consecrated life deal with. Thanks for opening our eyes a little more and for giving us a small glimpse into your interior life.

Saul said...

It's been said already, but I think we tend to conflate all the problems in the Catholic priesthood into celibacy, but that's not the case at all. One hears of similar difficulties among our Orthodox married priests as well. I am Orthodox and think married priests is a good idea, but not a panacea.

Come to think of it, there used to be the perception - I don't know if it's still that way - that psychologists and psychiatrists tend to be a troubled lot.

Listening to people's problems and feeling responsible for people can be tough, I suppose.

Brother Charles said...

Very true, Saul, and it's always good to remind ourselves of it.

For the record, one of my psychiatrists killed himself.