Defining celibacy

In this post, we are going to make a first attempt at defining celibacy. It’s a bit tricky because many people assume that celibacy is merely abstention from sexual relations. After all, that’s what shows up when you type the word into! However, we think most people would raise a mighty shout of protest if we tried to define marriage as engaging in sexual relations. Many people would call out from the rooftops that there’s more to marriage than sex. Heck, even goes with “(broadly) any of the diverse forms of interpersonal union established in various parts of the world to form a familial bond that is recognized legally, religiously, or socially, granting the participating partners mutual conjugal rights and responsibilities and including, for example, opposite-sex marriage, same-sex marriage, plural marriage, and arranged marriage.”

Phew! That’s a mouthful!

Suffice it to say, we think one of the reasons why marriage gets such an extensive definition is that so many married people work as lexicographers. There is power when married people are permitted to define what marriage is. However, there is a substantive gap when married people try to define celibacy. In this post, we’re going to try to define celibacy from our unique perspective as a celibate couple. We hope you all will give us the benefit of the doubt that we’ve actually thought deeply about what celibacy means. In no way are we going to be able to say everything about celibacy or develop a comprehensive definition in this post. We just hope to start a conversation.

For us, celibacy involves a radical hospitality, vulnerability, a shared spiritual life, and commitment. We don’t mean for this list to be all-inclusive, but it seems like a reasonable starting point.

Radical hospitality seems to be a hallmark of celibate communities (e.g. monasteries). Every celibate community we have visited has guest housing. (Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why we could visit them….. they’re committed to hospitality.) For us, in our home, the practice of radical hospitality means always being willing to host a guest. Whether the guest stays overnight in our apartment, joins us for a meal, or travels with us for a ride home, the guest is a welcome person. When we meet new people, we prayerfully consider how we might be some conduit of blessing for them. So far, God’s been pretty awesome to show up in our limited efforts.

We’ve talked previously about how vulnerability is a key feature in our partnership. Vulnerability so often gets associated with marriage. People who are in the know about healthy relationships would say that being completely honest, open, and vulnerable is essential for a healthy marriage, but no one ever really talks about how vulnerability could also be essential for a healthy celibate life. In the Russian monastic tradition, monastics regularly engage in a practice known as the confession of thoughts. During this time, monastics share their innermost thoughts with one another with the goal of knowing themselves and each other deeply in Christ. One of our favorite prayers in the Eastern rite says, “Let us commend ourselves and each other and our whole lives unto Christ our God.” For us in our relationship, vulnerably sharing our thoughts and our fears is a critical piece of negotiating the really tough issues we face together.

For us, it is unmistakable that celibate communities share a spiritual life. We have observed that many people conceive of celibate people as hermits. Hermits keep to themselves and avoid connections with anyone and anything in this world. However, the hermit is likely the least common way a celibate life is lived. Much more common is an arrangement in which celibate people are living together in religious communities. After all, celibacy became a much more viable option when people were afforded a choice to join a monastery rather than enter into an arranged marriage. Because the topic of a shared spiritual life is so vast, expect to see more posts from us about how we share our spiritual life as a couple.

Lastly (for today at least), celibacy requires commitment. This means both commitment to a way of life and commitment to other people. We find this to be broadly true whether a person is committed to celibate life within the context of a monastic community, as a couple, or as a single person. We believe that human beings have meaningful relationships with other human beings. In monasteries, these commitments get clearly communicated through various tonsure services in which a person is made a fully vowed member of that monastic community. Outside of monastic communities, people have a LOT more flexibility. One of our favorite phrases to say to one another is, “I’m opting in. I’m supporting you 100%”

We live in a culture in which commitment, broadly speaking, is frowned upon. Even the promises of marriage get treated as disposable. The phrase “just friends” is a great way to cheapen the commitment shared by two people who may not be married to one another. Our culture assumes that people are geographically mobile, ready to move wherever the winds of employment may take them.

By way of quick review, we would define celibacy by focusing on four major themes: radical hospitality, vulnerability, a shared spiritual life, and commitment. We expect that virtually every post we put on this blog will have something to say about one or more of these themes. We look forward to continuing to discuss how we live out celibate lives in the context of our partnership.

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