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 Dictionary.com! 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 Dictionary.com 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.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

30 thoughts on “Defining celibacy

  1. I simply love how you both take the time to explain your lives. It has been very thought provoking for me to read this post. I think that often times vulnerability is something that is missing. Not only in romantic relationships but also in important close friendships. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • We are glad the post was meaningful for you. We believe that in many ways, a healthy celibate partnership is not that different from other types of healthy relationships, so we hope that people in situations other than our own will be able to find something they are able to relate to in what we share. Thanks for reading!

  2. “The phrase “just friends” is a great way to cheapen the commitment shared by two people who may not be married to one another. ” The word “just” is such a minimizer. I know couples who have broken up because they had become “just” friends. They could not fathom how they could stay together as a couple once the romantic, physical connection had run it’s course. “To be Friends” is the pinnacle of the relationship. I guess if you don’t realize the romantic, physical connection will change you will be constantly on the move- constantly in search of the fix that high energy, electric sexual attraction can provide. And, these couple that have broken their commitment are doing just that.

    • Thanks for this astute commentary. We agree that many people (gay, straight, and otherwise) treat romantic, sexual relationships as a kind of drug. Once the high fades, they’re off looking for their next partner. We constantly pray that those called to marriage would see their lives in terms of an eternal commitment, opting into the process of loving each other for better and for worse.

  3. Well this is a fascinating perspective. I never consided this possibility, and though I’m no theologian I’m trying to consider if this escapes traditional Christian objections to homosexual relationships. Is celibacy enough to avoid sin or is an actual commitment that is beyond “just friends” enough to cross over? I can’t answer that. Nuns and priests who live in close quarters don’t have that kind of relationship. In fact the metaphor is familial, as in sisters or brothers. May I ask what Christian denomination you identify with?

    • Hi Manny! Thanks for your comment. It’s a recent societal development to divide relationships into the categories of romantic and non-romantic. While it is true that most people conceive of monastic relationships as being expressed in terms of brothers and sisters, it is also true that common monastic titles are “mother” and “father” where groups of mothers and fathers work, live, pray, and serve together. As such, it’s a bit simplistic to portray the relationships between monastics as exclusively between brothers and sisters. Monastic communities also vary in size. We’ve both visited communities of vowed religious where only 2 or 3 people live together. These smaller houses have a very different feel from monastic communities of 20+ people.

      While we anticipate sharing more about our Christian tradition in the future, we don’t want people to view everything we are saying from the eyes of a single Christian tradition. We hope our observations are a bit more general.

  4. Hi Sarah and Lindsey!

    Thanks so much for modeling those four values here on this blog – especially radical hospitality and vulnerability.

    I’m curious to know – what literature would you recommend to people who want to learn more about celibacy? I know Henri Nouwen speaks a bit to the topic in “Clowning Around.” Are there other sources that you would recommend?

    • Hi James! Thanks for the comment. You caught us as we were getting ready to turn in for the night.

      As for an initial response regarding books, Lindsey likes “My Song is of Mercy” by Fr Matthew Kelty and some of Kathleen Norris’s works. Sarah would recommend “People of the Towel and Water” by Catherine de Hueck Doherty, which talks about a community living by a similar set of values. We’ll give it some more thought and peruse our bookshelves.

      We also want to stress that, from our experience, witnessing life in celibate communities (small and large) has been immensely helpful. It’s hard to find the rhythm of one’s own celibate life without any models.

  5. Do you share affection? Is there any kind of romance and attraction? Do you do life together as a couple would, or more so share space & interests but encourage each other in your individual pursuits? I imagine a deep spiritual affection whereby the delight for each other would/come be romantic, if it were not sublimated and sanctified through the commitment to Christ, celibacy, and each other’s ultimate good. (I’m thinking of Jonathan and David here – Jonathan “delighted” in David and their souls were knit together.)

      • While we’re definitely glad to share from our experience, it should only be taken as our experience. We don’t regard ourselves as being especially able to provide moral or spiritual guidance for other celibate relationships. We will say that we think it’s impossible to go wrong by asking God to illumine the way. When someone is exploring the possibility of a life partnership, Lindsey frequently challenges them to think whether they are in love with Love (as in that Divine Love that can be so energizing) and how well they know the particular person. The light of Love can be blinding.

    • Hi Michelle, (super briefly) affection is one of those things that is best channeled through one’s organic bend. Lindsey is the kind of person who hugs everything with a pulse, loves snuggling, and is generally very affectionate. Sarah can always appreciate a hug and often benefits from reassuring contact when sharing something difficult. We’ve found that we’re well matched regarding our organic tendencies with affection. The question of negotiating boundaries in celibate relationships is definitely worthy of further discussion; we have plans to address this topic in a future post.

      As to your second question, we see ourselves as doing life together. We have different career aspirations, so we talk regularly about how we can best support one another in our professional pursuits. All healthy couple relationships balance that couple time with individual interests.

  6. Your definition of celibacy is beautiful. Sometimes we look for legal code to follow, what we are allowed to do and from what we stay away. But life isn’t always that clearly defined. Your definitions are not moral codes for ever action; they’re fluid. You’ve stated how a celibate relationship should be, not how it should act. This is something I think our society doesn’t have for marriage; the laws don’t say what a marriage IS, only who can be in one and what benefits they receive. We could get into the issue that because no law really states what marriage IS, many couples find that marriage isn’t what they thought it would be and give up on it. Your view of how to be in relationship is much better than any list of rules. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your comment! Your comment speaks to two different challenges: (1) defining marriage legally and (2) defining marriage spiritually. We constantly hope that religious bodies are educating their people in the latter because a legal definition can only get a person so far. We hope you’ll continue reading!

  7. Your account of your relationship is an eloquent one, about the ties that bond you, but sacramentally married couples (who are having sex with each other) can also show hospitality, commitment, vulnerability, and share spiritual growth. So is yours only different because there is no physical sexual expression? Does the lack of such expression somehow make the four qualities you mention MORE salient in your relationship–perhaps by freeing up energy? Is it possible physical sex drives become less important as we age and that your type of relationship would work better in older folks?

    • Hi Julia, many thanks for your comment. In this post, Sarah and I were trying to drill down to the most essential aspects of what celibacy is. If I were designing a course in pre-celibacy counseling, these are the topics I would include. I’d include these four topics as sort of the touchstone for every person living a celibate life independent of how they relate to the world at large (i.e. a single person working a professional job, a person making inquiries into monastic life, or a person thinking about the possibility of a celibate partnership).

      I do not have a lot of experience across a wealth of pre-marriage counseling contexts. However, I’d imagine that pre-marriage counseling concerns a different set of topics. While I would certainly affirm that these four features can be present in a marriage (and hope that these features are present in the majority of marriages), I do not think that these four features communicate the essence of what a marriage is.

      In the last bit of your comment, you raise the issue of a person’s physical sex drive. We may explore this topic in a future post.

      I’m glad you stopped by! –Lindsey

  8. I think your definition is a good starting point for the single vocation as well. Many look at being single as a “default” vocation, and is this usually looked on as temporary Comments like “there’s someone for everyone”, or “have you considered a vocation as a priest” are ones that come to my mind from my life that exeplify this attitude. Yet, all the aspects you mention in this post (hospitality, vulnerability, a shared spiritual life and commitment) even those who are single. Even hermits have contact with someone from the community they are associated with. Yet, for the single life, it is within and through the spirtual community in which they live that they ae called to exercise all of these aspects, especially vulnerability, shared spirituality and commitment. I think that comes across in the rites of consecrated virgins of the Church. Christianity, at the base of it, is a faith that is necessarily relational. Our vocation is how we live that relationality out.

    • Hi Ed! Thanks for this comment about how our definition applies to people living a single life in the world. We absolutely agree that one’s local church is essential for single people in cultivating vulnerability, a shared spiritual life, and commitment. One definition Lindsey likes for celibacy states that celibacy is “for relatedness.” Being a single person in the world can open lots of doors to different kinds of relationships; we welcome you to share more from your own experience as you feel comfortable!

  9. Your definition of celibacy is marriage minus the sex.

    The characteristics you describe above all belong to the definition of marriage. All that’s missing is sex and whatever flows from it.

    This is really just a word game. You’re using the word “celibacy” to negatively modify an existing term and remove a shade of its meaning, then present it as some kind of new, decaffeinated and sex-free replacement for the original thing.

    The problem is that “celibacy” is commonly understood as a strong negative. Tell someone you’re celibate and they won’t think of hospitality and vulnerability and spiritual companionship. They’ll just think “no sex”. It’s a basic rule of marketing that you avoid strong negatives in any product campaign, so if your aim with this blog is to popularize a new understanding of what a committed yet sexless relationship means, you might want to rethink your vocabulary.

    The challenge is to find a term that encompasses a negative (i.e. no sex) without itself being understood as negative. Coca Cola did it with “Diet Coke”. And there is something in the Orthodox tradition that might do the job. Adelphopoiesis, I think it was called. You might have to work on the term to make it a bit easier to pronounce, but it seems to cover all the bases you mentioned in your post, including celibacy, but without actually referring directly to the absence of sex. It’s also very distinct from the concept of marriage.

    So how about “adelphic union” or “adelphic partnership”? Something to think about..

    • Hi Stephen, thanks for your comment.

      When you say that our definition of celibacy is only marriage minus the sex, you are also reducing marriage. Marriage becomes simply sex plus whatever else makes you feel fulfilled as a couple. We can firmly and clearly acknowledge that as a married man, you might see the four features we highlight in your marriage. But you are also existing the privilege of a married person when you (as a married person) assert that you can define celibacy. We hope to have a post where we offer a definition of marriage, but we want to do so in a way that allows married people to define what marriage is.

      In this post, we are trying to define celibacy from the perspective of people living in celibate vocations. Our definition of celibacy comes from getting to know many people living celibate lives. The vast majority of people we know living celibate lives happen to be vowed religious. Monks and nuns have had an extensive history of defining what celibacy means, and it’s important to consider celibacy in its historical context. We have seen the 4 values we highlighted being lived out by celibate people in a range of contexts to the point where it seems to make sense to suggest these values are at the essence of a celibate vocation. We are NOT trying to author a new vision of celibacy but we are trying to give a voice to celibate people when it comes to the challenge of defining celibacy.

      We do not equate celibacy with sexual abstinence. If we wanted to call attention to people not having sex, then we would describe those people as abstinent. Abstinent is a much more precise word to denote abstaining from sexual relations.

      Regarding the rite of Adelphopoiesis, we do not think it is easily purposed to fit in our situation. Historically, it’s not entirely clear why the rite was used. Roughly translated, it means “brother-making.” There is some evidence that the rite was used during times of conflicts between two families and before soldiers went into war. Additionally, we don’t see ourselves as being “siblings” to one another. As we stumble upon different language that seems to work for us, we see ourselves as partners, as a team, and as family. Sarah has reflected a bit on the challenge of finding a language for our shared life, available at http://aqueercalling.com/2014/01/17/finding-a-language-for-our-shared-life/ but we’d encourage significant caution before recommending a liturgical form.

  10. I have just read through all the archives and learned quite a bit from your stories. Thank you for sharing so openly. I do agree with others who posted that other couples including married couples may also live a life defined by hospitality, vulnerability, shared spiritual life, and commitment. I’d be interested to hear you elaborate at some point about the ways in which you feel that these are more pronounced for someone with a vocation of celibacy (particularly living in a partnered relationship as opposed to a monastery). Part of me also wonders about the role of parenting…I can imagine that some couples with children (particularly babies and toddlers) might see some shifts from those defining 4 terms (ex. it might be harder to practice radical hospitality while juggling the needs of multiple small children). However, I’ve seen many childless married couples whose lives seem to focus similarly on those 4 defining terms. I hear you saying that celibacy is not the same term as abstinence, yet I struggle to understand how a couple called to celibacy is living life in a way that is distinct from another couple (who is also pursuing a life based on hospitality, vulnerability, shared spiritual life, and commitment and who happens to be sexually active), and I find myself only noticing the issue of abstinence. I don’t want to over-focus on what people are or are not doing in their bedrooms, yet I struggle to understand what is distinct about celibacy when I can see hospitality, vulnerability, shared spiritual life, and commitment lived out in meaningful ways by a diverse assortment of couples (sexually active and sexually abstinent alike). I’d be very interested to hear you discuss this further, as I imagine I’m not fully understanding your vision of celibacy.

    • Hi Liz. Great questions. Over time, we hope to be able to discuss more about our understanding of celibate vocations. Later this week, we will be releasing a post on marriage to get the conversation started on similarities and differences between celibate vocations and the vocation to marriage. We will take up the questions of monastic life at some point in a future post. Thanks for reading, and we look forward to seeing you again!

  11. Sarah and Lindsey, thank you for this blog. I’ve been reading it with interest. Just from my own perspective:

    I have read your definitions of ‘celibacy’ and ‘marriage’ and, while I strongly affirm your right to define your relationship in any way that makes sense to you, I do feel that other commentators have a point that you do not sufficiently differentiate the two. As I understand it, you are in a relationship whereby you consider one another life-long partners, you share all money, debt and other resources, and you expect to be one another’s next of kin and to care for and share everything with one another as long as you both shall live. That sounds like a beautiful relationship to me, and I’m very happy for you.

    My big question is how this fits into celibacy, at least as traditionally understood in the Church. The point of celibacy as I understand it, is not simply eschewing sex, though that is part of it; neither is it purely about developing the gifts you mention, such as radical hospitality and vulnerability, though those are very important parts of it. A big, perhaps THE biggest element as I understand and experience it, is a conscious decision to give up the possibility of a one-to-one relationship, a marriage or equivalent in which you are all in all to the other person. Following a vocation to celibacy has traditionally been portrayed less as sacrificing sex, and more as sacrificing family life. People with a vocation to religious life in community are vowing not to commit to another person, who will share life with them in all its joys and sorrows in a closed relationship that others by definition cannot ever truly understand or enter, but to commit to a community (no matter how small) which is, in principle, open to others to join. The commitment is to the community not to the other person as such.

    I live a celibate life at present, and have frequently considered, including with my confessor and my spiritual director, whether I have a vocation to celibacy. I’m not sure whether I do or not, but I do know that more than half of my adult life I have been single and I am very comfortable living a celibate life in the widest sense of the term: not just without sex, but without the comfort of the companionship of another person, without knowing that I am the most important person in the world for someone else, without knowing precisely who I would call if I were suddenly taken ill, without knowing (until I sort it all out with a will and power of attorney, as I’m currently in the process of doing) who would take medical decisions for me. Without someone to take home for Christmas, without cuddles after a bad day … etc.

    That is celibacy defined negatively, and I am aware that I am frequently lonely, despite my attempts to create community. Positively, I am certain that this form of celibacy, for me, enhances the priestly ministry to which I am called and in which I find the deepest joy, which deepens as each year passes. Being celibate in the sense of having no ‘significant other’ makes me vulnerable in a whole extra way: I generally need people more than they need me, and this makes me available to others at a very deep level. I never need to drop everything to look after a child’s or a partner’s medical needs. I do not have family or a partner who need things from me that compete with things my parish needs. I do not have role conflict between being a partner or mother and being a priest. I think that this type of vulnerability is something integral to the celibate vocation, for me, and it would not be the same if I had a partner, a significant other, someone to whom I was committed for life, whether or not our relationship included sex.

    For me, the model of celibate life in community is trinitarian. God is Trinity partly to show that God’s love is ever going beyond the mutual self-containedness (no matter how self-sacrificing or grounding of hospitality) of a duo into the endless opening-out of a three.

    I don’t wish to sound at all disrespectful of your life choices, and I realize you’re pushing boundaries and trying out new things. But I think that if you two live in an exclusive, committed, and mutual relationship of two, you are missing some very important nuances of the word ‘celibacy’ from the tradition. It is hard, as I think you’ve found, to argue for a specific vocation to, and gifts of, celibacy as distinct from a vocation to, and gifts of, marriage, if your celibate vocation is about mutual commitment to one other person; easier if you take the traditional view that a calling to celibacy is a very costly renunciation of that exclusive mutuality.

    • Hi Olivia, thanks for stopping by.

      As a general rule, we spend a lot of time reflecting on the nature of celibacy on the blog. We believe that celibate people should have priority when it comes to defining the unique textures of celibate vocations. We’ve noticed that when married people tend to define celibacy, the celibate vocation becomes defined by the absence of various things. From our observations, married people tend to emphasize the absence of sex, the absence of children, the absence of intimacy, the absence of family, the absence of relationships, and the absence of meaningful connection to a person other than Christ. Quite honestly, we can see how celibate people feel dejected when married people try to define celibacy.

      There’s also a huge difference between celibacy as discussed by married people and celibacy as lived by celibate people. We derived our definition of celibacy by observing other celibate people. Most of the celibate people we know live in various forms of community. A good number of them live in shared households where each member makes contributions to their shared life as much as possible. Additionally, we’ve been inspired by the fantastically rich stories of celibates providing care for one another especially at life’s twilight. It’s actually slightly mind-blowing when one learns that many elderly monastics can share a monastic cell with a fellow monastic providing significant care, even if the language of this care is discussed as “an assigned obedience to read the Psalms to Mother Martha.” When you see monastic obedience in action, it’s not “Oh, I’m just here—gripe—because the abbess told me to, and—gripe—I can’t wait until my assignments change.” Monastic obedience maps much more strongly to life in a family where each person is contributing what she or he can in order to manifest the Kingdom of God in that family.

      Lastly, we often see ourselves as having an outward-facing orientation to life. We don’t pretend that there are ZERO married people who consistently face out to the world. But the truth of the matter is just as Lindsey would drop everything in a quick sprint to take care of something Sarah critically needed, Lindsey would also be equally quick to do the same thing for any local members of our “family of choice.” We’re grateful for how our family of choice holds and upholds us when we need to be held. We’re not opposed in the slightest bit to sharing life with an ever-expanding circle of people, but we’re committed to discerning the ways of the Spirit together.

      Thanks again for your comment, and we hope to continue getting to know you!

  12. I thank God for my new friendship with Lindsey and Sarah, and know that I have not just stumbled into this website, but have been steered over here by the Holy Spirit.
    I am almost 70 years old, Gay and Celibate. When these two ladies speak and write, I understand them completely.

    In “Defining Celibacy,” you two have captured the feelings of celibate people. Years ago, I had a friendship with a woman. We were close friends for 2 years and then room mates for another 7 years. She was straight and had been married multiple times before knowing me. At the end of those 9 years, she died from cancer. I have never stopped loving her, and our relationship was ENTIRELY platonic. I was not attracted to her physically and vice-versa. After her death, a friend of hers invited me to lunch one day at a fancy restaurant. The friend told me that she had stated that she loved me more than any of her former husbands. That was a very special relationship.

    I know that those who attack Lindsey and Sarah and write these terrible postings about celibate Christians are wrong. I know that from my own life experience with my best friend who died from cancer years ago. The Lord does at times call certain people into celibacy. It is normal for us, and it is Godly for us. We are not preaching to others or being critical of others. We don’t feel spiritually superior to others. We are just ordinary folks. People who compare us to people who are caught up in the Stockholm Syndrome are just VERY misinformed. They just don’t understand.

    Lindsey and Sarah. I have read all of these things that you have shared in your writings. I love the one about radical hospitality and openness. Please contact me
    on my personal E-Mail Address at any time. Please consider me as a new personal friend of yours. I thank the Lord Jesus our Savior for having met you ladies and
    have been deeply inspired by these teachings. We are a minority within a minority, and such folks are often poorly understood.

    Joseph Gusmerotti

    • We’re glad that you found us Joseph. It’s so important for older LGBT celibate people to share their stories. We’ve heard so many different people tell us that they never knew a soul living celibacy before they started trying to figure it out for themselves. Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply