Choosing Celibacy: Why I’m Glad I Waited

A reflection by Sarah

There’s a story that celibate gay people are supposed to tell with regard to how and why we became celibate. It’s little more than a variation on the ex-gay narrative that dominated the discussion about LGBT people in the Church until recent years. It goes something like: “I lived the gay lifestyle, was a slave to promiscuity, did a lot of drinking and drugging, and then years later, realized something was missing from my life: Jesus. I repented, began seeing a Christian counselor, and ultimately God helped me to stop having sex.” That’s not the story you’re about to read. That story, excepting the substance abuse bit (a topic I might address in the future), is not mine.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a certain type of popular article emerging on the Internet: different riffs on the theme, “Reasons I’m Glad I Married Young.” I have a number of friends who married immediately after high school graduation (some during high school) and many more who tied the knot during college or within a year of graduating. My younger sister met her future husband in college and married last June, just three weeks shy of her 23rd birthday. My parents were high school sweethearts and married two months after my father’s college graduation. I have no opposition to people embracing the vocation of marriage at early ages if they feel so inclined. I’m happy for my friends who have felt called to this pathway, and I wish them many joyous years of life with their spouses and children. But reading articles like this one and this one tends to evoke a consistent reaction in me: “I’m glad I waited until my late twenties to choose celibacy, and to begin a celibate partnership of the forever kind. I’m glad that I did not commit to this vocation at an earlier age.”

At this point, you might be perplexed. To many, celibacy seems like a default condition in life. It’s the temporary state that traditional Christianity teaches a person is supposed to maintain until marriage. It only becomes permanent once a person reaches his/her marriageable expiration date and becomes a bachelor or old maid, or less often, once a person embraces a call to religious life. Many view it as the state of life for those who are too young to have sex, those of age who are simply waiting for Mr. or Ms. Right, and those who don’t have a prayer of ever experiencing sexual activity in their lifetimes. And if you’re young, society tells you that you’re supposed to avoid the last category at all costs. If you’ve been reading any of our other posts, you’re probably well aware that Lindsey and I don’t see celibacy this way. We believe that celibacy is as much a commitment to a way of life as is marriage, and that in order to make such a commitment, either as a single or with a partner, one needs to be prepared.

I wasn’t born prepared for celibacy any more than my sister was born prepared for marriage. In fact, if someone had told me as a teenager that I would eventually end up living a celibate lifestyle, I would have thought that person was a few apples short of a bushel. Even by age 19 when I had begun to consider the possibility of a monastic vocation, celibacy was still more of a faraway possibility than a realistic pathway for working out my salvation. During my time as an undergraduate and, to a lesser extent, as a master’s degree student, I visited several monasteries and attended a number of retreats aimed at vocational discernment. There was something about the way nuns loved and gave selflessly to the world that captivated me. The witness of several sisters I had known personally spoke to my heart in a way nothing ever had before. But I never could conceive of myself actually becoming a nun.

In many ways, I desired what the sisters had, but every time I visited a community and started to head home afterward I thought, “This way of life isn’t for me. There’s something about it that just doesn’t fit.” I attempted to discuss this with friends, spiritual directors, and other people I trusted. Everyone seemed to have the same set of questions: “Is it the celibacy thing? The fact that nuns can’t have sex? You can’t see yourself living a life without sex, can you?” Though I knew all along that it wasn’t the “not having sex” part that was bothering me, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the problem was. The way the sisters cared for each other and the people they served, the spiritual life they shared in community, the generosity that was so apparent in every moment of every day at the monasteries…though I’d had a couple of less-than-pleasant monastery visits, in general I could think only of the positives. Still, it was all too easy to reach the premature conclusion that if I didn’t feel called to join a religious community, God wasn’t calling me to a celibate vocation after all.

In the midst of all my monastery adventures, I was also engaged in another type of exploration. Though I can now remember being attracted to other females from as early as age 8 or 9, the idea that I might be “one of those girls who likes other girls” hit me hard for the first time around age 17 when I was a senior in high school and was dating a boy. It took me a few years more to realize that “lesbian” was the most fitting term for describing my sexual orientation, and slowly I began dating other women. My first sexual experience with another woman came during my senior year of college. The relationship I had with this person was significant on many levels, and I’ll always value the ways in which our emotional intimacy helped me to learn about loving and being loved. Throughout most of my twenties, I pursued a number of romantic relationships, many of them having a sexual element. Some were more serious than others, and some included aspects that I am not proud of, but I can say with confidence that each of these women had something to teach me with regard to becoming more fully human and coming to understand Christ’s love with greater intensity. I struggled a great deal with the conflict between my positive experiences of love shared with other women and my perception of the celibacy mandate I heard constantly from clergy and lay members of the Church. While I am now grateful for the celibate vocation I eventually committed to cultivating in partnership with Lindsey, I am also thankful for many aspects of the intimate relationships I experienced before making this commitment. Those two feelings are not mutually exclusive.

All things considered, why am I glad that I waited to choose celibacy? The answer is simple: because when I did choose this way of life, I was ready to embrace it fully—its beauty, its mystery, and its challenges. Taking the time I needed to mature and prepare for this vocation was absolutely necessary–even though during the process, I wasn’t always aware of that for which I was preparing.

When Lindsey and I first decided to become partners, all the missing pieces from my active vocational discernment period began falling into place. The notion that celibacy might be the way God was calling me to live reemerged, and this time it made sense in a way it never had before. It no longer felt like a distant possibility or an order handed down from a tyrant. The very first hour we began to envision what life together might look like, I remembered wise words I had heard from a nun during a monastery visit eight years prior. I had asked Sister Elizabeth, “When did you know for sure that God was calling you to this vocation, and in this specific monastic community?” I’ve never forgotten her reply: “I knew when I visited the monastery and felt an unmistakable sense of joy.” From day one of my partnership with Lindsey, there has been no expression more fitting than “joy” for what we experience together—whether we are taking an exciting road trip, praying Compline, visiting our favorite cupcakery, wringing out laundry due to the washing machine’s malfunctioning mid-cycle, or arguing because of a misunderstanding. But even as powerfully as I feel that joy now, I am equally convinced that if I had attempted forcing myself into celibacy within the wrong context for me or at a time when I was not prepared, profound depression and emptiness would have been the most likely result.

I am glad I waited to choose celibacy because I believe it is a gift—or at least it can be. Waiting allowed me the opportunity to listen as God gradually, in His own time, invited me to discover it and begin unwrapping the layers. Waiting also gave me several years to reflect and reach the conclusion that celibacy is not simply the default state for the unmarried—that it is a way of life one must actively choose, and defining it as “the absence of sex” limits the meaning of all celibate vocations. All too often, Christians encourage celibate LGBT people to forget the experiences of their non-celibate pasts, viewing these as times of sin to be regretted and pushed aside. I believe this approach is unhealthy and detrimental to the development of a mature spirituality. Because I waited to choose celibacy, I am able to look fondly upon all previous stages of my emotional, spiritual, and sexual development and know that each period of my life thus far has brought with it new wisdom, insight, and lessons taught by others far wiser than me.

The decision to embrace any vocation is just that—a decision, and one that requires careful thought and formation within the context of a supportive community. Sometimes, I wonder what might happen if the Church were to take as much responsibility for guiding and directing those God calls to celibacy as it does for those God calls to marriage. But perhaps that’s a question for another time.

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