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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19 thoughts on “Choosing Celibacy: Why I’m Glad I Waited

  1. Forgive me if this has been brought up before (I get impatient reading all the comments on your other posts…ADD!) but do you think your decision to be a celibate couple is something for any couple? For example, a gay couple or a straight couple, or even a polyamorous relationship? In the realm of heterosexual relationships, it seems like procreation is a high priority. How do you think a celibate straight couple (married or not) would fit into this culture that values procreation so much? It seems easy for society to accept a celibate gay or lesbian couple, but I wonder about straight couples.

    • Hi Melanie. I believe that the people God calls to celibacy represent all sexual orientations and gender identities. Though I don’t personally know any heterosexual couples who feel called to celibacy, I am sure that there are heterosexual couples who have adopted this way of life for one reason or another. I don’t think the vocation to celibate partnership is exclusive to LGBT couples, but I can’t claim to know much about how a celibate vocation might work for a straight couple. It’s an interesting question you raise about whether or not a straight couple would be accepted in society or in the Church if they chose celibacy. In terms of the Church, I think many Christian traditions, especially those that understand procreation as a central purpose of marriage, would have trouble accepting such a couple. I imagine that the world in general would also have trouble accepting and understanding this sort of arrangement. However, I wouldn’t say that it’s easy for society to accept a celibate gay or lesbian couple. Lindsey and I generally face the same kinds of discrimination as sexually active LGBT couples do, and we’re far from being accepted by many people in our lives. In our situation, we find that many people are quick to condemn us simply because we are an LGBT couple, and many others are just as quick to condemn us for our decision to pursue celibacy. Thank you for commenting, and we hope to see you here again. -Sarah

      • A heterosexual, celibate couple is certainly a category that exists in history — not ALL of the female religious who acted as housekeepers/life partners of priests, bishops, and monks were their de facto wives. 😉

        • Yes, celibate, heterosexual couples certainly do exist in history. Until their spiritual director advised them otherwise, St. Therese of Lisieux’s parents were celibate as husband and wife. There are lots of other examples too. “Spiritual marriages” weren’t at all uncommon in the medieval period.

  2. Hey Sarah,

    This was a great post. I feel that too many of Christian LGBTQ blogs focus on larger issues and concepts, or when they are about real life, they tend to be negative. I am so glad you have found joy and that you want to share this joy with the rest of us.

    I had to laugh at your reaction to the it’s-good-to-be-married-early crowd, but I do think they have some good points. What would you say to those who say that if you wait until you’re ready, you won’t make any sort of commitment at all? I know in my own life, I am decidedly not ready to make any sort of lifelong commitment to celibacy, but I do know that I need to be celibate right now. What advice would you give to those who are trying to discern their vocation but need to commit to celibacy for the moment?

    • Hello Ryan. Great questions. I also think the it’s-good-to-be-married-early folks make some good points. As I see it, different people have different needs when it comes to choosing marriage or celibacy, no matter the age. My sister and her husband seem absolutely made for each other, so I certainly wouldn’t have discouraged them from marrying at a fairly young age even though that pathway in life is very different from my own. I do think there’s some truth to the idea that if you wait until you’re ready for something, you’ll never commit to anything. It’s not possible to be 100% prepared for where any path in life is going to lead. I see being prepared not so much as “I’m ready for everything about this way of life,” but more as, “I know this way of life is going to be challenging and I don’t know what’s ahead of me, but I’m ready to jump in and see how the mystery unfolds.” When I committed to celibacy in partnership with Lindsey, it was very much like the first time I took a dive from the diving board into the deep end of a pool. I didn’t know exactly what it would feel like or how successful I would be in executing my first dive (it was a total failure, by the way), but being not so athletically inclined, I had taken a significant amount of time to practice my form by diving from the side of the pool and to process my fear of making a fool of myself in front of everyone else. I think there are things we can do to prepare ourselves for certain commitments in life, and for many of us these preparations are essential steps for approaching the commitment with a positive, yet realistic mindset. But I do agree with you that no matter what the commitment is, there’s a sense in which one will never be fully ready before taking the plunge. To your second question, first off I would say that I’m terrible at giving advice. However, I believe that living celibacy either for the short term or the long term provides the opportunity for growth in many different areas of life. It can aid a person in cultivating hospitality, spirituality, and vulnerability. Though Lindsey and I see our commitment to celibacy as permanent, there are ways in which it is still a one-day-at-a-time process. If you are considering celibacy as a temporary state of life or as a permanent vocation, you might want to give some thought to the question: what does celibacy mean to me? What do I think it is? Lindsey and I have made our first joint attempt at addressing that question in this post: http://aqueercalling.wordpress.com/2014/01/18/defining-celibacy/. I’m glad you stopped by, and I hope we will see you again! -Sarah

  3. Every time you post something new, I’m more and more grateful to have found this lovely little corner of the internet. Thank you. I sense I’m going to be pretty seriously overusing the word “resonate” and its variants in the coming weeks and months. 🙂

  4. Have you ever read anything by this guy? http://sacredtension.com/2014/02/06/the-cracks-in-my-vocation-part-2-the-iceberg-problem-and-selfish-theology/. I’m wondering what you think of the idea that a Side B theology based just on you and your own concerns about salvation is inherently selfish. That’s a question I have for a lot of Side B people. Are you so afraid for your own souls that you don’t stop to think about how your own theology might be hurting other people?

    • Hi Alex. Yes, we are familiar with Sacred Tension. In fact, we know Stephen personally. I think it’s important to state upfront that Sacred Tension and A Queer Calling are different spaces with different purposes, so naturally the two blogs deal with different sets of questions. At Sacred Tension, Stephen uses the terms Side A and Side B regularly in describing his experience and discussing theological issues. At A Queer Calling, we have opted intentionally not to use those terms because we don’t feel they align well with the conversations we are trying to foster in our own space. We will be speaking more to that issue in a post this coming week, but for now I’ll give you a link to our About page, which states our intention not to frame our discussions in terms of GCN’s Great Debate: http://aqueercalling.wordpress.com/about/. Now that I’ve cleared that up, I’d like to clarify something else: while we are sharing our own experiences and reflections, we do our best to interact with questions our readers are interested in discussing, so we are not concerned solely with our own spiritual lives. We hope that our writing will provide learning opportunities for ourselves as well as our readers as all of us strive to grow in Christ-likeness. Our Providing Spiritual Direction post is a recent example of a discussion we raised that involves the concerns of other LGBT people: http://aqueercalling.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/providing-spiritual-direction/. Lastly, I’d like to provide you with two more links to our previous posts. In our post titled The Celibacy Mandate, we address one of the issues that Stephen has touched on in the post you linked. We state our objection to the idea that Christian traditions should force LGBT people into celibacy: http://aqueercalling.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/the-celibacy-mandate/. In Lindsey’s reflection titled The Challenge of Drawing the Line, Lindsey writes about another issue that arises in the post you linked: the idea that living celibacy is primarily about drawing lines that cannot be crossed. You can read that post here: http://aqueercalling.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/the-challenge-of-drawing-the-line/. I hope this has been helpful in clarifying our intentions. Thank you for your comment and questions. -Sarah

    • Hey Alex I appreciate what your concerns are. When I think in terms of harm done to me in my life with regards to my sexuality it has been the pressure to change my orientation according to gender norms assumed by a fundamentalist religious perspective. Celibacy is not in my opinion inherently selfish. What would be selfish is someone’s approach to it. As well if it was done out of fear or feeling pressured I could see the harm in that. I think if someone is mature spiritually and has a good support system around them they would be able to talk and pray about the impact that choice would have on their life and follow that course with open eyes. It is an option.

      • I don’t think that’s right. I think true celibacy is impossible because everybody’s gotta do it sometime. Unless you have a sexual function disease.

        • I don’t think it is impossible. Having sex is a choice and has nothing to do with incapacities or low sex drives. Yet obviously there is very little information about how to incorporate it into your life as a commitment. In absence of making celibacy your life choice… as a Christian myself, I would still abstain from sexual encounters outside of marriage. I am aware of the research into Catholic priests and ex-gays but much of what I have read about the downside of ex-gay experiences was not so much the options of celibacy or mixed orientation marriage being flawed in and of themselves, but in hiding, suppressing and subsequent repression of desires. Another detriment was not talking open and honestly about the struggles that you were personally were going through. If you did talk you were encouraged to try harder rather than work through your thoughts about your sexuality and faith. OR people just shrugged their shoulders and patted your hand showing discomfort some looking for a way out of the conversation or just not knowing what to do or say except to pray. I get that because I have been there too.

          Alex, I think some people are trying too hard to prove an absolute point at the expense of those who see celibacy as a viable option for their life.

  5. Alex—I think you are incorrectly making the assumption that this is what they are saying—but they are not. They are not condemning of LGBT couples who are not pursuing celibacy and do not, from what I’ve read, seem to think that there is anything inherently sinful about having a same-sex sexual relationship. This is just not the path that they are choosing. Again, there is a difference between promiscuity and sex in a committed relationship–whether that is homo or heterosexual.

      • Alex, Lindsey and I have no affiliation with any ex-gay organization, and both of us have been hurt in different ways by the ex-gay movement in the past. Both of us accept our sexual orientations, and we do not believe it is helpful for people to attempt to excise their sexualities. Celibacy is not the same as excising one’s sexuality. So no, we are not covertly ex-gay. -Sarah

    • Hi Emily. We’re glad to see you back here! We certainly want everyone to feel welcome, regardless of life situation, relationship status, or sexual activity status. We do see our blog as a personal project offering some reflections on what a celibate partnership looks like for us, and we don’t intend any of our writings as judgmental toward people whose lives are different from ours. Thanks to you and many of our other readers, we’ve benefited from a great deal of positive conversation here already, and we look forward to more in the future.

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