The “Gift” of Celibacy

The gift of celibacy is mysterious, alluring, and evasive. Sometimes it seems very easy to speak of the “gift of celibacy” while at other times, we find ourselves struggling for words to describe what we’re experiencing. We’ve never had a great reveal in which God has shown us everything that celibacy is, could be, or will be for us. We certainly have never experienced a sense that we were called to live a celibate life from the instant we were born. In the best moments, we catch glimpses of the Kingdom of God within our celibate vocation. In the worst moments, celibacy can seem like a bit of a fool’s errand. Vocations are like that, with moments of up, down, and everything in between. We’ve caught glimpses here and there, which reassure us that God cares about guiding and directing our way as the Good Shepherd.

The gift of celibacy is a divine mystery. The gift of marriage is equally a divine mystery. We’ve both benefited from seeing celibacy lived out in a range of contexts, yet no context can be exactly the same as our context. As much as we can learn from our favorite monastic communities, we still need to find our way in our lives. At times, Lindsey has been lead to specific Scriptures like Luke’s account of the sending of the seventy to find a vision for a celibate way of life. We’ve reflected deeply on core values that we think reflect the essence of living celibate lives. But we are also deeply aware, sometimes painfully aware, that while many Christian traditions have resources to help people navigate practical concerns associated with the gift of marriage, there’s not much out there for people trying to cultivate the gift of celibacy.

We have shared before that we feel God has called us to a celibate vocation together. We’ve often felt resourced by God as we’ve pursued this path. We might even say that we feel like God has given us the gift of celibacy. However, being given the gift of celibacy doesn’t mean that it’s easy to pursue this pathway in life. Both of us have had to discern how exactly God is calling us to live. On one level, we know that “celibacy” is a part of how we’re supposed to live. On another level, that direction creates more questions than it can possibly answer. Why do we feel so strongly that we’re partners, that we’re a team, and that we’re family? Why does language that communicates our life together seem impossible to find? What do we do when we realize that we know people, close friends even, who are waiting in the wings to hear us pronounce that our journey into celibacy proved unworkable for us? How do we create space to say, loudly and clearly, that living a celibate vocation is not about avoiding sex? And all this says nothing about the day-to-day stressors associated with taking air as human beings.

Together, we have been exploring the gift of celibacy together for over a year. We have a sense that there are certain key virtues that lay at the heart of a celibate vocation. We have tried different experiments to cultivate virtues like hospitality, spiritual maturity, and humility together. Some experiments have proved more fruitful than others. One great way to cultivate humility is to learn when to call an experiment a failure or even counter-productive! We’re not perfect, and we do not pretend to be for an instant. Our friend Stacey recently shared that her pastor signed off on his emails with “Stumbling toward Christ with you,” and collective bumbling about seems to definitely describe our assorted experiments. We can’t tell you why eating dinner together every night has stuck while trying to pray particular daily office prayers together has continually bounced. We don’t know why we’ve found it easy to converse non-stop while driving in the car together but find it next to impossible to select a movie we both enjoy. We’re amused that we’ve managed to host overnight guests more easily than having tea with local friends. Life is funny sometimes.

In our time together, we have connected deeply with Christ. We have shared here that we experience an unmistakable presence of joy. There is something about how God has placed the two of us together that just seems to work in our lives. But, our life together would fail to reflect the fullness of Christ’s life if we did not find ourselves joining in with Christ’s pain. We have been profoundly impacted by the reality of the broken world around us. We have hit our limits in being able to bind up the wounds of the other, learning that frequently the only option we have is to listen to each other share our individual pain, cry together, and present that pain to Christ. We have watched close friends spiral into depression and isolation. We have tried to discern how best to pray, how best to be present, and how best to give counsel. We have experienced a sobering reality that people can sometimes take our words as the “answer” and wind up pursuing incredibly self-destructive paths. We’ve also experienced the pain of being misunderstood and misrepresented. We have had our story dismissed as meaningless, deceptive, destructive, and even dangerous. For every ounce of human encouragement that we’ve had to pursue this way of life together, we’ve had to navigate a pound of biting criticism. That can be incredibly difficult, especially when the criticism can rock us to our core. Yet, time and time again, as we enter that core, we find Christ willing to meet us again… and again… and again…

And perhaps that’s what the gift of celibacy is all about in the first place. The gift is given in such a way where Christ promises to be there in the absolute darkest moments, shining His divine light.

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.

16 thoughts on “The “Gift” of Celibacy

  1. Once again, a great post. I think when people hear the word celibate, they often think of it in terms of what is “missing,” namely a kind of physical intimacy with someone else. While it’s true that the call to celibacy does exclude the union of persons through sex, it doesn’t mean that a person is devoid of intimacy or even love (likewise, just because two people are having sex it doesn’t mean they are truly in love). Love (agape) is at the heart of each vocation, and without it all vocations are destined to fail. For celibates this love manifests itself in ways other than marriage and family, but it doesn’t make it less life-giving or satisfying. In terms of my own calling to celibacy I have two things that I rely upon to sustain this love. First, there’s my community. My brothers are there as companions and friends along the journey. They check up on me, make sure I’m not wandering in my faith, and inspire me to be a better person. Secondly, my vows (of poverty, chastity, and obedience) also help to guide and sustain me. They draw me out of my own selfishness, and invite me to a deeper commitment to God. But for those who aren’t called to religious life, there needs to be some form of companionship and support, someone who will helps us to carry our cross.

    • Brother Jude, thank you for sharing more about your experience of celibacy. There is so much we can learn from men and women religious. We also find that community is an important part of our journey in celibacy together. Our parish community and our friends that we consider close enough to be our “family of choice” play a significant role in helping us to live our vocation. There are things we can relate to in what you mentioned about your vows too. There’s a way in which celibacy can draw one into commitment to God differently than marriage can. And we would certainly agree that most people tend to see celibacy as a life in which something is missing. Thanks for reading today, and God bless.

  2. I enjoyed this very much. I am absorbing like a sponge each post and at some point will have more questions. This is all very new to me and interesting. I like the expression ‘stumbling towards Christ’ and the fact that you experiment with ways to cultivate virtues. That blows my mind what a wonderful idea!

    • “Stumbling towards Christ” sometimes feels like the only way to adequately describe how we approach him. We don’t do it perfectly, but we try, we fail, and we try again. Thanks for reading today, Kathy!

  3. HI! Very refreshing read. Thank you for being you and not being the type of Christians I’m starting to really get irritated by. I love that you two are working hard to WALK the WALK, instead of just spouting aphorisms and rules at others. WAY TO GO! 🙂 <3

    • Sometimes, in the worst moments, it can feel like a fool’s errand. I’ve experienced celibacy that way because there are many open questions. The structure of celibate vocations is much more diverse than the structure of married vocations. It seems every celibate community I’ve visited has had to discern a unique way of living that works for them. Another reason why celibacy can seem like a fool’s errand is that there’s not a lot of guidance. Discerning a celibate vocation can seem like stumbling in the dark at times.

      It’s worth pointing out that not all moments of living a celibate vocation are the worst moments.

  4. And I was in a celibate relationship and it was terrible because we couldn’t ever know what to do right and what to do wrong. It’s a prison, not a gift.

  5. I think I understand the call to celibacy. Not because I experience it myself. Quite the opposite. But my experience of the call to marriage lets me understand what it feels like to “know” something on a deeply visceral level. I “know” I’m supposed to be married. So I can understand when people say they “know” they’re supposed to be celibate.

    So far, so good…

    My problem with many who experience the call to celibacy starts when they project that call onto everyone like them. Gay celibates who tell me I must be celibate too just because I’m gay are failing to take into account my calling and my vocation. I find this deeply perplexing. On the face of it, it seems like a manifestation of some kind of autism-related personality disorder. What they’re really saying is “I want this and you’re like me so you must want this too and if you don’t then there’s something wrong with you.” Can these people imagine no other way than their own? Is narcissism what makes religion such a potent force for evil in the world?

    Well, whatever the truth of it, if Sarah and Lindsey feel called to celibacy, then as far as I can see there’s no reason whatsoever to do anything but support them in that call and help them to live it. If they say I’m called to celibacy too, then I’m afraid that support will turn into opposition. But as long as they decide for themselves and don’t try to decide for anyone else, their beliefs are worthy of respect.

    • Hello again, Stephen. We have written a post on how we feel about mandated celibacy, and you might be interested in reading it. You can find it here: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/01/31/the-celibacy-mandate/. We think it is very unhelpful to tell someone what his or her vocation is as opposed to helping that person find it himself or herself. As I read about your frustration with the “I want this and you’re like me so you must want this too and if you don’t then there’s something wrong with you” attitude you sometimes hear from gay celibates, it struck me that we can relate to this. We often get the same impression from gay people who try to force the idea of marriage upon us. I suppose it goes both ways. Trying to force one’s way of life upon someone else will inevitably lead to hurt and misunderstanding. Blessings to you. -Sarah

      • Hello Sarah

        I think it does work both ways when it comes to personal choice. It’s no more acceptable for a married gay person to tell you you should be married just because he or she is than it is for a celibate gay person to tell you you should be celibate. If you feel that celibacy is right for you, nobody else can or should tell you it’s not. How can they possibly know?

        Where we may part company is when it comes to the reasons for your celibacy. If you believe that God forbids sexual relations outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage and that’s the reason you choose celibacy, then I would have to say that I think you’re mistaken. Of course you’re perfectly at liberty to be mistaken. If you were a Muslim and veiled yourself because you believed that God required it, I would think you just as mistaken. But I wouldn’t criticize your veil or attempt to rip it off you. As long as you didn’t try to thrust veils on heads of women who didn’t want to wear them, I wouldn’t care what you did with your own.

        Similarly, when talking of a celibacy mandate, I think it’s important to differentiate between “this is how I interpret what scripture says about homosexuality” to “this is what scripture says about homosexuality”. If you interpret scripture as a ban on homosexual relations then you’re setting up your own personal celibacy mandate and you’re more or less obliged to follow it if you want to be true to your convictions. I don’t have a problem with that as long as you don’t try to apply it to me.

        On the other hand, if you disallow the possibility of interpretation and insist that only the traditional reading is possible, then you’re setting up a celibacy mandate for everyone and this is the point at which we enter into conflict. I won’t be bound by your beliefs and I’ll do my best to stop you trying to bind others. I won’t support your efforts to propagate your beliefs and I certainly won’t participate in any form of organization that gives you a voice and a platform to try and persuade or influence others.

        This is why I’m a member of no Christian church (although I could probably be a Quaker, but there aren’t any where I live and it’s hard being a congregation of one). It’s certainly why I would never consider your faith tradition. I have to take exception to your claim that Orthodoxy doesn’t impose a celibacy mandate. The Orthodox Church is very clear about what constitutes marriage and equally clear that those who do not marry must remain celibate. If that’s not a celibacy mandate, I don’t know what is. Celibacy is mandated for all and the only escape is marriage. That’s the reality of both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic attitudes, so to talk about celibacy as a possibility rather than an obligation for lesbian and gay members of these faith traditions is misleading in the extreme. Celibacy is not a possibility for gay Orthodox Christians, it’s an expectation. There may be isolated parishes and priests who don’t enforce that expectation, but as a whole the Church most certainly does.

        • Hi Stephen, thanks for being willing to dialogue with us here on the blog. We always appreciate thoughtful conversation.

          As a new reader, we’d encourage you to take a look at the Index of A Queer Calling at http://aqueercalling.com/index/ To help us keep the conversation organized, it’s great when readers comment directly on individual posts if and when they want to challenge something we’ve written.

          To help point you in the right direction, we detailed our reasons for choosing celibacy in our Why Celibacy? post. The Cliff Notes is that we both experienced a strong sense that God has called us to this way of life. You can read the fuller version at: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/01/16/why-celibacy/ Furthermore, we have argued against using a person’s LGBT status as the sole indicator of their vocational calling in our post on providing spiritual direction available at: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/02/04/providing-spiritual-direction/

          From our perspective, discussing a Christian tradition is not so much about a “traditional” and “progressive” divide. Every Christian tradition brings different nuances to the process of vocational discernment. People committed to one Christian tradition learn a lexicon for talking about these issues within that tradition. Fr Robert Arida (see his Pastor’s Thoughts on Same Sex Marriage at http://www.ocanews.org/news/AridaResponse7.1.11.html), Pastor Dave Schmelzer (see his Centered-Set Thinking and Homosexuality at http://notreligious.typepad.com/notreligious/2009/08/center.html), and the Reverend Lillian Daniel (see her But Why Don’t They Just Come to My Church? at http://jerichobooks.com/lillian-daniel-but-why-dont-they-just-come-to-my-church/) ask different kinds of questions because these three people come from different Christian traditions. Nevertheless, all 3 voices are raising issues central to providing meaningful spiritual care to LGBT people.

          For our part in the broader conversation about LGBT people in the Church, we want to acknowledge that both marriage and celibacy are vocations generally entered into by adults. We resist defining celibacy as merely abstaining from sexual acts. Our first attempt at defining celibacy can be found here: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/01/18/defining-celibacy/

          We look forward to your comments on our blog and hope you’ll continue reading.

Leave a Reply