Seeking Color in a Black and White World

A reflection by Sarah

A few days ago while I was on my way home from work, I received a phone call from a friend (I’ll call her Gianna) who has been reading our blog. Gianna and I have known each other for approximately six years, but haven’t spoken much since the last women’s studies certificate course we took together. We had a great conversation that included lots of laughter and a lengthy discussion of our favorite Virginia Woolf novels. But near the end of our chat when Gianna started inquiring more about the blog, she asked me a question I hadn’t quite anticipated: “Sarah, I don’t understand this whole celibacy thing. When did you become a conservative?” I wasn’t sure of how to react to the question. Because the word conservative has such a variety of meanings, I wasn’t even clear on what she had meant until she continued, “What happened to the Sarah I used to know, who challenged the status quo, advocated for social justice, and believed in equal rights for all people?” Eventually, this led to a conversation about American political labels and ideologies, complete with questions about who I plan on voting for in 2016 (does anybody know how to answer that question two years in advance?). I began to feel pinned into a corner. Since when does embracing a particular vocation make one a Democrat or a Republican?

One of the many lessons that has kept repeating itself since my starting this blog with Lindsey is that we live in a highly polarized society in which black-and-white thinking prevails, and almost any action, idea, or way of life will be associated with one extreme of the American political spectrum or the other. If you’re a woman who carried an unwanted pregnancy to term and gave the child for adoption rather than getting an abortion, you’re a conservative. If you’re gay, you’re a liberal. If you grew up poor, pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, and now have more income than you ever could have imagined, you’re a conservative. If you hit your lifetime maximum on health insurance years ago and your life was saved by the implementation of universal health care, you’re a liberal. Every time we own a life experience publicly, it seems there is someone ready to ascribe to us a prepackaged set of ideologies.

Let me be frank: I loathe discussing politics. Truly, I do. I dislike the subject so much that it even makes me wince when Lindsey and I are writing and, for the sake of clarity, we feel forced to use the adjectives “liberal” and “conservative” when describing the viewpoints of some Christian denominations and the varieties of Christian ethical perspectives. But that doesn’t mean I have no views at all, or that the convictions I hold aren’t firm. For example, I hail from a region where the coal industry, which provides an enormous amount of jobs, has also ravaged the natural environment and health of thousands of people, including my grandfather. My opinions about the ethics of the coal industry are rock-solid (no pun intended), and aren’t likely to change. Still, I don’t enjoy debating the topic, and when I share my personal experience associated with the coal industry, I’m not necessarily doing so in an attempt to change someone else’s views. I could say much the same regarding my beliefs on and experiences relative to many controversial political issues, including those that are LGBT-focused. Do I have an opinion? Most likely, yes. But should sharing my experience automatically be interpreted as an attempt at converting people to a specific ideology? No. And as you can read on our About page, changing the beliefs of others certainly isn’t the intention of this blog.

On some level, I can understand why a person might conceptualize celibacy as a “conservative” way of life and by extension, associate it with a particular political ideology. The word “celibacy” tends to evoke images of Catholic priests and Catholic and Orthodox monks and nuns—individuals who are seen by many as the faces of two faith traditions teaching that LGBT people are called to celibacy. A number of people would argue that these two Christian traditions are “conservative,” at least where sexual morality is concerned, so living celibacy as an LGBT person, especially within the context of Catholicism or Orthodoxy, might also be viewed by some as an act of conservatism. However, I find it difficult to understand how one would come to the conclusion that because I am celibate: 1) I necessarily embrace a particular set of political viewpoints that can be summarized properly by a label like “liberal” or “conservative”; 2) I would never support challenging society’s status quo, and 3) I do not “advocate for social justice” or “believe in equal rights for all people.”

Church history is filled with numerous examples of celibates whose worldviews and contributions to society cannot be fully understood using black-and-white categorizations. I’d like to share with you as examples three different women from the modern historical context—one Catholic, one Orthodox, and one Protestant. All three of these women were celibates, chose celibacy at different points in life, lived that calling in diverse ways, and would not fit into the stereotypical images of “liberal” and “conservative.”

Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985)

Born Ekaterina Fyodorovna Kolyschkine, Catherine de Hueck Doherty was a lay Catholic spiritual writer, activist, and foundress of two lay apostolates. Catherine was brought up a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but converted to Catholicism—becoming Byzantine Catholic—in England in 1919. Catherine established Friendship Houses in Toronto, New York, and Chicago during the 1930s in response to the needs of people suffering due to racism, xenophobia, and poverty. During her years at Friendship House, Catherine fought constantly against racial and ethnic discrimination, advocating for full acceptance of African American students into Catholic educational institutions that had previously been open to white students only. In 1947, Catherine and her second husband, Eddie Doherty, established the Madonna House Apostolate, which would eventually become a community of over 200 staff workers, committed to living the Gospel without compromise and loving each other as a celibate family. Catherine and Eddie themselves adopted a celibate lifestyle as Madonna House formally became a Public Association of the Christian Faithful within the Diocese of Pembroke, Ontario. Voluntary poverty, radical hospitality, and commitment to sharing daily work and spiritual life are key features that Catherine incorporated into Madonna House living. Catherine reposed on December 14, 1985.

Mother Maria of Paris (1891-1945)

Maria Skobtsova, who would become known to the world as Mother Maria, is recognized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Prior to becoming a nun, Maria had been married twice. She was also a poet and a member of the French Resistance during World War II. She is well known for rescuing infants from Jewish ghettos during the Nazi regime. Mother Maria advanced a radically different view of Orthodox monastic life, choosing to engage directly with the world rather than focusing principally on observing the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church. After providing refuge to the poor and those displaced by political turmoil in her convent, a rented house in Paris, she was arrested by the Gestapo following the Fall of France in 1940. Mother Maria lived her last days at Ravensbrück concentration camp. Hagiography suggests that on the day she reposed, she took the place of a Jewish prisoner who was to be sent to the gas chamber on Holy Saturday, 1945.

Mother Basilea Schlink (1904-2001)

Mother Basilea Schlink, born Klara Schlink in Darmstadt, Germany, was a theologian who became a Protestant nun. In 1948, she became a co-founder of a Lutheran-based religious order called the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary. Before becoming a nun, Klara had studied psychology, philosophy, church history, and art history. At one point, she conducted a study on teenage girls’ awareness of sin. Following World War II, Klara felt compelled to repent for sins committed by Germany during the war. She was deeply convicted by the level of pain and suffering her home country had caused other countries and specific groups of people to endure. In particular, Klara believed it crucial to ask God’s forgiveness for harm done to European Jews. Singularly focused on leading a life of prayer, repentance, and mission, Klara decided to forgo marriage and begin the Sisterhood alongside her friend, Erika Madauss. Thereafter, she became known as Mother Basilea. During her lifetime, Mother Basilea authored many books on the spiritual life, repentance, and commitment to Christ. Her Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary would eventually become an international, ecumenical, Protestant order of over 200 professed sisters. Mother Basilea reposed on March 21, 2001 in Darmstadt.

Though they are rooted in diverse backgrounds in terms of culture and Christian tradition, the stories of Catherine Doherty, Mother Maria, and Mother Basilea have much in common. All of these women wanted to serve God and the world in different ways than people pursuing Christ’s call through other vocations. Often, I hear it suggested that celibacy is a “thing of the past” or “nobody really does that anymore.” If those were your thoughts before reading today, I hope that I have succeeded in demonstrating this isn’t the case. As Lindsey and I continue to blog, we would like to profile, periodically, modern and historical examples of people who have lived celibate vocations. In particular, I hope to share with you more stories of celibate individuals whose lives have defied the stereotypes many people in the modern world associate with celibacy. These people are not, as Lindsey and I have sometimes been called, “rare examples of a gray area in the human experience.” Instead, I believe they show us how abundantly colorful the vocation to celibacy can be.

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