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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14 thoughts on “Seeking Color in a Black and White World

  1. I have been reading your posts with much interest lately, thank you for sharing. As you have developed your understanding of your calling and vocation, and work out what that looks like specifically in your life, how do you know with such conviction that this is what God calls you to? I ask out of genuine desire to know, as I too search out God’s plan in my circumstances as well. Another journeyer. Thank you.

    • Hi Mindy. We are glad to hear from you! My initial response to your question is that I see cultivating a vocation as being more about listening to where God leads than about reaching a moment of, “I know this with absolute certainty.” It just occurred to me that I’ve used the word “know” in at least one of my other personal reflections here, and Lindsey and I may have used it in our joint reflections as well. When we use this word in the context of vocation, we don’t intend it as “we know for certain.” We intend it to mean, “after spending a great deal of time discerning where God might be calling us individually and together, we have a very strong sense that this is where He is leading.” Both of us do experience doubts from time to time. We think that’s normal and completely human. Catherine Doherty, whom I profiled in this post, often said that it is dangerous to follow Christ. I’d agree with her on that. Trusting that God will lead us to where He wants us to be means being vulnerable and giving up a certain sense of security. I pray that as Lindsey and I continue our journey together, we will always be able to remain open to whatever He reveals to us. -Sarah

      • Good thoughts, thank you. How do you incorporate accountability and community into your discernment process? I only ask as one who continues to be astounded by her own ability at self deception and would be lost without transparent community.

        • Hi Mindy, I’m going to add my 2 cents in here as well.

          Within our Christian tradition, community is essential. We regularly participate in the life of our local church community, and we both have spiritual directors. Both of us approached our individual spiritual directors just as we were starting to explore living out this calling. We individually received enthusiastic confirmation from our spiritual directors, which I was not expecting in the slightest. Additionally, we have close friends who have confirmed (time and time again) that they see the good fruit of us living our our lives in this way. I had several people independently tell me that they knew I would have A Queer Calling because they confirmed that I was not called to more monastic expressions of a celibate vocation.

          As a final thought, vocation involves dynamic discernment. Sarah and I are not “done” discerning our calling. We’ve seen God guide and direct us towards certain pursuits, of which this blog is but one example. I started feeling pulled towards the blogosphere about 2 months before we started blogging (and did not mention anything to Sarah), we had several of our LGBT Christian friends approach us to encourage us to share our story more publicly, and Sarah felt led to start blogging shortly before we began the project of her own accord. We continually reassess if this blog space is something that seems to be bearing positive fruit, passing what I like to call the Philippians 4:8 test. I only used this blog as an example because it’s currently the most public example of us undertaking a project together, although we see lots of vocational seeds being planted elsewhere.

          We try, little by little, to do the work God has put before us to do today, waiting on confirmation of any big shifts to the plan. I do hope my thoughts here are helpful but feel free to let me know if you’d like me to clarify anything. Best, Lindsey

  2. You didn’t say anything about these people not having sex. If they’re celibate, why don’t you talk about them not having sex.

    • Alex, we believe that celibacy as a vocation cannot be reduced to “not having sex.” You might want to check out our Defining Celibacy post, in which we make our first try at describing what we understand celibacy to mean: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/01/18/defining-celibacy/. One of the reasons I included three short profiles of celibates in this personal reflection is that people tend to have a lot of assumptions about what celibate vocations look like. Many people conceive of celibacy as a miserable, lonely state of life. The three women I used as examples in this post did not see celibacy this way. Instead, they saw it as a meaningful way of living the Gospels. One could state, “Catherine Doherty, Mother Maria, and Mother Basilea did not have sex (or stopped having sex),” but to say so with no further description of how they lived out their (very diverse) celibate vocations would be profoundly limiting and a dishonor to their memories. -Sarah

  3. I don’t necessarily associate the word “celibate” with conservatism.

    Here in the European context we have at least one very high-profile gay activist well-known for his extremely liberal positions who is also publicly, indeed one might almost say notoriously, celibate. He presents his celibacy as a personal choice and makes no claim that all gay people, or anyone at all apart from him, should be celibate. His reasons for being celibate have nothing to do with religious conviction, yet his celibacy is just as real as that of any monk or nun. So for me, “celibate” is not a label that tells me whether someone is conservative or liberal. I need much more information in order to work that out.

    Maybe things are different in the US. Your society is so polarized that it may well be that labels become loaded in a way they’re just not over here. I suppose this explains the reluctance of those in the middle to adopt them. If I thought that being known as gay meant everyone assumed I spend my nights in bars and sex clubs getting drunk and doing drugs and having as much sex with as many men as possible, I might think twice about calling myself gay. But it doesn’t mean that, at least not here. It just means I’m sexually and emotionally attracted to other men. The extreme connotations you might find in the mind of many Americans just don’t exist here, at least not beyond a lunatic fringe of ultra right wingers (the kind who shoot themselves in the head at the altar of Notre Dame de Paris in order to “prove” that society is breaking down because of gay marriage!!!).

    You can find colour in a black and white world if you lift your gaze from your immediate surroundings, because your immediate surrounding are not your world. The polarized nature of your socio-political system doesn’t apply everywhere else. The problem is not with the labels themselves. It’s with how you use them.

    • Hi Stephen. Welcome to our site. We are glad to read your feedback. When I chose the title for this post, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that “world” might be taken as a reference to “global” as opposed to “in a particular society.” Perhaps that wasn’t the best choice of words to convey my intended meaning. I agree that most European societies don’t have quite the same tendency to polarize issues as American society does. I spent a short period of time living in Europe, but I’ve lived the majority of my life so far in the States, so you probably know this much better than I do. I’d be interested in knowing more about this activist you mention. I don’t think I’ve heard of this person…or perhaps I have, but was not aware of the fact that he is celibate. Glad you stopped by. Hoping to see you around here again. -Sarah

      • Hello Sarah, thank you for the welcome. I have to admit that I don’t follow many American blogs on the subject of faith and sexuality because of the extreme positions they generally take. Your account of your personal experience of celibacy is something quite new to me, used as I am to seeing those who follow this lifestyle hold it up as an object for obligatory veneration by all gays and lesbians. I’ll be quite interested to see how it works out for you over time.

        The activist I was referring to is Peter Tatchell. He used to speak quite freely about his celibacy, although I believe he’s more circumspect nowadays due to the scurrilous attacks and accusations that followed his support for the lowering of the age of consent in the UK.

        Best

        Stephen

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