A temporary vocation?

While Sarah was working on an academic research project last week, we were shuffling through some photocopied archival materials that included surveys of young people from the 1930s-1940s who had decided to leave a particular lay Christian social action movement after having been involved for varying lengths of time. One of the survey questions asked, “Why did you decide to leave?” Though almost every former member had expressed continuing dedication to the movement’s purpose and goals, Sarah noticed that the vast majority cited “temporary vocation” as the primary reason for separating from the movement. It seems that most who left had joined anticipating that someday, they would be moving on to more “permanent” vocations or perhaps other “temporary” ones.

The phrase, “temporary vocation” has never sat well with either of us. Our own understanding of the term “vocation” is a lifelong commitment to a particular way of serving God and others. Because of this, we find it curious that people frequently suggest, “Maybe celibacy is a temporary vocation for you two.” We can understand why the idea of being called to lifelong celibacy, especially within the context of a relationship like ours, might seem perplexing from an outsider’s perspective. We are also aware that this suggestion usually comes from people with the best of intentions. However, today, we would like to offer some thoughts on the problem that arises when one refers to vocations as “temporary.”

When someone suggests that our vocation to celibacy might not be permanent, the question, “What if your Christian tradition’s teaching on sexual morality changes?” sometimes follows. Most people in our lives know we are part of a church that holds to a traditional sexual ethic, so it’s reasonable to infer that our own sense of call is in some way related to our tradition’s teachings. It is true that we have drawn upon the resources present within our Christian tradition to discern our vocations, both individually and together. At the same time, our decision to embark on the journey of a celibate partnership is voluntary. We did not make the choice to live celibacy as a result of feeling backed into a corner by the Church. We have committed freely to living life together in this way. Therefore, if the teachings of our Christian tradition on sexual morality ever were to change (and we do not believe this will happen), it would have no impact upon our chosen vocation. We are not attempting to cultivate a celibate vocation because of fear that we have to or else face divinely imposed consequences. We are doing so because we want to—because we believe celibacy is an important part of God’s plan for us.

Speaking of “temporary vocation” implies that vocations in general do not require dedication, commitment, and willingness to live into God’s call during the hard times. Last week, we wrote for the first time on the vocation of marriage and prepared for that topic by asking married people to educate us on their ways of life. Writing that post got us thinking about two different messages we’ve heard about marriage: 1) it’s a forever commitment, and 2) approximately half the time, it ends in divorce. On the one hand, it’s likely that few people enter a marriage thinking, “Maybe this is a temporary vocation.” Neither of us has ever known of a person advising a newlywed couple that they should consider the possibility of marriage being temporary. Maybe we’re letting optimism get in the way here, but most people we know who are married or anticipate getting married someday accept that the vocation to marriage is intended as a lifelong commitment. On the other hand, even if most individuals don’t view marriage as a “temporary vocation,” it’s clear that our society does. Both of us have family members and friends who have experienced divorce and remarriage, so we are not suggesting that divorce is always a morally unjustifiable occurrence. But it’s true that now more than in decades past, it has become acceptable to end a marriage—a lifelong commitment—for virtually any reason: personality conflicts, financial hardship, impotency, one spouse’s irritation with the other’s pet python. In a sense, marriage is becoming even more of a temporary than permanent vocation in the eyes of American and some other western societies.

It makes sense that if many people are coming to see marriage as a way of life that does not require an everlasting commitment, some might also have trouble seeing how celibate vocations demand just as much dedication. We have seen firsthand that the general population does not view consecrated religious life as a permanent vocation. A friend of Sarah’s, whom we will call Molly, spent over two years of her time in law school discerning a vocation to a particular Roman Catholic religious order. Upon graduation, Molly became a postulant and started her journey toward taking vows. During this time, Molly’s mother insisted that in a year, Molly would come to realize that she wasn’t actually called to be a nun. However, Molly came alive inside the monastery. She loved the community’s spiritual life and looked forward to one day working in the Catholic schools operated by the order. A year later, Molly entered the novitiate and took the name Sister Maria. Her mother maintained that she would be better off married and would eventually come to see this before taking vows. Not long ago, Sister Maria made first vows, and her mother is still waiting for her to leave this vocation and return home. Decades ago, this would not have been a typical reaction from a parent whose child entered a Roman Catholic religious order.

Proposing that the vocation to celibate partnership (or at least the celibate aspect of it) is temporary is much the same as stating that other types of celibate vocations are also temporary states of life. We do believe that in certain circumstances, people can commit to celibacy for a defined period of time. This was, in fact, the situation for most young people who were part of the Christian social action movement that Sarah was researching last week. But we think it is far too easy to assume that celibacy is a lifestyle one can choose to end at the drop of a hat (or the drop of one’s pants). One doesn’t need divorce papers or an annulment in order to stop living celibacy. Leaving a religious order is quite an involved process, but doesn’t exactly require the division of assets, attorney fees, custody battles, etc. that often come along with legally ending a marriage. And in the eyes of many, choosing not to continue in a celibate vocation that doesn’t entail religious vows is as simple as saying, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” But this isn’t the case for people who understand celibacy as a vocation and not just sexual abstinence.

The two of us exist in an almost completely uncharted territory somewhere between monasticism and marriage. Celibate monastics take vows to God and to their communities, making their commitments to this vocation visible. Married people in some traditions take vows to each other before God and their faith communities in a formal ceremony, making their vocation known to the world. As there is no exact analog to either for celibate couples like us, it is challenging to put the commitment we have made to each other into words. Because of this, people tend to classify us incorrectly as a couple living a unique sort of marriage. And perhaps that is why we’re often assumed to be living in a “temporary” celibate vocation.

To suggest that celibate vocations like ours will not stand the test of time is to question the robustness of other kinds of vocations as well. We believe that all vocations require steadfastness and acceptance that life will not always be easy, pleasant, or ideal. All vocations have the ability to grow if nurtured and the ability to wither if left improperly attended. The phrase “temporary vocation” may seem innocuous, but we see it as little more than shorthand for, “a way of life I can leave when its demands become too great.”

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