Actively Cultivating a Celibate Vocation

A reflection by Lindsey

We’ve made a general practice of not giving advice on this blog. We are keepers of our own story, and we are not interested in telling another person what his or her story should be. Nonetheless, I was struck a few weeks ago when Eve Tushnet said that there was a place in these discussions for people to cry, “This is the path! Follow me!” lest we become an echo chamber. We’ve also had multiple people sending us emails asking us for more guidance on actively trying to cultivate a celibate vocation. I’ve spent nearly a decade trying to sort these questions for myself, have journeyed alongside tens of other people trying to cultivate celibate vocations themselves, and think that I can highlight some practical elements of actively cultivating a celibate vocation. So, in this reflection, I’m going to make a brief trip to how-to land.

Some disclaimers: I’m going to talk about cultivating a celibate vocation in generalities rather than zooming in on the experience of cultivating a celibate partnership. I’ve shared before about my experiences with a failed celibate relationship, and I know other people who have been profoundly hurt by starting their explorations of celibacy in the context of an intimate relationship. While I have spent a lot of time myself trying to cultivate a celibate vocation, I don’t regard myself as an authority at any level.

Get to know people who live a celibate vocation
Finding active models of a celibate life worth living is hard. I spent time hanging out at monasteries and reading memoirs of people who remained single throughout their entire life. One of the most helpful books for me is My Song is Of Mercy by Fr. Matthew Kelty because Fr. Matthew is living out a celibate vocation as a gay man. Fr. Matthew’s sermons include occasional examples from the gay community that show he integrated his sexuality into his life. But getting to know monastics from different communities showed me that there is a lot of variety within the celibate vocation. It’s okay if not every celibate person inspires you with a vision for what your vocation can look like. In many ways, it’s probably better for you if there’s a subset of celibate people you love and admire. I tended to look towards people in religious communities, but many people from different walks of life have lived a celibate vocation. Find a few models that resonate with you and provide a glimpse into the kind of life you’d like to cultivate.

Spend real time with married people
One thing I’ve noticed is that many LGBT people who feel compelled to explore a celibate vocation because of their faith convictions are prone to crafting a utopian vision of marriage. Marriage can become a wished-for, yet completely unattainable, happy place where people are never lonely, social get-togethers are awesome, and God totally pours out blessing after blessing. Yet, spending time with married people I admire showed me that married people and celibate people face many of the same struggles when it comes to finding our places in this world. Additionally, I learned that married people who make the practice of opening their homes to others have this odd gift of making me feel like a part of the family in a very short time. I’ve had the privilege of reading bedtime stories to kids and I’ve experienced why families with kids might try to hightail it out of social engagements before the kids have a meltdown. When you meet real married people, marriage doesn’t look so utopian after all.

Regard the things in which you find great delight as sacred
It can be hard as a celibate person to communicate why a certain action “counts” as intimate and meaningful. Our culture, and even the culture within our churches, has primed us to view sex as the only expression of intimacy worth saving for special people. Yet, each and every one of us has things that we especially enjoy doing, and we want to save particular experiences for sharing with special people. It doesn’t matter if your special things are going to a concert, sharing a meal together, playing board games, going geocaching, geeking out over Latin word roots, or any number of other things. Your special things are still special, they make you the unique human you are, and they are worth sharing with special people in your life. Treasure the unique parts of yourself as sacred. Treat them with care. As you grow closer to particular people, allow them to see more of you. I found that treating my love of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies, my excitability when going to concerts, and my tendency to relish in a good hug with sacred appreciation enabled me to experience significantly more intimacy across a wide range of relationships.

Find a rhythm in your own life that includes prayer and positive self-care
In trying to discern my celibate vocation, I worked with the examples I found in monasteries. Life in a monastery is centered upon communal and individual prayer. When I talked with monastics, they told me they entered the monastery because they felt a vocation to prayer. Yet, a lot of life in the monastery also involved caring for the community. Monastics prepare common meals, take one another to seek medical care when needed, go shopping, and work together to support the monastery. As I got to know monastics, I realized that monastic lives are indeed very human lives. An abbess once shared with me that if I wanted to explore the possibility that I was called to monasticism, I would be served by trying to put monastic life into practice as much as possible in my daily life. I’ve experimented with incorporating different regular devotions into my day and preparing proper meals. These disciplines have shown me that I have in-built settings that need to be acknowledged if I’m going to take care of myself.

Share life meaningfully with others wherever possible
When I started actively trying to cultivate a celibate vocation, I did not have a clue how to share life meaningfully with other people. I had to overcome significant cultural programming that the only “real” meaningful relationship would blossom into a marriage. Since I had to start somewhere, I started by asking God to show me the meaningful relationships present in my life. God showed me that I did have profoundly meaningful relationships already present in my life and that I had the potential to develop meaningful relationships with people I was only just getting to know. In shifting my focus away from cultivating one marital relationship, I was able to see myself in a network of other relationships. As a direct consequence of living this way, I have numerous friends–married and celibate–for whom the word “friend’ fails communicate the depth of intimacy we experience in those relationships.

Practice serving others regularly
Getting out and doing something to help people is a great way to see past the end of your own nose. I also found that being positioned to see others’ needs helped me consider how I could be a blessing to them and how they could bless me. As I began to cultivate a celibate vocation, I drove a one-day shift with Meals on Wheels in a low-income area of my town. Visiting briefly with the clients on my route allowed me to make those tentative spaces of connection. Seeing them week after week, I practiced making friends who were in a very different state of life than I was. It wasn’t a huge obligation, but I found myself missing the regular interaction when I moved abroad for a season. I’ve learned that I’m happiest when I’m giving to others in a consistent way. As time has gone on, I’ve shifted where I’ve invested my energies. Please know that serving others is a balance. Too much serving can lead to frustration that you’re always pouring yourself out and not receiving anything in return. I’ve come to ask myself, “Do I find this act of service meaningful and life-giving or am I doing it out of a fundamental sense of obligation?” The question has helped me find meaningful and life-giving ways to serve others. For folks looking for a number, I’ve found that I do best with 1 regular weekly commitment. I can usually find at least 2 hours in my week to serve others in an intentional way.

As this post was a brief venture into how-to land, I’m sure that your mileage will vary if you were to put these ideas into practice. This list reflects how I actively cultivated a celibate vocation. I’d love to hear from other people who have chosen to cultivate a celibate vocation about what they’re doing.

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4 thoughts on “Actively Cultivating a Celibate Vocation

  1. Lovely post! Some of the things in which you take delight and find “sacred” are, I’m sure, things you would enjoy doing with Sarah. Are there some things in this category that you would rather do with other people in your life? Are there activities that you enjoy doing, but with someone else who is not Sarah? I think it’s important to have a lot of strong connections in life and it sounds like you have many.

    • Hi Candy! Thanks for your comment. We’re glad to have you as a reader.

      There are things that I really enjoy that I don’t share with Sarah. For instance, I love long walks outside through all sorts of territory. Sarah’s asthma makes it hard for Sarah to enjoy long walks amid many allergens. As another observation, I also really enjoy cooking. Sarah would rather be on clean-up duty. I’m grateful when other friends who enjoy cooking come to visit, so we can conduct various culinary experiments sometimes. At the beginning of my friendship with Sarah, we actively discussed why I invest so regularly in many different friendships. I was pleased to learn that Sarah also invests regularly in many different friendships.

  2. Very thoughtful and creative. I especially liked your asking God to show you the intimate relationships you already had. Seeing the wider possibilities for intimacy also resonated. God bless you in all your efforts.

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