Stumbling towards Celibacy

A reflection by Lindsey

We’ve been talking a good bit here about how celibacy is a mature adult vocation. One needs to enter into celibacy rather than waiting for it to appear like magic. I’d go so far as to say that it helps when there’s a decided choice — a distinct, discrete moment of decision — to become a celibate. However, this past weekend I realized that particular frame is a bit too easy. It’s too neat, it’s too packaged, and it’s honestly a bit sterile. I’ve found my own celibate vocation by stumbling in the darkness, taking on a metric ton of risks along the way, and hoping that someday soon the broader Christian church would wise up in how it supports lay people discern celibate ways of life.

My journey towards celibacy is strange. I began it in the context of a romantic relationship. Neither one of us had a strong framework for what it meant to be celibate. We spent our time trying to draw good boundaries that were simultaneously appropriate for a dating relationship and effective at helping us avoid encountering undue sexual temptation. As I have reflected upon elsewhere, the practice of drawing boundaries to separate “right” from “wrong” wound up pulling the two of us apart. After that particular relationship ended, I started being more intentional about exploring a celibate vocation.

I’ve always had a bit of monastic envy. I remember being a little kid vaguely enthralled by the nuns who worked at the local Catholic school. Who were these teachers? And how did they managed to be so noticed in the community that people from other schools knew their names? Why did they seem so exotic? After my relationship had ended, I remember feeling the whole gamut of emotions as my spiritual directors encouraged me to start visiting monasteries. Every interaction I’ve had with monastics since has been truly inspiring. There’s something about the simple “monk food” that provides sustenance in a monastery that transcends the basic nutritional offerings of the plate. However, no matter how many communities I visited, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t likely to spend my life living in a monastery.

At one point approximately four years ago, I found myself thinking about vocation alone in my apartment. I was absolutely confident that I wanted to live a celibate way of life, equally convinced that I had no clue what exactly living a celibate life entailed, and reasonably sure my local church family wasn’t going to be a good place to help me learn about growing into a celibate vocation. I did the only thing I knew: I told God about my intentions and sought help from the Holy Spirit.

I received some helpful counsel from one abbess when I inquired about exploring a celibate vocation. She told me something to the effect of, “Whatever you see the nuns doing, do your best to live it out in your immediate context. Put into practice whatever bits of the monastic life as you can.” (I promise, she was much more eloquent than I’m remembering.) I did my best to adopt a pattern of prayer while also trying to connect meaningfully to the people around me. Getting to know monastics showed me that we’re not supposed to live our lives completely detached from other people.

In my stumbling towards celibacy, I refused to prohibit myself from exploring the full array of human relationships. I consider it slightly odd that I’ve been in more romantic/dating relationships after I had told God I wanted help in finding a celibate vocation. Sometimes I think I turned over some strange possibilities. I can think of at least two relationships where I knew that if they went anywhere, then those relationships would be very much directed towards marriage. On one hand, I trusted God to show me whether a marriage relationship would be aligned with my personal vocational pathway. On the other hand, I hoped that God would guide and direct me out of certain relationships I wasn’t supposed to be in at all. I definitely learned a lot about myself, grace, vocation, and other people because I allowed myself to be open to being wrong about my own vocational pathway.

Yet I find myself absolutely grateful I stumbled along towards celibacy. I rejoice that God impressed the need to share life with other people as this need compelled me to consider how I could be in meaningful relationships. I had opportunities to practice (again and again) how a celibate vocation might look and feel if it was not defined legalistically. And, I still find myself hoping and praying that in sharing my story, the Church might see a greater need to help lay celibates find their way.

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