Recently, we have encountered some criticism about our way of life in other places of the internet. It has been suggested that our using words like “partner” and “family” indicates we are trying to mimic marriage as opposed to embracing an intentionally celibate vocation. According to these critics, because we frequently use the word “partner” to describe our relationship, we must have lustful desires towards one another and cannot not possibly be living chastely. (If you don’t have any idea what we’re talking about, our post entitled Clearing the Air on “When Celibacy Fails” can direct you a bit more specifically to one of the relevant blogs.)
We do understand how people might be confused about our use of the word “partner” in our relationship. We do describe ourselves as a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple. If you look to the way “partner” is used in the broader culture, you would rarely see the couple who is using that term living into a celibate vocation. We spend a lot of time talking about important conversations we’d like to have on the blog. For several months, we’ve been discussing that we could say more about how our understanding of our vocation has been significantly shaped by monasticism. It seems to us that this latest conversation about the word “partner” provides an excellent launching point for such a conversation.
From the beginning, we have been up front about our acknowledgement that we do not have all the answers. Sarah has shared about some of the difficulty we’ve had in finding a language to describe our shared life. Lindsey frequently says that when it comes to the exact nature of our vocation, we’re building the plane while flying it. Our Christian tradition does not have a well-developed understanding of lay celibacy, so we have tried to learn as much as we can about our vocation from both married couples and monastics. We regard ourselves as works in progress, and we hope that our readers can extend us charity as we sort through some of this muddle.
In Lindsey’s post on Actively Cultivating a Celibate Vocation, Lindsey highlighted the importance of getting to know people who are living celibacy. Even before we met one another, both of us devoted significant energies to meeting various vowed religious. We have read many accounts of monastics, traveled to various monasteries, and journeyed alongside others who have been discerning specific religious vocations that carry the expectation of celibacy.
One of the most important things we’ve noticed about monasteries is that no two monasteries are the same. Each monastery has its unique sense of community that affects how the members see themselves as a monastic family extending hospitality to others. Some monasteries have the capability of hosting a huge number of pilgrims at a time, and other monasteries will welcome a small handful of overnight guests. The guest quarters in the smallest monasteries we’ve visited amount to little more than a spare room in the house. At the risk of overgeneralizing a bit, visiting large monasteries can make one feel like one has entered another world while visiting small monasteries can leave one feeling remarkably impressed by the mundaneness of the everyday. Some of the larger monasteries seem to serve every liturgical service available in well-equipped chapels, while many of the smaller monasteries pray a basic set of morning and evening prayer on either side of the work day. We’ve even had the privilege of visiting monastics who live in urban areas and work full-time during the day in a way that aligns their professional gifts with the mission of the Church.
We hope it comes as no surprise to our readers that we have made a concerted effort to learn from these various small monastic communities about how we might pattern our lives as a community of two. Specifically, we have been drawn to the concept of a skete. Sketes are small monastic communities where two or three celibates live together. Because it’s rarely practical for a community of two or three to be completely self-sustaining, skete monastics frequently interact with more sizable monastic communities or with the world at large in order to support themselves. Skete monastics often choose very particular forms of ministry to do together and may describe themselves as partners in ministry. Like other monasteries, sketes exist because of a bishop’s blessing. Many large monasteries have a skete at their origins. It’s not terribly uncommon to see a small monastic community living as a skete entreating God to give the increase to their humble beginnings.
While we do not see ourselves as establishing an actual skete, we do try to pattern our lives significantly after what we have seen from skete monastics. We see ourselves as working hard to establish a sense of what lay celibacy in the world might look like, particularly when lived together as a pair. Specifically, we have a commitment to being an open book with our spiritual fathers about our life and ministry together. We earnestly desire to live into the fullness of our Christian tradition’s teachings, and we participate regularly in our local parish. Additionally, we regularly pray and discuss our shared ministry as a team of two (some might say “partnership”).
We have been living together for just over a year; it takes time to discern what work we should be giving ourselves to. We want God to guide our steps as we consider a multitude of ministry possibilities. We try to maintain a balanced rhythm in our life together. We have established dinner as a sacred time to share with one another. For example, it works best for us when Lindsey cooks and Sarah handles the after-dinner clean-up. We also try and balance the time we have together with time we spend in larger communities of one kind or another. We view our relationship as being principally oriented outward to serve the world, and we thank God for the ways we’ve found to use our ministry gifts that are unlocked by the presence of the other to love various people we have met.
There are certain monastics that stand out to us as we think about who has taught us about our vocation. Lindsey once stayed with a nun working in a local parish. This nun served as a critical backbone to her community, observing a daily cycle of morning and evening prayer. When she wasn’t in her chapel or attending to local services, she met regularly with students to offer spiritual direction. She carried forward the work she had begun with another nun, even after her partner in ministry was moved by the bishop to another city.
Sarah has never experienced more extravagant hospitality than was showcased by a hospice nurse who attended to Sarah’s grandmother. Sarah’s grandmother had reached the last few weeks of her life. This hospice nun absolutely lit up the room while providing palliative care to Sarah’s grandmother and getting to know everyone in Sarah’s family. Eleven-year-old Sarah had taken to making a fashion statement of wearing mismatched socks. The hospice nurse told the other nursing staff about Sarah’s self-expression and encouraged them to make a special cake in Sarah’s honor: the cake had two different colors of frosting, one on each side, much like Sarah’s socks. The nun made herself emotionally available to everyone in Sarah’s family during this difficult time. Nearly 18 years later, Sarah remembers this nun teaching that whenever a person or family experiences a time of significant distress, there needs to be someone else capable of giving his or her complete self in order to care for those ailing. Although it’s wonderful when people can give a little bit in those situations, the world needs people who can give everything by turning themselves fully outward to care for those who need it.
To be sure, we’re still working on embodying the virtues we see in monastics. A shared rule of prayer is one core attribute of monasticism we want God to open up to us more fully. Because our daily schedules are so variable, we struggle to discern a common prayer rule that we can keep together. Both of us keep individual rules of prayer, we have a disciplined practice of always blessing our food together, and we occasionally share times of spontaneous prayer. Nevertheless, we do hope that God will guide us towards a shared rule of prayer that we can keep together on a daily basis. Additionally, we regard vulnerability and hospitality as defining attributes of a celibate vocation. We frequently perceive ourselves as doing reasonably well in both of these areas, but we know that God still wants us to grow towards increasing vulnerability and hospitality. Lastly, although we believe strongly that God is calling us to a shared form of ministry, we know God is still telling us more about the work we are to do together. We don’t have everything figured out already–not by a long shot.
In conclusion, we are grateful for all of the ways God helps us to discern our vocation as a community of two, revealing to us more over time how he would have us serve the world as team of two and partners in ministry. We have learned so much from monastics, especially those who live in sketes. We are lay celibates living in the world, and as such we do not pretend for an instant that we embody monastic life fully. But we rejoice because each of our failures has given us room to grow towards Christ in ways we had never imagined.
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