Celibacy, Family, and Caregiving

A reflection by Lindsey

Certain events have a way of etching themselves into one’s memory. I remember one day last April when Sarah was headed to work. We were finishing a conversation from earlier that morning as Sarah drove. Sarah had the phone on speaker in the passenger seat. I knew Sarah was approaching work and was only a few minutes away, but I was slow to get off the phone. Next thing I knew, Sarah was stammering frantically about another car speeding around the corner, seconds from impact. I heard the awful crunching sounds of a car accident. Less than 3 minutes later, I was driving with haste while hoping Sarah would call me back so I could pinpoint exactly where the accident occurred.

I couldn’t envisage anyone else living locally who knows Sarah well enough to be useful in a similar situation. Once I got to Sarah, we realized we needed to move Sarah’s car to a safe parking lot and take Sarah to the emergency room to be evaluated. While en route to the ER, I asked a bunch of questions to learn what happened. This proved useful after Sarah was triaged to the head of the line but then started to suffer clear symptoms of a mild concussion. I had watched Sarah’s memory go in and out. As I lingered in the waiting area while Sarah was being taken to a bed, Sarah began texting me with questions like, “What happened? Where are you? Why does my head hurt?” I found it comparatively easy to decide that I could be most helpful by sitting with Sarah through the doctor’s evaluation. It was not my first ER vigil with Sarah nor has it been my last.

Even though many people agree that caregiving is an integral part of family life, many fail to appreciate how caregiving deeply connects celibates to one another. On the one hand, I can appreciate the lack of understanding. I’m 31 years old and generally a healthy young adult. It’s all too easy for me to conceive of “health problems” as “things you deal with as you start getting older.” In my immediate circle of friends, chronic health challenges are comparatively rare. On the other hand, caregiving has been a central component of the life I share with Sarah. I understand that people deal with “people things,” and I do my best to avoid shaming anyone who happens to need extra support at a given time. I consider it a deep honor to help people with eating disorders feel safe while eating dinner and to accompany Sarah and others on various healing journeys. Such a sojourn connects me more deeply with my own humanity. I’m more likely to pray for my own needs when I’m praying for others.

To be able to provide care for another person, one must permit that person to be vulnerable. Vulnerability opens a mysterious door to intimacy where the connections defy easy categorization.

We’ve shared about how we draw a lot of inspiration for our life together from monastics. I’ve spent the last seven years trying to get to know people living in a number of monastic communities. Monasteries are great places to find people who can model purposeful celibate living that includes caregiving. Someone at virtually every community I’ve visited has taken it upon himself or herself to tell me a personal caregiving story.

Talking about caregiving as LGBT person is risky. I’ve spent many years in ex-gay ministries that blasted any form of caregiving as a place ripe for “emotional dependency.” Some people within addiction recovery culture have been quick to label me “codependent” or an “enabler” that seeks to protect Sarah from natural consequences of destructive forms of behavior. These people fail to realize that I constantly reflect on what good caregiving is and how it taxes my energies, rigorously question my own limitations, and try to help Sarah locate additional support resources when needed.

All of this causes cognitive dissonance for others when they realize that Sarah is a part of my family. People understand the value of putting family first and appreciate the importance of being there for one’s family in any range of circumstances. It’s worth noting that nearly all of the monastic communities I’ve visited describe themselves as a family, especially as it relates to the demands of caregiving.

Many people object to our using the word family to describe ourselves. At one point, a reader accused us of launching a “hateful attack” on true families for referring to ourselves with this term. Some people assert that there’s no way that we can be family because we’re celibate. Other people assert that we should talk about our relationship principally as a friendship and avoid the word family so as not to confuse and mislead. We wonder what these people would say to an elderly monastic in need of care. Should an aging nun be shipped off to a nursing home as soon as she needs more regular care? Or should she be able to rely on her monastic family? Is there any Christian who would object to this nun’s considering her monastic sisters to be her family? We wonder if Christians have taken any note of celibate LGBT singles who regularly express concerns about their potential needs for caregiving, either now or in the distant future. Continually, I’m struck by the interconnectedness of caregiving and loneliness: when one doubts whether one has the freedom to receive care from others, one is much more likely to feel lonely.

Caregiving is a tricky process. When caregiving is done rightly, it draws us into meaningful relationships with those for whom we provide care. Vulnerability gets negotiated such that one person isn’t always having to make the hard disclosures. Handled rightly, vulnerability becomes trust. I’d contend that only in an environment of trust can true caregiving happen. Serving others in love and humility and allowing others to care for us is transformative. Somehow, every rightly orientated care response draws us into healthy forms of interdependence where we become that much more alive to Christ’s work on earth. Every day I find myself praying for the wisdom to provide Sarah with true care that is sourced from how God loves each of us. In so doing, I become that much more human.

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8 thoughts on “Celibacy, Family, and Caregiving

  1. I love this. The idea of family really resonates with me. When I was little I always said I wanted sisters. But what I wanted in a sister was much more than what most biological sisters were to their own sisters. “Friend” just doesn’t begin to cover it.

      • So how would you encourage people looking for family as a celibate person to do so?/How would you encourage “extra-marital families” (for lack of a better term).
        I have always had religious communities in the forefront of my mind, but I want to be open to any community God puts in my way, secular or religious.

        • I generally think that people need to find their own way through many of these questions. My own angle has been to trust that I already have meaningful relationships with other people while asking God to reveal these relationships to me more fully. I have 3 reflections that might also be helpful: Actively Cultivating a Celibate Vocation, Maturing Towards Celibacy, and Stumbling Towards Celibacy.

  2. I was at a community organising training seminar this week and reflected on how we all came together as an extended family. Church is also a family. I think this view of family in a broad sense is very helpful.

    God bless

    • Thanks Chris! I love being a part of the church as a family. I’ve been so grateful to all of the children at my various churches who have spontaneously welcomed me into the broader family of the church.

  3. If you want to want to do caregiving for eachother there is a easy fix for the problem. Get married. Go to a a church that lets you be married and doesn’t make you hate yourself.

    • Kay, it likely does not surprise you that I believe there should be more expansive caregiving structures than marriage. Marriage as a caregiving structure enables spouses to care for one another and their children. It doesn’t take much to see that the caregiving supports can break down, especially after the death of one spouse. Without additional accepted caregiving structures, all sorts of people get left out: widows, orphans, single people, and those in committed relationships that do not want to use the word marriage for any number of reasons.

      And again, we welcome all conversation in our comment box, but we do not appreciate when other people assert they know our motivations better than we do. Please be respectful. -Lindsey

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