What I Wish I’d Known About Celibacy and Vocation As a Teenager

A reflection by Sarah

Of all conversations Lindsey and I engage in, some of the most interesting have been with people who are curious to know how we would talk with teenagers about celibate vocations. Parents and catechists in our own Christian tradition and others have reached out to ask us for input on discussing celibacy in church school and youth group contexts. A variety of other people have contacted us to express concern that because Lindsey and I are a celibate LGBT couple, we must be promoting a message that is toxic to teenagers, especially those who are or might be LGBT. On occasion we’ve been told, “I have to oppose what you’re doing at A Queer Calling because gay adults’ talking about celibacy leads LGBT youth to suicide.” Though I’ll admit upfront that I find this claim ridiculous, I can understand why readers are interested to know how Lindsey and I would talk about vocation with a group of teens if we had the opportunity for such a conversation. (By the way, up to this point such an opportunity has not arisen for us.) Sometimes readers also inform us that they are displeased with the way other celibate LGBT adults talk about celibacy with teenagers. My advice for dealing with this concern is that it’s best to address it with the person/people in question rather than holding us responsible for counsel offered by someone else.

Because we’ve been getting related queries more often in recent weeks, I’m reflecting on this topic today instead of posting one of our usual Saturday Symposium questions. For my part, I wish that teenage Sarah had known more adults who were willing to have no-holds-barred discussions of marriage, celibacy, and vocation with young people. I would have benefited immensely from this, and I see the absence of such conversation as a deficiency in my adolescent faith formation. In this post, I offer a list of things I wish someone would have told me about celibacy and vocation during my teen years. This list would be my starting point, should I ever be asked to give a talk to a church school or youth group.

Celibacy is not just for Catholic/Orthodox monastics and Catholic priests. There are lay people living in the world as celibates, and they are present in virtually every local community. Most of them have never had the opportunity to share their stories, and some would be delighted to talk with you about their lives. As you are coming into adulthood, you’ll develop a broader appreciation of what it means to be an adult in the Christian tradition if you engage in conversation with people living into different vocations. During middle school, high school, and college, challenge yourself to learn from the adults who are unmarried and unattached to monastic communities as well as those who are. As you do this, you will come to see that marriage is not the only way a person can participate fully in the life of the Church.

Celibacy is a vocation. Or depending upon how you look at it, we might also say that celibacy can be part of a vocation. Celibacy is not a punishment, mandate, or death sentence. It is a mature, adult way of life that enables people to manifest and participate in the Kingdom of God. This is also true of marriage. Just as there’s a lot more to marriage than having a spouse and welcoming children, there’s more to celibacy than sexual abstinence. If you are considering a celibate vocation, it is unhealthy and limiting to think of your purpose in life as “not having sex.” At fifteen, it’s tough to imagine what celibacy could possibly be if it’s not just about avoiding sex. That’s why it’s very important to get to know adults living celibate vocations. Exploring what it means to live a celibate vocation will enrich your understanding of the Christian tradition, even if once you reach adulthood you discern that God is calling you to marriage.

Celibacy can be a gift, but God sometimes calls people to do things for which they are not specially gifted or well equipped. Just like the vocation to marriage, a celibate vocation will involve joys as well as sorrows. You might have the gift of celibacy, or you might not. You may have a strong sense of this right now, or you may need to spend the next few years thinking about it. But you don’t have to figure that out right now, and it should not be the sole determining factor for answering the question, “How is God calling me to spend my life?” The key word in all of this is not gift — it’s calling. In the course of your lifetime, it’s likely that God will call you to at least one thing for which you do not feel prepared. That could be a career you never imagined yourself pursuing, missionary work in a faraway place that seems frightening, or friendship with a person who is struggling with a problem you have never experienced. If God calls you to parenthood, you may never sense that you are specially gifted as a mother or father. Jonah in the Old Testament was neither equipped nor eager when God commanded him to prophesy against Nineveh. Do not dismiss the possibility that the same can be true (and often is true) of those God calls to celibacy. I know a large number of celibate people in a variety of vocational contexts, and very few of them would say that their celibacy comes from a special gift. Some people may tell you that unless you know in your heart that God has given you the “gift of celibacy,” you should not consider pursuing a celibate vocation. These same people will probably never be able to give you a straight answer as to how you would know if you have this gift or not. Focusing on the gift of celibacy can be a distraction, especially if you grow up and do not sense giftedness toward any particular vocation. Think instead about “God’s calling to celibacy” and “God’s calling to marriage,” and find a compassionate spiritual director to help you ponder how God might be asking you to spend your life.

Celibacy and purity are not the same. Western Christianity, particularly in America, has come to emphasize purity so strongly that the practice of celibacy as lost its meaning in some traditions. While making morally sound decisions regarding sex is an important part of the Christian life, God knows that humans don’t do morality perfectly. If you have been or are currently sexually active, that does not make you unfit or ineligible for living a celibate vocation. If another person has sinned against you sexually, if you have been abused, assaulted, or raped, you are not at fault. You are not responsible for the sins others have committed against you. No matter what you have done and no matter what others have done to you, you are not a half-eaten candy bar, a wad of chewed gum, or a piece of tape that has lost its stickiness. Anyone who tells you such things is misleading you. Living fully into any vocation is a goal, not a lifelong state of perfection. Separate celibacy and purity in your mind right now. Committing a sin or being sinned against does not taint your body and soul for life. Living perfectly in accordance with conservative American purity standards from cradle to grave is not a requirement for answering God’s call to a celibate vocation.

Celibacy does not mean denying or repressing your sexuality, and God may be calling you to celibacy even if you find the idea of “having sex” appealing. Celibate people have sex drives just like married people. Most people who are called to celibacy do find the idea of sex appealing and often experience the desire for sex. While asexuality is real, the vast majority of celibates are not asexual. Celibacy is not a miserable state of getting through each day while trying every tip and trick possible to quiet unsatisfied sexual desire. If God is calling you to celibacy, the only way to live into that sustainably is to accept yourself as a sexual person (unless you are asexual, in which case accepting one’s asexuality would also be central to living celibacy sustainably). Where you are in life right now, it’s probably difficult to understand that it’s possible for a celibate person to integrate rather than excise his or her sexuality. This integration begins with honesty and open conversations. Depending upon your situation, it may also require learning to let go of shame.

Coming to understand and accept your sexual orientation might play into your vocational discernment process. Or it might not. For some people, discerning God’s call to marriage or to celibacy is primarily about the question, “To which type of vocation am I better suited?” For others, it’s about a deep sense of call that has been present from childhood onward. Still for others, the desire (or lack of desire) for a spouse and children is a starting point. There are probably as many possible motivators for considering celibacy and marriage as there are people discerning. Amongst many people across the sexual ethics ideological spectrum, the idea that sexual orientation could be a primary factor in vocational discernment is unpopular and sometimes met with hostility. You might be told by one person that if sexual orientation plays any role in your discernment process, you are engaging in self-loathing. You may hear from others that sexual orientation does not actually exist, and that people who “struggle with same-sex attraction” should work hard to prepare themselves for opposite-sex marriages. Avoid internalizing these messages and instead focus on asking God, “What are you calling me to do? How will I know what you are calling me to do?” Be open to the possibility that your sexual orientation could play a role in how you approach those questions. I’m not here to tell you that it necessarily should or must, but for some people it does and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In the spirit of our Saturday Symposium questions, I’m going to end this post by inviting our readers to reflect on the following: what do you wish an adult had told you about celibacy and vocation when you were a teenager? How would you use what you know now to help today’s tweens, teens, and young adults navigate difficult questions of sexuality and vocation? I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments.

Update: Lindsey wrote a brief companion piece to this one.

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