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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13 thoughts on “What I Wish I’d Known About Celibacy and Vocation As a Teenager

  1. I’m not sure I understand the distinction you make between vocation and gift. Do you mean by gift that a person is given a special ability to be celibate? I also have difficulty with the idea that God would call us to a ministry without having the ability to carry it out. We may not be equipped when we discern the call but surely we would be able to develop the skills as we move into the vocation. Jonah may never have been a prophet before but clearly learned as he went, not unlike Amos who was not a professional prophet.

    I do love the phrase you use of integrating our sexuality in our lives no matter what vocation we have. I think it is also important to remember that our fundamental vocation is to develop an intimate relationship with our Abba God as a foundation for discerning all other vocations, especially with the help of a sensitive spiritual companion. I think a lot of people miss that step and still expect to receive orders from a generalissimo God.

    I suspect that the negative reaction some people have to your example is the widespread insistence in some circles that queer sexuality must be suppressed and the only option is celibacy. This notion is nothing like the model that you two offer and it will take some people (especially those with little or no experience of celibate lives) time to see that.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful reflections on your journey.

    • I’ll try to explain a bit more of what I meant when emphasizing vocation rather than gift. I fully believe that celibacy is a calling–a way of life that God calls us to in ways that may be obvious or subtle. But unfortunately, much of the current LGBT Christian rhetoric–particularly from the more progressive side–suggests that a person should only be celibate if he or she has the “gift of celibacy,” which is never actually defined. When I’ve asked people more about what they think the “gift of celibacy” is, most say that it’s a natural inclination toward celibacy. I would agree with this partly, but where we hit serious disagreement is the idea that before even committing to a vocation, a person has the gifts to live it out and knows that it will make him or her happy. I have a problem with the belief that vocation is all about happiness, and an even bigger problem with the belief that the gifts we are given should be the sole determiners of what God is asking us to do in life. I agree with your statement that when we are called to do something by God, God prepares us along the way even if we are not eager or well equipped at the beginning. I don’t think God leads us into things we are totally incapable of doing, but sometimes we go in clueless initially. Sometimes, all we have to go on at the beginning is a vague sense of “this is what God asks of me.” From my perspective, that’s not only a normal part of initial and continuing vocational discernment, but is also (in many cases) a necessary part. I’m wary of the “celibacy is a gift, not a mandate” message because it implies that God only asks us to do what we’re good at. Again, I do not support hitting people over the head with celibacy like a frying pan, but the message that celibacy is some sort of ethereal, undefined gift is harmful. It’s also unchristian. Instead, we should be encouraging young people to listen to God even if what they hear doesn’t always make sense at first. I’m concerned that the “celibacy is a gift” message will lead young people who *might* be called to celibacy to dismiss the idea from the outset. After spending a grand total of one evening during youth group thinking about vocation, it can be easy for a young person to conclude, “Yeah…celibacy…it doesn’t sound fun. Therefore, God can’t be calling me to it.” I hope that clarifies my point some. Yes, encourage kids to explore and use their God-given gifts. But also encourage them to remain open to the fact that God’s call to a particular ministry or vocation might be outside of what they currently know as their gifts. -Sarah

  2. Hi Sarah, I agree that discernment is crucial to a healthy spiritual life, and it’s sad that our churches aren’t prepared or staffed well enough to help young persons–or those of any age, for that matter–to understand how God “calls,” and how we can hear better.

    When I was 12 yes old I started hearing from the nuns at our school about God calling persons to be priests. Nothing about a call to any other form of commitment or service. There was a quiet implication that if we were being called and didnt listen, we were doing something that was not good. God might be unhappy with us. Gradually I internalized that fear, and started trying to listen harder. In high school, some of the priests were more direct: “Do you think you might have a vocation?”. and. “During the next retreat (a day or two devoted to religious talks and various prayer services), be sure to listen in case God might be calling you.”

    It was a very confusing experience. I wanted to do “God’s will,” but I didn’t know what that meant. Now I realize that discernment is both far more personal and delicate,and far less clear-cut and idealized,than was presented to us. In public schools the only sex education involves knowledge and wise choice. I don’t know what goes on in churches because I kept my children from the anxiety and fear that I experienced in religious schools, believing that I was doing them some good. Now I feel bad that they never had the opportunity to reflect before they stumbled into adulthood along with the crowd. Nevertheless, I had a greater fear of their being subtly influenced into thinking they heard a call when it might just have been suggestion from a likeable and sympathetic adult, a suggestion that led to imagining voices rather than studying their interests, circumstances, gifts, and gradually-developing values.

    As a teacher myself, I always kept in mind the maxim, “First do no harm.” As a result I am leery of any firm of discernment instruction for adolescents. That is not to say they should be left to the influences of “the world.” Honestly, I just don’t know how to provide a safe and reliable setting for young persons to discover their callings, or even if there is such a thing (I.e., the possibility that we make our callings out of our various experiences-good and bad–of our own lives).

    Given all that, I am glad that persons like you are thinking and writing about such an important and complicated matter.

    • Hi Albert. Thanks for sharing that with me. I’ve had some of the same experiences with messages from nuns about the priesthood and religious life. When I was Catholic and a college sophomore, I went on one discernment retreat in college where a nun told us that if God was calling us to religious life and we missed that call, we were rejecting it and thus rejecting God. Many of us left the retreat terrified that we were rejecting God without even knowing it. You’re right–offering discernment advice to children, teens, and young adults is a tricky business and it can be easy to do harm without realizing what one is doing. I don’t feel qualified to give any kind of discernment advice to teenagers, and I’d have to give it some serious thought before actually giving a talk on this if I were asked to in the future. But as I said in this post, we aren’t always initially equipped or specially gifted for what God calls us to do…so I’m not going to exclude the possibility that Lindsey and I might be called to do some more work in this area. -Sarah

  3. I actually do have the opportunity to chat with pre-teens and teenagers about vocation often (especially teenagers who are experiencing SSA, and will likely identity as LGBTQAI in the coming years).

    What I say most often is that it is possible to be celibate, gay/lesbian, and cultivate a happy, fulfilling life in Christ.

    I say there is no reason to pick a letter of the alphabet soup (LGBTQAI) before you’re ready and it feels right to you. I also say there’s no reason to hold on to a letter that no longer fits (if you identified as bisexual, but you find your attraction is actually pansexual or homosexual or asexual, it’s okay to say “bisexual doesn’t really describe me anymore”).

    I say that you shouldn’t enter a sexual/romantic relationship or a celebate vocation to please other people. You should take your time with these things. You should be cautious of anyone who is pressuring you go further and/or faster into romantic/sexual relationships, or go further and/or faster into celibacy, than you are ready for. (Ie/ Maybe you are comfortable saying “I want to be celibate” but you aren’t ready to make a commitment to a religious order yet, or decide whether your specific celibate vocation will involve commitments to a religious order, that’s totally okay. Take your time. People will pressure you and try to make your vocation look the way they want, but it’s really between you and God as you understand God and the people who will be facing the responsibilities of your commitments with you —- on the other side, you aren’t betraying the LGBT community just because your life is not currently a photogenic HRC ad. Don’t let other pressure you into having the sex life they want you to have, that’s between you, God as you understand God, and the person you’re having sexual relations with and the people who will be facing the responsibilities of your commitments with you).

    I say get to know yourself first. Find out what your spiritual and emotional needs are, find some healthy and ethical and fulfilling things that meet those needs. You probably have countless examples of ways to fill those needs in your tradition and/or community. (Ie/ Are you a biker? Join a biking club!)

    I say that celibate vocations, and romantic/sexual relationships, often require a village. Whether you want to pursue celibacy or romantic/sexual relationships, first, you need to learn how to be a good friend, a good sibling, a good aunt/uncle, a good son/daughter, ect, ect. Focus on being a good friend, being a part of your community and on giving back.

    I stress: take it easy on yourself and on others. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to realize that you were wrong. When you’ve hurt someone, or yourself, ask for forgiveness with as little ego as you can manage, and try to make up for it in any way you can. Then let it go. You may find a lot of help with this in your tradition, otherwise, try to look at how people you admire do this and learn from them. Most of us are just trying to learn to be less-selfish and more loving. All of us make mistakes. All of us.

    That’s what I say to teenagers.

    • I really like your thoughts about not choosing a letter too quickly, not holding onto a letter long than it seems to fit, and not worrying too much about it if other people try to tell you how your vocation should look. All of these things make a person much freer to listen to what God is saying and let go of distractions from that. Thanks for sharing. -Sarah

  4. Nothing to do with the post. Sarah ive noticed you love animals and I just found an injured lone goose by my apartment is there anything else I should do besides trying to contact a wildlife rehabilitator? Thank you

  5. Hello, I am 16 and romantically inclined to the same-gender and I want to say that this blog has helped me.

    When this inclination became apparent to me I went to books and the internet to help me understand what the Bible was saying. Since I suffer from scrupulosity I became worried that if I accepted this inclination I would be taking the easy root and not working hard enough for God but also worrying that if I rejected it I would be doing so to flatter others and not be staying true to God. I decided to just follow God’s will but of course I feared that I would just be projecting my will onto Him! So I was driven to find the truth, whatever it is, for I still don’t know. God has given us so much love and mercy and truly He is great, so I would be loathe to do anything more that displeases Him, though I am a horrible sinner already.

    I looked around and found some things that show faithfulness and submission to God and also make sense in the light of the truth. You see, many things made it all about sex. I’m not at the stage where I want adult things, I just wish I could marry and love someone as my wife to serve God beside, my feelings are actually not sexual at all and I know this very well so that stuff didn’t help one bit, it just made me irritated, confused and kind of mad. I thought it was ridiculous that they felt like people just wanted to get married because of sex and only sex, because all my observations prove otherwise. They made no sense in the light of truth and empathy, these things that said it was lust and nothing more.

    But amidst ignorance I found things where I found people with the same inclination as myself who were very self-sacrificing, compassionate and loved God above all, doing His will and not their own. When ever I find something like this my heart warms and I feel new hope, that this inclination does not negate my wish to serve God and that there is a future in which I can do good for Him. I believe this blog is one of those places.

    I feel very called towards celibacy, I think many may say I am too young to know this and maybe that is true but I would not be surprised if I am correct about this one thing. Should I be correct about my calling I have no idea if I should have a companion or if I am to join a religious community or simply remain single but God and time will reveal that I trust.

    I hope teens like me find this and places like this, that don’t make assumptions and follow God above all else, because it helped me not feel like less of a person anymore because of something I cannot change. God bless.

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