What I Wish I’d Known About Celibacy and Vocation As a Teenager, Part 2

A reflection by Lindsey

Yesterday, Sarah wrote a surprise reflection about talking with teenagers about celibacy and vocation. I thought I’d follow suit with my own reflection on the same topic. Sarah and I grew up in radically different contexts, so I had different things I needed to learn about celibacy and vocation while growing up. Here are some of the things I wish I had learned about celibacy and vocation during my teenage years.

Not everyone marries. On the surface, it might be surprising to think that I needed to learn that not everyone marries. However, I grew up surrounded by couples. I knew marriages occasionally ended in divorce, but it seemed like every adult I knew had at least tried marriage. I can think of three adults I knew who weren’t married. I knew identically one nun, and I had two teachers who most deemed unable to attract a spouse. Growing up I thought every older single woman was a frumpy cat lady while every older single man was inept at dating. It was perfectly acceptable to mock older single people while regularly gossiping about why they were still single or how they were likely having a clandestine affair with each other.

Celibacy is a thing. To be honest, I can’t even remember hearing the word celibate as a teenager. I think I was 24 years old before I heard anyone talking about celibacy. I knew that some people failed to marry and were still single. Being single at 40 was a true tragedy. I learned to pity the two adults I knew who were unmarried, and I never once conceived of the idea that they might be actively loving and serving the world. It’s next to impossible to discern one’s vocation if one doesn’t even know about celibate lives.

One doesn’t need to “work for the church” in order to have a life-giving celibate vocation. When I started college, I became aware that some Christians decided to forgo marriage for the sake of God’s kingdom. People were actively encouraging me and my friends to become missionaries right after college. Many friends from college entered more formal kinds of ministry. I had this whacky idea that I’d somehow make it as a college professor who did college ministry on the side. My parents had instilled a profound sense of work-life balance in me. It made sense to me that I would divide my energies between being a professor and being a campus minister. I couldn’t imagine teaching and ministering to college students if I had a family to attend to. I saw every minister who worked as a “tentmaker” attempting to fund his or her own ministry efforts as bi-vocational. Other single people who were viewed highly by my college friends were people who did leave everything to become overseas missionaries. Celibacy made sense to me in the context of church-commissioned, full-time ministry. I would have liked to talk with people who had a broader view of vocation.

When discerning vocation, pay attention to which Scriptures speak to you… and which Scriptures don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like Scripture passages specifically discussing marriage spoke directly to my heart about how God wanted me to live my life. While I found the story of the Wedding at Cana intriguing, I also found it almost bewildering when my friends would start spouting off how badly they wanted to invite Jesus to their weddings. Was I a freak for wanting to understand more what Mary meant when she commanded the servants to do whatever Jesus told them to do? When I thought about the Scriptures that made me positively swoon in crazy hopes and dreams, why did I keep coming back to Luke 10? I would have loved to hear a spiritual director telling me that certain Scriptures had a way of depositing themselves into my heart for a reason and that it was okay for my set of most relatable Scriptures to be wholly distinct from those of other people in my Christian fellowship.

In many ways, I wish these lessons were more pervasive in the Church as a whole. I’d love to hear your thoughts on why celibate vocations are rarely discussed holistically in many Christian circles.

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