Musings on the Meaning of Celibacy

Almost exactly four months ago, we published this post on questions to ask oneself if considering the possibility of entering a celibate partnership. Commenters on that post challenged us to think more deeply about our own questions, particularly #4: “Do I have an idea of what celibacy might mean for me?” We think this is one of the most important items on our list, and we hope that we’ll always be asking ourselves this question as we continue living our celibate vocations together. If you’ve been with us since the beginning of our blog 10 months ago, you’ve likely read our “Why celibacy?” and “Defining celibacy” posts. Newer readers may have seen our post from two months ago where we revisited these. If you’ve perused the “Celibacy and Vocation” section of our index page, you can probably tell that our understandings of celibacy and vocation are constantly evolving. When we launched A Queer Calling on January 16, 2014, our concept of celibate vocation lived in partnership was very basic. One of our original hopes for AQC was that God would use our blog to help us mature in our vocations. Ten months in, we’re already seeing that the question “What does celibacy mean for us?” doesn’t have a simple, consistent answer. As we look through old posts and comment responses, we notice that over time there have been shifts — mostly subtle, a few more dramatic — in how we discuss the same topics we began broaching in January.

We think the best example of this is how we conceive of the four core values of celibacy that we laid out during week 1: hospitality, vulnerability, commitment, and shared spiritual life. One of the criticisms we’ve received over and over again is that our definition of celibacy says nothing about sexual abstinence. That was intentional because at the time we began blogging, we took sexual abstinence as a given when discussing celibate vocations. It’s obvious that part of a celibate vocation is not having sex, so our questions ten months ago focused on, “But what else? Christian vocations aren’t reducible to ‘having sex,’ or ‘not having sex.’ Vocations are more than that. Where is the more in celibacy?” Spending almost a year pondering the four values intensely has brought us a lovely surprise: at this point, hospitality, vulnerability, commitment, and shared spiritual life are becoming as much a given for us as sexual abstinence was in the beginning. We find that we no longer need to set aside specific, intentional times to think and pray about these issues. This focus is happening automatically, every day, and is often woven seamlessly into other aspects of our lives. It’s present even during seasons when we’re blogging more about LGBT issues than celibacy.

Last night over dinner, we were talking about how our approach to hospitality has changed since we first began our life together. While we’ve always wanted to be available for friends and acquaintances who need us, we used to be a bit more selective about how we would offer hospitality. Our primary questions for extending hospitality were once, “Is meeting x need something we can do without much trouble? How will extending hospitality in this way force us to make adjustments to our everyday lives?” As we enjoyed our salads and sandwiches, we reflected on the fact that neither of those questions enters our minds much anymore. Instead, we’re thinking, “How can we be most welcoming to this person? What are the needs, and how can we help?” We’re observing more unity of mind in our relationship as we discern how to best use what we have to welcome other people. If someone we know needs a place to stay short-term or long-term, we don’t even have to discuss pros and cons: without saying anything, we are already in agreement that this person can live in our guest room and dine at our table for as long as he or she needs. If a friend living several hours away is in trouble and has no one local to reach out to, we’re on the road as soon as work is over that day: Lindsey is packing bags and Sarah is planning logistics, and neither of us has ever questioned whether we would go. “Hows” instead of “whethers” have come to dominate our discussions of hospitality.

We’ve noticed that as we’ve spent more time thinking (and blogging) about celibacy, vulnerability as become less painful and more freeing for both of us. Our conversations at home, with celibate and non-celibate friends, at church, and in our professional lives have deepened beyond imagination. Both of us have already shared far more vulnerably at AQC than we ever thought possible. When we began this blog, Sarah had absolutely no intention of writing anything too specific about Sarah’s history of sexual trauma, eating disorders, and addiction. Lindsey had never dreamed of being able to share anything about celibacy or LGBT issues with people from our own Christian tradition. Our attempt to live the value of vulnerability has opened dozens of doors for conversation. We’ve been contacted by family members who had no idea what we’ve experienced while coming into our own as gay adults in the Christian faith, former classmates who wanted to apologize for haranguing us in middle school and high school, people we met in graduate school who never quite new how to engage thoughtfully with LGBT Christians, and folks from across the globe who are trying their best to discern what non-monastic celibacy looks like. In contacting us, they have gifted us with their vulnerability. At this point in our lives, we see vulnerability becoming so much more natural in our relationship with each other, our friends, and even people we don’t know that well. We’re learning that living into the value of vulnerability allows us to give of ourselves more freely.

Also, our commitments to each other, our Christian tradition, our faith community, our family of choice, and other people in general have grown in complexity and breadth since January. At the beginning, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We had been a couple for a little over a year, we had discerned vocations to celibacy lived in the world, and sensed that God was calling us into celibacy in partnership together. We were unsure of how this would manifest. How would we honor the commitment we have to one another, and what would be the best terminology for describing that? Would the people who had been telling us that we’re nothing more than “marriage without the sex” turn out to be right? As our relationship developed, would it come to look more like marriage, monasticism, or neither? The uncertainty hung over our heads like heavy rainclouds even though we had spent years independently pondering celibacy, marriage, and vocation. It has become clear to us over the past few months that we don’t need the perfect label to describe our mutual commitment or the commitments we have to God and others. For some things, there are no words — only wonder and mystery. We’ve learned that word choice isn’t what solidifies our willingness to be there for each other through thick and thin for the rest of our lives. We’ve also learned that as other people interact with our community of two in whatever ways they will, we don’t necessarily require language to describe our commitments to them either. A friend moves into our guest room for an indefinite period of time: does that make him a “member” of our community? Is he now part of our family? Another friend lives several hours away but is as emotionally and spiritually close to us as a brother: who is he to us, and how does that fit in with our vocation? We don’t worry about these things anymore. They’re distractions. Living celibacy is teaching us what it means to have faith that God — not humanity — is who truly makes vocations and relationships what they are.

The spiritual life we share began as a shared prayer rule. At the beginning of our relationship, we made a commitment to say Matins and Compline together every day, even if that meant one of us was reading while the other was driving to work. We experienced difficulty in honoring and appreciating the two very different spiritualities we bring into our current shared Christian tradition. Sarah’s inner Catholic and Lindsey’s inner evangelical had more than a few clashes at the beginning. As we’ve grown in our vocation, we’ve seen that a shared spiritual life involves significantly more than a daily prayer rule and debates over which variety of Christian music should blast from the car radio. Over time, we’ve experienced greater ease in discussing spiritual matters. We never hesitate to share openly about our personal spiritual lives with one another. Talking about our different experiences of sin and the graces of confession no longer has to be a theological debate and in hypothetical terms. These days in our home, “I’ve been struggling with x lately,” is met more often with, “I know and I’ve been waiting for you to talk with me about that,” than, “Really? What’s going on?” We’ve come to greater unity of mind when it comes to dealing with problems at church as well. We used to spend significantly more time thinking through dozens of possible approaches to troubled relationships with other parishioners and even more for broaching complicated issues with our priest. As it is now, we come to a sense of oneness very quickly most of the time when such issues arise. And if we’re in the midst of a difficult conversation with someone at church, we don’t have to wait for privacy to ask each other how to do better next time. We’re becoming a proficient team when it comes to managing the toughest parts of interaction with other humans.

When we started writing this post, we didn’t realize it would get lengthy this quickly! But we also wanted to touch upon a couple of other issues. This morning before publishing the post, we asked each other, “What do you think God is using our shared celibate vocation to teach you right now?” Lindsey’s answer focused on caregiving — that acts of providing and caring intimately for another person are not and should not be confined to marriage. We can both see how living celibacy is teaching us about the larger need for Christians (especially in the West) to rethink the artificial boundaries our societies have created around acts of care. Sarah’s response focused on the countercultural nature of celibacy — that an abundant Christian life in the world does not require marrying and having children, and that often, marriage has a way of locking people into certain cultural expectations. Celibacy poses challenges to the expectations our societies have for “responsible” adults, and it puts Christian traditions face to face with the idol we’ve made of marriage. We would like to delve more deeply into both these topics in later posts.

We’re grateful for all the lessons God has been teaching us as we strive to live our celibate vocations, and we’re awaiting eagerly what is to come. Circling back to the question at the beginning of the post: each day we see increasing evidence that, “Do I have an idea of what celibacy might mean for me?” is not truly a “yes or no” question. It’s a question that requires continuous and thorough self-examination in order to respond honestly. And our answer has become more organic and dynamic than either of us ever could have dreamed.

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