Celibacy Involves Family — Madonna House

As you may have noticed, we’ve gotten a little off our normal posting schedule this week. Our apologies! We’re eagerly counting down days to the Gay Christian Network conference in Portland. We hope to see many of you there. We thought this week would be a good opportunity to share a bit about the workshop we gave at the 2014 conference. Many people approached us after our workshop wanting to hear more about how we experienced living in a celibate partnership. We were totally caught off-guard but decided to experiment with blogging about our life together. At the 2014 conference, we presented a workshop called “Celibacy Involves Family” where we discussed how celibate people maintain and craft meaningful family ties. Our goal in this post is to share a bit of what we talked about in that workshop while simultaneously featuring Madonna House, a Catholic lay association of the faithful, as part of our celibate profiles series.

The purpose of our workshop was not to make an argument for celibacy, but to support people currently living, discerning, or interested in celibacy as a temporary or perpetual way of life. A secondary purpose was to show an example that counters the misconception that celibacy is marked by a life of loneliness and misery. People who attended our workshop had diverse perspectives, and some attendees were straight allies and non-celibate LGBT people interested in learning how to be more supportive of celibates.

We began the session by asking what words, images, and associations do we think of when we hear the word celibacy. We collected responses to this question on a large sheet of paper, and then repeated the process focusing on the word family. Words like unsupported, singleness, misunderstood, isolation, outsider, sexually frustrated, loneliness, and oppression filled the sheet dedicated to celibacy and words like children, commitment, intimacy, quality time, belonging, community, love, affection, and safety filled the sheet dedicated to family. It didn’t take long to see that people tended to have more negative associations with celibacy and more positive associations with family.

Workshop participants's association with celibacy

Workshop participants’s association with celibacy

...and with family

…and with family

We then suggested a four-part framework for thinking about family that included family of origin, family of choice, proximate family, and distant family. Family of origin means the family in which one is raised. Family of choice is compromised of the rich relationships one makes a conscious effort to maintain and often pulls on a person’s network of friends. Proximate family are the people you are physically close enough to share rhythms of daily life while distant family are the people who live much farther away. We used this framework to ask four organizing questions:

  • How do we strengthen ties with our families of origin?
  • How do we build our families of choice?
  • How do we cultivate a way of life with our proximate families?
  • How do we honor connections with our distant families?

After we asked those questions, we dove into discussing how the Madonna House Apostolate provides insights into living these questions out as celibate people.

Madonna House was founded in 1947 by Catherine de Hueck Doherty and her husband Eddie. The main house is located in Combermere, Ontario, Canada and has smaller branches in places around the world. The Madonna House is a lay association of the faithful recognized by the Catholic Church, which means that it is compromised primarily of lay members. Madonna House focuses on serving others through hospitality and charity. All members have made commitments to celibacy. The family of Madonna House has a diverse membership, including male and female lay apostles, male and female applicants, and priests — all hailing from many different countries. Additionally, there are associate bishops, priests, and deacons who do not live at Madonna House but are affiliated by their support of Madonna House’s mission. Year-round, male and female visiting volunteers and working guests stay at and engage in the work of Madonna House, although these people are not formal members of the Apostolate. Catherine Doherty once described Madonna House in the following manner: “Our spirit is that of a family, modeled on the Holy Family of Nazareth, which was a community of perfect charity and love.” At Madonna House, which Sarah has visited, one finds plentiful examples illustrative of a rich family life.

Though Madonna House lay apostles live in community year-round rather than with their families of origin, this celibate family encourages connection with members’ families of origin. Members visit their families a few times each year. Families of origin are invited to ceremonies and can participate in the community life as working guests. Additionally, families of origin assist in planning end-of-life care and funerals for their loved ones who have become Madonna House members. Remembering and honoring the origins of its members is an integral part of Madonna House life as well. The spiritual life of the community involves practices of both Eastern and Western Catholicism, and efforts are made to integrate important cultural customs associated with holidays and feasts.

Regarding building family of choice, Madonna House excels at creating ways to welcome new people into its family. Every person, even the newest guest, has a job for each day. Daily work performed by both members and guests benefits the entire Madonna House family and the surrounding local community. For guests who decide to explore a deeper commitment to Madonna House, spiritual direction and opportunities for prayer and discernment are available. All members of Madonna House participate in continuing spiritual, intellectual, and practical formation. When a person decides to become an applicant, he or she is welcomed to the family with a cake that symbolizes one’s continuing life with the Madonna House family. After one’s time as an applicant has come to an end, he or she may decide to be fully integrated as a member of Madonna House, making a 2-year commitment with promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This commitment can be renewed a second and a third time before a member is able to make final promises — a lifelong commitment to the Madonna House family.

The proximate family of Madonna House is not only members and guests, but also people in the local community who seek out Madonna House for prayer and assistance. There is a thrift bookshop and clothing store on site where people in the local community can come and find necessary items priced for pennies. As for cultivating a way of life amongst proximate Madonna House members, the community is organized by a shared spiritual life, practical daily work, and shared community time. Each of these facets creates opportunities for the family to bond. Members are expected to be able to give and receive brotherly correction. The community gathers several times a day for communal meals, daily recreation time, daily prayers, and Mass.

Madonna House has an extensive network of people in its distant family. Honoring connections with distant family members frequently means maintaining ties with families of origin. As mentioned previously, family members of lay apostles are frequently welcomed as working guests. During Sarah’s time visiting Madonna House, Sarah heard many stories from members about their past and present relationships with their parents, brothers, sisters, and cousins. Members living at the main house also honor other Madonna House members in different locations. In front of the house stands a direction post that lists all Madonna House field houses by having signs that point toward each.

After discussing the Madonna House example with workshop attendees, we asked them to consider again the four questions we asked at the beginning. We spent time in both small and large group discussion. We concluded by providing a list of reflection questions before asking people to share as they felt led.

For those readers who want to play along, we ended our workshop with the following questions geared towards exploring how people living celibacy might facilitate a rich family life:

  • With whom do you have meaningful relationships?
  • How do we discern what kinds of relationships we need given a particular season of life?
  • How can you find models for living a celibate life?
  • How does your faith inspire and encourage you in living a celibate life?
  • What pathways might be available to you for repairing and strengthening your relationships with your families of origin?
  • What might prevent you from building a family of choice?
  • What fears do you have about cultivating a way of life within your proximate family?

We hope that you’ve enjoyed seeing a bit about what we presented at the 2014 conference. This year, we’re presenting a workshop on Celibacy and the Church. As was true last year, we are not interested in making an argument for celibacy. We are interested in helping celibate Christians, people who are exploring the possibility of celibacy for themselves, and other Christians and churches who want to support people in celibate vocations. We’d love to see you!

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