Celibacy and Foolery — Xenia of Saint Petersburg

Today, we’re making a different sort of addition to our celibate profiles series. The subject of today’s post is a person about whom very little information is available. So that our readers can easily draw from the examples we write on for this series, we try to profile individuals and groups for whom lots of background and resources exist even if they are difficult to find. Nonetheless, we find this saint particularly inspiring and wanted to share some of our thoughts.

Saint Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg, born Xenia Grigoryevna Petrova, was canonized in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988. She lived in the 18th century, but her exact birth and death dates are unknown. Very little is known of her early life. She was married to a court chorister who reposed when she was 26 years old, and rather than remarry or live a life typical of widows, she entered into voluntary poverty and spent the rest of her life roaming the city of St. Petersburg wearing her husband’s clothing. All historical records of her life indicate that she was committed to depending upon God for her every need to the point of rejecting assistance offered by her family. During her life, people came to admire her commitment to prayer and simplicity. Those who knew her saw her as an example of what it means to value closeness with God over material goods. According to her story, she was gifted with the ability to forsee certain events such as death. Very soon after she reposed at the age of 71, visitors to her gravesite began to report that the earth covering her body brought healing for illnesses of all kinds.

Xenia is an example of an ascetic “Holy Fool.” Holy Fools are people who reject certain social norms and show that life can be lived differently. We note that Xenia eschewed traditional counsel after her husband died, choosing to model unwavering reliance on divine providence. For many people, Xenia’s choices were madness. Why would a young widow choose to forgo various kinds of social supports available to her? Holy Fools are people who do outrageous things. Oftentimes, they rely on foolery as a way to hide their holiness from others: who would seek spiritual counsel from a person regarded as insane? We remember certain Holy Fools because, invariably, their holiness has shone through and people did seek their counsel and view them as models of devotion. Throughout the Christian experience, there have been many known Holy Fools. St. Paul wrote that foolishness is often a part of following Christ when he told the Corinthians, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.”

Xenia is notable for many reasons. First, her name is often translated to mean “stranger.” The way she lived her life bears witness to how Christians are called to live as strangers in a foreign land. Second, we chose to profile Xenia because she lived a very unusual vocation that included marriage and one of the most peculiar forms of asceticism. What little we know about her marriage aligns with the appropriate social norms of Russia at the time. Yet, Xenia undoubtedly sensed that God was calling her to live differently. She cast aside the social protections afforded to young widows and even broke certain gender norms. Women at Xenia’s time would not have been seen wearing men’s clothing. It was equally unheard of for women to take to wandering the streets voluntarily. People who are inspired by Xenia remember her because of how her life unfolded after her husband reposed rather than before. She is not the only person we’ve featured who entered into a celibate way of life after having been married. It’s easy to write off people like Xenia as “probably mentally ill.” But diversity among celibate vocations both past and present, including the vocation of the ascetic Holy Fool, give us insight into how strange and mysterious Christian living is meant to be in the first place.

Christ calls us to a different way of life where the last is made first, the first is made last, and not everything was are asked to do can be explained rationally. Today, as was probably also true in most past generations, non-celibate people sometimes think of celibates as mentally ill, crazy, or otherwise abnormal for having chosen a different way of life than marriage — or at least a different way of life than non-celibacy more generally. And when we add sexual orientation into the mix while discussing vocation, rationality, and mental health, there is no shortage of people — including other Christians — who are quick to refer to LGBTQ celibates as individuals suffering from psychological disorders. So what is the point of bringing up an example who is, in multiple respects, a stranger — a person about whom we know so little, and much of what we do know is about her unusual behavior? Remembering Xenia helps us to recall that most people live out their vocations quietly and simply, and in the midst of others who hold far greater social status than they do. We would also posit that most people live out their vocations with a degree of oddity, whether that oddity is apparent to the entire world or not. Xenia reminds us that living a vocation is not about doing great things, but is about being obedient and trusting in God’s ability to provide for our needs.

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Why I Call Myself “Celibate”

A reflection by Lindsey

There has been a fair amount of discussion in certain places around the internet on whether people can call themselves “celibate LGBTQ Christians.” We’ve written quite a bit already on why we use LGBTQ language to describe ourselves. Today I’d like to offer some more thoughts on why I call myself celibate.

Simply put, I call myself celibate because I see celibacy as integral to how I experience my sense of self, my life in Christ, and my life in the world. My celibate vocation influences so many of my decisions that it’s impossible for me to envision my life any other way.

I haven’t always been committed to celibacy. I hadn’t even encountered celibacy as a word until I was 24 years old. It’s incredibly difficult to live into a vocation if you don’t even know what to call it.

When I speak of vocation, I often think of a room that has many doors. One door is “marriage” while all of the other doors are entry points into various celibate vocations. Celibate vocations are diverse, and it’s entirely difficult to know which exact door God wants to open fully.

I grew up in a family where everyone got married. Extended family functions were literally gatherings of tons of nuclear families. Everywhere I looked, I saw family lived out at the center of virtue. The adults in my life impressed upon me the ways parents provide care and stability for their children. I saw a lot of healthy examples of marriages, and I spent a long time considering what role marriage might play in my own adult life. I deeply appreciate all of the lessons I learned about what marriage is and what marriage could be.

Nonetheless, I developed these kind of niggling feelings that it might be best for me to forgo getting married. When I was in college, I thought I might be bi-vocational. I easily saw myself moving into doing college ministry while working as a college professor. It seemed rather irresponsible to give myself to both pursuits while also trying to care for a family. Later on, in graduate school, I had a profound sense that I had zero desire to be a parent. This realization hit me like a ton of bricks, and I started to question conventional wisdom that marriage was both the default way of life and a necessary rite of passage.

Almost immediately, I had a sense of deep and abiding peace wash over me when I realized that I could forgo marriage. Yet, I found myself in a place that some would describe as “overwhelming with creative potential” in much the same way real estate agents speak of the potential of home requiring significant repairs. I felt like I had entered No-Man’s Land. There was no roadmap, but I thought I might be able to find a way forward.

At first, it was really hard to find any help figuring out what I should do. I was attending churches that placed marriage on an incredibly high platform and never spoke of either singleness or celibacy. I had a vague sense that nuns lived celibate lives. I tried searching for information on Catholic religious life to find models even though I didn’t have the foggiest idea what I was doing. I figured I’d save all of the theological questions I had about Catholicism for another day. I was desperate for any information about what my life could actually look like, and I wanted to find models where celibate people lived together in community.

After spinning my wheels for quite a bit, I started to get some traction. I sensed God calling me to live my life in my current Christian tradition where celibate vocations are slightly more visible. I began hanging out with lots of different people who were living celibate vocations. While I never quite experienced an overwhelming sense of “Wow, I totally belong here,” I did start to notice patterns found within celibate vocations. I was overwhelmed by the distinct sense of family found in every monastic community I visited. Monastics cared for one another in deep, profound, meaningful, and lasting ways that even appeared to reach beyond the grave. This sense of family varied a bit depending on the size of the community. I remember visiting a community of over 400 nuns where the nuns lived in a collection of small homes with two to six nuns per house. Every time I met a group of monastics, I was amazed at how wonderfully human all of them tended to be. I noticed that the most hospitable monastics also tended to be those who had also cultivated meaningful relationships with other monastics in their community. I had never been so glad to see the stereotype of “All monastics are people who have absolutely shunned all forms of meaningful human connection” so completely and entirely disproven. Many monastics encouraged me to continue cultivating my own vocation, and some directed me towards specific people living celibate vocations outside of the monasteries.

Then my younger brother got married. All of a sudden, people younger than me were mature enough to make the decision to get married.

Being the firstborn comes with a number of implicit assumptions. I realized that everyone thought it to be rather odd that I wasn’t married. I did the only logical thing I could think of and spent a few days at a monastery before my brother’s wedding. I knew in the absolute depths of my being that I did not feel called to marriage. I found myself at a crossroads of vocation. It was time to take the next step.

The problem I faced was that I didn’t have a clear set of next steps. I couldn’t go to my church and say, “I’d like to make a public profession that I intend on fully embracing celibacy.” Even though I had been trying to spend time with any celibate person I could find, everyone I found lived in a monastery as a monk or nun. I had university debt to pay off, and my story didn’t seem to mesh with any of the monastics I talked to. It bothered me that almost every church I could think of was prepared to help my brother marry, but I couldn’t think of any church that was prepared to help me embrace celibacy. I thought back to everything I had learned from the monastics that I had already met. I couldn’t help but remember people who had entered monasteries later in life. All of them had started living out celibate vocations long before they committed to a particular monastic community. I heard a chorus of voices telling me, “I entrusted myself to God’s care.”

So I did the next thing I could think of: I stood in the privacy of my own prayer corner to ask for God’s help in cultivating a celibate vocation that would bring me life. I knew that I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew equally that the time had come for me to tell God about my earnest intentions. The time had come to trust Christ that he would guide me as the good shepherd. The time had come for me to start to say, “I’m celibate.”

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Ultra-Conservativism in the Church as being detrimental to the faith of LGBTQ Christians

Today, we are featuring a guest post from Patrick who shares a bit of his personal story and describes how a certain type of conservative approach to discussing faith and sexuality can cause serious harm. Patrick shares his story using language of “struggle with same-sex attraction.” This is very different from how the two of us experience our sexualities, but as we have stated before, we believe it is very important to create space for LGBTQ (or SSA if you prefer) people to use language of their own choosing when describing layers of identity. It is important to state upfront that the writer of this post is not promoting an ex-gay ideology or advocating for any sort of orientation change efforts. We believe that all stories are important, and regardless of preferred terminology, we hope that all our readers will learn something from Patrick’s story. As with all guest posts, the ideas and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of A Queer Calling.

A guest post by Patrick

First off, I want to thank Sarah and Lindsey for the chance at writing a post on their blog. I am very honored to share my thoughts and reflections here! Secondly, I want to always say, for anyone in the church reading this post who struggles with same-sex attraction, you are not alone, and not all priests and ministers are your enemy or are ignorant of your spiritual needs and sexual desires.

I should start with a brief summary of my own life. I first realized that I had same-sex attraction when I hit puberty around 11 years old. I had had ‘friend’ crushes before that- since I was 9, and had also had same-sex lust when I was 10- but I never put together lust for a single person and a ‘friend’ crush together until I was 12 years old. By the time I was 13, I knew I was gay, even though I didn’t quite know what ‘gay’ was. I thought maybe I’ll just like girls later- but I could never find myself lusting for women, even after I had seen pornography featuring only women. It was when I was 15 that it finally dawned on me that to be ‘gay’ was not Christian (as I had known it). I had heard my quite right-leaning uncle condemning my own half-sister’s lesbian relationship, and later that year- I remember reading in the bible for the first time in Leviticus where it condemned gay relations, calling them an ‘abomination’. I thought my life was over. That day I was convinced I was going to commit suicide because God wouldn’t accept me as who I was.

While I did not pursue suicide, thinking it was too awful for my family to bear; I kept my secret to myself, and only came out as ‘bisexual’ when I was 17 because of social pressure. I became Orthodox while I was in college (and still in the closet) and had to detail this part of my life to my priest through my life’s confession as I was being received into the church. While he did indeed not judge or condemn me, he did challenge me to make my life less about my sexual orientation and more about my personhood in Christ. I had gone back into the closet in college only to come back out again when I was leaving school, this time through friends that wanted to help me understand my orientation, and through my priest when he started seeing that keeping this secret was making me dangerously mentally unstable. He encouraged me to come out to my family and friends, to develop good relationships with men, and to be celibate- something I wasn’t sure was possible to do at the time. I thank God for him, as I’m not the only person he has saved from the brink of destruction by going out of his own comfort zone to listen to our emotional and spiritual needs as it relates to sexual orientation. While my struggle has *not* been easy, I know it is what I must do for my life. It is my cross to bear, and I thank God for that, as it is how I am being more conformed to his image.

I have found through my own personal experiences in the Church that there is as much diversity in thought and practice as there is in most denominations, in how we frame political and ideological lines in our faith. Liberals, conservatives, and all in between, are found at the chalice each Sunday morning, desiring to draw close to receive the body of Christ and taste the fountain of immortality. The Church is the Church, on behalf of all and for all, the saints and sinners alike. We are all sinners in need of God’s grace, and if anyone should mark iniquities, who should stand? Only God the Father is good. We live our whole spiritual lives following him in his Son, in hopes we too can share in his rich inheritance He has left for us in His goodness. This is the end goal for all Orthodox Christians- a sanctified life in Christ wherein we are saved- no matter who we are or where we are when we begin the race.

I love all members of the Church as best I can, seeing them as co-strugglers. I love them as brothers and sisters in the faith. However, I find it disconcerting when any group takes it upon themselves to proclaim moral superiority above the whole body of believers- as have certain politically ultra-conservative Orthodox Christians. We are all free to have opinions about any number of things, but we are commanded to firmly proclaim the truth in love and abide by the rules and traditions of our faith. We are all to encourage each other to fight the good fight, but to do so in love. I see very little of this happening when some take it upon themselves to be the absolute moral authority of the Church, disparaging those whom they see as lesser, and proclaiming they are not fully Orthodox. I have seen this first hand- when it comes to the issue of homosexuality and gay members in the Church. When these issues are discussed, some ultra-conservative Christians feel the need to reinforce the law to the T– sans grace, speaking only about what the canons say regarding these topics, and using the Church fathers as a backbone of their arguments.

I understand many find it tough to begin to frame conversations on spirituality and sexuality in the Orthodox tradition, without it ending up as an absolute ultimatum of a choice between marriage and monasticism. There is not historically much mention of any other choice besides these that was considered holy and venerable, and this does not help us in the modern day where sexuality is seen as a whole identity in addition to, or rather than just part of that of Christianity. The idea of a sexual identity other than heterosexual is foreign to Orthodoxy- this much is true. But the reality is that this is the world which we find ourselves. We have to be able to formulate an ethical answer to these issues that addresses the needs of the faithful who do find themselves struggling with a sexual identity that is not along heteronormative lines. But as we do this, a core group of people in the Church who want nothing more than to erase that conversation and diminish the life experiences of those who struggle, does not help in any way. The idea that an Orthodox believer could choose to be celibate and able to discuss their sexuality with others, is therefore scandalous to some of the more hard-line Orthodox. When these two groups cross it is an ugly fight of polemics.

What I have found is that many of my fellow believers are more apt to have this conversation about a third way- such as my priest- and some are simply not able to move past a mental block that does not positively allow the notion of any sexuality beyond heterosexuality. I do not blame them. This does not fit comfortably into their worldview- a worldview that only admits the possibility that Orthodox could either be straight or celibate. It is cognitive dissonance, and I do not begrudge any misunderstanding. But, I must raise my voice again when anyone brings it upon themselves to proclaim judgment and diminish another’s interpersonal struggles and validated experiences. I would say that these conversations need to be had not for the sake of writing off those struggling with same-sex attraction and sexual identity by quoting a canon or saying of the Church Fathers, but in a thoughtful, loving way. There is a way to approach these things in love and with concern, but flat out judgment, based on personal opinion and experience is not that way.

Rather than being life giving, this proclamation of judgment about supposed behavior does two things- both of which, are painfully detrimental to the spiritual lives of both sides involved:

  1. In diminishing the person’s life experiences and emotional needs, it creates further mental crisis where it likely already exists, and
  2. It assumes that we have the right to say that another’s sins are worse than our own, which is pride in its ugliest fashion.

What this proclamation often communicates to LGBTQ+ people struggling with homosexuality and same-sex attraction is that there is no hope in finding solace in the struggle- there is no help for them among their fellow Orthodox Christians, and no one who will listen and understand. This proclamation communicates that their struggle is not valid. Rather, it is nothing more than a mental condition brought on by x and y condition. It is not a cross to bear for one’s salvation, but instead it is nothing more than a fluke that must be eradicated for the sake of one’s faith and place in happy society. These assumptions do nothing but drive those who cannot will away their sexuality to develop a worse mental state than what existed before, and causes them to cope with their pain by turning to alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, and in the worst cases, suicide.

The amount of suicides committed and the stories of those men and women who couldn’t ‘change’ their orientation are enough to tell that we have utterly failed to love people who are struggling with same-sex attraction, through failure on the parts of many, to separate the struggler’s sexuality from their humanity. But the truth is that what people who identify as gay, trans, and queer of all persuasions want more than the acceptance of their sexuality is rather the acceptance of their humanity. They are no less human for their struggles. However, a clear bastion of our faith wants to paint them as otherwise lesser, not Orthodox, mentally ill, etc. But what we need to do instead is to help LGBTQ+ folk realize that they too are equally human and deserving of equal worth (without getting into political aspects of ‘equality’). Even if ultra-conservative Christians are unable to validate all the struggles of LGBTQ+ people, we can and should enhance the conversation so that at least the experiences of LGBTQ+ Christians can be heard. This is the only way for both sides to meet their emotional and spiritual needs without a political war zone erupting. How this conversation will proceed, I do not have the answer for. But I can say it will begin by listening.

Only when LGBTQ+ people are able to encounter Christ personally, peacefully, and are surrounded by a community that is positive, encouraging, and supportive, will they be able to actually ford the waters of celibacy. Our faith makes it clear that genital expression outside marriage is a sin- and that all those not in a Church-sanctioned marriage must work against the carnal lusts of the flesh. This is the end goal for all persons regardless of orientation, and it cannot be argued against. Only through the support of a positive community can LGBTQ+ persons struggle against the flesh, find peace, and a positive vocation for their lives and faith paths. They may even choose to be monastics, or be married in a heterosexual relationship for the sake of having a family, but they cannot make this choice with others disturbing their peace by proclaiming that their orientation is invalidated and their emotions a sign of mental illness.

In closing, I want to leave this post with a quote from a dear friend and sister in Christ:

I think doctrinally orthodox Christians- to the extent they are guilty of this, need to stop thinking (that) believing the right things will get them into heaven. You can be perfectly orthodox in theology and go to hell. Right belief is necessary, but not sufficient- you have to live the life. People of all political stripes have to remember any political party you choose will have planks that no Christian can get behind. Who cares if someone calls you a liberal or a conservative? The issue is fidelity to Christ. I have gone on extensively over the years about right doctrine. But if you have right doctrine, and that doesn’t translate into the way you treat the poor, your enemies, strangers, people of other races, etc…then I would suggest something is amiss.

I cannot agree more. If you have true faith, you will know it by the Fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance- against which there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23). Let us all cultivate these Fruits of the Spirit and proclaim love, joy, and peace to all truly, in Christ Jesus, the author of our lives. Amen.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

“Jesus is not a frying pan” and other notable moments from #GCNConf

We’ve literally just returned home after an amazing weekend at the Gay Christian Network Conference in Portland. We’re sure to write some more reflections in the coming week, but we wanted to share some highlights for now.

First of all, all of the keynote speakers were incredible. We’re so glad that they were broadcast on live stream. For a limited time, you can watch them here. Jeff Chu kicked off conference with one of the most poignant, compelling, and thoughtful addresses we’ve ever heard. He has graciously provided a transcript on his blog. He modeled vulnerability, graciousness, and generousness. The love Jeff feels for his mother was palpable in the room as all those gathered listened with rapt attention to Jeff discussing showing love across differences. We’re still processing Jeff’s address ourselves. What we do know is that both Jeff and Tristan would be very welcome in our home; we, too, eat family-style. We’d also be sure to find some sweet tea to put on our table for Vicky Beeching. Vicky opened her story to us with humor, grace, and authenticity. Anyone who thinks that LGBT Christians have a superficial appreciation for their Christian tradition and shy away from earnest theological inquiry would be well-served by sitting down to listen to Vicky’s address. By God’s grace, may we all continue to wonder at a loving God who rejoices in four-year-olds who want to reach up and share a cookie.

Second, there were so many people. We’ve never gone to GCN Conference with the intention of counting chairs, but this was the first conference where “I’ll see you in the General Session” was much easier said than done. When two-thirds of the room stood up after Conference Director Trey Weaver called for first-times, we knew something had happened. As conference veterans, we did whatever we could to make connections with people who really need the GCN community. We connected with so many people who aren’t out to their parents, who don’t know which letter of the LGBTQ-alphabet-soup works for them, and who feel torn by worry that they have to choose between their faith and their sexual orientations. We also met first-timers who are straight allies committed to doing whatever they can do to make the church a safer place to wrestle with questions of sexual orientation and gender identity, who are parents committed to loving their kids who came out to them over the holidays, who are LGBTQ Christians from Open and Affirming traditions trying to understand experiences of other queer Christians, and who are seeking to converse with authors and speakers who have done so much work to help them reconcile their faith and sexual orientations/gender identities. The rich tapestry of humanity was on full display.

Third, there was love. Honestly, we don’t remember the last time we were wrapped in day after day of love. It was something else to walk around and see scores of parents wearing “Free Mom Hugs” and “Free Dad Hugs” buttons. People constantly checked in with one another to see how things were going. We saw so many people taking the 5 minutes, 10 minutes, hour, and hours to talk, hug, pray, and cry things out when another person was hurting. People loved without asking permission. It was a beautiful thing. We can’t remember the last time we heard so many earnest questions of “Do you need any help?” People got creative when it came to showing love, including dear friends who helped us out by livetweeting our workshop.

This year, we presented a workshop on Celibacy and the Church. We wanted to support dialogue about celibate vocations in general while helping people living and discerning celibacy access quality pastoral care. We shared about our own journeys into our celibate vocations and identified various dimensions of helpful pastoral care. One way to talk about helpful pastoral care is to talk about distinctly unhelpful approaches. The title of this reflection came as Lindsey was giving some suggestions about how to re-frame a particularly difficult and unhelpful approach: the celibacy mandate. When pastors think the only thing they need to say to an LGBT person is “Gay sex is a sin! Just be celibate,” they have embraced the celibacy mandate.

We regard the celibacy mandate as akin to hitting LGBT people over the head with a frying pan. It’s dangerous, dehumanizing, and destructive. Lindsey has been on the receiving end of many different pastors wielding the celibacy mandate and eventually got better at dodging the frying pan. Eventually, Lindsey realized that the message “Gay sex is a sin! Just be celibate.” is not the Gospel. Lindsey’s pastors who were delivering this message were not preaching Jesus. The frying pan approach excuses pastors of their pastoral responsibilities and cheapens the beauty of celibate vocations. We earnestly believe that LGBT Christians who experience a call to celibacy should be free to cultivate that vocation and have support in doing so. Choosing to follow a calling is choosing freedom in Christ. While Jesus calls us in ways that are challenging and not always immediately apparent, he also journeys alongside of us every step of the way. The Incarnation tells us a lot about how Jesus views the role of pastoral care. And Jesus is not a frying pan.

[For those interested in a more complete summary of our workshop, we’ll be posting one reasonably soon. If you’re interested in seeing our notes from our Celibacy Involves Family workshop from Chicago’s conference, feel free to take a look.]

We left Portland feeling refreshed, renewed, and revitalized. So many people we met took time to hear our stories about the difficult parts of this past year, to pray with us, to encourage us, to cry with us, and to hug us. GCN is truly a family for us. We’re so grateful for everyone at the conference.

It didn’t take much web browsing today to realize that we still have significant work to do such that all LGBTQ Christians know that they are fiercely and wholly loved by God. We know that there are LGBT Christians returning to congregations that post this article (that honestly needs to come with a content warning for extreme homophobia) front and center on their notice boards. Attending GCN Conference gives us the courage to keep sharing our stories, to press on towards Christ, and shine Christ’s light to all. And when we see intolerance and bigotry, we’ll choose to remember the love, the life, and the colors of #GCNConf in Portland while doing what we can to make a difference. When words escape us, we’ll warm up with the heavenly choir singing LA LA LA in rhythm and glorious harmonies.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

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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