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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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!

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.

Vulnerability Brings Charity to Life — Henri Nouwen

As we share about our experiences as celibate LGBT Christians, people ask us frequently if we know about Henri Nouwen. Nouwen has achieved a kind of celebrity status amongst participants in this conversation, especially those who are Catholic. His life, particularly while living at L’Arche, offers arguably one of most vivid portrayals of what celibacy can look like in our current cultural context.

Because Nouwen is so well-known, we have decided to take a different approach to this celibate profile. Instead of giving an introduction to Nouwen (several already exist) we would like to describe some ways that his life and writings map to our four core values of celibacy: vulnerability, hospitality, shared spiritual life, and commitment.

Nouwen’s life offers a counter-cultural embrace of vulnerability. He understands that leadership comes when a leader offers his or her vulnerable self:

“I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” –from In the Name of Jesus

Nouwen has a way of appreciating that every person can gift others with his or her vulnerability. One reason Nouwen stands out to many people we know is that he voluntarily entered a life of serving people with a range of physical disabilities. Yet, Nouwen attempted to pass on a vision of disability that was rooted in profound respect for the image of God found in each person rather than viewing those he served as problems to be solved. Nouwen wrote a book called Adam, God’s Beloved where he detailed how Adam — who needed around-the-clock care — became his teacher and guide. It is clear that Adam taught Nouwen much about how simply being present with another person can be transformative, inspiring Nouwen to pen things like:

“Those who really can receive bread from a stranger and smile in gratitude, can feed many without even realizing it. Those who can sit in silence with their fellow man not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief, and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart, can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken.” –from Out of Silence: Three Meditations on the Christian Life

Being present for a friend or loved one often requires a great deal of commitment. Nouwen frequently described commitment as the kind of compassion that draws near to the vulnerable. In Nouwen’s thinking, vulnerability and compassion are two sides of the same coin and integral to the Christian life.

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” –from Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life

And compassion helps people move from hostility to hospitality:

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” –from Reaching Out

Vulnerability enables us to find common ground even with people most different from us. Responding with compassion brings us to a place of hospitality for others through seeing our common humanity. This incarnational way of living helps us cultivate a shared spiritual life because we start to identify with others’ vices and others’ virtues:

“To care means first of all to empty our own cup and to allow the other to come close to us. It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other. When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts. When we dare to care, we have to confess that when others kill, I could have killed too. When others torture, I could have done the same. When others heal, I could have healed too. And when others give life, I could have done the same. Then we experience that we can be present to the soldier who kills, to the guard who pesters, to the young man who plays as if life has no end, and to the old man who stopped playing out of fear for death.

By the honest recognition and confession of our human sameness, we can participate in the care of God who came, not to the powerful but powerless, not to be different but the same, not to take our pain away but to share it. Through this participation we can open our hearts to each other and form a new community.” -from Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life

Nouwen’s writings are accessible to do many people because his work is vibrant with spiritual wisdom. If you are still looking for Advent reading and waiting in hope for the ability to live out charity and other Christian virtues, we strongly recommend Nouwen’s writings, especially those on compassion. We wouldn’t be surprised if many of our readers are already familiar with Nouwen’s work. Feel free to share your own reflections in the comments.

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.

From Hermitage to Celibate Village — The Ephrata Cloister

Recently, we took a short Saturday trip to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to visit a historic site that Sarah has been wanting to see for years: the Ephrata Cloister. We think it’s likely that most of our readers are not familiar with this place, so it seems appropriate to include it in our Profiles of Celibates series. We’re including some photos from our visit within the post itself, but not all. You can see additional photos on our Facebook page.

Most of the time when Christians think of celibacy, Catholic priests and Catholic and Orthodox monastics come to mind first. Speaking comparatively, there aren’t many current or historic examples of Protestant celibacy. We decided to write about the Ephrata Cloister not only because it was a fascinating movement, but also because it was a Protestant movement. We’ve received many questions from Protestant readers about whether any celibate communities have arisen from within their traditions. As we continue this series, we plan to offer (insofar as it is possible) a balance of posts on Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians who have committed to celibacy either temporarily or perpetually.

During our visit to the Ephrata Cloister, we learned that the term “cloister” was foisted upon the community by outsiders who perceived the brothers and sisters as living like Catholic monastics. To the people who lived there, it was simply the town of Ephrata — named for Ephrath, the biblical site where the matriarch Rachel died during childbirth. Ephrata was founded by Conrad Beissel (1691-1768), a German Pietist who had originally intended to create a hermitage for himself rather than a village of vowed celibates. Beissel had been forced to leave Germany for his involvement with non-state-sanctioned religious groups. After immigrating to Pennsylvania but before experiencing a call to celibacy and solitude, he became a leader in the congregation of Conestoga Brethren. During this time, he attracted a number of followers due to his vibrant personality and unusual theological ideas (i.e. Saturday, not Sunday, is when the Sabbath should be observed). In 1732 as he resigned from leadership in the Brethren congregation and sought a quiet place to find unity with God, a number of his former followers desired to continue under his leadership and the village of Ephrata was born.


The founders of Ephrata believed that the most complete union with God was a marriage of sorts. Giving one’s entire life over to God required abandoning any possibility of earthly marriage. To Beissel’s understanding, God’s wrath was his masculine aspect and God’s gentle mercy was his feminine aspect. Because both masculine and feminine could be found within God, men at Ephrata committed their lives in marriage to Sophia (Divine Wisdom) and women became brides of Christ. They adopted a rigorous rule of living that involved several hours of work, even more time in prayer, and one vegetarian or vegan meal per day. Brothers and sisters slept on wooden beds and awakened in the middle of the night to pray and watch for Christ’s coming. Sabbath worship took place in the community’s meetinghouse on Saturdays with the brothers and sisters physically separated while in the same room. Exceptions to the schedule were made for the community’s Love Feast which involved a grand banquet, reception of communion, and the washing of feet. Brothers and sisters donned white robes to hide the curves of their bodies and to symbolize their heavenly marriages.


Approximately 80 celibate members resided at Ephrata, and eventually the village grew to include more than twice as many non-celibate members who lived in their own family farmhouses surrounding the core community of brothers and sisters. Families at Ephrata worked and worshipped alongside celibate members, often providing them with food and other necessary resources. Celibate members operated a German school for the local children. The dominant focus areas of work at Ephrata were music and writing. While manual labor played a role in the community’s daily life, members were trained to be singers, calligraphers, printers, and bookbinders. Ephrata left as its legacy an extensive collection of musical compositions, which a volunteer choir continues to sing for the public today.

When Beissel reposed in 1768 and Peter Miller assumed leadership, the celibate community at Ephrata began to decline rapidly. Beissel’s charismatic personality had been its driving force for years, and with less interested in celibacy amongst young men and women who had been educated by the brothers and sisters, Ephrata’s original vision for seeking unity with God in solitude lost its popularity. The last celibate member reposed in 1813, after which the village’s remaining residents became the German Seventh Day Baptist Church. The last non-celibate resident of the Ephrata Cloister — Marie Elizabeth Kachel Bucher — reposed in 2008.

Visiting the Ephrata Cloister gave us a window into a different kind of celibate life. We found it fascinating how Beissel used Genesis 1 to garner support for celibacy. In his theology, God intended to create humans with a perfect balance of male and female. Achieving this balance after the Fall required intense effort to discipline the body and the mind. Every dimension of the ascetical effort hinged upon integrating the masculine and the feminine. At Ephrata, it was essential to integrate one’s sexuality fully in order to balance masculine and feminine rather than attempt to repress all sexual desires. People interested in cultivating a celibate vocation might find some of Ephrata’s practices for honoring the masculine and feminine within as a helpful frame for integrating, rather than repressing, one’s sexuality. The daily disciplines of the Ephrata Cloister at its height were impressively demanding and reminded us of many other monastic communities we’ve visited. We have found ourselves musing about the connections between discipling the body and fully integrating one’s sexuality, and this topic might be helpful for others pursuing celibacy to consider.

We were intrigued by how the Ephrata Cloister blossomed as an artistic community. Several celibate members became skilled at writing Fraktur, preparing a number of texts such as this decorative wall hanging.


Those who had taken on Ephrata’s monastic life saw their vocations blossoming into art. The depth of detail and care in Ephrata’s creative endeavors bears witness to one of many possibilities for how celibates can love and serve the world differently. We were amazed to learn that some Ephrata hymns consist of over 200 verses offered to God in witness to his work within the hearts of the community. Even 200 years after the last celibate member of the Ephrata community reposed, the artistic legacy of Ephrata continues. As we reflected on the art at Ephrata Cloister, we wondered what aspects of our own celibate vocation might have a broader impact. How might our commitments to vulnerability, hospitality, and a shared spiritual life bear fruit that reflects God’s glory?

We found our trip to Ephrata to be incredibly refreshing and have enjoyed talking about the visit together and with friends. We’re eager to continue the conversation with all of our readers in the comments.

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.

Challenging the Norms of Female Celibacy — The Beguines

Several months ago, one of our readers asked if we would consider writing on the Beguines. Recently, another reader raised the issue again, so we thought now might be a good time to post something about the Beguine movement as part of our sporadic “profiles of celibates” series. We’ll admit upfront that we’ve been hesitant to write on this movement, mostly because it consisted of multiple groups with little cohesion. Also, because the Beguines were suppressed multiple times by the Church for heretical beliefs and practices, one needs to be careful when drawing upon their history for a model of living non-monsatic or semi-monastic celibacy. However, we think there is much that a celibate person living in the world can learn from the Beguine movement. In today’s post, we’ll introduce you to the Beguines and offer some brief thoughts about how reflecting on their stories and experiences could benefit celibate people today.

The Beguines were active in Northern Europe from the 12th to 16th centuries, primarily in Belgium and the Netherlands. They were groups of women who joined in semi-monastic communities under no vows and very low levels of commitment. The major contributing factor to the emergence of this movement was a disproportionate population of women in the Low Countries. Because women outnumbered men in most urban areas, many women of marrying age were unable to find husbands. Beguinages — houses of Beguines — began popping up throughout these areas in the 13th century. Each community was autonomous, so the degree of theological orthodoxy in this movement was variable, as was understanding of the movement’s goals and work. Some groups of beguines accepted only women of high social status, and others took in women from a wider range of circumstances. Women who lived in these spaces were highly independent, usually held onto personal property, and were free to leave at any time for almost any reason, including marriage. Some widowed women entered beguinages and brought their children along. Typically, Beguine women funded themselves through educating children, working in the cloth industry or some other variety of trade, or using their inheritances. Whether her time as a Beguine would be a year or less, several years, or a lifetime, each woman committed to celibacy and charitable works while living as part of her community.

The Beguine movement was also part of the larger phenomenon of mysticism in medieval Europe. Within the movement’s first hundred years, some groups shifted focus from independence and charitable works to poverty and contemplative prayer. With this evolution came an emphasis on mysticism, and several Beguines lived out their days as beggars claiming experiences of frequent visions from God. Marguerite Porete, one of the most well-known late 13th-early 14th century Beguines, was condemned by the Church for heresy and executed by burning at the stake — largely because her Mirror of Simple Souls contained statements that authorities interpreted as autotheistic and antinomian, two characteristics of the Heresy of the Free Spirit.

In addition to mysticism, the Beguines encountered pushback from the Church in other areas. Their lack of vowed commitment and supervision under any authority except a confessor was problematic in the eyes of the Church. As time progressed and mendicant religious orders expanded, some Beguine groups became part of established, Church-sanctioned celibate communities — but others joined with heretical groups. Beguinages that did not join with other groups continued as they were. By the 16th century, most had disbanded. However, some avoided suppression during the Protestant Reformation and other political conflicts, continuing even into the 20th century.

Now, what can today’s celibates living in the world learn from the Beguines? After reflecting on this question, we see two items worthy of special emphasis:

The case of the Beguines offers an intriguing model of organic and varied celibate community. Each beguinage was independent and able to determine a way of life for itself without needing to consider what the others were doing, which will probably resonate with celibates living in today’s secular world. As a celibate single, member of a celibate couple, or member of another kind of lay celibate community, a person usually has significant freedom in determining how to live his/her vocation on a daily basis. This is an advantage because it provides the opportunity to use one’s gifts to serve God and others without restriction. But it also poses a challenge because a lack of accountability can led to a number of spiritual problems (you should read Eve Tushnet’s post on self-abbotting). In this way, the two of us see the Beguines as both a model to draw upon and a cautionary tale. We’ve learned never to doubt the importance of regular spiritual direction where we can be open about all aspects of our relationship and work.

The Beguines also challenge what both Western and Eastern Christians see as norms for celibate living. The Beguines were not nuns. They weren’t vowed to their communities. The relationships amongst women living in beguinages were diverse, and it’s clear that words like “friend” and “sister” don’t adequately describe every instance of meaningful relationship between one Beguine woman and another. The Beguines pushed back on the idea that celibacy must be lived out within the context of monasticism. In today’s world where more young people are remaining celibate (or at least single) either by choice or by circumstance, there’s a need for better discussion about non-monastic celibacy and what it could look like as a purposeful, Christ-centered way of life. Though the Beguines faced many problems, not the least of which was frequent run-ins with Church hierarchy, today’s celibates can take inspiration from this movement’s experimentation with a different kind of vocation. For celibate people to live meaningfully in the secular world, we need to get creative. We need to consider new possibilities and be open to the idea that there are more vocations than marriage and monasticism. But of course, we must reiterate that any person discerning a vocation — especially an unusual one — would benefit from spiritual direction.

We’re interested to know if there are other lessons our readers think celibate people could learn from the Beguines. Leave a comment if you feel so led, and also let us know if there are other celibate people or groups you would like us to consider profiling.

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.