Celibate chastity: One way to be a sexual person

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Image: The vow of celibate chastity reminds you, me, and everyone else that it is the mystery of solitude in our lives that invites us to set out on our lifelong spiritual journey.

WOULD IT SURPRISE YOU to learn that some of the most sexual people I know also live lives of celibate chastity? Spend time with any one of them and you will come away with this lasting impression: Here is a person who is profoundly human and deeply spiritual. Consequently, all the recent bad press about celibate chastity has troubled me. When commentators cite celibacy as an explanation for the scarcity of vocations to priesthood and religious life, I think of the people mentioned above and cannot make the connection.

I’ll admit, though, that many of us who make up religious life and priesthood are partly responsible for the skewed approach to celibate chastity that exists in some quarters today. Reluctant to talk about our experience of living celibate chastity, we fall back on a familiar set of responses when asked to explain our choice: “For the sake of the kingdom," we say, or “in order to love everyone and not just one person," or even “to be more available to others." Having gotten those reasons on the table, we have also been known to take a collective deep breath and hope that no one asks any more questions. Is it any wonder that a number of young people have come to think of celibate chastity as asexuality—not being sexual, a sort of neutered existence?

Reports about sexual scandals involving priests and brothers have further confused the picture. After reading a few, you could reasonably conclude that sexuality has become a major preoccupation for us. But that is simply not the case. Like everyone else, priests and religious need adequate knowledge about human sexuality. Spirituality, however, has to be our chief preoccupation. Why? Because we can learn all there is to know about human sexuality, but if we fail to confront what it means to be a spiritual person, we will always be uneasy with our life of celibate chastity.

A definition
How best to describe celibate chastity? Quite simply as an affair of the heart. It is the rare person who wants to live without love. So if a life of celibate chastity fails to lead those who live it into greater union with God and others, who would be so foolish as to embrace it? So, first and foremost, celibate chastity is an affair of the heart.

We can also identify three characteristics that mark this way of living out one’s sexuality. First and foremost, celibate chastity must be rooted in the spiritual life. If a life of faith and my relationship with God is not at the center of my life of celibate chastity, it soon makes little sense to me or anyone else. Simply put, the spiritual life must be at the heart of genuine celibate chaste living.

Next, my choice for celibate chastity must conform to my call in life and my call to ministry. Stated another way, a “good fit" must exist between celibate chastity and the lives of those who live it. Consider for a moment how reassured is the person who realizes that he or she has married the right mate. Celibate chaste men and women have a similar experience: Many cannot imagine living another kind of life with as much satisfaction. They realize that for them a life of celibate chastity is the best way to grow. To live otherwise would be like living someone else’s life.

Third, genuine celibate intimacy calls me or anyone else living it to relationships of intimacy. (I use the word “intimacy" in a nonsexual way, to mean emotional closeness.) If I profess to live a life of celibate chastity but lack loving relationships, I must look beyond my celibate chastity for the cause of this deficit. Selfishness and self-involvement are incompatible with a life of celibate chastity. For example, people who choose this way of living so as not to be bothered by others never seem to be at ease with their choice. As true of any life of love, God’s gift of celibate chastity has more to do with self-transcendence than self-fulfillment.

As a person choosing a life of celibate chastity, then, I put my emphasis on developing and pursuing ways of loving, rather than on genital sexual behavior or my lack of it. To live a loveless life of celibate chastity is a contradiction in terms.

I don’t want to detract from the goodness of genital sexuality. Unfortunately, a suspicion about sex continues to exist in some parts of our church today. At times it resembles a fear of the body.

Those of us who make up the church need to challenge unchristian fears of sex and any suggestion that it blocks a relationship with God. After all, married men and women have been telling us for years that sex is sacramental and a God-given and powerful means for expressing love for another person, as well as an opportunity to experience the love of that very same God.

At the same time, we cannot place too great a burden upon genital union. Loneliness, for example, is a part of our human condition. Often enough you and I feel restless, driven, hungry, and unfinished at every level: physically, emotionally, spiritually, and sexually. We can conclude quickly that our agitation and sense of alienation are little more than a hunger that can be satisfied only by romantic sexuality. But while sex is wholesome and positive, it is not the ultimate answer to your loneliness or mine.

Motivation for a life of celibate chastity
Among the many valid reasons for choosing a life of celibate chastity, all fall pretty much under one of two headings: those rooted in concern for ministry, and others rooted in our relationship with Christ.

But any choice a person makes for a life of celibate chastity is most genuine when it is religiously motivated, free, and makes sense personally and pastorally. When chosen and re-chosen for these reasons, it enriches that person’s life and the lives of everyone with whom he or she comes into contact. In contrast, if drifting into this lifestyle or coercion motivates the person’s initial choice, then in the absence of a change brought about by significant human and spiritual growth, celibate chastity can cripple him or her emotionally and religiously.

The spiritual life
Spirituality must lie at the heart of any life of celibate chastity. Today, however, we need a new understanding about the meaning of the word spirituality. For it would seem that this aspect of our lives is better understood as a fiery energy or a passion, than as a series of pious practices. In this view, growth in the spiritual life is, more than anything else, a process of creatively disciplining the passion that flows through you and me. And what gives us the courage to undertake this task? The fact that our hunger and thirst for God far exceed our selfishness and greed.

Now, passion wears more than one face. More often than not, it appears in the form of unbridled longing or desire, and we describe it as a hunger, an unquenchable flame, or a wildness that cannot be tamed. This face of our passion leaves us restless, dissatisfied, and frustrated. And, in the midst of all this unrest, what is spirituality? Ultimately, it’s what we do with our passion. (I must credit this approach to the life of the Spirit to Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., who discusses these ideas in depth in his book, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, which is recommended in the Religious Life section of this issue of VISION; see also an article by Rolheiser on page 30.)

Our spirituality is our path to God, our attempt to understand and love back the one who loved us first, the one who poured passion into our bodies and hearts. If God is the one who lights the fire within us, then our lifelong task is to use our passion and energies to discover and rediscover the face of God in our lives. For some, that happens with marriage and the rearing of children. Others pour their passion into careers and other commitments. And some channel their passion into religious life, with its vow of celibate chastity.

That leads us to another reason the vow of celibate chastity is important. This public commitment reminds you, me, and everyone else that it is the mystery of solitude in our lives that invites us to set out on our lifelong spiritual journey. Let’s be honest: Solitude can be a trial. Early in life we associate it with loneliness and a lack of relationships. Why else would we go to such lengths to distract ourselves from it with noise and frantic activities? This pattern becomes ever more dangerous with the passage of years. Why? Because solitude helps us to face ourselves, to befriend not only the person we think we are, but also to come to know and love the person that in fact we are.

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux characterized us as exiles of the heart. She understood intuitively that our loneliness and the longings we experience have the power to lead us eventually to a place inside ourselves. More often than not, this inner sanctuary is “off limits" to all but a few people, close friends, and other men and women about whom we care deeply. Herein, we are truly ourselves and hold and cherish all that is most important to us. Passion and intimacy have their home here; in this place sexuality and spirituality come to understand that they are friends and not foes. Herein dwells the person that God has known for all time.

A personal reflection
So, why did I choose a life that includes celibate chastity? And, perhaps more important, why do I continue to choose such a life? Because of the deep sense of happiness I’ve found. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune of forming some wonderful friendships, which are an ongoing source of support and joy, and also of challenge and some continuing life-lessons. These friendships include the simple satisfaction of being with men and women with whom I do not have to be anyone but myself.

From time to time, people I meet share with me this fear: The life of a sister, priest, or brother can be a lonely affair. I tell them that that has not been my experience and I dare say the experience of the vast majority of those who live out this way of life. There is, of course, the loneliness that comes into the lives of any one of us. But all in all, a life of celibate chastity has been a very satisfying way of living and of living out my human sexuality.

At a deeper level, I’ve also come to learn that a life of celibate chastity is part of God’s dream for my life. This lesson has had a profound effect on my image and experience of God. It has taken time for me to accept the fact that God loves me unconditionally and with a passion I lack the words to describe. God continues to give me example after example of that unconditional love and passion.

With the passage of years my hunger for prayer has deepened. And, though I am not as faithful to the ideal of prayer as I would like to be, this important part of my life no longer feels like an obligation but rather an invitation to spend time with someone who knows me for who I am, with all my hopes and dreams, all my selfishness and sin.

Some of the “old-fashioned" explanations for a life of celibate chastity also make sense for me. I’ve had the freedom to respond quickly to the needs of the church. And I’ve been more available over the years to a larger population than I might have been otherwise.

I began by describing celibate chaste men and women as profoundly human and deeply spiritual. As I conclude you might ask: Is such a description justified? After all, some people who choose a life of celibate chastity are judged as being somewhat naïve and foolish.

In truth, embracing a life of celibate chastity is both naïve and foolish. Naïve, because the choice defies social convention; foolish, because to embrace a life of celibate chastity leads inevitably to a revolution of the heart. Philosopher Bernard Lonergan reminds us it is “akin to an other-worldly falling-in-love. It is total and permanent self-surrender without conditions, qualifications, reservations."

And who among us wants to undergo such a conversion, to embrace this revolution of the heart? Herein lies the challenge of celibate chastity: While a people may be judged to be naïve and foolish in choosing to live out their sexuality in this manner, they also commit themselves to live with passion, to be deeply spiritual and sexual at the same time. Simply put, they rediscover the fire—that longing for the Lord—that has always burned brightly within them. In making this rediscovery they grow to be more at home with themselves and with the Lord, but now on his terms and with infinitely more knowledge about his ways. The description “profoundly human and deeply spiritual" is the only one that is apt.
Brother Seán D. Sammon, F.M.S. serves currently as superior general of the Marist Brothers of the Schools. He is the author of several books, the most recent being Religious Life in America: A New Day Dawning (Alba House, 2002) and Life after Youth: Making Sense of One Man’s Journey through the Transition at Mid-life (Alba House, 1997).




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