A few months ago I spoke to a childhood friend who has grown into a beautiful, spiritually wise woman. She’s nearing the completion of her master’s degree, preparing to move to New York City and seems to have everything in place. But during our discussion, she said that life feels empty. “All I really want is to find the right guy, settle down and have children.”
Her statement reminded me of my own restlessness when I was single. No matter what I was doing, the fear that I would always be alone remained audible in the background, like a softly-playing radio. I was in search mode at all times — each man who gave me a second glance was subject to scrutiny. “Could he be the one?”
I understand now why Christ is so concerned about fear. Fear is a prickly weed, stealing soil space from more beautiful, fragile things. During my single years, my anxiousness made it difficult to appreciate blessings like friends and family, the freedom to journal into the wee hours each night and the infinite possibilities of that time. Instead of cursing my singleness, I wish I’d chosen a season of celibacy. Like any season, it was passing fast and I had limited time to embrace the gifts God was offering me.
Single or Celibate?
Singleness is a circumstance, but celibacy is a choice. Singleness implies solitude, but celibacy is relational. Those who choose celibacy, for a season or a lifetime, enter into a covenantal relationship with God. Although many consider celibacy as the negation of something good — namely sexual relations and the deep physical, spiritual and emotional intimacy it implies — the traditional Christian understanding was more positive. Celibacy freed people to live completely for God and to follow Him to the ends of the earth as any devoted spouse would do.
Another important distinction is that singles date. When I was single, I fell in love with a man I knew I wasn’t going to marry. Although we both remained virgins, the relationship became increasingly physical over time. Our souls bonded in ways that eventually caused deep pain for both of us.
I wish I’d had the wisdom to define myself as temporarily celibate — not available to men until further notice from God. Soon after my boyfriend and I broke up, I headed to Hawaii to work with a missionary organization. A few weeks later, I met a man with a laundry bag slung over his shoulder. He and I struck up a conversation that lasted through sunset, through dusk and late into the night. During that first encounter we each recognized our future spouse in the other person.
Although we had a mutual, unspoken understanding that we were going to marry, the missionary organization did not allow dating, which was liberating. No confusion, no tears, no rush, we thought. Our first kiss was on our wedding day.
“Lust is wanting something right now,” said one of my seminary professors. The celibate season is a time to cultivate patience, especially in the sexual arena. Patience grows from trust — believing that God will allow even our sexual lives to unfold in His time, in His way.
Part of the problem with lust is that it assumes that we need to have sexual experiences immediately because we may miss the opportunity. Although some people never marry, the vast majority of people — more than 80 percent — eventually do marry. When we realize that these experiences are most likely ahead of us, but are reserved for a different season — in which they will be beautiful and right — rushing becomes unnecessary.
Lustful thoughts, however, will come. We may be especially vulnerable when we are trying to pray against them. Instead of getting caught in a cycle of praying against lust only to have a fresh onslaught, we can shift our focus. “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train,” Anne Lamott wrote. “You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.”
When our minds wander in unfortunate directions our job is to bring them back to those things that are good, true and lovely (unless of course, a lovely person is what got us into trouble in the first place). We may have an especially hard time redirecting our minds when we’re alone with our thoughts. When we’re feeling really tempted, we may be able to break the cycle by doing something as simple as getting up to get a glass of water or better yet, picking up the phone to call a trusted friend.
The need for another voice on the other end of the line is universal. This is one reason why Alcoholics Anonymous is so effective. Each person seeking sobriety has a sponsor to call when tempted. Especially during a celibate season, we need same-sex friends with whom we can be transparent, who can listen without judgment and provide accountability.
Within the ancient Christian tradition of consecrated singleness, celibates rarely lived in isolation. They worked and prayed side-by-side, keeping each other accountable and striving together to live fully for God. These communities were places of solace and support for those struggling to be chaste.
But in our day, Christian singles get the worst of both worlds. Instead of working with others toward the same goal in communities, they often struggle alone, and for long stretches of time. Before marriage, they’re supposed to have completed their education, saved enough money for the mortgage and have substantial emotional maturity. Our bodies, however, are ready for sexual intimacy long before we’ve met this criterion. The pressure is great and the supports are few.
This is why friendship is so essential. Friendship helps us to know that we do not struggle alone, that even in our weakest moments we are loved. Friendship also offers us an opportunity for real intimacy outside of marriage. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Eros will have naked bodies; friendship, naked personalities.”
Baring our souls only goes so far in fulfilling our desire for physical closeness. For some, the celibate season feels like a long, lonely winter. One friend who hopes to become a Catholic priest said, “Each night, I have to face the fact that not only do I not have a woman in bed with me now, but I will never, ever have a woman in bed with me.”
“But married people are lonely, too, aren’t they Jenny?” he asked me.
I could only say yes. In each marriage, there are areas where the couple doesn’t meet perfectly. Rolheiser wrote: “If we are married, even if we are enjoying a healthy sexual relationship, nonetheless there will still remain, always, certain painful areas of inconsummation, places in our life and our soul where we sleep alone.”
On this side of paradise, we all experience some measure of loneliness, a restless searching that permeates the celibate season and continues into marriage. Although friends, spouses and family members meet many of our emotional needs, hidden within those needs are deep longings that can be fulfilled by God alone. As we surrender those needs to the One who loves us best, we begin to trust that they will be met in due time. “Our hearts were made for You, O Lord,” Saint Augustine prayed. “And they are restless until they rest in you.”
Copyright 2004 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.