Following the publication of “A Season of Celibacy,” I received nearly 50 emails from readers who wanted to share their experiences and ask questions. They asked me to get more specific about what a celibate season looks like. Specifically, they wanted to know how to make sense of their sexuality during that challenging time.
This is my response.
Embracing the World
A few days ago I was writing in a coffee shop when two men sat down nearby. A panhandler came in off the street and approached them, demanding 75 cents.
The men looked up from their conversation and told the panhandler they both worked at local shelters and he was welcome to come there for help, but they could not give him any change. The man continued to press them, and each time they responded to his request with firm gentleness.
I was intrigued; I suspected they were Christians. I looked up from my laptop computer and cleared my throat.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Can you tell me a little bit about those shelters you work at? Do you do this work because of your religious convictions?”
The men explained they were students at a Catholic seminary and were both preparing to be missionaries overseas. They were also going to be ordained as Catholic priests.
“You must be celibate, then,” I said. “Perhaps you could help me.”
I asked if they might have any insights that could be helpful to people who are in a season of celibacy.
“Marriage is good,” one said, “But celibacy is also good, because when you’re not tied to a specific person, you can open up your arms and embrace the whole world.”
The Warmth of a Human Hand
The image of a celibate person embracing the whole world seems contrary to how it’s often viewed — as a retreat from all forms of physical affection. But the most famous celibate, Jesus, touched people with tenderness and let them touch Him. Touch was a means of showing and receiving love.
Consider John leaning on Christ’s chest at the Last Supper. Two grown men, one of them the Lord Incarnate, showing their affection at the dinner table.
Equally striking is the sinful woman who poured extravagant nard, an embalming oil, over Christ’s feet, crying and washing them with her tears, kissing and drying them with her hair. Little wonder the Pharisee was scandalized. Jesus responds to his accusation with sharp words of his own.
“Do you see this woman? I entered your house, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet … Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, because she loved much.”
Mother Teresa was another person who loved much. She loved with her heart and her hands. She lifted people — literally — from the gutters of Calcutta, nursed their wounds, and held them as they died. In the book, Works of Love are Works of Peace, she described an encounter with a despairing drunk man on the streets of London. “I went right up to him and took his hand, shook it and asked, ‘How are you?’ My hand is always warm — and he said, ‘Oh, after so long I feel the warmth of a human hand.”
This story is a reminder of how much we all need touch. In The Vital Touch, Sharon Heller writes about the profound role of touch in our lives. Touch is the earliest sense to develop in a fetus, and infants who enjoy touch in abundance grow faster, cry less and have higher IQ scores later in life. The reverse also holds: untouched infants do not merely fail to thrive — they die. Into the beginning of the 20th century, some American orphans were rarely touched, and they deteriorated for no clear medical reason. Nearly 100 percent of them died.
In her book, Heller compared parenting practices. She was struck by the amount of time American babies spend in infant seats, strollers, cribs and swings in contrast to infants in less developed countries who spend most of their day snuggled against their primary caregivers. According to Heller, American infants are the least-touched infants on earth.
Single adults also suffer from touch deprivation. Two of my female friends, from Russia and Germany, respectively, said one of the most challenging aspects of life in America is that nobody touches them.
Against the backdrop of our culture a season of celibacy can be incredibly challenging. We idolize sex but have lost our way concerning non-sexual touch. Still, the most basic physical contact can do much to dissipate the loneliness of the celibate season and can bring much healing to others.
Even during a celibate season, sexuality remains an intrinsic part of who we are. One friend who interviews potential nuns for a monastic community told me about asking each candidate about her sexuality. When one answered, “I have no sexuality,” the nuns in the community rejected her. “If she has no sexuality,” they said, “Then she has nothing to give.”
Many theologians suggest that the sexual act is only one aspect of sexuality; that a more expansive definition is needed. Celibate priest Ronald Rolheiser, in his book, The Holy Longing, offered one possible definition. “Sexuality … is about overcoming separateness by giving life and blessing it. Thus, in its maturity, sexuality is about giving oneself over to community, friendship, family, service, creativity, humor, delight and martyrdom, so that with God, we can help bring life into the world.”
Rolheiser went on to say “Sex is the energy inside of us that works incessantly against our being alone.” A person who denies she is sexual is essentially saying, “I can make it on my own — I don’t need anyone else.”
People don’t need to have sexual intercourse to be healthy but they do need to have a healthy sexuality and channel it in life-giving ways.
Mother Teresa was a profound example of this. The love and energy she could have given to a husband and family, she directed toward people who were dying in the streets. She believed Christ was her spouse (she even joked that sometimes she had a hard time smiling at him because he was kind of a demanding husband). She considered the whole human family to be her family, and she loved those in need the way parents love their own children.
Although married people can (and must) continue to serve God after they marry, they live with tension as they struggle to balance the needs of a hurting world and the needs of their own families.
This tension is expressed well in 1 Corinthians 1:28, where Paul says in marriage you will have troubles, you will get caught up in the anxieties associated with pleasing your spouse and children instead of focusing solely on pleasing God.
When a person is celibate — either for a season or a lifetime — he has the opportunity to offer all the energy and love he would otherwise pour into a romantic relationship to a hurting world. Celibacy is life-giving when it is working toward love — when a celibate person lets herself become a gift to those in need by devoting herself to ministry. Without an active outlet for love, celibacy stagnates.
Celibacy as Sign
A celibate season can also be life-giving when our willingness to save sexual intimacy for marriage witnesses to the Kingdom of God in our lives. Although we tend to think of our sexual lives as completely private, our sexual decisions affect others.
In some of the letters, I received readers told me their lack of sexual experience makes them feel like freaks. But this is exactly the kind of “freakishness” (for lack of a better word) we’re called to. Committing to be chaste for a celibate season (or to be monogamous within marriage) is a radical statement of belief.
As Christians we want our lives to bear witness to the deeper mysteries of life — we want people to wonder how (and why) we do what we do. Celibacy requires a radical commitment to God, a radical trust that His promises can sustain us through the loneliest seasons.
“There are two realities to which you must cling,” Henri Nouwen, a celibate priest, wrote. “First, God has promised that you will receive the love you have been searching for. And second, God is faithful to that promise.”
No matter how persistently we cling to these ultimate realities, the ache for intimacy is part of the human experience. Our longings remind us that we are not yet home — that we are strangers and pilgrims on this earth. When we see the promises far off in the distance yet we embrace them, we show that are citizens of another world.
Whether we marry or remain single our bodies will always yearn toward home: for union with the One our soul loves. In C.S. Lewis’ loosely allegorical book, ‘Till We Have Faces, he expresses this well. “Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? … All my life the God of the Mountain has been wooing me. Oh, look up at least once before the end and wish me joy. I am going to my lover. Do you not see now?”
When we act on these promises by saving our sexuality for covenantal relationships — either marriage or celibacy — our bodies radiate with the holiness of love — here and now and more profoundly, in the world to come.
Copyright Jenny Schroedel 2004. All rights reserved.