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         Celibacy and Chastity

 

All the passages below are taken from James Marin’s book “My Life with the Saints,” published in 2006.

 

Chastity may be the most difficult thing to explain about life in a religious order. For most people, it conjures up the stereotype of the hateful, cold priest or the repressed, bitter nun---both of them out of touch with their own sexuality, closed off to the world of love and human relationships, as well as rigid, spiteful, and even a little cruel. And crazy, too. Definitely crazy.

Before continuing, I should explain that, even though they are used interchangeably, there is a difference between chastity and celibacy. Chastity refers to the proper and loving use of one's sexuality, and this is something everyone is called to. In his book on human sexuality, In Pursuit of Love, Vincent J. Genovesi, SJ, offers this helpful reflection on chastity:

 

Living as a chaste person requires that the physical and external expressions of our sexuality be "under the control of love, with tenderness and full awareness of the other." John A. T. Robinson has made the suggestion that chastity is honesty in sex, that is, chastity implies that we have "physical relationships that truly express the degree of personal commitment" that is shared with the other....

Chastity, then, is for all people and not just for those who are single. . .

Far from being in any way opposed to sexuality, chastity accepts a person's striving for pleasure and "attempts to put that striving at the service of other human and Christian values."

 

Simply put, chastity, as another author states, is the "ability to receive and give love."

Celibacy is a little different. Technically, it is the restriction against marriage for the Catholic clergy. Another way of seeing it is that celibacy as a requirement could be lifted by the church at any time. During the first three centuries of the church, in fact, no restrictions at all existed against marriage, and many priests were married. (We know that St. Peter himself was married, since the Gospels speak of his mother-in-law.)

Chastity, on the other hand, is a freely chosen way of life for members of religious orders. Even among Catholics, and especially when referring to priests, brothers, and sisters, the two terms are often taken to mean the same thing---choosing not to marry out of a religious commitment---and the spirituality surrounding both celibacy and chastity is similar.

But back to the stereotype of the rigid, bitter celibate that is so popular in jokes, in movies, and on television. The great irony is that some of history's most loving people---those whom even nonbelievers would point to as role models---were celibate men and women. Think of Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa and John XXIII, to name a few examples. Would anyone say that they were not loving people?

More to the point, think of Jesus of Nazareth, who, Scripture scholars agree, never married. Is there anyone who doubts that Jesus the celibate man was loving?

Jesus demonstrated that the underlying goal of celibacy is to love as many people as possible as deeply as possible. That may seem strange to people used to defining celibacy negatively---that is, as not having sex---but it's true. The central aim of chastity and celibacy is an increased capacity to love.

The life of celibacy is obviously not for everyone. Most people are called to marriage and sexual intimacy and children and family life. For them, the primary way of living chastely is by loving their spouses and their children with their whole hearts. It is a more focused, exclusive kind of loving. That is not to imply that married couples and parents do not love others outside their families, and love them well. Rather, the focus of their love is necessarily centered on their family.

For the vowed religious the situation is the opposite. You vow chastity so that you give yourself to God as totally as possible and make yourself available to love as many other people as possible. You take this vow for a more practical reason, too: to give yourself as fully as possible to your ministry. Vowed chastity is also a way of imitating the life and ministry of Jesus. This is not a "better" or "worse" way of loving than a sexual or committed relationship; it's simply different. Nor does it diminish the witness of married clergy in other denominations, who find that they can also give themselves fully to their ministries. It is simply a different way to live out one's call.

Chastity is the best way for me and others in religious orders to love. While many may love most fully in a committed relationship, for me this way works best. My experience says that this is the path to which I'm best suited, because this is the way that brings me the most joy. It seems that this is how God designed me to function best.

Practically speaking, celibacy is an art, something you have to practice. You don't learn how to be a good husband or wife on the day of your wedding. And I didn't learn how to be a good celibate on my ordination day; nor did I fully understand my chastity the moment made my first vows. It takes time to grow into those vows in a healthy and integrated way. That's one reason for novitiates and seminaries---they function almost like an engagement, allowing people to see if this way of life is a good fit.

Part of that growth process is discovering what works for you and what doesn't, understanding the way sexuality works in your life, and, along the way, finding out how to support a life of celibacy. For me it's pretty straightforward: I experience God's love primarily through my friends, with those I minister to, and in my family. Even so, to do this well, I must have an active prayer life. I've discovered that it's easier to experience intimacy with others if I experience intimacy with God in prayer.

Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the love that I encounter: from parishioners, Jesuits, other friends, family members, professional colleagues, and those who come to me for spiritual direction, counseling, and even confession. There are days when all I can think is how lucky I am. And the love comes in a variety of ways. I spend time with Jesuit friends over dinner and we share our common struggles and joys, and I feel what it means to be what St. Ignatius called "friends in the Lord." Or I listen to someone during spiritual direction and I am able to see the amazing ways that God is active in that person's life. Or I meet someone I could have met only as a Jesuit and who shares with me an intimate part of his life. Or I spend time with my six-year-old nephew and laugh and laugh at his jokes, and I marvel at his goodness and hopefulness.

Recently, at a Jesuit church in New York City, I celebrated Mass during a Sunday in Advent. Toward the middle of the liturgy, during the distribution of communion, I stood in the main aisle of the gorgeous baroque church while the colossal organ breathed its voice over the congregation, and I offered the consecrated Host to parishioners, many of whom I knew well. As they came one by one to receive the Host, many smiling in recognition, I was filled with a sense of belonging. I belonged to them. And I thought, What a wonderful life this is!

For me, all of those things make up chastity and celibacy.

My chastity also helps other people feel safe. People know that I've made a commitment to love them in a way that precludes using them, or manipulating them, or spending time with them simply as a means to an end. It gives people a space to relax. Just recently, I spent a few months working with an acting company in New York City that was developing a play about the relationship between Jesus and Judas. Initially, I was asked by the playwright to help him with the research for his script, and then I began working closely with the actor who would play Judas. In time, I was invited to talk with the director and the entire cast. During the midwinter months, we spent long hours sitting around a huge table in an Off-Broadway theater discussing the Gospels, Jesus, Judas, and concepts such as sin and grace and despair and hope. These were wonderful conversations, too, so different from those that I have with Catholics, who sometimes feel (myself included) that we already have all the answers.

Here was a group of people who inhabited a world far different from my own: the world of the theater. When we began, they didn't know me at all (and only a few of them were Catholic). I wondered, "How will they react to a priest in their midst?" But slowly I realized that since they knew I was a priest, they also knew I was celibate, and therefore they knew I wasn't there for any other reason than to help them and to love them. As a result, some of them felt comfortable sharing some intimate details of their lives with me, opening up at times of stress or difficulty or sadness.

Their trust was a great gift to me, and it helped me not simply become friends with them, but, in a real sense, love all of them. Whenever I entered the dressing room, I was usually greeted with plenty of hugs and kisses, from both the men and the women. (Actors, or at least these actors, I discovered, are very affectionate!) And on opening night, though I had seen the play a dozen times already, I found myself filled with gratitude as I watched how each of my friends had used his or her talents to create something new and exciting for the audience. I rejoiced with them in their vocations.

As in other situations, I also realized that I was there not only to love but to be loved. As the show drew to a close, I saw once again that I was called not to hold onto their love, not to cling to it. While I hoped that some of us would remain friends long after the show closed, I knew that I couldn't expect anyone's love. It had to be freely given and freely received. That's a bittersweet but important lesson I learn over and over as I live out my vocation. One Jesuit friend who had spent many years teaching told me that it was similar in schools. When I mentioned to him how sad I was that the show was ending, he said, "It's the same for me when a school year ends. You have to freely accept love from the students, but you have to remember that you can't hold onto it." It reminded me of the experience of the apostles after the Resurrection, who wanted nothing more than for Jesus to stay around. His response: "Do not cling to me."

But that free kind of love can be a magnificent blessing. Just a few days before opening night, after a round of hugs and kisses and smiles in the dressing room, I looked around at all these former strangers who had become my friends and thought, This is chastity.

Some days I think of my relationship with God as one of those gorgeous Byzantine mosaics of the face of Christ. Each of the people I love and who loves me is a brightly colored tile in this intricate design, and the image of the face of Christ becomes clear only when I am able to stand back in contemplation and take in the whole picture.

 

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The celibate person also has to accept the possibility that he will fall in love from time to time. This is an integral part of the human condition and it affects everyone, celibate or not. If you hope to be a loving man or woman, you will inevitably run the "risk" of falling in love. Jesus, as a fully human person, also ran that risk, when he offered his heart to others and opened himself to receiving their love. In his essential humanity, Jesus was as prone as anyone to falling in love and having others fall in love with him. His response was to love others chastely and well.

A few months into my novitiate, my novice director said that as a Jesuit I would almost certainly fall in love and that others would fall in love with me. I was horrified!

His response was memorable. "If you don't fall in love as a Jesuit, then there's something wrong with you," he said. "It's human and it's natural. Loving is the most important part of being a Christian. The question is what do you do when you fall in love?"

In other words, if you find yourself falling in love as a vowed religious, what choices do you make and how do you respond? Either you find that you cannot live the vow of chastity and you must leave your religious order (and I've had friends who have made this decision), or you reaffirm your commitment to your vows and move away in a healthy way from the object of your affection.

My novice director was right. It happened once in my Jesuit life: I fell head over heels in love despite my determination to avoid that situation. A few years after the novitiate, I found myself in love for the very first time. And the depth of my love and the passion I felt were completely unexpected and totally overwhelming. As anyone who has been in love will understand, it was a turbulent time. For some weeks, I believed that this was the person for me, the one I could spend the rest of my life with. I understood what it meant to be "lovesick" and could barely eat or sleep. Compounded with these feelings was the fear that all this might be a sign that I should leave the Jesuits.

In the midst of this turmoil, I met with my spiritual director, a wise and elderly Jesuit. I told him what was happening. He calmly listened to my story, which came out only with many tears. In response, he said just what my novice director had told me: "Falling in love is a wonderful part of being human, perhaps the most human thing you could do. It shows that you are a loving person. And that's a wonderful thing for a Jesuit and for a priest." He paused. "But you know that you have to decide what you want to do. You are free to leave the Jesuits and pursue this relationship, or you are free to stay and end the relationship."

After more prayer and spiritual direction and conversations with friends (Jesuits and otherwise), I started to see that though I had fallen in love, I was still committed to being a Jesuit and keeping my vows. At the time, leaving the Jesuits was a tempting idea, but when I looked back over the years I realized how very happy I had been precisely because of my life as a Jesuit.

In the end, that turbulent experience enabled me to grow in wisdom about the way my heart and head work. It also furnished me with some good insights into the human condition that I've been able to put to use when counseling others. In a sense, it helped me become more fully human.

Celibacy is not easy. The more loving you are, the more likely it is that you will fall in love, and the more likely it is that others will fall in love with you. And celibate men and women are prone to the same things that other human beings are: becoming infatuated, getting crushes, falling in love, and so on.

What's more, for all the talk about colorful mosaics and all that, the life of the celibate priest or the chaste religious can at times be a lonely one. No matter how many friends you have, no matter how close you are to your family, no matter how supportive your community is, and no matter how satisfying your ministry is, you still have to face an empty bed at night. There is no one person with whom you share good news, on whose shoulder you can cry, or upon whom you can always count for a hug after a hard day. And that's rough.

There are also few cultural supports for a solitary, sexless life. While American society smiles on engagements and weddings and births, when it comes to celibacy, that same culture---perhaps perceiving it as a threat to either married life or the easy commodification of sexuality---offers instead jokes and sidelong glances and outright hostility. During the sexual abuse crisis in 2002, for example, the most common explanation for clerical abuse was "Well, celibacy, of course; it's unnatural." People believe that not having sex is weird and unhealthy and sick, so people who are celibate are weird and unhealthy and sick. It is an almost insurmountable stereotype.

The lack of societal support means that it's crucial for celibates to nourish our life with close friendships, with a healthy attitude toward work, with frequent spiritual direction, and with prayer. Like any state of life---married, single, divorced, vowed, ordained---it requires attention and work.

For me, the loneliness is the toughest part; just as difficult as the lack of sexual intimacy and sexual relationships is the lack of an exclusive emotional relationship. Sacrifice, though, is at the heart of celibacy, as it is at the heart of any committed relationship. And here I like to think of what one theologian calls the "God-shaped hole," the space in your heart that only God can fill. That's why an absolutely essential element of celibacy is an attentiveness to an intimate relationship with God, who provides the celibate person with a different kind of love, which he reveals in ministry, relationships, and prayer.

 

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This is one reason I think that Angelo Roncalli was able to exemplify the ideal of chastity so well---because he himself experienced the love of God. He also understood the absolute need for a vibrant life of prayer and the way that a close relationship with God helped him love so well. In 1959, after his election as pope, he wrote these words in his journal during an annual retreat: "This vision, this feeling of belonging to the whole world, will give a new impulse to my constant and continual daily prayer: the Breviary, Holy Mass, the whole rosary and my faithful visits to Jesus in the tabernacle, all varied and ritual forms of close and trustful union with Jesus." John's relationship with Jesus enabled him to be a most charitable and kind man. He was friendly and approachable, human and funny, warm and caring, and always loving.

John's model of chastity was Jesus, because John's model of loving was Jesus. "But above all and in all things," he wrote in his journal in 1931, "I must endeavor to express in my inner life and outward behavior the image of Jesus, `gentle and lowly of heart."'

"May God help me," he concluded.

So when I look back on the life of Angelo Roncalli, I see a man who led a life vastly different from my own. He was born many years before me, on another continent, in an entirely different world, with far more important responsibilities, cares, and concerns. I know that it is highly unlikely---probably impossible---that my daily life will ever mirror that of Angelo Roncalli. He and I are very different and are called to be holy in different ways.

But there is one thing I do share with John: the desire to become a good priest, a good Christian, and, especially, a loving person. I hope that I can freely love and freely be loved. I hope that I can always live freely in the God-given world of friendship, love, sexuality, and intimacy and be true to my vows. I hope that I can always accept and appreciate the love I receive from others without trying to possess it or hold onto it.

Like anyone else, I hope to be a loving person.

May God help me, too. [197-207]

 

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