Celibacy is, at times—though certainly not always—difficult and frustrating. This needs to be acknowledged.
So, when I feel frustrated, when obedience gets tough, when I feel abandoned and alone, how can I make sense of it? Where can I find God in the darkness?
In the summer of 2001, my friend Mark and I spent some time travelling in Europe.
While we were in France, we stopped for a couple days at a campground in Vic-sur-Aisne. There was a beautiful chateau next to the campground, and the grounds were open, so we wandered around the gardens. Down by the river, there was an old stone gazebo. Mark climbed the steps of the gazebo, and as he looked out over the gardens and the river, said, “I would love to come here on my honeymoon.”
The world is full, of course, of reminders that most people are married, or will one day get married. I encounter these reminders over and over, and, for the most part, they don’t bother me. Every so often, however, one will jump out and hit me in the face.
This was one of those occasions.
Mark could hope to stand one day in the worn stone gazebo by the river with his bride at his side, and share with her the wide lawns, the ornamental gardens, and the view of the chateau on the hill. The scene called to mind the middle ages, the garden in the Romance of the Rose, and the thousand poets who have sung the joys of lovers whispering in hidden bowers.
In such a setting, a life without the shared joys of marriage seemed much lonelier, much emptier than it might, in another setting, have felt. For the rest of the evening, I felt a little like Moses in the desert, given a glimpse of the promised land, but told he would never enter it. I prayed, but even prayer seemed like the valley of dry bones, barren and devoid of life.
Why? I asked God. Why me?
The next morning, I drove a few miles to the Cathedral in Soissons for Mass.
After Mass, I spent some time wandering around the Cathedral. As I wandered, I came to a painting by Gabriel Girodon.
The caption on the painting said:
EN L’AN CCLXXXVII DV SEIGNEVR LES FRERES CREPIN ET CREPINIEN FVRENT MARTYRISES A SOISSONS
My French was (and is) not that great, but I puzzled out that it meant something like, “In the year of Our Lord 288, the brothers Crepin and Crepinien were martyred in Soissons.”
Churches are full, of course, of art that is supposed to lift our minds up to God, to remind us of His love, and to remind us of the cost of discipleship. I encounter these reminders over and over, and, for the most part, they don’t make much of an impression on me. Every so often, however, one will jump out and hit me in the face.
This was one of those occasions.
In the painting, Crepinien kneels on the stone pavement, his eyes open, facing the viewer. Crepin is already bent over the chopping block. The image affected me profoundly, so powerfully that I could not help but imagine the scene.
Crepin and Crepinien are denounced, perhaps by an enemy, perhaps by one they have known and trusted. They are arrested and brought before the magistrate. They are offered mercy if they will recant their faith. When they refuse, a centurion and four soldiers lead them out for execution. I wonder what goes through their minds in those final moments. Do they take a last look around, drinking in the bright fall colors? Do they savor their last breaths of dry French air? Do their knees shake with anxiety?
A crowd gathers to see the spectacle. In Girodon’s painting, the faces in the crowd register a wide variety of human emotions: expectation, anguish, anxiety, contempt. They reach the place of execution. There is the chopping block, a rough-hewn piece of wood. Behind it there is an altar, with a statue of the emperor draped in garlands of leaves, and incense burning in front of it. The magistrate’s face shows the stoic detachment of a man forced to do an unpleasant task. The brothers are given one last chance: Here, before the altar, if they bow to Divus Caesar, they will live. Again they swear allegiance to Christ.
They are stripped of their cloaks. Perhaps they feel the slight chill of the fall air. Perhaps they feel shame, standing exposed before the crowd. The soldiers push Crepin to his knees in front of the chopping block and bend him over so that his neck is exposed. They tie his hands behind his back, and bind his body firmly to the block. The rough fibers of the ropes tear at his back and at the soft flesh behind his knees. The executioner raises his axe above his head, awaiting the command from the centurion.
This is the moment that Girodon’s painting captures.
“Will you deny Christ?” the Magistrate had asked. “No,” they had replied. But what was the “Yes” to Christ (or was it the “Yes” by Christ to them?) that enabled them to say “No” to the magistrate?
As I stood in prayer before Girodon’s painting in the cathedral at Soisson, God did not offer me any false comfort that celibacy would be easy, or that loneliness would not, at times, be lonely. But He reminded me that my suffering was joined to a much larger narrative of love that suffered and in suffering, triumphed over death.
I was not alone. I was part of the suffering Body of Christ. Crepin and Crepinien were among the many heroes of the faith who had gone before me, and who now composed the great cloud of witnesses who surrounded me and cheered me on to run the race with endurance, keeping my eyes on Christ, the author of this great story, and the Savior who would bring it to perfection in me and in the world.