I recently came across the work of Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest who released an extensive longitudinal study of the sexual practices of Catholic clergy in 1990. Though the book largely focuses on failures to live out celibacy, Sipe points out what he found to be four essential elements of a “mature adjustment to celibacy”:
I had a piece published yesterday over at First Things on how we might avoid moralistic striving in the same-sex marriage debates in the church. Drawing on the work of the twentieth-century French Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac, I talked about the need for grace to pervade the way we talked about sexual holiness:
Sexual abstinence is not an end in itself, [Mauriac] says, undertaken to demonstrate one’s own moral heroism. Our purity of mind and body is rather, firstly, for the sake of love for Christ—“His love does not allow any sharing”—and, secondly, for the sake of those whom Christ loves, for the sake of honoring the sanctity of the bodies and souls to whom we are attracted. “We have to be pure,” Mauriac writes, “in order to give ourselves to others, for Christ’s love is love for others.”
And the only way such purity is achievable in Christian lives is not by white-knuckled effort but by receiving a love whose sweetness somehow exceeds what we naturally think we want. “Christ,” Mauriac concludes, “is ready to substitute Himself in a sovereign and absolute way for that hunger and thirst, to substitute another thirst and another hunger.” The Sermon on the Mount is more carrot than pitchfork: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” The allure of the beatific vision, not the threat of punishment, is what Jesus uses to motivate the ascetic regime.
I was talking a bit this week with Todd Billings, who is a professor of Reformed theology at Western Seminary in Holland Michigan, and he passed along an essay he wrote when he was single and in his late twenties. The piece is a reflection of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity, and I found it very engaging.
Gregory’s vision of virginal life is one of fullness, not absence. “The more we come to know the wealth of virginity the more we have disdain for the other life, having learned from the comparison how many precious things it lacks.” Divided love — non-virginal love — is poor love.
Indeed, while Seinfeld’s Elaine would be horrified at the thought, Gregory calls attention to the “freedom of virginity.” The virginal soul, its attachments rooted in God, has freedom from “greed, anger, hatred, the desire for empty fame and all such things.” Since the virginal soul does not seek after these other loves, it is not a slave to them. It is free to be a bride of Christ.
Further, for Gregory, virginity is not a curse or an accident, but a “gift” with great “grandeur.” It does not result from God’s failing to provide someone to love, but from “grace.” The virgin anticipates the time when there will be “no distance between himself and the presence of God.” To experience a foretaste of eternal life with God is far from an accident.
We have grown accustomed to seeing virginity in terms of lack — an empty bed, a Valentine’s Day spent alone. But Gregory reverses the imagery. Virginity is a special foretaste of the divine presence, an anticipation of the resurrected state where believers are especially suited to experience this presence. Moreover, for Gregory, virginity is an “ally” and a friend. It accompanies us on the Christian path of rejecting the worldly loves that threaten to displace our love for God. For the Christian, virginity is not about loneliness. Indeed, for the Christian, it is impossible to be a virgin alone.
The whole essay is thoughtful and accessible—do read it all—and it’s doubly encouraging to me to think of it originally being published in the ecumenical magazine Regeneration Quarterly, which had a sizable evangelical readership when it was still in print. Sometimes working against their own history and current church cultures, many Reformed and more broadly Reformational evangelicals whom I know want to try to rediscover and honor celibacy in their churches today. May their tribe increase.
While observing the conversation about faith and sexuality over the past few years I have witnessed a depressing number of harmful and untrue words come out of someone’s mouth right after the preface, “Well, as someone with a conservative ethic…” or “As someone who is ‘side-B’…” (Side-B being clunky shorthand for a more traditional sexual ethic, for those who hadn’t heard it before.)
I understand that some of these people are new to the discussion, are becoming more aware of something that they used to not even have to think about. But…
It’s hard, sometimes, to watch people who are insulated from the consequences of their words keep saying the same harmful things over and over. And it becomes harder when these words are used by others as the example of a “traditional sexual ethic.”
Recently, Wesley Hill posted some wonderful thoughts here about the film Desire of the Everlasting Hills. It is a captivating documentary about three Christians who either return or convert to Catholic Christianity, leaving behind active homosexual lifestyles. There are so many wonderful takeaways, many of which Wes highlights quite well. But I want to focus on one aspect of their stories that struck me as particularly powerful: sacrificial love.
It is no secret that the theological river where I happily find myself swimming believes in a traditional, Side B sexual ethic where all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is contrary to the clear teaching of scripture. I have no qualms with the teaching. However, many times this strongly held belief can go too far, resulting in characterizations of gay people in monogamous relationships that are misinformed or worse (homophobic).
The folks over at A Queer Calling have an interesting article up today in which they deftly tackle several common misunderstandings about celibacy.
Among several errors they single out for deconstruction, there is this:
An argument we hear from some Christians with a liberal sexual ethic goes something like, “No LGBT person can choose celibacy freely unless his/her Christian tradition also affirms gay marriage. If the celibate LGBT person belongs to a non-affirming tradition, a sense of calling doesn’t matter. If all vocation options aren’t open, the choice to pursue celibacy—the only option—is meaningless.”
This is a view I like to call grocery store celibacy, because the view of the Christian moral life it paints is one much like a grocery store. The more “choices” and “options” you have, and the more unhindered you are in being able to freely decide which option you want to choose from the smorgasbord on offer, the more moral value the choice you eventually make will have. The closer the Christian life comes to reflecting the economy of a consumerist society, the more Christian it is, allegedly.
All the B Siders I talked to were eager to combat the widespread view of celibacy as necessarily leading to a life of unending loneliness and isolation. In fact, many of the discussions they have among themselves have moved past the question of whether and why to remain celibate and on to how one can do so and still live a fulfilling life. This more practical, positive focus is intended to address something they believe has long been lacking in the mostly negative messages that their faith communities have long presented to LGBTQ people.
I was recently invited to join the Theologues podcast to talk about homosexuality and Spiritual Friendship:
Brandon Peach guest hosts this episode with Stan Patton, Jonathan Balmer and our featured guest Ron Belgau, co-founder of Spiritual Friendship and a gay and celibate Christian on how the Church should approach homosexuality, whether or not homosexuality is a sin, what the Church can do to be present for those who are homosexual in their midst, marriage and our cultural perspective on sex. This was a really enjoyable show and I think you’ll like hearing Brandon passive-aggressively insult our guests as well as about Jonathan’s Lego obsession.
It was a good conversation, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, mostly friendly. Check it out!
Important Legal Notice: While I stand by my recommendations of hard cider, strawberries, and the Boeing 747, as well as my endorsement of Brideshead Revisited and The Cruel Sea, I did not endorse, recommend or in any way promote the Twilight series. I started to tell a story that would have mocked the Twilight series, was cut off by the host, and my intent twisted by the editors. Everyone involved will be hearing from my lawyers.
“For those suffering from broken hearts and homes, from loneliness or the dread of it; and for all called to the generosity of the single or celibate; that they might inspire [name of bride and groom] by their conformity to Christ, and always find in them fiercely devoted friends, and in their house a second home.”
This is a rather odd prayer for American weddings, which are often primarily (or purely) celebrations of a “filling love” between the husband and wife. We often celebrate marital love as a love in which the man and woman are seen as fulfilling each others’ deepest desires, creating an insular community in which the couple is viewed as “enough” for each other. The couple is seen as creating a home for themselves, but not a home for others.
But this couple is not only creating a home for themselves; they also desire a home for their friends. This prayer shows a deliberate resistance to one of the greatest tendencies of erotic love: the tendency for that love to be a raging flame in which the couple is consumed by an exclusive desire for each other, a flame that both impassions the couple and burns those who may come too near to them. We’ve all known people who, upon starting a romantic relationship, will abandon their friends and allow all their time and energy to be consumed by their significant other.
A reader of my book Washed and Waiting, in which I talk at some length about Henri Nouwen’s life as a celibate gay priest, just wrote me an email about how that part of Nouwen’s life intersected with his own. With my reader’s permission, I’d like to share a portion of his email:
I was his student at Yale, working on my Ph.D. when I talked someone into letting his masters level, divinity school lecture course count as a Ph.D. class. I was unable to profit much from the course due to my biases and the form my brokenness took at the time, but I did get into one conversation with him about [John] Calvin’s spirituality after a class. My profs that year featured one luminary after another—Luke Johnson, Sidney Ahlstrom, Conrad Russell (son of Bertrand), etc.—so I wasn’t awestruck, but as he invited me to walk back to his office, then to stay a while, I felt that I never so completely had the attention of someone who didn’t know me at all. He listened with a stunning focus—as if I were the only person in his world, that nothing could be more important than my shallow comments and questions. At the end, he encouraged me a little and gave me a copy of one of his books, with a lovely inscription. No one knew of his same-sex attraction, but some of us felt that he suffered from some wound that, coupled with his holiness and insight, expressed itself in his marvelous tenderness. So his grief, handled with maturity, became a light to us—a model for us all.
I was greatly moved by this remembrance, and I share it here as a reminder of what grace our gay Christian lives are capable of. Even in the midst of longing and yearning like Nouwen’s, we are given gifts that we may pass on to others.