Back in July, I happened to be in Dan Mattson’s home town visiting friends. Dan and I got together over beers for a really good evening talking about our experiences as same-sex attracted Catholics committed to chastity.
This isn’t to say that we see eye-to-eye on everything. Dan has sometimes been critical of writers on this blog for their use of language. As should be clear from various posts about language this week, I take a more pragmatic approach to language than he does.
However, despite our differences, I have a lot of respect for Dan. I thoroughly enjoyed our time together in July, and I hope our paths will cross again soon.
This weekend, Dan posted a really great reflection, titled No One’s “Doomed” to Celibacy, on his blog. In it, he recounts a conversation he had on an Internet message board. Another participant wrote:
[E]vangelicals especially need to hear the hard truth of how hard and discouraging it often is to be gay [sic] and [committed to chastity]. They need to hear about the casualties way more than they need to hear about the success stories….
I disagree completely. The very thing that needs to be talked about more, in every branch of Christianity, is the success stories, to provide hope for people who fall into despair, and assume that their lives will be doomed to misery if they live a single life. Despair always leads away from God, and, and it is easy to fall into the idea of a miserable existence coming from choosing celibacy.
A lot of people seem to think that “the gift of celibacy” has been doled out to everyone who has chosen celibacy, which has always seemed odd to me. Their thinking must go something like this: celibacy is so strange, and so unnatural to man, that the only reason anyone would embrace it is because “they’ve been given the gift of celibacy.” I’m not constitutionally geared for celibacy, by any stretch of the imagination. I like sex, and I like it a lot, and I sure would like to have someone other than my dog to come home to each night. But I live a good and happy life anyway, not without its own particular struggles, but who doesn’t struggle? Sure, loneliness comes in from time to time. But guess what? I don’t mope about the house feeling sorry for myself—I call up my friends and get out of the house, or do one of my hobbies, like taking photographs, or go to my favorite brewery and chit chat at the bar with one of my favorite barkeeps, or I go visit my family and get some hugs from my nieces and nephews.
We’re not victims of circumstance. We can choose how we’re going to respond with the choices we make, and painting celibacy as miserable really denies the individual’s ability to overcome challenges and anything they encounter that they perceive as obstacles to their happiness. The bottom line for me is this: God’s will and commands point us to one thing, and that’s what St. Clement of Alexandria said was the “blessed life.” I’m not happy all the time, but who is? I know that I’m on the path to human fulfillment by striving for chastity, and sometimes that doesn’t make me very happy. But I don’t think of the world as merely existing for my happiness. It’s boot camp too, and that means there’s hard stuff involved, including sometimes loneliness, and the lack of enjoyment of a physical and sexual relationship. Big deal—I’m not going through the Holocaust, and I still have my health, my family, and my friends. And a damn fine dog, and a city with great beer, and great friends to boot.
What needs to be talked about isn’t “oh no! I’m going to have a relationally miserable life, filled with loneliness.” Rather, what I like to talk about is that we can choose to believe that chastity leads to our happiness, that we can choose positive responses, and that we should never view the call of chastity as if we’re somehow a mere victim of God’s moral laws. I’d be celibate, gladly, and never question it, if I truly knew who I was. So when the proverbial crap hits the fan in my life, and I feel like life isn’t fair, or that I should be able to have a relationship too, or that I should have the freedom to have sex, when I want it, with whomever I want it, I choose to say that I’m the one in need of some modified thinking, not the Church, and not Christian teaching on sexual morality.
My life isn’t a ”life of misery,” and I’m not “doomed to celibacy,” or a life of heart breaking loneliness. I reject the representation of a life striving for celibacy as miserable, and part of my mission in life is to debunk all of the dreary, droopy tropes out there of what celibacy is all about. I’m also on an important mission to debunk the notion that the “gift of celibacy” is needed in order to be celibate. The “gift of celibacy” as most people seem to understand it always seems like the person who received the gift becomes some sort of neutered, asexual person anyway, which sounds remarkably boring to me. Blech. No thank you, I’d rather not have the “gift of celibacy” if it means I have reached some Buddhist state of Nirvana, where all desires have been extinguished in my life. This sounds like the epitome of boredom, which sounds like a truly miserable life. I’ll strive for celibacy with full acknowledgment of my sexual longings intact, thank you very much.
One of the most destructive things I experienced, when I was still an Evangelical Protestant, was the defeatism about celibacy that I heard from many of my fellow Protestants. If you were struggling with celibacy, then you didn’t have this mythical “gift of celibacy” that people talked about. And if you didn’t have that gift, then celibacy, it was suggested, was impossible. Not every Protestant thought this way. But those who did were as common as casinos in Las Vegas, and about as helpful for fostering Christian growth.
(Lest I paint Protestantism with too broad a brush, Jeremy Erickson, one of the Protestant bloggers here at Spiritual Friendship, has an excellent recent post offering a critical look at the way some Christians talk about “the gift of celibacy.”)
Had I listened only to those who focused on how hard and discouraging celibacy can be, I think I can confidently predict the result: I would have become more and more discouraged, and ended up succumbing to some form of despair.
Fortunately for me, those were not the only voices I heard. When I picked up the writings of Henri Nouwen, I discovered a man who could talk realistically about loneliness and struggle; but also talked about how loneliness could be transformed into a solitude that made space for God, and how celibacy could bear fruit in a deeper, richer kind of love.
I found Nouwen’s honest exploration of his experience of celibacy inspiring then, and I find it inspiring now. He didn’t ignore the real struggles associated with his life. But he didn’t make the struggles the whole story, either.
More than 20 years in, I can say with gratitude that the defeatists were wrong and Nouwen was right (though part of what made Nouwen right was the fact that he could honestly acknowledge the reality of the desert places where the defeatists made their home).
Is celibacy difficult? Yes (so is marriage; so is grad school; life is pain, princess).
Is it frustrating at times? Yes (but watch someone raising toddlers sometime and it may change your perspective on the challenges of celibacy).
Have there been times when I wanted to give up? Yes.
But is it worth it? Yes.
And do I regret it? No.
When I met Dan back in July, I walked into the meeting with some trepidation. He’s been one of the most public critics of ideas explored by some of my co-bloggers on Spiritual Friendship, and I wondered how the conversation would go. But once we sat down and started talking, I could see in him a commitment to Christ and a zest for life that is infectious. He was honest about his struggles but it was clear that he had his eyes fixed on Christ. I came away from the meeting greatly encouraged.
So I’m glad to see him writing more about this positive side of his experience with chastity. It adds something really valuable to the conversation, and I’m looking forward to reading more. (To read Dan’s post in its entirety, click here.)
I’ll give Nouwen the last word:
I am convinced that a community which feels called to do a most difficult task, which asks for great sacrifices and great self-denial in order to do the work of God which is obvious and self-evident, will have no problems at all in finding people who want to join in the challenging enterprise. He who promises hard work, long hours, and much sacrifice will attract the strong and generous, but he who promises protection, success and all the facilities of an affluent society will have to settle for the weak, the lazy and the spoiled.
— Henri Nouwen, Intimacy