Celibacy has a kind of duck-rabbit quality, at least in my experience.
If you catch me in one mood, and ask me what celibacy is like, I will be inclined to point out that one needs to be honest about the struggles and frustrations that go with it, and recognize how difficult a burden Christian teaching places on gays and lesbians (in saying this, of course, I do not mean that chastity outside marriage or fidelity in marriage are easy for everyone else). But after babbling on in that line for a while I will catch myself, and say that, of course, celibacy is also probably one of the most beautiful things in the world.
If you ask me the same question in another mood, I will tell you a great deal about the beauty of chastity, and how much I have grown spiritually through the discipline of celibacy. But after waxing lyrical on the beauties of celibacy, I’ll pause and say that, of course, there are terrible frustrations and difficulties, as well, and one shouldn’t have sentimental illusions about it.
But to describe it in terms of moods suggests that I am upbeat about celibacy at sometimes, and frustrated at others. There is some truth to this, of course. One’s mental weather does change from time to time and some days are better than others. But even at the best of times, I am not blind to the struggles and frustrations. And even at the worst of times, I can still remember the beauty (if I let myself), even if I do not feel it.
In Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the council fathers wrote:
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.
Joy and hope, grief, anxiety, and affliction are inextricably woven into every part of the fabric of human life. But writing about this is a challenge. I struggle to find the right balance between these contrasting aspects of the experience when explaining celibacy (or marriage, for those called to that vocation) to those who ask.
But even to talk about “finding a balance” isn’t quite right. Today, I found a better way to speak than “balance,” one that I think captures this tension well.
I was reading the Summa (Ia-IIae 40, on the irascible passions, for those keeping score at home), and was reminded of one of Thomas’s stunningly beautiful phrases: “an arduous good.” It’s philosophy as poetry, succinctly compressing a wealth of meaning into a simple phrase.
An arduous good is a good that requires struggle. A good that is worth fighting for. And a good that inspires fear and hope and endurance in the face of adversity.
“Arduous good” is also a phrase that is seldom spoken in Hollywood, and almost never heard on Madison Avenue. In that silence, the poverty of our culture is laid bare.
Celibacy is an arduous good, like marriage, or grad school, or climbing Mt. Rainier, or raising children.
Salvation, too, is an arduous good, a treasure buried in a field, the pearl of great price, for which we will gladly sacrifice everything:
We rejoice in our sufferings, for we know that suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character hope; and hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
The same logic has made celibacy both one of the most frustrating and one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.