The Choice of Chastity: A Personal Account

Since I became a contributor for Spiritual Friendship, a number of people have asked me why I decided to start exploring the question of homosexuality within the Church and its relation to the lay vocation and the philosophy of the person. As a philosophy major, and therefore a super nerd, my usual first thought is “Isn’t the topic interesting enough? That’s three different and yet connected areas of human reality!”

Nevertheless, it is also true that my own background has led to this as well. Vicariously, I experienced the difficulty of the failure to accept people with SSA within the Church, a failure all too commonplace, through watching it happen more publicly to Joshua Gonnerman, who was already as a brother to me.

On a more positive note, however, I have also experienced something of the “celibacy question” myself: though it was not presented to me in the obligatory way it presents itself to the same-sex-attracted Catholic in general. Rather, I considered entering into it voluntarily, as a Dominican novice in the Western Province. The celibacy that seems to so many to be a burden is, to use Aristotle’s phrase, “seen in many ways.” For some of us who discern a religious calling, it can even be appealing.

This is not to say that it seems immediately pleasant. As the various articles at Spiritual Friendship have entered into the public consciousness, we have seen many, many requests, often very touching ones, for more “practical advice” on celibacy and how to keep it. As a religious, we were deluged in such advice, beginning with the injunctions from the Rule of St. Augustine about custody of the eyes, and continuing with a major emphasis in formation on psychological wholeness. In light of the cautionary tales which our elders in religion told us (which did not need to be fabricated; thanks to human nature, there were always plenty that were depressingly real) our every effort ought to have gone towards looking at the reality of celibacy and not flinching, rather than building it up in our minds. So far, happily, my brothers have been doing well, and I, also, am trying, though I am no longer a friar.

There were a number of insights in my mind from the hard-knock history of religious psychological formation that particularly stuck in my mind, and I intend to lay out some of the more practical ones in the next part of this series. Nowadays, in the wake of the sex scandal, a tremendous emphasis has been put on so-called “human formation”: the development of those natural gifts and virtues which we seek because we are human in order that we may serve the Kingdom of God through their charitable and prudent ordering. Alas, it was not always so. We see, today, that there are such “ministries” that are described as “pray away the gay”. Once upon a time, but not long ago, nor in a galaxy far far away, religious were formed in a school of psychosexual formation which Fr. Groeschel describes as the “school of angels.” “Imitate the angels, future priests, who for their proximity to God do not choose against him in matters of the flesh.”

It would seem that claims that this was theologically inept were ignored; contrary to popular art, angels do not of themselves have bodies, and thus lack urges of the flesh. For us to imitate them would not be to aspire merely to the superhuman, but even to that which is not human at all. Created to the image and likeness of God, and according to the will of the Trinity, the human person is body and soul, and the Dominican Order to which I belonged was founded to combat the Albigensian heresy, which denied this. It is not that “pray away the gay” is only a problem for gay people; it is rather something which, right around the time all the trouble with religious formation started, absolutely plagued religious formation. It is to teach human beings to deny their humanity, to “face” sexual temptation by pretending it is not there.

This is not to say there is nothing admirable in emulating the angels, however. The Dominican Confraternity of Angelic Warfare, operated by my own much-beloved Western Province, is an absolutely indispensable spiritual assistance in a battle in which we can use all the help we can get! (I highly recommend that anyone seeking the grace of chastity seek it out without hesitation.) Rather, it is that if we are to imitate those beings which by nature are so very like God, we have to do so, not despite our natural character, but through it. In our bodies, like Francis, we are to wear the signs of the Incarnation, of divinity bursting into humanity and expressing itself in one Person, which, painful as it sounds, are the marks of the Crucifixion.

And this is the case for all of us, not just religious friars; everyone is called to chastity. It is only that some are called to particularly heroic manifestations of that chastity. Some, or perhaps many: like male and female religious, people in marriages where one spouse has a delicate heart condition, diocesan priests, bishops, those unmarried, and finally those who owing to some natural situation cannot marry. (When we look at that list, we recognize that the situation of celibacy includes a great cloud of witnesses, not just those who, from their being subject to something they did not choose, are forced to join in!) And this is not always a bed of roses. Let us call a spade a spade. Celibacy is heroic because it is hard. If it was easy, it would be no very great demand.

In the next post I will provide those insights from the Novitiate I mentioned above. For now, though, there is one thing that is a sine qua non, prior to everything else I could mention. It comes in two parts, first the theological and then the practical. Theologically, we must recognize that the things which the Church teaches us are normal for a Christian are not those things which are normal for one who is unbaptized. Many things are not impossible, of course, but neither are they normal. This is because in Baptism, we really receive true gifts through which we are given the strength to do God’s Will. If we do not receive these gifts, then Baptism is nothing. A corollary to all this, and what is most relevant to my own experience, is that except through the Crucified Christ, there can be no progress in chastity, and certainly no chance of acquiring the crown of celibacy.

Connected to this theological point is a practical point so obvious that we generally ignore it. We must pray, always. Prayer is the organic expression of our connection to the Crucified, the communicative act by which we intimately bind ourselves more closely to Christ. When I was in the Novitiate, I realized in radical ways that without the prayers of those who loved me, I would have fallen. Every saint has realized this and made it a radical part of their life. Pope Francis made it the first official request of his Papacy – “Pray for me.” Without it, our wings do not lift, and we do not rise. With it, we can even find blessedness in the darkest places. If we can begin in this, the rest of what I have to say will be made much easier.

Tom SundaramTom Sundaram is a Master’s student at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, with a background in the study of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition.

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