In the previous post in this series, I discussed what led me to the topics of celibacy, the lay vocation, and ultimately pastoral ministry to chaste gay Catholics. I have a few useful practical insights about the pursuit of celibacy, picked up from my own experience of lunging towards that crown. (I am not a strong swimmer, and so few of us are, but I learn my lessons well.)
1. You may not have a spouse, but you are not without a Beloved.
There were times in the Novitiate when temptation would choose its moment with an all-too-familiar power. Priests know all about these moments. You are tired, it has been a stressful week; maybe you forgot to say your Divine Office once, twice, seventy times seven times; maybe saying it a hundred times seems no more useful than saying it once. Your call is being sorely tested by either an undue love or an undue hate. You simply want relief from the pressures of everyday life. Even in the space of the best year of my life, there were times when I wanted to just walk out the front door. If I had done so, moreover, nobody would have thought less of me.
But there was always a moment where, at the very end of my leash, I was confronted by the Cross. I say this quite literally, since there were crucifixes everywhere in the Priory, so that it became a very reinforced mental image. Yet even when I was not confronted by the actual literal presence of the Cross, there would be an internal turmoil culminating in my imagining myself at the foot of the Cross. In those moments, I could only remember the example of Peter, whose words when all the other disciples had chosen to leave after Our Lord’s famous “Truly, truly” line have been the greatest inspiration: “To whom shall we go, O Lord? You have the words of everlasting life.”
Thinking about this did not make what had to be done any easier, but it reminded me that the God Who became man and died on a Cross for me did not ask an unfair price in return; I owe Him my life by Adam’s sin, and He gives to me instead life more abundantly. When we realize this, we might still fall, but beyond the fall there is hope. This hope arises from the realization, which must happen in the life of every Christian, that the God Who created us truly loves us with all His perfect Being—as Catherine of Siena famously put it, God is “pazzo d’amore”, “ebro d’amore.” He is “crazy with love”, “drunk with love” for us, that He in all His dignity should become man and give His life for us sinners. Will he then not give us everything? He is our Beloved.
2. We have a nasty tendency to make our own problems worse, and then pretend it’s not just our problem.
As our Novice Master would constantly remind us, many of our problems arise entirely from our expectations. His quote: “Expectations are premeditated bitterness.” Part of us expects, like the Israelites expecting the Messiah-King, that God will give us a kick-ass military potency that will defeat all our problems, and that if we just give ourselves to Him for about two seconds, we’ll have this lovely story which culminates in His letting us have the things which we (supposedly) fully intended to give up, in principle, because God is just such a nice guy.
The peace that we would have in such a situation would not be the peace of Christ, Who did not shrink even from death upon a Cross, but the peace of a person who sells his soul to some petty master and gains the world. This is not a Christian kind of peace; it is in fact Satanic, because it was none other than Satan that promised worldly rule in exchange for service to Christ in the desert. We cannot expect a mere earthly beatitude as though it was what Christ promised, some prosperity Gospel.
We might want to be the fellow who, after a loving and generous life, dies in his bed surrounded by his many and copious grandchildren (and there is nothing wrong with such a life; God does give it to some) but it is quite possible that God may want us to be more like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who dedicated his life to fighting the spiritual evil of the Nazis and died a martyr in World War II. And He is the only one Who knows perfectly what will make us happy, because the only happiness for us is Himself, and God alone knows Himself perfectly.
3. Don’t martyr yourself.
In theory, this would be the easiest point of advice, because martyrdom is (let’s face it) icky. Not really appealing. But when we examine our own situation, we have all sorts of ways of making ourselves martyrs, even though we should recognize the impossibility of such a thing.
Take, for example, the person who says “I cannot choose celibacy because someone will not tell me exactly how to achieve it.” Thus we make our problems those of somebody else, casting ourselves as the scapegoat lamb who dies because of the sins of others. Nobody wants this, and we should not want it either. We already have a Lamb Who died for our sins, and one more who dies instead because of imagined sins will not make His Sacrifice more efficacious. Rather, we ought to consider our own assumptions.
In the Novitiate, I thought (towards the beginning) that problems that were really mine (talking too much, being incredibly opinionated to an obnoxious degree, trumpeting theological learning) were rather problems of my brothers (respectively, not talking enough, taking opinions too seriously, being anti-intellectual.) They really weren’t, ninety-nine percent of the time, and the other one percent was not as bad as I thought it was. There were times when I just wanted to accept my own gut feeling about the situation, but my gut feeling was almost entirely wrong when it came to my brothers, and liable to get me into embarrassing scrapes.
I could have sat there and said “this is all the community’s fault, I am a perfect special snowflake and they are all plastic imitations!” Instead, I listened to my Novice Master and my brothers, and taking that road less traveled has made all the difference. Now, religious or not, I have gained five brothers for life.
* * *
If I have gained something in these insights, I only gained them because of my undertaking the quest for celibacy. If I had not accepted the challenge of heroism, the challenge of being Br. Thomas, I would never have improved as just Tom. Because of it, I hope that even “just Tom” can be a hero, however God is calling me to do it.
Everyone, after all, is called to be holy as God is holy. Now I am a layperson, and as such I am called to celibacy until the day I should marry, and as such I am in (almost) the same boat as our readership. If I could give the three-step method to holy celibacy, I would, but I cannot. It is not a method, nor is it something that with the right knowledge imparted to us becomes as easy as riding a bicycle. It is an expression of our relationship with Christ and His creation here and now, and changes with every twist in our life. I can provide insights, but not solutions. I can also do the most helpful and vital thing, which is (I say once again) to pray. Therefore, let us pray for one another, and so make the first great step to heroism.
Tom 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.
if a vocation must be constantly sold/marketed/explained/justified with intricate and self-dependent stories, maybe that is because it doesn’t stand on its own? i don’t know.
do consider this post i read a few moments ago: http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/can-god-make-people-who-dont-fit/#comment-10793
and then wonder… is the obsession over celibacy to somehow negate the belief that somehow god co-created you with sinful love-needs is getting in the way of a relationship with god? isn’t it possible that the elephant of obsessively selling celibacy is an occlusion in seeing god as fully as possible?
just a thought.
Thank you very much for your thoughts on my article!
If I understand you correctly, you are worried that I am trying to “sell” celibacy (which here I am discussing, really, insofar as my encounter with it within my own vocational discernment led me towards certain practical lessons) and that the need by some to insist on the celibate path is really concealing some sort of prideful judgment, rather than proceeding from and into a deeper relationship with Christ.
For my own part, I would not try to sell it. Many in our readership have found that it is less a “sale” than a command. After all, if someone says “buy my product or ruin your own life”, and you recognize that the latter will actually be the case, it’s hardly a “sale” so much as an extortion. And I do think that the problem of having to choose abstaining rather than our inclinations to actions which are self-destructive is an extortion which is done to us by nature; but it is an extortion which human beings inflicted upon themselves. God did not wish it for us. Truthfully, I do not think it is right that anyone should be alone, and neither does God, since He said it.
This is why, however, I made my first point. Whether you think celibacy is a real thing worth choosing or a lie sold to a pietistic and gullible population, this does not make my point, that you have a Beloved, less valid. We are never alone. And I hope that a second examination of my points should be enough to indicate why I am somewhat perplexed by your comment. I was not trying to sell celibacy. Nobody came up to me and said, in hifalutin terms, “celibacy is something you should want because…” It would probably be the worst sales job known to man, frankly.
At the end, it is true, I did say that it was my pursuit of holy celibacy that made me acquire these insights, which, to be honest, apply to anyone, not just the celibate. (They have particular application to the celibate life, though, especially in community.) I was only making an honest reflection on my own life. I cannot speak for anyone else. But if anything it was my experience that indicated to me that the pursuit of chastity was something I could do better; that failing to pursue it as fervently as I could in the past was keeping me from God; that in fact I did not love my sexuality as much as God was calling me to do so.
In the article you just cited, I honestly do not know what I would say to those transgendered people, because it is a matter of their discernment. I would never judge them for what they do – ideally, I would never judge anyone – and I myself have things about myself which I do not like, that affect me constantly, and which I have had to grow to accept because I could not easily or prudently change them. I would not profess to put forward celibacy, by itself, as the answer to their problems! I don’t know anyone who hears the question “How should we deal with trans issues?” and answers “Tell them they have to be celibate.” (Probably, such people exist, and I hope they are few.) Mostly the problem seems to be that people don’t want to talk about trans issues at all. But my reason for starting to write all this stuff was to make people address the difficult things they didn’t want to talk about, not to shill celibacy to an already embattled market.
These insights, in particular, I put together because many of our readership want help. They ask for bread – should I give them a stone? The Lord knows I could use help at times with lots of things, including this. That is, I think, part of my duty as one seeking to promote spiritual friendship – to be friendly in the most profound sense of the word, one who seeks to inspire and share the highest virtue in a common life. I personally believe that celibacy can be an organic part of that, but only for those called to it, and if God is calling someone to celibacy through either spirituality or circumstance, then it is my duty as one for whom Christ died to give any assistance I can prudently give.
Of course, if one does not believe in the good of celibacy, the only way I can look is as one purveying a lie, because I am attempting to assist people in pursuing that good. But I would ask for some clemency, because if I am right, to claim that celibacy is no good at all would be a profoundly destructive thing for all of our readership, and therefore distinctly uncharitable. There is thus a certain impasse. But where impasses like this are absolutely unavoidable according to our experience, I hope that charity can prevail over the hatred of another’s unwilling ignorance.