I’m just back from a studium with a brilliant group of (largely) gay Catholics (about which I’ll say more later—watch this space, as they say), and one of the papers featured a paragraph that might be considerably modified in its final published version. Not wanting to lose the original, I asked the author—Christopher Roberts, whose book you should read!—if I could post it here at Spiritual Friendship, and he agreed. Here’s what he wrote about singleness and celibacy:
If we follow the tradition’s logic, celibacy cannot be a synonym for singleness. Classic, orthodox celibacy is not a solitary priest rattling around in an oversized rectory, or an isolated yuppie in a high rise apartment building a profile on an internet dating site, or a gay person toughing it out solo at Christmastime. All these are modern day tragedies, the kind of things which deserve compassion but which cannot be normative. Classic, orthodox celibacy is rather a way of enabling us to be present to one another, free of concupiscence and free of the pressures arising when we audition for mates—one might even call it a gratuitous presence. Classic, orthodox celibacy is Augustine and his friends forming reading groups and monasteries after their joint conversion. Classic, orthodox celibacy is Augustine insisting that virgins cannot ground their vocation in any disdain for marriage, but rather base their vocation in longing for the heavenly social life. Classic, orthodox celibates are the adopted aunts and uncles of a generous, hospitable household, or the adults in a parish who collaborate in works of mercy and the catechesis of children who aren’t theirs. Classic, orthodox celibates are the monks, nuns, and consecrated laity whose continence and discipline sets them free for high adventure in contemplation or service.
This, it seems to me, is exactly what I need to hear, even if (at present) I haven’t discerned a call to join a religious order.
And it reminds of something Karen Keen said recently in an email to me:
When Christians sell books and preach sermons encouraging non-married people to embrace their “singleness” as a blessing, we are promoting the destructive effects of the sexual revolution. “Singleness” as we conceive of it in our culture is not the will of God at all. It is representative of a deeply fragmented society. Singleness in America typically means a lack of kinship connectedness. This was not the case, for example, with Jesus who was not married. He never lived alone. He went from the family home to a group of twelve close friends who shared daily life with him until he died (followers who would have never left off following him). His mother and brothers were also still involved in his life and are often mentioned. Jesus’ mother was there at his darkest hour when he died. In contrast, singleness in America often refers to a person who lives alone or in non-permanent, non-kinship relationships.
If we’re thinking that modern Western “singleness” is the same as historic Christian celibacy, or—conversely—if we’re thinking that lay, parish celibacy, which many of us are hoping to live into, is simply equivalent to modern “singleness,” then we are, as the kids say, doing it wrong.
When I think about my own loneliness and the isolation of many other gay Christians I know, and when I think what can be done about it, I find myself playing with that great line from G. K. Chesterton: “The practice of humane, communal, parish celibacy-and-friendship has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” What would it look like, today, to try it?