Several months ago I had the opportunity to hang out with a group of men that included a Catholic priest. I could tell right away that this guy was just on fire for Jesus and we had a wide ranging conversation. This man was significantly older than me, had a great spirit about him and was in a role that really fit his sweet spot – ministering to college students.
But of course, as I write a blog about singleness, at one point I had to corner him at the end of the table and talk about celibacy and ask a lot of questions about how he viewed that. How could I not right?
I’ve written a lot here about celibacy and how that calling and commitment is different from what we call singleness in our culture. I’ve talked about different ways we can come into that calling. I’ve also discussed how we have a major problem in protestantism as it relates to this because frankly we have no theology of celibacy.
But I must honestly say that while I can perhaps give some great theological pictures of it and biblical support for it, I sometimes feel that I’m not much help to the people who are actually called to it, other than being on their side and fighting for them where I can.
I’m hoping that parts of my conversation with this gentleman might be of help at some level as well as give more understanding to those of us who aren’t called or gifted with celibacy.
Let’s first back up for just a second and refresh our thoughts on what exactly I’m talking about here. I’m not talking about the not yet married, the divorced or the widowed, although I think some of this applies to them at some level. What I’m talking about here is people who are called and/or gifted with celibacy. Those who have made a commitment or even vow to celibacy for the Kingdom.
As one priest put it – we all make a first vow – that is to Jesus. But then we make a second vow – some of us to God and another person (marriage vow – serving God from that context) and some of us to God and no one else (celibacy vow – serving God from that context).
This man, long ago, made that second vow to celibacy. Here’s what I learned.
This man had great freedom and he lives joyously in it. I want that to be an encouragement. In no way did this man feel he had “missed out” on marriage. He uses this to serve God in ways that others can’t. As an example of this he left our gathering at midnight because he had a meeting – with a college man he is mentoring – at 2 AM**. He couldn’t wait to get there.
My point in sharing this is that a lot of times there is sense of feeling sorry for those called to celibacy. Or at the least a feeling of, “I could never do that”. But the truth is, if you are called to it, not only can you do it, but you’ll probably love a lot of it. If you are called to celibacy there are great advantages and opportunities to live in that. It’s not a second class place in the Kingdom. Not in any way.
A second thing that I took away is that the vow, while real, is just that. What I mean is that just as you make a vow to a spouse and then have to choose over and over again to honor that, the same is true to vow of celibacy.
We tend to have this belief that if we are called to celibacy and make the vow that there are not struggles or questions about that. In other words there is no temptation to break that vow. But he assured me that this if false.
I asked him about what that looked like. His answer was refreshing. He said, “It is a vow. And yes I sometimes have to fight to honor that vow. There are temptations. I have sexual desire from time to time.” He joked, “Heck every time I have a hard on I have to remember my vow.”
That may seem crude but he didn’t mean it to be. His point was that a vow is something that will be tested and that is no different just because his vow was different than mine to my wife. Just like not every man who makes a vow to a woman honors it, not every person who makes a vow of celibacy honors that. It’s not just a one time ceremonial moment. It’s an over and over again living out of and choosing that vow.
If you are called to celibacy and have made that vow or are thinking about it, I think this would be both sobering and encouraging. On the one hand, just like the marriage vow, you could break it. There will be temptation. On the other hand, just like the marriage vow, you can choose not to break it, even when everything in you wants to.
It’s also important for us as the church to realize that just as we try to help people live out and honor their vows of marriage, we can do the same for those who have made a vow to celibacy. If we have a better understanding of what celibacy actually is, we can do that. Supporting a person called to celibacy is completely different than supporting those not yet married, the divorced and widowed.
** I understand that this freedom comes from not only celibacy but also his particular job. However it is still an example of living joyously within his calling – which is the point.
These are excellent points that raise a lot of other questions. Imagine that you learned an older married couple in your church were getting divorced. Not only that, no one in your congregation even knew they were married. I know this sounds far fetched, but stay with me. It might be quite natural for people in your church to say things like, “If we had only known, we could have encouraged them more.” Other members may say things like, “If we had known they were married, we might have prevented their divorce.” Now, the idea of not knowing who is married in your church probably seems quite bizarre. Well, translate that over to celibacy. In protestantism, not only is it not bizarre, it is the expectation that no one knows who has the gift of celibacy. It is the expectation that if celibacy is mentioned in any way during church, it will be a derogatory reference to the Catholic church. Yet even with no support and ridicule on top of that, there are those of us who are faithfully living out celibate lives. It would be nice if every preacher and church leader could read this. Maybe an intelligent conversation could be had.
May this priest be blessed in his walk, his ministry, his calling to his flock, and to the people he serves! Amen! Glory to God!
As one who struggles with SSA and *MUST* be celibate to be obedient to God, it is VERY painful that the Church worships and idolizes marriage and relegates Singles to obscurity. However, I am blessed that not only has my church said “you must be celibate” they realize the loneliness and difficulty involved and have gone back in church history to revive monastic orders. I will take the Vow of Obedience and Vow of Celibacy with my Anglican Bishop this Spring. A number of men, single and married are coming together to form a “Third Order” where we pray together, minister together, study Scripture together, and become brothers in living life together. The future of the Church is in its past.
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