Honoring Vows: Conversation With A Priest

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.

Is Jesus Enough?

When I was a much younger single person, I remember a lot of conversations with older folks (mostly married) in which I was challenged with the thought of, “Is Jesus enough?”  In other words, “You’re single right now so Jesus will have to be enough.”

Man that sounded holy to me (It also made me want to sing the Doobie Brothers version of Jesus Is Just Alright – still does actually).  That’s right dang it, Jesus is enough.  I don’t need someone else.  However this is only sort of true, depending on what question you are actually asking.

Part of the problem with the Church’s response (or lack of) to increasing singleness is that we say stuff that not only sets singles up to fail, but also in turn sets marriages up to fail. The reality is that we need a good theology of both marriage and singleness.  One will not work without the other.  We need a lot of help with both.

When we say to a single person that Jesus is enough that implies several things. First off, it could mean that Jesus needs to be enough for right now.  But this makes no sense.  Jesus is enough for now, but not for later?  If you get married, then Jesus won’t be enough?  This goes right along with what I’ve written before about the idea of singleness being a “season where you focus on the Lord.”  This idea is so rampant and so just flat bad.  There is no season where you should not be focussed on the Lord.  And again, if singleness means being closer to the Lord than marriage, no one should get married. Marriage is not a concession to not being tight enough with God.  Yikes!

Which leads to point two.  Marriage happened while Adam had a perfect, sinless relationship with God.  In other words it wasn’t a lack of God being enough that made Him create Eve and put them together.  God looked at Adam and said it was not good for man to be alone.  Wait!  You mean even when he was totally with God, Adam still needed someone else?  Whoops.

Finally there is the idea that gets floated that if Jesus is enough for you, that means you must be called to singleness.  Once again, Jesus wants us to be focussed on Him regardless.

The question in regards to the call of singleness is not a question of how much you are focussed on Jesus.  It is a question of calling to vocation – to what type of ministry you will do.  It’s the second vow, not the first vow.  The first vow we have to make is to Jesus.  We all have the same first vow.  WE HAVE TO GET THIS.

In addition, the Jesus is enough question can lead us to other bad places as a single. Mainly that we don’t find true community.  In other words, regardless of marital status, it is truly not good for “man to be alone.”  We need other people.  We were created relationally, by a relational God, for the purpose of relationship.  If we are told enough that Jesus is enough we can end up not only avoiding marriage based on personal holiness but avoiding true community as well.

At the end of the day Jesus is actually enough in a lot of ways that matter most.  Jesus is enough for salvation – in fact nothing else works for salvation.  Jesus is enough for full life, but when we follow Him, He usually helps us get that by leading us to others and speaks to us not just directly but through the Church (his people) and the Scriptures.  But the truth is that we are not guaranteed that.  In other words He doesn’t promise earthly community and in fact lots of people have followed Jesus without the Bible.  We certainly are not guaranteed a spouse.

But a married person doesn’t have any of those guarantees either.  I could get married this week, and my spouse could be taken away the week after.  Would Jesus be enough? Get what I’m saying?

I think a better question might be, what are you staking your life on?  Now our answer to that needs to be Jesus.  Because at the end of the day He is the one sure thing.  And that has absolutely nothing to do with marital status.