1 Celibacy Across the Lifespan

Rev. Raymond Studzinski, OSB


When you are asked to write on a topic such as this one, I suppose most people would find themselves wondering, as I did, what it is that readers might expect to learn. My own conclusion was that we would all like to hear that celibacy gets easier, that any sort of struggle comes to an end. Then I was reminded of a story from the Desert Tradition of early monasticism. In the story, a young disciple comes to his desert elder and says: ‘Rejoice with me, for all struggles have ended.” The desert elder takes a moment and then responds: “Pray that struggles will return for there is no life without struggle.”[1]

The desert elder, I suppose, would say the same thing to us today. Yes, the struggles will always be there even though the dimensions of them may vary. In what follows, I hope to say a few things that might highlight what the terrain of celibacy might look like as we move through the lifespan, as well as what we can put in place now that might help us as we face present and future struggles.

As you are well aware, there are many different approaches that one can take in addressing celibacy. There is a fascinating exchange in a novel by Mary Doria Russell called The Sparrow where a hostess, making conversation, asks her Jesuit priest guest: “What’s celibacy like?” To which he replies: “It’s a bitch.”[2] So that would be one approach. We could also approach it as an obligation, a disciplinary requirement for priesthood in the Western Church, and review how that came about. We could also talk about celibacy as a charism, a gift from God which not everyone has.

Or we could talk about it as a practice and pay attention to how it is lived out at various moments in people’s lives. It is this last approach that I intend to follow here. I also intend to underscore how celibacy as a practice interconnects with many other practices that all come together to facilitate the spiritual transformation we are after. But first let me say just a few words about spiritual practices that are gaining an increasing amount of attention these days.

Nature of Spiritual Practices

We are all familiar with the saying: “Practice makes perfect.” Well, do celibacy and other practices make us perfect? If not, what do they do? One thing they do is illustrated by a story about the practice of archery. In Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel, a German philosopher, talks about his experience of learning Zen while serving as a visiting professor for six years at the University of Tokyo.[3] Zen practitioners seek enlightenment through various practices and learn Zen in the context of engaging in some art such as flower arranging or, in Herrigel’s case, archery.

These arts in Zen function as religious rituals, spiritual exercises, in which the goal is nothing external, but rather an inner change in the practitioner. Shortly after his arrival in Japan, Herrigel went to a Zen master who proceeded to train him in archery. Day after day, he would practice pulling back the string on the bow, trying to find just the right moment to let go. But even after some years of practice, the master would always say that it still wasn’t right.

Frustrated, Herrigel tried to master the technique by using his head, sensing there was a rational approach to how to do it right. Indeed, this seemed to him to bring the needed result. But the master sensed immediately that Herrigel was cheating, not playing by the rules, and was ready to end the teaching relationship. Herrigel prevailed on him, and the training sessions went on. One day, the master tells Herrigel, still struggling because he wants to shoot the arrow just right, “It shoots.”[4] When Herrigel finally surrenders control and lets “it” shoot, archery becomes for him the “artless art” and passes over into Zen. “Bow and arrow are only a pretext for something that could just as well happen without them, only the way to a goal, not the goal itself, only helps for the last decisive leap.”[5]

When we ask what becomes perfect through practice of celibacy or what does the practice of celibacy do for us or to us, we may come up with a simple answer of surrender to the One who is all powerful. In light of the Herrigel story, the practice accomplishes its goal by shifting the sense of agency, the sense of who is really in charge. It works when we let that Other who has invited us to the practice take charge and guide us on our way. The point is that practices are not ends but means to a goal—in our case, that goal is God. Practices and their role in religious or spiritual development are the subject of an increasing number of investigations.[6] What often remains unexplored is how these faith-based tools work on us. As Michel Foucault once remarked: “People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”[7]

William Spohn has thrown some light on how Christian spiritual practices do what they do.[8] Approaching practices as the ordinary means that Christians use to shape their lives in the pattern of Christ, Spohn directs attention to how they train the imagination as well as form dispositions that give rise to a vibrant moral life. Practices are then both pedagogical and transformational. Their power is related to their ability to form character and tutor the affections, thus leading people to acting in virtuous ways. “Both oral and spiritual practices set us up for the right dispositions. They channel good intentions into habitual behavior, and those habits evoke and train the dispositions of the heart.”[9]

Celibacy, by its very nature, is an all-embracing practice. As Richard Sipe has defined it: “Celibacy is a freely chosen dynamic state usually vowed that involves an honest and sustained attempt to live without direct sexual gratification in order to serve productively for spiritual motive.” [10] Put another way, celibacy is a practice of channeling sexual energy in creative ways while foregoing all deliberate sexual experience. It recognizes that eros or sexual energy is that which allows connection with others, creative investment in life and work, and makes joyful and joy-giving living possible.

It is a practice that is grown into across the lifespan and draws into its service a host of other practices. I want to suggest that we might think of these allied practices as arranged in such a way that, while they are all ongoing, certain ones have special moments of ascendancy in the course of the lifespan. We might think of them as following an epigenetic principle, much as is the case in human embryonic development where all organs are developing even while certain ones have their special moment in the sun.

Inasmuch as spiritual practices shape and form the self, we can think of them as gradually effecting a conversion of the self of the person practicing them.[11] From being an isolated self absorbed in one’s own concerns, the person, through these practices, begins to emerge as the person for others. The goal of the practice of celibacy is that there emerges a self that is in no way withered and encapsulated, but a self fully alive ready to connect in vibrant relationships with others and with the Other. In other words, the process that unfolds as we practice celibacy is one of radical conversion. Each step along the way across the lifespan, we are challenged to leave behind old attitudes and habits and embrace new ones under the tutelage of celibacy.

We leave behind isolated, stagnant, despairing stances to embrace a position where we are intimate, generative and hopeful people. The celibate self that emerges is the self that is hospitable, pure of heart, passionately engaged with God, caring of self and others, given to reading and playing, centered, free, in harmonious voice and grateful. Such a self was built on the four pillars of celibacy formation: the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral development. Let us begin our journey and see how the whole process unfolds.

  1. Earlier Years – Fulfilling Intimacy Needs and Finding One’s Niche

Often, as we start our celibacy journey, we are not all that far along in our adult life course and so we face tasks that all starting out adults face, such as mapping a course for ourselves in light of some dream we have for our future, finding the necessary resources to sustain us on the way, and finding significant others with whom we can share our adventure and get the necessary pointers that help us along the way.


Of course, the celibate person starting out has some particular challenges that others do not face or at least do not face with the same intensity. Celibacy may be a gift, but it is also a choice that we are challenged to make with awareness of what is entailed. Celibacy is a process and not something that is facilely accepted and acknowledged and then forgotten. Clifford J. Stevens observes: “It is important for the healthy growth of the vocation to celibacy that what was implicit in the choice of celibacy become explicit by reflection and personal probing.”[12] Here it is necessary to sort out intentions – why is one seeking this particular way of living out one’s sexuality. Some spiritual practices will be particularly important in moving along the clarification process and strengthening one’s resolution to be celibate.

Like other people, the celibate needs to firm up a sense of identity, a sense of who I am. This entails a review and integration of self-images built up over a lifetime so far, as well as making a commitment to the image of who I want to be that fits with my strengths and takes account of my known weaknesses and limitations. There are, here and elsewhere, pitfalls to be avoided—“clericalism” can appear as a mask that I can take on without ever fully apprehending who I am. It serves as a screen, keeping my true self hidden from others but also from myself. Granted, we consciously avoid such pitfalls; yet owning who I am is still a little more painful because I, in my commitment to the practice of celibacy, differ from lots of people in my world. Because I am celibate, I do not have that one human other, a spouse, who gives me on an almost daily basis the feedback that helps reinforce my sense of who I am. Having no spouse, no new family of my own, I stand somewhat alone and have to grieve that I have chosen not to have what other people have. I am different.

For some, in the early years of celibacy practice, the celibate project is taken in stride because so much energy is put into trying to get oneself established in a ministerial career and to build up a sense of competence in various ministerial skills, such as preaching, teaching, ritualizing, etc. There can be a drivenness in these early years that keeps questions from arising, primarily because the person is so exhausted that the mind refuses to entertain distractions of any sort. But the challenge remains, in the midst of all the busyness, to establish some relationships where intimacy needs are met. Not only intimacy with others, but intimacy with self is necessary if a good fit is to be found, and the sense that I am in the right place, the place that God wants me to be, is established solidly.

Consolidating a strong identity (a sense of who I am), strengthening one’s commitment to a celibate life, grieving what I am leaving behind in terms of family and genital relationships, and apprenticing in ministry under the direction of a skilled priestly mentor—these are some of the challenges, the tasks, that await people as they begin the celibate journey. It’s somewhat like the practice of singing, where learning to breathe properly is a key to success. Navigating these tasks of the earlier years of a celibate journey is facilitated by engaging in some spiritual practices that will have lifelong significance; committing to them transforms the self. Three should enjoy special prominence in the earlier years of the celibate journey: hospitality, confession and prayer.

Hosting Others – Letting People into Our Lives

Welcoming is a fundamental Christian attitude, and it is very much related to the Paschal tonality of a life where the Risen Christ encounters us in many places. One welcomes not only guests, people of all sorts, but life itself with all its ups and downs, knowing that in such encounters one meets Christ. Being a gracious host or hostess requires that we be comfortable in our own space. Such comfort means that we are clear to ourselves and to others about our commitment to celibacy. It is becoming part of our identity and permits us to let people draw close to us without our feeling threatened. People, in turn, can enter our lives with a sense of security, knowing that they are “sexually safe.” We are at home with ourselves, and people feel at ease.[13]

Of course, that means that we continue to examine fears that operate in us and sometimes motivate us to choose stances in life that keep us away from people. We must own our own histories, including our sexual histories, with their sad and happy chapters. We accept ourselves as people in process and we are comfortable we are moving in the right direction. The result is that we have a certain centeredness that allows us graciously to receive others. We see them as potential friends and not as potential enemies to be warded off. We also know something about boundaries—our own and other people’s boundaries. The invasive host who intrudes into the life or space of a guest is quite different from the respectful host who can invite someone into a friendly space where they can feel at ease, knowing they are respected and honored.

This is not to say that there will not be moments when the sudden appearance of a guest makes us conscious of, perhaps embarrassed about, the condition of our house or, in this case, our very self. But by and large, we are committed to keeping our internal house in order and do so. Hence, we are normally comfortable with any guest dropping in and looking around. We are people who feel we have something to serve, to give; most especially, we have something to teach about what is possible in grace. We are ready to be there for them with our clear commitment to celibacy, our deep beliefs, and our own experience of struggle and grace.

To be hospitable is to be vulnerable. Guests might knock over and break treasured antiques. Valuable things disappear and we may feel diminished. Dorothy Day, a committed celibate, and the people of the Catholic Worker movement whom she inspired could testify to how costly to hosts and hostesses hospitality can be. To be hospitable in such circumstances is a challenge. In the monastic tradition, there is the life of St. Meinrad, which recounts how the hermit joyfully received people whom he knew intended to harm him and steal the little he had, even offering them food and drink. This martyr of hospitality is a witness to the fundamental Christian truth that through death comes life, through loss comes gain. Stolen goods include all sorts of things, even something like time. Loss, though painful, can be liberating.

Creating space for others is a hallmark of hospitality. We are to create space for others to come into their lives to minister to them, to relate to them, to learn from them. Clutter—the clutter of rooms, the clutter in lives, the clutter of self-absorption—keeps people out. There is no place to come in and be received. Our own interests and preoccupations can so fill the space around us that there is no way someone can come in. Celibacy is not for walling ourselves off, for locking ourselves away with our own pet projects and interests, but for openness to others and to God. Detachment is the old term for creating conditions for openness. Poverty of spirit, another term with Gospel roots, means letting go of those many things we are safeguarding and so bringing greater openness to self and others and the Other.

Strange though it may sound, poverty makes for a great host. And celibacy, according to one writer, can be thought of as a kind of poverty.[14] For celibates trust, as the poor have to, that the human intimacy we all thirst for will come to them without manipulation. Celibates live with radical openness and trust, and that is why they can make wonderful hosts. They are ready to receive the gift of the other. They know also that hospitality will make further demands on them, that it will be an agent of ongoing conversion in their lives. They are ready for hospitality to rob them of some of their preferred ways of thinking of people and things. Long-held notions can crumble as we let people into our space. Poverty of spirit includes a poverty of heart, where we let go of old prejudices and poverty of mind, where we are willing to set aside even some of our long-held opinions.

I had a friend who spent his adult years until his death at age 54 working for the Catholic Worker. He told a powerful story about how a simple act of hospitality, giving someone something to eat, worked a conversion in him. In winter of 1978, as a graduate student at George Washington University in sociology, he passed a homeless man keeping warm on a grate by the state department building. The man asked for food, but Michael ignored him and kept walking to his dorm room. Unsettled, he had second thoughts and took back a bowl of soup to the man. So began a life mission; he continued to bring food to homeless people.

But shortly, there was an important turning point: “One night, as I brought down a large gallon jug of hot split pea soup and set it down on the cement block near the heating vent where they gathered, a rather rough-looking fellow picked up the jar of soup and, in one motion, broke the jar over my head.”[15] Michael continues: “Instead of running away, I asked the man why he had done that. These were probably the first words I had ever spoken to any of them. He told me that I was doing nothing more than bringing food to the dogs. I was bringing food, setting it down like I was feeding them out of a pet dish and just walking away. He said, ‘Talk to us. Visit with us. We don’t bite.’”

Michael offered this assessment of that event: “What happened that night was that the first barrier had been broken in my perceptions of who homeless people are. I realized that these men and women on the streets had feelings, just like me. They wanted to be loved and respected and listened to. They cared that someone cared about them, but just giving food and a blanket was not enough.”[16] Hospitality changes us. Celibacy should lead us to an unconditional hospitality.

Confessing What’s Going On

Another practice that connects closely with the practice of celibacy is confessing. As you may be aware, the word itself, “confessing,” can have a number of possible referents. We most often associate it in Catholic circles with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where the penitent confesses his or her sins, expresses sorrow and then receives absolution. In the secular press, we read from time to time of someone confessing to a crime. Another meaning that we know, but think of less quickly, is “confessing” as an expression of faith and belief. Augustine’s Confessions are less a detailed recounting of his misdeeds and more an eloquent testimony to God and what God has done in Augustine’s life.

Here I want to give “confessing” the sense of owning up to what’s going on in us to some other, such as a spiritual director or a trusted friend. We confess also to God and to ourselves as well. While obviously this owning up may mean declaring our sins or sinful tendencies, it can include much else such as our thoughts and aspirations, our fantasies and temptations. It is a practice that has a long venerable history in our spiritual tradition. It sustains us in our celibate journey, because it helps us to see and clarify what is going on in us and facilitates our movement to being our true self. In our spiritual context, confessing always implies, at a deep level, an acknowledgement of the sustaining presence of an all-merciful God. In the Desert Tradition of ancient monasticism, we find extensive evidence of confession used as a practice for furthering celibate growth and also find there some reflection on the value and point of the practice.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers flourished around the fourth and fifth centuries especially in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. As you may be aware, many of their sayings have come down to us in various collections. These sayings give insight into the struggles of the early monastics in their pursuit of goals such as celibacy and constant prayer. They also provide a glimpse at the special relationship that existed between disciples and their spiritual elders. It was to the desert that those called to the monastic life went to battle with the demonic.

Monastics were helped and guided in the struggles by elders, individuals who had been through like experience and thus had won the title of Abba or Amma. The dialogue between the elder and the disciple consisted of a confession, perhaps of a doubt or evil tendency, by the disciple and then a response of wise counsel by the elder. An example: “A brother came to Poemen and said to him, ‘Many thoughts come into my mind and put me in danger.’ He sent him out into the open air, and said, ‘Open your lungs and do not breathe.’ He replied, ‘I can’t do that.’ Then he said to him: ‘Just as you can’t stop air coming into your lungs, so you can’t stop thoughts coming into your mind. Your part is to resist them.’”[17]

A basic belief in the desert was that people must break out of themselves by disclosing their problem to an elder; this was the first step in a process of healing. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the Desert Tradition was the unique ability to elicit a confession from disciples. This was not a matter of prying, but rather a way of creating a situation and a relationship of trust wherein disciples could open themselves. If disciples could articulate their problems, they would gain peace.[18] The spiritual elder tried in every possible way to break down the walls of silent resistance.

A well-known story illustrates this: Abba Macarios knows that a younger man Theopemptos is tempted and in danger. “When he was alone with him, the old man asked him, ‘How are you getting on?’ Theopemptos replied, ‘Thanks to your prayers, all goes well.’ The old man asked: ‘Do not your thoughts war against you?’ He replied: ‘Up to now, it is all right,’ for he was afraid to admit anything. The old man said to him, ‘See how many years I have lived as an ascetic, and am praised by all, and though I am old, the spirit of fornication troubles me.’ Theopemptos said, ‘Believe me, abba, it is the same with me.’ The old man went on admitting that other thoughts warred against him, until he had brought him to admit them about himself.”[19]

The concern of the desert elders throughout their confessional method was that disciples might patiently come to discover the truth of themselves. The whole of the desert experience—a relentless quest for the truth exercised with extraordinary patience—sought to make humans conscious of all that was false and sinful in themselves. Confrontations with the truth start a conversion process. People find themselves in a movement toward liberation and a future filled with possibilities.

What happened in the desert happens today in the many moments of confession that can occur in spiritual direction or deep spiritual friendship. Celibates learn to pay attention to themselves and their inner lives. Sexual thoughts and desires will be there, but in such relationships celibates can ask what these mean in their lives, what do they say about the individuals themselves. Self-knowledge and self-acceptance are enhanced. Somewhat as in 12-step programs, to have someone with whom to share one’s history and struggles is important, and that person then acts as a sponsor to one’s growth and development. Making good use of relationships such as spiritual direction facilitates celibate development.

In the fifth century, John Cassian, drawing on the Desert Tradition, described a gradual evolution in the celibate process that indicates an ever-greater integration of psychic forces and a focusing of one’s heart on God. One’s inner consciousness unifies around an awareness of God’s presence as the grounds of all life and reality. Prayer is the place where that awareness grows and so is the next practice that has a crucial role in providing a solid foundation for the celibate adventure.

Becoming Intimate with God

Prayer is the central place where celibates can satisfy their deep need for connectedness. It is a place where comfort and solace may be found in the midst of ongoing struggles for acceptance and for love. Prayer is a practice that puts people in touch with their deeper self and the various images of self that they may have. In the quiet of personal prayer, one meets the self with all its various longings. The why of prayer is found in the many desires of the human person and, ultimately, in the desire the person has for a relationship with the Transcendent God.

Ann and Barry Ulanov, in a book on the psychology of prayer, have drawn attention to how an evolution of desire in prayer culminates in the fundamental desire for connection with God at the Center of one’s being.[20] Desires for success, fame, money, power, sex give way to the core desire of God. Celibates strive to consciously ground themselves in God as the source of their being. Praying is their consciously being and living their true selves as having origins in God and finding completion only in God.

Personal prayer can be an occasion for celibates to come into contact with some of the forces that pull them away from their true spiritual identity. In the context of prayer, the imagination puts before the person some images of self that run counter to the spiritual quest. Although these negative images may be dismissed as simply distractions unworthy of attention, taking note of them can provide insight into the shadow side of the self (the part we keep hidden). These so-called distractions may serve as windows on one’s envious and rivalrous feelings. Distractions can reveal the false self, those deviations from the full self that God intends a person to realize. Distortions, both in our perceptions of ourselves and in our understanding and imaging of God, come into clear purview and can be reworked. It is a painful and necessary part of deepening our relationship with the Divine. Much as we are guilty of projecting sometimes base attitudes and devious motives on others, we also can project onto God features that bear the stamp of our own distorted thinking and do not match the reality of God as revealed in the Scriptures. In the faith encounter with the sacred that is prayer, images are purified, transformed and transcended, though gradually and, at times, painfully.

But the real point of prayer is building and experiencing an intimate relationship with the Lord. Like all intimate relationships, it is multifaceted—it has both verbal and nonverbal activities associated with it. In the beginning, people spend time talking to God about their needs and their concerns. Some of this talking is quite spontaneous; some of it is a silent communion with the Divine in whose presence one places oneself. As they open to their own depths, celibates and others hear God’s response written in the very depths of their selves. They discover that they themselves are words spoken by God—going into their own depths, they meet there the living God who has spoken to them and whose image they are. They discover in their depths, in Sebastian Moore’s way of putting it, that they are made infinitely loveable and are loved by an infinite God. In prayer, the sexual energy we have becomes channeled into an intense passion for God. Without prayer, celibacy becomes simply deprivation and not an experience of the fullness of life for which all humanity longs.

William James once described conversion as developing a new “hot spot” within your consciousness around which one can organize one’s life and direct one’s energies. For the celibate, the “hot spot” should, of course, be God. I am reminded here of Bernard Lonergan’s description of religious conversion as radically falling in love with God. I suppose we might want to add to that definition that staying in love and working on the relationship through regular prayer are part of ongoing religious conversion. Richard Rolle, a 14th-century mystic and devotional writer, wrote a little work titled The Fire of Love. In that work, he writes about how the love of God becomes a fire within the person who earnestly seeks God. In the celibate, the love of God must also burn—lighting the way to a more intense relationship with the divine. Celibates, along with other Christians, must be the mystics whom Karl Rahner sees as the future of the Church.

  1. Middle Years – Finding New Avenues of Care

You don’t hear all that much about the midlife crisis these days, but entry into the middle years of any life or career brings its own set of challenges. Of course, actually defining when one is in the middle years seems to be a matter of opinion. Typically, for those who have married and raised a family, there are adjustments to be made as children grow up and no longer need care in the same way they did before, and so there is opportunity for parents to find new avenues for care. For everyone, these middle years are times for reassessing and possibly making adjustments in the direction one is headed. Sometimes, the way forward is clear; at other times, things can seem pretty dark. The loss of direction has been poignantly described by Dante in the “Inferno” of The Divine Comedy:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I came to myself within a dark wood
Where the straight way was lost.[21]

Carl Jung captured powerfully the sense that things need to change when he wrote: “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”[22] Celibates, too, need to step back and fashion for themselves an afternoon strategy for continuing to live out their celibate commitment as vibrantly as they can.


Like others, celibates may need to re-examine the focus of their caring actions. Much care has gone into the service of the people to whom one ministers. The question may now be: what or whom has been overlooked and needs to be cared for now? With accumulated years comes increased courage to look more deeply at self and the life of ministry one is pursuing. There may be accumulated feelings of frustration or dissatisfaction that need to be addressed. The middle years, for some, seem to be a time of instinctual reawakening, almost as though one is experiencing a second adolescence. The sense that time is running out for some things, for some adventures, may increase temptations to abandon the present course and move in new directions. The fact that members of your age cohort have raised families and now enjoy seeing children assume independence brings home what the celibate commitment has asked and what has been given up.

There is, too, the hankering after youth, a desire to recapture what seems to be passing all too quickly. I suppose the midlife crisis scenario of the middle-aged executive running off with the young assistant in the office, abandoning family and other commitments, has had its parallels in ordained ministry. Who doesn’t want to be young again, we tell ourselves. Add to all this the disillusionment that comes as we see things more accurately and you have a goodly number of issues to face in the middle years. When you make it to the top, things often don’t look as good as you thought they would. Once again, there are spiritual practices that probably we are already adept at that can be brought into even greater service as we face midlife challenges. I will mention three—caring for self, reading and playing (alas, a neglected spiritual practice).

Caring for the Self

Probably “caring for the self” does not make it to a lot of our lists of spiritual practices, but, if you think about it, it has to be one of the more important, though is often overlooked. It doesn’t seem virtuous, at first glance, to care for the self. But it is also a very important practice for celibates at whatever age. Caring for the self entails paying attention to the self and its needs and coming to a more accurate sense of who this self is. One of the earliest pieces of writing on the “midlife crisis” described a depressive crisis that people went through as they faced two issues having to do with the self. One was the fact of mortality—this embodied self as I know it will face the fate of disintegration in death. We all know that intellectually, but a part of us can harbor an emotional sense that we are exempt from what others must face.

The second issue is a recognition, more clearly than before, that some of that evil that I hate so much out there in other people can be found in my own self. I sometimes have done hateful things to others and to myself. The midlife crisis can happen because two cherished notions—that I am physically immortal and that I am all good—are seen as illusions that must be given up. I am mortal and flawed like everyone else. However, as the Gospel of John tells us, the truth will set you free; and so we can begin to accept our limits and to undo damage done by caring more deeply for others and for ourselves.

Once I accept the fact that I am flawed (I still have temptations and fail from time to time), I can do what the Christian spiritual tradition always invites us to do—surrender to God. My drive to make myself perfect was a bit of an ego trip. I can now rest, relax and let God do what I cannot do—bring things to perfection. I can even now surrender control and let God’s Spirit take charge. Jesus drew attention to this shift that occurs in life when He spoke to Peter about the fate that Peter could expect. “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go” (Jn 21:18). What begins to emerge is a different way of relating to one’s vocation and commitments. Having made the choices we have, we now let ministry, let the commitment to celibacy, shape and form us. In other words, Jesus’ words to Peter are not only about advanced age. It happens to us as choices already made shape and form us. If we care about ourselves, we let this happen because we have come to know how easily our own lesser side can take over. We need God’s Spirit to be in charge.

One aspect of self-care that has special relevance to celibates in ministry is letting go of doing everything ourselves. Rather than seeing ourselves as part of a team, a cooperative venture in the Body which is the Church, we fall prey to thinking of ourselves in some competitive struggle to be the best and most recognized of ministers. Envy of the younger can make its appearance as we assess the greater energy and creativity of those who are coming up the ranks behind us. Self-care should lead us to give up this unwarranted competitiveness and see ourselves as cooperating with others in what is, ultimately, God’s work. At the same time, we need to recognize that we are important contributors to others. One way we care both for ourselves and for others is by mentoring those less experienced than ourselves. Such service reminds us of the riches we have acquired in our years of ministerial experience, as well as gifts others with the wisdom we have to share.

Another dimension of self-care that receives a fair amount of attention in the literature on celibacy is cultivating solitude. A book came out about 20 years ago by Anthony Storr, a psychiatrist, titled Solitude: A Return to the Self.[23] In that work, Storr attends to how important solitude is in the lives of creative people. He acknowledges the special place that solitude has in the lives of celibates. We, of course, have ample testimony to the importance of solitude for celibates in the many who have gone before us. What is necessary for us is to learn to move beyond the experience of loneliness to what Sipe calls “aloneness” and Nouwen designates “solitude.”[24] The challenge is to develop an awareness of a presence at the very center of one’s being.

I am reminded of a beautiful passage from an unknown monk of the 13th century who is writing about the encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the Garden after the Resurrection. Jesus speaks to her in these words from this anonymous author: “Woman, why are weeping? Whom are you looking for? The one you seek is in your possession, and you do not know it? You have the true, the eternal joy, and yet you weep? It is within your inmost being, and you look for it without? You stand outside, weeping at the tomb. Your heart is my tomb. And I am not dead there, but I take my rest in your heart living forever.”[25] Loneliness pains and frightens us; solitude renews us and empowers us. To seek solitude is to care for the self.

Reading and Reading Life

Reading is a spiritual practice that, throughout ministerial life, can have a profound impact and guide people in living out their celibate lives. It can have a special significance in the middle years, because one is trying to read not only the Scriptures, but life and life’s events as well, to discover their deeper meaning. The Scriptures and the reading of them, both publicly and privately, have, of course, a special place within Christianity. In the familiar account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:23-32), two disciples have abandoned their mission and are walking along dejectedly. Their coming to faith is initiated by the Stranger directing them once again to the Scriptures and is completed by the sacramental gesture of breaking the bread. They allow the Stranger to speak and He opens to them the Scriptures. The Scriptures become a sacrament for them.[26] “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us [Lk 24:32 NAB]?” They are energized by their encounter in word and sacrament and return to their mission as disciples.

Part of their newly acquired competence as disciples is a new way of reading the Scriptures. As Louis-Marie Chauvet observes, “It is a completely new hermeneutics…of all the Scriptures that [the Stranger] proposes to them…. Luke tells us that the key to understanding God’s whole plan according to the Scriptures is the death and resurrection of the Messiah.”[27] Rereading the Scriptures with Christ in mind becomes a central practice for Christians. Archbishop Martini, commenting on the meaning of “opening the Scriptures to them,” remarks: “So in the Scripture we find a way of drawing the divinely inspired threads of human desire for truth and goodness into a coherent whole…I feel that the Scriptures both understand and interpret me, the Scriptures tell me what I desire and fear and give me the key to both aspirations and expectations. They provide a mirror for the [one] seeking God, the [one] who is searching for truth and the meaning of life.”[28] Centuries ago, early Christian writers such as Origen emphasized the potential for transformation and the role of the Spirit in the practice of reading.

But what type of reading is it that has such a great impact? Introducing his term for it, Richard R. Niebuhr writes of “deep reading.”[29] This is a way of reading the Scriptures that is attuned to the language and word patterns that lead to the innovative rather than the conventional, a way of reading that challenges rather than affirms the status quo. It is an experiential reading in which readers allow their experience and the passage to interconnect. Niebuhr describes it in this way: “…In deep reading we do not have a text ‘before’ us as much as a ‘presence’ of voices, of living words and symbols, around us…. Reading of this kind is similar to living in a sprawling house, in which we climb up and down and explore adjoining rooms, halls, and yard.”[30] Continuing the spatial analogy, he notes: “But deep reading is still more lively and complex; for we are continuously stepping in and out of this voluminous space, now regarding its written symbols from the ‘outside’ as though inscribed on a facade and now living and exploring in their midst.”[31]

Robert Mulholland, like Niebuhr, wants to accentuate the power of the Scriptures to break into lives and to suggest new and daring possibilities.[32] He explains that the Scriptures are able to do this because they, as it were, break the crust that keeps us insulated and resistant to change. By shifting our usual perceptual focus, they open us to the possibility of a new slant on things.[33] Paralleling a distinction sometimes made between extensive and intensive reading, Mulholland speaks of informational and formational reading. In the case of informational reading, the text is perceived as an object to be mastered and the knowledge gained as something that will have pragmatic benefits for us. A major difference in formational reading is the willingness of the reader to let the text shape him or her and work in its own way.[34] The crust that prevents the entrance of the Word into one’s life is, as Mulholland sees it, the culturally reinforced tendency to approach everything from a functional, informational standpoint, to see all things in terms of what they can do for us.[35] With their crust intact, readers are imprisoned in a cold, factual world, kept from fully imagining a world filled with the surprises and innovations of grace.

What these contemporary writers are describing is nothing other than the ancient practice of lectio divina. This engagement of the word through lectio divina makes of the reader a true minister, in the phrase of Henri Nouwen, a “living reminder of God.”[36] The priest, as a faithful practitioner of lectio, is affected in his whole being and comes to embody the word in the way he lives and acts; he becomes an artist of the word. Donald Cozzens writes about the priest “tending the word” and suggests that through that activity the identity of the priest comes into focus.[37] “Tenders of the word must sit with God’s word, savor it as a wine connoisseur savors a winery’s prize vintage. He reads it slowly and carefully, letting it filter into the corners of his unconscious where it takes root under the quiet tutoring of his imagination.”[38]

George Steiner, the literary critic, has argued that the classic way of reading put people in touch with what he calls “real presence,” the very energy of life, that which gives fullness to life and banishes emptiness.[39] That way of reading has been threatened not only by technological advances, but also by literary theories such as deconstruction and post-structuralism and by psychoanalysis, which questions the relationship between words and meaning, between words and world. As Steiner indicates, the covenant once established between word and world has been broken; the word is in crisis.[40] People are skeptical of what words mean, and of what the world means. To read in the ancient way is not only to decipher the meaning signified by the alphabetic characters, but also to read the world as pregnant with meaning. It is to read in such a way that one connects with a presence that is the ultimate source of meaning and an unspoken answer to human questions.

Testimony to the ability to read in this way comes from unexpected sources. The teen David Kern in John Updike’s short story, “Pigeon Feathers,” learns to read in this fuller way in struggling with a question that plagues him, the reality of the afterlife. He wonders what, if anything, awaits him after death. Brought up as a Christian, he turns to his minister at a Sunday school class. However, the minister’s vapid answer—comparing the afterlife to Abraham Lincoln’s goodness living on after him—angers David and even seems to betray Christianity. He looks to his parents for an answer, but there confronts a passionless view of life and ineffectual witness to faith. He hungers and aches for more. One day, though, he finds the answer in the feathers of some dead pigeons he is burying. He, in effect, “reads” pigeon feathers and gets his answer. “He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him.”[41] In “reading” these pigeon feathers, David encounters the transcendent, the “real presence” that gives his life meaning and answers his longing.

The Scriptures most often provide us with texts for lectio, but, at the same time, reading them trains us to read the other texts that life itself provides. The God who speaks in the Scriptures speaks in human experience as well. The Rule of St. Benedict that legislated for periods of lectio in the daily lives of monks also called attention to the “revelations” that can come from the young in the community or from visiting monks. Christ was to be recognized in the guests and in the sick. In other words, the Rule prescribed a particular way of reading human experience in light of the Scriptures. Lectio, which begins with the Scriptures and is sustained by them, amplifies to include life’s various experiences. Events, feelings, even conflicts—all can have revelatory power. They, too, need to be read and digested.[42] In the middle years, this type of reading becomes especially crucial for ongoing celibate development.


Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times opens with a chapter titled “The One Thing Needful,” in which the narrator claims that facts are that one thing needful.[43] Facts form the heart and center of the schooling children receive in the industrialized society of Coketown, where the novel is set. “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”[44] Thomas Gradgrind, “a man of facts and calculations,” is the proud sponsor of this approach and his own children suffer because of it. Their starved imaginations were the consequence of such obsessive focus on the world of facts. “Murdering the Innocents” is the apt title for the chapter that details the operations of Gradgrind’s school, where children are known by a number rather than a name. A government spokesperson announces to the students: “We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.”[45]

Dickens is out to protest a society that no longer nourishes the imagination. He laments, too, that religion, a stimulus to hopeful imagining, is given short shrift as materialism becomes the all-encompassing creed. As one commentator notes, “Religion too is perverted and slighted, yet emerges fitfully as one of the few forces that can save men from the living death which is Coketown.”[46] The children of Coketown are not taught to appreciate the mystery of life or to stand in awe of creation and the wonders of nature. Life is desiccated, devoid of meaning or any deep purpose apart from production and accumulation.

The concern with facts in Dickens’ novel resonates with the contemporary preoccupation with information. It is easy to conclude that the students in the Gradgrind school were taught only to read for facts, for information. They were not encouraged in letting their reading tutor their imaginations. Consequently, unlike religious reading, their reading probably would not excite or inspire, would not provide purpose. In their environment, imagination was foolish and so not tapped. Yet imagination plays an important role in religious or any deep reading and opens up visions of possibility in the one who reads.

Where the Coketown children were not supposed to venture was the world of creative imagining, the world of play that would enable them to break out of the stagnant and dehumanizing world they inhabited. The psychoanalyst and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott saw the ability to live creatively as related to a type of experiencing that moves beyond hard facts and imagines and approaches reality as charged with significance. To live creatively is to enter a world of illusion, a world that first takes shape in early childhood but has lifelong significance.[47] To live creatively is to take the mundane and make it into something enriching and consoling. For celibates, entry into the world of arts, literature and music can provide the type of refreshment and renewal that keeps them from becoming stagnant. Interest in things such as the arts is a strong indicator that celibacy is not about emaciated living, but about living fully and vibrantly.

Creative involvements help keep celibates from what can be a pitfall of the middle years. What they are able to avoid is that tendency to squelch the initiatives of those who are coming behind them. Immersion in the creative world enables people to stay open to the innovative even as they continue to value the tradition. They become mentors in the best sense—able to pass on the long heritage of Christian ministry, but also able to encourage new initiatives. Envy, that great spoiler, of intergenerational cooperation is vanquished as the middle ager is grateful for his gifts and experience, but ready to be enriched by the gifts and experience of others.

  1. Mature Years – Finishing Life Off – Was It Worth It?

Aging is both a gift and yet a difficult passage further complicated by the particular cultural milieu we live in. It challenges us both individually and as communities. Priests and presbyterates are no exception. It should not be surprising that one perspective on dealing with aging that quickly emerges from a Christian perspective is that of conversion. Conversion, of course, is close to the heart of what we are about as Christians. Thomas Merton once wisely observed that, while we have strength for one or two serious conversions, we often balk at the future ones that come our way. Yet they are precisely the needed changes that will set us free.[48] Both as individuals and as communities, we are called to leave behind certain old attitudes and approaches and embrace new ways of thinking and acting to respond to what our new situation is asking of us. Some of these changes require us to recommit ourselves to some of our basic Christian postures, but now with special reference to the situations of aging and diminishment.


As we think about aging as celibates, two extreme possibilities present themselves: we can shrivel up like a prune or we can mature into a ripe plum. As with so many things in life, we reap what we sow. If, indeed, celibacy has been a freeing and enlivening experience, we are able in the mature years to enjoy the fruit of a marvelous openness to one another and to God. If not, we are left to despair over what might have been. The senior years are when we find ourselves looking over the story of our life lived so far. Hopefully, we like what we read and, in particular, like the main character. If we don’t, we sadly realize there is no more time to write another story. Even if things have gone well for us, there is still more to be done. Once again, some spiritual practices come to the fore that prime us for negotiating what needs to be done. These practices are perhaps some of the more foundational ones of the Christian life, but seem to stand out in sharp relief at this point in the lifespan. They are: centering, self-acceptance, harmonizing and giving thanks.


Celibate elders can come to a level of integration and centering that is breathtaking. Sipe writes: “There is something mystic about men who have integrated celibacy firmly and unequivocally into their being and behavior. The awareness of the transcendent in themselves and others past and future comes together in them and in their work…. They have a spiritual transparency – they indeed are what they seem to be.”[49] What has brought them to this point and keeps them centered is their own effort not to get distracted from that which alone will satisfy their human hearts. They have learned detachment from passing things and focus on that which will last. With this has come a new understanding of themselves and a deeper awareness of God. The way to this new awareness has not always been smooth and easy.

The experience of elder celibates reveals the truth of the basic loneliness of the human heart, but also points toward its resolution. In Ingmar Bergman’s movie “Wild Strawberries,” a medical doctor in the evening of his life travels with his midlife daughter-in-law to receive a reward for 50 years of service. Along the way, he and his daughter-in-law, joined by some young hitchhikers they have picked up, recite a poem: “Where is the friend I seek everywhere?/ Dawn is the time of loneliness and care… /When twilight comes, I am still yearning./ I see His trace of glory and power./ In an ear of grain and the fragrance of a flower.”[50]

The psychological theorist Erik Erikson, commenting on the movie and the poem, notes that there is a religious dimension to every person’s search for integrity that can culminate in finding and resting in a Transcendent Other. Celibate elders have the possibility of verifying in their own spiritual experience Augustine’s famous dictum, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”[51] Sebastian Moore, whom I mentioned earlier, has written eloquently about the infinite Lover who loves us infinitely and verifies what we may have always sensed: that God has made us infinitely loveable.[52] Such a spiritual discovery is like an oasis in what can be a very dry and barren landscape for the aging and dying.

The revelation of one’s great worth before God can come precisely as people begin to let go of those various items that had previously provided them with a sense of value. Erikson talks about the movement that can come in the senior years beyond one’s psychosocial identity, an identity shaped by ministry and various relationships, to an existential identity, that aspect of self that stands behind all those social roles.[53] Willa Cather has wonderfully illustrated this deeper identity in her novel The Professor’s House. In that work, the protagonist Professor St. Peter is forced to come to a new sense of himself precisely as he contemplates moving with the rest of his family to a new house. He is reluctant to let go of his old house and his old view of himself, but gradually does so.

At one point Cather writes about him: “He seemed to be at the root of the matter: Desire under all desires, Truth under all truths. He seemed to know, among other things, that he was solitary and must always be so; he had never married, never been a father. He was earth, and would return to earth.”[54] Professor St. Peter discovers, too, in his aging experience, that one does not always have to be doing something, but can revel in just being.

A common metaphor for living life is writing a story in which the person whose life it is functions as both the narrator and the main character. If one stays with that metaphor, we can think of old age as the time when the deadline for submitting the story nears, and so some time is spent looking over the draft, looking over the past. Gerontologists have spoken of this going over the draft as a life review.[55] It’s a providential opportunity for taking care of unfinished business and coming to terms with one’s past and all that it has involved.

One dimension of processing the past and becoming more centered involves forgiving those at whose hands one has experienced injury. Eudora Welty’s novella The Optimist’s Daughter is a brilliant description of how one person, a woman in midlife, deals with her anger over past hurts experienced as she grew up. The proximate occasion for reviewing her past is the death of her father, a respected Southern judge. After the death of this woman’s mother, the father had remarried a trashy woman, and so, in his daughter’s mind, had made public his betrayal of her mother, which had occurred long before the mother’s death.

Painful memories of the past haunt the daughter as she attends to funeral arrangements for her father and the disposition of his property between herself and the new wife. All this comes to a head as the daughter and the new wife struggle over who will get a breadboard that has special sentimental value for the daughter. As the daughter finally lets go of the breadboard, she also lets go of the anger and pain of so many memories and lets them be truly past, over and done with. At the end of the novel, Welty writes, “It is memory that is the somnambulist. It will come back in its wounds from across the world…calling us by our names and demanding its rightful tears. It will never be impervious. The memory can be hurt, time and again – but in that may lie its final mercy. As long as it’s vulnerable to the living moment, it lives for us, and while it lives, and while we are able, we can give it up its due.”[56] For some elders, the availability of memories of even painful episodes of the past can be a blessing that allows them to engage in the Christian activity of forgiving and so freeing themselves from the past and opening to a future. They become centered on a self no longer held prisoner by long-ago injuries, but a self rooted in and going to God.

But even in the self’s relationship to God, there can be ongoing challenges as we grow older. In The View in the Winter, Ronald Blythe characterizes the reactions to growing old of some aged Anglican religious celibates he interviewed by observing: “Death is not their great worry, and they are remarkably buoyant when confronted by geriatric diseases. What disturbs them most about age is the decay of spiritual passion. Prayer is not what it was. Although they try to reignite its flame with every technique known to them, it barely sparks.”[57] Prayer sometimes takes on a paradoxical form in the mature years. Rather than a lively, enriching dialogue with God, it becomes a quiet waiting for God, which may not seem like prayer at all to some.

Another of the celibates interviewed by Blythe gives testimony to this experience. “The idea of waiting was hardly understood when I was young. It is so necessary, not only for us here [in the retirement home] but for the world, too…. Lots of us began by being taught prayers by our mothers to say prayers, then shown by our teachers how to say more prayers, and so on we went, talking, talking, talking! But praying? [An] old [friend]…wrote, ‘it is no longer a question of ‘Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth,’ but ‘Hear, Lord, for thy servant speaketh.’”[58]

Some celibates encounter not a warm, reassuring divine presence, but rather an absence and emptiness. Martin Marty, the distinguished historian of modern Christianity, wrote a book after the death of his first wife, A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart.[59] In that work, he picks up on an observation of Karl Rahner’s about people who have a wintry sort of spirituality. Unlike summery people, these winter types do not bask in a warm certainty of God’s closeness and benevolence. They experience absence and distance, which breed in them doubt and struggle. They resonate quickly with Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (22:2 NAB). Of course, that particular psalm can bring comfort as it reminds the elder that another, One who has gone before them, sought refuge in its words on the cross. The psalm teaches elders to accept and even embrace their desolation experience and so come to experience hope. As later verses of the psalm declare: “For God has not spurned not disdained the misery of this poor wretch, did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out” (Ps 22:25).

This dark night experience, which can come at various times in a spiritual life, can certainly be the lot of some mature celibates. The challenge here for anyone is to learn to believe that God is present, despite feelings to the contrary. This is a difficult faith, but a unifying one in which the whole self is drawn together in this act of trusting and reaching out to an unseen and unexperienced God. “In this darkness,” Thomas Kilduff, a late Carmelite priest, writes, “the aging face the emptiness that Jesus turns into fullness and life. There are times when this emptying in the experience of older people can reach a point of desperation, a last purification on the way to spiritual identity or completion in being.”[60] The mature celibate emerges from this experience more firmly centered on God and possessed of a wisdom given to those who persevere in loving without concern for personal satisfaction.

Self-Acceptance – Embracing the Truth

Richard Sipe writes: “The achievement of celibacy is not the accidental passage of sexual feelings into the oblivion of physical senescence…. Sex does not disappear entirely from consciousness even after years of celibate dedication.”[61] Life keeps us humble as struggles continue. Accepting the self means accepting the unfinished nature of the celibate journey, the fact that one must continue to work at it. Still, John Cassian notes that pride often plagues elders. In The Monastic Institutes, he observes: “Other vices gradually decline and disappear as time passes, …but in this case long life, unless it is marked by ceaseless effort and wise discernment, is not only no cure, but even leads to piling up new occasions for conceit.”[62] Certainly, pride can be a pitfall for contemporary elders—celibates and others; pride for us is often a flight from the truth of our condition as aging selves and a disdainful dismissal of other people, their help and their wisdom.

Such refusal to accept help and one’s own limitations is brilliantly set forth in Margaret Laurence’s novel The Stone Angel. Hagar Shipley, the central character in the novel, is a 90-year-old widow who experiences isolation resulting from her pride and refusal to accept dependence. She resents the encroachments of age and is in no way ready to admit her limitations. “Bless me or not, Lord, just as You please,” she thinks, “for I’ll not beg.”[63] At the end of the novel, as her life draws to a close, she fights off the nurse who is trying to help her hold a glass of water but reflects: “I only defeat myself by not accepting her. I know this—I know it very well. But I can’t help it—it’s my nature. I’ll drink from this glass, or spill it, just as I choose. I’ll not countenance anyone else’s holding it for me.”[64] Letting go of her prideful stance seems impossible to her.

Contemporary culture reinforces the sense that as adults we must stand alone, we must be autonomous. Diocesan priests must be autonomous, we tell ourselves. Our culture encourages us to flee dependency. Yet as it does that, we find ourselves fleeing from a basic truth of our human condition—we are people who are dependent on God and one another. We cannot go it alone. Facing and accepting the limitations that come with aging lead us once again to appropriate this fundamental truth. Rather than own our connectedness and need for assistance we cling, at times, to our own sense of omnipotence. Resistance to our will from intractable forces provokes our rage. With a therapeutic culture telling us that everything can be fixed, we go forth, sometimes in the face of serious, even terminal, illness, with naïve optimism quite different from Christian hope. We thrive on tales of people getting better, stories in which every illness is transitory. Or at the other extreme, our grandiosity leads us to despair, because we sense that if we can do nothing to ameliorate our situation, then we are left to living with no answer and no future—for everything is in our hands or medicine’s. There is nowhere else to look.[65] Quite different to all this is the vision that comes from the Scriptures: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as they day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps 139:11-12). Accepting our basic dependency brings us into the awareness that we are never alone, that an all-gracious God regards us.

Humility, a truthful recognition of who we are before God, also comes into prominence as aging leads us to deal with shame. Culture and the media have made us all desirous of looking perpetually young and of moving through life as though we are “Energizer bunnies.” Wisdom of accumulated years, grey hair, peaceful serenity are all discounted in a society that seems to value only youth and the latest technologies. Some have pointed out that, even those working to counteract ageism—that pernicious prejudice against elders who are seen in light of a negative stereotype as unproductive, inflexible, and disengaged—end up creating a false impression of aging and elders. The negative stereotype is gone, but the new one suggests that “old people now are (or should be) healthy, sexually active, engaged, productive, and self-reliant—in other words, young.”[66] Thank God for those elders who rejoiced in their elder status and did not clamor to be young again. Humility means recognizing one’s lasting value in God’s sight, a value not determined by how productive we are or how youthful we may appear. Ongoing conversion in connection with aging means staying grounded in who we are, both as people incredibly loved by our God and also as people who have lost some of the beauty, the youth, the productivity that the world prizes.

Harmonizing: Singing a New Song

Granted the clergy shortage these days, probably many of us can go on in active ministry for as long as we are physically able. However, there are still adjustments that will be expected as we move into senior status. For celibates, relationships are always important and so it is worth our while to anticipate what sort of relational adjustments we may have to make as we approach those mature years. If our relational abilities have continued to grow and develop in our years of celibate striving, we should be ready to make adjustments. The practice that I am going to draw your attention to does not sound particularly spiritual or religious. It is the practice of harmonizing which we most often associate with singing in a group. Actually, singing in a group could be a helpful activity to keep in mind as we think about some of the adjustments that come with aging.

One of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales called “The Bremen Town Musician” recounts how four animals, a donkey, dog, cat and rooster, have been cast aside because they have outlived their usefulness. These four decide to band together and become musicians in the town of Bremen. On their way to the town, they see a house that was quite literally a den of thieves. The animals put their heads together to plot how to drive out the thieves and have the house for themselves. They arrange themselves with the donkey on the bottom, the dog standing on its back, the cat on the dog’s back, and the rooster on top. When one of them gave the signal, “they started making their music: the donkey brayed, the dog barked, the cat meowed, and the rooster crowed.” They then came crashing into the house through a window and drove out the robbers. An attempt by the thieves to retake the house is similarly thwarted.[67] The tale is clearly about finding a new role in life when old ones are discarded. The challenge now is finding one’s own voice and blending with others. The tale mirrors the life of many elders within our communities and our society who have to plot a new course for themselves. In one sense, we are all musicians on our way to Bremen.[68]

Conversion in the senior years, in a sense, can mean changing careers from presider to singer in the choir. The challenge for elder celibates is discovering their own distinctive voice and how best to use it. A further challenge is learning to harmonize with others in one’s new or changing role. Communities need to make sure the voices of the elders are heard and are allowed to blend with others to create the community’s polyphony. There is a place for both songs of lament and songs of joy in any community. Of course, plenty of opportunity for singing is always found around the Table of the Lord.

This harmonizing tendency may also find reflection in the faith stance that the celibate takes up in life. It can be a deep faith in God and in Church and a faith that is able to see the thread that connects all people of good faith together in a world where most see only division. Love has grown in the celibate so that it is a love that reaches out and strives to gather all together into one unity. The celibate sees now with the eyes of faith and, in the phrase of Gerard Manley Hopkins, sees the “inscape” where all things connect in their source and not just a landscape of discreet objects. James Fowler, in one of his earliest presentations of his faith stage theory, chose a celibate religious as his example of his highest stage, universalizing faith. This individual sees how in each person love is at work, if the person would but follow it, drawing all toward greater union and harmony.[69] Harmonizing is the means to our goal and together we can produce wonderful music.


Giving Thanks – Becoming Eucharist

Donald Cozzens has said: “Charismatic celibates exhibit a spirit of gratitude.”[70] To that, I would add that the spirit of gratitude grows with advancing years. As elders recall the past, what can result is a thanksgiving for the presence and action of God in their lives. As they process their memories, they find deeper meaning in their lives and hence much for which to be grateful. The lives of elders, in other words, become more Eucharistic as they focus on and recall God’s goodness to them. What also can come into prominence is God’s remembering of us, which is at the very heart of the Paschal Mystery.[71] God’s remembering gives us identity; it is God’s saving activity toward us. In the Eucharist, we are remembering God’s great act of remembering, the One who will never forget us even if we forget God. As God remembers us, so we are to remember God and one another.

Because in the Eucharist we remember God’s remembering, we can live differently, boldly, courageously. In James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” in his Dubliners, a husband is despondent as he realizes his wife was thinking not of him as she heard a love song, but of a young man who died out of love for her many years before. This man risked his life and lost it out of love for her. The husband reflects: “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”[72]

The Eucharist, as we remember the One who died out of love for us, should make us passionate, passionate for God and all God’s people and ready to feast with them all. Donald Cozzens reminds us that celibates can be among the most passionate of people. “Their passion, uncluttered by the simplicity of their lives and filtered through the strain of contemplative awareness, unmasks a thirst for life in its fullness.”[73] As celibates grow older, they may find themselves even more passionate, on fire, for that feast, that communion of all for which we long, as we draw closer to it. One elder saw that as a fitting goal for the celibate life.

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heave, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?[74]

  1. The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, trans. Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1960), 56-7.
  2. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008), 37.
  3. Translated by R.F.C. Hull (New York: Random House, 1983). 
  4. Ibid., 53. 
  5. Ibid., 7. 
  6. Among the more recent efforts are: Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, ed. Dorothy C. Bass (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997); Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); Craig Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1999); and Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), esp. Chapter 7, “The Practice of Spirituality,” 168-198. Earlier works include: Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, rev. ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988); Craig Dykstra, Vision and Character: A Christian Educator’s Alternative to Kohlberg (New York: Paulist Press, 1981); and Margaret R. Miles, Practicing Christianity: Critical Perspectives for an Embodied Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1990). For an overview of the practices in relation to biblical interpretation, see Mary McClintock Fulkerson, “Practice” in Handbook of Postmodern Biblical Interpretation, ed. A.K.M. Adam (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), 189-198. For a social science perspective on practices, see Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). For a philosophical account, see Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 198 A4), esp. 187-203. 
  7. Cited in Huber L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 187. 
  8. William C. Spohn, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (New York: Continuum, 1999).
  9. Ibid., 39.
  10. Living the Celibate Life: A Search for Models and Meaning (Ligouri, MO: Ligouri/Triumph, 2004), 12. 
  11. See Michel Foucault, “Technologies of the Self” in Technologies of the Self, ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 16-49; and Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1993), esp. 83-167. 
  12. Intimacy with God: Notes on the Vocation to Celibacy (Schuyler, NE: BMH Publications, 1992), 41. 
  13. Cozzens, Freeing Celibacy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006), 26. See also Henri Nouwen, “Hospitality,” Monastic Studies 10 (1974): 1-28. 
  14. Cozzens, 16. 
  15. Michael Kirwan, “Hospitality is Mutual Trust and Respect,” first published in the Catholic Worker, September 1991, accessed at http://www.catholicworker.com/kirwan.htm.
  16. Ibid. 
  17. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward (New York: Penguin, 2003), 101, no. 55. 
  18. On this point and for the whole phenomenon of desert confession, see H. Dőrries, “The Place of Confession in Ancient Monasticism” in Studia Patristica V, ed. F. L. Cross (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1962), 284-311. 
  19. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975), 107. 
  20. Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1982). 
  21. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, I, Inferno, trans. John D. Sinclair (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), 23. 
  22. Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1933), 108. 
  23. (New York: Free Press, 1988). 
  24. See Sipe, 144; and Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (New York: Doubleday, 1975): 23-62. 
  25. Cited in Andre Louf, Teach Us to Pray (New York: Paulist, 1975): 38. 
  26. As Louis-Marie Chauvet notes, “The Scriptures are truly the sacrament of the word, but precisely, they are only its sacrament…. This is why for Christians the word of God is not immediately the Book…, but someone, the One who ‘fulfills’ the Book, Jesus, the Christ.” The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body, trans. Madeleine Beaumont (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 45. See Chauvet’s extensive commentary on the Emmaus event in his Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, trans. Patrick Madigan and Madeleine Beaumont (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 161-70.
  27. Chauvet, Sacraments, 24.
  28. Carlo Maria Martini, Ministers of the Gospel: Meditations on St. Luke’s Gospel, trans. Susan Leslie (Middlegreen: St. Paul Publications, 1983), 103.
  29. “The Strife of Interpreting: The Moral Burden of Imagination,” Parabola 10:2 (May 1985): 39.
  30. Ibid., 40.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1985).
  33. Ibid., 33.
  34. Ibid., 49-59.
  35. Ibid., 110-112. See also Walter Wink, The Bible in Human Transformation: Toward a New Paradigm in Biblical Study (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), 47-48. Using his own terms, Wink amplifies on what breaking out of one’s usual frame of reference means: “Having begun ... as the object of a subject (the heritage), I revolt ... and establish myself as a subject with an object (the text), only to find myself in the end ... as both the subject and object of the text and the subject and object of my own self-reflection. Thus there is achieved a communion of horizons, in which the encounter between the horizon of the transmitted text lights up one’s own horizon and leads to self-disclosure and self-understanding, while at the same time one’s own horizon lights up lost elements of the text and brings them forward with relevance for life today,” 66-67.
  36. The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ (New York: Seabury, 1977).
  37. The Changing Face of the Priesthood, 84.
  38. Ibid., 91.
  39. See George Steiner, “The Uncommon Reader” and “Real Presences” in No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 1-19; 20-39; and Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), esp. pp. 137-232. 
  40. Real Presences, pp. 90-96. 
  41. In Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1962): 105. 
  42. See Norvene Vest, No Moment Too Small: Rhythms of Silence, Prayer, and Holy Reading (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1994), 78-86.
  43. Hard Times: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, 3rd ed., ed. Fred Kaplan and Sylvère Monod (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001).
  44. Ibid., 5.
  45. Ibid., 9.
  46. Robert Barnard, “Imagery and Theme in Hard Times,” in ibid., 394.
  47. D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock, 1971), 1-6; Raymond Studzinski, “Tutoring the Religious Imagination: Art and Theology as Pedagogues,” Horizons 14:1 (1987): 24-38.
  48. See the letter by Thomas Merton published in Informations Catholiques internationales (April 1973) cited in J. Paquier, “Experience and Conversion,” The Way 17 (1977): 121. 
  49. Sipe, A Secret World, 262. 
  50. Cited in Erik H. Erikson, “Reflections on Dr. Borg’s Life Cycle” in Adulthood, ed. Erik H. Erikson (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), pp. 11-12. 
  51. Confessions I.1 in Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 3. 
  52. See Sebastian Moore, The Inner Loneliness (New York: Crossroad, 1982); and idem., Let This Mind Be in You: The Quest for Identity Through Oedipus to Christ (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985). 
  53. See Erik H. Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed, Extended Version (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), p. 64; idem., Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), p. 177; and idem., “Remarks on the ‘Wider Identity,’” in A Way of Looking at Things, ed. Stephen Schlein (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), p. 498. 
  54. (New York: Vintage Books, 1925), p. 265. 
  55. See Robert Disch, ed., Twenty-Five Years of the Life Review: Theoretical and Practical Considerations (New York: Haworth Press, 1988). 
  56. Eudora Welty, The Optimist’s Daughter (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), p. 207. 
  57. Ronald Blythe, The View in Winter: Reflections on Old Age (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 238. 
  58. Ibid., 252. 
  59. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983). 
  60. “Aging,” Spiritual Life 26 (1980):18. 
  61. Sipe, Secret World, 253-54. 
  62. The Monastic Institutes, XI, 8, trans. Jerome Bertram (London: Saint Austin Press, 1999), 166. 
  63. Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart-Bantam, 1964), 274. 
  64. Ibid., 275. 
  65. See Keith G. Meador and Shaun C. Henson, “Growing Old in a Therapeutic Culture,” in Growing Old in Christ, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, Carole Bailey Stoneking, Keith G. Meador, and David Cloutier (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 90-111. 
  66. Carole Bailey Stoneking, “Modernity: The Social Construction of Aging,” in Growing Old in Christ, 84. 
  67. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. and trans. Maria Tatar (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 150-155. 
  68. See Patricia Beattie Jung, “Differences among the Elderly: Who Is on the Road to Bremen?” in Growing Old in Christ, 112-128. 
  69. Fowler and Sam Keen, Life Maps, ed. Jerome Berryman (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1978): 93. 
  70. Cozzens, 27.
  71. See David Keck, Forgetting Whose We Are: Alzheimer’s Disease and the Love of God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996). 
  72. James Joyce, “The Dead,” in The Dubliners (New York Modern Library, 1969), 223. 
  73. Cozzens, 28. 
  74. The Wisdom of the Desert, trans. Thomas Merton, 50.


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