In true Benedictine spirit, the complier of this volume invited me to author this piece so that the musings of a “younger member” (Rule of St. Benedict, 2) might be included with the wisdom of the elders. And while at 35, I can no longer pretend to belong chronologically to the youngest generation of priests and monks, I offer as my credentials the fact that I only professed solemn vows in 2008, and was just ordained a priest in 2009. I do therefore hope that my humble ponderings will be a small contribution to this otherwise venerable book.
My only instruction for this essay was to say something about my own journey to celibacy without being “too personal.” While that last qualification may be important for sparing readers the suffering of exposure to a confession, I must admit that it would be hard for me to imagine a more difficult task than writing about this subject from a disengaged distance. What, exactly, could be more personal than a reflection on a choice one has made about his sexuality?
To help me along, therefore, and to give this essay the advantage of being more universal, I have chosen to look at celibacy through the lens of some personal heroes: St. Augustine, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope John Paul II and St. Therese of Lisieux. I will attempt to link the lives and insights of these “celibacy experts” with my own experience of being drawn to celibacy. My hope is that, in this process, I will be able to share the value I have discovered in celibacy, and in that, perhaps, support others as they try to understand this mysterious practice. So, without further ado…
St. Augustine and Celibacy as a Unique Calling
After his discussion with the Pharisees on marriage and divorce in chapter 19 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus responds to the disciples’ suggestion that perhaps it is better not to marry by saying “not all can accept this word, but only those to whom it is granted” (Mt 19:11). Later, St. Paul, in taking up the question of whether Christians should marry says: “Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor 7:7). An important truth flows from these two scripture passages; while celibacy is not in any way normative for Christians, it is a gift or calling given to some.
This elicits some natural questions. Are celibates special people? Are they a spiritual elite? Are they wired differently? Do they have sexual thoughts? How does one know if one has this calling? Obviously, I cannot answer all these questions, but I believe that the life of St. Augustine is informative here. He has helped me a lot in understanding the mystery of celibacy as a unique calling.
The last time I read St. Augustine’s Confessions, I was profoundly struck by the famous conversion scene in the garden. By the time of its occurrence, Augustine has already been through much in his spiritual journey. Morally, Augustine has moved from what we take to be liberal promiscuity to a stable relationship with a common law-wife to, finally, an engagement with another young woman.
Intellectually, Augustine has also moved. After deep involvement with Manichees, Augustine has been freed from materialism by an engagement with Neo-Platonic philosophy. By the time of the garden scene, Augustine has moved even further, to acceptance of the truth of scripture and enrollment in the catechumenate. Lastly, Augustine has matured emotionally. Augustine has moved from early immature emotional dependence on a peer group to mature companionship with other truth seekers, his friends, Alypius and Nebridius. Augustine, by the time of the garden scene, was a far cry from being the degenerate he once was. He was well on his way to becoming a Christian.
It seems that by the time of Augustine’s great conversion, the only obstacle left to entering the Church was the obstacle of celibacy. That may seem strange to us, but I believe Augustine sensed a calling to celibacy and that he knew if he finally handed his life over to God, he was going to have to face this part of God’s plan. To explain this, it is necessary to look more closely at his writings.
There are hints of Augustine’s celibate vocation long before he enters the Church. Augustine remembers fondly, if with a little ambivalence about his over-attachment, his deep friendships as a young man. He describes them as such:
The charms of talking and laughing together and kindly giving way to each other’s wishes, reading elegantly written books together, sharing jokes and delighting to honor one another, disagreeing occasionally but without rancor, as a person might disagree with himself, and lending piquancy by that rare disagreement to our much more frequent accord. We would reach and learn from each other, sadly missing any who were absent and blithely welcoming them when they returned. Such signs of friendship sprang from the hearts of friends who loved and knew their love returned, signs to be read in smiles, words, glances and a thousand gracious gestures. So were sparks kindled and our minds were fused inseparably, out of many becoming one.
With these words, Augustine shows a remarkable appreciation of a moment of happiness in his old life, a life he otherwise quite famously looks back upon with some disgust. It is clear that Augustine experienced a deep sense of communion in his early friendships. Notably, he does not write this way about his sexual relationships or, apart from his fond descriptions of his mother, his family of origin. His most profound experience of intimacy as a young person came in the context of a group of friends. This appears to me to be an early sign of the desire for a celibate common life that Augustine would long hold in his heart.
As Augustine moves closer to baptism, his desire for life in an intentional community emerges more strongly. After befriending Alypius and Nebridius, they start to plot about adopting a monastic lifestyle. Augustine writes: “We almost made up our minds to live a life of leisure, far removed from the crowds. We would set up this place of leisurely retirement in such a way that any possessions would be made available to the community and we would pool our resources in a single fund.” When Augustine becomes betrothed, Alypius, recognizing that this plan would run contrary to their shared dream, challenges him, for, in the event of marriage, “it would be impossible for us to live together in carefree leisure and devote ourselves to philosophy as we had long desired, and still desired, to do.” Clearly, the dream of living in celibate community is on Augustine’s mind and in his heart. It appears to be his deepest desire.
It is quite telling that Augustine experiences a mini-crisis when Ponticianus arrives and tells the story of St. Anthony, as well as the stories of two men who broke off betrothals in order to accept the life of virginity. To this point, Augustine hadn’t imagined his dream a realistic possibility. The stories told by Ponticianus challenge Augustine’s assumption and are experienced by Augustine as coming from God. Augustine prays: “Even while he spoke You were wrenching me back toward myself, and pulling me round from that standpoint behind my back which I had taken to avoid looking at myself. You set me down before my face.”
Augustine sounds like a number of men, myself included, during the dark hours of vocational discernment. After simultaneously dreaming of and trying to deny the calling, the Lord puts the example of someone else responding before one’s eyes. The unrealized dream returns, a sense of being haunted endures, and one realizes that he must face himself, face his deepest desire to live as he is meant to, or never be who is he is really meant to be.
As is well known, Augustine had been, all along, struggling with continence, and this seems to have been the major obstacle to conversion. However, we must not make the mistake of thinking that Augustine saw sexual relations as incompatible with being Christian. Augustine himself mentions several times that he esteemed marriage and saw in it a valid way to order one’s sexual urges. He also saw it as a real calling in the Church. Why couldn’t Augustine have entered the Church and be married, as even his mother Monica dreamed? What seems likely is that Augustine, in avoiding baptism, was also avoiding a celibate monastic vocation, the real desire of his heart. He was avoiding entering the Church because entering the Church was going to force a decision about that vocation. He did not truly desire marriage, but neither did he feel willing or able to say yes to a celibate life. However, a celibate life was his true calling in the Lord, so entering the Church meant, in some sense, saying yes to that calling.
It is important to note that before the moment in the garden, Augustine had been stuck in a push-pull cycle. He writes: “When I was making up my mind to serve the Lord my God at last, as I had long since purposed, I was the one who wanted to follow that course, and I was the one who wanted not to. I was the only one involved. I neither wanted it wholeheartedly, nor turned from it wholeheartedly. I was at odds with myself.”
Augustine is describing a struggle with vocation. It was a struggle not so much to accept the truth of the faith, which Augustine had long ago done, but a struggle to accept himself and his particular calling to “serve the Lord.” He describes himself as being “at odds with myself.” He has conflicting desires, is going through a deep interior battle and is facing disintegration.
I suspect that what happened in the famous garden conversion scene was that Augustine received the grace and the courage, through the encounter with the Word of God, to finally obey his inner voice. His decision to finally enter the Church then was, not surprisingly, accompanied by announcements to his mother that he would not marry, and to Verecundus that he would be forming a celibate community. The final scenes of the first part of the Confessions are of Augustine and others living in that community, giving themselves to friendship and prayer. Augustine’s conversion, then, was also, and perhaps mostly, the acceptance of a vocation.
There are two aspects of Augustine’s story that I believe celibates can relate to. I will call them the divine element and the human element. By the divine element, I mean that Augustine’s celibacy is a real calling. It is not just something Augustine comes up with on his own. He is invited to it by God, who prepares Augustine, provides him with experiences that teach him where his deepest happiness will lie, supports him with friends who share the same dream and actively leads him to this life choice. By the human element, I mean that Augustine had to work through his own freedom, his own fears, his own suffering, discovering those parts about himself that were integrating and those which were not, and finally obey God’s voice in the deepest part of himself.
Personally, I feel I can relate to Augustine’s story because my own sense of being called to celibacy was made known to me through experiences of friendship as a young man, particularly in a youth group. It was in these circumstances that I felt most alive, most in communion with others. When I was single in these situations, I sensed a greater availability to others, a greater potentiality for deeper intimacy with more people. I could also see that I was most generous in this modality. Like Augustine, celibacy and community, for me, seemed to go hand and hand. The more into communion I entered, the more I wanted to be celibate; the more celibate I allowed myself to feel, the more I felt in communion with others. There is a mystery in that, a beautiful one!
However, like Augustine, I didn’t have the strength or faith on my own to choose such a life. In fact, it scared me deeply! While my family was supportive, I had fears about what others would think and I had serious doubts about my own potential to live in such a way. Furthermore, the idea of sacrificing marriage and family was painful, and I resisted it.
What made it possible for me to go further was that I was strengthened by meeting people, monks and nuns (and here I see God at work through the Church), who practiced this kind of life and showed me it was possible. Eventually, I met a particular community where my own vocation made sense and which I wanted to join. All the while, and most importantly, I started living closer to Christ, actually praying, frequenting the sacraments, getting involved in the Church. That gave me the grace to go further, to finally say yes, a yes that has brought me great peace.
Still, celibacy is a sacrifice. To pretend otherwise is to live in an illusion. I have heard it argued that if celibacy seems too difficult, it probably isn’t a genuine call. I accept that there are those who experience the celibate life as only a frustration, and were that the case, it would surely be a bad sign. However, I am convinced that for those for whom it is a genuine call, it still comes with struggle. Augustine teaches us that the fact that it is a struggle cannot be taken, on its own, as an indication that one isn’t called.
The struggle is there because it is real. It is a real sacrifice of a real good. Perhaps there are exceptional people for whom celibacy fits like a glove, but I am convinced that for many, if not most of us, chaste celibacy is learned, as it was for Augustine, through no few hardships. But if one is called, and if one does not accept, as we see so clearly in Augustine’s hesitating days, the result can be an experience of disintegration.
I shared with Augustine the struggle to accept this unique calling. I had the benefit of seeing the goodness of my parents’ marriage, of the marriages of my elder siblings, not to mention my grandparents. Furthermore, I didn’t enter religious life until I was 28, and so I had had my own experiences of dating and being in love with good people who could have been happy matches. Saying yes to celibacy meant saying no to that in order to be in a different kind of communion. It meant saying no to what I knew to be a good. It meant choosing one set of dreams over another. But as long as I hovered in indecision, as long as I held back the sacrifice, I was not following my deepest desire. I was holding back my life.
My brothers joke with me that, when I am around my eight nieces and nephews, I am getting my “celibacy booster shot.” It’s a funny joke that suggests that being around screaming children ought to make me appreciate the fact that I can hand them back to their parents. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate the independence I have that is hinted at in their jibe. But celibacy is also something to suffer in that respect. It means I don’t have children. It means I don’t have a wife. It means I don’t have a natural family. It means I have said no. In order to say yes, I have said no. No is a sacrifice. I have to be aware of that, and life provides me many occasions for that very awareness.
The late Basil Cardinal Hume, OSB, has written: “At the heart of celibacy there is always pain. It has to be so, because the celibate lacks something vital.” In forgoing marriage and family, the celibate has a pierced heart. For Hume, this pain makes “space in the heart for many and not just one.” It is, says Hume, “an example of the divine paradox that we must die in order to live.”
I like these words because they speak to my experience. In saying no, I have said yes. The sacrifice has been brought a sublime reward. Because of my choice, I am able, like Augustine, to live in a special kind of community, one that is dedicated to seeking God and serving the Church. Here I am blessed to have time for prayer with God, to live with friends, and I enjoy ministry opportunities that I once only dreamed about. It is rewarding, too, to see the way my community touches the lives of those with whom we come in contact, offering them a place of peace and renewal. It is a great privilege to be a part of it all. I am happy in this life and grateful to have received a celibate calling.
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope John Paul II and Celibacy as a Sign
I believe that one day, if they don’t already, people will look back and recognize Mother Teresa and John Paul II as the greatest saints of the 20th century. As one who came of age in the 1980s and ’90s, I can count myself among the great number of people who were inspired and formed by their witness. These two figures contributed in great ways to my understanding of celibacy as a sign.
The idea of celibacy as a sign is of particular importance. Many times when people are trying to understand the practice of celibacy, they look for a practical value. This is how it is often sold: “Priests wouldn’t be available for people in the same way if they had a family to tend to.” I find this argument only partly convincing. If we are talking about quantitative availability, it is a tenuous claim. There are many doctors and police officers, for example, who have as much responsibility to those outside their family as do priests. We don’t argue that they ought to be celibate.
Furthermore, there are many Protestant ministers, rabbis and imams out there who are married and do a fine job in their ministry and manage to balance it well with family. Finally, as a monk (and a diocesan priest might argue otherwise), I can’t really argue from this practical standpoint. There are simply many things I am not available to do because of the demands of my community. There are many ways I would like to be there for people, but cannot. However, if we are talking about qualitative availability, then I think celibacy has something to offer, and it is in this sense that it helps to understand how celibacy is a sign.
Mother Teresa and Celibacy as a Sign of Solidarity
Mother Teresa, it is well known, took as her special call, the words of Matthew 25; “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). Everything in her life and ministry testified to the truth she saw in this Gospel. She saw the face of Christ in the poorest of the poor and she fed, bathed, clothed and held Him in them while they were dying. I think if you would have asked Mother Teresa where Christ was in her life, she would have told you, without hesitation, that He was in the poor.
But if those of us who were looking at the many images of Mother Teresa’s work were asked where Christ was, we would probably have more immediately said, “He is in that ugly old nun who is taking care of those people.” The world saw Christ in Mother Teresa. She, perhaps more than anyone in the 20th century, was a sign of Christ’s presence among us. She made it possible for us to believe in the reality of the body of Christ, the Church, as the real, and not just metaphorical, presence of Christ. Where Mother Teresa was, we could see, Christ really was. She was a sign of incarnate love. In fact, she said as much about her missionary work: “I believe that God loves the world through us. Just as He sent Jesus to be His love, His presence in the world, so today He is sending us.”
I believe that Mother Teresa’s celibacy brought an important dimension to her work with the poor. Her celibacy meant that she was poor like them. She was in solidarity with them. “At the heart of celibacy is always pain,” and because we know that the celibate nun is incomplete, she has this pain. She is, therefore, not just a helper of the poor, she is one of the poor. This brings a different dimension to what she is doing. She does not just image the Christ who comes to rescue. She images the Christ who has shrunk to the depths and taken on human suffering. He does not only ease suffering, He goes through it with those who suffer. She writes:
Jesus had to become poor to be able to be one of us. He had to become small, He had to become weak, He had to become helpless, He had to become dependent, He had to become lonely, to feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for.… And I think this is what we are trying to do…to be that small one, that helpless one so that we can be able to proclaim the good news that God loves the world.
It is true that very few celibates work in the slums reached by Mother Teresa and her sisters, but for every celibate, the choice of renouncing marriage and family puts us in solidarity with those who suffer incompleteness, material or otherwise. Celibacy is, in that sense, a form of poverty.
Ronald Rolheiser notes that celibacy is a special way of being in solidarity with the many people in the world who are single involuntarily. He writes:
There is a real poverty, a painful searing one, in this kind of aloneness. The poor are not just those who are more manifestly victimized by poverty, violence, war and unjust economic systems. There are other less obvious manifestations of poverty, violence, and injustice. Celibacy by conscription is one of them.
When Jesus went to bed alone he was in solidarity with that pain in solidarity with the poor. Sexual inconsummation, whatever its negatives, does this for us, it puts us into a privileged solidarity with a special kind of poverty, the loneliness of those who sleep alone, not because they want to, but because circumstance denies them from enjoying perhaps the deepest human experience that there is.
Celibacy, then, is a very special sign of the cross. It is a way of saying, with Christ and without words, “I am with you,” to those who suffer, in loneliness or in any other way.
On my own journey to celibacy, I was attracted very much to this aspect of the vocation. I remember times in high school when I was able to support someone emotionally. I particularly recall going to the hospital to see a friend who had a head injury and another whose father was ill. I remember wanting to share in some way their pain. I remember those moments as occasions when I felt called to celibate priesthood. It seemed like a natural way to be profoundly available to those who were suffering.
Similarly, I also recall the many times when I needed the help of a priest or nun for my own support. I was touched by the way they seemed available to me, not so much because they had nowhere else to be—I know they often did have somewhere else to be, but because, in their celibacy, they were already where I was. I knew their celibacy was a cross, and I was finding myself on a cross. Through them, the Lord had put Himself on a cross next to mine.
John Paul II and Celibacy as a Sign of Hope
What Mother Teresa has spoken by the example of her life, John Paul II has put into thoughtful words. In his well-known Theology of the Body and in his many pastoral treatises, Pope John Paul II articulated a profound understanding of celibacy as sign. John Paul invited us to view the body in sacramental terms, with a theological meaning of its own. At the basis of his work is the truth that human persons are made for communion, a fact which meditation on the human body, with all its parts, reveals. John Paul takes it that this design is part of humanity’s being Imago Dei. Since God is Trinity, a communion of persons, our participation in communion, nuptial or otherwise, is how we reflect the image of God.
As such, it makes sense that John Paul calls marriage the “primordial sacrament.” For it is the most basic and human experience of communion. John Paul emphasizes that its sacramental meaning is that it is a profound sign of Christ’s love for the Church. Lived well, marriage reveals that God’s love is free, faithful, full and fruitful. Celibacy is also a sign of Christ’s love. As the married person represents this love of Christ in relation to their spouse, the celibate represents it in relation to God and Church.
However, there are some important nuances. First, John Paul agrees with what has already been said about celibacy as a special sign of solidarity with the poor. In his apostolic exhortation, Vita Consecrata, he states that the consecrated life “helps the Church remain aware that the cross is the superabundance of God’s love poured out upon this world, and…is the great sign of Christ’s presence, especially in the midst of difficulties and trials.” Secondly, celibacy must be more than solidarity with suffering. It must be a sign of hope.
John Paul locates the meaning of consecrated celibate life in Christ’s Transfiguration. In fact, he calls the religious an “icon of the Transfiguration.” This is so because the consecrated celibate has been called up the mountain with Christ into deep intimacy with the Holy Trinity in order to be conformed completely to Christ and sent out again. The transfigured face of Christ in glory is given so that the Church “can be confirmed in faith and to avoid being dismayed at his disfigured face on the cross.” The celibate, then, must not be just a sign of compassion, of “suffering with.” He or she must be a sign of union with God and the hope and joy that lies there.
Importantly, the Transfiguration is a preview of the Resurrection, and the celibate is called to be a sign of “that eschatological fulfillment towards which the whole Church is tending.” John Paul is, of course, drawing on the long tradition of associating celibacy with eschatology. Christ has said “at the Resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30). The celibate, then, is a sign of what we will all be someday in glory, bodily persons living with absolute fulfillment in community with God and one another, but with the conspicuous absence of sexual union and procreation.
John Paul sees this aspect of the sign of celibacy as being so important that he says: “It is the duty of consecrated life to show that the Incarnate God is the eschatological goal towards which all things tend, the splendor before which every other light pales and the infinite beauty which alone can fully satisfy the human heart.” As an eschatological figure, the celibate witnesses to the fact that created things, however good, are insufficient, and that our ultimate hope is in the resurrected life. The celibate is a living reminder of the resurrection.
The advantage, it seems to me, of focusing on the Transfiguration rather than the Resurrection is that, while the Transfiguration is an image of the resurrected Christ, it is a sign “out of time.” Every celibate this side of heaven knows that he is not yet in the kingdom, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. But the Transfiguration admits of a certain entry into “eternal living” on this side of things. And because the story ends with “coming down the mountain,” it highlights that the experience of communion with God is not just for ourselves but to provide hope for all who “are weeping in this valley of tears.”
On my own spiritual path, I was greatly moved by monastic men and women who had something of the Transfigured face. College was, for me, a time when I could have easily drifted out of the Church. Thankfully, I went on some retreats and met some monks and nuns who seemed to me to be the happiest people I had ever met. They were joyful and free. It struck me considerably that these very people who had renounced so much were shining so brightly. Their secret was God and they were not afraid to tell me so.
If God could bring that much freedom, that much peace, and that much joy, I wanted to draw nearer. I have spoken already of the value of the solidarity of these men and women with me in suffering, but if it were not for their also possessing this prospect of joy in the Lord, their witness would have meant much less. They were icons of hope.
With all this talk about celibacy as a sign, I think it is evident why the habit has been an important expression of my celibacy and why I believe it is important to many Catholic religious of my generation and those younger. For many, it is decisive in the choice of a religious community. It is true that the habit does not make the monk and that external symbols can never make up for interior mediocrity. Similarly, there are many holy men and women religious who don’t regularly wear a habit and their interior goodness is undoubtedly more important than the donning of the cloth.
But it seems to me that Catholicism is a very symbolic religion and that Our Lord was often doing symbolic things. A habit is an action that speaks louder than words. For a married man, a ring is a sign to the world of his commitment, his fidelity to wife and family. For a religious, a habit says something to the world about one’s most fundamental commitment, about the primacy of God in one’s life. The habit communicates, too, without one having to say anything verbally, the suffering of the cross and the hope of resurrection.
To end, in the final section of Vita Consecrata, John Paul mentions that the celibate is also a Marian image of the Church as virgin and bride of the Lord. In the celibate, we see the undivided gift of self to God as a spouse, who makes the celibate fruitful and maternal toward souls. To unpack this last aspect of celibacy, I will turn to my final “celibate hero,” St. Therese of Lisieux.
Therese of Lisieux and Celibacy as a Gift
In Therese of Lisieux, we see something of the opposite of a St. Augustine. Where Augustine dreads and struggles with what he realizes to be his deepest dream, Therese embraces it from an almost incomparable young age: “I’ve longed to give myself to God ever since I was three.”
Therese grew up in a pious 19th-century French family. She was the youngest of five sisters, all of whom entered religious life, with four, Therese included, landing in the same Carmelite convent. Therese, coming early to her sense of vocation, had to combat the reasonable adults in her life who wished her to wait until she was a bit older before taking the habit. In her well-known autobiography, she explains how she had to convince her father, the Carmelite superior and the local bishop that she was ready. In a famous scene, while at the tender age of 14, she boldly petitions Pope Leo XIII in person to advocate on her behalf.
Everyone has childhood dreams. Therese’s dream was to be a saint, to give herself to God with an undivided heart, to win other souls to God and to one day be with God in heaven. She wants to be God’s “plaything,” His “prisoner” and His “bride.” She goes so far as to design a wedding invitation announcing the marriage of Christ Jesus to “little Therese Martin,” with almighty God and the blessed Virgin Mary as hosts! For most modern readers, this all smacks a bit sentimental, if not fantastic, at first glance.
But reading Therese, and precisely because she is unapologetic about her desires, one finds that one is led into wanting the things that she wants or, rather, wanting the one that she wants. One discovers that what she wants is a very human thing, to be so in love with God and so loved by God that nothing else matters but to become His partner in redeeming the world. In that, I think, one discovers what celibacy, or any vocation for that matter, is really about.
For Therese, though, the whole thing is based on a deep sense of being loved by God. When Christ promises the kingdom, she hears it as a promise to her. When Christ offers Himself in Holy Communion, she experiences it as a unique and personal gift to her. What Christians have had proclaimed so often that it no longer seems like “news,” Therese understands and receives in its fullness as a fresh message meant for all, of course, but also uniquely for her. Therese so absorbs the truth of “God so loves the world,” that for her, the only way to respond is with the small gift of her whole self. “I have sought and I have found the way to ease my heart,” she writes, “by giving you love for love.”
I have already reflected much about celibacy as a sacrifice, but Therese has added to my understanding that this sacrifice is not first for the sake of ministry, or for the sake of my getting to be a particular way in community or my getting to live a particular ecclesial vocation. For Therese, the sacrifice is, above all, a sacrifice of love to God. It is akin to what brides and grooms do when they publicly proclaim that they will forsake all others for the good of the one. The sacrifice is a gift. She writes:
You know, God, that I have never wanted anything but to love You alone. I long for no other glory. Your love has gone before me from my childhood, it has grown with me, and now it is an abyss whose depths I cannot plumb. Love attracts love and mine soars up to you, eager to fill the abyss of Your love.
My folly is to hope that Your love will accept me as its victim; my folly is to rely on the angels and saints so that I may fly to You, my adored eagle, with Your own wings. For as long as You wish, I will stay with my eyes on You. I want to be fascinated by Your gaze. I want to be the prey of Your love. I hope that one day you will swoop down on me, carry me off to the furnace of love, and plunge me into its burning depths so that I can be its ecstatic victim for all eternity.
This is spousal mysticism at its finest. Therese is the bride of Christ, the spouse of God, a victim of love. It is in reflecting on lives such as her that John Paul has written, “what in people’s eyes can seem like a waste (celibacy) is, for the individuals captivated in the depths of their heart by the beauty and goodness of the Lord, an obvious response of love.” And who said celibates could not be romantic?!
Therese, who has known God’s unique and personal love, offers herself as a gift to God. God rewards that gift with yet another gift. He makes Therese His partner in redeeming the world. Therese suffers sickness and spiritual darkness for the last few years of her short life, but she understands and accepts her trials as part of being conformed to Christ. Meanwhile, she devotes her life of prayer and ordinary good deeds as intercession for the world.
She is, in fact, increasingly consumed by the passion of Christ, which has become her passion. She is as thirsty as he is for the salvation of souls. She is so to the point that she is willing to suffer for them. For this reason, Therese, who never left her French Carmelite cloister, has been named the patron of all foreign missions. In a real sense, Therese has received her promise. She has become a spouse of Christ and mother to His children.
Therese is an example to me. She reminds me of the unique and personal love that God has for us all. She models the gift of the available and undivided heart that God yearns for, and she shows me that God will reward that gift by allowing a share in His mission. On my own journey to celibacy, and in my continued growth along that path, she has been a special friend and mentor.
In the Benedictine life, to which I belong, we express our celibacy as a gift at solemn vows. To me, the special moment is the act of prostration. The act of prostration takes place after one has placed his signed vows on the altar. As such, they are an offering to God taken up in the Eucharist. Before lying prostrate, the monk sings with the community, “Uphold me O God, and I shall live, and do not confound me in my expectation.”
It’s a fitting preface. Celibacy is a gift to the God who has already loved the monk this far along the way. The monk will not persevere alone. He will need the support of others who are trying to make the same gift, and he will need the continued grace of God. After the prayer, the monk lies flat on the cold marble floor, becoming one with God and Church. Over him is draped a funeral pall, and the death bells ring. It looks, at once, like death and sex. As such, it’s a pretty good image of celibacy.
- St. Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, OSB (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997), 65. ↵
- Ibid., 112. ↵
- Ibid., 110. ↵
- Ibid., 149. ↵
- Ibid., 161. ↵
- Ibid., 112. ↵
- Ibid., 153. ↵
- Ibid., 157. ↵
- Ibid., 161. ↵
- Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB, Searching for God (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), 52. ↵
- Basil Hume, OSB, Light in the Lord: Reflections on Priesthood (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), 34-35. ↵
- Mother Teresa, Words to Love by (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1983), 27. ↵
- Ibid., 26. ↵
- Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 210. ↵
- John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, Pauline Books, 2006), conf. 96. ↵
- John Paul II, Vita Consecrata 24. ↵
- Ibid., 14. ↵
- Ibid., 15. ↵
- Ibid., 14. ↵
- Ibid., 16. ↵
- Ibid., 34. ↵
- St. Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, trans. John Beevers (New York: Image, 2001), 65. ↵
- Ibid., 78. ↵
- Ibid., 37. ↵
- Ibid., 95. ↵
- Ibid., 99-100. ↵
- Ibid., 76. ↵
- Ibid., 28. ↵
- Ibid., 162. ↵
- Ibid., 151. ↵
- Ibid., 165. ↵
- John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, 104. ↵
- Ibid., 53. ↵