Thursday, 13 June 2013
Celibacy and marriage
On Monday I listened with growing disappointment to a BBC Radio 4 program that intended to shed light on celibacy from the perspective of different faiths. The program's panel was composed of a muslim cleric, a Catholic nun and an academic, who provided Buddhist and Hindu perspectives. Instead of dissecting the program here,1 I would like to share my personal, very much Christian, reflection and invite you to let me know what you make of it.
The optics I'd like to apply here are those of vocation.2 And I'd like to think about celibacy and marriage in parallel, since they are each key comparators for one another, and since talking about one without referencing the other would be artificial and woefully incomplete. Note also that I won't attempt to knot a customary net of references, and will instead aim to present a synthetic and condensed exposition of my take on this topic, which has occupied my mind for a good 20 years so far.
First, I'd like to suggest that there is only one Christian vocation, which is to say (and keep saying) “Yes!” in response to God's call to follow, imitate and love Him, directly and in my neighbors, and to give Him primacy in my life. Just as God didn't supply Samuel with a job description when He called him (1 Samuel 3:1-10), like “a light silent sound” (1 Kings 19:12), or as Jesus didn't issue the apostles with detailed terms and conditions (cf. Luke 5:1-11, Matthew 4:18-22), so too the specifics of following Him are part of the journey He invites me on. This adventure can take a myriad forms, like the infinite variety and ever-evolving novelty of God's love itself.
Second, any perfection attained as a consequence of responding to God's call is a gift. It can be welcomed and facilitated by staying attentive to the Holy Spirit's “inspiration” in every present moment, by being open to embracing Jesus in every suffering and welcoming him among those who love one another mutually, and by placing one's childlike trust in our loving Father. Perfection is not a human product, as the lives of so many saints attest.
Third, responding to my vocation yields both challenges and joys, where the natures and sources of both depend on the specific path I follow. On the surface of it, some are more likely if you are celibate while others are more typical of married life. Ultimately though, difficulties (suffering, frustration, disappointment) and joys alike are a consequence of what God wills or allows for me to experience and how I respond to it. This has nothing whatsoever to do with celibacy or marriage and everything to do with looking for God and embracing His will, moment by moment. Both have equal capacity for sanctification and torment, to the extent to which they lead to experiencing union with or absence from God.
Fourth, celibacy is a great treasure. It is an expression of a person's permanent commitment to follow God's call in total self-giving. By imitating Jesus' celibate life, they, like He, devote themselves to supporting, enriching and guiding the People of God and proclaiming the Good News of God's love to all. They, with their communities around them, are witnesses to God's love in the world and a beacon of His fatherly and motherly love. The essence of celibacy is not a foregoing of sexual joy and the delights that one's own children bring, but a positive, total gift of oneself to God, who is not to be outdone in generosity.
Fifth, marriage is a great treasure. It is an expression of a person's permanent commitment to follow God's call in total self-giving. By imitating the life of the Trinity, husband and wife become one family - a small church, where God dwells among those who follow his word. By “follow[ing] Jesus closely,”3 a family supports, enriches and guides the People of God and proclaims the Good News of God's love to all. Married persons follow the evangelical counsels of poverty, obedience and chastity in ways proper to their circumstances and are available for transmitting God's love to all. The essence of marriage is not an avoidance of a total commitment to God, a holding back of something for oneself, but a positive, total gift of oneself to God, who is not to be outdone in generosity.
Sixth, as one discerns how to follow God's call in celibacy or marriage, it is understandable that one considers one's own calling to be superior to the alternative. Since both have great riches and are means for sharing in the most intimate life of God, they each provide an overflowing basis for being extolled as superior. I believe that arguments for either exceeding the other ought to be read in this light - through their proponent's eyes, and appreciated for being signs of the value and beauty that those who have chosen them see in them.
Finally, I would like to thank all who guided me during the time of discerning my vocation - some of whom were celibate, others married, and all of whom made me experience the presence of Jesus among his disciples - and my spouse, who is the tabernacle of our family.
1 If you'd like to hear it for yourself, a recording is available here. I'd be curious to know whether you found it enlightening or frustrating …
2 Since this is going to be spiritual and personal as much as intellectual, you might want to check out my standard Thomas-Nagel-inspired disclaimer in the second paragraph here.
3 Speaking about marriage a couple of weeks ago, Pope Francis described it as “men and women who have left their homes to commit to a lifelong marriage, that is to follow Jesus closely!”