friendship and community Published Elsewhere sexuality

Celibacy and Loneliness

We need communities that have a space for us to live in, with and for each other.

This piece was originally published at Spiritual Friendship on January 30, 2014.

“For both Aristotle and Aquinas, friendship stands at the core of human and Divine reality… If we get that wrong, we get it all wrong.” -Fr. James Schall

When I was a child, I used to have night terrors. When I had bad dreams, I would sit up in my bed and cry or yell while I was sleeping. My parents would have to come up to my room, gently wake me, and then help me fall back to sleep.

I don’t have night terrors anymore, but I do occasionally have bad dreams. Like the night terrors, I don’t always remember them. Once, when I was visiting a friend, he told me one morning that he had woken me up the night before. Apparently, he heard me having a bad dream, so he woke me up, made sure everything was fine, and told me to go back to bed. I don’t remember any of this.

This is one fear I have: suffering under a bad dream in the night and not having anyone around to wake me up, and to tell me to go back to sleep. It sounds silly. It makes me sound like a child. But this is not a childish fear. It’s a human fear. It’s a fear of falling into a brokenness that you don’t even realize and that can only be alleviated by those who have loved you so much that they know you better than you know yourself. It’s the realization that you can become careless or tired and unaware of your failings and that, from time to time, you need people to make up for your inadequacies. It’s the commonly admitted fear of dying alone that acts as a mask for the real, underlying fear: the fear of living alone.

This is the fear of celibacy. People tend to think that celibacy is only abstention from sex, but that’s just one very small part of the loneliness for those contemplating or living celibacy in contemporary America. Celibacy isn’t just being lonely because of the lack of sexual intercourse. It’s also lonely because of the way in which Americans conceive of a celibate life. The loneliness comes from the insistence that celibacy be a life without intimacy.

But the fact is, even those living faithful and fruitful celibate lives need others. We need communities, because we can never be complete selves by ourselves. Our perfection only occurs in relation to others. This, of course, is why friendship and community is so important for gay people: because it’s important for everyone. And while we don’t necessarily need people physically present while we dream at night, we do need relationships that fill our lives so that we are never truly alone.

This creates a challenge for churches. If churches believe that people have celibate callings, then those churches also have a responsibility to consider how to build communities with and for these callings. Churches must do much more than preserve and promote certain teachings. Doctrine will always be a necessary, but never a sufficient, way of relating to Christianity. Even when we bring Church doctrine into ourselves and assent to it, we will not be complete. We need something more. We cannot be fully ourselves by ourselves, because we can’t even know ourselves by ourselves.

Eve Tushnet has beautifully pointed out, “More thoughtful, personal, and culturally relevant theology in this area would doubtless be helpful, but what people most yearn for is a vision of what their futures might look like.” We need much more than a way to think. We need a way to live. And we need communities that have a space for us to live in, with and for each other.

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