This piece was originally published at Spiritual Friendship on August 11, 2014.
I remember where I was sitting. I was at the end of a long conference table, with students at my sides and my professor at the very end opposite me. We were taking a class on John Henry Newman, and as my professor read aloud from a thick black book containing Newman’s Apologia, his words hit me like a train:
I am obliged to mention, though I do it with great reluctance, another deep imagination, which at this time, the autumn of 1816, took possession of me – there can be no mistake about the fact… that it was the will of God that I should lead a single life. This anticipation, which has held its ground almost continuously ever since… was more or less connected, in my mind, with the notion that my calling in life would require such a sacrifice as celibacy involved; as, for instance, missionary work among the heathen, to which I had a great drawing for some years.
There it was. At the age of fifteen, a teenager heard a call and responded with his heart, “fiat”, let it be. And with the rush of realization, I saw with a new clarity that celibacy is not primarily about sex (or a lack thereof). It’s about love and freedom and courage. Newman’s choice came first, not from a question of sexuality, but from a unique mission to which he found himself called.
A year later, I was speaking with a friend about marriage, sex, celibacy, and vocation. He suggested revisiting the framework for modern problems concerning sexuality, framing them in the revolutionary words that also framed the pontificate of Pope John Paul II: Be not afraid.
This framework is challenging. When I hear men and women approaching the idea of celibacy, the approach is most often framed by fear. Fear-driven questions ground the approach and force conclusions. How can I possibly do this? Will I be forever lonely? Is it possible to be faithful to this? And for those consumed by these questions, the failure to fulfill a promise of celibacy becomes almost inevitable, transforming eventually into the gradual self-justification of unfaithfulness, self-justification based on a fearful focus on the difficulty of the choice.
So rather than risk failure, many simply forgo the question. A societal fearfulness comes out in the general solution that is placed before gay men and women experiencing loneliness: go find a partner. A “partner” thus becomes, not a friend whose love is grounded upon freedom and self-gift, but a mask that is set up like aspirin to alleviate the pain while the bruise of loneliness remains. We medicate against the hard choices, using a partner as a contraceptive of the soul. We protect ourselves from some pains, but we also limit our ability to bring forth life.
If we pursue a partner as an escape from loneliness, the relationship becomes grounded first and foremost in fear. Many married men and women will remark how partnership does not remove loneliness on its own. For the lonely person, a partner will only provide a temporary distraction. A man who is unhappy with himself will also be unhappy with a partner.
I remember speaking with a friend about his breakup with his girlfriend. He told me about an almost instinctual reaction to go pursue another woman, realizing a new emptiness in his life and desiring to fill it quickly. But no one wants to be a partner who simply fills a gap. We all long to be a part of lives that are already beautiful. We long for our partnerships to come out of vocations, rather than fears. And consequently, a joyful single life is what many will find most attractive. My advice to my friend: If you love your life, others will want to be a part of it.
But to love your life is to also make choices without fear and to live by them. A prenuptial agreement reveals fear as a foundational stone in the marriage; the ability to choose the marriage is conditioned by the fear of its failure, and a truly free choice is foregone for a sterilized “realism.” A promise which we reserve the right to break is a promise not truly made.
To truly take up and live out celibacy is to cast out fear. True celibacy demands love, freedom, and courage. The choice declares: “I will not be confined or dictated or ruled by my desires, by the expectations of others, or by my fear of this decision.” It is to be free and unafraid. For those of you discerning a celibate vocation, the best advice I can give you are the words of the great theologian of the body: Be not afraid.