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About Celibacy

By Sister Chris Schenk

My Mom had a very hard time accepting my desire to be a nun. We could not really talk about it. She had great dreams that I would have a nice career, marry a wealthy man (preferably a doctor or lawyer) settle down, have children, and live a happy life.

In retrospect, I think I fell in love with God somewhere around the eighth grade, although I did not realize it until much later.

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I have always loved things religious. Whether it was attending Mass, learning about the great philosophers, or reading the lives of the Saints, God seemed the ultimate of  “strange attractors’ to use the language of today’s science. I could not really explain my attraction to God, only that it was often more interesting to me than many other things in my life. I had boyfriends of course, sometimes more than I wanted.

While I liked men a lot, I often liked them better as friends than as romantic partners. I fell in love a couple of times but somehow the relationships never felt like quite enough.  Something inside was not real thrilled with settling down with just one person. Something inside was searching for “something more,” as I have now come to recognize.

God, on the other hand, was gradually becoming my most interesting and most long-lasting relationship. After a retreat in which I was blessed with a powerful experience of God’s unique sense of humor, unconditional love, and profound acceptance of me in all my quirkiness, I drove home filled with the knowledge that I would give my life over to this delightful Mystery.  But how? For me, it would have to be through Catholic nundom.

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While in one way it made no sense, in another way, it made the most sense of all. How better to express my longing to love God with my whole heart, soul, strength, and mind, than through my most precious gift, my body?

For me, vowed celibacy is an embodied response to Mystery. It springs from the profundity of a relationship, no less than the marriage commitment.

Needless to say, my Mother was not pleased. I have forgiven her though, because, why would she be pleased? Her deepest happiness had come from falling in love with my Father. Their 60-year marriage was filled with ups and downs, but also much, much love. Why wouldn’t she want this for her daughter?

I worked as  nurse midwife for nearly 20 years and know quite a bit about the awesome gift of our sexuality. I was afraid I must have some deep-seated psychological dysfunction that would make me want to choose celibacy as my desired mode of expressing love in our world. It seems pretty oxymoronic, after all. On the other hand, how could anything adequately express love for God? I wonder if this is the best deep down philosophical and psychological explanation for the attraction to religious celibacy. When no amount of loving could ever be enough to express such a big love, a commitment to love beyond the physical, may for some be the best response of all.

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The celibate mode of loving is not about giving up, but about witnessing to a love that fulfills and completes as deeply as the most passionate of sexual expressions. One thing I know from my midwifery career is that a big part of the pleasure of sex, is its ecstatic, almost mystical component.

Prayer can lead to a similar fulfillment. After all, doesn’t it make sense that the God who created us for ecstasy would also attract us in this most positive of human experiences?

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Not that being a nun is always ecstatic! Any more than being in a married relationship is always ecstatic. My choice of religious celibacy, while not always easy, has been deeply fulfilling, healthy, and what brings me the deepest happiness.

Which is not to say that I don’t need deep down soul friends and companions as much as the next person. These anchor me in the sure knowledge of being loved and valued. Some of my deepest down soul friends are married couples who have on occasion blessed me with some pretty profound conversations. They tell me their married intimacy both expresses and deepens their relationship to God as well as to each other. Their spirituality, growth, and capacity for intimacy are of a piece with their married commitment in, through, and with this God of wondrous Mystery.

Deep waters these, and very beautiful.

Another thing I love about the celibate way of loving is that it really does free me to take risks and be available to the needs of others. More so for me than if I had family obligations which must enter the decision-making equation. This is a good choice for my adventurous spirit.

When all is said and done, I guess my celibate commitment is the best response I can give to Mary of Magdala’s plaintive refrain in Jesus Christ Superstar:  “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”  I don’t really know how to love the God of Love either, but this feels right, and it makes me happy.

Deep waters these, and very beautiful.

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About the Author

Schenk head shot2Sister Chris Schenk has worked as a nurse midwife to low-income families, a community organizer, a writer, and the founding director of an international church reform organization, FutureChurch. Currently she writes an award-winning column “Simply Spirit” for the National Catholic Reporter.

Her recent book Crispina and Her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity (Fortress, 2017) was awarded first place in History by the Catholic Press Association.

 

 

 

27 thoughts on “About Celibacy

  1. Mel Kupchik says:

    Thank you for this article, Sister Chris. I have dear friends who are religious sisters and nuns. I think they would agree that much of what you express in your article is why they chose a celibate religious life. I have heard you speak in person at the CSJ General Assembly at the Cleveland Center. You knowledge of women in the early church is profound. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, wisdom, and insight-all gifts of the Holy Spirit.

    Like

  2. Maaria Hill says:

    Your chosen way of loving makes you happy, AND is also a gift for the members of your congregation, for the church (and the future church thanks you!) and for all those you encounter. I am imagining that your mother came to know that, too!

    Like

  3. Maria Hill says:

    Your chosen way of loving makes you happy, AND is also a gift for the members of our congregation, for the church, and for all those you encounter. I am imagining that your mother came to know that, too!

    Like

  4. Carol Fox, OP says:

    I thank you for expressing things I have felt but have never been able to articulate, especially the idea of celibacy as a way to express “such a big love”.

    Like

  5. Marge Freundl RN says:

    This is beautifully written and helps me understand celibacy as a “not giving up something”, rather a giving!

    Like

  6. Jennifer Greene says:

    This was beautiful! I share your story with my students through Radical Grace. They always have questions about the celibate life that I cannot answer completely.
    This will be a candid response to share with them.
    Thank you!!

    Like

  7. joanne vallero says:

    Such a beautiful reflection and a true gift that gives words to celibate relationship, commitment, vowed life.. Yes: “Deep waters these, and very beautiful.”

    Like

    • The biblical basis for celibacy is first the example of Jesus who in Catholic tradition never married because of his total dedication to inaugurating the new reign of God. He modelled his ministry in part on Jewish charismatic healers in Galilee—several of whom did not marry even though this was highly unusual for Jewish men at the time—one such healer was quoted as explaining that he could not marry because “My soul is in love with Torah,”(Source is the book: Jesus the Jew by Geza Vermes)

      The nearest Gospel quote is in Matthew 19 after a teaching about marriage and divorce:

      10 His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
      Also Paul advised Christians not to marry in 1 Corinthians 7: 32-40—mostly because he believed Christ would return soon. Many Christians—especially Christian women– followed the example of Paul and chose celibacy—(although no doubt it was in part to escape patriarchal marriage)
      32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; 33 but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl[g] is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
      36 If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed,[h] if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed,[i] he will do well. 38 So that he who marries his betrothed[j]does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.
      39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I have the Spirit of God.
      Thanks for the question!
      Chris Schenk

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