Thursday, September 29, 2011

Transformation and Celibacy


Christian life outlines, for all of us, a process of transformation: from sin to salvation; isolation to community; sickness to health; selfishness to love; despair to hope; sadness to joy; death to life; temporal to eternal. Our guides in the celibate/sexual transformation, whether married, single, or celibate, merit their place because they have either made the journey themselves or are so deeply involved in the struggle of transformation that they can speak from their experiences. The Christian celibate designates herself or himself as a living witness to the process of transformation. The dedicated celibate is a facilitator for the rest of us. This process of transformation includes the realities of our sexuality.

Those who are satisfied with defining celibacy merely as a legal entity or an ideal state limit the practical consideration of celibacy to a static condition bounded by legalistic and moralistic parameters of black-and-white. This thinking can trap a person who wants to be celibate into a cycle of sexual abstinence followed by another period of sexual abstinence, failure, etc. the repetition of this cycle, although technically involving more or less extended period of celibacy (sexual abstinence), does very little to further the process of Christian celibate transformation or the consolidation of a celibate identity. At worst, it encourages duplicity and pretense.

A dynamic understanding of celibacy involves a continuing self assessment and daily reevaluation of where one stands along the path of transformation. This evaluation cannot be dismissed by clear-cut either/or propositions such as, “I am a sinner” or “I am save,” “I am sick” or “I am healthy,” “I am selfish” or “I am loving.” Rather, it means entering into that messy, dark, and rocky passage from sin toward salvation away from selfishness, seeking health, etc. the questions become, “How selfish or loving have I become today?” “In what ways or to what degree am I sick or healthy?” “Where am I in any struggle to be like Christ, to see Christ in everyone?” Following the path of transformation means that we wrestle with our own demons of discouragement and despair, loneliness and doubt, self seeking and sadness – harrowing experiences out of which we can understand and speak to others. For the celibate, proclaiming truth is not an appeal to external law or doctrine but an ever more refined witness to lived values. Embracing life is a daily enterprise – an investment in survival and meaning. I have found that the Christian celibate endeavor thrives within a structure that comprises four essential factors: work, prayer, community, and service.

Work is the natural basis of the spiritual life. One primary command delivered to Adam was to work – to labor. Some have mistake interpreted this divine directive merely as a punishment for sin. It is far more than that. A person’s celibacy is inextricably bound up with work, with the fact of work as mastery – the productive use of one’s energies and time—rather than with any particular task. Work forms a program for survival and salvation. It is part of the program for living and giving life to others. Work channels our natural talents and our resources, interests, and experiences into useful and productive means of interaction with others.

David was a shepherd, Jesus a carpenter—most of the apostles were fishermen. Paul was proudly a tent maker. Their preaching and teaching did not denigrate or even obviate their other work. Preaching, studying, and writing were extensions of their ability to achieve mastery, live, and promote life. There is something dehumanizing in a loss of respect for work. Lack of respect for work undermines any spiritual life because it diminishes respect for self and others in an essential area of existence and mutual interdependence.

Thomas Vernor Moore was a priest-psychiatrist who did some of the earliest studies on religion and human psychology. One of the last studies he conducted in the 1950s, before he retired to found the first Carthusian Monastery in the United States, yielded a sad result. Over 60 percent of the religious sampled had lost interest in work and were primarily looking forward to death. The denigration of work and life itself go together. Christ’s work was to show the value of life—more abundantly –a reality that can be sustained only by work.

Perhaps there are some people who can maintain sexual abstinence without a prayer life, but the Christian celibate is not among them. The Christian celibate is not motivated by fear, material advantage, the denial of opportunity, freedom from responsibility, or constraint of family ties. If there factors are present as trace elements in the early stages of celibacy, the process of prayer refines them out as one progresses. The Christian celibate abstains from sex “on account of the kingdom.” Essentially, this has to do with a love relationship—with Christ and with every human being.

Relationship—friendships—take time, effort, and attention. Prayer is the daily effort and attention a celibate pays to these relationships. The process of celibate love is so deep, so personal, and so demanding that it cannot exist without firm foundations laid daily and reinforced daily in prayer embraced in one’s own personal style. The prayer process lifts one to lofty heights and awesome insight, but it also will cast any celibate aspirant into the darkest and deepest recesses of her or his mind and heart. We can get ideas about what prayer is like from others’ we can be encouraged during difficult periods by account s of others’ dark nights, dry periods, doubts, or fears, but nothing short of personal day-by-day experience of the struggle for celibate love and celibate relations mediated by prayer can lead to success and satisfaction. There are no shortcuts; no instant transformation, only a path to awareness that has to be followed daily; nourishment that has to be ingested to sustain one’s strength, endurance, and vigor. Prayer is not wasted time or selfish time. Prayer is the fountain out of which living waters spring to enliven our work and all our relationships.

The ordinary path of Christian transformation involves a person in a sexual relationship that forms the core of a family community. For the married, expanding community relationships are centered in their primary sexual and love relationship. Although a celibate person forgoes sexual bonding in a family community, a community is no less necessary for the dedicated celibate than for the married. In the end, the community for all humanity is the family of the celibate. But before that ideal can become real, the celibate needs others who can nourish and sustain his or her capacity for celibate engagement. Jesus possessed a universal love, but he constructed a community of men and women who were bound by mutual understanding, values, and support. Jesus did not form an exclusionary group of the elite, nor one based on superiority. From all accounts, Jesus’ friends were quite ordinary people who were open to the most marvelous transformation. They were a group bound by the constraints of space, time, and geography, as every community and family must be—but with the awareness that time, space, and geography cannot contain the reality of love or hope.

Celibates must be very discriminating about the community they construct around themselves or into which they incorporate themselves, not because they are superior or exclusionary, but because they have a need to support themselves while they develop an ever greater capacity for community relatedness where all become one in Christ. The way a celibate relates to community, its discovery, formation, and refinement, contributes to the process of transformation and the consolidation of celibate identity. The success of community for celibates is measured by the degree that it contributes to their expanding love for the living and life.

Celibate service should not be confused with work or ministry. It may include both, but it is not limited by either. Christian celibate service is the actual sacrifice of one’s reproductive capacity and sexual bonding in order to further the well-being of the whole group. Celibacy is altruism—sacrifice of self for the other—or it is empty and fraudulent. Work, prayer, and community are united under the impulse and force of altruism—the reason for celibate striving. Altruism is the linchpin that transforms work, prayer, and community into a coherent whole and makes sense out of contradictory and conflicting internal forces and external demands. Altruism expressed in the most heroic form—“greater love no man has than to lay down his life for his friends”—does not present itself all at once. What celibate service does confront is the series of ambivalences and contrary claims on one’s time, resources, and loves reflected in the choices one must make on a daily basis. Human ambivalences are resolved only little by little, and with great and sustained effort.

When ministry is coupled with celibacy, the expectation of altruism—“service without thought of personal reward”—is intensified in the minds of the public. That—service without reward—is the primary expectation laypeople have of their clergy. In the end, this is the standard by which celibates are measured and must measure themselves. How do I love? Whom do I love? TO what degree do I love or fail to love?

Celibacy has too frequently been misconstrued as a static symbol of eternal life, as if the eschatological witness to the values beyond biological imperatives and temporal accomplishment could be disembodied or mummified. In reality, celibacy is an ever-adapting interaction of work, prayer, relationships, and altruistic service. Where Christian celibacy really exist, I have found it to be a vibrant struggle for meaning and love that unites a person’s energies and motives in a transformative process—day by day making the mind and heart of Jesus present.

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