Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Alone and Celibacy



All I did was listen. For I believe full surely that God’s spirit is in us all.
(Julian of Norwich)

O World of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action.
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence,
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
(T.S. Eliot)

The lonely words of T. S. Eliot quoted above from “Choruses from “The Rock’” may be solemn or startling, but they are not unfamiliar to anyone who has traveled to midlife. They echo the midnight thoughts and feelings of one struggling with a lost or strained love, the worry over a child, the news of an illness, the imminence of death, the pain of the weight of years and accumulated disappointment. How do we get through the night? How do we get beyond the loneliness?

Many a sexually active person knows, just as the celibate seeker also knows, that the process of mature integration does not end once we have met the crisis of self-control. Often we get a rest. We reap the benefit of our progress, but the dynamism continues. The reward for having negotiated celibate loneliness, as with loneliness within whatever love, will be further challenges. Very commonly between twenty-two and fifties, just when we feel we deserve a rest, another level of loneliness can assail us.

Has it all been worth it? That is the question. It’s a bit like the dilemma of T. S. Elliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock. Certainly, Eliot captures in that character the tone of the struggle, evoking the journey we have taken down “streets that follow like a tedious argument or insidious intent / To lead you to an overwhelming question.”  That overwhelming question is: Has it been worth it? I call this crisis “the struggle between loneliness and aloneness.”

There is a moving scene in the life of Pope John XXIII when he was papal envoy to France. He was returning to Paris on the train from his sister’s funeral. She had been a devoted household servant in his employ most of her life. Her life was single, confined, dedicated, celibate, given to the lonely tasks of household maintenance and her prayers. The future pope describes in his journal the frightening wave of loneliness that passed over him with the thought: “What if she had done it all in vain? What if what she believed was not true? What if her sacrifices had not been worth it at all?” He was writing about his sister, but he was also speaking about himself; his own experiences exude from the reflection.

I myself have been a privileged witness to the celibate stories and struggles of more than two thousand priests. Has the loneliness of their stories frightened or discouraged me? No, quite the contrary. Mostly, I have been encouraged and inspired, because they have shown me the other side of pain—that it is worth it all. Love, even wounded love, can endure and triumph. The dividends of their willingness to negotiate loneliness cannot be confined to themselves, their transformation glows in their service. We all benefit from their struggle with celibate existence and its meaning. Loneliness—the awareness of separation and what we lack and what is absent from us—is resolved finally by aloneness—the awareness of union and what we have.  The realization and acceptance of who we are, who others are, and who God is, is felt and savored I n aloneness.

Why have I belabored the point of inevitable loneliness in the process of celibate identity and of identification with our heroes—Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Paul, Benedict, Francis, Dominic, Dorothy, Catherine, Ignatius, Teresa, Ursula, Elizabeth, or others” My hope is that reflection on one’s own celibate journey will profit by a review of the nature of the process. The recognition in the process of human integration of a call to celibate love will give encouragement to the striving celibate.

Nothing I can say or do can take away the inevitableness of loneliness in the celibate journey, just as nothing a parent can say can protect his son or daughter, no matter how well loved, from the inevitable pains of life and learning. But shared understanding that the process is natural can give us some comfort as we go through it ourselves. Also—and this is most important—we can understand and stand by others as they go through their progressive crises of internalization. We can help others make celibacy their own. This is what community is all about: understanding and standing by. We cannot take the pain away, but we can make it more bearable, more efficient.

We Christians need each other. Celibate and married, we need each other. Too often we retreat from each other at exactly the wrong times. Too often we are silent in the face of exactly the things we should be talking about.

Celibacy and sexuality are crisis issues in our times within the present reform of the Church. Somehow they are event connected with the tasks of evangelization and the challenges of peace and justice. If religious and priests refuse to take the lead, who will? The Church is in as profound an endeavor of reform as at any time in her history. We should not be frightened or discouraged by that. One of the marks of authenticity is ecclesia simper reformanda capite et in membris (“The church is always in need of reform in its leadership and members”). The problem is that the reform is now being driven by scandal rather than facilitated by leadership.

The renewal of celibate energy and sexual integrity will lead the Church out of its present crisis. It will not be done without those willing to offer their loving, lonely service to their fellow humans and in concert with them. When I was teaching at Woodstock, a Jesuit Theologate in Maryland, John Courtney Murray told me about one of the former professors there who taught an introductory course for all incoming scholastics. He would begin each first class of the new year by greeting these expectant and awestruck theologians thus: Spreading his arm wide, he would bellow, “Vos estis spes ecclesiae” (“You are the hope of the Church”) and then add, “Freely translated that means: You’re not much, but you’re all we’ve got.” That applies to all of us Christians. We are it. We are all the Church has.

We must not run away from loneliness: Let us embrace it, plunge into it. What will we find? Our true self, others, and God. Can anyone ask for me? Remember that loneliness is like fear—the more we try to avoid it, the more force and power it gains. The more resolutely, directly, and honestly we confront it, the more certainly it gives way to the secrets that lie behind it—the place where there is peace and meaning.

We cannot work, play, eat, drink, smoke, or socialize loneliness away. None of these strategies will work. In the end, we must each confront our lonely selves; sooner or later our isolated existence will have its way, and we have to face it.

What did successful celibates like the saints know? What do they have to teach us? Each of them plunged into his or her loneliness and embraced it as a gift of grace and nature. Were they overcome by it? No. They accepted aloneness completely. What was the magic they found there that was so valuable to themselves and others and so transforming of their life experience? The mystery of aloneness.

Think about that word “aloneness”” It can be parsed ALL-ONE-NESS. This is what is on the other side of pain, sacrifice, and self knowledge of loneliness—the reality that we are all one. At the core of Saint Paul’s excitement over celibacy, moving him to wish it for many, was that lived experience. “We are all one in Jesus Christ—there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” We are all one: rich and poor, homeless and sheltered, smart and dumb, sick and healthy, saint and sinner, powerful and powerless—we are all one. Only out of my oneness can I serve and bring the full weight of my talents to bear on the task at hand. The price I must pay is aloneness. I venture to say that this core experience will be found in the life of any successful celibate we care to study, living or dead. I pray that this is exactly what each religious vowed to celibacy will find on the other side of loneliness.

Dr. David Berenson, who is well versed in Buddhist thought, frequently lectures on the process of transformation from aloneness to all-one-ness. He contends that most people build their own emotional prison cell and spend most of their energies in decorating it and rearranging the furniture. He claims that at the same time most of us do this, the door is unlocked.

Berenson teaches that emotions get consolidated into moods. Anger, range, and fury, if unresolved, translate into blame, guilt, and resentment. The cycle continues to spiral in the emotions of hurt, paint, grief, and loss, linked with fear, terror, and dread, and can solidify into moods of self-pity, anxiety, and panic.

These negative emotions build, or rather implode, on each other, until they fulminate into emptiness, powerlessness, hopelessness, shame, despair, and failure. Any of us who have struggled with celibate/sexual integration have no problem following Berenson’s logic that these emotions can become almost characterological moods of sad resignation, desperation, disgust, and confusion.

What is the way out of the cycle from emotion to mood? Berenson echoes the theologian Paul Tillich, who in his classic work The Courage to Be counsels that we penetrate the emotion to come out the other side. To achieve faith, plunge into doubt, embrace fear and despair to find hope. We find love not by denying our hates but by facing and resolving them. Berenson contends that if we stay with our anger, rage, or fury—own our emotions and accept them rather than trying to avoid them by invoking a mood—they can transpose into love, joy, and gratitude; just so hurt and loss accepted can become compassion fear, terror, and dread can transform into dispassion and calm witness. Finally, the emptiness, powerlessness, hopelessness, shame, despair, and failure—miserable as they are—can metamorphose into nothingness, aloneness, and nowhereness.

These final transformations have a vague ring of Eastern rather than Western spirituality. But if we follow Berenson’s logic and parsing, we come to a solid convergence with Christian experience. He parses nothingness not as emptiness or negation, but much as John of the Cross’s nada—NO-THING-NESS. That is the reality beyond the limits of sensory perception. Nowhereness becomes NOW-HERE-NESS, the abiding presence of Life available for the taking at each and every moment. And aloneness, as I said, becomes ALL-ONE-NESS. Berenson’s formulation is not merely a speculation or religious extrapolation. He hammered out his thesis on the anvil of life and in a practical arena—treating people with substance abuse and sexual problems. We all learn so much from woundedness, our own and others.

It is no secret that my wife and I have dedicated our experience, our energies, and our resources to passing on to others what we have learned from the generous gifts of priests, nuns, and brothers who have shared their celibate/sexual vulnerabilities, suffering, struggles, and triumphs with us over the past three decades. We are convinced that many priests, nuns, and brothers have to work too hard at the process of celibate integration because of unnecessary isolation and institutional avoidance of legitimate questions. For many, it is these things, not the necessary challenges in the process, that make their lives so painful. We Christians, celibate and married, are only “saints in the marking.” Celibates and those of us who have been called to sexual bonding have a great deal of discussion to do I n order to define realistic Christians’ sexual norms. If only the ideal is presented to us, or articulated as if the ideal were real, we will suffer unnecessary alienation, not only from ourselves but also from our fellow travelers. If, on the other hand, we can maintain radical self-honesty, we can help others who follow us in the celibate/sexual process as well as be encouraged and inspired by those who have negotiated the path before us. Genuine investment in the process of learning celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God will be a sign of grace to others even before the goal of complete integration is reached.

We must endure the loneliness of patience with ourselves as we face our particular vulnerabilities, which are ever more clearly manifested as we move toward the integration of celibate reality into our unfinished selves. Celibate/sexual integration is not achieved in isolation from God or from human relationships. Today, we are all threatened by the isolation of self-absorption and violence. Today, human society desperately needs the witness of those who can negotiate celibate love and loneliness. Lived celibacy and a genuine engagement in its process will always be a powerful creative force witnessing to the possibility of peace and regeneration in a threatening and threatened environment.

We will all be the better and the richer for those having had the courage to face up to loneliness and grow through it. The Church is sincerely indebted to those who give themselves to a genuine celibate life and mystery, just as it is to those who find sexual integrity in sexual bonding.

(A.W. Richard Sipe : “Celibacy a way of loving, living and serving)

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