Celibacy in the City

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Celibacy is a way of life for Catholic sisters and nuns as well as for religious brothers and monks. But what is celibacy and how does one live celibacy, especially in a society that can be both sex-obsessed and a bit prudish about sex?

Before talking about celibacy, I think it’s important to point out that celibacy is not a condemnation or rejection of sex. And celibacy (as well as sex) relates to a lot more than the physical act of having sex. “Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others. (Catechism)

Okay, so celibacy. I’m responding in part from a reader’s email asking for a post on celibacy — not just an “academic” approach to what it is but sisters’ own personal witness to the celibate life.

As she noted, it’s not all that often that we celibate folks talk about it from a personal standpoint. I think mostly that’s because it is has to do with one’s sexuality and is indeed personal. Still, since celibacy isn’t mainstream, I think it’s important that we do talk about it with some degree of candor while also respecting personal boundaries. I was blessed to have a couple nuns whom I could ask any thing and it was through their own experience and witness to celibacy that I could find answers to my own questions and carve out a way of understanding what God’s particular call to me.

The only thing I knew about celibacy in religious life, prior to knowing my nuns, is that it meant NO SEX. It was something that was half-admired, but also half-mocked. Are nuns celibate because they “can’t get a guy” or because they are sexually repressed? Is it a special calling for only the holiest of holies? Does God give nuns a gift of not having sexual urges? None of those things particularly appealed to me or applied to me (I did not imagine myself to be particularly holy) so I never thought that lifelong celibacy would be my particular calling.

In grad school when I first began thinking about religious life (and resisted being attracted to it) I got to know more religious — women and men who were celibate. They didn’t strike me as repressed people and seemed to have a healthy sense of self and other. They were not “holier than thou” people, just ordinary women and men serving God.

Long story short, I became more open to the idea of celibacy and now I’m celibate for life.

My witness to celibacy is more than just not having sex, it’s about being free. An important “ah-ha!” moment was watching Dead Man Walking and the scene where Sister Helen Prejean talks about why she became a nun and chose not to be married. There was a sense that her not being attached to one single person or one single family allowed her to be free to go where the needs were. It made a huge impression on me. I began to realize that as big of a deal it was to commit to no sex it was a bigger deal to commit to the positive life stance of being free to serve wherever God called.

I know you probably have some questions so I’ll end here with this quote:

“Life is not all about sex.”

Samantha (Kim Cattrall) in a Sex in the City episode

Comments

laura August 5, 2009 at 10:11 am

Thanks for this post Sr. Julie! It was just sugguested to me a couple days ago that I really focus on discerning a call to celibacy. It can be so easy to get overwhelmed thinking about different communities, ministries, habits, and the list goes on and on! But hopefully just focusing on celibacy will help me get back to the basics and then move forward from there. Reading this was a great way to get started!

Sister Julie August 5, 2009 at 11:48 am

Hi Laura, You raise a very good point — there’s kind of two inter-related parts to discerning a call to religious life. One is the call to living a life of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. The other is a call to live this life within a particular community through it’s life and mission. I found that sometimes I’d spend time with one aspect, and at other times with the other. It is ultimately one and the same call but it’s important to look at the major pieces too. For example, you can fall in love with the perfect community, embrace their mission and life but not be called to or open to living celibacy for the rest of your life.

Robyn August 6, 2009 at 6:02 am

Thank you for a very reasoned, calm, beautiful explanation of celibacy, Sr Julie. I have heard the reason for celibacy as being able to love more put forward before, but not as clearly or as personally as you did. It is much the same with married people. I have found that, in the 8 years I have been married, I have a greater capacity to love and to be open to others than I ever had before, even though I have been a Christian since the age of 13. I wonder whether it is partly to do with security: when we love, in the warmth of that love, we find the strength and courage to reach out beyond that love to others. When we love God, we are tapping into the Infinite Love and can love infinitely. As I have deepened my love and relationship with God I have found more love in my human relationships with my husband and small daughter. Thank you for giving us a place where we can talk about issues that are normally hidden away. Blessings on your ministry!

Simone August 6, 2009 at 6:28 am

I must admit I never found the idea of living a life with no sex un-appealing, mostly because I am asexual, so I have, since I can remember, admired the lives of sisters and nuns, but have never saw them as ‘holier than thou’, they’re just normal people. I do get annoyed when there is an assumption that people who follow a religion are seen as anti-sexual (for people who have had bad experiences with religion, this is understandable), I grew up viewing my religion as openly erotic, and so though that I look on sex a beautiful gift to be celebrated. It isn’t for me, but I still find sexuality very interesting, and would regard myself as a sensualist, I love art and that is where I feel I can express myself fully.

Cló Mhuire August 6, 2009 at 7:02 am

Re your post on celibacy. While many want to see it as an oppressed (sexual) lifestyle and therefore opt out of such a special call, celibacy, in fact, when followed in obedience (one of the vows?) opens up an interior journey that draws one closer to an intimate relationship with Jesus. The ongoing process leads one gradually into an interior freedom that allows the human heart experience the purity and beauty of His Spirit which is to be found in such a sacrifical call. Those who truly live a celibate life will see celibacy as it is, a calling by God to come to know the truest intimacy of divine love, guided step by step through grace. The trials and sufferings involved in that are all part of the purifying process always assisted by grace. When we speak in a negative or mocking manner about celibacy then we don’t understand because we are not living it! To follow that celibate call is to know, in time, the meaning of Divine Love which gives true freedom.

Sr. Hildegard August 6, 2009 at 8:56 am

Last April we offered in our monastery an on-going formation workshop for English-speaking Redemptoristine nuns. My presentation concerned the vow of chastity and my title was “Love Changes Everything – The Vow of Chastity: A Promise of Radical Availability.” You can see, just from the title, where my personal approach to this vow takes me. But here is the part that speaks to celibacy:

“While every vocational choice of the baptized person requires obedience to faithfulness and the poverty of simplicity, the call to celibacy is unique to religious vocation. Chastity appears first in the list of vows in our Rule. One of the most prominent scholars of religious life today, Sr. Sandra Schneiders, IHM, sees this vow as primary to religious life, a symbol of the call to exclusive relationship to Jesus Christ. She defines consecrated celibacy as “the freely chosen response to a charismatically grounded, religiously motivated, sexually abstinent, lifelong commitment to Christ, externally symbolized by remaining unmarried.” So it is freely chosen. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a promise freely made because I choose to make the relationship with Jesus primary in my life.

“But the kicker is that, even with the call, even with the freely chosen response and with years of living the celibate life, we remain sexual beings. The vow does not turn that off. Not only do our bodies continue to act and respond in ways appropriate to our sexuality and gender, our minds and our psyches may have to revisit, from time to time, the hard reality of saying “No,” to sexual intimacy and procreation. In our inter-novitiate class on the vows, Sr. Kitty Hanley, CSJ told us, “It is not a question of what you will do if you fall in love but rather what you will do WHEN you fall in love.” You might say, “Oh well, that doesn’t apply to us cloistered nuns. We don’t have the access to people that active religious do.” Well, I don’t believe that. We see priests, spiritual directors, doctors and physical therapists among others. We also live with other women on whom we can develop a teenage crush kind of thing. I have not had the experience of living with much younger new members but I imagine that adding them into the community mix can make for some interesting feelings in either direction – an older sister drawn to a younger one or a younger one idolizing her role model.

“And then there is the physical reminder that can come now and then or more often; a physical sensation that serves to announce that I am still a female, a normal woman, embodied in the flesh and hard-wired for physical intimacy, mother nature’s way to preserve the species and give joy to the heart. Having the sensation does not sully my promise. Having the sensation is not a sin. It is as value neutral as any emotion. The real issue is “What do I do with this?” Is it an opportunity to put myself down or to feel guilty? Or is it an opportunity for awe and wonder at how beautifully we are made? And is it another chance to reverence my promise, the exclusivity of my relationship with Jesus Christ?” (for complete presentation visit Monastic Musings)

jess August 7, 2009 at 10:40 am

i love this post. thank you for tackling this sensitive issue. though i am not catholic but orthodox. ( i converted almost 10 yrs ago) i still get weird looks and comments from my friends when i speak about monastics, celibacy. From all my experiences and people i have interacted with. when a celibate life is the true calling of an individual is not weird, strange ( all your examples of not being able to get a guy etc.) it is what you said freeing to that individual, and natural. thank you again.

Sister Julie August 7, 2009 at 11:04 am

Thanks, Jess. It’s definitely a tough subject to address because at one level it is so personal. But it’s important to know that ordinary people can choose to be celibate in a healthy way that is both life-giving and fulfilling. It’s not without its struggles but like other life commitments, it is worth it.

Carol August 7, 2009 at 11:02 pm

Dear Sister Julie, I loved your post. For such a long time I couldn’t understand myself and the feelings I had toward sex and marriage and why I shyed away from that. And your post puts it in excellent words and terms. I had a love relationship with a man without any sex. The emotional rollar-coaster ride was enough to lead me to consider a life of celibacy. I felt like a fish out of water having all those funny feelings. It did not feel natural to me. It’s been now 20 years since then and I have been single ever since. I am now in my 30′s and going strong without a boyfriend. I enjoy the solitude that I have with God and can’t imagine being joined at the hip with someone. It’s all about the freedom for me, too. I know what it feels like to be in a relationship and I also know what it feels like to be in a relationship with God. There is a hurt that comes with being in love with another human being, but there is no hurt with a relationship with God. There is only true beauty and true love when you put God first and have a relationship with Him first and foremost. Perhaps, if it’s God’s will, He may bring someone in my life who wouldn’t be a rollarcoaster ride. Until then without a committment and a man truly loving me only half of how God would love me, I have committed to a life of celibacy and I know, that I know, I have no regrets with that decision. Your blog only confirms what I was feeling.