How do nuns deal with sexual urges?

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A question from Kellie that I think many have wondered but never asked …

Dear Sister Julie, I would like to tell you that I have nothing but the utmost respect for you. My question is not meant to offend you in any way shape or form. I know that nuns are human like the rest of us. Do nuns ever have sexual urges, and if so how do you deal with the temptation of wanting sex.

Kellie, I am not offended at all and am glad that you asked. You are right — nuns are human like you and everyone else.

Part of being human is being a sexual person — humans are attracted to other people, have romantic feelings and sexual urges. Nuns are no different; however, we choose not to act upon these natural, sexual feelings and urges.

Think for example of other people in committed relationships. Just because you are married doesn’t mean you don’t find another person attractive or have great chemistry with someone. In fact married people might even “fall in love” with someone else, but that doesn’t mean they have to act on it. Committed people make a choice to not act on those feelings. Same thing with nuns. We are deeply human and can have sexual urges or fall in love.

When I was discerning religious life and felt convinced it was for me (and it was!), I fell in love with someone I’d know throughout grad school. Horrified that I fell in love while considering religious life, I went to my nun mentor and told her. I expected that she’d bid me farewell (I should have known better because she is one of the most deeply loving and compassionate persons I know) but instead she said, “Wonderful!” She didn’t tell me to stop discerning religious life nor did she tell me to cut off the relationship. She said to enjoy it! If we lose the capacity to fall in love, she said, then we lose the ability to truly open our hearts to God, to the people with whom we live and minister, with God’s beautiful creation. Doesn’t mean we have to express this love sexually. My nun was a great guide through that time because it was important for me to know how to deal with those feelings because they inevitably will arise if we are to be true lovers of God.

So, how do nuns deal with the temptation of wanting sex? I think the first thing is to remember that wanting sex isn’t bad in and of itself. Sex can be a powerful experience of union and love. For a nun, we vow to be celibate and so we choose to express union and love in other ways, such as through our community life, our relationships, and our ministry (Check out my post Do nuns know how to love? for other ways we express love). We have to acknowledge to ourselves a sexual urge we may have (not bury it as if it’s not there) and find ways to deal with it in a healthy way. Dealing with it may be solved by a splash of cold water or it may mean talking it over with a trusted friend or mentor. This is where being part of a community really helps because you are with women who have made the same choice and can support you and guide you through times like this. Community life helps you tap into the relationships that truly sustain you, that give you a joy and intimacy that goes beyond any urge for sex (however compelling it may seem at the time!). I’d be surprised if this were any different for married people.

I’d love to hear from nuns and others around this question. It is a great question for us to reflect on, and any dialog we can have on this would be especially helpful for those considering religious life.

Comments

DJC March 24, 2008 at 10:14 am

What a wonderful and straightforward answer you have given Kellie. Just refreshing to have someone explain about love and commitment. I am married 45 years and what you said is also true for married couples.

Jen March 24, 2008 at 12:12 pm

As someone who is currently discerning religious life, I found this a refreshing answer to an excellent quesiton.

Another Sister Julie, CSSF March 24, 2008 at 1:50 pm

I am convinced that God has a wicked sense of humor. Before final vows, I fell head over heels for a young man with whom I worked six days a week. But like Sr. Julie stated, we need to know that we can love one person. It was a choice for me, then, of if I wanted to share my love with one person or with the whole world. God gave me that opportunity to see both sides when I developed that crush on my co-worker. Here’s the wicked sense of humor part. My friend was gay, and nothing I could do could change that. I have come to believe that God was so jealous of my vocation that He was very selective of whom he sent my way!

As for the day-to-day battle with desires, I think of a section in one of my favorite books, “In This House of Brede.” I am paraphrasing the main character, but she said something like, “I have to decide daily if I want to give to God just the fruit and leaves that fall off my tree, or if I want to offer the whole orchard– fruit, leaf and stem.”

One last thing, one of our past provincial ministers once told us that we need to find appropriate ways to satisfy our libidos. With me it is singing, either with a great choir or in a shower with great accoustics! Singing a difficult piece well and with all my heart is such a rush for me. God is so good!

Jen March 24, 2008 at 10:32 pm

If we lose the capacity to fall in love, she said, then we lose the ability to truly open our hearts to God, to the people with whom we live and minister, with God’s beautiful creation.

You know, I’ve heard other religious say this in exactly the same words. I didn’t really believe them until I met the Hoopy Frood (the guy I’m engaged to.) It’s weird, but since being *really* in love with him (beyond the sentimental stage), it’s so much easier to love other people.

an aspiring consecrated virgin March 25, 2008 at 6:42 pm

I find that prayer is both my most profound expression of love, as well as the single most important thing I can do to maintain my commitment to a life of virginity.

Sister Julie March 25, 2008 at 7:01 pm

Thanks for bringing up prayer, An Aspiring Consecrated Virgin. Prayer is indeed a significant expression of love and a great help in facing any temptation.

Macrina March 26, 2008 at 6:37 am

I think that you’ve answered this well, and what you say is certainly true. However, there’s also another aspect, namely that sexual desire and our desire for God can be deeply intertwined, something that Fathers such as Origen were clearly aware of. The British theologian Sarah Coakley has touched on this in some of her work – although I don’t have it with me now. She argues – and I think that this is true – that the more we enter into the life of prayer the more we become aware of sexuality, and the challenge is thus to develop a contemporary theology of desire.

deerose March 26, 2008 at 11:22 am

Not being a sister myself, I can’t say how sisters deal with sexual urges. But in some ways, I can’t imagine it’s that much different than married women most of the time. After all, good sex is not a free for all. We can’t act on urges at any time or any place. Sexual urges do not always or even usually occur at opportune times. A married woman having one at work, for example, can’t just take off, fly to meet her husband who is at a meeting in another state and have sex right then on the spot. She also can’t go into a colleagues office and have sex with him right there – if she is a practicing Christian, ethical person, whatever. How many times have my husband and I planned for a night together, daughter away at a friend’s house, only to find out we were both too exhausted to do anything but veg out, stare at the TV screen for a half and hour and then fall asleep. What about the woman whose husband is away in the armed forces? My point, we all have to keep our sexual urges at bay much of the time. And we can’t always force them to arise when the time is “planned.” Having said that, the difference is clear that married people do have sex and sisters remain celibate. I certainly would not want to minimize that sacrifice. It’s just not as black and white as it may sometimes appear.

I found Macrina’s comments very thought provoking. I sometimes find that prayer can evoke sexual feelings of desire in me. It’s because I’m communicating intimately with my beloved. Receiving the Eucharist can be an erotic experience too. It’s comm – “union” with God. Sexual intercourse is also a form of “union” but with a human being.

It would be interesting to read something, when and if developped, about a contemporary theology of desire. Until then, I don’t know if any of you have ever read the book “Holy Longing” by Fr. R. Rohlheiser. But he writes a chapter on the “Spirituality of Sexuality”. It’s wonderful. One of his key thoughts is that everyone here on earth is somewhat “sexually frustrated” because we will never be fulfilled until we leave this planet and enter into the next life with God in heaven – an eternal love fest where loves abounds without boundaries.

Macrina March 26, 2008 at 1:16 pm

DeeRose, and anyone else interested, You may find Sarah Coakley’s writings interesting. She echoes your point about how celibate and married people deal with desire not being all that different.

sena March 29, 2008 at 6:41 pm

I wonder if all the women of this world become nuns and no sex. this world will finish then, no population? can u answer me plz

Sister Julie April 1, 2008 at 4:17 am

Becoming a nun is not every woman’s calling. So rest assured, the world is not going to end because of too many nuns and not enough procreation. 

John Joyce February 19, 2009 at 7:43 am

I hope I do not offend by suggesting that there are many men and women who are neither married, monastic, nor priestly but live a fulfilled single life.

Anne March 25, 2009 at 10:46 am

Thankyou so much for your wise comments. I’ve been looking for some help with this, and there’s very little around. I’m single and really struggling at present with sexual desire, which seems to be particularly overwhelming when I’m praying. I want to acknowledge this desire positively and integrate it as part of the whole of me and part of my spiritual journey, not repress or deny it. For me celibacy is appropriate while I’m single, so the immediate challenge is to find healthy ways of channelling the desire and the energy it produces, and the more long term one is to come to a deeper understanding of my sexuality and and the fullest possible expression of it in the context of a celibate lifestyle.

STherese August 17, 2009 at 9:22 pm

Dear Sr. Julie, I just came across with your blog a few days ago and i find it very informative. It has answered a lot of my questions about how to deal with those feelings as i am a nun myself and I am experiencing midlife crisis… Thank you and God bless.

Ambrose January 5, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Nuns are human just like other people. They choose to be celibate not because they dislike men or sex, but to widen their love for many for the sake for God who is Love.

silas January 30, 2010 at 7:11 am

thank you sister for such an open sharing. i feel that celibecy is gift from our celibate master jesus christ and to have sexual feelings is a gift too, therefore we should use this feeling to make its master be known by many and not misusing. we should love the souls of others more than their flesh