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