I think my biggest pet peeve when people talk about chastity is that those of us who choose to try to live by the sexual teachings of the Church are portrayed as being “doomed to celibacy.” They may not say in it exactly that phrase, but the message is that celibacy isn’t good for anyone, except those precious few who have somehow received the mysterious “gift of celibacy” that St. Paul talks about.
I spend some time at a place dedicated to all things “gay and Christian,” and as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the droopiest places on the interwebs. (I primarily go there because I like to know what people are thinking about homosexuality and Christianity, particularly from an “affirming” position). There is a forum there dedicated to those who have chosen chastity, but overall it seems to me that the notion of chastity, even from those who have chosen it, always tends to be viewed as if it’s a death sentence, and that no one in the history of the Church has ever really communicated very effectively as to why and how chastity can be lived out, or how it can actually be good for anyone.
Here’s a bit of a two-part conversation from a recent thread I participated in. It explains some of the backwards thinking about celibacy and chastity that I find so dreary, because it’s actually a caricature of what chastity really is about:
[If] you are convicted that sex and marriage is off limits to you forever, you are looking at a fairly demoralizing future of loneliness.
My response to him:
Why does this follow? This is what I happen to not like about the whole discussion of celibacy that so often happens here [and in most conversations about sex and Christianity in general]: because someone might choose to be celibate, therefore the only option is a demoralizing future of loneliness.
I’ve chosen not to view celibacy this way, and it isn’t that way for me, and it hasn’t been that way for me. And why, if I could possibly get in a car accident tomorrow, would I contemplate decades and decades of “loneliness,” or assume that “loneliness” will be my only option and future? (Especially when Christ said to just live today, since tomorrow has enough trouble of its own?) This whole idea of people having automatically miserable lives by choosing celibacy suggests that those who willingly choose celibacy are really victims of the Church or something, and not free men and women, with the will to choose how they will live and lead their lives. It’s also a very small minded view of what a single life can be, and has been for millions and millions of Christians throughout history. It also ignores the fact that within the history of Christianity, the single state has been held in higher esteem than marriage.
The fellow wrote back, and the portion below spurred me on to write some more about the caricatured view of celibacy there that always makes me scratch my head. (The fellow is an evangelical, so thus the reference to evangelicals in his comment).
[E]vangelicals especially need to hear the hard truth of how hard and discouraging it often is to be gay [sic] and [committed to chastity]. They need to hear about the casualties way more than they need to hear about the success stories. …
Here is a slightly edited version of my response:
I disagree completely. The very thing that needs to be talked about more, in every branch of Christianity, is the success stories, to provide hope for people who fall into despair, and assume that their lives will be doomed to misery if they live a single life. Despair always leads away from God, and it is easy to fall into the idea of a miserable existence coming from choosing celibacy.
A lot of people seem to think that “the gift of celibacy” has been doled out to everyone who has chosen celibacy, which has always seemed odd to me. Their thinking must go something like this: celibacy is so strange, and so unnatural to man, that the only reason anyone would embrace it is because “they’ve been given the gift of celibacy.” I’m not constitutionally geared for celibacy, by any stretch of the imagination. I like sex, and I like it a lot, and I sure would like to have someone other than my dog to come home to each night. But I live a good and happy life anyway, not without its own particular struggles, but who doesn’t struggle? Sure, loneliness comes in from time to time. But guess what? I don’t mope about the house feeling sorry for myself–I call up my friends and get out of the house, or do one of my hobbies, like taking photographs, or go to my favorite brewery and chit chat at the bar with one of my favorite barkeeps, or I go visit my family and get some hugs from my nieces and nephews.
We’re not victims of circumstance. We can choose how we’re going to respond with the choices we make, and painting celibacy as miserable really denies the individual’s ability to overcome challenges and anything they encounter that they perceive as obstacles to their happiness. The bottom line for me is this: God’s will and commands point us to one thing, and that’s what St. Clement of Alexandria said was the “blessed life.” I’m not happy all the time, but who is? I know that I’m on the path to human fulfillment by striving for chastity, and sometimes that doesn’t make me very happy. But I don’t think of the world as merely existing for my happiness. It’s boot camp too, and that means there’s hard stuff involved, including sometimes loneliness, and the lack of enjoyment of a physical and sexual relationship. Big deal–I’m not going through the Holocaust, and I still have my health, my family, and my friends. And a damn fine dog, and a city with great beer, and great friends to boot.
What needs to be talked about isn’t “oh no! I’m going to have a relationally miserable life, filled with loneliness.” Rather, what I like to talk about is that we can choose to believe that chastity leads to our happiness, that we can choose positive responses, and that we should never view the call of chastity as if we’re somehow a mere victim of God’s moral laws. I’d be celibate, gladly, and never question it, if I truly knew who I was. So when the proverbial crap hits the fan in my life, and I feel like life isn’t fair, or that I should be able to have a relationship too, or that I should have the freedom to have sex, when I want it, with whomever I want it, I choose to say that I’m the one in need of some modified thinking, not the Church, and not Christian teaching on sexual morality.
My life isn’t a “life of misery,” and I’m not “doomed to celibacy,” or a life of heart breaking loneliness. I reject the representation of a life striving for celibacy as miserable, and part of my mission in life is to debunk all of the dreary, droopy tropes out there of what celibacy is all about. I’m also on an important mission to debunk the notion that the “gift of celibacy” is needed in order to be celibate. The “gift of celibacy” as most people seem to understand it always seems like the person who received the gift becomes some sort of neutered, asexual person anyway, which sounds remarkably boring to me. Blech. No thank you, I’d rather not have the “gift of celibacy” if it means I have reached some Buddhist state of Nirvana, where all desires have been extinguished in my life. This sounds like the epitome of boredom, which sounds like a truly miserable life. I’ll strive for celibacy with full acknowledgment of my sexual longings intact, thank you very much.