It is not easy to make one's way through the maze of misinformation and hype about celibacy. The idea gets a lot of bashing these days as the issue of married clergy is raised within the Catholic Church and is responded to with an official "no" along with a "no" to the ordination of women. The image of celibacy as something less than wholesome comes across in the widely publicized sexual misconduct cases involving clergy. I recently heard a well-known psychiatrist who is an expert on the subject of sexual misconduct say, "Celibacy does not cause pedophilia. The combination sells newspapers so we are hearing more about it these days."
Celibacy really asks a bit more of us than simply to be for or against it. I would personally welcome both a married clergy and ordained women in the Catholic Church. I also see a value in maintaining the tradition of celibacy in the church as something that addresses a need in our society for some clear reflection on the gift of sexuality, a gift that needs to be welcomed home out of exile. But I write not as a representative of official church teaching, but as a member of the human species who deals with many of the same issues around relationships that most everyone else has to deal with, and as a friar in the Dominican Order for over 30 years. Interfaith retreat work with men and women of all ages, as well as my rather ordinary life as a religious brother with a fair number of friends both within and outside religious life also gives me a certain overview of the subject.
For all the joy, pleasure, goodness, and happiness sex can bring into one's life, there seems to be lots of evidence that it can cause much human suffering when misused, abused, and overused. There is a kind of exile that surrounds our sexuality when we are constantly bombarded with the image of a happy, fulfilled person as one who is young, attractive, and half of a pair; male and female. This image is used to sell everything from chewing gum to automobile tires. The gift of sexuality remains in exile when we surround it with shame and guilt and shroud it in embarrassed silence leaving it to the pornographers who tease, titillate, and trivialize it openly. I might add that I feel that religion also contributes to its exile by addressing sexuality only when it becomes a problem.
While attending a workshop on sexuality a few years ago, I found myself in a small group discussing the issue of women (or men) presenting themselves as attractive in the workplace. The question had to do with whether or not one was surrendering to a society that was treating people as sex objects. One of the leaders of the workshop turned to me and said, "This is not an issue for you, Joe, since you are celibate and therefore asexual." And this from someone who was making a living giving workshops on sexuality! I was astounded by the fact that this person was actually passing such misinformation on without being set straight. My opportunity came later in the workshop when I was able to share the kind of "lovemaking" I engage in with close, intimate friends. In the most sensuous terms possible, I described preparing and serving a meal for someone I love. The anticipation includes setting the table with linen, flowers, and candles, as well as choosing and preparing the food. Then comes the lingering exchange with conversation and background music. The evening ends with an affectionate farewell appropriate to the relationship, and I replay the evening for myself as I wash and dry the dishes, enjoying the afterglow.
Celibacy, in fact, is something we all share. Do we not all feel the need and capacity for deep, intimate, affectionate friendships with both genders? No matter how the primary relationship is played out in one's life with spouse, partner, or significant other, is there not the need to welcome in and be nurtured by a variety of people without the intensity and complexity of a sexual relationship? The context for most sexual relationships often seems to be possessiveness and exclusivity. This seems to be the cause of much conflict and pain according to the many stories I hear from people I meet in my retreat work.
For me, celibacy simply offers another way to love people and is much more something we do rather than not do. It helps to create what I like to call the hospitable heart. With respectful boundaries clearly established, it can become a place where friends can feel welcome to bring the gift of who they are and make my inner space even more sacred by their presence. Such a meeting takes nothing away from one's sexual relationship, while it may provide a blessing to bring back to a mate.
I can hear some of you now saying, "Why doesn't he get real? This is not the way it is out there." Jealousy and possessiveness are part of the human condition. Yet this ideal I describe is more than just a utopian dream. It embraces the deep human desire we all seem to have for the richness and variety that takes us beyond the "one and only" in our lives. Is not the cause of much woundedness within relationships the requirement, spoken or unspoken, that we expect one person alone to fulfill all that we need for happiness?
In one way, the practice of celibacy, whether total or selective, is a kind of fasting, something common to all spiritual paths. In another, it is a kind of feast. Celibacy can be a feasting on all the subtle nuances of the person of the beloved, creating out of the emptying, ways to "make love" never thought of before.
We humans seem to be made for this journey called friendship, for we find ourselves so often invited to cross this threshold into a mystery that is ever new, yet always familiar.
Mystics of all traditions, who seem to swim in the same stream, speak of love in a way that leaves the uninitiated confused as to whether they are speaking of divine or human love. I offer you these words from one of my favorite mystics, Jelaluddin Rumi, one of the world's great mystical poets, who lived in the 13th century. His words come from a heart swept clean by love.
"Something opens our wings. Something makes boredom and hurt disappear. Someone fills the cup in front of us: We taste only sacredness." Is this divine love or human love? I answer, yes.