About every decade or so, I get into a wrestling match with my relationship status, which is single. And not only am I single, but I also continue in an attempt to walk out my sexuality congruently with my spiritual convictions. That means celibacy (insert audible groan here).
Now we singletons have many internal and external messages to fight against on a daily basis. Externally, there is the very loud narrative of romance and sex drum-beating in our ears. “Life just isn’t worth living if you’re not in an intense romantic or sexual relationship,” the culture tells us. It’s easy to feel like a quasi-mutant-person limping around looking for your “other half” to complete you. Even church culture can be unhelpful. With all the energy surrounding programs for families and children, invisible single men and women can fall through the cracks. We have weddings, baby showers, anniversary and children’s parties for families. Yet there is no communal celebration for a singleton. Of course, I’ve loved joining in these milestone events with my friends and family. But, is it a surprise that my single friends often say church is the “loneliest place of the week”?
Internally, there is the battle of the “American Singles Mentality.” I unconsciously go through life with the idea I must do everything on my own. I have to live, eat, shop, and get myself to my appointments—alone. Where in the world did that come from? Yet, I know my other single friends go through life in a similar way. Add also some aging and the occasional pangs of physical loneliness. Then, a heaping dose of same-sex attraction and it’s no small wonder I’m sometimes feeling body slammed in this wrestling match. It’s at these points of time that I often wonder, “Why am I doing this again?”
Luckily, Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen comes to the rescue. Henri knew this very same personal struggle in a profound way. It’s to him I look to remind me of the spiritual significance of marriage and singleness–for my own sanity. He reframes them according to the beauty of Christian tradition in his book Clowning in Rome: Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer, and Contemplation.
Space for God
“I believe the busy city with its many quiet places offers us an image of the meaning of celibacy in our contemporary society. After all, doesn’t the active street life represent that part of us that wants to be with others, to move and produce? And isn’t the dome, carefully protecting the empty church, an image of that other part of us that needs to be protected and even defended to prevent us from losing our bearings? Our inner sanctum, that inner, holy place, that sacred center in our lives where only God may enter, is as important for our lives as the domes are for the city of Rome.”1
“We know that when we expect a friend or lover to take away our deepest pain, we expect from him or her something that cannot be given by another human being. We have heard that no human being can understand us fully, or give us unconditional love, or offer constant affection that enters into the core of our being and heals our deepest brokenness. We know this in our heads but our loneliness pushes us to expect it anyway.”2
Celibacy: A “Vacancy” for God
“The best definition of celibacy, I think, is the definition of Thomas Aquinas, who calls celibacy a vacancy for God. To be a celibate means to be empty for God, to be free and open for God’s presence, to be available for God’s service.”3
Emptiness for God: Essential to all Relationships
“I think that celibacy can never be considered a special prerogative of a few members of the people of God. Celibacy, in its deepest sense of creating and protecting emptiness for God is an essential part of all forms of Christian life: marriage, friendship, single life, and community life.”4
Celibacy “Vacancy for God” in Marriage
“Marriage is a relationship where man and woman protect and nurture the inner sanctum within and between them and they witness to that by the way that they love each other. We often think the word vocation applies only those called to a religious life, but marriage is also a vacare Deo, a call of God. And celibacy is an important part of marriage. This is not simply because married couples may have to live separated from each other for long periods of time. Nor is it because they need to abstain from sexual relations because of physical, mental, or spiritual reasons. It is rather that the intimacy of marriage itself is an intimacy that is based on the common participation in a love greater than the love that two people can offer each other.”5
Married or Single: A Witness to God’s Love
“In a world so congested and so entangled in conflict and pain, celibates by their dedication to God in a single lifestyle, and married people by their dedication to God in life together, are signs of God’s goodness and love in this world. They both ask us in different ways to turn to God as the Fountain and Source of all human relationships.”6
These passages encourage and give me hope. The vocations (callings of God) of singleness and marriage are both beautiful and equal in their significance. Each can be chosen to be lived out in a way that helps us flourish, as long as God continues to be our Source. Jesus lived out His life on earth as a single, celibate man, and in heaven human marriage will disappear. We all will celebrate the Marriage of the Lamb united to Christ. Meanwhile in the present, our sexuality is rooted and mirrored by the Holy Trinity, who knows each of us intimately. But how do we walk this out in a practical way? There are many questions a single, celibate man or woman has to contend with. We’ll explore some of them in my next article.
1Henri J.M. Nouwen, Clowning in Rome: Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer, and Contemplation (New York: DOUBLEDAY, 2000), 36-37.
A staff member since June of 1992, Scott is a key player in the WGA discipleship ministry. He plans, organizes, and implements every aspect of the Thursday night support group. In addition to public speaking, counseling group participants and training leaders, Scott maintains personal contact with many group members and it is to Scott’s credit that many group members feel personally welcomed, cared for and loved.
Although he holds a degree in graphic arts, he attributes his ministry qualifications to the “school of hard knocks.” God’s abundant grace continues to be the instrument of growth in his life, and he desires to be firmly grounded in the forgiveness and freedom of relationship with Jesus Christ.
Scott attends a Presbyterian Church.