This article is part of a series on the ancient monastic vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity.
My decision to join a convent was one of the best things that ever happened to my dating life. At the time I found this unusual – and frankly alarming – but I have since come to learn that this phenomenon is, while not exactly normal, certainly not unheard of. After all, human beings are hardwired by nature to seek the good, and so any person who earnestly and openly seeks the supernatural good of a life of celibate chastity is going to find her natural desire for the good of marriage deepened and purified at the same time. This process is logical and organic, and explains why I spent the year before entering religious life accepting several unexpected but not entirely unwelcome invitations to dinner from pleasant single young men, wondering if this was really a prudent use of my time when sitting on my desk back home was an application form for the convent filled out and ready to be posted.
This experience of romantic entanglement during my aspirancy, oscillating between praying for the grace to persevere in the religious calling I was about to embark upon and wondering what my first name would sound like coupled with one boy or another’s surname, was a highly practical schooling in the true nature of celibate chastity. It showed me very clearly, though not without a good deal of emotional chaos, that entering a religious order was not intended to be a flight from my natural human desire for love and intimacy. As I passed from aspirancy to postulancy, from novitiate to temporary profession, that first lesson in celibate chastity held fast: I found the religious life does not – and, indeed, should not – decouple a person from her sexuality, as if it were a cumbersome bolt-on to human nature that could only hinder and obstruct the path to holiness. Instead, religious life is the means by which God perfects and fulfills every aspect of our human nature, sexuality included, through union with the One who gave that nature to us in the first place.
Speaking from my own western Catholic tradition, I refer to celibate chastity when talking of the evangelical counsel of chastity by which I live. This is because there is nothing about chastity per se that makes it the sole preserve of consecrated religious. Chastity, according to the catechism of the Catholic Church, is simply “the successful integration of sexuality within the person.” It is the process by which “sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed,” is made “personal and truly human” through appropriate and rightly-ordered relationships. There is nothing in this definition about renouncing marriage and sexual relations. The call to chastity applies just as much to spouses and to single people looking for romance as it does to consecrated religious, for all the faithful are called to a graced integration of our sexuality with our desires and our state of life. To put a more Thomistic spin on it, chastity is the virtue by which the natural inclination toward relationship is perfected; and thus anybody who possesses such an inclination – that’s all of us, to be clear – is called to have it perfected by the integrating and ordering means of chastity. Chastity is for all the faithful, whether we are married or single, and whether our singleness is permanent and willed or merely temporary.
For many people, the virtue of chastity will be made manifest in the way they pursue their romantic relations and, if these result in marriage, how they live out their married life. For those still searching for a spouse, the practice of chastity will enliven and redeem this period of looking, transforming it from simply an anteroom to marriage into a school of virtue and a fruitful time of intimacy with the Lord.
For a small minority, however, chastity will be manifest in a life of celibacy, in which marriage and family life are, by the grace of God, freely and permanently renounced. But why? Why does a life of radical consecration to God necessarily involve the renunciation of something so good and so fundamental to our nature? Various quick, easy, and deeply misleading answers spring to mind: to give more time for ministry; because sexual appetites are a distraction from a life of prayer and spirituality; because, let’s be honest, these people wouldn’t have made good spouses and parents anyway.
None of these answers are adequate, ultimately because none of them make reference to the source and archetype of religious life: Christ himself. Jesus, “the chaste, poor, and obedient one,” as Pope Saint John Paul II puts it in Vita consecrata, calls us to this life in order that we might be conformed to him. Did Jesus ever counsel removing oneself from other people’s needs and concerns in order to make more time for work? Does Jesus, accused of being a glutton and a drunkard – who, as the Holy Father Pope Francis describes him in Laudato si’, “was far removed from philosophies which despised the body, matter, and the things of the world” – counsel a fearful spurning of the flesh for spiritual health? Does Jesus, who blesses little children (Mark 10:16) and loves his disciples with the love of the Father (John 15:9), eschew the love of family life because he would have been bad at it?
He does none of these things. At no point in his public ministry does Jesus preach against the good of marriage; quite the opposite, in fact. In Matthew 19, as part of his teaching on divorce, Jesus asks his interlocutors, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?” Yet in the same chapter of Matthew, Jesus introduces a teaching that is distinct and unprecedented: the teaching that it is possible, in fact praiseworthy, to renounce marriage for the sake of God. “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” This was a highly unusual position to take in the context of the Hebrew tradition.
The call to chastity applies just as much to spouses and to single people looking for romance as it does to consecrated religious.
But what is clear from the gospel is that, in the eyes of the incarnate Lord, celibate chastity is not simply a privation of marriage and sexual intimacy. Instead, it is a positive choice for good. It is celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven that Christ counsels, not celibacy as the mere absence of marriage. In other words, a person’s celibacy has to be for something – something greater than herself, something greater even than marriage – in order to be fruitful. Truly chaste and authentic celibacy must recognize that, ultimately, it is not working against marriage and family life, but instead is ordered toward the same goal: eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. One of the purposes of celibate chastity is to serve as a reminder – a sign, in fact – that, for all its joys and blessings, the married life is only a means to an end; as Christ tells us, we shall neither marry nor be given in marriage at the resurrection (Matt. 22:30).
Celibate chastity, then, is both eschatological and prophetic: it not only points forward to the final state of all sanctified human beings in the kingdom of God, but also demonstrates how that kingdom is already present among us here today through the church. It is the means by which the Lord focuses our whole selves, as one chaste and integrated whole, on him and for him, to show forth to the church the life we shall all live in the beatific vision. As Saint Cyprian told the consecrated virgins of the early church, “You have begun to be what we shall be.” Indeed, the history of the church is replete with these prophetic signs of our eschatological future, men and women whose example of graced chastity is presented to us anew each year in the unfolding of the liturgy: saints such as Agnes, Agatha, and Lucy from the early centuries, up to Josephine Bakhita and Maria Goretti from our modern era.
These are wonderful examples of the blessings of the life of celibate chastity, but for me what is most striking about their lives is how dramatically and disturbingly eventful they often were. In many cases, eschewing marriage and sexual relations set these women radically at odds with non-Christian society’s expectations of them and even put them in conflict with their own families. It is unsurprising that the terms used to describe virginity and martyrdom are elided in the liturgy: both are spoken of as crowns of victory, won at great cost and manifesting all-consuming love. These women’s choice for Christ alone, to the exclusion of any earthly romantic attachment, so often sent shockwaves through their communities, and to this day can strike us as baffling and wasteful. This is another connection between chastity and martyrdom: both are the kind of total commitment, an utter gift of one’s whole self, that can only be made sense of if it is viewed entirely separately from our human desires for comfort, convenience, or good standing with others. It is only in the light of God’s grace that these callings can be understood – whether by the casual observer or the person living it.
Here is my own experience. When I began work as a parish sister for a church in North London last year, I found myself receiving more insight into family life than I had ever had before. Every week I met children who wanted to snuggle against me as we read the Bible together, hold my hand as we walked from the hall to the church, or be comforted by me when they injured themselves playing; every week I met parents who talked of their spouses and their children with such joy and affection, such pride, that I felt I could sit and listen and ask questions for hours. But over time I began to sense something unhealthy, almost obsessive, in my approach to this ministry. When I exposed these misgivings in prayer, the divine Physician gave me an unexpected diagnosis: I was becoming obsessed with ministering to these families because I wanted a family myself, and I was trying to process the fact that I would never have one.
When I entered religious life in my early twenties I had no particular attraction to the idea of starting a family. I certainly wanted to get married, but my desire for marriage was founded on a vision of marital life as a lifelong adventure shared by two adults, and I was indifferent to whether or not children might be added to the mix. To discover a deep longing for children only after I had committed never to have any was profoundly hurtful in a way that is difficult to put into words and, I sense, not intended to be. All I can say is that the grief I experienced was leavened with such interior peace and such confidence in the gentleness of God’s guiding hand that I could not but trust that this realization of mine had taken place at the time the Lord appointed for it.
It was the counsel of a priest that helped me to realize this. A Dominican friar based in the United States delivered a series of lectures on Saint Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on virginity to my sisters over Zoom in the academic term I began work as a parish sister. He concluded one of these lectures by saying that the key to living celibate chastity fruitfully is to see it not as a burden or as an imposition, but as a gift that God makes to his beloved, so that he or she may live completely for him. An understanding of celibate chastity that is primarily functional or utilitarian – more time for ministry, fewer attachments to be uprooted from when moving between convents, and so on – cannot and will not sustain a person over the course of her religious life. My grief would not be healed by burying my desire for children and approaching celibacy as a lifelong endurance test. It would be healed by accepting celibacy as God’s means of working in me to bring me to himself; of choosing to rejoice, rather than to lament, that I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.
Consecrated life is not for disembodied spirits, but for human beings. The sisters in my convent come from a wide variety of backgrounds, with vast and often baffling differences in personality, temperament, and sense of humor, but here is the one thing we have in common: we were created as human beings, we were redeemed as human beings, we are being saved as human beings, and for all eternity, whether in our current earthly sojourn or in the joy of the beatific vision, we will live as human beings. We are each a union of body and soul. We each have physical desires and attractions; we each need fellowship and intimacy; we each long to care and be cared for. It is this human nature, in all its fragility and wonder, that each one of us has brought before Christ in religious consecration so that he might bind it to himself. It is for the perfection of this human nature that he counsels us to live as chaste, impoverished, and obedient disciples of him.
This article is very much a dispatch from the trenches. I entered religious life as a postulant five years ago, first professed my obedience to the Rule by which I live two years ago, and will renew it permanently in Final Profession this September. I hardly need to point out that five years is absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things, especially since the evangelical counsels are, for the most part, slow burners: I dare say there’s a providential reason why most religious don’t go out in a blaze of sanctity after eight years in the style of Thérèse of Lisieux. We live within time, and it takes time to integrate, to heal, and to grow in the way that the evangelical counsel of chastity makes possible. There are new depths to my relationship with the Lord, new vistas of understanding of what it means to have been given the gift of celibacy, that I am still discovering.
My life of celibate chastity is only just beginning, and all I can really say for certain is that the peace and the joy that comes from a life of chaste consecration is entirely beyond my understanding or my merit. This life is a gift of which I am wholly unworthy, and the closest I can come to giving adequate thanks is simply to live it as best I can.