Wednesday, November 20, 2002

The Universal Call to Celibacy


There is a wonderful reflection on celibacy in the Church in this month's First Things, to which, if you haven't subscribed yet, you definitely should. Fr. Maximos Davies, a Ruthenian monk, writes that we all have a call to celibacy. Note that he says celibacy, and not chastity. Yes, all Christians must be chaste in our relationships, whether married or not, but Fr. Maximos is saying more: we are all called to celibate, both the married and the unmarried. What does he mean?


Looked at from the perspective of the Eastern Churches, celibacy has very little to do with the sacrament of Holy Orders. It has everything to do, however, with the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Through the latter we are born into a new kind of life, in the Kingdom of God. We die to this world in Christ and rise again to eternal life. And in this resurrection we "neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven." (Matthew 22:30)


In eternal life, there is no marriage. So, clearly, celibacy is the universal state of all Christians, at least after the resurrection of the dead. Those who practice celibacy in this life are engaging in an ascetic practice. The word ascesis in Greek refers to exercise: an athlete is an ascetic, preparing for a future race. An ascetic in the Church is preparing a foretaste of the eternal life that we all hope to receive. Fr. Maximos says "Asceticism, as we have seen, is the recognition that everything we see and touch is mystically redolent with unseen and ineffable Divinity." So the celibate is showing how sexuality itself is nothing without its reference to the divine. Marriage is nothing without God but an embrace of two corpses, both doomed to die and come to nothing. "Marriage is worth of reverence only because the two hearts fall into a sacramental embrace with a Third, only because the children born of the union are born again through baptism into a new life, only because together the couple apply to their comforts the balm of asceticism that gives their possessions true and sacramental meaning." It is God who makes marriage sacred, and the celibate who foregoes marriage is bearing testimony to its sacredness by focusing on the divine.


The married couple must recognize that their marriage is only of relative value, and is not something to be valued in itself. The marriage is a union of souls for the sake of eternal life, and without this, is materially no different than fornication. Those who are married must be celibate (in the expanded sense of the word which Fr. Maximos uses) in their marriage, recognizing that sex is not the goal of marriage, but rather that the marriage is the goal of sex. In other words, one's sexual life is given for the purpose of creating new souls capable of eternal life and for the union of the married, but is not an end in itself. All in this life is a foretaste of the divine, and we all need to be mystic enough to see this. Mysticism comes from asceticism, from giving up the things of this world in order to retake them as gifts of God and symbols of our eternal destiny.


Fr. Maximos concludes with some thoughts about priestly celibacy, which is both ascetic for the man who undertakes it and symbolic for us. I quote him at length: "To be blunt: it is both psychologically dangerous and theologically illiterate for a Christian community that values sexual 'freedom,' including sex outside of marriage, adultery, abortion, and the contraceptive mentality, to then demand an entirely different sexual standard from its priests. Priests do not become celibate merely because they feel a personal call to a life of sacrifice--at least, they ought not. Priests accept celibacy because they lead a community that is as a whole committed to the ascetic discipline necessary to transfigure human sexuality into an experience of the divine. Celibacy is healthy when it is regarded as a common labor in which each Christian has a share. Seen in this way, priests will find their commitment to celibacy valued, understood, and supported. Celibacy will thus become a point of communion between priest and congregation."


A laity that doesn't understand its vocation to ascesis will not understand the ascetical practices of its priests, and will undermine that vocation. We are all called to pray, to fast, and to engage in the transformation of every aspect of our lives into communion with God. Fr. Maximos challenges the western Church to return to its ascetical practices, and says that until we do so, we won't understand the celibacy of our clergy: "Only a Church of mystics can realistically expect their clergy to be saints." Amen.


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