“The refusal of woman is fault in my chastity…and all my compensations are a desperate and useless expedient to cover this irreparable loss which I have not fully accepted.
“I can learn to accept it in the spirit and in love and it will no longer be ‘irreparable.’ The cross repairs and transforms it. The tragic chastity which suddenly realizes itself to be mere loss, and the fear that death has won – that one is sterile, useless, hateful. I do not say this is my lot, but in my vow I can see this as an ever-present possibility.”
Those are the words of Thomas Merton as he reflects upon the dangers of not marrying. (Quoted by J.H. Griffin, Follow the Ecstasy, Page 44) In sexual inconsummation, be it a deliberately chosen state or one imposed by circumstance, there is always the feeling, seldom far from the surface, that there is something sterile within one’s existence. Merton designated this as “a fault in one’s chastity,” a fault which can either be tragic or transformed by the cross.
I’ve thought about this a lot lately, not just as it pertains to my own celibate existence, but especially as it pertains to persons living a single life in the world. For many of them, life can seem particularly unfair. Society is set up for couples. They are alone. Society has accepted and made a place for consecrated religious. However, singles in the world, while sharing the celibate lot of consecrated religious, share virtually none of their security or advantages. Moreover, unlike married persons and consecrated religious, singles in the world are rarely given a thriving set of symbols which can provide a symbolic hedge within which to understand their inconsummation.
Too often single persons in the world feel like they are looking in at life from the outside, that they are abnormal, that they are missing fundamentally something within life. Consequently, unlike married persons and consecrated religious, few single persons feel that they have positively chosen their state of life. They feel victimized into it. Few single persons feel relaxed, easeful, and accepting of their lot. The feeling, instead, is always that this must be temporary. Rarely can a young single person project his or her future acceptingly to the end and see him or herself growing old and dying single and happy. Invariably the feeling is this: Something has to happen to change this! I don’t choose this! I can’t see myself for the rest of my life like this!
There are immense dangers in these feelings. First of all, there is the danger of simply never fully and joyfully picking up one’s life and seeing it as worthwhile, of never choosing to be what one is, of never accepting the spirit that fits the life that one is actually living. As well, there is the danger of panicking and marrying simply because marriage is seen as a panacea and no possibility of real happiness is seen outside of it.
Some of these feelings are good. The truth sets us free and so it is not good to pretend. Pious lies, denial, or spiritualities of espousal with God which do little to placate the emotions, cannot erase the facts: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” The universe works in pairs, the absence of consummation creates a fault in one’s chastity which the creator, himself, has condemned. To be single is to be different, more different than we often dare admit. But it is in the admitting that truth can set us free. However, for that to happen, certain things must be understood and accepted.
Sexuality is a dimension of our self-awareness. We awake to consciousness and feel ourselves, at every level, as cut off, sexed, lonely monads separated and aching for unity. Celibacy is a fault in our chastity. However, to be single is not necessarily to be asexual or sterile. Today sometimes the impression is given that sexual union is happiness and no happiness is possible outside of that. That is a superficial and dangerous algebra.
Sexuality is the drive in us towards connection, community, family, friendship, affection, love, creativity, and generativity. We are happy and whole when these things are in our lives, not on the basis of whether or not we sleep alone. The single celibate life offers its own unique opportunities for achieving these. God never closes one door without opening a few others. In recognizing that it is easier to find a lover than a friend, we also recognize that human sexuality and generativity are more than biological.
Biology is one thing, but there are other ways of being deeply sexual, other ways of getting pregnant and impregnating, other kinds of sexual intimacy, and other ways of being mother and father. There is a mysterious dynamic within separation and community. Sexuality and community function at various levels.
I remember a young man I worked with several years back. He was discerning between religious life and marriage. At one point he commented: ‘I have always been afraid of being a priest because it will mean dying alone. My father died when I was 15 and he died in my mother’s arms. I have always rejected the celibate state because I want to die like my father died…in a woman’s arms.
“However, one day I was meditating on Christ’s life and it struck me powerfully that he died alone, loved, but in nobody’s arms. He was really alone, though he was powerfully linked to everyone in a different way. It struck me that this could also be a good way to die!”