The universe works in pairs. From the atoms to the human species, generativity is predicated on union with another. Happiness, it would seem, is also predicated on that.
So where does that leave singles and celibates? How can they be normal, generative, and happy?
For many people living single and celibate, life can seem unfair. Everything, it seems, is set up for couples, while they are single. And that isn’t the only problem. A further problem is that, too often, neither our churches nor our society give singles and celibates the symbolic-tools to understand their state in a life-giving way.
Consequently, single persons often feel like they’re looking in at life from the outside, that they’re abnormal, that they’re missing something essential within life. Moreover, unlike married persons and vowed religious, few single persons feel that they have positively chosen their state of life. They feel it rather as an unfortunate conscription. Few single persons feel easeful and accepting of their lot. Instead they regard it as something temporary, something still to be overcome. Rarely does a single person, especially a younger person, see himself or herself growing old and dying single – and happy. Invariably the feeling is: This has to change. I didn’t choose this! I can’t see myself like this for the rest of my life!
There are real dangers in feeling like this. First, there’s the danger of never fully and joyfully picking up one’s life and seeing it as worthwhile, of never positively accepting what one is, of never accepting the spirit that fits the life that one is actually living. As well, there’s the danger of panicking and marrying simply because marriage is seen as a panacea with no real possibility of happiness outside of it.
Partially those fears are well-founded. Being single and celibate does bring with it a real loss. Denial is not a friend here. Pious wishing or platonic spiritualities that deny the power of sexuality don’t placate our emotions or erase the fact that God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. The universe works in pairs and to be single is to be different, more different than we dare admit. Thomas Merton, reflecting on his own celibate state, once put it this way: “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.” Celibacy and the single life bring with them real dangers for immaturity and unhappiness.
But, paradoxically, admitting this truth is the first step in beginning to live positively beyond those dangers. 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 indeed a fault in our humanity.
However, to be celibate and single doesn’t necessarily mean that one is asexual or sterile. Today the impression is often given that no happiness exists outside of sexual union. That’s superficial and untrue. Sexuality is the drive in us towards connection, community, family, friendship, affection, love, creativity, delight, 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 opportunities for achieving these. God never closes one door without opening countless others. For instance, when our culture recognizes that it’s easier to find a lover than a friend, it recognizes too that human sexuality and generativity are more than biological.
There are other ways of being healthily sexual, of getting pregnant and impregnating, of being mother or father, of sexual enjoying intimacy. Sexuality, love, generativity, family, enjoyment, and delight have multiple modalities.
Early on in my ministry, I once served as a spiritual director to a young man who was discerning between marriage and priesthood. His greatest hesitation in moving towards priesthood was one particular fear: “I’ve always been afraid of being a priest because celibacy will mean dying alone. My father died when I was 15, but he died in my mother’s arms. I’ve always resisted celibacy because I want to die like my father died – in a woman’s arms. But, meditating on Christ’s life one day, it struck me that Jesus died alone, loved, but in nobody’s arms. He was alone, but powerfully linked to everyone in a different way. It struck me that this too could be a good way to die!”
It can be, but only if first, as Merton says, the cross repairs and transforms us.