Strange what meaning lies in paradox and anomaly! In defeat there is a victory, in humiliation there is glory, in confusion there’s always a new clarity, in the absurd one finds meaning, in tears lie relief, and in virtually every death there is new and deeper life. Recently, I wrote an article about a young woman making her perpetual commitment as a religious sister. I stated both how much I admired her for the courage and vision to make such vows within a culture that rejects them and how much these vows themselves have a clarity and beauty precisely because they make the truth they express repellent and so drive all who witness them inward, forcing them to assimilate the truth in a new way. I have been the recipient of some strange looks and questions since: Repellent vows? Really! I am not without gratitude for this critique because it has forced me to clarify something I had just dimly felt, but could not express, until now. Now, with some help from an answer Thomas Merton once gave to an interviewer who asked him how he felt about celibacy, I want to spell out what is inchoately expressed in that term “repellent.” I will focus on just one of the vows, celibacy, because it is generally within that vow that one experiences this repellence in all its poignancy – and it is within that vow that the greatest danger for pathology lies. The principle involved in living that vow applies as well to poverty and obedience.
A celibate life is of itself an absurdity, pure and simple. Man without woman and woman without man is absurd. “It is not good for the man to be alone!” When God spoke those words he meant them for everyone forever. To be celibate is to live in incompleteness, unwholeness and inconsummation, in a loneliness that God himself has damned. Further, this is not merely a matter of celibates having or not having good interpersonal relation. A vision prevalent today contends that good heterosexual or homosexual friendships and a supportive community can and should offset the pain and unnaturalness of celibacy. After all, sexuality is more than just having sex and celibates need not be excluded from the realm of loving. There is some truth in that, some wisdom, but also a lot of naiveté. Friendship and supportive community are critical, in the long run more important then sex.
But that fact does not offset the emotional crucifixion of celibacy because it cannot bypass the fact that however deep an unmarried friendship might be and however good and supportive community may be, within these, the members do not make a one, nor come to a consummation, in a way that satisfies the condition of Genesis: “that is why a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and the two become one flesh.” In a sexual relationship within a marriage, a man and a woman make a one in a way that a man and woman (or a woman and a woman or a man and a man) do not make in any unmarried friendship or community, however deep these latter relationships may be. Hence, outside of a married sexual relationship, one will always live in a loneliness which has been condemned by the Creator himself. However, I suspect, and I know from my married friends, that this loneliness exists too within marriage, even within the best of marriages.
Within a good marriage, there are moments in which loneliness is transcended, but these moments are brief and usually point to a further, more difficult, place where, ultimately, two lonely and unconsummated, though married, persons elect to save one another from absurdity by being absurd together – for life. Hence, what I write here applies as well to married persons. At this point, I suspect the tone of this article must sound masochistic. But this is not a masochistic answer. It is in freely accepting the limit, this pathos, that we rise above ourselves and become more human, because it is then that we let go of those imaginings and unrealistic expectations that prevent us from living in advent for God’s kingdom.
But this implies that we stop lying. The celibate condition, in the course of time, has become encrusted with pious lies, just as the married one has become encrusted with a false romanticism. The lies and the romanticism serve to hide the real pain, the real tragedy, and the real meaning and nobility of both vocations because they hide the fact that in both celibacy and marriage the symphony remains unfinished. A damned loneliness always exists. We remain painfully sexed, separate, partially always alone. Only when this foolishness is recognized does inconsummation become thirst for a wider love, then self-pity turns into hope, confusion into clarity, foolishness into beauty. Then absurdity becomes a centre of peace and there, finally, things begin to make some sense and both marriage and celibacy become possible and beautiful.