A friend of mine recently left the priesthood. He loved being a priest and was a good one. His problem? He was a man who worked with hands and fashioned beautiful things out of wood. At a point, rightly or wrongly, he felt that he couldn’t be really creative if he remained celibate: “I can’t be creative without sex!” is how he put it. That was more than hormones speaking. He was an artist, with an artist’s temperament. Most artists, I suspect, will understand exactly what he is saying, even if they don’t necessarily agree that this necessitates his particular decision.

There’s a creativity that is released by sex, just as there’s a sterility (“dried-upness”) that can come about by its suppression. Artists know this, too well in fact. It’s one of the reasons they’re so prone to artistic license in this area. Countless artists have expressed this, creativity and sexuality are linked at the very source of things.

Anne Michaels, for example, in her recent book, Fugitive Pieces, makes a virtual spirituality of creativity out of sex. Her two main characters, both male, have their personalities and creativity opened up only through sex. The intimation of course is that this is true for everyone. This is not a simplistic thesis. Artistic license in the area of sex is fired by more than hormones, ego, or irresponsibility, though one would have to be blind to not see that these often too play a role. What drives artists here is the connection between sex and creativity. There is a powerful link. And why shouldn’t there be? All life is after all created through sex, in some fashion or other of that word.

Given this background, we see that Mary’s question to the Angel, Gabriel, at the time of the Annunciation, is more than a simple query in biology: “How can this be since I am a virgin?” She had just been told that she was to be the most creative of all artisans, the artist of artists, the mother of the fountain of creativity itself. So her question is a good one, a deep one: “From what source can this life spring, given the limited way that I am living out my sexuality?”

This is indeed the real meditation for celibates like myself: “How can I be creative without sex?” It is also just as crucial a meditation for everyone else, even for those who do enjoy healthy sexual lives. Given our congenital propensity for polymorphous embrace, we still all have to live out a certain sexual asceticism. Ultimately everyone has Mary’s question: “How can I truly bring forth new life, given that I can’t sleep with the whole world?”

There’s no easy answer to that question – for artists, for married people, for celibates, or for anyone else. Sometimes, in terms of Christian spirituality, we have been too simplistic in our answer. We’re paying the price for that. Too prevalent is the artist who finds our theology of sexuality stifling and anti-life and has walked away from the church (and sometimes the faith) for just that reason. What is the answer? How can any of us be creative, given that we may not give ourselves irresponsible license in the area of sex?

I’m not sure that there is a theoretical answer, some clear spiritual formula that can be articulated, canonized, and then applied in each case. We have, of course, a few non-negotiable principles, like the ten commandments, but these only define the outside parameters. Inside, innate within the very concepts of love, sex, respect, and responsibility themselves, lies a deeper set of moral principles that are much less easy to name and codify. We learn these more by living morally than by studying anything. So how should we live so that our sexuality properly fuels our creativity?

The answer to that, I suspect, will involve three things: a certain grieving, a certain mysticism, and a certain trust.

Grieving: We can’t be God, neither in our talents to create nor in our capacity to sleep with the universe. At a certain point, we have to accept limit. We’re creatures, not God. And what we can’t have, must be grieved or it will make us bitter.

Mysticism: Sex is earthy, real, and produces life. But there are other, real, forms of love-making. These too produce life. The Body of Christ is, at one and the same time, radically physical and radically mystical. Even as sex plays such a life-producing role in this world, there are deep, invisible embraces inside the body of Christ where seed and womb too meet and produce life in ways beyond what we can phenomenologically trace.

Trust: Maybe, as we see in Mary’s response, the real answer is trust, faith that if we live out our lives according to what we deeply believe, no matter how far from human fertility that may seem at times, God will make us creative in ways that we cannot now imagine. The Holy Spirit too makes us pregnant.