November 6, 2016
“The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” (Lk 20:34)
In traditional societies like that of ancient Israel, marriage held the meaning of immortality, because one could live on in one’s descendants. To be childless was to be dead, or close to it. But among the people of Israel there stood out (like sore thumbs) a few whom God called to celibacy: Elijah, Elisha, and Jeremiah. And these men manifested by their agonizing cultural isolation a total consecration to God and his will for their lives. They also stood for the whole people of Israel in its marriage bond with God.
We who renounce the gifts of marriage and family put all our eggs in the basket of resurrection. How can I proclaim Christ with my whole life, my body too? By not having a plan B. By letting him be my one treasure in this life, as a sign that he will be so all the more in the next – for me and for all people.
“Do not let the eunuch say: ‘I am just a dry tree.’” (Is 56:3)
What if “religious celibacy” translates as “sexual repression and perversion” for a significant proportion of the population today? Does the symbol still have value if it is not understood? The early Christians were accused of cannibalism on account of a misunderstanding of the Eucharist. But they did not on that account abandon their sharing in the Lord’s body.
A celibate life is a scandal to many today, a waste, a living death, or at least a puzzle, a thorn in the side of the rational conception of what makes for a good life. To be a witness to the resurrection is not necessarily a glorious thing in our culture. For those who have been called to choose such a life, whether with idealistic fervor, or kicking and screaming, it is a mystery – a mystery of love.
Probably no sane person would have so strong a symbolic consciousness as to embrace celibacy to make a point about resurrection. But like Elijah, Elisha and Jeremiah, there are those today who receive a personal invitation to the mystery of celibacy – an invitation that is irresistible.
“You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
And your land shall no more be termed desolate;
But you shall be called My delight Is in Her,
And your land Married. (Is 62:4)
We celibates may lack the intensity of an exclusive love relationship with another human being, but we are not, for all that, unwedded. We have been invited, drawn, “seduced” as Jeremiah put it. The One who loves all that he has made has whispered into our ear, “You are mine,” and our hearts have not stopped burning at the memory of it.
Perhaps this is exactly the difficulty with celibacy, and why we have witnessed such spectacular failures in it in recent years – we could, if we are not careful, forget what it felt like to be courted by the Lover of humanity. We could be left with only sterile intellectual formulations that cannot fill an aching heart. Like married people, we need to move beyond the stage of infatuation, with its giddy emotional high, and grow into the faithful love that endures “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” until death unites us forever. Such fidelity is fired by intimacy.
“Extinguish my eyes, I'll go on seeing you.
Seal my ears, I'll go on hearing you.
And without feet I can make my way to you,
without a mouth I can swear your name.
Break off my arms, I'll take hold of you
with my heart as with a hand.
Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat.
And if you consume my brain with fire,
I'll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.” (Rainer Rilke)