“He alone has understood his celibate vocation who can rejoice over a young couple who have found each other.” — Karl Rahner
The genesis of celibacy and all that goes with it — associated with priestly and religious life in a particular way — is in the book of Genesis. An idea far-fetched and, surely, facetious, if not ludicrous on the face of it. A moment of thought could, perhaps, see it differently: a curious suggestion with a shade of sense, possibly even surprising. It should hold good at least for the simple reason that religious life, whatever it could be, is first and foremost human life, and the story of all human life begins in Genesis. Letting the story happen to us is a way of reliving it hermeneutically, not only enjoying the old but inviting what could be new.
The Obvious Lesson from Genesis
The first lesson of Genesis story is, of course, God’s design of marriage for man and woman with all that it evokes which could, however, lead to — as already broached — what it hardly relates to. Marriage was an all-embracing endowment of God for all humans to be together in pairs, to be intimately bound together body and soul, and so beget progeny.
From the beginning it was the commandment — the first natural, express commandment — of God, binding on all for their adventure of living and growing and making history all through time. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gn 2:24). Brought together thus as living springs of life, humans heard the blessing of the additional, explicit commandment of God, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gn 1:28). Obvious as a rule of life at the biological and psychological level — at once tempting and comforting those who have a mid-life crisis in their vocation as priest or religious — the original commandment was ingrained also spiritually so much so that people believed that “when the man marries his sins are said to be erased,” (The Jewish Family and Jewish Continuity, KTAV Publishing House, Hoboken, N.J. 1994), to quote David Biale writing about Jewish life culture.
Like all universal rules, the rule of marriage in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is open to exceptions which only prove the rule. So what Biale had to say on this matter could hardly be surprising: “Although no value was placed on remaining single, and the rate of marriage among Jews was always high, it would be wrong to assume that marriage was universal. . . .It is likely, therefore, that some men in every generation chose not to marry, as the cases discovered by S.D. Goitein from the Cairo Geniza (ca 10th and 13th centuries) attest.
From time to time, there were also Jewish women who preferred to remain single” (ibid.). Better known than all this on possibly better evidence is the fact that, in the late second century B.C., celibacy was practiced by some of the Essenes.”
A Possible Lesson Behind the Obvious Lesson
Whatever the inspiration of the rare Jewish experience, here is a Christian pondering of the Genesis text that could point to the beginnings of the long trail to celibacy. Ignoring marriage as the foremost plan of God for humans cannot lead to sensible celibacy; but appreciating marriage as a divine institution could, especially when people concerned have a rare appreciation and apperception of God.
Thus, it is possible that rare persons could have stumbled upon the truth of their being in the image of God and begun wondering if that truth opened up the possibility of living differently from the common run of humanity used to marrying and procreating. So the situation of not marrying could have arisen, almost unnoticeably, in the minds of some deep thinkers as a possible exception both from the human and divine perspective. And, then, as the course of salvation history unfolded, staying unmarried could have emerged in the hearts of some fervent seekers as a divine dispensation with an exceptional character.
So, updating Qoheleth, a Christian could say today that, as there is — for all humans — a time for marrying, there is — for some — a time for also refusing marriage for good reasons, not only physical but spiritual. Pursuing this thought, as earnest Christians continued further to reflect on God’s command binding on men to leave their father and mother for founding another home of their own, some might wonder why Christ spoke to some of his would-be followers in the same vein, though with a significantly different end.
If Christ’s followers, too, were bidden to leave home it was not to make another home by marrying but find a home with him, unmarried! Such reflections relativizing marriage could not but lead exceptional visionaries to discover an option other than age-old, customary marriage — an option pursued first by monks and nuns freely and then later embraced by priests obligatorily.
Far from being a norm but only an exception, such optional celibacy will be exceptional only if its adherents sense and honor foremost the exceptional priority of marrying, knowing that it comes as the first and foremost personal blessing or gift of God who is Love, love with capital L, from which all loves proceed.
God, Ground and Goal of Marrying
To develop this thought further, a brief consideration of giving and receiving arising from love within the best of human circle may be enlightening. Any truly personal gift looks both to the receiver and giver; it levels their differences and enhances their mutual worth, generates proactive dealings with each other and binds them together. And so, the sharing of gifts is not merely of things but of themselves as persons; Kahlil Gibran said it beautifully: “It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” Giving is therefore not an exercise of superiority and condescension, making the receiver reluctantly indebted; rather, it is an expression of sharing in such a way that there arises an openness in the receiver to share likewise and so give something in return to the giver and to any others like themselves.
Proper giving with a dose of generosity would result in proper receiving with a measure of gratitude, enabling the receiver to make bold to rise together with the giver on gifts as on wings (to use the imagery of Kahlil Gibran).
In this light, the blessing of marriage appears as a divine gift of life to man and woman so that each in turn may give to the other one’s own very self. In the primordial story, Adam had an inkling of it at the first sight of Eve that blossomed into first love (occasioning the poem of first love).
With that as the starting point, their mutual giving would have grown through the natural process of learning. Woman’s own typical giving was unmistakable, though it comes to our notice only in the negative instance of her giving to the man what she had tasted of the forbidden fruit. Anyway, as the woman and man enjoyed, for a while, even if not for a very long while, their mutual gift as a blessing of God, they would have matured too beyond their mutual human relationship.
Having come from God blessed with each other as the foremost gift, far higher than the rest of creation, they would have felt drawn together — in a spontaneous, if unconscious, manner — to turn to God too and rise toward God as one united couple; and thus, bound together in body and soul, they would have, appropriately enough, made a gift of themselves together to God. And that is why we hear, as the story unfolds, that the man and the woman could both be naked before God and not be ashamed as long as they were faithful to God (as evident from comparing and contrasting Gn 2:22-25 with Gn 3:10). At its origins, therefore, marriage was a sacred experience open to life with God as much as with a happy pair.
So the Genesis text on marriage indicates, if I may make a jump using an experience from India, the original Khajuraho of God’s own making in the temple of God’s universe. Originally the name of a small village in central India, Khajuraho conjures up romantic, conjugal and erotic scenes sculpted on the walls of the temple there. Someone has observed that such was a common, though strange, feature of many other beautiful temples in India. He accounts for this fact, pointing to the architectural guidelines of the old Indian scriptures in this regard: on each temple’s threshold there should be a statue of lovers, at least one sculpture of a couple in deep love, in maithuna. “Maithuna means lovers in a deep state of oneness, in a state of inner marriage — not just the outer marriage. . . .Maithuna means a couple which is no more a couple. . . .Maithuna means: love so deep, so tremendously deep, that a glimpse of God becomes available.”
Here is some provoking stuff from a provocateur. Some will reject it, shocked; others may be confused by it, not knowing what to make of it; but still others can seek to understand it giving it the benefit of the doubt. Quite teased by the unsuspected revolution of thought, one may detect here another way of saying graphically what the Bible says about the marital bond of the man and the woman — of Adam and Eve — in relation to God: they stood naked before their God and were not ashamed. To explicate it in the present context, they knew their blessed situation of receiving everything, including their sexual being, from God; and they felt delighted and glorified in their God of life whose primitive temple they sensed around them in the whole of creation.
Tobias and Sarah and their parents witness to this existential truth of married lovers rooted in the depth of humanity and yet winging their way to the throne of divinity (Tob 8:4-9; 15-17). Tobias and Sarah go back to the ancient story of Adam and Eve; and in the process, they go one better in their love song than Adam or Eve as they included in it not only their mutual love but expressly also God’s love:
Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors, and blessed is your name in all generations forever.
You made Adam, and for him you made his wife Eve as a helper and support.
You said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; let us make a helper for him like himself.”
I now am taking this kinswoman of mine, not because of lust, but with sincerity.
Grant that she and I may find mercy and that we may grow old together (Tb 8:5-8).
Not all biblical couples are as innocent as Tobias and Sarah, but that does not diminish the basic truth. For example, there are four matriarchs named in the genealogy of Jesus; their stories of finding love may strike us not particularly proper and, indeed, far from exemplary. And yet their appearance in the ancestry of Jesus points to the fact that their love and marriage point beyond themselves to God who loves life (Wis 11:24-26) and who works out his plan of love through men and women familiar with love in its passion, poignancy and power due to or despite its fallen nature, fluctuating between inadequacy and ecstasy. All this goes back to the basic, precious, universal message of Genesis in its earliest story of creation of man and woman found in its first pages.
Deepening of the Lesson
As a rule, Church architecture — unlike that of Hindu temples — may be innocent of a maithuna at the entrance. But Christian Scriptures begin with human maithuna presided over by none other than God. And so, the depiction of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden could find a place not only within Church precincts but even on Church portals as in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. That surely is a sign that Christian tradition developed spontaneously, if almost unnoticeably, a growing sense of human maithuna that opens itself to divine maithuna.
Simple Christians in love could therefore be drawn to reach out also to their maker, rightly acknowledged as the giver of their love. Nurtured further with scriptural stories evocative of marriage in all its gamut, at least some Christians would have grown to recognize consciously that marriage is not merely a self-enclosed sexual experience but essentially a human experience which from its very origin is turned to God and open to life.
That is why we learn, to repeat for emphasis what was already mentioned, that the first couple was naked before God as before each other and that they felt, not shamed but, covered with divine goodness. This is a picture so unlike the culture of our days, with the kind of men and women who want inappropriately to be naked or to be seen naked or to see the naked, and yet fight shy of it for shame only to end up leading a double life, albeit uncomfortably, and in the process demeaning sex to a less than human experience.
Jesus was not unaware of what warped minds had made of marriage from Mosaic times; yet he pronounced it sacred, and revealed its original grace to humanity with its goal in, and yet beyond, its fleshly or earthly level, and thus restored its initial bond with God (Mk 10:2-12; 12:18-27; Jn 2:1-11). Thus marriage came to be reinstated in its original consecration despite all the desecration of it by wayward humans.
Paul, the surprise convert of Christ, took his cue from Christ. Reflecting the mind of Christ he had an intuition on marriage (1 Cor 25:25): with all that marriage means for the body and soul of the partners, it concerns the spirit too and liberates it for God (1 Cor 7:5). He felt inspired to present marriage in sacramental terms.
Coming on the scene at the close of the Old Dispensation and the beginning of the New, and being familiar enough with both, he felt enlightened enough to assert something profound: that marriage is a mystery in itself; and, what is more, the human mystery of marriage is applicable to the sacred mystery of relationship between Christ and His community of Christians (Eph 5:29-32).
Marriage Beyond Itself
The twinning of marital love and divine love, arising at the time of creation and confirmed further in recreation by Christ may be one of the things hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction (2 Pt 3:16). And yet, even a child could sense it when it sees it. To illustrate, an American religious Sister in her 60s recalls her experience of discovering the link between both loves while still a young child. She knew the love of her parents for each other and also their parental love for herself and her siblings.
At the age of learning her penny Catechism starting with questions like “Who made you?” and “Why did God make you?” she came to know that God made us all because He loved us. At that young age she began wondering about God’s love: if her parents, made by God, were so loving how much more loving God should be! And that was somehow the beginning of her vocation not to follow her parents in loving marriage but to follow the greater love of God that her parents’ love, at once conjugal and parental, somehow pointed to. She could then make sense of love at home in all its gamut and, as she grew up, she could also discover love without a home, love of God above and away from one’s home. Perhaps, as she matured she had her own inkling of what St. Gregory Nazianzen voiced in one of his Orations: “It is necessary both that childbearing be honored and that virginity be honored still more highly.”
Perhaps knowledgeable mothers would have their own way of rendering or modifying Nazianzen’s belief by the way they conduct themselves. Margarita Sanson, the mother of St. Pius X, is a striking example. The story is told of what happened between mother and son after he became a bishop. She kissed his episcopal ring, and then showed him her wedding ring. And the story goes, the son bowed and kissed his mother’s ring, the symbol of her marital and maternal vocation.
In a typically feminine fashion, the good mother demonstrated simply and yet profoundly that marriage is the step toward celibacy — in terms of time (chronologically), of course, and, more than that, in terms of grace also (chairologically) — reverberating with all psychological and spiritual overtones.
Like the last two examples of parental love pointing or paving the way to divine love foregoing marriage, can conjugal love lead one to choose celibacy for God? The experience of the impermanence of marriage as of all human life could lead one to let go the impermanent good (1 Cor 7:31), and lead one to adopt the opposite way of life, namely, the celibate way. There are cases of married men and women like Sts. Francis Borgia and Frances de Chantal who, after the death of their spouse, found the love of God so overpowering that they sought to stay in love of God by way of choice celibacy. Their choice is the opposite of the levirate marriage. Levirate marriage ensures a widow getting married to her brother-in-laws; but it ends up finally in living like the angels in Heaven, as Jesus informs his tricky questioners (Mk 12:18-25). Those who are deeply moved by the final, heavenly turn of events may anticipate where all marriage has to end necessarily; and in the process may choose celibate living on earth itself without welcoming it only at the end.
The anxieties or difficulties surrounding marriage (Gn 3:16) could also lead one to wish to be free from them and fly to God for celibate freedom (1 Cor 7:32-35). The challenge involved in permanent marriage till death could also make people think about remaining unmarried (Mt 19:3-10). Such a thinking, however, can be no more than wishful to the many who look at the problem rather facetiously.
Inkling of Celibacy
But Jesus does propose the possibility of celibacy seriously enough while emphasizing, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:11-12).
It is not a little surprising that Jesus broached this topic of celibacy when upholding marriage, the first lesson of Genesis. Was he drawing a certain divine parallelism between marriage and celibacy in the lives of people? Could we, then, not get an inkling of celibacy as a meaningful gift of God for some no less than marriage meant for the majority? Let anyone accept this who can, as said Jesus.
Who can accept this? Only those who have a feel of God giving it to them. And to whom is this given? Not any but those who value God’s gift of marriage with all its attractions and yet do not overvalue it as if it were the be-all-and-end-all of life. They are wise enough to regard marriage as a threshold, and to discern it as a sacred thing.
The threshold of marriage joins the opposites, this world with the beyond, the ordinary with the extraordinary, the worldly and the heavenly, the profane and sacred. So, as it could enable everyone to “pass from one mode of being to another, from one level of consciousness to another, from one reality to another kind of reality, from one life to another kind of life,” it could inspire some to even bypass or forgo the route of marriage to attain the higher goal.
Abel is the primordial example of one who found life with God, passing from this earthly life to heavenly life. Though belonging to pre-history, he may be considered the first of those in the biblical tradition, who coming out of the great ordeal, have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rv 7:14).
Again, he may be reckoned as the first of the virgins who follow the Lamb blameless wherever he goes, having been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb (Rv 14:4-5). As all this evokes an aura of religious life, we can discern in Abel, whose gifts were acceptable to God, an initial trail of religious life. Abel’s life, redolent with sacrificial offering that began with the firstborn of his sheep, reached its climax when he surpassed himself in his death as he made over his life to God.
Thus his real sacrificial offering to God was his very life so very contrary to that of his brother Cain. In his life so pleasing to God that happened to be bereft of the charms of marriage, could we not sense a divine happening and a divine design? Could we not discern the glowing light of a certain celibate surrender and splendour, lit by God in the soul of Abel without his being aware of it? If he was unaware of what turned out to be his celibate end, he was led to it by God instilling in him the spontaneous desire to make offerings of worth pleasing to God right from the beginning!
There have been likes of Abel down the ages in terms of factual celibacy, though not all of them might have shared spontaneously his innate disposition to offer themselves to God. But God would have had his own way of reaching out to them in their forced celibacy.
God is greater than His gifts such as marriage. God’s promise to faithful eunuchs — those incapable of marriage and so becoming symbols of the celibate — is pregnant with joyful meaning; God would establish them with an everlasting name far better than marriage with sons and daughters (Is 56:5)!
The faith of Abraham, married but childless, had its own unsuspected openness to celibacy. He could not but demonstrate it most when he felt challenged by his God to prefer God to his wife and his son. If he struggled with the divine bidding he still showed himself ready to forego in sacrifice his only son, through whom he was to have his promised numerous progeny, and, in the process, also distance himself from his wife.
In that scenario the countless descendants that had been promised to him of old could, as St. Leo says, be “begotten not by fleshly seed but by fertile faith,” — a subtle intimation of celibacy. His whole life conduct, in fact, recalls to us further the call Jesus addressed to his would-be followers: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). If, as Jesus remarked, Abraham saw his day and rejoiced, did he also sense his evangelical words of invitation centuries ahead of time? Anyway, he who had left his parents (Gen 12:1) was now ready to leave his wife and even his son to follow the will of God (Gn 22:1-14) — blazing the trail of utter spirit of obedience, celibacy and poverty.
All this could be a way of awakening would-be religious men and women to be aware of whatever they are embarking upon in the world! Someone, acclaimed a guru by his followers, made bold to urge them not so much to renounce the world but to remain in it while seeking the unknown in the known, the invisible in the visible, the permanent beyond the passing.
Applying this in the present context, we would do well to discover celibate living, not in the ignorance of marriage, but in familiarity with marital choice, romance and commitment while going beyond and freeing ourselves from it, not regretfully but gladly, even if sacrificially.
Anyone innocent of any attraction to marriage cannot enter the threshold of celibacy. That is why Karl Rahner would advocate appreciation of marriage to celibates and would-be celibates: “He (or she) alone has understood his (or her) celibate vocation who can rejoice over a young couple who have found each other” (Karl Rahner, Servants of the Lord, Herder and Herder, 1968).
If it is psychological truth it is no less spiritual and theological. For all basic human experience is so dynamic a reality that it keeps challenging everyone involved to greater and greater dynamism, leading each one to one’s own unique, if incomprehensible, commitment to Abba God who calls us through Jesus in the power of Spirit Love. Such is our original makeup, for we live in the gestalt of, what Rahner calls supernatural existential; that is to say, surrounded by grace our existential structure is oriented to God. All this has only deepened with God becoming Emmanuel in flesh and blood.
All this can be far from theoretical and indeed highly practical. Here is a convincing story. I know a poor, pious Indian worker in a rural Catholic hospital. He wanted to marry but failed in his desire despite his routine prayers to God. As he was growing in age and saw no sign of hope, he shared his anxiety with the religious Sister in charge of the hospital: “I wonder why God is not blessing any of the proposals for my marriage. Is it because I would forget God if I married?”
The story gave me an inkling of celibacy I had never had before. Right attitude to marriage could give rise to some surprise finding on celibacy. So, whatever the primacy of marriage, there is a greater primacy for some who love God and are known by God (1 Cor 8:3)!
FATHER DOMINIC, S.J., writes from Secunderabad, India.