Celibacy, agency, and monasticism

“Celibacy is undertaken voluntarily as part of the monastic vocation; but an unsought celibacy is the lot of many people, something they would never have thought of as their vocation, though it now seems required by their fidelity to Christ. Many of the separated or divorced who believe their former marriage to have been valid, the spouses of the seriously ill, the people who hoped to marry but somehow never found the right person — all these may be driven to find God in a painful aloneness….

“Fasting, celibacy, night vigils: all traditional monastic disciplines that have their counterpart in the lives of many for whom the experience was neither freely chosen nor laden with obvious spiritual significance. Within the unthinkably close union of us all in Christ’s body, there must be a communion of life and grace here, and in some cases perhaps a hope and encouragement, when those who struggle can use the monastic parallel as a sign to help them find God in their own situation.”

– Maria Boulding OSB, “Living the Rule in Solitude,” The Benedictine Handbook

I recently picked up The Benedictine Handbook, published by Liturgical Press. Ever since learning about St. Benedict and his famous Rule, I was keen on getting my grubby little hands on a copy. So, when The Benedictine Handbook showed up at the local Half-Price bookstore, which included a translation of The Rule for actual Benedictine monks, as well as a slew of commentary and a collection of the prayers and lectios used, I purchased it without a second thought.

Monastic life has always held a fascination to me. If I was not Mormon and married, most likely I would have become a monk by the end of my years. During my high school years, I fantasized about running away to a Buddhist monastery (and for a while, seriously contemplated my escape from this earthly world). Mormonism as a whole rejects the idea of monasticism (though it’s arguable that missionary service is a type of Mormon monastic service), mostly I feel on the grounds of celibacy. Mormonism is a very earthy, mortal religion, celebrating not only what is to come, but what has already come to pass and what continues to come to pass today. We celebrate mortal families as a type of the immortal family of God, and we teach that marriage is essential to exaltation and living in the presence of God. Families and marriage are Big Deals in Mormonism, and this is part of the strong draw it has on many people.

Still, while celibacy is not required for, say, clergy, because of our strong belief in a strict law of chastity, many Mormons can and do end up in a form of involuntary celibacy. As Maria Boulding suggests, they enter into this celibacy because “it now seems required by their fidelity to Christ.” Unfortunately, because of how our religion is set up, this celibacy often comes without much support. Aside from the more apparent “single” situation that many adults in the Church find themselves in, Boulding suggests also those who have chronically or terminally ill spouses, or the divorced and widowed. These, too, need support, but often, both members and church programs come up empty-handed and clueless on how to help them. What compounds this type of celibacy, as opposed to that celibate vow freely entered in by those of monastic orders, “the experience was neither freely chosen nor laden with obvious spiritual significance.” Celibacy can act as a type of fast, a communion and sacrifice with God. But involuntary celibacy often is seen as a heavy burden that one must carry, possibly for the rest of their lives, and many see it as unfair and wholly unwarranted. Worse, in some cases (perhaps even in many cases), other members may often view this unwanted celibacy as “their fault in the first place.”

Here, Boulding suggests that monastic life can act as “a communion of life and grace here, and in some cases perhaps a hope and encouragement, when those who struggle can use the monastic parallel as a sign to help them find God in their own situation.” This is not to say that all of our members who find themselves in celibate lives should run off to a monastery. However, while reading about monastic life from various primary sources, I can see how some of the activities and principles those who participate in the monastic life live can help heal that rift between God and child, and even consecrate that sacrifice to God as a gift and grow ever stronger and closer because of it.

I’ve met singles who are bitter, and singles who have learned to work around this unexpected life development. Those who learn to accept and transform the trial into a blessing often incorporate some of the ideas in monastic life — deep contemplation and self-examination, honesty to self and others, simplicity in life, selfless service to others, a deep understanding and love for the scriptures, consistent prayer, and so forth. I am no expert in monastic life and I offer no real concrete suggestions at this time (nor am I really qualified to do so). But Joseph Smith once said, “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” While we as a religion may reject the idea of life-long monastic living, certainly the principles found therein can be used to fortify those areas in which we lack. And certainly, as members, we could all show a little charity to those who have found themselves in such a vow of celibacy, and do all we can to bring them fully into the body of Christ. In a church with a doctrine so intrinsically focused on traditional nuclear family life, we continue to offend and drive away many of God’s children through our well-meaning, but unintentionally wounding, attitudes towards celibacy, family life, and agency.

One should ponder from time to time if there is at least some value in monastic tradition, as it is just one more way to bring another subset of people into the shepherd’s flock, rather than turning away others because of a single-minded, narrow world view, which is most tragic when those who feel rejected have come into life circumstances through no fault of their own.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Celibacy, agency, and monasticism

  1. This struggle of those single, divorced, or otherwise without an everyday nuclear family is certainly an issue. I think part of the problem is that on an unconscious level, many of the members of the LDS community (whether highly active or less so) don’t see this burden because they don’t experience it, and often aren’t particularly emotionally close (in an ‘I talk to you everyday about various personal things’) to those that are experiencing it.

    The phrase, ‘out of sight, out of mind’, only partially accounts for this. Not only do we not consciously deal with these issues in an experiential manner, but we don’t have any unconscious attitudes that have any deep experiential validity.

    P.S. The book “Blink,” is sort of where my thoughts are coming from, here, just for reference.

  2. I have a thing I am thinking about; I am a new member of the church who just received his priesthood, my ‘partner’ is a lifelong member.

    We married a while ago but, due to pressures (she is claiming social security disability and her family are paying her medical expenses and struggling to do so and she’d lose her benefits/case should be we remain married) we felt obliged to divorce for the greater good and having to live apart, dispite being very much in love and planning to re-marry once we could work the finances out once her case was done.

    We’ve struggled with the law of chastity since I became a member but I have prayed a lot and fasted and I think I have recieved my answer; that God believes we are still married, will be true to one another and she cannot have children naturally anyway, so no need for contraception or chance of accidental pregnancy. God knows she is my soulmate and so will not count any intimacy between us as wrong.

    I am partly concerned that my wish for it to be so is not clouding my judgement but when i last prayed, i felt the warm, fuzzy feeling one gets from the holy spirit and no feeling of fear or wrongness….I haven’t told her yet, although we are having a date night tonight after not seeing one another for a week (work and not enough money to gas the car!)….am i wrong or would God truly understand and not consider our physical expression of the love we still consider to be between spouses….what do you think?

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