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The Call to Celibacy

I distinguish between the “gift” of celibacy and the “call” to celibacy, which I will come to later in this post.

The gift of celibacy is a debatable proposition. Is someone “blessed” with that gift or simply avoiding intimate relationships? Is it a rejection of God’s gift of sexuality and more broadly sensuality and embodiment, or a prioritizing of one’s energy and involvement and commitment?

The occasion for these musings is my morning prayer time reading of the recently released Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life by Henri J. M. Nouwen. Alongside his deeply profound spiritual insights and occasional religious bromides are the idiosyncrasies of a confounding personality.

I am quick to say that almost anyone’s personality, especially my own, can be considered idiosyncratic and confounding. But reading my friend Henri’s letters reminded me of how frustrating a correspondent and friend he could be!

From the beginning of the book, I missed the context of the letters, being one-sided. This is understandable, given the problem of permissions to use his correspondents’ letters. Editorially this is handled as well as it can be by italicized introductions, yet the larger picture will only be gained by researchers who read both sides of the correspondence.

But I can immediately give examples by referring to the three letters written to me, only the first of which is introduced by both my first and last name, a compassionate letter about the scourge of AIDS in my community (Dec. 20, 1985; p 113).

The last letter is also a kindly letter, but one that refers to the “busyness” of my and my then partner’s life, him as a professional HIV/AIDS activist, and me as a writer, editor, and LGBT Christian activist. “Thanks for telling me about your busy lives. Please slow down a little so that you can be more creative,” he writes (Dec. 26, 1995; p 337).

This is sweet, and speaks really to his own needs, as is revealed in the letter. But the context is his repeated challenge to me to give details of our lives in my letters, and so I did just that, only to be unnecessarily chastened to slow down! But this is a minor and petty concern.

What really troubled me was his letter of Oct. 22, 1986 (p 137) toward the middle of the book in which I seem to be questioning his celibacy and using him as a “good connection” to read a manuscript, which happened to be my first book, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Man’s Struggle to Serve the Church (on a later edition given its original subtitle, A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church—the first publisher thought “gay Christian” would sound like an oxymoron at the time!).

I wrote two letters in response, but only mailed the second, less angry one, though both are in the Nouwen archives, to which I donated our correspondence at their request a few years ago.

Henri never helped me publish a manuscript, nor wrote any intros or blurbs for my books, nor did I ask him to do so. I had sent him a copy of my manuscript because, as I say, he was always asking about my inner life, how I came to my choices, especially about affirming my sexuality in the context of my spirituality.

Subsequently I asked permission to dedicate one of my devotional books to him, as I felt he had contributed so much to my spiritual life, but he declined, describing the Vatican’s watchful eye, and only after his death was I bold enough to dedicate a later book to him, ironically (given his closeted ways), Coming Out as Sacrament.

Later he did give me advice about the content of my first book, suggesting readers would be more interested in my story than the story of the church dealing with homosexuality. I chose rather to tell both stories, as I considered my story only an instance of the church’s discernment process.

More troubling was the question of celibacy raised in his letter. I do believe there are those who truly have the gift of celibacy, and I support those who choose it as a spiritual discipline for a time or a lifetime. But my conversation with Henri around celibacy was about my Protestant view that professional ministers do best when their most intimate personal, emotional, even spiritual needs are met in marriage (and I include in this any intimate relationship) and family—otherwise they can sometimes look for that among the people they serve, crossing professional boundaries with personal needs, even demands.

For Roman Catholics, that’s partly why those with religious vocation congregate in religious communities, to meet those needs. But diocesan priests, of which Henri was one, can be at a loss for that kind of support. That’s why, I believe, Henri chose to spend the last ten years of his life in the L’Arche community in Toronto.

But there, the intensity documented in the book between Henri and his patient but straight friend Nathan is an instance of this. I had also experienced this intensity, and I kept my distance because that was not how I viewed our friendship. This is why Henri is distressed in the letter written to me in 1986.

Henri, so taken with his own needs in the letter, does not respond to the reason I had written to him, to tell him I had made the painful decision that it was time for me to resign as Director of the Lazarus Project, a ministry of reconciliation between the church and the LGBT community, a position I had held for nearly ten years. At the time, he was one of only three people I confided in about that decision.

We all stumble through life, we all overlook others’ needs in favor of our own from time to time, and I have wondered about my own inclination to write of this. I loved and still love Henri, and am grateful for all that he was and is. I am still learning from him, as I am still learning from my parents and all my teachers, and I am grateful. And I am finding that, as I continue to read Love, Henri, his spiritual acumen deepened toward the end of his life.

In my view, Henri had less the “gift” of celibacy than the “call” to celibacy. He strongly believed in his calling as a Roman Catholic priest, and celibacy for that tradition comes with the territory, as tough as that can be. He rightly bristled at the notion of a correspondent that he had not prayed hard enough for healing to “re-orient” his sexuality (Oct. 11, 1988; p 188)!

It would be good if the Roman church could adopt ancient Celtic practice or contemporary Orthodox and Protestant practices of allowing both marriage and celibacy in the professional ministry.

The Presbyterian Church, where I spent most of my professional life eking out a non-ordainable living, confused celibacy and chastity, demanding the latter of LGBT people. But chastity is “purity of purpose,” and that is a good spiritual discipline both within marriage and as a single person.

I have learned as much about myself, others, and God in my sexual community as I have learned in my spiritual community. I have needed both to learn compassion, that which ultimately unites us, I believe, to God.

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