The BVM, Challah, and Celibacy

A type of icon called “Virgin of the Sign”

SO, AS WAS EARLIER mentioned I’ve been wrestling with an article from First Things, published in 2002, called Celibacy in Context. I don’t mean “wrestling” as in struggling with, but rather as in Jacob saying to God, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Celibacy is not only hard for some folks to imagine doing, but it is also hard for some to even comprehend. Why? The issue of celibacy even came up in my Hebrew class, with the teacher explaining how strange it is to Jewish ears, to hear of a man willingly giving up on what is exactly the first command given to the couple in the garden: “be fruitful and multiply”. What is going on here? This is an ongoing meditation. I don’t pretend that this post will answer all your questions.

Two more images are coming to my mind. The first is Challah, the bread baked for the Sabbath (and a few other festivals in the Jewish year).

Take a look at Numbers 15:18-21:

Say to the people of Israel, When you come into the land to which I bring you and when you eat of the food of the land, you shall present an offering to the Lord. Of the first of your coarse meal you shall present a cake as an offering; as an offering from the threshing floor, so shall you present it. Of the first of your coarse meal you shall give to the Lord an offering throughout your generations.

RSVCE

The Hebrew rendered as “coarse meal” there can either mean meal or dough. Of course, since the destruction of the Temple there is no place to make such an offering, so, in the modern tradition for this Sabbath bread the housewife who is baking it offers a lump of dough, torn from the raw loaf, and says a blessing over it. The lump of dough is burned in the oven. Although only a tiny portion of the batch is burnt, the offering of the lump makes the entire loaf holy. What is given up is real and a real sacrifice, part and parcel of the whole, but it makes everything else holy and, in the end, the reduction does no harm to the joy celebrated. Seeing celibacy in this light is, it seems to me, a good thing. We give up one thing in order to make other things stronger, more holy.

The second image also gets tied to Hebrew class, but not quite as directly. We are working on Psalms because I pray them daily and it seems good to me to learn them in Hebrew. Currently we’re working on Ps 51, one of the most commonly used Psalms, especially in Lent in the Latin rite. In the Byzantine tradition, the Psalm may be said 2 or 3 times a day even in personal prayer! In this Psalm there are many references to forgiveness, grace, and mercy. One of the more common words for forgiveness refers (in “King James style”) to the “bowels of mercy” but the word, itself, comes from the word for womb. God’s womb of forgiveness.

While we’re looking at that, I jumped over to my favorite Psalm text, Ps 18:1b-2, which in the Coverdale, used at my former Monastery, is read as one verse:

I will love thee, O Lord, my strength; the Lord is my stony rock, and my defence my Saviour, my God, and my might, in whom I will trust, my buckler, the horn also of my salvation, and my refuge.

The Hebrew is the same, a collection of first-person possessive nouns. I think it would make a wonderful song, maybe by Miqedem, but it was that first bit, “I will love thee” that caught my eye. It’s sometimes rendered in the present tense as “I love thee”. In the original text the “i love you” bit is the last part of the 1st verse. The whole phrase is only one word, אֶרְחָמְךָ֖ er’cham’kha. I’ve heard that word before, I thought. In Psalm 51. Click after click brought me to this word: רֶחֶם rechem meaning, “womb”. When we speak of God’s mercy (as in Psalm 51) one of the words used is rechem and from that same root we get racham and from that we get the future tense, er’cham or, to add a personal suffix, er’cham’kha. That is, “…to you.” Remember, this verb arises from the image of a mother’s womb. Our loving God “opens his womb of mercy” to us and yet, we do the same to God here! There are other “wombly” echos in Ps 51, but the idea that we can show “rechem” to God – as he can to us – is just mind-blowing. But it needn’t be symbolic. Suddenly, the yes of Mary is her literally offering her womb to welcome “the Lord, my strength; the Lord is my stony rock, and my defence my Saviour, my God, and my might, in whom I will trust, my buckler, the horn also of my salvation, and my refuge.”

The Eastern Gate of Jerusalem is sealed, although Ezekiel prophesied that it would be. Before the historical event, though, (c AD 1540–41) the verses in Ezekiel were read to be related to the perpetual virginity of Mary. Once the Messiah King had passed through the gate of her womb, no one else would. It is from there that we get to celibacy. Paul says that an unmarried man is concerned about things of the Lord whilst a married man is concerned about his wife.

The man or woman who vows celibacy is promising to give the Lord the best part of life – sacrificing one small part in exchange for the whole. They consume the Bread of Life (Jesus) and then leave the gate sealed. No one else may pass that way. The gate through which has passed the king becomes a spiritual womb, enclosing the “Lord, my strength; the Lord is my stony rock, and my defence my Saviour, my God, and my might, in whom I will trust, my buckler, the horn also of my salvation, and my refuge.”

Yes, it’s possible to press this image too far, but this touches on the Greek word used for Mary in the Bible (including in the Greek Septuagint) Parthenos which has the cultural echoes of sexuality set apart for God by choice. All vowed celibates are called Virgins – even those who are not, experientially, virgins.

The mercy of forgiveness can restore even the womb of compassion within us to its original form and intent that it may house the King who is Bread.

A Helper

DOING A GOOGLE ON A First name is such an interesting project: you find a lot of people with that name, of course – people you did not know, some stars, a few politicians, sometimes a saint or scoundrel if there is one that is particularly notable. Names common in other languages sometimes result in graphics of that name in the other tongue. I was hoping for that as I googled “Eliazar” this morning. I found that it’s common among a few ethnic groups, a couple of gentlemen were giving the 1 finger salute to the camera. On the whole first page of graphics, the best Google would give is this t-shirt. But none particularly hit towards my point.

Eliazar came up in our daily office today. In the Office of Readings we read of the youth of Moses in the household of Pharoah. Then we hear of his slaying of the Egyptian who was abusing one of the Hebrews. Moses runs off to Midian where he meets the daughters of a pagan priest who, eventually, gives his daughter to Moses in marriage. The second son of this union is named “Eliazar”. “and the name of the other was Eliezer: ‘for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.'” (Exodus 18:4) That was the last line of the reading. “My help” or “my helper” (depending on your translation) triggered something. That is the second time that something is called “my helper” in the Bible. Here it is God. But the first time it’s something God wants to give to the Earthling, the man alone in the Garden. “I will make him a helper”, says God. (Genesis 2:18). Both in Genesis and Exodus, the word used is עֵזֶר ezer. Thus there are two “helps” in the first two books of the Bible: one’s spouse and God. Moses comes to see God as he help after he is married.

Something clicked. For the Christian Sacramental Marriage is a sign not of “love made holy” or even “church permission to have sex” but rather of Christ’s union with his Church, of God’s union with his People. This is why God – and the spouse – are both called ezer. But the spouse is not an ezer on the same level as God! The marital union is the closest we can come on the Earthly level to experiencing this intimate communion, but it is exactly only on the Earthly level. The Spousal Ezer is a sign of something that is coming and of something that is present in a hidden and spiritual reality. The Spousal Ezer is a sacrament, if you will, of what God is for his People. We are not married in heaven because we don’t need a sacrament to experience that union. Celibacy is the commitment to live the union in its experienced reality here.

My spiritual Father sent to me yesterday an article from First Things, published in 2002, called Celibacy in Context. (Unless otherwise cited quotes below come from that article.) The discussion in the article was around the existence of married clergy in the Eastern Tradition and how many wester Christians in the Catholic Church read this as “see, their priests get married…” They turn this into an argument against the Latin tradition of clerical celibacy. The author, Fr Maximus Davies, insists that Eastern practice needs to be seen in the full context of the Eastern ascetic tradition – a tradition to which all Christians are called, not just monastics.

Celibacy in Eastern Christianity is viewed primarily as a form of asceticism. Asceticism means, in essence, to live at the same time on earth and in heaven. It means to understand that everything we see in this life, everything we touch, taste, think, and feel, is in some way a revelation of the life to come.

…For an ascetic, time reveals eternity. The ascetic thus wants to be freed from a merely human way of looking at time as a cycle of work and rest, life and death. Instead, the ascetic lives in time as though in the undying freedom of eternity. Therefore the ascetic prays. For an ascetic, food reveals the heavenly Feast. He is freed from a merely animal attraction to food and instead tastes only the spiritual promise that lies hidden inside earthly appetites. Therefore the ascetic fasts. For an ascetic, possessions reveal the many-mansioned Kingdom of Heaven. The ascetic is freed from the slavery to things by seeing in everything the Creator of all things. Therefore the ascetic gives alms.

…It is the same with sexuality. For an ascetic, all human relationships—even the sexual act itself—reveal divine love. Hidden beneath the surface of all smaller loves lies the immeasurable abyss of God’s love. The ascetic realizes that what other people give him by way of love finds its true and deeper meaning in the One who is the source of all love. Celibacy is the practical recognition of the reality that lies behind the image, of the prototype behind the icon.

Davies wants us to see that celibacy is not a call different or divided from marriage, but rather it is the reality, the spiritual form behind marriage. As the Catechism cites it, celibacy is an eschatological sign. “Virginity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is an unfolding of baptismal grace, a powerful sign of the supremacy of the bond with Christ and of the ardent expectation of his return, a sign which also recalls that marriage is a reality of this present age which is passing away.” (CCC ¶1619.) In heaven there is no marriage, there we will all be celibate. Here, by grace, we can begin to live this life. Thus, even married folks experience celibacy at times – not “abstaining from sex” but rather something else.

Celibacy is not only a sacramental sign. As we are all called to give away alms as if we do not own anything, as we are all called to fasting as if we don’t need food, so is celibacy a further experiential living out of that reality to when we are all called. See 1 Corinthians 7:29ff.

Human love without celibacy is at best mere sentiment, at worst a form of idolatry.

Who then is called to be celibate? Simply put, every single Christian who is capable of love is called to discipline that love through the asceticism of celibacy. Just as every Christian is called to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, so also every Christian is called to be celibate. Seen in its true context of asceticism, celibacy ceases to be a legal requirement for a small section of the Christian faithful and is revealed instead as an aspect of the universal vocation of all believers.

…Christian celibacy is marriage baptized. Christian celibacy is the revelation of the presence of the Kingdom of God in every relationship. It is the refusal to see other people as things to be used, even for the sake of romantic love. Celibacy means the willingness to see in sexuality not something merely animal, or simply useful or enjoyable, but instead something mystical.

Moses named God his Ezer even after he was married. That’s the key. Even married folks are called to see that God is the reality behind who your spouse is. Celibates are called to live this continually and it is exactly an ascetical choice. But if all Christians (not just certain clerics) are called to live this out in their lives, then every Christian must dig into their marriage, or into their unmarried state, to see that God is the ever-present helper they are really seeking. Your husband or wife is the sacramental sign.

Sacrament is an important word here: a sacrament makes present the reality it depicts, a sacrament effects the thing it describes. Your spouse not only is a sign of God’s help but, in a mysterious way, is God’s help. But you must never forget that, exactly, it is God who is my helper. Your spouse is the mediator or mediatrix of God’s active presence in your life, but he or she is never all of this presence. The spouse is, as we said, a sign of something that is always present in a hidden and spiritual reality. Celibacy (even for married folks) is a call to live into the full reality of that help even now.

What is a Week End?

THE DOWAGER COUNTESS of Downton Abbey rather famously asked, “What is a Week End?” Ascending high enough up the ladder of nobility, at a certain point the difference between work and life no longer matters: one is always The Dowager Countess of Downton even when other folks have “down time”. Vocation is like that: one is always the (fill in the blank) of the Parish Name even on (especially on) the Weekend. This comes to me now: the boundary between work and life are blurred, but in an entirely healthy way. I nearly never stop praying about work or worrying about guests, wondering if I should change something or thinking about the situation in the parish. This is not to say I should be on call 24 Hours (or that any parish appointee/employee should be) but if it’s a vocation rather than a job, then there is no time when one is not one’s job.

Boundaries are always something that has been important to me: I need to see where work quits and where life begins. But in the case of vocation that’s not the question. One is always whatever one’s vocation is: even when one is at work, one is at play, one is still whoever one is in God’s eyes at all time. It’s like marriage in that sense: there’s no moment when one is not married to your spouse. To wake up and pretend otherwise (even for a few moments) is literally preparing for sin.

Speaking of sin, the question of celibacy has been weighing on me. To be ordained as a deacon, I have to take a vow of celibacy. This means forswearing the good of Marriage. That said, I’m surprised at the number of folks who say I can’t get married nor can I forswear Marriage because of same-sex attraction, as if experiencing a certain temptation means one cannot participate in the Mystery of Matrimony. I’m surprised at how widespread that idea is: as if I’m ontologically unable to make vows. For millennia men and women who experience SSA went out and got married. They also had children. These men and women are no different from the men and women who do not experience this temptation. They are the same human persons. Marriage is as much a salve for their souls as it is for anyone else. In fact, it may literally be the answer for most Catholics with SSA. God gave us all of the sacraments, all of the Holy Mysteries, to bring us to him, to make us like him.

The Sacrament of Matrimony is not a permission to have (or a blessing on) sexual activity, but rather an action of salvation in the world. We misuse some of God’s gifts outside of Matrimony, yes, but the end and purpose of Matrimony is not to sacramentalize those gifts. Rather those gifts feed into Matrimony to make it a mystery that speaks of Christ and the Church. Matrimony is a sign, a sacrament. It is the Ordinary form: a sign of Christ and the Church. But not all are called to it: there is an extraordinary form, also a sign of Christ and the Church, and it is a vow of celibacy. This last is an eschatological sign, a sign of the Church in heaven and eternity. It can be lived here and now by God’s grace. One forgoes the ordinary form of the sign to participate in the extraordinary form. One freely gives up the channel of grace provided to every man and woman – monogamous heterogamy – to engage in a vowed state of aloneness, what is called in Greek, μονᾰχός monakhos, which has come to mean “monasticism” but originally meant “singleness” or “aloneness”. St Ephrem the Syrian is one of the first “monakhos”, but he was not a vowed monastic as we understand that term. He simply wished to forgo the goods of marriage an explorer a closer relationship with God. It is (as it was) a mystical state of a man or woman living in the world alone with no one else except God. And therefore, available to share God’s love with everyone.

He was also a deacon.

But if one imagines one’s identity to be beyond the pale of marriage, then one cannot make a vow of celibacy. Since all humans are called (in nature) to Marriage, to place oneself beyond marriage is to make oneself unnatural or contra naturam (Latin.) or παρα φυσιν para physin (Greek) as St Paul says. One has crossed the boundary into something else. (Please note that the naturam or φυσιν here does not imply “things that happen in nature”. Literally anything that happens happens in nature. Rather what is implied is within the natural law: the use of things as intended by God and evidenced in nature. Fallen nature does a lot of things not intended by God.

Within nature, one can engage in one’s fallen nature, making up new identities and whatnot. Or one can seek to elevate nature beyond what is now normal, and even beyond what is now the intended (but generally rejected) divine order of things. One can seek to elevate oneself to a higher order: that of the eschaton even in this world.

That’s celibacy.

I got a couple of cool things: this translation of The Imitation of Christ from the 1930s (reprinted in the early 1960s). It has a thematic plan to read the whole thing in a year.

Also, I got this rather wonderful Cross from a Deacon friend:

I think it’s carved, but I guess it could be formed or sculpted of some kind of material. It’s a lovely representation of the Holy Face on the Cross. It’s now in my icon corner.

It’s still hard to be the one in charge. Today was no exception. Tomorrow I have a homily to present and a BBQ to attend. It’s the weekend. after all.

I’ve been watching an Israel Comic and trying to read/listen along. I hear some words – but I don’t get any jokes yet. I like when he does his mother’s voice, though.

Update OK… I totally get the part about the kholodetz.

Almah Parthenos

IN ISAIAH 7:14 the Spirit of the Lord speaking through the Prophet says, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (AV) and people bicker a lot about the word “virgin” there: the Hebrew – according to the Masoretic text is עַלְמָ֗ה almah which means only a young girl. The Greek, however, is παρθένος parthenos which means rather a lot more than just young girl. In fact parthenos means so much more than almah that there is a story about this word choice:

In the middle of the 3rd Century Before the Christian Era, Ptolemy II asked for a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, tradition says the project was given to 70 wise elders who, in prayer and meditation, sought to render a translation that could be seen as spirit-breathed and trustworthy. This translation is called the Septuagint, often noted as the LXX for the 70 translators. As one elder was translating Isaiah, he tried to render the word almah as νεᾶνις neanis meaning only a young girl (as in other passages in the scriptures), but the Holy Spirit told him to write parthenos. The man objected but God insisted – and promised him he was to see the fulfillment of this prophecy with his own eyes. This man, the legend says, was Simeon who was blessed to hold in his own hands the Messiah as a baby. Your host digresses, but only a little bit: the story makes it clear even earlier Christians saw there was a crucial difference between almah and parthenos.

As this scripture comes into Latin, Roman culture, it gets rendered virgo which actually means less than the Greek and the Hebrew. By way of exploring these differences, there may also be something to learn about current issues in the Church and something about ourselves in relation to God and each other.

Before we go any further though let the reader understand clearly: none of this is to be read as commentary on the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Your host believes, together with Holy Church, that the Mother of God was alma, parthenos, and virgo before and after giving birth to the Second Person of the Trinity. The best description of the All-Holy Theotokos uses all three of these words in their fullest cultural meanings. It’s the cultural meanings that are the focus. To reiterate, we are exploring these words in order to have a better context for discussing current issues in the Church.

The Latin word, virgo, can mean a young woman or girl, but it specifically refers to not-having sex and, even more specifically, to the membrane called the hymen. If this is intact, the woman is a virgo. There is a word for “young girl” in Latin puella, but culturally it’s missing the context of virgo. As I noted, the Latin word actually means much less than either alma or parthenos. It’s this word that comes into English as “Virgin” and so, too, it means much less for us. When we discuss sexual issues in the Church we often get hung up on virgo.

Alma is used a few times in the Hebrew scriptures. In almost all cases it can mean only a young girl without implying anything about their personal history. Culturally such a young woman may not yet have been married but at a time when they were given in marriage rather young (by our eyes) it is more a chronological term dealing with age. Even in the important passage in Isaiah, the woman in question is only being used as sort of a time-keeper. The Prophet is saying that she will have a child and before the child grows up all the predictions will come to pass (meaning they are not far in the future). The woman will still be a young woman at that time, actually, still a neanis, a youth. Perhaps, though, she has stopped being parthenos. We are not told. She may be virgo. We are not told.

The important word is παρθένος parthenos. At the time of the Ptolemy II parthenos was an honorific applied to several Greek goddesses: Artemis and Hera, although Athena is the best known example. Her temple in Athens included a statue called Athena Parthenos and this statue was also copied in several places. Parthenos is the adjective. The noun becomes the name of the Temple: the Parthenon. Please note that all three of these goddesses had extant stories of their sexual activities. They would not be virgins as we, today, understand that word in either a secular or religious context. The goddeses are not virgo. Parthenos carries a different cultural meaning.

Other persons in the Septuagint are called parthenos: one example is Rebecca, the woman who was to become the wife of Issac and the mother of Israel (Jacob). While it is outside of the scope of the present essay, fruitful meditation could arise on the connection of the Biblical title parthenos to the Mother of Israel and the Mother of God. The title itself is also applied to certain classes of people through the Old and New Testaments. It’s usually rendered as virgin(s) in English and Latin, implying no-sex but, again, culturally I think it means rather a bit more, even in the 1st Century of the Christian Era. Its meaning in the 1st century becomes our meaning today but we have forgotten it.

When you look up παρθένος parthenos in Strong’s Greek (the standard Greek reference for Biblical Scholars, augmented on the net by several other resources) we are come to word number 3933.
Usage: a maiden, virgin; extended to men who have not known women.
properly, a virgin; a woman who has never had sexual relations; a female (virgin), beyond puberty but not yet married; (figuratively) believers when they are pure (chaste), i.e. faithful to Christ their heavenly Bridegroom (2 Cor 11:2; Rev 14:4).
Word Origin: of uncertain origin.
Yet, as I’ve already noted, the several Goddesses to whom this title was originally applied were not “women who have never had sexual relations” and two, at least, were married.

Digging into the word further we need to go back to the temple mentioned earlier, the Parthenon. Whence that title for the Temple? We need to go to Liddell & Scott which is a rather more secular source for words outside of the Bible. Here we find the root word, παρθέν parthen which means “maidens’ apartments in a house” and was used of the apartments for the priestesses in the western end of the temple. So that is kind of like saying “a rector lives in a rectory”. Which came first, the house or the occupant? In the case of the clergyman, the office of rector was first, of course. But digging deeper into parthenos it seems the word was used for both men and women, always implying unmarried, but not always implying sexlessness, and not always implying virgo. What it does carry is implication of a sexuality being set apart and, in the case of women in Ancient Greece, this is important. They are set apart for a divine purpose – not for their father’s use in the way of the time. This is why Athena gets called parthenos – and the other goddeses: even though they are not virgo they struggle against all the male deities that want to own or control their sexual identities. They are enclosed in their own apartments, as it were. Having set their sexual selves aside for divine purposes, assuming they continue in that, they stay parthenos even after no longer being virgo, and even into old age. By the time it gets used in the LXX parthenos is culturally tied to those apartments in the greek Temple and to the patroness of Athens. Just as now we do not use “rector” without the Christian echos so, too, the LXX used parthenos. And this is where the meaning for the Mother of God and the Mother of Israel becomes important: regardless of their status as virgo, their sexuality, their sexual being, there sexual identity was consecrated; that is, set apart and dedicated to God’s purposes.

This is where this word, parthenos, should be important for the Church.

There are earlier essays in this blog on the difference between being a bachelor and being celibate. Essentially the difference is between a job and a vocation: the former is what one does, the latter is what one is. Celibate, here, means parthenos: having one’s sexual identity so consecrated to God by self-choice, self-gift (to God, that is) that any use outside of God’s plan is inconcievable, pardon the pun. It’s a placing of this part (whole) of one’s life at God’s disposition and trusting in him to maintain his plans and purposes.

It is possible to see clerical life in the teachings of the Church as sort of perpetual bachelorhood. One can be a virtuous bachelor, like Charles in Brideshead Revisited, or one can be unvirtuous. In Courage to be Chaste, Fr Benedict Groeschel, CFR, recognizes that there’s a type of person who just stopped having sex because they can’t anymore. By way of examples, this can happen because they feel they are too old, or because they don’t want to take risks reaching out, or because they fear rejection. Whatever the reason they simply stop having sex and then (because of sloth, fear, or habit) they just don’t anymore. Father Benedict finds this to be of concern: he recognizes that they’re following the rules, they may even have chosen to follow the rules after a time, but in the end, they’re only not-having sex. They are not celibate. They have not give all to God at this moment. St Jane Frances de Chantal notes, “Give God your unconditional consent and… What happens is that love seeks out the most intimate and secret place of your soul, as with a sharp sword, and cuts you off even from your own self.” (From: The memoirs of the secretary of St Jane Frances de Chantal, used in the Office of Readings for her Memorial.)

In this light we can see that sometimes, even something that is not sex-having could be a sin against this status as parthenos if it means placing one’s sexual identity (or even seeming to place one’s sexual identity) before others as an offering, thus recanting, at least for a moment, on one’s vows. We refrain from being cut off even from our own self. There are many reasons one might do this: feeling lonely, of course, or feeling awkward. One knows that one can’t have sex, but I can at least pretend I might, you know. That way I can enjoy this conversation, or initiate this flirty moment on the street, or even install a hookup app on my phone: I do not intend to use it of course, but you know… just to look. And just to look as if I might use it if I wanted to. Even while still not-having sex, this participation in the glamour of sin (even while not going all the way) is not parthenos. And, in the throes of passion, it’s possible this is setting us up for a fall that’s even worse.

It’s important to see that this is not only an issue for clergy who up hookup apps on their phone, however. Since the Mother of God is called to parthenos so are we all called to this: we give our entire self over to God, we consecrate our entire self to him. This means that even our sexual identity is his as well. We are cut off even from our ideas of “who we are” and “what we feel” in that all of it is given to God, holding nothing back. In marriage this means refraining from lust and that the gift of self is given to God through giving to our spouse and, in this way, to our children. In all other states of life, we are called to refrain from lust and offer the Gift of Self as God has commanded us in the moment. We live in a way set apart from the world, in a way that marks us as God’s own. Like those in Athens, we have our dwelling place in the courts of the house of Our God, the True and Living God.

Day 151: Parthenos

JMJ

But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.
– St Paul, I Corinthians 7:32-33

THESE THREE ESSAYS BEGAN with a High School remembrance from my discernment process while in the Episcopal Church. I was only just beginning to “discover” sex at that point in my life. Like all things misused, it can get out of control. The next essay was the learnings from misuse. All of this started, though, from that coversation in Clerically Speaking which I mentioned on Day 149. It left me meditating on the connection – and then the disconnect – between Marriage and Celibacy. These two paths are available to the Christian. There is no vocation to “the single life” although one does not need to be “under vows” to be a “eunuch for the kingdom of heaven”, neither can one just be “chillin’ but not married.” At best, one must be either working on one’s self for marriage or working on one’s self for celibacy. It was Father Harrison and Father Anthony that made the connection for me. I have written in the past that “virginity can be lost, but chastity can be restored.” My two ghostly fathers said, no, in fact, living a fully celibate life and making a commitment to it is a restoration of virginity. And then I remembered the Greek word used to describe the Most Holy Theotokos, παρθένος parthenos. Not only is this a title of the Blessed Virgin, it is also a title for the goddess Athena. It is from this title that the temple in Athens, the Parthenon, gets its name.

It is this word, parthenos, that is used in the Septuagint to translate Isaiah’s troublesome word, almah. Does that mean virgin or just young woman? In the Septuagint, coming with all the cultural implications of Athena, the Greek at least intends to imply virgin. But virgin how? Occult commentaries on the Greek Pagan world have tended to suggest that parthenos implies self-contained, or all-in-one. The virgin, therefore, be they a man or woman, is not necessarily someone who has never had sex but rather someone who is living in (or having restored) their self-integrity. The Fathers of the Clerical Pod are talking about men and women who are, by choice, living as parthenos.

St Paul, quoted at the beginning of this article, says that it is the unmarried man who is concerned with the things of the Lord. Saint Paul uses the Greek word ἄγαμος agamos which literally means without-marriage, not someone who has never had sex. Traditionally that has been understood as before marriage, but it can also be descriptive of anyone who is living outside of the bonds of matrimony, either through widowhood or choice. The problem is that for some folks in this world, living outside of marriage is not chosen for their spiritual growth but rather for their spiritual dalliance. In a conversation a with a friend of mine over pizza on a recent “cheat day” from my diet: he noted that some single, ordained men are celibate while others are merely bachelors. They both obey the Church’s rules on sex, but something divides them. Later, using those exact words a Dominican priest posted the same distinction on Facebook. Fr Harrison and Fr Anthony also took this up in an earlier episode of their podcast.

In the Courage to be Chaste, Fr Benedict Groeschel, CFR, recognizes that there’s a type of person who just stopped having sex because they can’t anymore. Perhaps they’re too old, or unattractive to the people around them, or maybe they’re scared.  Whatever the reason they stop having sex. Father Benedict finds this very disturbing: he recognizes that they’re following the rules, they may even have chosen to follow the rules, but in the end, they’re only not-having sex. Christian chastity requires the full integration of the human person’s sexuality into the human person’s spiritual life – parthenos. Marriage is one way to express Chastity. Celibacy is equally a way to express this full integration of the human person’s sexuality into his spiritual life.

Recent events, especially the medical quarantine, have underscored that I can stay alone and follow the rules. However, alone is not the same thing as celibate. Being alone simply means alone: free to do whatever I want. I can come and go as I please, free. Cool. However, this is a bachelor’s life. I have been living as a bachelor for much of my adult life. I have my obligations, which I meet, do my work, go to church. Then I am free to be me; doing whatever. This is bachelorhood. Sometimes you read about The Eccentric Old Man as a stereotypical citizen of San Francisco. I was, honestly, well on my way to being that. I don’t want that life.

There is a way in which such a man is “chaste”, as Fr benedict notes, without relying on the graces of the virtue of chastity. It follows the law, but there is no Spirit. Following the rules, alone, is not a way to Salvation. 

Marriage is about a graced commitment to an exclusive love. Celibacy is about a graced expression of a diffuse, universal, love. Bachelorhood, if you will, is about neither. The Bachelor can love you or not. He can commit or walk away. Anyone can stumble on the path to virtue, but a bachelor might decide, tomorrow, you know, this isn’t working for me. It’s “discerning a vocation to the single life”. I can stay here, but maybe I can move on. Marriage is a commitment. Celibacy is as well. “The Single Life”, Bachelorhood, is shenanigans.

When I reached a decision to bring my sexuality into my spiritual life as an integral whole, to adhere to the Church’s revealed teaching on sexuality, I realized the way, not to simply follow the rules, but to give my entire self to God; so that God, through me, could give his love to other people. Celibacy, like marriage, is a vocation:  a way to live the Christian Life in the world through God’s grace manifesting his kingdom here by means of our human sexuality. Vocation, here, does not mean “magical calling” that God gave me one day like a voice from off-camera in a TV Sitcom. Vocation here means “my job.” It’s a choice, the choice is “follow the church’s teaching this way… or follow the church’s teaching the other way.”

Celibacy, then is a way to integrate the entire human life into the Gospel and escape (or undo) bachelorhood. The energies that were once used inappropriately or mistakenly are now offered up in this daily sacramental action. The charism doesn’t protect one from falling, nor does it provide a handrail to hold on to with white knuckles, but it means that there is a key with which to unlock a whole other realm of action. Using the key everything around one is still the same: it is the self who is different. One becomes Parthenos. Hospitality is not an accident nor is it an obligation: rather it’s a gift. Celibacy allows the Parthenos to make an hospitable gift of self and of all. It allows one to make a sacramental action with everything around and with everything that one is, everything that one hope to be in God’s grace.

Self-gift is the meaning of love. Bachelorhood means I can give to you if I choose to, if feel like it but I’m not obligated. You may give to me something, I might give something back to you. Celibacy says I’m free to give away everything without expecting return because unlocking that secret, hidden realm means that in God’s grace I never run out: it’s no longer me giving. The cure for the “ungood” state of bachelorhood (It is not good for the earthling to be alone, says God to themself) is a commitment to communion, to love. We are either working towards this or not. I’ve known people in their 50s to be graced with a marriage towards which they were working that long. But I’ve known people in their 20s working towards neither salvation because of a great fear of missing out. They are afraid to take the risk either way – hurting others on the path as they go.

Vowed celibacy is neither a guard nor a “magical” protection against sexual sin. That protection is only in and through God’s grace. We are powerless to do anything without Christ. Neither steadfast faithfulness in sacramental marriage nor continual celibacy are possible otherwise. Neither of these are simply following the rules – but rather participation in grace. To paraphrase the Tao Teh Ching, water flows downward because that’s its proper, natural course. “Leaning in” to the vocation of celibacy means that this becomes my proper, natural course, my supranatural course, which I can follow only if I let God’s grace lead me there.

In this world, the choice for a celibate life is like marriage but in fact higher than marriage. Celibacy points to the kingdom in which we are to be, like the Angels, neither married nor given in marriage. Celibacy is laying aside the tools of this life in this life and living, as the Eastern Church puts it, the life of the Angels here and now. Celibacy requires the exact same self-gift that marriage requires. However, celibacy does not have the benefit of the sexual union of one person with one other person: the tool of the conjugal union is no longer an option. Instead, celibacy requires agape, eros, and philia to be all turned God-ward for the salvation of others. All of the human race, under our Father God, become our storge. Celibacy demands of her adherents a continual gift of self not limited by the same strictures that enclose marital love within a monogamous union. Instead, this love is to be given to all with the same intensity of eros and agape that arise within a marriage. We are called to the same desire for union and the same sacrifice as the married couple, but we are free to be concerned about the things of the Lord – everyone.

Ideally, a married person learns love in the school of love – the Christian family – and then carries that grace to the world. They can do this because God’s grace flows through their family and outward. What they offer to others is replenished by God’s grace when they “go home at night”. Celibacy calls her children to rely only on God for the continual replenishment of the same internal resources without the comfort of someone to go home to at night. It is the DIY School of Love: throw yourself into service, learn to love the hard way – without being loved back. Marriage unlocks the Love of God to flow through one to one spouse in a continual act of self-emptying, and thence to one’s children. Celibacy unlocks this same Grace so that God’s love can flow, self-emptying through one to all. Meaning no scandal at all, as Agape is Eros, Marriage is God’s monogamous love, celibacy is God’s polyamorous love.


HOW WE MOVE FORWARD in our lives from this choice between monogamy and polyamory is the working out of our salvation. Our self-gift must be poured out as the Father is, as Christ is, as the Spirit is. Until we are the chalice of the Mass filled to overflowing with blessings for others, we are not yet fully begun on the way, although within time we are always beginners. Until we select the path for ἄγαμος (without-marriage) or γαμος (marriage), we are not yet on the path: we have to pick in order to know how to go. Only then can we know how we are to be ordered toward the Good we have chosen.

God’s plan for you is your salvation: however he waits for your choice.

Let us then begin in Love.