April 12, 2013

The Joyful Sorrow of Celibacy


In the spring of 1993 I stood on the grassy field of our football (soccer) field at the Pontifical North American College. Practicing on the field were the Pontifical Swiss guards from St. Peter's which sat just below the Janiculum Hill. Our field was used by several locale groups to practice, and even to play European Football. Our guys, the Americans, played the guards occasionally. I had attempted to play earlier in the fall of 1992, having played soccer while I was in college, and when placed up against Europeans who had been playing their entire lives, my feeble attempts to keep up made me seem and feel, slow.


That day, standing there watching the guards play, I stared. I remember one guard in particular, shirtless, their forward, darting back and forth on the field. His young muscular body glistened in the spring sunshine, sweat like beads of glass glistening on his skin. He was a photo perfect Swiss man, brown hair, hairless chest, bright beautiful eyes and in perfect shape. Standing there I could see lines of sweat running from the back of his neck down his spine, a river, and me, standing in my 23 year old skinny frame, could only stare and want to swim down that river.

In the college, leading out to the field, was the student forum where seminarians and priests would often exit to walk across the field to play sport, walk, enjoy the fantastic views (not only of Swiss guards but the Roman skyline just beyond our walls). So while I was standing there starring, it was not unusual for a seminarian to be there. I wasn't even thinking that my obvious pause on the field to watch the guard play would be noticed, but my mouth must have been hanging open, because another seminarian, Ricky*, from the southern states of the USA, came out of the forum and stood next to me.

He followed my sight line and a smile twitched at his lips, "Beautiful right." I was startled and immediately looked away, books clutched in my arms, my eyes vapid.

I glanced at him, Ricky, "Oh hey, I was just watching them play, I used to play in college."

He smirked at me, "Yeah right," he leaned down next to my ear and whispered words that I won't ever forget, "You're more beautiful than they are."

I remember the rush of adrenaline, the euphoria that washed over my nerves. Looking at Ricky in that moment I was utterly smitten. Here I stood on the field of a prestigious seminary, watching some of the most famous soldiers in the world run shirtless and magnificently across the grass in the height of youth, and another young man whispered to me that I was beautiful. He knew he had me, he knew that my inappropriate starring at the players made me vulnerable.

Now I had already been a seminarian studying to be a priest at this point for 5 years, so I wasn't new to being celibate. While being celibate wasn't a vow I had taken as a seminarian, that promise would come only after I was ordained in 1997, being celibate was a strict rule, and breaking that rule generally resulted in immediate expulsion from seminary, dismissal. In college, surrounded by 100 or so college age guys I had no problem with the physical aspect of celibacy, but I was never celibate in an intimate manner. Celibacy is required by the college for seminarians to not just to exclude the practice of carnal activity, but it was also taught and encouraged to help seminarians, young men who would be priests, not to develop special or exclusive relationships with each other. The lesson about exclusive, intimate friendships was taught both from the monastic tradition in which I first started in seminary, but also from a practical point of view in that once, if, these young men are ordained, having special or exclusive relationships was detrimental to the future priest and to the parish that priest would minister in.

In college I excelled at relationships. I am, or at least I was, amicable. I have a tremendous sense of humor, I laugh easily, I am carefree, I am silly. These qualities in a small college setting were a perfect blend of personality traits that helped me develop many friendships, but some of them were quite exclusive, they were intimate. One seminarian in college, Matt*, who was from Colorado and I bonded almost immediately. He was cute, funny, and we were close friends. We would read philosophy together, we took a couple of holidays together, we got drunk together. One evening we were out in the apple orchard at the seminary in Missouri, in the warm fall, and it began to rain. Our clothes, soaking wet clung to our bodies, and this storm in its fury had caused us to retreat to a small out building on the edge of the property. I remember standing next to Matt, shivering, his arm around me to keep me warm from the rain, and I was in love. We never did anything torrid, or inappropriate, other than having an exclusive friendship, but now with my wisdom of 20 years know that those feelings I had that poured over me like sun on the beach, were an indicator that I was not destined in life to not offer my life, my love exclusively to one person.

Celibacy is given to priests in the Roman tradition as an imitation of Christ, and the idea is that without exclusive relationships, both physical and emotional, a priest will be able to devote himself whole heartedly to his parish, to his mission which is to represent the person of Christ to the world. This sacrifice which is asked of priests (nuns, friars, monks and other religious too), is meant to help the priest feel closer to Christ, be more like him, for the general theological teaching is that Christ was a celibate man. Biblical scholars don't all agree with this, and we know for a fact that most of his disciples were not celibate, most of them having wives, but in its attempt to control property and power during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church made celibacy not just a rule, but an act that was akin to being like Christ, and thus celibacy became not just a sacrifice but a primary way that a priest would discover in himself a personal and deep relationship with Jesus.

This gift, celibacy, wasn't one I ever should have attempted to receive. I grew up extraordinarily solitary. As a child I had one best friend, my cousin Chester until I was a teenager, then in high school I had really only four friends, one of whom I was the most close to who was like my brother. I wasn't a sexually active man until that spring of 1993 in Rome, not long after standing on the field watching beautiful Swiss men play football, shirtless in the sun. But the sexual activity, while more scandalous, wasn't the first time I hadn't been celibate. Thinking back now, on an emotional level, I was never celibate. My relationship with the Christian tradition of Jesus Christ, was the same relationship I had emotionally with other heroic figures in my life. He represented on a cerebral level a person to emulate, but for me, he was never a person I could love. While I so desperately wanted him to be real, I was never able on any level other than intellectual curiosity develop a relationship with this Christ. I loved a few people in my life, and certainly in seminary, almost from day one, I had intimate, close personal relationships with several guys and even girls.

Following that day when I was standing on the field staring at the Pope's army playing, Ricky came to my room in the afternoon, not long after he stood next to me on the field, after he had whispered in my ear words my brain had longed to process - that I was the most handsome. In my small barren seminary room, hearing a knock at the door, I jumped up and let him in. I hadn't expected him to come to me, we had seen each other once or twice since the day I had stood on the field, and on those occasions when he saw me passing in the halls or in the refectory he would wink slyly. This afternoon, during the Roman siesta , Ricky came into my room. he closed the door softly behind him. I stepped back from him and he, matching my every backward step walked up against me, his eyes locked on mine. There, in the afternoon Roman sun, Ricky reached up, brushed my hair behind my ear, then grabbed the back of my head and rushed against my lips and kissed me.

Now stop, this isn't 50 Shades of Grey, no more intimate details; this is the story of my own struggle with being celibate. Let me just say, we had a torrid love affair. My own desire to be close to someone, not just emotionally, but physically, overwhelmed me. We made love that afternoon, and again that evening, and then many times after that. I was very lonely, scared and totally out of place in Rome. I did not have the "faith" to be studying in the heart of the Catholic Church at the Vatican. I did not have the experience or wisdom to know that I should not have continued my seminary education, but after allowing myself to be taken by Ricky sexually I should have known. I left Rome a few months after he and I began our affair. He was heart broken, but he was going to stay in Rome to finish his studies, I was going to finish mine back stateside. For a few months in the summer he would call me, send me letters, and try to get in touch, but I avoided him. I was successful then in returning to a celibate life, at least physically, that is until I was in my final years of study in Chicago.

After my affair with Ricky, I knew that I had violated fundamental practice for priests, and honestly, even with weak or no faith, I wanted to be a good priest, and I rededicated myself to my studies, the rule of the seminary, the practice of celibacy. For nearly two years I was successful, then in my second to last year, nearly two years after Ricky, I met another young seminarian, Chris*, and I was in trouble again in celibate practice.

Chris came from another region of the USA than I, he was a second career seminarian, so he was a few years older than I. He had worked in government prior to seminary, and he felt called to pursue a vocation to the priesthood. He was outgoing, life of a party, tall, good looking, and I was enamored of him. One evening, following a common meal he and I returned to the dormitory laughing, a little drunk, hanging on to each other, and just having a great time. Up till this point, I thought that Chris would just be my friend, I had no anterior motives, but once we passed the threshold of my room he slammed the door shut behind us and grabbing me he threw me against the wall for a long, intimate kiss. That rush, that euphoria again coursed over me - hit me like a brick and I knew that the celibacy train had derailed.

My affair with Chris lasted the entire year, we would sneak off together to make love, to kiss, to laugh. We would lay for hours on a couch in one of our rooms (excuse given to other seminarians was study break), holding each other. This time, unlike Ricky in Rome, I didn't just feel a physical connection to Chris, I was in love. I would have left my life as seminarian for him, I would have abandoned my career as a priest to spend the rest of my life with him, but he wasn't in a place in life where that could happen. Not only was this relationship forbidden by the church and we would have lost any chance to be ministers (obvious to me now 16 years later), but we would have both likely been shunned by family. Christ knew he wasn't called to be a priest, and he left the seminary after that year to return to his career in government, and because of what he did in government, he could not be an out gay man. Gay rights barely existed then, and his life that he would return to had no room for me, and my life, only a year from ordination to priesthood, had no room for a relationship either. I know now of course if I had a relationship with Chris it would never have worked, I was failing out of love with ministry, the church, the very idea of god, and Chris would have been swept into a current of my life that would have drown us both. It very nearly drowned me.

I was so struggling with not only my celibacy while in Rome, Chicago, even Missouri at the college, that at one point in the evening, before my affair with Ricky, standing on the 10th floor outdoor patio, I looked down the edge of the Pontifical College wall and though I should just throw myself. The height of the drop was great, my loneliness was just as tall. I wanted to escape the life I was entering into, but didn't know how. I was taught that being celibate, thus being alone, was a way to grow nearer the figure of Jesus, to be a better priest, to follow the example that priests had lived for years prior. I was afraid to leave seminary, and that night, looking down at the cobblestone lined driveway of the seminary I nearly thrust myself off the edge to smash my bones to the earth.

I didn't jump of course but being asked to be willing to live alone, to be lonely, it was too much. I am sure that there are men, woman who can be and are celibate, but in my journey to ministry, to priesthood, I encountered many men of faith who couldn't allow, wouldn't allow, themselves to be celibate. Certainly I wasn't, and those moments when I was alone, when I was celibate, I was a dry husk. While it is noble to believe that if I don't love an individual singularly, I can better love everyone. In my journey of life, as I have loved, and have been loved, I have learned to better love others around me. It wasn't by not loving that I learned to love; it wasn't by not kissing gentle lips, that I learned how to be intimate; it wasn't by being alone that I learned to be more giving. It was by love that I learned love. It was by heartbreak I learned how to better give myself. It was by intimacy I better learned how to be compassionate. Celibacy took from me my own nature. It wasn't natural for me, and once I left the priesthood (which I didn't leave solely because of celibacy), I realized I would never be happy confined by loneliness. Of course the fallacy I discovered in Christian celibacy is that a person in their celibacy will have an exclusive relationship to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary. I didn't believe in God, Jesus or the Virgin Mary. I could no more have a relationship with these central figures of Christianity than I could with Harvey the Rabbit.

There were other affairs, but that first one, that first kiss, that first clumsy love making, sitting on a hill on top of St. Peter's, with Swiss Guards running on a field below me, that affair is the one I remember so deeply.

* The names of those referenced here have been changed to respect their privacy.  I have more stories of struggles with celibacy to share, and will do so soon.
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