Writing always begins with the blank page, blankness in the mind. We sit awhile in contemplation, an attentive waiting, looking for the genesis of words, the scattered seeds of language, a spark to kindle inspiration or a touch of grace, the gift of insight. And today, waiting for something to come, when at last it does I am being lured away from the proposed Inspiration-Letters theme of 'time', veering off course and thinking instead about the value of celibacy. Well, let me follow these thoughts and see where they will take me...
In a society where the idolatry of romantic relationships has become obsessive and unchallenged, the choice of celibacy is widely perceived as a strange and bemusing one. Usually associated with cloistered religious communities – Benedictine monks, convents of pale, otherworldly women renunciates, Indian ascetics, archaic Christian orders – celibacy is a mystery to a culture that has never really questioned it's own idealisation of physical love, soul mates, partnering, marriage and remarriage. Celibacy brings these notions skidding to a halt, challenges our Western promiscuity, irritates even feminists who see it either as male misogyny or a denial by women of the capacity to love. It undermines our traditional notions of happiness and puzzles mainstream society through it's extreme disregard for what is considered normal.
True celibacy though is not a negative state of repression, deprivation or incompleteness, nor is it a contraction of love. It is instead a state of great potential where the soul can make room for God. It allows the development of a deep sense of self grounded in a relationship with one’s chosen divinity, Christ, the Buddha, Sri Krishna, one's guru or some personal sense of Deity. It is a singleness of heart, an ability to stay centered, an inner marriage to one's ideal. Celibacy in discipleship is the outer expression of a commitment to God, a singleness of purpose.
For most of us, celibacy may bring an intensification of the human loneliness that we all know. But we also know that loneliness is never finally assuaged by others, for human relationships are a shadow of the soul’s deeper quest for yoga, union with God, and only this final union can satisfy us. "It is the union with God that is the original," writes M. Marnau in Revelations of Divine Love, "and the human union that is the imitation..."
In our choice of aloneness we create space for our guru or God. And as this inner union comes to life, becomes more real to us, we expand our capacity to love. We come to understand too our karmic responsibility to not disturb the spiritual quest of others; we slowly come to a love that is desireless and free of need or expectation; we sublimate our desires in the recognition that what is most beautiful in others is only the God that we seek within ourselves.
Marriage and partnerships are another valid way to also achieve these goals, merely different paths to the same destination. My own guru, Sri Chinmoy, helped me to understand the spiritual dimension in my own marriage, its twenty years and endlessly recurring chances to widen and deepen love, practise a fledgling selflessness in the front lines of often fiery dispute, work at reconciliation and a deep caring. To wear down the ego in otherness, weep at another's tears, despise and pray to be rid of one's own unkindness.
Celibacy too has much to offer us. I value my growing capacity for genderless friendships that recognise and honour the sacredness of the spiritual lives of others, requiring a renunciation of self-interest, reminding me as Sri Chinmoy reminded us all to always see God in everyone around us. Not a repression of love but an expansion of love and it's redirection to a higher level of existence. Celibacy deepens our talent for relationships, that we can love without desire, listen with genuine caring, serve without need of gain, shift love upward from eros to caritas and agape, the divine love of the great masters and servers. Sri Chinmoy calls this ‘purity’.
Celibacy is a rejection of the pervasive, consumerist model of relationships. It allows an accommodation of all others in our heart, allows us to relate to people as human beings and to give up the pursuit of others as possessions. In celibate love we are more available to others, learning to listen more deeply and without possessiveness or need. Those who embody a celibate’s consciousness, one that is inwardly assured and grounded, are often gracious and pleasing and empathetic, making us feel appreciated and valued for what we are. They recognise and respect the boundaries of propinquity, safeguard themselves and protect others from themselves, placing relationships into a spiritual context that dignifies and brings out the best in us.
Celibate love lights up the heart. It sublimates vital energies into sympathy, tenderness or deep concern, and after such encounters we always feel better about ourselves and the world, uplifted and somehow touched by a mysterious and novel kind of love. It's goal is not some otherworldly holiness but that hard won, great detachment that a renunciate's path finally brings – and God love, freedom from desire, an equanimity enduring through all the struggles of life, the unfettered love that at last sees only God in everything.
Human interaction is the schoolroom, the great practicing ground of celibacy; we fall in love easily, and perhaps the experience of love is the only real teacher of love. Or in the words of one Benedictine monk – "To fall in love is celibacy at work". A disciple's celibacy might at first seem a constraint, but then becomes part of a long process of personal conversion, providing the conditions and challenges in which one’s inner development can best flourish. In a lifetime of sometimes loneliness, the struggle to transform our inner longings can be painful and wrenching, but we cry harder than ever to God, pray with real tears for release and consolation. I often feel that God shields me from all the things I am most vulnerable to – since I lack the strength to cope, He simply takes them out of my way.
Celibacy means taking all our feelings and emotions and putting them where God wants them to go. It stretches and transforms our notions and abilities in love, teaches us to love non-exclusively – it's fruit is a widening hospitality of the heart. Celibacy, writes the Benedictine monk, means "not focusing on 'what I gave up' but on what being freed by what I gave up has allowed me to do in terms of my service to others..." And the goal of all love, which celibacy helps us to realise, is union with and service to God.
Marriage or relationships and celibacy are not polar opposites – there are many married celibates who have achieved restraint, purity and the sublimation of physical desires, and unmarried celibates tormented by the clamourings and impulses of mind and body, the 'wild orchestra of the hormones'. For the latter, a commitment to celibacy is the beginning of a process of rapid change, of self scrutiny, the advent of grace which effort brings, intense plea and prayer, disentanglement, the karma yogi's path of daily mindfulness, bringing pain into context and consciousness – 'celibacy at work'.
Seeing too the ability to love and to need love as also a gift from God, but slowly learning to transform this love into a celibate context, converting all relationships into one’s primary relationship with God. Understanding that falling in love is also a part of seeking God – thus having patience and renunciation, fidelity to the path, the guru.
All this effort for spiritual progress is of course hard work, the alchemy where base ignorance begets a shining liberation, but then our struggle is a microcosm of the cosmic game itself and we cannot make progress in a vacuum. Sri Chinmoy's writings speak to our daily trials with reassurance and humane advice, and remind that our efforts will in the future 'be most surprisingly rewarded'.
Fifteen hundred years ago St. Bernard asked of God wonderingly... "What are we, that You make Yourself known to us?” Today's masters tell us that we are all forgetful Gods ourselves, remembering and finding our way back home again, each of us treading our own path, playing our own leading role, all the way back through the needles eye.