Kathleen Norris on how people who give up sex can exudea sense of freedom and teach something about friendshipby Kathleen Norris / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The Christian Century
20th March 1996
Celibacy is a curiously political subject. Conservative catholics often regard it as an idealised, angelic state, while feminist theologians, such as Uta Ranke-Heinemann, view it as synonymous with hatred of women. Practised properly, celibacy is not about hatred of sex; but it may help us address the sexual idolatry of our culture.
For the past ten years I have been affiliated with the Benedictines as an oblate. This has allowed me to observe celibacy that works, practised by people who are fully aware of themselves as sexual beings, but who express their sexuality in a celibate way. That is, they sublimate their sexual energies toward another purpose than sexual intercourse and procreation. Are their lives stunted? I doubt it. I’ve seen too many wise old monks and nuns whose celibate practice has allowed them to incarnate hospitality in the deepest sense. In them, the constraints of celibacy have somehow been transformed into an openness. They exude a sense of freedom.
The younger celibates are more edgy. Still contending with what one friend calls “the raging orchestra of my hormones,” they are more obviously struggling to contain their desire for intimacy and physical touch within the bounds of celibacy. Often they find their loneliness intensified by the incomprehension of others.
Americans are tone deaf when it comes to the expression of sexuality. The jiggle of tits and ass, penis and pectorals assaults us everywhere-billboards, magazines, television, movies. But celibate people have taught me something both about the nature of friendship and what it means to be married. Like many people who came into adulthood during the sexually permissive 1960s, I’ve tended to equate sublimation with repression. But my celibate friends have made me see the light; accepting sublimation as a normal part of adulthood makes me more realistic about human sexual capacities and expression. It has increased my respect for the bonds and boundaries of marriage.
Any marriage has times of separation, ill health, or just plain crankiness in which sexual intercourse is ill-advised. And it is precisely the skills of celibate friendship-fostering intimacy through letters, conversation, performing mundane tasks together (thus rendering them pleasurable), savouring the holy simplicity of a shared meal or a walk together at dusk-that help a marriage survive the rough spots. When you cannot make love physically, you figure out other ways to do it.
Monastic people are celibate…