My celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love

On Valentine’s Day and every day, my celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.

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Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration Sarah Hennessey, Julia Walsh and Eileen McKenzie sharing the love of community (image courtesy of Sarah Hennessey, FSPA).

What does it mean to live consecrated celibacy on Valentine’s Day? In a world obsessed with relationships and sexuality, what does it mean to give that part of myself to Christ?

I have been living religious life for 16 years now, and my walk with celibacy has changed. When I was first discerning vows I met a wise, older sister who told me that I would struggle with each of the vows of poverty, obedience and consecrated celibacy in their own time. So far, she has been right. Just when I thought I was totally comfortable in these vows, life changed and caused me to look at them in a new light. I made vows for a lifetime, but live them out day by day. Every day I choose to be a religious sister. Every day I choose to be celibate.

For me, celibacy is about relationship: my relationship with Christ and consequently the shaping of my relationship with everyone else in my life. I love fiercely. I am madly in love with Christ, but I also love my sisters in community, my friends and my family like crazy. And yes, sometimes I am attracted to someone. Sometimes I find myself riding that wave of emotion on the inside and choosing appropriate boundaries on the outside. Like anyone already in a committed relationship, I can balance between choosing constancy to my commitment while honoring my own feelings. For me, celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.

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Many FSPA, including Sisters Sarah and Julia, celebrate community at a Post-Vatican II gathering. (image courtesy of Sister Katie Mitchell)

Surprisingly, central to my love for Christ is love for myself. For many years, as I struggled with depression, I also doubted my own self-worth. Self-hatred kept me in bondage. Slowly my friends and family loved me into life, and one day it all shifted. I stopped hating myself and began the process of learning to love myself. This has probably been the greatest shift of my life and a surprising challenge to my celibacy. Suddenly, the whole world was filled with emotion. I never knew that I could love so much. My feelings were new and raw. My love for God suddenly meant more than it ever had before. The change was so strong that I began to ask myself if I truly wanted to be celibate.  

Why am I celibate today, as I am, with my whole and beautiful self? I turn to seek the wisdom of those who have gone before me. I opened a journal I kept when I was first discerning vows and found some quotes.

Many if not most persons who are drawn to a celibate life are not celibate because they made a vow of celibacy. Rather, they are drawn to vow celibacy because of a strong internal sense of prior claim. They sense that celibacy is a given of their being … The reason for celibacy may always remain difficult to explain … But for them, the claim of God on their lives is such that to give their whole embodied selves in sexual union with another person would be a denial of their own inner authenticity and integrity.” – Elaine Prevallet, SL

I feel a prior claim. Though it is not always easy, I like celibacy. I like how it organizes my life around love without one primary relationship. I like the sense of authenticity and integrity it gives me. I think my vows in religious life help me to be more “Sarah.” I am most fully myself as I live this life. For me, this life is all about relationship. The words of Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, speak to my heart.

Sometimes people ask religious how they persevere in a state of life within a church whose institutional corruption is so clear to them, and in which they may even be the objects of unjust persecution. Whatever answer they give, often the real reason is religious life is not, for them, a commitment to an institution, but a relationship with Christ that, in the final analysis, no authority can touch.” – Sandra Schneiders, “Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life”

I love the church and the people of God, but when people wonder how I can stay in a church that often is so flawed, this is my reason. I am in love with Christ and Christ’s people, with my whole self today. This is a choice, one that I live every day. Even on Valentine’s Day.

As Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote in the 1200s,

“Lord, you are my lover,

My longing,

My flowing stream,

My sun,

And I am your reflection.”

Amen.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sister Sarah Hennessey is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

Celibate Living in a Sex-Obsessed Society

Driving home from another ministry excursion, I pass billboard after billboard saying there are sex shops nearby. With each sighting, my stomach turns with sickness, my face falls into a frown. I am tempted to ignore the anguish, to shield my thoughts, to avoid that which feels judgmental and ugly within me.

Instead, I take a deep breath and offer a prayer for healing and conversion: may all people revere every other human as sacred and holy. I wonder, though, what else does Christ need me to do with the frequent reminder that our culture has an unhealthy obsession with sex?

My haunted mind wanders as I continue to drive toward home. I remember when I was first introduced to what sex was made to be about, while huddled into a tiny rectory living room with other college students. Crowded together, a bunch of us awkwardly stared into…

[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for The MudroomContinue reading here.]

in a body, God glorified

Last weekend I went to a retreat with other Catholic sisters younger than 40.  I met a sister who ministers as a hospital chaplain in St. Petersburg, Florida.  In addition to providing presence to all the suffering and miracles in the hospital, she listens to the prostitutes who come in for care.  Apparently, pimps buy McDonald’s value meals for poor women as a way to lure them into prostitution.  When the women work for the men the name of their pimp is tattooed near their private area.  I had tears in my eyes as I listened to the other young sister dream about a ministry of tattoo removal and spiritual and mental healing for the women who desire to leave prostitution.

The two things that I despise most about our human sinfulness are the sins of the sex and military industries.  Violence and destruction destroy experiences of holiness and dignity.  We take the gift of our God-given creative power and misuse it in attempts to prove ourselves.  We misuse our bodies while we live lies.

Really, though, we can give God great glory with our bodies and our lives.  Alternatives are abundant.  Although we are small and powerless, we can unite with Christ to do great things in Love.  In chastity and service humanity is healed.

Brothers and sisters:
The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord,
and the Lord is for the body;
God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?
But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him.
Avoid immorality.
Every other sin a person commits is outside the body,
but the immoral person sins against his own body.
Do you not know that your body
is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,
whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?
For you have been purchased at a price.
Therefore glorify God in your body.  1 Cor. 6:13-15, 17-20

When I was a kid I was just as confused as everyone seems to be about what is right and wrong.  I was persuaded by our dualistic society and its messages.  Older Christians showed me that the New Testament taught me that we should live according to the spirit and not the sinful flesh.  Did that mean my body was not good?

Soon, my students and I will study sexual ethics.  I’ll emphasize that our bodies are really good and sex is very holy.  We’ll  examine how sexual desires can become destructive and dangerous when they’re not controlled: when we fail to use our bodies to glorify God.  Rooted in Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body and I’ll use this book and this website.  The holy power of our sexuality is alive in everyone’s bodies.  As we seek union, we are capable of creating new life.  As we love chastely, we can truly give God glory through our bodies.

Our bodies are holy and alive with the spirit of God’s goodness, which is why they are built for the morality of the reign of God.  We are children of God. We are free.  As we give God our powerlessness,  God converts us into temples of blessing.  When we say “yes” to God’s love our bodies are made powerful for humble service.  As we serve, we build God’s reign of healing and justice now.  God is glorified.

The problem is that not everyone gets this.  Sins explode and people are seriously misused because of our desire to be powerful and great.  Martin Luther King, Jr. calls this the drum major’s instinct:

And the other thing is that it causes one to engage ultimately in activities that are merely used to get attention. Criminologists tell us that some people are driven to crime because of this drum major instinct. They don’t feel that they are getting enough attention through the normal channels of social behavior, and so they turn to anti-social behavior in order to get attention, in order to feel important. And so they get that gun, and before they know it they robbed a bank in a quest for recognition, in a quest for importance. . .  Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. . . You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.  And you can be that servant.  -The Drum Major’s Instinct By Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We can be the servants, who with Christ, show the world alternative ways to live. As we serve, God heals, loves, redeems.  As we place our powerlessness in the hands of God’s we are set free to be temples of God’s goodness.  In our bodies God is glorified.  We unite together in great love and become God’s colorful, healing, chaste body of Christ- the true living God.

"Christ" painting by Julia Walsh, FSPA