Thursday, November 23, 2006

Celibacy and Sexuality

Can celibacy be an expression of sexuality rather than a repression of it?
I look at the passionate creativity of many of the amazing women mystics throughout history who also to happened to be celibate nuns, as well as at the courageous and vibrant ministries of many single people today, and my gut tells me that they are women who successfully channel their sexual energy into life energy for ministry and creative endeavors of the spirit and in the world, instead of repressing it. What do you think?

25 comments:

Psalmist said...

(smiling at the "gotcha")

I have a theory about the celibate's "sexual energy." I've been having a somewhat heated exchange on a subscription-only venue with a sister in Christ who believes that contemplative spirituality is incompatible with biblical Christianity. I think, well...I think her opinion is misinformed at best. She supports a ministry that smears anything and everything that even hints that mysticism and contemplative prayer are heresies that must be "exposed" and eliminated--or at least boycotted--by Christians.

Part of the problem with this is that I think it's another way that we single, celibate Christians are marginalized, because a higher percentage of celibates than Christians in general experience the presence of God mystically. This is just a theory; I could be wrong. But I don't think it's any coincidence that the vast majority of mystics and contemplatives whose writings have been published were/are Christian religious (nuns/monks/priests) or Protestant writers. I think there's an element of that sexual energy focused on serving God. For the enclosed religious especially, there was significant time spent in prayer, and significant time for writing about those prayer experiences. Some non-religious, including some Protestants, were hymnists and poets.

I'm also not surprised that the vast majority of people who believe as my online friend does, are married and (presumably) sexually active, and most decidedly not gifted in the area of mystic experience of God. I don't think that mystics are superior to non-mystics or that contemplative prayer is superior to any other form of communication with God. However, I do think that people predisposed to distrust these kinds of approaches to spirituality AND who have a regular, honorable "outlet" for their sexual energy, are going to have little notion of what it means to turn the gift of that energy over to God and ride the winds of the Holy Spirit. It CAN be quite the wild ride! How many of the historic mystics were considered insane, and how many more suffered delicate health? I daresay John of Patmos would be run out of my friend's church on on rail if he lived today and dared to tell THEM his Revelation! Likewise Mary of Nazareth, Joseph of Nazareth, Peter and Paul the Apostles, and even the Lord Jesus himself following his wilderness trial. And if I'm not mistaken, with the possible exception of Peter, none was sexually active at the time of their visions/experiences (and Peter was definitely at least temporarily away from his wife at the time).

Or I could just be full of Thanksgiving dinner and be totally off the wall about this. But it makes sense to me.

Jemila Monroe said...

Psalmist, grinning back at you :)

This was a great post. I think that is very sad that your experience has been of single, celibate Christians being marginalized on account of having a greater tendency toward perceiving God through mystical experience. Wouldn't the community of God-lovers welcome a taste of that vicariously? Or to be inspired to integrate the insights that come from people who are called to direct their passionate energy in non-physical expressions of God-seeking and loving? Sometimes I think it's surprising and odd the kinds of things are that are commonly perceived as threatening.

Psalmist said...

Eeah...I am kind of used to it; I do live in the Bible Belt, after all. (wry grin)

See, there's a tendency among Christians, and not entirely among young ones, to expect everyone to experience God exactly as they have, with no other ways being acceptable. It's kind of like a Body full of nothing but the judgmental part of the brain (as opposed to only pinky toes, or only livers, or only kneecaps...you get the picture). They simply cannot fathom how anyone could be Christian and be able to hear from God any way except through the (topical-flip-through-the-Bible) preached word and/or BSF Bible study. Mind, neither of those methods are bad in any way. But you have no idea how many people distrust intuitive learners, mystics, artists, poets, visionaries...in short, anyone different from themselves and their experience of God.

My dear friend Singing Owl tells a sad story about a radio station in her town being pressured (successfully) to stop broadcasting a mainstream Protestant service of worship because of the theme music they included at the opening of the broadcast each week; they said it was "New Age." I could hardly believe it when she said it was the VERY old, time-honored (and IMO, delightful) hymn, "All Creatures of Our God and King."

Yep, ol' Francis and Clare would have been dead meat in some folks' churches for daring to consider themselves the brother and sister of their fellow creatures the earth and the sun and the moon, inviting those fellow creatures to praise God with them. I daresay too many Christians forget that Jesus said the stones themselves would have a fine time shouting praise if human beings kept silent. Francis' exuberant love for God and for God's good creation was merely his own creative expression of that truth.

Did he compose that ancient hymn because of his unspent sexual energy? Who knows? I only know that, having experienced sexual love and now living celibate, spending myself creatively sometimes can feel somewhat similar to spending myself sexually (as I remember it, anyway). As a fellow long-time celibate friend puts it, "Girl, we're getting to the age where 'all that' is just a childhood memory."

Meanwhile, I pray that my fellow Christian brothers and sisters will grow past this kind of distrust of their creative siblings, both the married and the single. It's not so much about whether we're celibate or "celebrating," as it is about letting eyes be eyes, and ears be ears, and not confusing or suspecting the two.

Nancy said...

I guess I can't buy the correlation of celibate/contemplative but I can see where you might wonder if there was a relationship between the two. All I can offer is my own experience, which is that I was DRAWN into a contemplative spiritual practice pretty much on my own and find it is my "style" as it were, of approaching God. And I am married and active sexually. I have felt akin with the mystics for several years now and it wasn't until I read Brennan Manning that I began to feel comfortable thinking of myself as one...and by his definition, if you are having experiences with God, then you are a mystic.

I think the schism you refer to has more to do with modern Evangelical thought, which seems to value academic study as THE approach to God over mystical experience. I myself have been downgraded for leaning too heavily on "emotional" (contemplative, meditative, experiential)experience versus "intellectual" by some of my Evangelical community. Contemplatives are clearly rooted in the early church and they seemed to lose favor as the shift to modern thinking (very intellectually biased) became entrenched in our faith. Now, with the emerging conversation and shifting paradigm to post-modernism (which seems to me a better balance between the two), there seems to be a return to an appreciation of meditation and contemplative prayer and other ancient spiritual practices. I would venture to guess that there would be many Catholic voices introjecting at this point here to say that contemplative prayer and mysticism have been vibrant in their communities all along...I wouldn't know as I was not raised in the Catholic church. But I certainly have found heaps of valuable direction from those of that faith.

So, these are just my own thoughts based on my own experiences. I have not found my active sexual life to be a drain at all on my mystical experiences. Although I would agree that it does require some intentionality in order to create the space and time for such practices. Great topic!
My experience was that I felt I do understand your point about energy but I think that even more so we could identify TIME as an issue. The cloistered life is one I sometimes long for...oh, how it would be incredible to have long periods of uninterrupted time in intense focus on God! But there is also the spiritual practice of experiencing God in the ordinary stuff of our everyday. And because I am not a religious by vocation, I have to try and make room for it all...the mystical in the ordinary as well as the "extra-ordinary" and I have not found that my sexual energy and activity has detracted at all from the process, in fact if anything, it has in many ways aided it.

Psalmist said...

Nancy, I didn't mean that all mystics were/are celibate singles--far from it! However, I think that among mystics, the number of celibates is disproportionately high. The time factor you mention could be one reason why, even for celibates who are in the world. What time we might otherwise spend with a spouse, we have the option to spend intentionally with God. One example in my own life is that I might be up till all hours writing, or composing, or simply thinking/listening/"idea-ing." I suspect that at least part of that time would be spent on, ah, other activities were I married. ;)

I agree at least to a point about the evangelical bias toward intellectual experience of God and away from other types. However, there's even a backlash of anti-intellectualism among evangelicals now that STILL doesn't make room for mystics and contemplatives. In other words, there are factions in which a lack of education and a corresponding idolization of surface-level biblical interpretation are the measure by which others' faith will be judge. Again, this may be more common here in the Bible Belt than elsewhere. But woe betide the well-educated mystic down here, particularly the single, childless woman (who on all four counts is giving lie to the "ideal" that God intends all women to forego higher education in order to marry young, have many children, and follow her husband's spiritual lead in all things).

Yes, I have observed that mysticism and contemplative techniques have never gone "out of fashion" in Catholic Christianity. We Protestants as a whole still do not appreciate this tradition as we should, nor do most of us know much about it.

It wouldn't surprise me to hear that "energy" is much like love: the more need there is for it, the more one has. It's simply going to be different for those of us who do NOT release our sexual energy through sexual activity. For me, it sometimes manifests in bursts of creative work, other times in intense prayer and contemplative silence. Occasionally, a vision breaks through, especially if I'm struggling spiritually with someone or something that confounds my efforts to understand. I'm learning more and more to trust this means of turning abstinence over to God. I wouldn't presume to say that non-celibate people don't have the same experiences. I simply don't have the same outlets for the underlying energy that they do.

Nancy said...

Psalmist: I'd love to hear more about your composing and writing. What types of things are you giving your creative energy to?

I would also be interested to hear you expound some on the "surface level biblical interp" line of thinking. I'm not sure I was grasping what you had to say although I understood it, certainly, as a source of pain for you.

I get to feeling kind of grieved by this all. I was reading in the past few weeks the thoughts of a Jesuit who lived in the 1700's, Jean-Pierre De Caussade who summarized it like this: "God's order, his pleasure, his will, his action and grace; all these are one and the same. The purpose on earth of his divine power is perfection. It is formed, grows, and is ACCOMPLISHED SECRETLY in souls without their knowledge." He goes on to say how our understanding or speculations about God's will does not sanctify, it is God's order and will that does. So, it would seem to me, all our striving for knowledge and connection does not achieve the most important thing, in the end. However, I do believe that the contemplative spiritual disciplines may help us create room for God's efforts...makes us co-creators, as it were.

Jemila Monroe said...

I too feel drawn to the mystical traditions as a sexually active woman, and see both abstinence and sexual expression as potential spiritual practices. Celibates and Sexually Actives have much in common and much to learn from one another, I suspect. The spiritual practices of mystical SAs and those of Cs could mutually enrich and inform one another, I believe.

I think too often, celibate sexuality/spirituality is ignored, and married sexual activity is boxed/hijacked into "pleasing your husband," mostly in a context of both secular and christian external pressures, rather than an embracing, holistic sexuality that is truly about acceptance, love, play and giving praise to our Creator. Someone once said, 'acting sexy is always...an act. Being sexual is authentic.'

Psalmist said...

Nancy, most recently my creative efforts (musical composition and hymnody) have been in response to needs within my faith community. The results have been an anthem text (collaboration with another composer), two hymn texts when existing texts did not meet our needs, three contemporary worship songs (still in progress), and a children's musical (text and music)for a specific Bible story. A couple of years back I also wrote a children's story based on the Nativity.

What I meant about "surface level interpretations" is the tendency to accept and teach as fact those interpretations we have been taught, without doing the study necessary to determine the validity of the interpretation. Tenets such as "God designed women to be subordinate to men," the various "flavors" of millenialism, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, pastors have to be men, the "eternal" subordination of the Son, all get used as yardsticks for judging others' faith, even though those doing the judging often don't know what's behind these received beliefs. All they can do is proof-text them, again because that's what they've been taught. In fact, I get very discouraged at the misuse of Scripture through prooftexting in general. The Bible is not intended to be the prop for our pet beliefs, yet that's what it gets used for, quite often.

Interesting quote by de Caussade. I like how you see the place of contemplation: making room for God. Any good explanation of contemplative practice will caution that we cannot make anything happen. We can only make ourselves available for whatever God intends to accomplish in and through us. It's been my observation that clubbing other Christians with our requirements for them, as I detailed above, denies God some kinds of actions in human lives. "God never does XYZ" (such as calls women to be pastors, permits divorce in any circumstances, saves anyone in a way I disagree with, speaks except through topical preaching or reading the Bible, etc.) is IMO a very self-centered distortion of God and it does significant damage to the body of Christ.

Psalmist said...

Jemila, you've got me smiling again, and probably in a way you didn't intend. As a vocal egalitarian, I hear a lot from people who disagree with me about how egalitarians "deny their God-given gender roles." Sorry, I don't buy that at all. They can't seem to agree on where those roles are spelled out for us in Scripture, and they are all over the map about how these nebulous "roles" are to manifest themselves in family, church, and society. I think they're all an act--that's what roles are, after all.

So what I find funny is your statement that being sexy is an act, while being sexual is authentic. Given several rather memorable admonitions lately for Christian women to be sexy for their husbands, maybe it's no wonder some of the gender hierarchalists want women to conform to their preferred "gender roles." Yeah, buddy!

Whereas, a genuinely sexual woman could well be seen as a threat to those men who wrongly believe that it's their masculinity that makes their wives sexual. Sorry, guys, GOD made your wives--and all women--sexual. Rather a basic fact of life, ISTM. ;)

Nancy said...

Psalmist: How wonderful! Do you play piano, guitar...? My husband is a musician and I have to admit to much envy of you folks who can compose and perform on instruments. I sing and used to be a worship leader in my old faith community. I miss the collaboration and outlet.

I better understand what you mean now regarding surface level interpretation of scripture and would have to agree that it is potentially disastrous as you have described. Personally, I have found scripture to truly be "living and active" and limiting a verse to one interpretation is to miss the richness and ignore how God might use scripture to touch us in a particular moment in time. I wish I could say that I have the background to approach scripture as a "scholar", knowing what books to use to get richer context or a broader understanding of the Greek root word in a verse. I have largely been dependent on others for bringing the text to life. However, I'm growing in a desire to know how to better do this when I come across something I want to dig deper into. Suggestions would be powerfully appreciated.

Which reminds me...I've been meaning to ask this group for a recommendation for reading/study of church history. Any suggestions?

Psalmist said...

Hi, Nancy. No, though my degree is in church music and I've had to study piano and organ, I truly cannot play, either, not even marginally. I've also tried to learn guitar more informally, to no success. I have played string and wind instruments, though, and still play violin and recorder on occasion. My current expertise is primarily singing and choral conducting. I, too, have great respect for people who play keyboard instruments and guitar. I know what it's like to have the desire, but for the brain and hands to have an odd kind of disconnect that makes me unable to play what I can read and even hear in my mind.

I was fortunate in seminary to have a quite readable church history text, THE STORY OF CHRISTIANITY, by Justo Gonzalez. I still find it a helpful reference. It's a two-volume set. It was published in 1984, so it's a little dated. It appears to have been superseded by Gonzalez' one-volume work by the same title, published in 1994:

http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/product?item_no=35221&netp_id=176469&event=CFN&item_code=WW

I'm at the lexicon stage in Hebrew (that is, I know the alphabet and language basics well enough to be able to look up words in the lexicon), and trying to get to that point with Greek. (I recommend Hebrew Tutor and Greek Tutor, by the way--CD-based self-study you can use on your computer.) But another good way to get a wider perspective on the range of possible meanings is to study from numerous Bibles. Those who advocate using one Bible only are often trying to "protect" traditional interpretations. Despite what people have said about translations such as the TNIV and the NRSV, there are no "PC Bibles" out there. I do try to steer clear of one-translator Bibles and paraphrased Bibles, however, even though they can be fascinating and I do own a few (Fox's Pentateuch--Genesis-Deuteronomy is a one-translator project and Peterson's "The Message" is a paraphrase). IOW, I don't do serious study with those kinds of Bibles. It's not economically feasible for most people to build a library of trusted commentaries, though if you have access to a seminary library, those can be very useful AFTER you've done initial word study. And finally, online resources that give the Greek and Hebrew words can be helpful, though a printed lexicon often gives a more thorough treatment of the word(s) being considered.

Anyway, those are some ideas I'd commend to you about church history and digging deeper into Bible study.

Psalmist said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Psalmist said...

Try that again!

The URL for the Gonzalez book is long, and Blogger wouldn't let me create a link for it. Be sure to select all the characters to the right of what actually appears, if you're interested in checking it out at CBD.

Nancy said...

Psalmist: Thanks so much for the recommendations. It is humbling to think of what can go into the study of scripture but also exciting to consider what can be made more alive in the text by such a process.

It is affirming to be made aware of how much scholarship is behind the EC movement. As you noted earlier, there are folks that are suspicious of anything outside of traditioal evangelical Christianity and assume that those who are inetrested are undiscerning and/or unknowledgable. There is so much to learn from the various perspectives, why can't there be more collaboration and openness? It really is sad.

Jemila Monroe said...

I hear you guys on the aching need for more real theological conversation in an open spirit of love. I'm hoping that will evolve from the book club.

Psalmist, yes I agree, an authentic sexual woman is far more incredible and threatening than a sexy-looking/acting woman.

Nancy, I also read the Gonzalez set for a Christian History class and found them pretty readable. I just wish I were better at remembering the stuff I read at a more detailed level than, "that was really interesting and I remember this concept or something about that..."

My brain appears to be half philosopher, half ditz ;)

Jemila Monroe said...

I would be really interested in hearing you guys foster a contemplative prayer life. Are there resources or rituals/rhythms you've found especially useful?

Nancy said...

Jemila: For me, it never looks the same. I have used the Lectio Divina. I have just sat and meditated on one thought about God for 30-40 minutes. I have sketched in meditative prayer, asking a specific question and drawing out the answer that came to me. I have simply sat in adoration for a time, just asking God to direct the time as God wishes. One time is never like another as far as what happens, either. I might end up moving long around, I may sit entirely still. I might be visited with strong images, I might just have to trust that I connected with God. I have struggled to stay awake. I have wanted to keep going all day! I might end up weeping or smiling like a lunatic.

I have more recently begun to meet with a spiritual director who has been helping me with more direction the contemplative disciplines. In addition to the 30-minute times devoted to contemplative prayer, she has suggested brief daily "reviews", considering the events of the day and looking for how God showed up in it and for any follow up from God regarding the things that potentially emerged from those contemplative prayer times. For some reason, I have been struggling to get into any sort of routine with this. Like Psalmist and I have been discussing, some of that has to do with limited time and other distractions and involvements. In other ways, it has felt very much like some sort of "block". It has been interesting.

If you want some inspiration in this regard, I suggest looking into a book like "Devotional Classics" by Richard Foster or of you have not tried it yet, check out the Lectio Divina. Essentially and very briefly, it is an ancient practice of meditative and prayerful reading of scripture. You can journal along with your reading and meditating, letting the Holy Spirit bring whatever words or phrases in the verses you have chosen to come alive to you. I learned it at the Arts Conference at Willow Creek a few years ago and have really enjoyed this practice.

Jemila Monroe said...

Thanks Nancy! I have really been wanting to start a more disciplined spiritual practice, but it's been a while since I've been part of a community that values that and I find it's difficult to get the habit to stick embarking alone -- esp as a mom of younglings :) Any suggestions?

Psalmist said...

I'm rather embarrassed to admit that I'm pretty undisciplined in my approach. I'm also seasonal, in that I'm almost "bi-polar" in my spiritual life. I go from one mountain-top and comparative valley to the next, getting much-needed "fertilizer" in the valleys but the vision and hope to keep on truckin'. Oddly enough, I've had two (informal) spiritual directors who concurred that I should embrace the yo-yoing rather than fight it.

That said, I do try to find time at some point each day for serious reading, though I don't always succeed. Often, though, before I get to the reading thing (I think it qualifies as lectio divina), in a "high" phase, God blindsides me with creative inspiration of some sort. As in, this evening, after church responsibilities were over and I was organizing the coming month's rehearsals, I realized I really needed a more informal tune for "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" for our informal service. And BOOM! I was scrambling for manuscript paper so I could get the melody and chords written down before what had flitted into my head, flitted right back out again. And I mean in fifteen minutes, I went from "I could really use a tune" to it being duly written down, ready to be re-copied for our ensemble to rehearse later in the week. Exhilarating, but exhausting as well. So I still haven't read today, and may not.

The other thing I try very hard to do is quiet down so that I have at least half and hour to meditate. I haven't found any Eastern techniques that work especially well for me; I simply focus on each "area" of my body, from head downward, and consciously relax them, slowing breathing and silently inviting God to take full charge of me. Sometimes it's total silence, sometimes it's insights on what I've read recently, occasionally it's a vision (rarely anything "woo-hoo, was that God or the enchiladas" kind of wild), and sometimes it's void--a darkness, a "trust me" promise from God and I emerge shaken and almost frightened. It's at those times that I find I've gained a heightened empathy for people going through specific kinds of struggles (such as, FGM victims, a pair of recently diagnosed cancer patients, a local doctor whose physician wife died in childbirth). In other words, the struggles of people on my prayer list become very real to me. Those times really exhaust me, but it's a good exhaustion. It's how I used to feel when I'd spent time with a bereaved family or when conducting funeral services. Not "good," but absolutely holy, important work.

I don't do very well at journaling. Initially I thought a blog would help, but it hasn't really. Or maybe it's better for me than I realize. I want to review it after the first six months to see if the fruit is good enough to do some pruning and redirect things, or if it will go the direction of "recreation." (The Benedictines recognize the importance of recreation, I've heard. I like that!)

I wonder if we might be able to form an online community of support to those women seeking to grow through practice of various spiritual disciplines. I like the EW idea of the book club and intend to get a copy of the December book while out and about tomorrow.

Nancy said...

Hey you two! (Jem and Psalmist) I'm loving this and wish I had time to respond. I'm not ignoring the conversation but it is back to work for me. Perhaps tonight. Meanwhile, have an enjoyable day!

Jemila Monroe said...

Wow guys, thanks so much for sharing the richness of your experience. I am filled with gratitude and inspiration!
I would LOVE to get an online community of support for people growing an intentional spiritual practice. I bet when Julie gets the larger EW website going at some point we could get a feature on there to serve that purpose. For now, I'd be happy to host it here since we seem to be on a roll. If you guys send me your email addresses, I can add you as contributers and perhaps we can have a brainstorm about how to structure/unstructure this creatively. What do you think?

Psalmist said...

Hi, Jemila. I'm trying to figure out how to contact you without posting my own e-mail address publicly. I'm going to go through the EW address, since I decided last night I'd like to go ahead and become a member there (if y'all think I'm "e" enough--smile). Hope that's OK.

Jemila Monroe said...

I'm sure Julie will forward it to me. Otherwise, I think you can find my address under one of the book club posts

asfellers said...
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asfellers said...

Although I'm of the male gender, I pray you won'take offense that I've chose to add my comment. Having been celibate now for the past 15 plus years I've found that there definitely is a -heightening of the spiritual acumen, and a purer closeness to God that transcends the mundane trivial glimpses of the Sacred that we normally receive while we're in the feeding frenzy of our sexual desires.
There comes a point in celibacy that the voice of God is so readily heard that it becomes a steady dialogue between that which is our true self, and the One who made the self.
Although I still find there exist the taint of earlier indoctrinations,
that have become habitual err laden thoughts,beliefs,and feelings - which resist the promptings of the Holy as they still give the inner impetus to give in to the distracters [And in this I'm not talking about only the innate sexual energies which arise from the natural hormones raging through the body. But, also the Impetuses to waste time idlely and mindlessly watching T.V.,or to join in the most recent gripe session, or to allow ourselves to get caught up in rumor talking,Or even practicing judgementality against others] which all distract us away from the voice of our Father,
and makeit hard for us to hear and follow His guidances.
There most definitely is Biblical teaching and principle that instructs us to lead pure,kind, gentle, patient, lives.
And the blessings to be gotten for doing so are innumerable!
Thanks for blogging this topic.

peace and blessings to you-Allen