“Thus monastic chastity is completed in love, just as the sacrament of marriage is consummated in love.”
—Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Of all the monastic virtues I have written about so far, monastic Chastity (celibacy) most often makes religious life and married life seem worlds apart. As Patriarch Bartholomew once said, “It is, therefore, unfortunate that centuries of negative connotations ascribed to the monastic way have contributed to a devaluation of marriage, as if the celibate life were somehow more pleasing to God or more spiritually fulfilling than marriage.”
It is unfortunate that we as a Church have set any vocation against another. For far too long the building up of one aspect of the Christian life has torn down another. We are each members of the body of Christ and need to build each other up and aid one another to carry the crosses we all must bear in this life.
Thankfully, the sanctity of marriage and the calling of all the faithful to be saints is a message that is now more often being shared with the faithful. Unfortunately, embracing these truths has also lead some to believe that monastic chastity is not necessary and the real hard vocation is that of the married couple or even the single person outside of the monastery. I have heard people say monks are no longer needed and real holiness is that of the person struggling in the world and who has not “run away” from it. Here we go again…do we never learn?! The vocation we are in is not in competition with the others. No matter which state of life we are living, right this moment we are called to love God and others and to die to ourselves in the process of learning to love—that fact remains equally true for all of us.
Since this series is for those of us not living in monasteries or convents but is about the witness of the consecrated (who we are celebrating this year) and what they teach us, I will explain to you what seeing the example of monastics and their practice of monastic chastity has taught me.
The witness of monastic chastity is a reminder of the calling to purity and holiness in marital relations. Overcoming lust, the objectification of one’s spouse, and all other sexual sins doesn’t automatically end just because a couple is married in the Church and is open to life. Striving after purity in marriage is a struggle which will take hard work. Being open to life is not the only thing needed in order to sanctify the married couple. Similarly, the vow and practice of celibacy does not automatically make a person holy. For those of us who are single either permanently or temporarily, monastic chastity is a reminder of the call to abstinence and purity.
In the Eastern churches fasting times are also times of abstinence for the married couple. We do not abstain because sex is bad anymore than we fast because food is bad, but we abstain for the same reasons the monk has chosen to always be celibate. We do so because Christ is greater than all and worth giving everything up for. This reminds us to look forward to heaven and that this life is fleeting and passing away. It also reminds us that our spouse is our brother or sister in Christ and purity in all aspects of our relationship is necessary.
We do not abstain during fasting times or even when practicing Natural Family Planning because of the practice of monastic chastity but their example certainly tells us that with God’s grace those times of abstinence are possible. Sex within marriage is meant to bring forth unity and love between the couple, love that (hopefully) bears fruit by blessing the couple with children. This doesn’t mean however, that there aren’t times to abstain. Practicing NFP and abstinence during fasting times is ascesis for the married couple; as is living in the world as a single member of the church while striving after purity in body and spirit. In a world that tells us sex is only for pleasure and we can do what we like with our bodies, the witness of chastity in every Christian life is desperately needed.
The Way of Love
It is true that within our different vocations we serve God and each other in specific ways that can differ from one another. The heart of each vocation does not differ though. Patriarch Bartholomew wrote, “Monasticism is a way of love, which is no less and no better than the way of the Christian Gospel, no different from or better than the way of marriage. Human beings are made to love; they are created in the image and likeness of God, who is communion.”
Chastity is a means to an end just like every other practice I have written about so far. Chastity takes on different forms for Christians depending upon their vocation or state in life. It is purity of heart and actions that we are aiming for when striving after a chaste Christian marriage or celibate life (whether in or out of the monastery). Chastity means seeing God in all aspects of life, especially in others. A chaste heart does not look upon the other as someone to control, manipulate, or use for one’s own desires. Chastity is a call to love as God loves—in all our relationships.
Look to Heaven
I have heard Fr. Maximos say on several occasions that a person who chooses to be celibate is a person who has hope. Hope in the Eschaton-the life that is to come. If heaven were not real then spending your life in prayer, living closely with and building a community of other people who are not your spouse or children makes no sense at all. The sacrifices would be pointless and death would surely laugh in your face.
All Christians need to be reminded of death, judgment, and heaven. The monk stands as a very visual and constant reminder of those things. For those of us living in the world and struggling to fight against the temptations and evil we encounter, hope in the resurrection is what will get us through.
I recently wrote about the Rite of Crowning explaining the crowns as crowns of martyrdom. Sex will no longer be needed in heaven but the relationship of husband and wife will remain (as all our relations will). Chastity in marriage also points to heaven. Remaining faithful to your spouse, staying married even when there is infidelity, or any of the other multiple problems couples face together, is not pointless—it is also a sign of hope in the life to come.
Don’t Make an Idol of the Family
Knowing monastics who have chosen to live lives of prayer and form a community of believers to support those efforts reminds me that I must be aware of the greater Church and not only my own domestic church. We can easily make an idol of the family; people who want to dismiss monastic life as not having real value have probably already made an idol of the family. The witness of monks who have come together and made a different kind of family of Gods serve as a reminder against this. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) Every Christian family (whether monastic or non-monastic) or even a single person working and living closely to their own church community, make up the family of God and we must all serve and care about the greater church too. We must be a part of something bigger than only our own little community. Acts of hospitality, charity, and a building up of the larger church community reminds all of us that we must each take our places as members of the kingdom of God and each little family is not separate from but is a part of the greater Church.
I will leave you with more wisdom from Patriarch Bartholomew:
“For the Church Fathers, love cannot be achieved without abstinence; chastity is impossible without charity. Human passions must be raised heavenward by means of spiritual discipline and ascesis. Even the most passionate love becomes divine and blessed. There is no aspect of human life and no quality of human nature that cannot be transformed and redirected, through prayer and ascesis, into a divine purpose and spiritual goal. In this regard, monasticism is a way of love, which is no less and no better than the way of the Christian Gospel, no different from or better than the way of marriage. Human beings are made to love; they are created in the image and likeness of God, who is communion.”