I wanted to make more public some reflections on state of life callings that would have been hidden in a thread on Sherry's post last Thursday on priestless parishes. One poster quoted Pope Benedict's comment on the importance of prayer and vocations:
"Prayer is the first means by which we come to know the Lord's will for our lives. To the extent that we teach young people to pray, and to pray well, we will be cooperating with God's call. So I think learning prayer, being prayerful people, is an essential point for the living church. Programs, plans, projects are necessary and have their place; but the discernment of a vocation is above all the fruit of an intimate dialogue between the Lord and his disciples."
Another poster responded by saying,
"In the 1996 apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, John Paul revived the language of higher and lower vocations....Thus the consecrated life is objectively a higher expression of a universal vocation."
Marriage, celibacy and virginity all point to self-giving in Catholic theology, as every Christian, in imitation of Jesus, is meant to give themselves first completely to God, and then to other people. In his book, "The Holy Longing," Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, describes marriage as an exploration of the depths of human love, and celibacy/virginity as an exploration of the breadth of human love. But the common thread of the Christian life is self-giving love.
The idea of celibacy being a preferable condition to marriage is found in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and reflects his perspective that the present age is quickly passing away and that Christ's return in glory and judgment is imminent. He also refers to celibacy as a gift (in Greek, charisma) from God not given to all.
Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do, but if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire. 1Cor 7:7-9
If you marry, however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that. I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away. I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction. 1 Cor 7:28-35
In Paul's mind, marriage could interfere with the relationship with Christ, even though he also sees marriage as a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:21-28)
What can be forgotten in the discussion of these states of life is the fundamental call to discipleship and the nature of Christian life as one of continual self-gift. From the moment of our baptism we are directed towards others by virtue of the charisms we are given by God in that sacrament. They are for others, rather than ourselves. They indicate that whatever calling we pursue and whatever state of life, our life is not our own; we are Christ's.
“None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's.” Rom. 14:7-8
My discomfort with the idea of celibacy being a 'higher' vocation than marriage isn't with the teaching, but with the practice. Certainly married people can be selfish - and the unhappiness of many marriages may well reflect that. But a celibate life is not automatically a sign of greater selflessness. It can be just the opposite. The freedom that I enjoy as a celibate can easily be turned to selfishness, particularly if I begin to take advantage of people who apparently feel sorry for me because, in their words, "I've given so much up." In the past week alone I have been offered several boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts, cash, a loaner bike to ride along with a helmet, bottles of Powerade and cash; a cake, a soda, and several free lunches.
Now, I suppose it's possible that some of this generosity is due to the fact that I'm such a lovable guy. Or, perhaps, I'm much more pathetic than I thought, and naturally elicit waves of pity from others.
But I think it's more likely that we've lost sight of the fundamental and universal call to holiness and discipleship. If we consider marriage - or just good 'ole sex - to be the greatest good, then, yes, I have "given up so much." But the religious life I've embraced is meant to point to the Kingdom of God and heaven, where Mt 22:30 says we live like angels, not given in marriage. My life is meant to point to a greater good even than sex and marriage - discipleship and the eternal union with Jesus that it leads to! In this sense my celibate life can said to be "higher" in that it points to a higher, eternal reality that we can easily forget: married, single, virgin, divorced, widowed, cleric, lay, religious, regardless of sexual orientation, we are the Lord's! If the primary relationship of the Christian is with Christ, then it is the married person who has "given so much up," not the other way around!
Let me buy a round of Krispy Kremes!