Celibate at 23

I would do anything for love (but I won't do that)

“I can definitely see you as a priest,” my friend told me.
“Thanks,” I said. This was a helpful insight, since I’d like to be a priest.
“But the thing is,” he said, “I just can’t see you being celibate.”
This was a less helpful insight since, as I understand it, Catholic priests tend to be celibate.

I actually would have agreed with my friend a year ago. If you would have asked me why I wanted to be a priest, I could have told you about how I wanted to serve others or how I felt preaching was a great way to use my talents. I could even talk about my deep passion for the Eucharist and the desire to share it with those around me. I’ve thought about being a priest ever since the fifth grade, when I realized that the Church and my family were the only real constants I had as my Dad, an Air Force officer, moved us from base to base to base. I never really thought about being celibate though: it always just seemed like part of the rules.

So when I applied to enter the Jesuits last year, they told me—in a very polite and loving way—that their policy was for candidates to be celibate for a year before entering, and that, since I had dated someone up until approximately six weeks before my interview, I really needed to try this celibacy thing out for a year before reapplying. That meant no dates, no romantic relationships, and, obviously, no sex . It also meant that I had to find a good reason to be celibate besides “they’re making me,” which is only so effective when you’re in the subway next to a beautiful woman and she asks you what you think about Nebraska football picking up a West Coast offense. I mean, who could say no to a woman like that?

I certainly couldn’t have. Like many 23 year-olds, I’ve got a decent job (I teach high school), a good college education and a sexual history that’s somewhere between dorm room boredom and Don Juan. Like many of my peers, I sort of grew into sexual self-awareness, experimenting and hooking-up with acquaintances at first but gradually coming to recognize the importance of meaningful, committed relationships, even if we couldn’t always live up to them. And so, just when it seems I’m starting to figure things out, my friends are flabbergasted that I would choose to give it all up.

The challenge has been to realize that I’m not so much saying no to sexual relationships as I’m trying to say yes to God. The choice to live celibately, like any choice in life, is not about figuring out what’s best for me but simply deciding—through conversations with trusted friends and family, through self-reflection, and mostly through prayer—how I can best serve God and the world. I’m certainly no expert, but with the help of my spiritual director I’ve picked up five things that have really helped:

  1. Think of celibacy as an adverb or adjective, never as a noun. What is celibacy? Is it my girlfriend? Can I take it home? I can’t conceptualize it, and if I do, it becomes so intellectual that it’s totally useless for the real world. I find it’s better to think of celibacy as something that describes or modifies what I’m already doing and who I already am, rather than as a thing in itself. I can try to live celibately and work toward celibate relationships, celibate love, even a celibate sexuality.

  2. Yes, there is such a thing as a celibate sexuality. Of course, I haven’t stopped feeling attracted to people and wanting to, you know, get to know them better once I started trying to live celibately. A friend of mine told me he didn’t think he could be a priest because it seemed like he had too much of a sex drive, but a high sex drive doesn’t just mean wanting to have sex with people—the sexual impulse is also a desire to create and unify with others. Obviously, celibate sexuality does not permit genital sex, but it does allow a tremendous freedom to create and share with those around you. Even though I haven’t taken any vows, I’ve already noticed that I am able to connect to people around me with an intensity and vulnerability I used to only have with people I was dating.

  3. Stop freaking out about sex. Living celibately has given me much greater respect for the Church’s teachings on sexual morality—even abstinence. I now realize that I really was too sexually active in my past. While I don’t feel like I did anything terribly wrong, I certainly weakened relationships and hurt others—and myself—through poor choices. It’s even made it a bit easier for me to understand what I never could as a teen: why masturbation is considered a sin. Even if it’s hard for me to care too much about either of these when countless children starve to death everyday, I’m starting to understand that, though they differ on many levels, global inequality and sex/sexual fantasies that objectify others are connected by a fundamental lack of love and respect for other human beings. Dedicating my life to love involves not just feeding the hungry but also, ideally, insisting that we always treat each other with respect, commitment, and love, even in both the bedroom and in our minds.

  4. Maintain healthy boundaries. After agreeing to live celibately, I found myself in a quasi-romantic relationship with nothing much physical but an emotional bond that wasn’t fair to either of us. The reality of the relationship surprised me until I realized that, while I had made a commitment to live celibately, my friend and I had not established clear boundaries, together, defining what a celibate relationship would look like. That kind of conversation needs to happen and it has to happen early.

  5. Learn to communicate your emotions and your love. Living celibately means having to develop relationships and really work at them, especially because you can’t fill emotional voids with sexual activity. People feel a deep connection and emotional intensity from sex, but that connection is too often vague and unstable. Of course, it’s important for sex to be grounded in commitment and love, but living celibately helps you to realize how equally important it is for sexual activity to complement, rather than replace, emotional commitment and vulnerability.

I’ve chosen to live celibately because I felt that it would allow me to love people in a way I could not as a single person or while I was dating someone else. And even though I’ve only lived celibately for five months now, I’ve already grown in my ability to relate emotionally to others and to think of women as friends, rather than friends who I might or might not date. I was hanging out with my friend Aria, who I dated two summers ago, and she told me that, for the first time, she didn’t feel any weird sort of romantic tension from me. She said that when I told her I was thinking about celibacy, she thought there was no way I could avoid flirting with the women around me, especially the ones I’ve dated. “But you really did it, Jeff,” she told me. “I felt totally comfortable with you.”

So when people tell me they can’t see me as celibate, sometimes I think they’re missing the point. I don’t want to be celibate: I want to love people. And right now, living celibately just seems like the right way to love.