“How do you experience intimacy as a celibate?” She looked up at me quizzically from her notebook. The young woman’s question caught me by surprise.
I had just finished an interview with Pastor Pete Scazzero at New Life Fellowship church in New York City, where I’d been a member for nine years before coming to Holy Wisdom Monastery. My life at the monastery remained a mystery to many of the people I served at the church, people I still cared deeply about. I hoped that my answers might help bridge the gap for this busy urban church where monastic life might as well be torn from the pages of a medieval history book.
As I looked into this earnest young woman’s face, I wondered how I should address her question. How do I experience intimacy as a celibate? “It isn’t easy,” I admitted. “But I suspect that real intimacy is difficult for everyone. Every person experiences intimacy and fulfillment in different ways. There’s a lot of negotiating in a loving relationship. Although I don’t engage in sexual intimacy as a celibate, I still want and need intimate friendships. Relationships in which I can be my whole self and experience another person in their wholeness—warts and all.” I paused for a moment before I added with a grin, “It’s work. But there’s a lot of joy in it, if it fits.”
The woman’s question stayed with me, and reminds me just how strange my current way of life must seem to others. As we talked together afterwards, she shared about her recent break-up and her own struggle to find intimacy. Among singles, there are so few who model what a healthy, engaged sexuality looks like. What we see in movies and television hardly serves to inspire authentically intimate relationships. Although most thoughtful people realize that more sex does not equate to more intimacy, it’s not always clear what does lead to fulfilling, satisfying relationships. Celibacy certainly does not seem a realistic or healthy alternative. It looks like a cutting off, a teeth-gritting denial of our deepest human needs and desires.
Although I wouldn’t recommend it as a lifestyle for everyone, celibacy, at its best, is a loving commitment that draws us toward intimacy with God, ourselves and others. It requires maturity, self-possession and self-giving. It can be life-giving, freeing and joyful, but it also takes work.
There are skills for intimacy that can be learned, often through trial and error. Living in community at the monastery is not the same as having coworkers in ministry for roommates. When I first came here, though, that was what I imagined. I had no idea what to expect. There are few households that look like mine. I live with women today from very different walks of life. We are in our 80s, 70s, 60s, 40s and 30s. None of us chose each other, and yet we are committed to one another as we live in community guided by the Rule of Benedict. We don’t always get along, but we work on our difficulties and figure out how to accept each other. We share our moments and our days, interacting in intimate ways and yet we all sleep alone. While it does take work, commitment and practice, I’d be the first to say that celibate intimacy is real, possible and joyful.
Read other blog posts from Sister Rosy in her series, Letters home.