In the New Testament, both marriage and celibacy are considered vocations that manifest the love of God in particular ways. I’d like to reference some works by Henri Nouwen and Rowan Williams that bring out the nature of celibacy as both testimony to and manifestation of God’s presence.
I consider celibacy to be a way of “making room” for the presence of God. Remembering that healthy relationships always have some manner of boundaries, I’d like to suggest that in the life of any person, there are public and private “spaces” – areas of the soul that are meant to be shared by friends, areas for a mate, and some parts that are private, where God alone is invited to dwell. (Not that God is always invited!) Whatever those spaces might look like, those parts of our lives are something we owe to one another in love and service. Our friends have a certain claim on us because of our baptism and shared life in the Church. (I write about this often.) Our spouses would have another kind of claim, while there is other space that is for God alone, consecrated to him. Celibacy would mean that a significant part of our “space” is reserved for God alone, to the exclusion of other persons. That is not “holy” as opposed to “unholy” but a particular kind of holiness.
I don’t have it to hand, but I think I was thinking along these lines after reading from J.M. Henri Nouwen’s Clowning in Rome.
In his essay, “Resident Aliens: The Identity of the Early Church” (In Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church, The Sarum Theological Lectures, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005, 32-40)” Rowan Williams describes vocational celibacy as the successor to martyrdom as a channel for God’s presence and power in the community.
Christian identity was understood in terms of both affirmation and negation: Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, and the ekklesia (“public assembly”) of “resident aliens” (a common phrase in the early Christian letters) consists of a people who owed their citizenship and ultimate allegiance to a Kingdom other than Caesar’s Empire. While the roman civic cult was pleased to add some gods and practices, Christian religion was exclusive: the believer belongs to God alone, and so does not participate in many aspects of civic life. Martyrdom bore witness to the power and ownership of God that made the Christian community distinct, and was a channel of that power. This is why the letters of Ignatius and the Martyrdom of Polycarp are pleased to use Eucharistic language to describe their deaths:
The martyr consecrates his body to be a holy place exactly as the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the place where sacred presence and power are to be found. The expulsion of the Christian from the would-be sacred order of the Roman city or the Roman emperor is the very moment in which the holiness of the Christian is perfected: holiness, in the sense not of exceptional goodness but of the active presence of a holy and terrifying power, is indeed identical with marginality in the terms of the empire. The holy place is the suffering body expelled from the body politic, Polycarp uttering his great thanksgiving as the flames are lit (36).In short, martyrs were considered conduits of God’s power because the manner of their death offered a space (and a sacrifice) that was offered entirely to God in an ultimate denial of both self and the claims of any other persons or entities. It was a testimony of this power because of its public and communal nature.
Williams doesn’t discuss it at length, but he sees the same motifs regarding “virgins” in the community after martyrdom ceased to be a common danger. I think it a worthwhile line of inquiry to suggest that the same concepts apply to a celibate vocation It is an expression of being owned by God and the Community alone; the “family” obligations are different. It is also public, because it defines the boundaries for the individuals relationships with everyone else. It is a can also bring power because of the larger “empty space” for transformation.
Next: Obstacles to a theology of celibacy.
Update: now this is the kind of thing I'm trying to talk about.