Chastity in real life
I’ve never been stranded on a desert island with a beautiful woman, but I have been stuck in a German airport during a snowstorm. And let me tell you, it’s not as different as you’d think.
I’ll get back to Germany and the beautiful woman, but first I should explain what I’m trying to do here. Lots of articles about celibacy focus on discerning a call to the celibate life or on weighing the pluses and the minuses before entering a formation program. This is not one of those articles. This is about living the vow of celibacy every day for the rest of your life.
Now, back to the story.
Close encounters happen
Movies love to have a guy stuck on a desert island. You know, a guy with a scruffy beard and torn white shirt wandering a white sand beach stranded after a shipwreck or a plane crash, struggling to survive and questioning his desire to live. Those guys always end up meeting a gorgeous woman (who just happens to be stuck there, too). They fall in love, train a monkey to make piña coladas, and forget about all their worries.
Of course, here in real life that sort of thing doesn’t happen, at least I thought so until it pretty much happened to me.
I’ve been in religious life about four years now and just over a year in perpetual vows. My journey has never been simple. It has followed a long road of joys and doubts, of struggles and blessings. Before entering religious life I had chances to date some wonderful women. I was free to choose between two good things: married life and religious life. Today I’m happy where I am, both with my community and living the vows of poverty, obedience, and celibacy. I’m certainly not looking for someone to date. Yet despite all my discernment, I found myself as a young religious stuck at a European airport for two days languishing in customer service lines next to a funny, interesting, beautiful Portuguese woman named Cristina.
Cristina, from south of Lisbon—or Lisboa, as she said.
I was scheduled to have a short layover in Germany on my way to Rome, but snow and wind ruined that plan. As soon as I found out that my flight was cancelled, I ran to get in line for rebooking—me and about a thousand other people. The line was filled with lots of angry business travelers, pleasant older folks, and annoying college kids studying abroad. But among all those people, God somehow ordained that I would stand right next to Cristina, Cristina with the dark hair and fascinating accent. As we inched our way forward in the line, balancing rolling suitcases and carry-on luggage, small talk ensued. We talked about the weather, we talked about the terrible airline service, we talked about our hopes to miss some work. Somehow exactly what kind of work each of us did didn’t come up—a fortunate thing for the young priest who in that moment was wishing he weren’t one.
After hours in line ticket agents announced that there were no more flights that day. We were all to be bused to hotels in the area and returned to the airport the next morning, indiscriminately assigned to hotels all over the city. As fate would have it Cristina and I both received vouchers to the same hotel. So of course we rode the bus together and shared a quiet dinner at a little table for two in the middle of Germany (all courtesy of United Airlines). And there we were: Two young people having a wonderful time together with nowhere else to go and no one else we knew.
Something inside of me was screaming: Where was this situation ten years ago? Really, God? Really?!
Cristina and I were having a great time. Unfortunately it was a great time with some important details left out. I knew that I had to fess up. I didn’t think I was really lying by not telling Cristina about my lifelong commitment to religious life, the priesthood, and celibacy. It just hadn’t come up.
When I told her, there was a look of shock . . . then doubt . . . a little confusion . . . and finally resignation. “Sorry,” I said. She laughed and took it in stride. We had a great conversation about faith (she doesn’t practice) and making big commitments (especially sticking to them). Eventually we said goodnight, each going to our separate hotel rooms. That last part was very different than the desert island scenario.
Nobody’s life is perfect
Many of my friends from high school and college are married. I’ve presided at some of their weddings. And while I often envy them—their life together, the intimacy of their marriage—I know that they also have to renew their commitment every day. As one friend told me, “You can’t put it on autopilot after the wedding.”
|Father Matt presides at the wedding of his friends Jose and Rita Del Real.|
Every way of life, every vocation, has its joys and struggles. As a vowed religious and a priest I have a lot of freedom to do the work I love despite the (nonexistent) pay. I’ve got a great community of brothers who help me keep my commitments, brothers with whom I share both my free time and my struggles.
Problems don’t disappear just because you profess final vows (or get married or choose single life for that matter). Making that decision doesn’t free your life from difficulty or temptation. Sooner or later, when you’re worn out and overwhelmed, someone will come along with what seems at first like a much better life. Maybe she’ll be a 20-something Portuguese woman from Lisboa. Maybe he’ll be someone you really hit it off with at work. That’s the real gut check.
How did I get here?
I’m still new at this whole religious life thing, but from my brief experience I’d offer some advice that helped me in this particular situation: Think about how you got here.
My own vocation story started with a tepid “I’ll give it a shot” to God’s call. God had put some inspiring priests and religious in my life, men I respected, men who worked joyfully as pastors, professors, and missionaries. Their lives seemed a lot more rewarding than my then-prospects as an accountant (nothing against accountants—that just wasn’t me). I contacted the vocation director, completed the novitiate, and studied in the seminary. A year ago I took final vows and was ordained with all my friends and family present to support me. My first assignment was to a parish and formation program in Mexico. A few months later I was invited to a conference in Rome.
As I was starting to fall into the desert-island fantasy, I stopped to ask myself: Why am I in this line? Why am I stuck in an airport in a foreign country? How did I get here? That helped me to realize that I would never have been in that situation if not for my religious community and my commitment to religious life.
I was there because of events that providentially began years earlier. I was there because of my willingness to answer God’s call. I was there because countless wonderful people helped me along the way. I’m living these commitments as part of ministry to make God known, loved, and served. Who am I to take a sudden turn off course when something—or someone—interesting crosses my path?
I was there—in that German airport next to Cristina—as part of a bigger plan, both in terms of my own ministry and God’s call for my life. I am in my parish in Mexico working to bring hope to people who are struggling through poverty and violence. In a transcendent way I’m working to make God present in our world through my prayer and ministry. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I needed to be honest with Cristina and, as or more important, with myself.
The price is right
Let me share one last story. No desert islands in this one, just a regular grocery store.
I was out shopping for food just a few weeks before professing my final vows. Waiting in front of me at the checkout was a mom and her son. The little guy sitting in the grocery cart seat was no more than two years old. He looked at me with a big smile and shouted, “Daddy!” My heart sank. As his embarrassed mother tried to explain to him that I wasn’t his daddy, a small voice inside me whispered: I’ll never be anybody’s daddy. I felt miserable.
I still had the chance to opt out. I could have left the formation program with no hard feelings and discerned a different way of life, a life with a family and a wife. It was all there in front of me. I just had to decide.
|Father Matt (back row, third from left) with other members of his Holy Cross community.|
Obviously, I chose to stay that night. And now it’s a choice I work at every night.
In my experience it’s really hard to tell a beautiful Portuguese woman that you’re a celibate man. Yet the beautiful life I live in community, ministry, and prayer is only possible because I am a celibate man. Looking back helps me move forward. It reminds me of the graces, the blessings, the people, and the experiences that have sustained me and keep piling up beneath me, raising me closer to God and making me a better servant to God’s people. Celibacy is not something you achieve at final vows or something you ever accomplish once and for all. It’s something you work at every day because of your love for God and neighbor—and ultimately because of God’s love for you.
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