Celibacy leads me to limitless love
Image: Through the vow of chastity, Sister Julia Walsh, F.S.P.A. is able to love in a different way than do married or single people, extending herself to community members and to those she meets in ministry. Here, she chaperones students on a field trip.
"How can you be a nun? You’re the most boy-crazy girl I know!” My good friend first jokingly teased me with this question when we were both still teenagers. I was in the earliest stages of my discernment at the time, and I couldn’t give her a good answer to her question.
That was nearly two decades ago. I like to think that I’ve matured a lot since I was a teenager and that I’ve come to understand how the complex parts of my personality can all enrich my relationship with God. I’m convinced that God used my teenage feelings to steer me toward my vocation. In fact, being boy-crazy actually influenced my very first sense of vocation to sisterhood.
I was a teen who deeply desired to please God. Alone in my bedroom one night I remember praying for guidance regarding my attraction to a certain boy. As I prayed, I heard a very intense answer. Like a song stuck in my head on repeat, over and over I heard, “Be a nun.” I tried to ignore this phrase, but it only got louder. I knew it was coming from a very deep, very true part of me. In awe and fear and confusion, I started to sob.
It makes sense that I felt confused by this feeling that was bubbling up within me; I didn’t know any nuns or sisters growing up, so I didn’t know what “nun” meant. It was only later that I understood that what I was really called to was Catholic sisterhood. (Technically, “nun” means a cloistered contemplative and “sister” is an active minister out in the world.)
I never disagreed with the boy-crazy label my friend gave me. She had heard me speak about my feelings for several cute boys through all the drama of junior high and high school, so she could make a good case. In fact, she is the only person who also remembers my first “boyfriend” from our childhood. For prom, we double-dated a set of twins. Then during college, we continued to giddily share with each other our secrets about boys.
I may have been nuts about boys, but I didn’t really date that much. I was always very clumsy at it, and being a boy’s girlfriend never felt natural to me. What little dating I did made me realize that I frequently and quickly developed deep, affectionate feelings for others. I would get very excited about the goodness and beauty that I saw in other people.
All the while, I kept feeling an even stronger pull to Catholic sisterhood. Even with all my affection for others, I found that my eagerness to serve and love God and live in community was much more intense. God tends to have a clever and mysterious way of making the right things happen.
When I entered my community, I brought all the dynamics of my personality right along with me, including my friend’s question about me being boy-crazy. That vocational question, and other early struggles, gradually evolved like the shorelines of the sea. My journey has been rich and blessed and full of many experiences. I have been with my community for enough time for me to now know that this lifestyle is the best fit for me. I have a deeper understanding of who I am and what I really want. I have come to understand that the vows of religious life suit me well. Put simply, celibacy works for me.
It works for me because it permits my love to be inclusive and expansive, like God’s love. Celibacy is prophetic of the kingdom of God, where we are told that we will be free of any attachment, even marriage (Mark 12). More than a “no,” it is a “yes” to God’s love. I am free to experience the solitude and silence that nourish my relationship with God. It frees me from being attached to a particular person or place and allows me to be itinerant and go where God needs me.
Being a consecrated celibate means that my love is not focused mostly on one particular person, or family. I am allowed to love in a way that feels unlimited. I can celebrate the beauty of any person that God puts in my life and experience God’s affectionate love through all sorts of human relationships. I try to be an instrument of God’s love for all of God’s people, for the entire church, and the wider human community.
Like all forms of love, the vow of celibacy involves some difficult sacrifices. It can be agonizing to fall in love with people and then have to direct my life away from them, when all I really want is to be as close to them as possible; I have to keep in mind that healthy boundaries are an important part of every lifestyle. I would have loved to have been a wife and mother; I anticipate that I will need to grieve this renunciation throughout my life.
Despite its challenging nature, I find that celibacy is sacred and powerful. Living my life in a strong, loving community helps me to experience much of the same intimacy, companionship, and friendship that I expect marriage would offer me. Even though I won’t ever share my body with another person, I am humbled that I get to give my whole life and body to God in this sacred way.
Even as a vowed celibate, I am still a woman who is boy-crazy, who falls in love over and over again, a woman who gets enamored with others. But more than that, I am people-crazy with love. I am challenged to love like God loves. On my best days, I am joyful about the goodness I see in almost everyone.
This article first appeared in a shorter form in Global Sisters Report, globalsistersreport.org, a project of National Catholic Reporter.
Related article: vocationnetwork.org, “Why being single and living as a sister are not the same,” Vision 2015.
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