Celibacy steeped in a whole lot of love

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Valentine’s Day had author Sister Sarah Hennessey, F.S.P.A. thinking about her commitment to consecrated celibacy. In a world preoccupied with romantic relationships and sexuality, what does it mean to give that part of one’s self to Christ? (Photo: Element5 Digital on Unsplash)

A RECENT Valentine’s Day got me thinking about my own commitment to consecrated celibacy. In a world preoccupied with romantic relationships and sexuality, what does it mean to give that part of myself to Christ? For one thing, I realize my celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.

I have been living religious life for 17 years now, and my walk with celibacy has changed. When I was first considering life as a Catholic sister, I met a wise, older sister who told me that I would struggle with each of the vows of poverty, obedience, and consecrated celibacy in their own time. So far she has been right. Just when I thought I was totally comfortable in these vows, life changed and caused me to look at them in a new light. I made vows for a lifetime, but live them out day by day. Consciously or not, every day I choose to be a religious sister; I choose to be celibate.

For me celibacy is about relationship: my relationship with Christ and consequently the shaping of my relationship with everyone else in my life. I love fiercely. I am madly in love with Christ, but I also love like crazy my sisters in community, my friends, and my family. And yes, sometimes I am attracted to someone. Sometimes I find myself riding that wave of emotion on the inside and choosing appropriate boundaries on the outside. Like anyone already in a committed relationship, I can balance between choosing constancy to my commitment while honoring my own feelings. For sure, my celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.

Sister Sarah Hennessey, F.S.P.A. stands near a bridge
Living the vow of celibacy happens day by day. It isn’t always simple or easy, but it’s the right way of life for Hennessey. (Photo courtesy of Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.)

A sense of authenticity

Surprisingly, central to my love for Christ is love for myself. For many years, as I struggled with depression, I also doubted my own self-worth. Self-hatred kept me in bondage. Slowly my sisters and my family loved me into life, and one day it all shifted. I stopped hating myself and began the process of learning to love myself. This has probably been the greatest shift of my life and a surprising challenge to my celibacy. Suddenly, the whole world was filled with emotion. I never knew that I could love so much. My feelings were new and raw. My love for God meant more than it ever had before. The change was so strong that I began to ask myself if I truly wanted to be a sister, to be a lifelong celibate.

As I began to love myself more deeply I could feel my love for Christ coming alive, but I also began to mourn the possibility of having my own family. Real waves of sadness washed over me. The loss felt very tangible. Loneliness stirred in my bones. Had depression hidden from me the gravity of the choice that was mine to make? I had to choose celibacy all over again. I had to reach deep into the bottom of my soul and see what is really most important for me. Through prayer, and especially in my precious hours of adoration, my intimacy with Christ is not abstract or theoretical, but instead very concrete and practical. I feel Christ holding and guiding me, keeping me safe. My belonging to Christ is very real to me and sustains me on my harder days.

Why am I celibate today, as I am, with my whole and beautiful self? To answer this question, I look at the wisdom of those who have gone before me. I opened a journal I kept when I was first discerning whether the vows of religious life were right for me. I found some quotes I had recorded that help express my own sense of this vow.

Many if not most persons who are drawn to a celibate life are not celibate because they made a vow of celibacy. Rather, they are drawn to vow celibacy because of a strong internal sense of prior claim. They sense that celibacy is a given of their being . . . The reason for celibacy may always remain difficult to explain . . . But for them, the claim of God on their lives is such that to give their whole embodied selves in sexual union with another person would be a denial of their own inner authenticity and integrity.

—Sister Elaine Prevallet, S.L.

I feel a prior claim. Though it is not always easy, and I sometimes struggle with it, at a certain level I like celibacy. I like how it organizes my life around love without one primary relationship. I like the sense of authenticity and integrity it gives me. I think my vows in religious life help me to be more “Sarah.” I am most fully myself as I live this life. For me, this life is all about relationship—with God, my sisters, and those I meet in ministry.

In the morning I wake up and spend an hour with my God in prayer. Beyond words, in deep silence I feel at home. Over my favorite breakfast of oatmeal, I chat with my sisters about our plans for the day. Sometimes our topics veer into the very profound and we wonder about a sick sister, the future of the community, or some personal issue that we need help with. Before the day has even really started, I can feel those tender tendrils of the holy in the ordinary.

During my ministry I listen to people searching for God in the midst of their daily life. Stresses at work, family crises, and life transitions are the stuff where the Holy Spirit is really present, even when we don’t expect it. I am often amazed at the impact truly feeling like they’ve been heard can have on people. One woman even told me that, after sharing with me, her resting heartbeat on her Fitbit dropped! Calm and peace were finding their way into her life.

After a busy day of work, I cook a healthy meal for the sisters I live with and we catch up on our days. We share evening prayer together, and lift up all the needs of the world on our hearts. We make popcorn on the stove and maybe watch a show together and unwind a bit.

A prior claim

Though not always obvious, my love for Christ is woven into the rhythm of my day. Through the vow of celibacy, I am freed to live out many types of intimacy. I am able to be present to those with whom I minister and my sisters in community, to my friends and family. I am able to listen to the stirrings of my own heart. I enjoy having Christ at the center of my life, which makes me more fully myself.

The words of Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M. also speak to my heart:

Sometimes people ask religious how they persevere in a state of life within a church whose institutional corruption is so clear to them, and in which they may even be the objects of unjust persecution. Whatever answer they give, often the real reason is religious life is not, for them, a commitment to an institution, but a relationship with Christ that, in the final analysis, no authority can touch.

—Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life

I love the church and the people of God, but when people wonder how I can choose the lifelong discipline of celibacy within a church that often is so flawed, this is my reason. I am in love with Christ and Christ’s people, with my whole self. I have experienced a prior claim that I cannot ignore, a claim that gives me life to the fullest. I firmly believe there will always be women and men called to celibacy because, like me, others find that their hearts arc toward Christ, our love. And life as a celibate in a religious community, for me—for others who continue to enter this vocation—is steeped in a whole lot of love. 

A version of this article originally appeared on messyjesusbusiness.com. Related articles: VocationNetwork.org, "Celibate chastity: One way to be a sexual person” and “8 secrets to healthy celibacy.”

Sister Sarah Hennessey, F.S.P.A.
Sister Sarah Hennessey, F.S.P.A., a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, serves as a spiritual director at the Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin.




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