Celibacy and the Benefits of Priestly Loneliness

With the news that Pope Francis might relax the rule of priestly celibacy in certain regions, there has been much celebration in certain quarters of the Catholic world. Many of those celebrating see celibacy primarily as a burden that forces unnecessary loneliness onto priests.

What they fail to see is that such loneliness can have great moral value for Christians.

A passage from W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country, describing Gottfried Keller’s novel Green Henry, hints at this value through a haunting depiction of loneliness:

It says much that in Keller’s work the true lover is barely more than a child – for example, the young Heinrich Lee in the chapter in which, locked in the theater overnight, still wearing his monkey costume and with Mephistopheles’ cloak around his shoulders, he wanders around by moonlight on the stage amid all the rustling paper splendors, raising the curtain, and in the orchestra pit, at first tentatively and then with increasing force, begins to make the kettledrums roll until finally a veritable crescendo of thunder echoes through the darkened auditorium and rouses the beautiful actress who shortly before has breathed her last upon the boards.

“It was Gretchen, just as I had last seen her,” thus Lee’s account in his recollection of his theatrical adventures as a monkey: “I shuddered from head to foot, my teeth chattered, and yet at the same time a powerful sensation of joyful surprise flashed through me and made me glow. Yes, it was Gretchen, it was her spirit, although the distance was too great for me to distinguish her features, making the apparition seem even more ghostly. With mysterious gaze, she appeared to be searching the hall; I pulled myself upright, I was drawn forward as if by powerful, invisible hands, and, my heart beating audibly, I stepped over the benches toward the front of the stage, pausing at every step. The fur covering muffled my footsteps so that the figure did not notice me until, as I climbed up to the prompter’s box, the first moonbeam fell like a streak across my strange costume. I saw how she fixed her glowing eyes on me, horrified, and then shrank back in alarm, but silently. I trod one quiet step nearer, and halted again; my eyes were opened wide, I held my trembling hands aloft while, a glad fire of courage running through my veins, I made for the phantom. Then it called out imperiously: ‘Halt! You little creature, what are you?’ stretching out its arms threateningly against me so that I stood still, rooted to the spot. We looked fixedly at each other; I recognized her features now. She was wrapped in a white nightdress, her neck and shoulders were bare and gleamed softly, like snow by night.”

Adolf Muschg has said of Keller that it would have required a miracle of empathy and consideration to overcome the feelings of social and physical inferiority from which he suffered. This scene in the theater presents us with just such a miracle. The actress removes the little creature’s mask, enfolds him closely in her arms, and kisses him repeatedly on the lips, because, as she says afterward, he has not yet become the rogue he will turn into later, just like all the others, once he has grown up.

This surreal passage reveals a vital truth: the best cure for loneliness is to share it with someone else, to spend intimate time with another lonely person. After all, only the lonely can truly empathize with the lonely; only a boy alone at night, locked in and lost between childhood and manhood, can console a lonesome ghost. The former is torn between the tempting identities of animal (“wearing his monkey costume”) and spirit (“with Mephistopheles’ cloak around his shoulders”), and the latter is torn between this world and the next. In short, both are broken, liminal figures.

Walker Percy describes such figures’ loneliness with almost identical imagery in his novel Love in the Ruins, diagnosing this loneliness as “chronic angelism-bestialism that rives soul from body and sets it orbiting the great world as the spirit of abstraction whence it takes the form of beasts, swans and bulls, werewolves, blood-suckers, Mr. Hydes, or just poor lonesome ghost locked in its own machinery.” This diagnosis could apply to all of us; we humans are too animalistic to be mere spirits, and too spiritual to be mere animals, so we find ourselves feeling only somewhat at home in this material universe; we feel somewhat lost here, pulled between two worlds (which is why Christianity promises, at the end of time, the union of heaven and earth). And yet, even in this world, there is some consolation from this lonesome state of homelessness, as the meeting of Heinrich and Gretchen reveals: even though these characters are lost in liminal space, they find comfort in being lost together.

The minister of the Eucharist, the priest – being a representative of Christ on Earth – is called to give himself to the lonely. A priest I know told me a true story from his life that powerfully illustrates this calling. When he was a seminarian, he went on a weeklong silent retreat at a Catholic college. He was unsure at that time whether celibacy would be possible for him, and because he had to be silent for a week – with no media or conversation to distract him from God and himself – that uncertainty became massively magnified in his perception. So when a group of beautiful coeds walked past him one day on campus, a combination of desire and despair overwhelmed him. Would he be able to give up such beauty to pursue the priesthood? Would he be able to sacrifice the possibility of intimacy with such women? In that moment, celibacy seemed impossible.

But right afterward, he saw a mentally and physically handicapped man pass. He realized that that man would also never experience intimacy with such beauty. And, in a moment that he has since deemed miraculous, his overwhelming desire for romantic love was transformed into a desire to devote his life to such lonely people by becoming one of them. He saw the face of Christ in that handicapped man; he saw that he would be devoting himself to Christ by devoting himself to the lonely, the unloved. From that day on, he viewed celibacy not only as possible (though still difficult), but preferable for him. He came to understand that the greatest call is to share in others’ loneliness, to be lonely together with them and thereby come to better know God – the God who made himself lonely.

So if Pope Francis relaxes the rule of priestly celibacy, he will be depriving many priests of this opportunity. He will be conceding to the logic of this world, which desperately flees from loneliness and thereby turns away from the face of the crucified Lord.

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