Celibacy: A Vacancy for God

Rather than attempt to explain any of this concept in my own words, I’m going to give you the priest’s words I read. The following is an excerpt from Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book Clowning in Rome: Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer, and Contemplation.

The best definition of celibacy, I think, is the definition of Thomas Aquinas, who calls celibacy a vacancy for God. To be a celibate means to be empty for God, to be free and open for God’s presence, to be available for God’s service. This view on celibacy, however, has often led to the false idea that being empty for God is a special privilege of celibates, while other people involved in all sorts of interpersonal relationships are not empty but full, occupied as well as preoccupied…

“I think that celibacy can never be considered a special prerogative of a few members of the people of God. Celibacy, in its deepest sense of creating and protecting emptiness for God, is an essential part of all forms of Christian life: marriage, single life, and community life. We will never fully understand what it means to be celibate unless we recognize that celibacy is, first of all, an element and even an essential element in the life of all Christians. Let me illustrate how this is true in marriage…

“Marriage is not a lifelong attraction of two individuals to each other but a call for two people to witness together to God’s love. The basis of marriage is not mutual affection of feelings, or emotions and passions that we associate with love, but a calling, a vocation. It is to understand that we are elected to build together a house for God in this world. It is to be like the two cherubs whose outstretched wings sheltered the Ark of the Covenant and created a space where Yahweh could be present (Ex. 25:10-12; 1 Ki. 8:6-7). Marriage is a relationship where man and woman protect and nurture the inner sanctum within and between them, and they witness to that by the way that they love each other. We often think the word vocation applies only to those called to religious life, but marriage is also a vacare Deo, a call of God. And celibacy is an important part of marriage. This is not simply because married couples may have to live separated from each other for long periods of time. Nor is it because they may need to abstain from sexual relations because of physical, mental, or spiritual reasons. It is rather that the intimacy of marriage itself is an intimacy that is based on the common participation in a love greater than the love that two people can offer each other. The real mystery of marriage is not that husband and wife love each other so much that they can recognize God in each other’s lives, but more because God loves them so much that they can discover each other more and more as living reminders of God’s divine presence. They are brought together, indeed, as two prayerful hands extended toward God and formning in this way a home for God in this world.”

I adore the picture Nouwen paints of the husband and wife’s hands joined in prayer creating a space for the Lord of Heaven to sit between them just as He sat upon the Mercy Seat between the protective and honoring arms of the cherubim. Perhaps because I have always had a sort of mystical adoration for the Ark of the Covenant, this image speaks so profoundly to me. I cannot escape the stunning beauty of this image, though, and it lingers in my mind and makes me smile at random moments simply because I am in awe of how literary my Abba is.


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