Sunday 2 June 2024


 There was an interesting article on the Orthosphere recently on celibacy by Professor J.M. Smith with which I am in broad though not complete agreement, and I thought I would offer my take on the subject here. I feel I can comment from the position of someone who has lived both lives, that of the celibate in early manhood and the married with children later on. The celibate phase was intentional not through disinclination, bad luck, negligence or failure, and it was because I was leading a life dedicated to the spiritual path as described in my book Meeting the Masters. 

I understand Professor Smith's point about the quality of priests being improved by abandoning the requirement of celibacy. It might weed out some of the sexual oddities and encourage more full-blooded males to join a group which they might thereby render more masculine and less effete. It would certainly widen the pool of available talent. But then you have to look at some of the vicars in the Church of England and wonder, would it really? I don't know. I would say, though, that to judge an institution by its defects does give a one-sided view of the overall picture.

Professor Smith's article is about priestly and monastic celibacy but I would like to open up the discussion to celibacy as part of the spiritual path and whether it still has a place. First off, I must say that celibacy is and ought to be difficult. It is not natural and those for whom it poses no problem are, in my opinion, not properly developed. Fruitfulness and fertility are wholesome expressions in the physical world of joy and creativity. Desire is godly because it is the flame of love as manifested in the human mind and body.

Yes, desire is godly, pace Buddhism, but attachment to desire is, if not sinful in itself, conducive to sin. It also binds one to the material world and material things. Now, celibates can be as full of desire as the promiscuous and sometimes even more so if suppressed energy, given no natural outlet, festers away beneath the surface and becomes a constant focus of attention. But the ideal of celibacy is to detach oneself from the world and be focused entirely on God. The world of matter, the Creation, is certainly good, but it is not the Creator and it may be that to have a full relationship with God one must turn away from his things and face directly towards him. As far as we know, Jesus was celibate and he seemed to ask his disciples to devote themselves full time to their spiritual lives which is hard to do if you have a wife and children to support. This may be a requirement only for those who are seeking a deeper contact with God but we may all have to become celibate at some time if we would attain to that deeper contact.

There are two aspects to the celibate life. One I have just mentioned and that is the need to give proper attention to a wife and family. The married man cannot devote himself to God quite as much as the celibate. His attention is necessarily divided, at least until a certain later stage of married life. That doesn't mean celibacy in itself is positive but it may be a positive negative. The second aspect is sex itself. This mysterious energy is the most powerful we know of, excepting for some the love of God. While not being a need, it is more intense than any need and more fulfilling in its satisfaction. Some traditions speak of this energy requiring to be turned inwards and upwards rather than expressed outwardly and would say that outward expression mitigates against the reorientation inwardly just as a river cannot flow in two directions at the same time. We have to make water flow uphill, back to the source. A lot of spiritually interested people reject this idea nowadays but it has a notable pedigree and one wonders if the modern rejection comes from the fact that we simply want to have our cake and eat it too, and look for reasons to justify doing what we want to do or are unable not to do.

Energy follows thought. In all cases, it is the mind that matters more than the body. By this criterion actual celibacy is less important than the state of the mind. At the same time, a mind truly focused on God will naturally seek less external stimulation and result in a body requiring less external satisfaction.

In the ancient Indian way of spiritual development there were four stages of life known as Asramas. The first was that of the student known as Brahmacharya which lasted to about the age of 25 and in which celibacy was enjoined. Then came the stage of Grihastha which was that of the married householder wherein one raised a family and fulfilled and enjoyed all the material demands and satisfactions of life though always within a spiritual context meaning one of virtue and religious devotion. After the age of 50 came the retirement stage of Vanaprastha when one started to withdraw from the world and focus one's energies more on Moksha, liberation or salvation as we might call it in the West. If one wasn't celibate necessarily then sex was certainly something that should be receding from one's mind and attention. The fourth and final stage was that of Sannyasa which was the life of complete renunciation and here again celibacy was enjoined though as the normal age for entering on this stage was 75 that should not be too much of a problem. This all represented the natural path of the soul through the world and returning to spirit and I think still represents a good path for everyone though it should be noted that anyone could move into the Sannyasa stage straight from that of Brahmacharya if one felt particularly called to the spiritual life.  

This Indian system tells us that celibacy has its place in the spiritual life, particularly at the beginning and end, but so does married life in which the full enjoyment of sex is not only permitted but encouraged as a good and healthy thing. There is no rejection of the body here but its incorporation into a grander scheme of things that has the ultimate aim of union with God though for this to take place it is expected that the soul is able to move beyond the demands of the physical body, the energies of which must be purified and transmuted. This means desire must be directed towards God.

Some might think this Indian description of life stages has no relevance for the Christian but I believe it has a universal application. If we think of the spiritual path as consisting of salvation and deification with the former as the preparatory stage and the latter as the ultimate aim then we might say that celibacy has a role to play in the context of deification as an occasional discipline and necessary condition for progress to be made. Every soul seeking full union with God, which union renders the soul divine in itself, must develop an exclusive relationship with God and that means all other loves and attachments must be renounced. The creation must be renounced for full knowledge of the Creator. But this may just be a stage. If we say that God himself has a spouse which is the redeemed part of Creation so every soul, as a reflection of its Creator, does likewise, and having reached conscious union with the Creator the soul can then turn back and re-embrace creation, though in the full light of God.

 Jesus said there was no marrying in heaven but his first miracle was at a wedding and religion constantly speaks of spiritual completion in terms of a marriage. There might appear to be a contradiction here but perhaps Jesus was speaking in terms of earthly marriage. There is also spiritual marriage, ultimately that between God and Creation but also between every individual soul, on the vertical plane with God its Creator for whom every soul is female, and on the horizontal with its created other half. Celibacy relates to the union with God but the sanctified soul does not just exist in that union. It also has relationships with other souls and among these is the reflection of the Cosmic Marriage of Spirit and Matter on its own level.


Atlantis Insight said...

That was a good overview.

In relation to ancient ideas, the main focus missing from most people's conception of celibacy is that of bio-energy.

The bio-energetic aspects of celibacy are rarely addressed at how they impact the personal or civilizational level.

In yoga celibacy is a way to to channel bio-energy, prana, the kundalini. It is said all ideals can be created, made manifest, with bramacharya. And no other way.

Today people believe otherwise; yet all is in decline.

In Plato's account, just before the end, the Atlanteans are said look fine on the outside but those with eyes to see could see their moral decline. Illicit and hidden sexual activity, fornication in the Bible, could have been a significant cause of the total destruction of Atlantis.

William Wildblood said...

You are right. The control of the sexual energy is what makes or breaks a civilisation. The ancients understood this. We have totally forgotten it.

NLR said...

Thought-provoking post.

There's more to celibacy than sociology.