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Henri J. M. N o u w e n , Dr. Theol.

Yale D i v i n i t y S c h o o l

ABSTRACT: Celibacy is d e s c r i b e d as a witness t o t h e i n n e r s a n c t u m , t h e holy,

e m p t y space in h u m a n life. By m a k i n g this space visible, t h e c e l i b a t e m a n or w o m -
a n affirms a n d p r o c l a i m s t h a t all h u m a n i n t i m a c y finds its d e e p e s t m e a n i n g a n d
f u l f i l l m e n t w h e n e x p e r i e n c e d a n d lived as a p a r t i c i p a t i o n in i n t i m a c y w i t h G o d
himself. T h e a u t h o r e x p l o r e s this m e a n i n g of t h e c e l i b a t e life b y discussing t h e
w o r l d in w h i c h t h e c e l i b a t e lives, t h e n a t u r e o f t h e witness t h e c e l i b a t e offers t h e
world, a n d t h e way o f life t h r o u g h w h i c h this witness is a f f i r m e d a n d e n h a n c e d .

When y o u look out over the city of Rome, walk in its streets or ride
its buses, y o u quickly realize that it is a crowded city full of houses,
full of people, full of cars, yes, even full of cats. You see men and
women moving rapidly in all directions, y o u hear joyful and angry
voices mixed with a great variety of street sounds, y o u smell m a n y
odors, especially capuccino, and y o u feel the Italian embrace by which
y o u gain a friend or lose y o u r money. It is a busy, congested city in
which life manifests itself in all its boisterous intensity.
But in the midst of this lively and colorful conglomeration of houses,
people and cars, there are the domes of Rome pointing to the places
set apart for the Holy One. The churches of Rome are like beautiful
frames around e m p t y spaces, witnessing to him who is the quiet, still
center of all h u m a n life. The churches are not useful, not practical,
not demanding immediate action or quick response. They are spaces
without loud noises, hungry movements or impatient gestures. They
are tranquil spaces, strangely e m p t y most of the time. They speak a
different language than the world around them. They do not want to
be museums. They want to invite us to be silent, to sit or kneel, to
listen attentively and to rest with our whole being.
A city without carefully protected empty spaces in which one can

Henri N o u w e n is Professor of Pastoral T h e o l o g y at Yale Divinity School, 4 0 9

P r o s p e c t Street, N e w Haven, C o n n e c t i c u t 0 6 5 1 0 . His article was first p r e s e n t e d
as a l e c t u r e at t h e N o r t h A m e r i c a n College in R o m e , Italy o n F e b r u a r y 10, 1978.

Pastoral Psychology, Vol. 27(2), Winter 1978 79

0031-2789/78/1600-0079500.95©1978 Human Sciences Press
80 Pastoral Psychology

sense the silence f r om which all words grow, and rest in the stillness
f r o m which all actions flow, is a city in danger of losing its real center.
I wo n d er if the busy city with its many quiet places c a n n o t offer
us an image o f what celibacy might mean in our c o n t e m p o r a r y socie-
ty. After all, isn't the active street life an expression of t hat part o f us
that wants to be with others, to move and to produce? And isn't the
dome, carefully protecting some e m p t y space, a reminder o f that oth-
er part o f us th at needs to be p r o t e c t e d and even defended so that
our lives are n o t r obbe d of their c o m m o n center? Our inner sanctum,
t h a t inner holy place, t ha t sacred center in our lives where only God
may enter, is as i m p o r t a n t in our lives as are the domes in the city of
Rome. Much can be said a b o u t celibacy. But I want to speak a b o u t
it tonight from just one perspective. I want to l ook at celibacy as a
witness to the inner sanctum in our own lives and in the lives of oth-
ers. By giving a special visibility to this inner sanctum, this hol y emp-
t y space in h u m a n life, the celibate man or wom an wants to affirm
and proclaim that all h u m a n intimacy finds its deepest meaning and
fulfillment when it is experienced and lived as a participation in inti-
macy with God himself.
In order to explore a little more the meaning of the witness of the
celibate life, I would like to focus on three areas: the world in which
celibacy is lived; the nature of the witness which the celibate offers
to this world; and the way of life through which this witness is en-
hanced and strengthened.

The World

The world in which celibacy wants t o be a witness for a h o l y emp-

ty space is a world that puts great emphasis on interpersonal relation-
ships. We can safely say t ha t in recent Western culture the value of
coming together, being together, living together, and loving together
has received more a t t e n t i o n than ever before. The healing pow er of
eye contact, of attentive listening, and of the careful t ouch has been
explored by m a n y psychologists, sensitivity trainers and communica-
tion experts. Practically every year y o u can hear about a new t y p e of
therapy, a new f or m of consciousness-raising or a new m e t h o d of
communication, and m a ny people suffering from feelings of isolation,
alienation or loneliness have f ound new hop e and strength in these
experiments in togetherness. Just seeing the great popularity and the
growing influence of Re-evaluation T he r apy is enough to convince a
sympathetic observer t hat it is responding to a deep need.
Henri J. M. N o u w e n 81

We indeed need each ot her and are able to give each ot her m uch
m or e than we o f t e n realize. T o o long have celibates been burdened
by fear and guilt, and t oo long have we denied each other the affec-
tion and closeness we rightly desire. We therefore have much t o learn
fr o m those who are trying to open up new and more creative inter-
personal relations.
But still, critical questions need to be raised too. Can real intimacy
be reached w i t h o u t a deep respect for t ha t holy place within and be-
tween us, that space t h a t should remain u n t o u c h e d by h u m a n hands?
Can h u m a n intimacy really be fulfilling when every space within and
between us is being filled up? Is the emphasis on the healing possibili-
ties of h u m a n togetherness n o t of t e n the result of a one-sided percep-
tion o f our h u m a n predicament? These questions have a new urgency
in the time of the hum a n potential movements. I often w o n d e r if we
do n o t th in k or feel t ha t our painful experiences o f loneliness are pri-
marily a result o f a lack of interpersonal closeness. We seem to think,
" I f I could just break through m y fear of expressing m y real feelings
of love and hostility, if I could just feel free to hold a friend, if I could
just talk honestly and openly with m y own people, if I could just live
with someone who really cares . . . . then I would have again some in-
ner peace and experience again some inner wholeness."
When any o f these experiences do becom e a reality for us, we feel
in fact a certain relief, but the question remains if the real source of
our healing and wholeness can be f o u n d in them. In a world in which
traditional patterns of hum a n c o m m u n i c a t i o n have broken dow n and
in which family, profession, or village no longer offer the intimate
bonds th ey did in the past, the basic hum a n condition of aloneness
has entered so deeply into our emotional awareness t hat we are con-
stantly t e m p t e d to want more from our fellow h u m a n beings than
t h ey can give. When we relate to our neighbors with the supposition
t h at t h e y are able to fulfill our deepest needs, we will find ourselves
increasingly frustrated. When we e x p e c t a friend or lover to be able
to take away our deepest pain, we e x p e c t from him or her something
t h at c a n n o t be given by hum a n beings. No h u m a n being can under-
stand us fully, no h u m a n being can give us unconditional love, no hu-
man being can offer c ons t ant affection, no h u m a n being can enter
into the core o f our being and heal our deepest brokenness. Every
time we forget this and e xpe c t f r om others more than t h e y can give,
we make these others into gods and ourselves into demons. When we
do n o t receive what we expect, we easily becom e resentful, bitter,
revengeful, and even violent.
82 Pastoral Psychology

Lately we have become very much aware of the fragile border between in-
timacy and violence. We see or hear about cruelty between husband and
wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters~ and we begin to notice thai:
those who so desperately desire to be loved often find themselves entan-
gled in violent relationships. Listening become overhearing, a tender gaze
becomes a suspicious look, caressing becomes slapping, kissing becomes
biting, and surrender becomes rape. The horrendous stories in the daily pa-
pers about sexual aggression, mutilation and murder evoke the vision of
people desperately grasping each other and clinging to each other, crying
out and shouting for love, but receiving nothing but more violence.

Spinoza's words, " N a t ur e abhors a vacuum," seem quite applicable

to us. The t e m p t a t i o n is indeed very great to take flight into an inti-
macy that leaves no open space. Much suffering results from this suf-
focating closeness.
A good image to describe our predicament is f o u n d in the book,
Existential Metapsychiatry, by the New York psychiatrist, Dr. Thom-
as Hora. Thomas Hora calls the great emphasis on the interpersonal
relationship as the way to healing "personalism," and he compares
this personalism with the interlocking fingers of two hands. The fin-
gers of the two hands can intertwine only to that point where a stale-
mate is reached. After that, the only possible m o v e m e n t is backwards,
causing friction and eventually pain; and t oo much friction leads to
separation. When we relate to each ot her like the interlocking fingers
of two hands, we enter into a suffocating closeness which does n o t
leave any free space. When lonely people with a strong desire for inti-
macy move closer and closer to each other in the hope of coming to
an experience o f belonging and wholeness, t hey all t oo frequent l y
find themselves locked in a situation in which closeness leads to fric-
tion, friction to pain, and pain to separation.
Many marriages are so short-lived precisely because there is an in-
tense desire for closeness and a minimal a m o u n t of space that allows
for free movement. Because of the high emotional e x p e c t a t i o n with
which th ey enter into a relationship, married couples oft en panic
when th ey do n o t experience the inner c o n t e n t m e n t t hey had hoped
for. T h e y may t r y very hard to alleviate their tensions by exploring
in much detail their life together, only to end up in a stalemate. Ex-
hausted, th ey finally are forced to separate in order to avoid mutual
D o c t o r Hora suggests as the image for a true hum an relationship
the folded hands which together point b e y o n d themselves. This leaves
much free space for the hands to move further from or closer t o each
other. I find this a very helpful image precisely because it makes it
H e n r i J. M. N o u w e n 83

clear that a mature h u m a n intimacy requires a deep and p r o f o u n d re-

spect for the free and empty space which needs to exist within and
between partners and which asks for a continuous mutual protection
and nurture. Only in this way can a relationship be lasting, because
in such a relationship mutual love is experienced as a participation in
a greater and earlier love to which it points. In such a relationship,
intimacy can be rich and fruitful because it has been given carefully
protected space in which to grow. Such a relationship is no longer a
fearful clinging to each other, but a free dance that allows space in
which we can move forward and backward, form constantly new pat-
terns, and see each other as always new.
The world in which we live is a world with many fearful, lonely,
and anxious people clinging to each other in the desperate hope of
finding some relief, some satisfaction, and some joy. The tragedy of
our world is that much of the intense desire for love, acceptance, and
belonging is cruelly turned into jealousy, resentment, and violence,
often to the bitter surprise of those who had no other desire than to
live in peace and love.
In this world, with so many people anxiously clinging to each oth-
er, a sign of hope needs to be given. Celibacy, as a visible manifesta-
tion of the holy space in this overcrowded y e t terribly e m p t y world,
can be a powerful witness in the service of mature human relation-

The Witness

The best definition of celibacy, I think, is the definition of Thomas

Aquinas. Thomas calls celibacy a vacancy for God. To be a celibate
means to be empty for God, to be free and open for his presence, to
be available for his service This view of celibacy, however, has often
led to the false idea t h a t being empty for God is a special privilege re-
served for celibates, and that other people, who are involved in all
sorts of interpersonal relationships, are not empty but full, occupied
as well as preoccupied. If we contrast celibacy as a way of life that
upholds the importance of God's presence in our lives with other
ways of life that lead to entanglement in worldly affairs, we quickly
slip into a dangerous elitism that views celibates as if they were the
domes rising above the many low houses of the city.
I think t h a t 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, friendship, single life, and com-
84 Pastoral Psychology

m u n i t y life. We will n e v e r fully u n d e r s t a n d w h a t it m e a n s t o be celi-

b a t e unless we realize t h a t celibacy is first o f all an e l e m e n t , i n d e e d
an essential e l e m e n t , in t h e life o f all Christians. L e t m e illustrate this
w i t h m a r r i a g e a n d friendship.
Marriage is n o t a life-long a t t r a c t i o n of t w o individuals t o each oth-
er, b u t a call f o r t w o p e o p l e to witness t o G o d ' s love t o g e t h e r . T h e
basis o f m a r r i a g e is n e i t h e r m u t u a l a f f e c t i o n n o r t h e feelings, e m o -
tions a n d passions we associate with love. Its basis is r a t h e r a voca-
tion, a b e i n g e l e c t e d t o build t o g e t h e r a h o u s e f o r G o d in this w o r l d ,
a call to be like t h e t w o c h e r u b s w h o s e o u t s t r e t c h e d wings sheltered
t h e a r k o f t h e c o v e n a n t a n d c r e a t e d a s p a c e in w h i c h Y a h w e h c o u l d
be p r e s e n t ( E x o d u s 2 5 : 1 0 - 2 2 ; I Kings 8:6-7). W h a t I a m t r y i n g to ex-
press h e r e is t h a t m a r r i a g e is a r e l a t i o n s h i p in w h i c h a m a n and a w o m -
an p r o t e c t a n d n u r t u r e t h e inner s a n c t u m w i t h i n and b e t w e e n t h e m
a n d witness to t h a t b y t h e w a y t h e y love each o t h e r . Marriage t o o ,
t h e r e f o r e , is a vacare D e o . C e l i b a c y is p a r t o f m a r r i a g e n o t s i m p l y be-
cause m a r r i e d c o u p l e s m u s t be able t o live a p a r t f r o m o n e a n o t h e r
f o r long p e r i o d s of t i m e , or b e c a u s e t h e y m u s t be able t o a b s t a i n
f r o m sexual relations f o r physical, m e n t a l or spiritual reasons, b u t be-
cause t h e i n t i m a c y of m a r r i a g e itself is an i n t i m a c y w h i c h is b a s e d o n
a c o m m o n p a r t i c i p a t i o n in a love greater t h a n t h e love t w o p e o p l e
can o f f e r each other. The real m y s t e r y o f marriage is n o t t h a t hus-
b a n d and wife love each o t h e r so m u c h t h a t t h e y can find G o d in each
o t h e r ' s life, b u t t h a t G o d loves t h e m so m u c h t h a t t h e y c a n discover
each o t h e r m o r e and m o r e as living r e m i n d e r s o f his divine presence.
T h e y are b r o u g h t t o g e t h e r , indeed, as t w o h a n d s praising G o d a n d
f o r m i n g in this w a y a h o m e f o r h i m in this world.
T h e s a m e thing is t r u e o f friendship. D e e p and m a t u r e f r i e n d s h i p
d o e s n o t m e a n t h a t we c o n t i n u a l l y l o o k at each o t h e r a n d are con-
s t a n t l y i m p r e s s e d o r e n r a p t u r e d b y e a c h o t h e r ' s b e a u t y , talents, and
gifts, b u t it m e a n s t h a t t o g e t h e r we l o o k at h i m w h o calls us t o his

I was deeply impressed by the way the members of the San Egidio commu-
nity in Rome described their relationship with each other. They made it
clear to me that friendship is very important to them, but that they have
to learn in their apostolate to see their relationship with each other in the
context of their common call. As soon as the relationship itself becomes
central, they are moving away from their vocation. They must be willing
to let new developments in their apostolate separate them from each other
for certain periods of time. They also must be willing to see and experience
their separations as an invitation to deepen their relationship with their
Lord and through Him with each other. This is why they feel so strongly
that their weekly Eucharist and their daily Vespers form the source of their
Henri J. M. N o u w e n 85

love for each other. There they find each other as friends, there they strength-
en their commitment to each other, and there they find the courage to fol-
low their Lord even when he asks them to go in different directions. Thus,
their relationship is really a standing together around the altar or around
the holy empty space indicated by the icon. Together they want to protect
the empty space in and between each other.

Thus marriage and friendship carry within their center a h o l y va-

cancy, a space which is for God and God alone. Without that hol y cen-
ter, marriage as well as friendship become like a city w i t h o u t domes,
a city th at forgets the meaning and direction of its own activities.
We can now see that celibacy has a very i m p o r t a n t place in our
world. The celibate makes his or her life into a visible witness for the
priority of God in our lives, a sign to remind all people that w i t h o u t
the inner sanctum our lives lose c o n t a c t with their source and goal.
We belong to God. All people do. Celibates are people who, by n o t
attaching themselves to any one particular person, remind us t hat t he
relationship with God is the beginning, the source, and the goal of all
h u m a n relationships.
By his or her life of non- a t t a c hm ent , the celibate lifts up an aspect
of the Christian life which we all need to be reminded of. T he celi-
bate is like the clown in the circus who, between the starring acts of
the trapeze artists and lion tamers, fumbles and falls and so reminds
us that all h u m a n activities are ultimately n o t as i m p o r t a n t as the vir-
tuosi make us believe. Celibates live out the hol y emptiness in their
lives b y n o t marrying, by n o t trying to build for themselves a house
or a fortune, by n o t trying to wield as m uch influence as possible and
by n o t filling their lives with events, people, or creations for which
t h e y will be r em e m ber e d. T h e y hope t hat by their e m p t y lives, G od
will be recognized as the source of all h u m a n thoughts and actions.
Especially b y n o t marrying and by abstaining from the m ost intimate
expression of h u m a n love, the celibate becomes a living sign of the
limits o f interpersonal relationships and the centrality of the inner
sanctum t h a t no h u m a n being may violate.
To whom, then, is this witness directed? I dare to say t h a t celibacy
is first o f all a witness to all those who are married. I w o n d e r if we
have explored enough the very i m p o r t a n t relationship bet w een mar-
riage and celibacy. Lately, we have b e c o m e aware of this interrelated-
ness in a very painful way. The crisis of celibacy and the crisis of mar-
ried life appeared together. At the same time that m any priests and
religious are moving away f r om the celibate life, we see m a n y cou-
ples questioning the value of their c o m m i t m e n t to each other. These
two p h e n o m e n a , although t hey are n o t c o n n e c t e d as cause and effect,
86 Pastoral Psychology

are closely related because marriage and celibacy are two mutually
supporting ways of living within the Christian com m uni t y. Celibacy
is a support to married people in their c o m m i t m e n t to each other.
The celibate reminds those who live together in marriage of their own
celibate center which t he y need to p r o t e c t and nurture in order to
live a life that depends n o t simply upon the stability of their emo-
tions and affections, but on their c o m m o n love for the G od who
called t h e m together. On the ot he r hand, married people also witness
to those who have chosen the celibate life by reminding t h e m t hat it
is the love for God that makes rich and creative hum an relationships
possible and th a t the value of the celibate life becomes manifest in
generous, affectionate and faithful care for those in need. Married
people remind celibates that t hey t oo live in covenant and t hat they
t o o are brides and grooms. Thus, celibacy and marriage need each
other for mutual support.

In this context it might be valuable to point out that celibates can indeed
have a very good understanding of married life and married people of celi-
bate life. Remarks such as: "You don't know what you are talking about be-
cause you are not married or celibate" are very misleading. Precisely be-
cause marriage and celibacy are in each other's service and bound together
by their common witness to God's love as the love from which all human
relationships originate, celibate and married people can be of invaluable
help to each other by supporting their different ways of life.

But it is n o t only to those who are married that celibacy witnesses

for the inner sanctum. Together with marriage, celibacy speaks of the
presence o f God in the world to a nyone who is there to listen. In a
world so congested and so entangled in conflict and pain, celibates,
by their dedication to God in a single life-style, and married people,
by their dedication to God in a life together, are signs of God's pres-
ence in this world. T he y both call in different ways for us to turn to
God as the source of all hum a n relationships. T h e y both say in differ-
ent says that by n o t giving God his rightful place in the midst of the
city, we all perish in the hopeless a t t e m p t t o fabricate peace and love
by ourselves. The celibate speaks of the necessity of respecting the
inner sanctum at all costs; the married Christian speaks of the neces-
sity o f basing h u m an relationships on the intimacy with G od himself.
But both speak for God and his Lordship in this world, and together
t h e y give form to the Christian c o m m u n i t y and stand out as signs of
Thus, celibacy is a very i m p o r t a n t witness in a world t hat is so t orn
H e n r i J. M. N o u w e n 87

by loneliness and conflict, a world t h a t tries so hard to create better

h u m a n relationships but so easily f o r g e t , to allow space for him who
sent his son to remind us t hat we can only love each ot her because he
has loved us first.

The Way o f Life

When we lo o k at celibacy as a vacare Deo, a being e m p t y for God

as a visible witness for the inner sanctum in everyone's life, then it
becomes clear th at sexual abstinence can never be the m ost impor-
tant aspect o f celibacy. Not being married or n o t being involved in a
sexual relationship does n o t constitute the celibate life. Celibacy is
an openness to God of which sexual abstinence is only one manifes-
tation. Celibacy is a way of life in which We try to witness to the pri-
ority o f God in all relationships. This involves every part of our life--
the way we eat and drink, work and play, sleep and rest, speak and
are silent. It is an openness to God acted out in such a way t hat it
must raise questions in those we encounter. It is a sort of a life-long
street theatre constantly trying to raise questions in people's mind
a b o u t the deeper meaning of their own existence.
Therefore, we need to see celibacy as a way of life in which we wit-
ness to God's place in this world in m any ways other than sexual ab-
stinence. I would like y o u to consider two aspects of celibacy which
t o d a y seem to be of special importance for a way of life t h a t empha-
sizes life as a vacancy for God. T h e y are contemplative prayer and
voluntary poverty.
Contemplative prayer is an essential element of the celibate life be-
cause it is first of all an attitude of being e m p t y for God. Contempla-
tive prayer is n o t a way of being busy with God instead of people,
b u t it is an attitude in which we recognize God's ultimate priority by
being useless in his presence, by standing in f r o n t of him w i t h o u t
anything to show, to prove, or to argue, and by allowing him to en-
ter our emptiness. There is a very intimate c o n n e c t i o n bet w een celi-
bacy and contemplative prayer, because both are expressions of be-
ing e m p t y for God. In our utilitarian culture, in which we suffer from
a collective compulsion to do something practical, helpful or useful,
and to make a c o n t r i b u t i o n t ha t can give us a sense of w ort h, con-
templative prayer is a f or m o f radical criticism. It is n o t useful or
practical, b u t a way of wasting time for God. It applies a brake to our
busyness and reminds us and others t hat it is God, and n o t we, who
creates and sustains the world. Therefore, contemplative p r a y e r un-
88 Pastoral Psychology

derstood as standing naked, powerless and vulnerable for G od before

the world is one of the m os t i m p o r t a n t expressions of the celibate
way of life.
In this useless prayer, God can show us his love. When we are emp-
ty, free and open, we can be with him, l ook at him, listen to him, and
slowly begin to realize t hat he is our loving Fat her who loves us with
a deep, intimate affection. It is very i m p o r t a n t for a celibate to devel-
op a warm, affective and intimate prayer life in which the gentle, car-
ing love of God can be experienced and enjoyed. In this contempla-
tive prayer we becom e really free, we sense t hat we are accepted, that
we belong, that we are n o t totally alone but that we live in the em-
brace of him whose f a t h e r h o o d includes motherly, b r o t h e r l y and sis-
terly love. Once we really know him in prayer, then we can live in
this world with o ut the need to cling to a nyo ne for self-affirmation.
Then we can let the abundance of God's love be the source of all our
Besides contemplative prayer, the celibate way of life also calls for
voluntary poverty. A wealthy celibate is like a fat sprinter. Those who
are serious a b o u t their celibacy must ask themselves: "Am I p o o r ? "
If the answer is: "No, I am much better of f than m ost people, I can
buy mo r e than m y parishioners, eat and drink bet t er than those to
w h o m I minister," then t hey have n o t y e t taken their celibacy seri-
ously. Voluntary pove r t y is pr oba bl y one of the m ost i m p o r t a n t signs
of the celibate life. In fact, m any married people do n o t take celibacy
seriously because t h e y contrast their daily struggle to pay t he bills
for food, housing and education with the carefree life o f celibates,
and wo n d er who is really living out t he witness to the Gospel. If there
is one aspect of c o n t e m p o r a r y ministry that needs emphasis t o d a y it
is voluntary poverty. In a time in which we have b e c o m e so aware of
the sins o f capitalism and hear daily a b o u t the millions who suffer
fr o m lack o f food, shelter and the most basic care, we c a n n o t consid-
er ourselves witnesses for God's presence when our own lives are clut-
tered with material possessions, our bellies overfull and our minds
c ro wd ed with worries a b o u t what to do with what we have. Volun-
tary p o v er ty is now pr obabl y the most necessary form of our vacancy
for God. It is the most convincing sign of our solidarity with the world
as we k n o w it today, and the most powerful support for a life o f sex-
ual abstinence. Wherever the church is vital, it is poor. This is true in
Europe: lo o k at the work o f the missionaries of charity and at the
little sisters and brothers in Rome. It is true in Latin America: look
at the new forms of ministry in Mexico, Paraguay and Brazil. It is
true t o o in the United States: look at the Catholic Worker and the
Henri J. M. Nouwen 89

Sojourners community. You can almost say: "Wherever the Church

renews itself it embraces voluntary poverty as a spontaneous response
to the situation in this world, a response which expresses criticism of
the growing wealth of the few and solidarity with the growing misery
of the many.
What this poverty means concretely in the life of each of us is hard
to say because this needs to be discerned in everyone's individual life.
But I dare say that anyone who practices contemplative prayer in a
disciplined way will be confronted sooner or later with Christ's words
to the young rich man, because if one thing is certain it is that we are
all young, rich and asking: "Teacher, what must I do to possess ever-
lasting life?" It is not clear y e t that we are ready to hear the answer.
Thus, we can say that contemplative prayer and voluntary poverty
are the two main pillars which support a celibate way of life.


As I try to summarize and conclude these thoughts on celibacy, I

am painfully aware that many questions y o u probably have about
celibacy have hardly been touched. I have not discussed h o w our sex-
ual drives, desires and needs can be creatively integrated into a celi-
bate life-style. I have n o t talked about the important relationship be-
tween celibacy and c o m m u n i t y life, and I have not spoken about the
value of celibacy for a concrete day-to-day ministry. The main reason
for this is that I wanted very consciously to avoid emphasizing the
usefulness of celibacy. By speaking about celibacy as a way of life
that makes us more available to our fellow h u m a n beings, that en-
courages us to share our gifts with many people, and that makes us
more able to move freely to different places where the h u m a n needs
ask most urgently for a pastoral response--by speaking about celibacy
in this way, I might make it too useful and might take away too quick-
ly the foolishness of making oneself a eunuch for the Kingdom of
Heaven (Matthew 19:12).
Jesus did n o t present celibacy as a very practical, useful and effec-
tive way of life. By saying about celibacy, " L e t anyone accept this
who can," he makes it clear that celibacy is n o t the most acceptable,
understandable, or obvious choice in one's life. To make celibacy use-
ful would, therefore, be more in homage to the spirit of American
pragmatism than to the spirit of the Gospel. To protect and nurture
vacancy for God in the midst of a world which searches for ways to
become full and to offer self-fulfillment can hardly be useful or prac-
tical. Standing empty-handed in the presence of God is n o t useful,
90 Pastoral Psychology

divesting oneself of possessions is n o t practical, and living a life with-

o u t an intimate com pa ni on and w i t hout children is certainly n o t very
smart. And let us n o t act as if t hey were. But still, contemplative
prayer, voluntary p o v e r t y and sexual abstinence are three elements
o f a celibate way of life which together witness to the necessity of
creating a vacancy where we can listen to God's voice and celebrate
his presence in our midst. Only when we are willing to accept the use-
lessness, impracticality and foolishness of this way o f life, might we
be allowed to realize that perhaps celibacy might be effective after
all. However, this t y p e of effectiveness does n o t belong to the world
but to the Kingdom of God, and can only be known when we have
experienced fully the pain of our emptiness.
In the circus of life we indeed are the clowns. Let us train ourselves
well so that those who watch us will smile and recognize t hat in the
midst o f our crowded city, we have to keep a place for him who loves
his stubborn and hardheaded children with an infinite tenderness and

Reference Note
1. Thomas Hora, Existential Metapsychiatry (New York: Seabury Press, 1977),
p. 32.

It is with deep regret t ha t we inform y o u of the death of

Father Charles A. Curran, a m e m b e r o f our Editorial
Board, on July 25, 1978. Fat her Curran served as Professor
o f Psychology at L o y o l a o f Chicago and was the f o u n d e r
o f the Counselor-Learning Institute. His contribution to
pastoral care and counseling was substantial and he will be
genuinely missed.

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