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Posted March 25, 2006

Some Thoughts on Celibacy
from the book The Risk of Discipleship

[Already posted on our website]

Many priests fall in love. They realize whom they would have wished to marry had they not been ordained. The recognition and acceptance of that love is an overwhelming, uplifting experience; it can be comforting, but also painful. To love deeply, but not to be able to give expression to that love and, moreover, to be always at a certain distance from the person you love, is costly. It is easy to identify with the sentiments expressed in a letter written during th Blitz in the Second World War, when a married couple were separated, which said, “Sometimes in London I look up at a raw edge of masonry where a room has vanished from the other room, and I feel I know that loss and incompleteness as well as I know anything in life. I’m not a whole person alone. The cross we are asked to bear may seem unbearable. And yet the knowledge of that love can be a source of great strength, while, at the same time, it may also seem in some degree to qualify and lessen our love for God. These loves can look like rivals. The head may be able to reconcile them, but the heart aches. I used to wonder and worry about it.

Then one summer during a retreat I was asked to use a text for prayer that passage from the prophecy of Jeremiah where the prophet is sent to the potter’s house and finds him working at his wheel. And Jeremiah reports that ‘the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.’ I read it as a harsh text, this text about breaking. It made me wonder about my love for one particular person over many years. The love may have been chaste, but had she nevertheless meant too much to me? It was not a scruple. Had this love in fact absorbed too much of my time and attention? Had it in some way compromised my commitment to God? Should I not have been rather like the potter and broken it and reworked it? Yet to deny the goodness of that love seemed to me wrong. It was a hard and distressing moment. I wondered whether the particular grace of the retreat would be to discover the courage to make that break and end what I had so valued. But I could not see how that would be right. I felt bemused. Then I noticed the words which come next, ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? And I heard them, not as harsh words, requiring a break, but as gentle words, which inspire trust. And I knew that the Lord could do that, not break, but renew, rework. And I felt overcome with love and gratitude. I realized that, if I had in a way seen the two loves as rivals, I need do so no longer. I may still feel ‘the edge of the tear’, but have discovered how to live with it.

I am not suggesting that my conclusion is a solution for everyone. Each of us is unique. We handle these situations in different ways. All the same, it may perhaps indicate how someone, although celibate, may know what it means to love deeply and intimately and be faithful.