Chapter Nine – On Living Alone; the Celibate Life.
(Please note that Jesus is given his Aramaic name of Yeshua).
For Yeshua, the time spent alone in prayer and contemplation after Tamar’s and Sarah’s deaths was both terrible and glorious. Apart from the world of family, away from the conventions of synagogue and Temple, he could unravel layer after layer of illusion, pain and doubt.
For the first days of his journey towards the Jordan he was still too confused to see the world of abundance around him, hardly noticing that when he needed water, he found it; when he required food, it was there. He had always known that passing holy men were fed by farmers and homesteaders and, as a child, he himself had often taken out offerings of bread, cheese and fruit to place on fig leaves in the crook of an olive tree on the road that passed by Nazareth. He had thought it a delightful custom; Simon and Yacob thought it a waste. ‘It will only be eaten by animals,’ they said. But their father was firm. ‘And so what if it is?’ he said. ‘It is an offering to the Lord to do with as He will. It will feed the passing man, angel, bird or beast. The point is to give without expecting an outcome.’
The other boys thought that silly but Yeshua and Yuda liked the practice and it became one of their regular routines. Mary and Salome often wanted to carry the food too but they would be tempted to feed the birds and goats along the way and, anyway, the boys thought their sisters silly and soft.
It was the sight of a mother and baby Oryx bursting through a grove of carob trees that brought memory flooding back. His mind leapt back to childhood, seeing, clearly as if it were happening that very day, his sister, eight-year-old Salome holding out bread to a young Oryx, totally absorbed in its beauty while a leopard crouched, hidden in a grove of mustard and oleander, waiting to pounce. In those days, lion, leopard, cheetah and bear were still common in the hills of the Galilee and shepherds had to be both brave and observant to preserve their flock.
He was twelve; fast enough on his feet to get to his sister and to frighten the animal. His shouts shocked the little girl so she lost her balance and fell. The leopard hesitated, then backed away, wary of the boy’s noise and waving arms. The Oryx bounded off and Salome, horribly shocked, burst into tears. Yeshua picked her up and held her in his arms, turning her face towards him so she would not see the leopard leap, race and catch the Oryx in one, smooth movement. Part of him wondered why he kept the sight from her; she had to grow up, had to know about life and death and the survival of the fittest but he also knew that her innocence was precious. There would be enough blood later on.
This time though he saw no pursuing beast; perhaps his presence had scared it; perhaps it was a false alarm. But the experience opened his eyes and he looked around him at the abundance of life and glory around him.
He was nearly half-way between Nazareth and Bethsaida, walking on paths made by goats and sheep driven by the local shepherds. The landscape was filled with trees and bushes all budding as the spring season was born and, if he paused and breathed deeply, he could just catch a trace of the honeyed scent of the beautiful white and pink almond blossoms on the hillsides to his left.
Something told him to observe and remember. He did not know yet that there were so few years left of his life on Earth or how incredible would be the demands on his time and energy. This might be the last time of complete leisure, of being free.
Below his feet, cyclamen, yellow daisies and red anemones peeped out from the newly sprouting grasses and in every direction he looked there were trees and plants that offered food or medicine; olive, fig, carob, mustard, mint, pistachio, date, wheat, barley. Galilee was bursting with the energy of spring.
Looking up, he saw the distant snows on the crown of Mount Hermon and above that the vast, clear and endless sky and the sun blazing over all Israel.
A kite – or was it an eagle? – soared high overhead and the calls of birds lower to the ground entered his consciousness, calling his attention back towards the ground. A flock of goldfinches was dipping and diving between olive trees and a robin’s clear voice rang out from the heart of a carob bush.
All day he remained in that one spot, almost breathless with the beauty and the wonder of it. He watched bees, ants and beetles in the dry dust, felt the velvet and silk of the flower petals, marvelled at the colour of their stamens and laughed as yellow pollen stained his fingertips.
He saw a pair of storks searching for a place to build their nest and the courtship of two wrens. Below him, on a better-used path, a goatherd and his charges wandered by, the animals taking their time and grazing their way along with bells clanking. The boy’s tuneless whistle caused the birds to cock their heads on one side in wonder and flutter farther away for safety. Then a young couple, the girl pregnant and sitting on the back of a small donkey, the young man slightly anxious and nagging at the beast to walk faster, passed along the pathway.
Yeshua watched it all, seeing the interweaving of life, the pattern of the seasons and feeling the joy of being a part of it all. The goatherd reminded him of his son; the young couple of himself and Tamar, the goldfinches of Sarah, the wrens of his mother. He thought long and hard about his father, Yosef, who had guided him and taught him the value of faith and strength. Now, he could feel the grief as a part of the joy; knowing what he heard, saw, smelled and felt on this day could only be so wonderful having known the life he had lived. At one time, tears coursed down his cheeks but he hardly knew if they came from grief or wonder. At another, a roe deer and her calf walked by, so close he could have reached out and touched them. The baby looked him in the eyes with pure trust and the mother did not swerve on her path.
‘I am so grateful,’ he said at last, causing a grey dove to fly, wings clattering as she rose into the air in surprise at the unexpected voice. ‘I am so glad to be a part of this. We are all treasures held close to one heart; none greater, none lesser. Whatever is to come, I will always have this understanding.’
He was to need it in the three years left to him. He had direct contact with the Divine; every sight he saw, every sound he heard, every word he spoke, every scent he inhaled, every texture he felt was experienced by his God-self and his human self simultaneously; he knew of no difference between the two. And wherever he went there was a companionship of people, the land or animals whenever he stopped and turned to look for them. And in his heart and mind there were memories to comfort and to remind him when his teaching grew too intellectual or too fierce. Then he would see the faces of Tamar, Sarah, Judith, Yosef, Miriam, Susannah and even Leah looking back at him, their stories living in his mind so that he could temper judgment with mercy, wisdom with understanding.
The disciples did not understand his willingness to allow women to join them along the way; they thought it was a weakness in him until he allowed his eyes to flash anger and his tongue to cut their traditional, unthought-through remarks to shreds. Once he had disciples, he was no longer Yeshua the carpenter but Jesus of Nazareth, no longer the husband, father, brother and kin of many but a teacher of souls. No matter how he loved them, Peter, Andrew, John – even his earthly brother Yacob when he joined them – he could not be fully their companion nor they his; he was too close to the Lord and they could not fully understand him.
The relationship with the Divine was all-embracing, filled with mystery and delight but also with awe and, at its heart, a deep loneliness for someone who could truly share his thoughts, beliefs and knowledge.
The disciples, male and female, had each other. They could talk and argue and rest with each other but, to them, he was special and different. They loved and respected him; came to him if they were afraid or confused but they were not his equals in faith nor knowledge.
He wondered often if God were lonely too. Misunderstood, misinterpreted and derided by most. Of course that was a ridiculous thought; God was All, everything and complete but if we, on Earth, reflect the Divine back with our every thought, he considered, perhaps our loneliness is felt above as well.
To walk the Earth without an equal is to be alone no matter how you are surrounded by others. It meant that he could think uniquely; meditate deeply, communicate fully with God and the angels whenever he was alone and had given himself the time to do it. But when he was immersed in the crowds or teaching the men or women who surrounded him more and more as each day went past, there was no one to whom he could confide his human heart; his fears and his everyday wonder at what was happening to him and with whom he could discuss the day with thoughts shared without words and where there was a gentle hand to hold his and offer support, belief and comfort.
Religious ecstasy is quite as powerfully blissful as sexual orgasm and it comes with the advantage of automatically equal joy for your Divine partner. It also comes without any need for compiling joint Christmas card lists; worrying if your spouse is in debt or the need to take out the trash (physically, at least).
So there are advantages to celibacy as well as the obvious disadvantages.
For the majority of the under 40s in the 21st century where sexuality is the prime mover of nearly all advertising, the idea of living forever, or even for a specified time, without sex is challenging to say the least. But we forget how many long-lasting marriages are lived in quiet, unheralded celibacy for whatever reason and which still survive and maybe even thrive. The sexual urge may be very powerful but it is also very much a part of our nature-soul rather than our spiritual essence. A celibate life, lived with passion, may be far more fulfilling than a marriage where the spark has died.
For women, in particular, celibacy has conferred power for centuries – and not just in Christianity. Vestal Virgins, the priestesses of the Roman Goddess of the hearth and fire, were all celibate and they had more power and influence than any other women in Rome. It’s logical to say that, given the fact that there were a maximum of six of them at any one time, they didn’t affect society’s attitude to women and celibacy much but their image was incredibly powerful and even today most people know the appellation ‘Vestal Virgin.’
A chosen virgin, aged between six and ten, had her hair shorn and, from that moment was under the protection of the Goddess rather than her family. Unlike most Roman women, she was not subject to the pater potestas – the father’s right of life or death over his daughter – and could own her own property, make a will, and vote.
She had one other amazing power, which was to nullify a sentence of death on any criminal met accidentally in the street. However, anyone who pushed to see or speak to her deliberately faced the death penalty.
The Vestals were required to take three vows; the first was allegiance to the Goddess Vesta, the second was to keep the Temple’s flame constantly alight. The third vow was of chastity – emulating the goddess herself. If a Vestal Virgin broke this vow, punishment was severe. She was executed by being buried alive in a small underground room where she had room to move, light and food. It was ruled that a body that had been consecrated to sacred service could not be allowed to starve to death. So, the transgressor presumably just waited until the air ran out.
Roman records show that just eighteen of the Vestal Virgins across nine centuries took lovers and suffered this horrible fate. The others either got away with it or counted love well lost in return for service to the goddess and, quite possibly for power.
The vows of the Vestal Virgins were not taken for life, but for 30 years. For the first ten they were students, the second ten they tended the flame as priestesses and for the last ten they trained their successors. At the end of their time in service, aged between 36 and 40 they were free to marry. Very few indeed are on record as having taken up this opportunity, maybe for as simple a reason as they would have to give up all their long-held rights in return for a sexual relationship. For a man, marrying a former Vestal Virgin was highly prestigious; for the woman it would have been a strange experience indeed.
No one has ever recorded whether the Vestals were lonely. They had the company of five peers and despite the normal bickering between colleagues, they were all at the same level; they had the same goals. But were they true companions? Could they share hopes and fears and trust in each other’s kindenss?
What we do know is that being alone is not the only source of loneliness. Many people are bitterly lonely in a bad marriage and many who have been widowed or divorced would never even consider risking another bad bargain.
Early Christianity was a welcome refuge for widows in the Roman world who could ‘take the veil’ of Christ and claim a religious privilege to avoid the Roman requirement for re-marriage for any woman of still reproductive age. Later on, nuns, particularly Prioresses and Abbesses carried great influence in society and they still do in Catholic countries. Many an ex-Catholic school pupil can attest to the power of even the lowliest nun.
Even though they had taken a vow of poverty, in the Middle Ages senior nuns and monks often represented great wealth within their convent or monastery. Until Henry VIII of England’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, a great many of the ecclesiastical centres were incredibly wealthy – and many were also corrupt both financially and sexually.
Nowadays, there are numerous bad-taste jokes about the sexuality of Catholic priests who are frequently tarred with the brush of paedophilia and it is also certain that many men have taken to the celibate priesthood as a way of addressing unwanted, unacknowledged or feared homosexuality. So celibacy can be used as a form of life to hide yourself in rather than addressing your true character – although actively homosexual priests are now being ordained by more liberal dioceses.
There is a common belief that ancient Rome was rife with homosexuality but in fact bisexuality was far more the norm. Aristocratic Roman men had the right to have sex with their male slaves – the penetrative act being acceptable while being penetrated was seen as being effeminate – but openly loving homosexual relationships between men were rare and all men were expected to marry and have children. So the lamentable incidents of Catholic priests and young boys that are reported in the press nowadays are no different from the activities of powerful men in ancient Rome. However, openly homosexual relationships between priests is a much more modern phenomenon.
The word ‘celibacy’ from the Latin caelebs, meaning unmarried, used to mean just that. Given that pre-marital sex was common in ancient Rome, particularly before the Augustinian laws on marriage, you could be a fully sexually-active celibate. However over the centuries the word has come to mean someone who has renounced sex and marriage, especially for religious purposes.
Celibacy was not actually required of Catholic priests until the late Middle Ages although it has been practised voluntarily for 2000 years. Religious groups have included celibates since the principle of withdrawing from the secular world began (the Alexandrian Therapeutae are a good example).
Judaism has always frowned upon celibacy as it banishes the hope of begetting the Messiah. The Essenes embraced it, but only for an inner core of men.
Jesus did not prescribe it although he did say that marriage was not for everyone. His famous speech about eunuchs has been used to justify many forms of celibacy.
What he is reported to have said, in Matthew 19:12 is: “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”
The word eunuch has several meanings. It is the guard of a woman’s bed-chamber; a man who cannot have children for natural reasons or who has been physically castrated or a man who abstains from marriage for any reason whatsoever, religious or not.
As the saying follows directly from the disciples’ comments that marriage was more difficult than they thought it is perfectly fair to say that Jesus is replying that some people simply cannot or do not want to be husbands or wives. He is not saying that marriage is wrong; simply that it is challenging. He is also not talking about homosexuality although it is perfectly understandable, given the bad rap that all forms of homosexuality are given in the Old Testament — and later from St. Paul —for gay people to seek some kind of benediction.
Jesus says nothing against homosexuality in any of the Gospels.
Both men and women who do not feel the natural sexual urges of the average human often find themselves called to the spiritual life but, if they are withdrawn from the world that the rest of us live in, how can they empathise with our worldly problems? The answer given, of course, is that they are inspired by God and that may well be so.
But the urge for celibacy is not common among humanity; sexual drives are natural and powerful. So, apart from the desire by Roman widows not to marry a second time, why did celibacy become so essential part of the early Roman Church?
We are told that the first Christians were inspired by Jesus’ example and St Paul praised virginity as being better than marriage (1 Cor 7) but Paul also made it very clear that he had no instruction from Christ concerning celibacy and all the views he gave were his own.
Virtues of self-control and self-denial and the freedom from family cares which would leave more time for prayer, contemplation and apostolic activity were certainly praised throughout the early church but that’s not all the story.
It’s very important here to look at the context in which any of the New Testament teachings about marriage are couched. In a nutshell, they believed that the end of the world was nigh.
Whether or not Jesus himself actually believed during his lifetime that ‘the end times’ were coming, there words attributed to him imply that something like that was thought to be in the wind, if not immediately:
‘When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first but the end will not come right away.’ Luke 21:9.
A decade after the crucifixion however, the end of the world was being prophesied in a big way – and it was coming sooner rather than later. The early Christians genuinely believed that Jesus would come again in their lifetime and then the day of Judgment would follow: “But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.” 1 Peter 7:7.
Paul himself wrote “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.’”1:4 Thessalonians..
Later, he urges readers of this letter to be alert at all times, because the second coming and the end would happen within their lifetimes. When the Christian Thessalonicans were persecuted by the Roman Empire, they, quite understandably, believed the end had begun
So, all Paul’s teachings on marriage and celibacy have to be interpreted with that view in mind. To marry – and to beget children – when the end of the world was nigh was a bad idea; it could only cause pain especially if the partner were not a believer and was going to be taken away to hell on the Day of Judgment.
So, this exciting new celibate option of ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’ was not expected to be a long-term thing.
“Yet those who are married will experience distress in this life and I would spare you. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short…For the present form of this world is passing away,” says Paul in 1 Cor 7:28. Often this section is translated without the rider about the end of the world which makes it look simply as if being married meant trouble. The translation above is from the Revised Standard Bible – the King James says: “But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Nevertheless such shall have trouble in the flesh: but I spare you. But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none.” As with everything Biblical, it’s all in the translation. But the context is clearly there for those who look for it.
Paul is often lambasted for his attitudes towards women but, again, within the context of the times, he was not as bad as many think. For example, his injunction to women to cover their heads and not to prophesy in the streets was given at a time when the cult of Cybele of Magna Mater (Great Mother) was at its height in Rome. The great goddess’s priests were called the galli – they were self-castrated, wore women’s clothes, shaved their bodies and had long hair. They were viewed with horror by many in Rome particularly during their parades and feast times when they danced in the streets and shed their own blood. At their major festival in March they mourned the death of the Goddess’s son Attis and then danced with joy at his resurrection. This was all too worryingly similar for it to be safely associated with Christianity, which it might be if any other long-haired, feminine creatures started proclaiming death and resurrection in the streets.
Women were a very useful part of the new Christian community; they provided homes where the travelling preachers could stay and these rapidly became recognised centres of the new faith. As well, many wealthy, independent widows were more than generous financially to any group that assisted them in avoiding the trials of re-marriage.
Despite the fact that the end of the world did not come, the cult of celibacy endured. It had already attracted those to whom the idea appealed – and they were the ones in charge.
However, no strict law of celibacy existed in the first three centuries of Christianity even though the idea was honoured by members of the new church’s clergy who probably wanted to disassociate themselves from every other available religion.
Tertullian admired the number of celibate clergy and Origen made a distinct contrast between the ‘carnal paternity’ of the Levite priests and the ‘spiritual fatherhood’ of the New Testament Priests.
Clement of Alexandria, however, approved publicly of priests who were married – as long as they intended to have children and St John Chrysostom wrote texts that said a bishop should have a wife. This interpretation was revived in the 16th century by protestant reformers
The first time that an actual law of celibacy was proposed was at the ecumenical council of Nicea in 325. Paphuntius, a celibate Egyptian bishop opposed it strongly saying that the ancient tradition that opposed marriage after ordination to the priesthood should remain but that there should be no bar to ordination after marriage. The council agreed – and added a rider that clergymen should not have any unmarried women in their homes who were not near relatives, in order to remove any temptation.
The idea of clerical celibacy developed during and after the 4th century although its practice was far more stringent in the West than the East. The Eastern Church’s council of Ancyra in 314 allowed a candidate for the deaconate to choose between celibacy or marriage and bound him to keep that decision. A few years later the council of Gangra condemned any distain for married priests within the Church. Bishops however, practiced what’s known as ‘continence’ within marriage and this custom passed into Church law at the council of Trullo in 692. From then on, a man could only be raised to Bishop if his wife agreed to retire to a monastery. Ordained priests, deacons and sub deacons could not marry but they were free to keep wives married before ordination. This law has remained the same since then – but the true practice is only to ordain unmarried priests to the level of Bishop.
In the Latin church the pattern was similar: at what was really a provincial local council of Elvira in Grenada in or about the year 300, Bishops, priests and deacons in that area were prescribed continence (sexual abstention) and, although no further legislation was passed for a further 86 years the Pope Siricus made it a universal practice in the Roman Church. Councils in Carthage in 309 and 402 prohibited matrimonial intercourse for deacons and priests and so it went on with ruling after ruling.
The wives of clergy were treated as sisters and were actually called deaconess, priestess or episcopes. The wife of a priest or deacon remained mistress of his house but the wife of a bishop had to live in a separate home or retire to a convent.
However, the proximity of man and woman (who were, presumably fond enough of each other to marry) continued to cause problems and by the 8th century, violations of the law were known to be commonplace. Partly this was due to more and more people joining the clergy because the pay was good rather than through vocation.
The observance of the rules varied according to which Pope, Emperor or state was the most powerful until by the 10th century married priests were more common than not.
Finally, the first and second ecumenical councils of the Lateran (1123 and 1139) removed the possibility of clerical marriage after ordination to the lowest state of sub deacon by making this and any other higher orders a lawful impediment to marriage.
From then on, despite debates and blips, this was the state of the world – you could just about be married but you couldn’t have sex.
Finally, in 1918, the code of canon law prohibited marriage at all without special Papal dispensation. Such dispensations were given to dissenting priests who transferred to the Church of Rome after the beginning of ordination of women in the Anglican Church in the USA in 1974.
It is difficult to separate out the religious view that a celibate life is better than a married one for those in holy orders from the strong line of misogyny that has developed from many religious texts over the last 2000 years.
For the mystic, it is fairly easy to distinguish between the diatribes against women per se and the definitions of basic masculine and feminine principles. Kabbalah teaches that pure masculinity is as out of balance as pure femininity and that a balance is required between the two. All men have a feminine side as all women have a masculine side; the priority is to create a balance within the self. Where there is a physical marriage this balance also has to be worked out between the couple (whether or not they are of opposite sexes) and this is often the cause of much marital discord.
From studying and observation I would surmise that living a life of devotion to spirit is much easier as a single person than it is as part of a couple. The only exceptions to this would be a relationship where both parties were equally committed to their spiritual growth or where one was totally supportive of the other’s quest.
Many of the companions with whom I have worked have complained of the impossibility of morning meditation or ritual when there is a partner or a family to engage with in the morning. Some do wake earlier than the rest of their family but, even so such discipline is difficult to maintain at times of family sickness or holidays. And a spouse may resent never having their loved one with them when they, themselves wake.
Those who are truly committed to a spiritual path do find the time – even two minutes of prayer or meditation are infinitely more value than none at all – but without the outside support and guidance of companions on the same path it is only a saint who can significantly advance their spiritual growth when there are children to nurture and deadlines to meet.
The issue of companions is one of the reasons why the monastic life was so successful for many generations – and continued to be so in Europe even after the dissolution of the monasteries in England. So celibacy is good for the spiritual path as long as there are equals with whom to share your religious life. Religious hermits are very rare and frequently have psychological issues which make it impossible for them and for others to live comfortably together.
Another reason for the success of monastic life was that the life of a religious in olden days meant comparative comfort; food might be basic in the communities committed to poverty but it was always provided. Likewise medical care and spiritual and personal guidance. Not to mention hard work and routine to keep the mind focussed. For those in the wealthier orders or higher up the pecking order there was also the lure of education. Women in convents had the opportunity to read, write and study and to become artists of calligraphy as well as musicians, herbalists and farmers. Yes, they had to have a man present in order to celebrate Mass but in all other respects they had autonomy over their own lives.
That said, it is not easy to live in a community of your own sex where the habits of others may be a constant source of irritation but it is equally not much worse than an unhappy marriage with a partner demanding sex and the constant addition of children who would be loved but who could barely be afforded even if they didn’t threaten life itself.
For centuries, men and women would be placed in monasteries with or without their consent but nowadays very few people embrace a religious life involuntarily. Therefore, celibacy is a choice that can be made with due consideration. But even so, companionship is necessary; spiritual work is rarely comfortable and never convenient and the support of ones’ peers is essential for the inner strength required in difficult times.
For those teachers who have risen above their peers and who are always expected to lead rather than to lean on others, the price of leadership is high. A deep, abiding, loving relationship with God can fill all the gaps. But a companion soul to smile at you in the physical world is a pearl of great price.