May 25, 2011
Father Thomas Keating on Celibacy
A beautiful article from an early edition of EnlightenNext magazine (formerly What Is Enlightenment?) in which Andrew Cohen interviews Father Thomas Keating about the practice of celibacy:
The Heart of the Matter
A Dialogue between Father Thomas Keating and Andrew Cohen
In every issue of What Is Enlightenment? we aspire to introduce our readers to sincere and passionate individuals who care profoundly about their fellow human beings and who dare to accept, as their own burden, the deepest spiritual aspirations of the race. Such encounters are always a privilege, but it sometimes happens, as it did with Father Thomas Keating, that the warmth, love, decency and sheer humanity that we experience in their presence exceed our expectations, and we can only wonder at the good fortune of being able to include their insights, ideas—and their spirit—in our ongoing inquiry into the nature and significance of enlightenment.
Father Keating, who spent twenty years as the abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, is now, at seventy-four, the leading figure in an interdenominational movement to revitalize the Christian contemplative practice known as “centering prayer.” He is the cofounder of Contemplative Outreach, an organization devoted to introducing Christian contemplative practices to laypeople of all faiths, and the author of several books, including Open Mind, Open Heart and Intimacy with God, both of which describe the process of spiritual development that such practices are intended to catalyze.
Since the beginning of his Outreach activities, Father Keating has shared responsibility for the development of contemplative workshops and retreats with several of his colleagues. Yet for many of the growing number of people who have benefited from their work, it is Keating himself, because of his extraordinary warmth and humility, who exemplifies and embodies the transformative potential of centering prayer. As a result, he is in constant demand as a lecturer and workshop leader and maintains, despite frail health, a taxing schedule that takes him to several cities each year. Keating is also known for his avid and unusually open-minded interest in the contemplative and meditative practices of other religious traditions. He has met and studied with spiritual teachers from a variety of Hindu and Buddhist lineages and helped to create, fifteen years ago, the Snowmass Interreligious Conference, at which teachers from different traditions meet regularly to compare views and ideas, and to evaluate objectively the benefits and drawbacks of their respective practices.
In the midst of all this activity, one might well suppose that Father Keating’s celibacy is, as he says it was in his years as a novice, a given, something to be considered only in the context of so many other pressing concerns. But in the course of his fifty-three years as a celibate monk—several of them spent guiding others in the practice—Father Keating has clearly given much thought to the significant role celibacy can play in the lives of sincere spiritual aspirants, and it is a testament to his open-mindedness that, among the highly respected advocates of celibacy we interviewed for this issue, he is uniquely outspoken in his insistence that the celibate state must never be regarded as inherently superior, nor as essential to the attainment of any ultimate spiritual goal. The goal of celibacy, Father Keating asserts passionately, is “ever greater humility and purity of heart . . . a letting go of pride and the false self so that God can be God in us.” Fundamental to his approach is the recognition that it is only through the cultivation of these attributes—humility and purity—and only through a process of “inner purification” rather than “external observance,” that the potential of any spiritual practice to bring about authentic and lasting transformation can be realized.
Father Keating shared his views with spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen, the founder of What Is Enlightenment?, by telephone from his mountain hermitage at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, last October.
Andrew Cohen: I thought that a good way to get started would be to give you a little background about why we’re interested in discussing the subject of celibacy with you for this issue of our magazine. I’m a spiritual teacher with a community of students, and I put a lot of emphasis on renunciation and the role that it plays in helping human beings come closer to truth. There was a period in my own life when I practiced celibacy consciously for about three years, and it helped me enormously to realize a degree of objectivity in relationship to sexuality, which is a most challenging area of human life. So at this point, I encourage some of my own students to devote a period of time—usually it’s between three and five years—to a very formal practice of celibacy, in order to help them also to become clearer about this aspect of their own human experience.
So to begin with, could I ask when you first took your vow of chastity?
Thomas Keating: Let’s see, that must have been in 1946, after my novitiate. I had already taken vows, though, for the two years of the novitiate, when I first entered the Trappist monastery.
AC: What kind of vows were those?
TK: Those were temporary vows like the ones your students take, a temporary commitment intended to give the candidates a chance to experience the challenges and benefits of the practice of perfect chastity. I might add that I had already been practicing outside the monastery for two or three years while I was going to school; but it’s quite different to practice celibacy—or chastity, if you want to use that word—without the support of a spiritual community. So I’m glad to hear that the men and women who come to you for teaching are able to support each other in this endeavor; that’s a great idea. And as I’m sure you know, the commitment to celibacy as a state of life isn’t the only feature of monastic life, but it’s one of several commitments, all of which are considered to be equally supportive and essential to the transformative process. For example, there’s a commitment to poverty, and its tendency to induce a nonpossessive attitude toward material things—just as chastity tends to induce a nonpossessive attitude toward the body and sex—and obedience, which is meant to instill a nonpossessive attitude toward our own will and judgment through submission to a teacher or to the community as a whole if the community has a Rule of Life.
AC: Did you have any expectations about what the practice of celibacy would be like? Would you say, for example, that it represented, in your own mind and heart, a kind of sweetness—sweetness as in simplicity?
TK: Well, to tell you the truth, monastic life is extremely austere and hard—at least it was in the monastery that I entered. And so one kind of took celibacy more or less for granted, and one’s concrete attention was often devoted to the various other practices—like getting up at one or two in the morning and praying in the early hours of the dawn, fasting and abstinence, and along with all that, working very, very hard. So you really felt less involved with the concerns associated with the practice of celibacy than with, you know, having sufficient health and determination just to get through the daily schedule. That’s my best recollection. You know, you’re asking me about my life over fifty years ago, and my best recollection is how hard the physical life was and how searching was the exterior silence. We spoke only to the Superior and the Novice Master most of the time, and it was silence, the experience of silence, that was most pervasive. So it would be hard for me to say that I experienced celibacy in any other way than as part of the context in which these other very concrete issues were turning up every single day. When you get up at one in the morning, for example, all you’re really thinking about is getting down to the church on time.
AC: How has your experience of celibacy changed or deepened over the years?
TK: It has only become clearer that it’s a gift of God and that the practice of it is entirely dependent on God’s power and mercy. In other words, you learn about your weaknesses in a way that only strong temptation and perhaps a few other things can teach you. So all I can say is, “So far, so good”—but I never claim that I’ll make it to the end. In fact, I remember a dear old brother who, at eighty-five, used to come to speak to the Superior, and when he left he’d always say, “Pray for my perseverance!” Because he was worried, you know, that he might hit the road to town before he managed to get himself back to his room!
But another thing that comes to mind is that as one matures in a lifelong commitment to celibacy, there’s a whole set of attitudes toward God that begin to emerge as a result of this movement from formal commitment to direct experience, from friendship with God to union with God—attitudes that open one to ever deeper possibilities of union with ultimate reality, ever greater humility and purity of heart, which are what were identified by the Desert Fathers and Mothers as the goal of celibacy. And I think that that would be what characterizes my own experience more than anything else—the ever increasing desire for humility and purity of heart. Of course, physical success in observing celibacy can also lead, in some cases, to a certain sense of achievement or pride, and in fact there’s a recorded instance of that; it’s the famous case of some Jansenist nuns in sixteenth or seventeenth century France who were described as “pure as angels but proud as devils”—so evidently something was not working in their celibate commitment! And that’s why I feel so strongly that celibacy needs to be presented not in isolation but as part of a larger package, and especially with the interior purpose or intention of getting closer to God. Because the renunciation is sometimes very, very intense, and one needs the motivation of knowing that this really is moving somewhere that’s more important than physical attraction, or comfort, or sexual relief or whatever—of knowing that this is the love of God coming to fulfillment in oneself, all at once in a number of different ways, all leading to a letting go of pride and the false self so that God can be God in us.
AC: Especially in light of what you’ve just spoken about so beautifully, I’d like to ask you about the common view that the celibate state represents an inherently higher or purer condition than the noncelibate. I’m sure you’re aware that there’s a lot of debate going on around questions like this these days.
TK: Yes. My reaction to that discussion—and it’s only mine—is that it’s not celibacy itself that is a higher state but the nonpossessive attitude of true humility or purity of heart that under ideal circumstances is associated with it; that’s what true virginity or celibacy really is when it’s understood in its full spiritual meaning. The goal, as I said, is purity of heart, or what the Desert Fathers and Mothers describe as that humility that is the acceptance of all reality about ourselves and God, and acceptance also of our own weakness and helplessness. One of the things that is most striking about this way of understanding celibacy is how much it, as a gift of God, has to be supported over time by the grace of God in order for the practitioner to persevere with, and not to abandon, his or her commitment.
And if you look at celibacy as a lifestyle, a long-range commitment, it has the same goal as marriage, actually. What that means is that it’s supposed to be transformational; it’s a way to union with God. Now obviously, there’s no reason why someone who’s married can’t attain that state, and if you accept the idea of marriage being a sacrament, then I suppose it could be a higher state than celibacy, which is not as holy a state as one that has been blessed in such a special way by God and the Church. Certainly from the Church’s point of view, marriage is a particular state of grace in which the partners are empowered, through their life together, to be purified. But the important point here is that this happens, whether it is in marriage or in the celibate commitment, only when we become faithful to love. In marriage this means the forgiveness and forbearance of the depths of each other’s faults, but in either case, it’s only then that we begin to enter into what St. John of the Cross calls the “period of purification,” in which the Holy Spirit reaches deeper into our hearts than we can go by any asceticism or discipline of our own making. The Spirit invites us to look at the dark side of our personality, as Jung would call it, and also to sift through the unconscious motivations that we’re not normally aware of in daily life. It’s that conscious purification that prepares us for unselfish love, for spiritual friendship and for a union with God in which we’re not looking for satisfaction or enlightenment for our own sake but are simply trying to love God, to please God, and to do His will by living ordinary life with extraordinary love.
So in celibacy as in marriage, love is the name of the game—otherwise I wouldn’t recommend it—and the challenge is to see if you can keep it going. And the heart of the matter, you might say, is that just as a husband and wife, through the sacrament of marriage, are supposed to make God visible to each other and minister the unconditional love of God to each other not just in their conjugal life together but in every detail—the way they pour their coffee in the morning, the way they handle the problems with their children, the way they go to work, how they say hello and goodbye—so the celibate commitment is not just about chastity. It’s about being more and more present to others, in service to others, and trying to bring a quality to the details of daily life that manifests, in everything we do, the unconditional love of God and even the tenderness of God. And so it’s very important, it seems to me, to distinguish sexuality from genitality, or genital activity. Sexuality is not something that’s given up in the celibate commitment; on the contrary, because human sexuality includes genital activity but is not identical with it, we remain women and men not only physically but also emotionally and sensually down to the very roots of our being.
AC: Could you say more about this distinction between sexuality and genitality?
TK: In celibacy, the sexual energy—which should never be repressed—is directed by the practice of chastity toward the right use of that energy according to our state of life, which for celibates is to help build human relationships and communities through service, friendship, understanding, cooperation and other similar virtues. The sexual energy is transmuted in this way into an ever greater energy in service to others and in the search for God. Otherwise, celibacy can become simply a physical achievement and hence a source of pride. It’s not an end in itself, in other words, but a way of life that has to make God’s love visible in the community or wherever one decides to live the celibate life.
AC: Judging from your description, the celibate’s sphere of interest seems almost implicitly broader than that of a married individual. Yet you’ve also said that neither married life nor celibate monastic life is inherently superior, and that in either case what’s really most important is one’s motivation.
TK: Exactly. And not only one’s motivation but the perseverance in that motivation through the purification of the dark side so that—
AC: The dark side?
TK: Purification of one’s innermost being rather than just biologically or physically because, without that inner purification, celibacy is an external observance rather than an interior practice that supports authentic transformation.
AC: It sounds as if one who was fully committed to undergoing this process of transformation would in a sense be married to God. Wouldn’t one’s attention therefore be liberated in such a way that one could have no special friendships or intimate relationships but would rather love all selflessly?
TK: Yes, chastity enhances and extends the power to love; it enables us to perceive the sacredness of everything that is, especially other people. But to reach that one has to go through a process away from the experience of conventional intimacy with others and toward another kind of intimacy which, while it respects everyone’s uniqueness, loves them not for any physical purpose of one’s own. And as a consequence of that, one respects the dignity of other persons and couldn’t possibly use them for sexual or emotional fulfillment. Now this doesn’t exclude friendship, which is very important in supporting a celibate commitment, but it does imply a discipline that filters out of that growing intimacy with another the genital attraction that may be there, and which is perfectly normal if it is there. But one ought not to conclude from this that a genuinely spiritual friendship must exclude all warmth or emotion; it is only those excessive marks of affection that lead to deep sensuality or acting out that have to be sacrificed, not friendship itself. In fact one needs friends to support one’s commitment to celibacy; otherwise one may fall into loneliness or some kind of self-seeking that is almost narcissistic. This is one of the hazards in the celibate commitment.
AC: What are some of the other hazards?
TK: Celibacy is not a commitment one should take lightly, and there are different temptations along the way. Sexual attraction is one thing in adolescence and another thing altogether in adulthood, where procreation becomes important. Then, in the midlife crisis, a whole new aspect of our sexuality emerges that has to do with the temptation to return to the unfinished relationships of one’s youth or regrets about not having experienced certain things before one became celibate. As a result the temptation to depart from one’s commitment is also very strong at that time. And even in old age, one finds that that loneliness is still present. So because the sexual energy lasts all our lives, a lifetime commitment to celibacy is bound to include periods that are extremely difficult, and the important question is: To what degree has this energy been transmuted and transformed by discipline, service to others and devotion to God, so that in those moments when the attraction of sexual satisfaction is extremely strong, there’s enough inner strength to resist it?
In the Christian tradition, especially in those denominations that emphasize the love of God or specifically the love of Jesus Christ, “friendship” is the model for a relationship with God that moves from the superficiality of mere acquaintance to a degree of friendliness, based on years of hanging out together, that at a certain point demands a true commitment. This kind of commitment is characteristic of any friendship whether it’s human or divine, and it’s in that moment that one begins to consider whether one’s devotion to celibacy is truly a lifetime commitment to God or only a temporary one. And one should have plenty of time to think this decision through because of its deep psychological, social and spiritual consequences. There’s a whole mystique, you might say, to a lifelong commitment. It’s very different from a temporary commitment, even though that’s an extremely useful one for someone to pass through, as you evidently teach in your community. It’s a wonderful way of getting a clear idea of what sexuality is and whether you want to renounce it for life; and as I said, it would be a great mistake to make that decision lightly or without a good period of time to practice it first on a temporary basis.
AC: There have certainly been too many people, I think, who have taken that decision too lightly and then lived to regret it.
TK: Yes. And I would think that nobody really has the power to do this without the grace of God; whether you think of it as grace or some other kind of force, it’s like the twelve steps of AA—the second step, isn’t it?—”We found out that we were absolutely powerless of ourselves.” And that’s one of the great benefits of the celibate commitment: You find out fairly soon that it’s not going to be easy. There is a higher power—we call it God in the Christian tradition—and His grace doesn’t come in the abstract but in the form of a community and a model of commitment to encourage us in difficult times, a special opportunity for spiritual retreat or study or sometimes even psychological instruction. But even so, not everybody is humanly equipped for a celibate commitment. Certainly I would never recommend it for someone who has a serious personality disorder or a long history of promiscuity or some other kind of neurotic problem; such things should certainly be treated before one makes a commitment as serious as this one.
AC: I agree with you that, through the practice of celibacy, one gets an experience of how extremely powerful the sexual force is—an experience that’s very different than if one were never to undergo a period of prolonged abstinence.
TK: Absolutely, and it’s for that reason that I think it would be an enormously valuable experience for both women and men, especially at an earlier learning period in their young adulthood, because really most young people are no more ready for a marriage commitment than they are for a monastic commitment.
AC: You’re right about that.
TK: It really takes some life experience to be able to handle the responsibilities that that commitment requires. And a celibacy commitment, similarly, has its own set of responsibilities that need to be practiced and tested humbly.
AC: What would you say is the greatest joy of the practice?
TK: Loving God! And hoping always that that love will increase and enable us to surrender ourselves more and more completely, body, mind and spirit—totally: conscious, unconscious, every level of our being. This is my view of what celibacy is all about. Its fulfillment is certainly going to take some time, and there are going to be some rough spots, and not everybody’s going to make it; there are going to be some failures. Anybody who’s been through those dark nights will not judge anybody’s failures because he or she knows how difficult that commitment is. In the “dark night” of St. John of the Cross, who is one of the great teachers in Catholic mysticism, there are described three great trials or temptations, one of which he called the “spirit of fornication,” in which there are enormous and continual temptations to sexual activity or to leaving the celibate commitment. And it’s in that intense struggle that the virtue of chastity is tested; the renunciate is pounded by temptation to the depths of his soul until he becomes really stable in the face of all temptation.
AC: The beautiful way you’re speaking makes me curious to know if you ever come together with your brother monks just to share your experience of the practice, for the purposes of support and investigation, as we are doing here.
TK: No, not very often. Very rarely, in fact. They do that in the first few years of monastic life, along with studying the various other commitments that are also involved. But later on, to tell you the truth, you don’t see much of that—and I think it would be a good idea.
AC: I’ve always found this question very interesting because over the years that I’ve been teaching, often my celibate students—if we’ve been in India, for example—would want to get together with other monks and nuns from, say, the Buddhist or Hindu traditions, just to speak together about the practice of celibacy and its relationship to the pursuit of liberation or, as you would say, a pure heart. And it’s been fascinating to discover that very few practitioners have had much to say or have even been particularly interested in talking because quite often, it seems, the practice of celibacy is not accompanied by any kind of active investigation or inquiry.
TK: You’re right. It’s kind of taken for granted. And as I said in the beginning, one of the things that you have rightly observed and, I gather, integrated into the life of your community is that celibacy is a very important commitment with enormous possibilities, and that as such it should be fully studied and understood by neophytes, and that their experiences of its difficulties should be shared within the group. And I’d bet that the reason this doesn’t happen more often is in large part because almost all the religious traditions, and society in general, have been most unwilling, until thirty or forty years ago, to speak about sexual energy or sexual matters at all. Lots of people even arrived at marriage without having heard anything about—what are they?—the birds and the—
AC: The bees.
TK: Shows you how much I know!
AC: I’ve also noticed, even with my own students, that someone can practice celibacy for a couple of years and never really begin. It might take a few years before the individual really begins to find some energetic, enthusiastic, inspired interest. And then of course the practice comes alive and its liberating power is experienced and appreciated.
TK: That’s the full experience.
AC: Yes, and then, of course, it’s so fruitful. And it’s interesting that in our community—this might sound strange to you, but the men and women who are celibate live together in separate houses from those who are not celibate—they report that their relationships with each other are tangibly different because of the vow they’ve taken, and that they experience a much greater freedom and intimacy in their association with each other than they do with other members of the community, who one would suppose are equally committed to liberation and purity and honesty and truth. Yet simply because they’ve taken this vow—and because they take it very seriously—they experience a much greater freedom of being when they’re together with each other, principally because they all know that they don’t want anything from each other. They were speaking with me about this a week or so ago, and it was very moving.
TK: That’s wonderful, that experience of freedom. It makes all the other aspects of community life more accessible and valuable, this interior freedom that the celibate commitment makes possible. You told me that you’ve asked them to make a temporary vow, is that correct?
TK: So everybody knows that everybody else is committed to this, and immediately there’s a great freedom from all the subtle ways that young people—and not-so-young people—interact for reasons of sensuality, flirtation, and that kind of thing. All of that falls away, and this allows people to be themselves: honest and straightforward and loving, without seeking any kind of return or reward, especially of a physical nature.
AC: Physical or even just emotional—wanting to be seen as special, this kind of thing. Because I’ve noticed, just in observing my own experience, that inherent in sexual desire is a kind of psychological and emotional compulsion to want to be seen in a certain way and also to want to have and to consume. Standing back from it, one recognizes this to be the very force or power of the ego itself.
TK: Yes, I think that’s extremely right and true. It’s always looking for its own satisfaction. Whereas the true Self is not engaged in that kind of melodrama.
AC: When I was teaching the other day I said: It’s the ego that experiences the thrill of wanting, but the true Self experiences that very thrill as suffering.
TK: Yes, beautiful.
AC: Another thing I wanted to ask you about is the fact that many—or perhaps even most—of the greatest spiritual figures throughout history have chosen to lead a celibate life. Why do you think that is?
TK: Well, I think there’s enough evidence from psychology today for us to be able to recognize that sexual energy is not only in the body, but it also has something to do with the unconscious. And the scope, extent and power of this energy are enormous and have to be respected. And when it’s channeled, through devotion to God and service to others, this energy begins to emerge, especially during meditative practices, in a different form. Instead of just sort of blowing you away, it’s channeled by the solid preparation of faith in God and love for other people; it’s transformed or transmuted into higher possibilities of energy for use in seeking God’s presence, which isn’t an easy path. Cultivation of the ability to face up to that energy directly becomes a support for our pursuit of the highest and most difficult good, and especially the ultimate goal of surrendering absolutely to God. The great spiritual figures you mention no doubt understood that implicitly, but I think it’s extremely important that those of us who are experiencing the growth or emergence of this energy within ourselves have the tools at hand to make use of it for good, because if one isn’t well prepared for the emergence of the subtle energy of sexuality, then one can get blown away. As an example of what I’m talking about, I’m thinking of people a generation or two ago who wanted to experiment with psychedelic drugs and so on. What they didn’t realize was that they were loosening things up in the psyche that they weren’t ready to face—images or desires or fantasies that were emerging from that energy as it came to consciousness. There’s a relation, it seems to me, between the growth of celibate consciousness, the fruits of which you’ve beautifully described as sweetness, and those dark forces in the psyche that can transform that very same energy into ego trips and sheer selfishness if it’s released too soon, before the person is spiritually equipped to handle that kind of primal energy. Do you understand what I’m getting at?
AC: Yes, I do.
TK: And that’s why I feel so strongly that celibacy should never be practiced in isolation from other practices that strengthen community relations, such as devotion, such as real friendship, and the kind of intimacy that seeks no reward but the happiness of the other person. And also I think that for many people, celibacy needs to be nourished by a more and more intimate relationship with God, so that the divine presence is experienced more and more as a vital force of one’s own consciousness, and so that one is consenting to the presence and action of God both in one’s meditation and in daily life.
AC: Everything you’re saying is quite moving, and I deeply appreciate it. But of course in the process of exploring this issue very actively and in great depth, we’ve found that even in the spiritual world many people seem to view the practice of celibacy with fear and suspicion. Sometimes even just speaking about the practice makes people angry and upset.
TK: Yes, well, I think I know what you mean. And I think it’s partly to do with their early education. Some religious groups have been so strict about sexual matters that many of the young people growing up in those traditions either became frightened to death of sex and developed repressive or neurotic symptoms of one kind or another, or they just turned their back on the whole idea of religion and ran headlong into experimentation and promiscuity. And so I suspect that this fear of celibacy is due to repression in early childhood and the obvious damage it has done to a lot of people. I’ve seen this happening to people in religious life whose motivation for entertaining celibacy was simply to avoid sexuality because, early in life, they’d had experiences that were so traumatic that emotionally they hadn’t developed sufficiently to be able to handle them. Child abuse, for instance, is an enormous obstacle to human growth, and one really needs psychological help with that, especially before entering into a celibate commitment.
AC: But do you think part of this fear of celibacy might also be due to the fact that for many—or perhaps most—people in our society, the sexual force seems inherently to represent an imaginary promise of paradise, an illusory promise of completeness or wholeness? My own suspicion is that because most people have not discovered that the source of their true happiness really lies in a very different place, they’re often too terrified even to question whether the one place they’re convinced they’ll find it can actually deliver.
TK: Yes, I’m sure that you’re right. And it’s also true that philosophically our Western culture has been heavily influenced by the Greek view of the body and the fear of sexuality that come down to us from some sources in early Christianity as it was influenced by neoplatonic philosophy. Oddly enough, Christianity emerged out of the Hebrew tradition, in which the unity of body and soul is very strongly affirmed. But unfortunately, the early fathers of the Church were more influenced, partly because they had consciously separated from the Jewish religion, by Greek philosophy, which is wonderful in some respects but extremely defective in others, particularly when it’s applied to the interpretation of the Old Testament and its moral code. So it’s only recently that in the Catholic Church, for instance, marriage has come to be regarded as a way to holiness that is equal with the celibate commitment. This is an enormous step in the direction of liberation from mind-sets that I think have been harmful both to marriage and to celibacy.
AC: In the process of looking very deeply into this subject, what has became apparent to me is that generally speaking, in religious or spiritual circles and also outside of them, human beings basically tend to have one of two fundamental views or value judgments with regard to the ultimate nature of sexuality. One of these views holds that sexuality is good, healthy and natural—and this is obviously a very popular belief in the time that we’re living in, fueled, as you’ve said, by a certain rebelliousness against the repressive ideas and traditions of the recent past. And the other view, which many traditional religions seem to emphasize, is that sexuality is bad, dirty and evil—
TK: Yes, that’s the idea I was just describing myself, prominent in some early Christian circles and especially in the time of St. Augustine, who was very negative about sexuality. It sometimes happens among converts from promiscuity that they get carried away and go a little too far.
AC: Yes, precisely. But what began to occur to me, in the process of looking very deeply into my own experience in order to try to understand all this, was that obviously the sexual force itself could be neither good, healthy and natural nor bad, dirty and evil because it simply was what it was in and of itself. It wasn’t inherently good or bad.
TK: Well, yes, I would definitely hesitate to say that it’s bad. I think sexuality is best understood as the basic force between women and men, a force of human growth that needs to be cultivated, but in the right way, with discipline and with choices that are mature, so that it doesn’t become a source of neurosis for some people. But as soon as you say there’s something wrong with sexuality, then you’re taking the side of those who don’t believe that everything that God has made is good. What we do with sex may not be good, but that could never mean that the sexual force itself is not absolutely essential because it’s the growth of our sexuality, as male and female, that matures and opens us to other people. This is true whether the sexual energy is expressed through genital activity, marriage or in the celibate state. That force is to be not repressed but transmuted, transformed and integrated into the whole of our being; then you have a whole human being. Take, for instance, those who are in the service of others in ministry: If they repress any emotion, including sexual feeling, they’re going to come across as “cold fish,” as they say, and they’re not going to impress anyone. It’s sexuality that gives warmth to the whole personality; but in service—and also in marriage—sexuality can be expressed as affection and love without being a form of genitality, because as I said earlier, chastity is not the rejection of sexuality or even of genitality but the right use of it according to our state of life. So sexuality is a positive virtue, and it’s a hazard in celibacy only if one denies it and then represses one’s feelings instead of integrating them into the whole evolving development of one’s faculties, including one’s intuitive and spiritual faculties, which I think are especially fostered by a celibate commitment, but which are still just as available to anyone because they are human faculties. So do you see the distinction that I’m trying to make?
AC: Yes, I certainly do. What you’re saying makes perfect sense.
TK: It’s not that I expect everybody to agree with me. But I think that if we don’t take the view that sexuality is good, then immediately we’ve lost sight of it in relation to the power it has to unify and to mature the whole human psyche and body so that spirit can express itself through us.
AC: I agree with you two hundred percent. But I think I was making a slightly different point, and that is because the power of sexuality is so strong, we as human beings are always seeking for ways to feel comfortable in the face of its awesome and overwhelming power. And one strategy that human beings use in order to feel comfortable in the face of sexuality is to say, “Well, it’s good, healthy and natural.” And another, of course, is to reject it by saying that “it’s bad, dirty and evil.” And I basically feel that neither of these positions could ever accurately represent what it truly is.
TK: Yes, now I understand, and I fully agree with you.
AC: So my point is that maybe sexuality itself, and the force of it, is ultimately neutral, because it simply is—it’s the creative force or the creative power of life, of the universe in a state of becoming. But in terms of this materialistic relationship with it that the individual creates because it’s so compelling, so frightening, so overwhelming and so enticing, taking a position of neutrality really forces one to scrutinize one’s relationship to it in a way that I would say never “lets one off the hook,” never gives one the security of feeling, “Well, yes, I know what that is”—you know, that it’s either a wonderful thing or a terrible thing.
TK: Yes, well, like most things in life it’s a matter of intention.
AC: Exactly right.
TK: And it’s in this experience of intention that one moves to higher integration. But it’s when we get stuck in whichever one of those extremes you just mentioned that human growth slows down—or comes to a screeching halt—until one finds the insight to transcend both of those views, neither of which is fully human. Negative or positive, they’re just responses to instinct, and a human being is more than just instinct. A human being has all these other powers that instinct supports, and instinct is fine as far as it goes, but it’s incomplete as a motivating power for the whole of life. But that’s the human predicament, you see. And of course the majority of people do respond to it by sexually acting out as if sex, as you say, were the only pleasure to be had in life.
TK: I mean, there’s no doubt about it: Some people really do seem to live only for that, and we even have an industry that supports this, along with sexual aberrations of all kinds. And it’s waved in front of young people, I would guess, in most cities and towns nowadays, and of course in the media.
AC: Yes, it’s everywhere.
TK: So needless to say, there’s no real support for a commitment to celibacy in our culture anymore. Although it was always only a very small number who were interested anyway, at least in the past there was a profound respect for it in some communities, but now even among the Roman Catholics that respect has diminished. It’s sad to consider that perhaps both marriage and celibacy are suffering in our time from what might be called an incapacity in most people who are growing up today, or who have grown up in the last generation or so, to commit themselves to something for life—whatever it might be—or even for a long period of time. Because there are no models for that anymore. So much divorce, so much moving, so much changing of jobs or professions, travel, lack of stability in families; there’s no real experience of the larger family, of grandparents, for example, who have been together all their lives. So to start telling people that you’ve got to make a life commitment either to this person or to this God of yours—well, it sounds like nonsense to them, like somebody’s just arrived from another planet!
There are very few experiences in our culture of the value of moderation, of balance, of the integration of human growth beyond instinctuality to a point where instinctual needs are sufficiently integrated and moderated that their energy can be used for the love of God’s service. That to me is what the spiritual journey is all about—empowering ourselves to use all the forces of our being, not for our own satisfaction but in the service of God and other people and the planet. I think that’s the fruit of celibacy, don’t you? It’s a capacity for sensitivity to the needs of all other creatures and for a certain happiness in belonging to this universe, and not just for sex! They say that babies have a sort of polymorphous sexuality in which the pleasures of the senses are experienced throughout the body and not just fixated in the genital organs, and I think there’s an analogy in that to spiritual life. In the spiritual journey the sexual urge, at least insofar as it wants to express itself genitally, is relativized by the experience of the beauty of the other pleasures of the senses, which obviously are not made ends in themselves either, but together open us up to the truth and the beauty and the goodness of all of creation. In this way, the Creator or the God we’re seeking becomes present not only in our meditation or prayer, but comes to be recognized as the source of everything that exists, including events that are passing through our own thoughts and feelings, and soon everything begins to be seen as that unity, that oneness, that immense awareness. And then, it seems to me, human beings can begin to live in harmony and peace because they’ve learned to see each other not as objects but as subjects manifesting an immense subjectivity that embraces all in the most personal relationship one could ever imagine—father, mother, brother, sister, lover—all rolled into one as a sense of the ever-present unconditional love of God. Promiscuity or repression can only hinder the realization of that miracle, you see? And frankly I’ve seen far too much of both in the lives of people who have shared their spiritual journeys with me—both within the monastery and outside.