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It seems that the one thing everyone knows about the Eastern Churches is that “they have married priests.” Unfortunately, this often seems to be the only thing many people know about Eastern Christianity. What does not seem to be widely understood is that the Eastern Churches have very distinct theological, liturgical, and spiritual cultures in which the practice of ordaining married men to the priesthood (but not to the episcopate) must be understood. If Western Catholics want to use the example of the Eastern Churches as a guide for their own situation it is imperative that they understand how a married clergy fits into this unique Church culture.

In the Eastern Christian tradition celibacy is associated not with the priesthood but with monasticism. Most Eastern Christians expect their parish clergy to be married family men. But while it is true that Eastern Christians generally value their married clergy, it is equally true that a majority of these believers hold monasticism in even greater esteem. Pope John Paul II emphasized this in his Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen when he said that for the Eastern Churches monasticism is seen as the “reference point” for all Christians. Whatever their pastoral preferences, the Eastern Churches are very far from seeing marriage as theologically or spiritually preferable to celibacy.

This is the first and perhaps the most important point to be made. Eastern Christianity insists that both marriage and celibacy are necessary for a healthy Church. Eastern Christians do not see these two vocations as opposed to each other. They would regard it as suicidal to abandon clerical celibacy in such a way as to imply that the principle of celibacy no longer has any value.

Celibacy in Eastern Christianity is viewed primarily as a form of asceticism. Asceticism means, in essence, to live at the same time on earth and in heaven. It means to understand that everything we see in this life, everything we touch, taste, think, and feel, is in some way a revelation of the life to come. This means far more than an understanding that this life will come to an end and be replaced by another one. It means that the life we live right now and the life we will live for eternity are in some mysterious way one and the same. “The darkness is passing away,” says St. John, “and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

For an ascetic, time reveals eternity. The ascetic thus wants to be freed from a merely human way of looking at time as a cycle of work and rest, life and death. Instead, the ascetic lives in time as though in the undying freedom of eternity. Therefore the ascetic prays. For an ascetic, food reveals the heavenly Feast. He is freed from a merely animal attraction to food and instead tastes only the spiritual promise that lies hidden inside earthly appetites. Therefore the ascetic fasts. For an ascetic, possessions reveal the many-mansioned Kingdom of Heaven. The ascetic is freed from the slavery to things by seeing in everything the Creator of all things. Therefore the ascetic gives alms.

It is the same with sexuality. For an ascetic, all human relationships—even the sexual act itself—reveal divine love. Hidden beneath the surface of all smaller loves lies the immeasurable abyss of God’s love. The ascetic realizes that what other people give him by way of love finds its true and deeper meaning in the One who is the source of all love. Celibacy is the practical recognition of the reality that lies behind the image, of the prototype behind the icon. Human love without celibacy is at best mere sentiment, at worst a form of idolatry.

In either case a merely human love is a closed system, like a river with no outlet to the sea. Face to face, two human beings in love become locked in an embrace of death. St. Gregory of Nyssa—himself a married man—writes of this in his treatise On Virginity:

Whenever the husband looks at the beloved face, that moment the fear of separation accompanies the look . . . . Some day all this beauty will melt away and become as nothing, turned after all this show into noisome and unsightly bones, which wear no trace, no memorial, no remnant of that living bloom.

The tragedy of love and death can only be overcome by the communion of humanity and divinity in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Only when two become three, when a couple becomes a trinity, the third being God, only then can the triumph of death be trampled down in the resurrection. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied, but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:19–20).

Who then is called to be celibate? Simply put, every single Christian who is capable of love is called to discipline that love through the asceticism of celibacy. Just as every Christian is called to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, so also every Christian is called to be celibate. Seen in its true context of asceticism, celibacy ceases to be a legal requirement for a small section of the Christian faithful and is revealed instead as an aspect of the universal vocation of all believers.

What does this mean in practice? It means that we must no longer divide up the Church in our minds and separate the lay majority who are “allowed” to have sex under certain conditions and the clerical and religious minority who are “not allowed” to have sex at all. The difference is nowhere near so stark. It is merely one of degree. For a legalistic mind, the division between celibate and non-celibate seems vast. For an ascetical mind, however, the difference is negligible. Both the life of marriage and the life of celibacy are directed entirely toward God, and find a common meaning in Him.

It may come as a surprise that I speak of a universal call to celibacy. This word has largely juridical associations, especially for Latin Catholics. Chastity is the term used in the more general sense to speak of the obligation of all Christians to use the gift of their sexuality in accordance with the divine will. Sexuality is conditioned in the East according to the principles of asceticism and mysticism, not legalism. It is precisely because the East does not think in juridical terms that I have felt free to apply to celibacy a very general meaning, for in the East there is no other way it can be understood. In this area East and West think quite differently. We must be wary of a facile assumption that what works in one tradition will automatically do so in the other.

Looked at from the perspective of the Eastern Churches, celibacy has very little to do with the sacrament of Holy Orders. It has everything to do, however, with the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Through the latter we are born into a new kind of life, into citizenship in the Kingdom of God. We die to this world in Christ and rise again to eternal life. And in this resurrection we “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).

Once again we see how it is that celibacy is part of the universal vocation of all Christians. Seen in the light of eternity, marriage is revealed as having no meaning in itself. Marriage is honorable not because it “joins two hearts as one,” nor because through it new life comes into the world, nor because it provides for a life of comfort and security. Marriage is worthy of reverence only because the two hearts fall into a sacramental embrace with a Third, only because the children born of the union are born again through baptism into a new life, only because together the couple apply to their comforts the balm of asceticism that gives their possessions true and sacramental meaning.

Christian celibacy is marriage baptized. Christian celibacy is the revelation of the presence of the Kingdom of God in every relationship. It is the refusal to see other people as things to be used, even for the sake of romantic love. Celibacy means the willingness to see in sexuality not something merely animal, or simply useful or enjoyable, but instead something mystical.

What then of those who commit themselves to radical celibacy? Herein lies the value of monasticism as a public vocation in the Church. Radical celibates present to all Christians flesh and blood tokens of the promise lying mystically beneath every authentic and holy relationship. Celibacy loses its value when it is seen as the preserve of an elite. It takes that value up again when it is seen as part of the common heritage of the entire Church, an asceticism shared by all the baptized.

Here we come to another important insight within the pastoral tradition of Eastern Christianity. Celibacy is not primarily an individual calling. In the first place it is a vocation for the whole Church. Only secondarily is this vocation realized in individual lives. It follows that celibacy cannot be authentic if it is attempted individually. Celibacy can only be lived in a real way if it is seen as a shared way of life. For the Christian East, celibacy is lived corporately and within the context of communal asceticism.

This is the real meaning behind the combined tradition of married clergy and celibate monastics in the Eastern Churches. The proper place for radical celibacy is a life of radical asceticism within that tradition of mutual support provided within the monastic milieu. For parish clergy, such radicalism is seen as out of place—neither improper nor impossible, but immensely difficult. This assessment in no way makes the life of the parish priest somehow inferior to that of the monk. Both are called to the same ascetical program, but in different degrees. The tradition simply recognizes that each must put this program into effect in the real world he inhabits. Each must rely on the other to supply that kind of holiness in the other’s own life that he cannot produce in his own. The Church needs both the holiness of marriage and the holiness of radical celibacy in equal measure.

To underline this, the canonical tradition of the Eastern Churches even encourages married couples to regulate their sexual appetites by fasting from conjugal relations before Holy Communion, for example, and during Lent. This makes it clear in the most practical way imaginable that both monk and married person are engaged together in the same ascetical labor.

For various historical reasons the insights of the Eastern Christian experience have been mostly ignored in the Western Church (and, consequently, by the Eastern Catholic Churches who have found themselves in the West). Celibacy in the West is not seen as related primarily to monasticism, but rather to priesthood in general. Nevertheless, it is possible for the West to draw some useful lessons from the Eastern viewpoint.

Unless all Christians accept their vocation to live the asceticism of celibacy within their own lives it is pointless to expect a small group of “elite” Christians to live up to this ideal. Not only is it psychologically difficult to expect one group of men to do this, it is also extremely bad theology. Celibacy is a common calling, expressing the faith of the Church in the coming Kingdom. It will only be possible for this faith to be lived in its most radical way if this life is deeply understood and valued by the wider community.

To be blunt: it is both psychologically dangerous and theologically illiterate for a Christian community that values sexual “freedom,” including sex outside of marriage, adultery, abortion, and the contraceptive mentality, to then demand an entirely different sexual standard from its priests. Priests do not become celibate merely because they feel a personal call to a life of sacrifice—at least, they ought not. Priests accept celibacy because they lead a community that is as a whole committed to the ascetic discipline necessary to transfigure human sexuality into an experience of the divine. Celibacy is healthy when it is regarded as a common labor in which each Christian has a share.

Seen in this way, priests will find their commitment to celibacy valued, understood, and supported. Celibacy will thus become a point of communion between priest and congregation. Seen in any other way, priests will always feel that this commitment sets them apart from the people they serve. Far from being a source of communion, celibacy will become a psychological burden and a source of loneliness.

It is also difficult to see how celibacy can be lived at any level in the Church if it remains cut off from its ascetical source. As long as the model for Christian life remains legalistic rather than ascetical the situation looks hopeless. Asceticism, as we have seen, is the recognition that everything we see and touch is mystically redolent with unseen and ineffable Divinity. Celibacy should not be undertaken because it is a legal requirement, but because the celibate is ready to encounter the Mystery that lies beneath his sexuality and yearns, through the liberating discipline of asceticism, to live on this mystical level.

This will only happen when that same person realizes that these same principles must equally apply to every other aspect of human life and experience as well. It is only when with the eyes of faith a person is open to the presence of God within all things that he will see Him in so central a part of his identity as his sexuality. In other words, a person who is not trained to see Eternity in time, nor the Feast in food, nor the Kingdom in possessions will not be trained to see the Mystery in sexuality. A person who is not an ascetic in small things will not be given the grace of divine vision in greater. “He who despises small things will fail little by little” (Sirach 19:1).

An essential part of the genius of the Eastern Churches is that they have always fostered a culture of asceticism. Long and elaborate services, a discipline of intense fasts and bright feasts, every kind of authentic self-denial can be found encouraged and celebrated within the liturgical, theological, and spiritual patrimony of Eastern Christians. Within this ascetical culture celibacy makes sense, both as a communal task and as a personal endeavor. Outside of this culture, celibacy seems like all other merely legal requirements: arbitrary and without meaning.

There is therefore something deeply tragic in the way the contemporary Church has gradually stripped itself of much of its traditional asceticism, leaving only a few craggy remnants of this vanished culture silhouetted against the sky. Of these lonely remains, surely the most incongruous is clerical celibacy. Until the Church restores the supporting superstructure of her ascetical tradition, clerical celibacy will remain a fundamentally meaningless and even dangerous relic of a past long gone.

It is only because of the loss of this general ecclesial culture that the loss of the more specific clerical culture is so serious. Clergy are less and less distinguishable by their dress, their way of life, how they speak, and how they relate to one another and the hierarchy. Almost certainly the same was true of the early Church, and even to some extent the Church of the patristic era. The difference was that in those days what set the Church apart from the world was its own distinctive ascetical and mystical ethos. Can we not do more to recover this ethos today?

In short, the laity cannot justly complain that their priests do not keep the law of celibacy while at the same time demanding that they themselves be subject to no ascetic discipline. Until the laity begins to accept the need to fast, to be mindful of what we wear, how we speak, how we relate to each other—in short, until the laity accepts its baptismal vocation in all its radical other-worldliness—there is no hope that the clergy will find the strength to do so. Only a Church of mystics can realistically expect their clergy to be saints.

Maximos Davies is a monk of Holy Resurrection Monastery, a monastic community under the jurisdiction of the Byzantine Catholic (Ruthenian) Eparchy of Van Nuys, California.

Image by Metropolitan Museum of Art licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.