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 Gods 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 :
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