I am a Cistercian monk. In the middle of my monastery, surrounded by the stone arches of a medieval cloister, is a garden. We do not go into the garden—we only look at it from the outside, through the arches of the cloister. The only one to go in is the gardener. The garden signifies the monastic life; closed off on all sides from the distractions of the world, it is open upward toward the infinite Heavens. More particularly, the garden signifies virginity and celibacy. It is a reference to a verse in the Song of Songs, the great love poem in the Bible, traditionally ascribed to King Solomon: “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, / a garden locked, a fountain sealed” (Song of Songs 4:12). The Cistercian tradition sees the virgin bride of the Song of Songs as an image both of the monastic community as a whole and of the soul of the individual monk. The life of the monk is a life of longing, of not yet entirely consummated love for God. The ecstatic eroticism of the Song expresses something of the intensity of the soul’s love story with God.
Our monastery, Stift Heiligenkreuz, was founded in the year 1133, when the great figure of our order, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), was at the height of his influence. While Saint Bernard himself never came here, the abbot of Heiligenkreuz would have met with him almost every year at the general chapter of the order. Bernard preached a series of 86 sermons on the Song of Songs. Deeply formed by the biblical theology of creation, as well as the Christian Platonism of the Church Fathers, Bernard sees the love poetry of the Song as more than a mere metaphor for the soul’s relation to God. The resemblance between the two kinds of love is not merely in the eye of the beholder. Bernard thinks that God Himself created erotic love in order to signify His own love for the community of believers and for individual souls. Put in Platonist terms, erotic love is an image in the changing flux of this world of the eternal form of love in God.
But if erotic love is an image of the divine love, then it might seem paradoxical that the monk remains celibate. Would it not be better to live an erotic life to the full, in order to fully signify transcendent love? There is something to that idea, which is developed by the Christian tradition in the theology of marriage as a sacrament, a holy sign. But the life of celibacy forgoes the sign precisely in order to show that it is merely a sign. The intensity and immediacy of erotic passion for embodied creatures like ourselves is so great that there is a danger of staying with the sign, and not being led to that which is signified.
I often give tours of our monastery to groups of young people. In explaining the image of the locked garden, I talk to them about how in the movies a “happy ending” means that a man and a woman come together. The celibacy that we monks live is meant to point to the truth that the true and complete happy ending cannot be found in the love of another human being, but only in the love of the infinite God for whom our hearts were made.
The teenagers often ask me, “Aren’t you sad that you will never have sex?” I answer: “Yes, a part of me is sad about that, but it is not a hopeless sadness.” Sadness and loneliness are part of the point of celibacy. The pain of that lack of human intimacy is meant to help us to seek more intensely for the love of God. There is something deeply wrong with a celibate who lives in complacency, as a kind of perpetual bachelor, enjoying his freedom from the burdens of relationship. As the nineteenth-century English cardinal Saint John Henry Newman put it: “Man is made for sympathy, for the interchange of love, for self-denial for the sake of another dearer to him than himself. The Virginity of the Christian soul is a marriage with Christ.” The celibate life is not a matter of repressing and sublimating erotic energy (contrary to what some monastic psychologists would have us believe), but rather of becoming aware of a deeper loneliness, a deeper longing below the surface level of our emotional lives.
I believe that human beings can never be truly fulfilled except in God, and that there is therefore a very deep spiritual loneliness that we all share, a loneliness that springs from our being far from God in this life. We human beings have a tendency to flee from this pain at the center of our souls. As Blaise Pascal noted in his Pensées, the restless pursuit of pleasure and excitement is often an attempt to divert ourselves from our own misery. The monastic life is all about drawing back from that diversion—entering into a silence and monotony that allows us to really feel the pain of our spiritual loneliness. So that then we can let that pain be healed in the relation to God.
The monastic life can be difficult. Many people who try to become monks leave after the first few months. Untrained emotions can start running crazy, or subside into depression. But the discipline of monastic life is partly meant to help bring the emotions under control. The Rule of Saint Benedict, which structures the lives of most Western monks (including the Cistercians), puts it like this:
Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, our hearts will expand, and we shall run on the path of God’s commandments in the inexpressible delight of love.
The external unfreedom of the monastic life, with its strict timetable and limited scope for movement, is meant to lead to an interior freedom—the freedom to contemplate the transcendent reality of God, which we all truly desire. In the first of his sermons on the Song of Songs, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux alludes to that freedom when he says that his monks are ready to be fed on solid food rather than milk. The implication is that the erotic poetry of the Song is not suited to beginners, who lack control of their emotions and are liable to get stuck on the surface level, getting ersatz pleasure from erotic fantasies. Rather, it is suited to those who, through discipline, are able to understand erotic passion as a sign of a deeper longing.
In addition to being a way to channel this form of longing, celibacy in the Christian tradition is also linked to a certain understanding of sexual morality. Unlike the Gnostics, a heretical sect that thought sex was bad since it keeps spirit tied to matter, orthodox Christianity has always held that sex can be good when it is embedded in the right kind of relationship. In the Catholic tradition, celibacy is considered a “higher” calling, since it is more exclusively devoted to loving union with God. But sexual love, fulfilled in marriage, is considered good both in itself, as the means of passing on life and, especially, as a sign of a higher kind of life. Just as the apparent unfreedom of monastic life is supposed to lead to an interior freedom, just so the apparently restrictive and repressive narrowness of Christian sexual morality is supposed to lead to a kind of sexual freedom. In our current culture, deeply marked by the sexual revolution, sexual freedom is most often thought of as a freedom from restriction. To be sexually free is to be liberated from taboos and prohibitions, to be able to do anything that one desires, as long as one’s sexual partners consent. But the Christian tradition sees sexual freedom as being a freedom for a certain kind of human fulfillment; it’s the freedom to use our sexuality in the way it was intended so that it can be a sign of God’s love.
I often illustrate the two kinds of freedom by two experiences that most of us had as children. First, the freedom experienced on the first day of vacation. This is an experience of negative freedom—freedom from the discipline of the schoolroom. Second, the freedom that comes when one has learned to ride a bicycle. That is an experience of positive freedom—freedom for a certain kind of activity. Such experiences require the discipline of learning how to control a bike—the process requires courage, discipline and the willingness to risk scrapes. Applied to sexuality, the negative kind of freedom can certainly give a feeling of liberation. But it also has disadvantages.
The #MeToo movement, for example, has exposed how difficult it is for someone devoted to negative freedom in sex to respect personal boundaries. Many of the cases that came to light involved “woke” celebrities, explicitly committed to respecting women, who had ended up hurting them because their untrained emotions blinded them to the reality of the other. Their behavior manifested a certain naïveté in the modern attitude toward sex. On the one hand, our culture rightly cares deeply about consent and personal boundaries; on the other hand, it provides no positive education in how to train sexual desire to make it responsive to the demands of justice.
In 2007 a TV journalist, a woman in her mid-thirties, came to my monastery to do a feature on us because we were about to be visited by Pope Benedict XVI. This journalist was rather critical of what she considered the overly conservative moral stance of the Catholic Church in Austria, and she was probably intending to produce a rather critical TV report on us. She interviewed my confrère Pater Philipp, an athletic young man at the time, and was pressing him on the question of celibacy. He remarked that his experience was that being celibate allowed him to relate to women in a new way, “without everything being about sex.” The journalist seemed struck by this. It is true, she admitted, that a woman can feel used when she is in a relationship that the man sees primarily as a means to sexual gratification. Her report on us ended up being surprisingly positive.
For the Christian tradition, the kind of relationship that Pater Philipp was talking about—one that is not all about sex—ought to be found not only among celibates, but also within relationships that do include sex. The Christian view of sexual freedom as a positive freedom—a freedom for—sees sex as having its place within a specific kind of human relationship. Sex is the means by which life is passed on, and so a sexual relationship should be one in which new life can find security and a model of generous love. Hence the traditional Christian demand that sex take place only within marriage—a stable relationship in which two persons commit to each other completely, thus preparing a stable community in which their children can be reared.
The Christian ideal of marriage requires a lot of self-discipline and self-denial. Remaining faithful to one’s spouse in difficult times is no fun. But this self-denial leads to a payoff in the end. To quote John Henry Newman again: “Man is made for sympathy, for the interchange of love, for self-denial for the sake of another dearer to him than himself.” Sexual promiscuity, in giving up the demand for self-denial for the sake of the other, can hinder the formation of the kind of deep relationship for which our hearts were made.
For me, my own parents are a model of the happiness that comes from the Christian ideal of marriage. They have been married since 1978 and have eight children. As a model of faithful, generous and forgiving love, their marriage is also a sign to me of God’s faithful love. It is thus a help to me in living out my own calling to celibacy—the call to live entirely for the love of God, entirely in the yearning to hear the voice of the divine bridegroom:
Behold, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away
for lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come.
(Song of Songs 2:9-12)
Art credit: Ashley J. Bourne, “Benedict’s House” series, 2017.