Or, as Noah Millman better puts it, “Running Towards, Not Away.” That blog post is his comment on my earlier entry about the gay tastemaker Tim Gunn and his confession that he’s spent nearly 30 years as a celibate. Gunn explained that it’s the result of a traumatic break-up, and a desire to avoid contracting HIV. Noah writes:
But third, all of the above having been said, I should like Dreher to reconsider his parting shot. I’m not a Christian, so it’s not really my place to opine on this, so I’ll let Leo Tolstoy make the argument that if you run away from your worldly fears into religious seclusion, you will find yourself alone with precisely what you are running from. The sacrifice of a sexual life might be an easy or a difficult one for a novice to make – and I can see the value of the choice in either case – but I’m pretty sure that, easy or difficult, it should be a sacrifice for something, and that that something is what matters. And that one source of the sexual scandals in the Catholic Church that Dreher is very familiar with was a refusal to recognize the problem with someone choosing a religious life precisely because that life seems to be a refuge from an unintegrated and disturbing aspect of the self.
The “parting shot” to which he refers was my bringing up monasteries as places where celibates live in community, and do good. My remark was meant to draw attention to the fact that there are many people — men and women — who embrace celibacy, and who even form communities for mutual support in living out their vows in a healthy way. Noah is, of course, correct in his observations. People who join the priesthood or the monastery (not all monks are priests) to run away from their sexuality are escaping nothing. This would also be true of a compulsive womanizer who married thinking that the strictures of matrimony would give him the framework he needed to deal with his lust. When I married, I voluntarily surrendered my sexual freedom for the sake of fidelity to my wife. It was a yoke accepted out of love — a gift given, and a gift received. It seems to me that if celibacy is to be a spiritually and emotionally fruitful state, it should ideally be entered into in that way.
Now, from what he’s said about his own choice, Tim Gunn appears to have embraced celibacy out of fear — fear of emotional pain, and fear of disease. While this is not ideal, obviously, I don’t think we’re in a position to condemn Gunn. (Noah agrees, saying, “Personally, I think a model of mental health that says “you can’t be afraid of anything” – as opposed to a model that says, “know yourself, including knowing your fears” – strikes me as significantly over-stringent… .”) Perhaps Gunn knows his own emotional limits. My wife was talking to me the other night about a friend who is struggling with a lot right now, and said that we should be careful not to expect too much of our friend, who ideally ought to be doing this, that, and the other, but who may not be able to do those things because our friend is overwhelmed. It’s a point worth considering. Plus, the fear of contracting HIV is far from unrealistic.
In my rather different case, I chose to live chastely after my conversion not because it was fun, but because it was expected of me — and by that time, I had gotten pretty sick of where following my own will, instead of God’s, had taken me in my life. I didn’t enjoy it one bit. But I did enjoy the effect learning how to discipline my desires was having on me, over time. I really do believe that if not for that ascesis, I would not have had the emotional and spiritual maturity to recognize the treasure standing before me when I met the woman who would become my wife. My point is simply that even though I didn’t choose chastity because it promised a life of butterflies and fluffy bunnies — indeed, I chose it for reasons that are probably a lot closer to Tim Gunn’s than any ideal (because I knew in my heart, and from my experience, that one way or another, the other way meant death) — I saw over time the good reason this ascesis is required. But I started out with only faith that this was for the Good, a good that I could not experience at that point, but that I hoped to one day understand. And one day, I did.
It’s all about the spirit in which ascesis is entered into. Many of us will know a reformed alcoholic who will not allow himself a single drink, for fear that he won’t be able to handle it, and that it will destroy his life. I think we would greatly respect a man like that, even as we might feel sorry for him to a certain degree. At least he knows his personal limits, and is willing to do what is necessary to preserve his own spiritual, mental, and physical health. Perhaps it’s like that with Tim Gunn.
Finally, I would like to say that monasteries can be places where one can escape from oneself, and confront one’s own demons within the context of a loving and supportive community. But that can only work, it seems to me, if one is determined to confront those demons, instead of merely escaping them (as if that were possible), and if one’s community is also actively working with one to confront those demons.