This is Day 4 of 7 of my Devotional Series on Celibacy written a year ago. While much of my thought process has changed since then, it is important to share where I sincerely was in my journey with God and my vocation.
21 When Jesus had said these things, He was troubled in spirit, and testified and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me.” 22 Then the disciples looked at one another, perplexed about whom He spoke.
23 Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. 24 Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask who it was of whom He spoke.
25 Then, leaning back on Jesus’ breast, he said to Him, “Lord, who is it?”
26 Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give a piece of bread when I have dipped it.” And having dipped the bread, He gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.
John 13: 21-26
This is one of my favorite narratives in the New Testament that can help us understand relational intimacy in the context of gay celibacy. John’s title as “whom Jesus loved” demonstrates that, even to Jesus who loves all, a specific friend or partner can hold a tender places in one’s heart. John and Jesus’ friendship is a model for holy, celibate same-sex love. They did ministry together, traveled together, and developed a close friendship. When every other male disciple abandoned him at his crucifixion, Jesus gave his mother to John as his own, expanding the notion of kinship beyond biological connection.
But I’d like to focus on John’s posture to Jesus in this reflection. John laying his head on Jesus’ breast highlights one of the core values of celibacy: vulnerability. The Eastern Orthodox icon of Jesus and John captures the posture of trust, hope, and tenderness that deeply resonates with my experience of partnered celibacy.
In her book “Daring Greatly”, Dr. Brené Brown, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”. She continues: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper or meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” (p.33)
Vulnerability is an essential component to the celibate life. In the monastic tradition, monks and nuns confess their thoughts to one another and to their spiritual fathers and mothers. Intentional Christian communities or “new monastics” must prioritize open communication for the sake of trust between members. Single lay people need mentors and spiritual directors for discernment. In my experience as a partnered celibate, I have come to see vulnerability as the life-blood of any successful relationship.
Kyle and I foster vulnerability within our relationship by sharing our goals of the day in the morning and debriefing our day in the evening. In pursuing emotional intimacy, we notice changes in tone, behavior, and mood in one another more easily than our other friends because we are committed to full disclosure.
Vulnerability allows Kyle and me to learn more about each other’s personalities, which makes us sensitive in our interactions with everyone else. Because we are partners, natural feelings like jealousy may arise, which gives us an opportunity to share these feelings with trust and security. This is an especially important task because celibacy requires us to continually look outward and not inward. In sharing our insecurities as a team, we engage in the freedom to allow other friendships to enrich us. In perspective taking, we can empathize with one another’s particular challenges and hold one another accountable to our shared values.
To those of you who aren’t pursuing the celibate vocation, you might assume that vulnerability centers around sexual sin and boundaries; that certainly can be the case, but when you stop to realize queer people are so much more than our sexual lives, there are many other day-to-day items that take priority. Sexual immorality isn’t usually the biggest sin on our list of topics to discuss.
There are times when I feel the uncertainty of Christian witness perhaps in the way John felt uncertainty in hearing of Jesus’ impending betrayal. I rely on Kyle in the midst of my insecurities. This can manifest itself in reclining my head on his chest to receive comfort the way John did to Jesus. Maybe I have to set aside my pride and ask Kyle for answers when I’m unsure of something in the way John asked Jesus his questions. Celibacy doesn’t mean isolation; it requires friends we lean into with vulnerability. I’m grateful to lean on Kyle.
Whether it’s lay or monastic vocations, celibates need people who aren’t only hearing polished life updates every once in awhile. It’s necessary to have people who know our thoughts: the good, the bad, and the just plain mundane. Vulnerability goes beyond confessing sins or sharing secrets; it means practicing transparency, however imperfectly, in order to grow. Married people need this from their spouses, but everyone needs this from their friends.
Lord Jesus, give us the grace to recline into you the way John did. Cast away our fears of intimacy. Forgive our dishonesty. Increase in us vulnerability with ourselves and others. We ask this in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.