Fall 1983, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 230-240.

Michael H. Crosby: Celibacy as Fasting
      Michael H. Crosby: Celibacy as Fasting

Reflection on parallels between fasting and celibacy reveals aspects of celibacy which need to be provided for to sustain a satisfying and fruitful celibate life.

Father Crosby, O.F.M. Cap., is author of Thy Will Be Done: Praying the Our Father as Subversive Activity and The Spirituality of the Beatitudes: Matthew's Challenge for First World Christians. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and works, writes, and lectures in the area of social justice.

YESTERDAY the issue of celibacy arose as a young postulant for our Capuchin province and I were conversing. When he asked me what my view of celibacy was, I noted that, among other ideas, I had begun considering celibacy in terms of fasting. This morning, while we were praying together in our First Street Capuchin Community, the concept of celibacy as fasting took on greater meaning as we reflected together on the two readings for the day. The more we prayed and talked about these Scriptures (1 Cor. 4:1-5 and Luke 5:33-39), the more sense celibacy as fasting seemed to make.

Let us consider the Scripture readings which stimulated our sharing. First Corinthians tells us we are stewards of God's mysteries and should be free from judging ourselves as well as others. In this way, "everything hidden in darkness might be brought to light," so that the "counsels of the heart might be manifest when the time comes." The Gospel reveals Luke's Jesus explaining that his disciples did not need to fast because the bridegroom was still with them. However, when the time came that the felt experience and encounter with Christ would not be so evident (as was the situation when Luke wrote to his community), then those disciples would fast. Why? Because fasting would helpthe disciples remember Jesus' presence with them in a way that the very remembering would recreate a presence that might affect their own personal lives and relational living.

Gradually we discerned that fasting involves certain elements. It has something to do with giving up some pleasure for another value or good. This implies that there is a purposefulness to the fast. Also some kind of communal support is required to sustain the fast. Finally, it involves a desire to reorder relationships with someone or something for a purpose.

As we shared, we concluded that these four elements of fasting say something about celibacy. Authentic celibacy involves (1) giving up some good for a perceived greater good; (2) a sense of purposefulness; (3) the need for communal support; and (4) a demand for reordered relationships on all levels of life.

In celibacy we fast from something good for something better. We fast from genital expression (in distinction to sexual expression and living as a sexual being) in the same way we fast from food or drink. When we fast from food or drink, we simply do not use our God-given power and gift to consume. It is the same way with fasting from genital sex. We do not use that part of our lives, even though it is a gift and its use can be very good. So we fast from something that is very good when we practice celibacy. We fast from something that is as natural to our very life as eating and drinking. We fast from something that God has made us need. That need can be expressed appropriately. But it can also become an obsession and be used indiscriminately to such a degree that it can become addictive, as food or drink can. We celibates fast from something which, given the influence of our consumer society, can be manipulated to make us feel less than human and whole.

I am referring here to the permanent fast that is implied in a commitment to celibacy for life. (And in no way do I intend to imply that a permanent commitment to celibacy is better or "more Christian" than any other committed life-style in the church, or that those lifestyles do not contain elements of fasting.) In this light, the parallel between fasting from food and water and fasting from genital expression limps insofar as we cannot fast permanently from food and water without having it become detrimental to our health. Although many would say that permanent celibacy is detrimental to psychic and wholistic well-being, there are some parallels with contemporary hunger strikes that can be noted when we consider fasting and celibacy as permanent.

Well-known instances of people's fasting from food permanently have been the cases of protestors in Northern Ireland, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. In these situations fasting has been used to make political statements. Such people seem able to endure a permanent fast from food and are willing to face the possibility of death itself because their desire for freedom is greater. They also believe that they are fasting from something to protest its existence, so that it can be changed to usher in another set of values and purposes. The need for food can be sublimated for the deeper desire for meaning, fulfillment, and attainment of a goal.

Long-term fasting does develop forms of obsession with what is given up. Yet, even then, one can compensate for the growing feeling of loss with a deeper desire and effort to enter more fully into the goal of the fast. Hunger strikers can pull through the point of obsession with food only if they feel they are revealing more fully the political purpose of the fast with their very lives. Similarly, celibates can more easily move through times of tremendous obsession with sex if they believe their commitment brings them further to the goal they have determined for their lives -- the power of the risen Christ at work through them in the world, with all the personal, relational, and societal implications that faith demands.


This realization of the need for some goal to sustain a fast brings us to the next element of celibacy. What is its meaning or goal today? Is a purpose manifested in the way celibacy is lived today? What is being revealed in the lives of celibates?

At this time we are still living with one of our young men, Duane, who has decided he will not be renewing his vows. His decision to leave the order arose, in part, from his realization that he does not want to remain celibate for life. But his decision was also colored by factors beyond his human need for sexual generativity and genital expression. It included observations about some friars in our province (no different from men and women in other orders and dioceses) whom he observed as being "shriveled up."

Often Duane would say, "I don't want to grow old to live with a group of grouches." His fear was not without foundation. It arose from observation. His observation led to a judgment. While he saw his share of happy, peaceful, and involved Capuchin Franciscans living in our province and elsewhere, he also found enough "grouches" to make him worried about what might happen to him and about what kind of communities he might have to live in. Would his demeanor reflect a celibate -- fasting that was "from" something but "for" little or nothing? And did Jesus not speak about fasting in such a way that we not manifest gloom (Matt. 6:16)?

One evening after Duane had decided to leave the order, he mentioned again his fear of becoming a gloomy person as one reason for his decision: "I just don't want to live with a group of grouches." Having heard this more than once, I finally asked, "Why don't you get concrete so I can better understand what you mean? You must have come to this conclusion from observing something going on in the province." We decided to note the behavior and attitudes of the several men living in our communities in the province. Although we were conscious there were many dimensions unknown to us about these men, we asked how we each perceived them. Were they coming through as "grouches" or "growers"?

As we mentioned each friar's name, we were surprised to discover that both of us were placing the same men's names under our categories of "grouches" or "growers"! Observing the same men had brought us to the same judgments, tentative as they might be. This led us to ask, "What makes celibates to be'grouches' or'growers"'? The same question might be asked of those who fast from food, some with their faces scowling, some with their faces at peace.

This morning at prayer, the answer to our question became clearer. The dividing line between gloomy, grouchy celibates and growing, open ones appears to be a sense of purpose. The dividing line does not seem to be forms of sublimation we learned so well -- work, success, image, power, external observance of prayer and piety, reputation for being good preachers or teachers or public servants. The difference arose from attitudes toward life and the world in which we live. These attitudes are such that they create an environment about us and in our communities which nourishes celibacy, or they are such that they beget expressions which cause deep harm to already fragile human beings.

One of the friars said this morning at prayer: "When I lived at Saint James' (a fictional name), we did show care when someone was sick. We did try to meet needs if someone let us know them. But we really were pretty independent in our approach to each other and lived quite separately professionally." He went on to explain that a deeper form of living resulted when he began living with other Capuchins who shared a world view and a commitment to "bring good news to the poor." This commonality offered him purposefulness in a shared, intentional, articulated way that, in turn, affected his own life-style and values. The attractiveness of this new situation inclined him to move from the traditional way he had been used to living as a celibate. It meant moving from what had been a good way of life to what he saw as a better one, where a community intentionally and emotionally supported a new sense of purpose.


These ideas led us to ask what else besides this sense of purpose might differentiate "growers" from "grouches"? Are there other distinguishing factors? We concluded that the traditional signs of the Spirit (including continence), which are articulated in Paul's Letter to the Galatians (5:22) and in the Letter to the Colossians (3:12-17), reflected a "growing" Capuchin celibate. Since the Letter to the Colossians is addressed to a community, we concluded that the truly celibate community would have and nourish members who fulfilled the Pauline admonition:

Put on, therefore, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience. Bear with one another and forgive one another. If anyone has a grievance against any other, even as the Lord has forgiven you, so also do you forgive. But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection. And may the peace of Christ reign in your hearts; unto that peace you were called in one body. Show yourselves thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you abundantly. In all wisdom teach and admonish one another by psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing in your hearts to God by grace. Whatever you do in word or in work, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:12-17)
Since "grouches" do not manifest many of these signs, we decided that we need these signs of the Spirit's presence in community if our personal commitments to celibacy are to be nourished to make us "growers." Since celibacy is ultimately a gift of the Spirit and one of the mysteries of God (and therefore essentially linked to faith), it should be cultivated in communities that reveal and share that faith. This realization has brought me to two conclusions. First of all, involuntary celibacy demanded by law can easily lead to death and a generation of potential "grouches." The same can be said of those celibates who live lives isolated from others and the needs of others. Secondly, voluntary celibacy that reflects a choice to abstain from genital expression for the sake of a greater purpose (the incarnation of God's presence and reign in society) requires community of some sort. While this community need not be composed of celibates, there is value in living in celibate communities which, in fact, fulfill what Francis of Assisi urged us Capuchins to do in our Rule: "Wherever any of the brothers are, let them confidently make known to each other their needs."

Not expressing oneself genitally denies a certain inclination and affects us deeply. If we cannot share in an atmosphere of confidence and trust the needs which arise from this celibate denial, mistrust and alienation easily develop. Thus an environment for sharing of faith and needs is essential.

The more we jointly reflected on these ideas, the more I tended to conclude, "I will never again live in a community controlled by grouches." When one of the other friars challenged me (since I am somewhat dramatic in overstating my case at times!), I explained that I find it difficult enough to sustain out of my own resources my celibate choice; if the environment surrounds me with attitudes that are countersigns to my choice, my personal struggle is undermined. Not only does this situation fail to nourish my growth; it can actually eat away at my personal commitment. If people have a normal need for intimacy (which rightfully must be respected and nourished in community), and if this need is not met, it is not difficult to understand why so many leave religious life and the diocesan priesthood when persons outside that life begin to meet that real and human need.

Furthermore, because todays societal values and mores continually erode a choice for celibacy, we find more need for communities to create environments that reinforce celibate commitments. Again, we judged that many of our communities are failing in this regard. But we recalled Paul's caution to the Corinthian community's members not to judge each other, so that the "counsels of the heart" might be made known when the "proper time comes." Here we were, supposedly praying, making judgments while listening to Paul reminding us not to judge! What are we to do?

We cannot help observing certain dynamics in life and, if the old Jocist approach still holds, such observing leads to judgment. Unfortunately, many times we do not judge only the facts; we judge motivations, or the "counsels of the heart." But without passing judgment, how can we discover the motivations of contemporary celibates? What motivates me or others to fast or to be celibate? Why would over fifty percent of the members of one of the largest groups of celibate women in the United States respond in a questionnaire that, if they had to do it all over again, they probably would not choose celibacy today?

While I think I can articulate some positive reasons why I am still celibate (a certain sense of "rightness," a sense of call and gift, and a certain ease and peace with myself) and why celibacy seems to fit my personality and drives (grace building on, or enhancing, nature), I am reluctant to begin a Freudian analysis to uncover possible negative reasons for remaining celibate. Perhaps I am afraid of opening "a can of worms." Maybe I do not want the hassle of growing through all the questions, dealing with the doubts and dilemmas, facing the shattering of images. So, possibly to avoid probing my unconscious, I tell myself, "Maybe I'll never know all the motives. Maybe I should; but then, maybe I should not." I conclude I should listen again to Paul's other words about being a steward of God's mysteries. Since celibacy is one of those mysteries I now happen to possess as a steward, the issue must be (even with my mixed motives) how I can "administer" my celibacy to announce the reign of God and its demands.


Such reflections brought us to the fourth element of authentic celibacy from the perspective of fasting: the need for relationships. Besides having something to do with fasting from and for, manifesting purposefulness, and needing the support of community, celibacy as fasting can be better understood from the broader perspective of relationships -- with myself, my God, my community, and my society.

First of all, fasting reflects my self-understanding and self-image. Since a natural part of myself longs for genital expression, how do I integrate this part of myself into my total being, and how do I express myself as a sexual celibate who is warm, creative, generative, open, and caring? How does celibacy fit me? How do I wear it? When I think of putting it on or carrying it around for the rest of my life, what happens to my emotions? Do they tighten up in fear? Do I get a deep sense of betrayal by God or a feeling of loneliness and emptiness? Or do I get a sense of peace and a feeling of rightness, even if the idea does not bring a great sense of excitement as it did in the days when overtones of power and prestige influenced my choice for celibacy? How can I as a celibate relate to people, things, and events in a way which manifests my faith and the personal relationship gained in prayer -- and that God whom I am to experience as the Bridegroom of the day's Scripture?

In the passage from Luke's Gospel (5:33-39), Jesus seems to be saying that fasting was unnecessary as long as the object of the fast was realized as present. With the bridegroom experienced, relationship and union could result. With the bridegroom gone, fasting would be a kind of sacramental to help the disciples remember that his presence could be reestablished in their experience.

The implication in Luke is that fasting fosters religious experience. Fasting is viewed as essentially a religious act. Therefore it seems safe to say that celibacy as fasting is fundamentally an act of religion. As an act of religion, it must flow from an authentic relationship with God.

This religious fasting as Matthew describes it (6:16-18, based on 6:1) entails another form of religious experience, namely, prayer. Prayer creates an expectant hope which reflects a truly contemplative approach to life. Without prayer there is no remembering the Bridegroom; without remembering him, there is no religious experience. As fasting because of the Bridegroom's absence is remote preparation for religious experience, celibacy as fasting also prepares for religious experience. Paul makes this point in First Corinthians when he talks about a kind of contemplative waiting and faith as the two poles for celibacy (1 Cor. 6 and 7). Without prayer viewed as remembering (recollection) and as waiting (contemplation) to experience God-with-me (be it in the sense of presence or void), I cancel the very basis that enables me to be in touch with the heart of celibate purposefulness -- the reign, or presence, of God-with-me. Consequently, celibates who do not pray contemplatively in our age are like fasters who die with another kind of gnawing within them: the doubt that their life and cause really might not have been worth such a radical commitment. Either form of death, in the body or in the spirit, is tragic.

While Jesus said we should not fast for people to see, that injunction is difficult to apply to celibacy. As an act of religion, celibacy as fasting does involve "others." What do others see when they see me as a celibate? It is not only a matter of whether I appear as a "grouch" or a "grower"; others must witness me standing for some larger reality. They ought to find me standing with others who are like-minded, so that the struggle to deal with this larger reality can be realized.

Being with others in celibacy reminds me of an experience I had when I joined with men from our house and elsewhere in a fast. The fast had been called by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), Sojourners, the International Fast for Peacemakers, and other groups to prepare for the 1982 "Peace Pentecost" and the Second United Nations Special Session on Disarmament. The Peace Pentecost was intended to work for nuclear disarmament and new forms of nonviolence in society. Since the "kind of devil" manifested in today's nuclear arms race can be exorcised only by prayer and fasting, many of us joined together in fasting for another Pentecost which would bring new forms of peace and unity into the world.

We Capuchins of the First Street Community had decided as a group that we would each participate to the degree we felt led. All of us started fasting totally from food and drink (except for lots of water). For various reasons, a couple men stopped this more radical form of fasting after a few days and developed other approaches. I continued, along with Jacob, another brother in the house. After five days I began to wonder why I was not experiencing greater hunger pains or even thirsting for coffee.

It was then that I made an important connection. I was actually being nourished by the fast because I was in solidarity with others. I was sharing events we could remember together. With them and through them I had a purpose more compelling and imaginative than eating as usual. Being committed to a higher goal with likeminded companions and through their support working together to change today's climate of fear were more impelling and inviting than sitting down to another meal. I could fast from food because I was in solidarity with others for a purpose more important than my physiological needs.

If we are to have communities of celibates who are fasting precisely in their celibacy, what will insure their solidarity and purposefulness? In the past, we have provided housing for celibates organized around apostolates or geography, or simply because "the parish provides it to keep costs down." Today I cannot fathom how such an approach will sustain celibate commitments, given the tentativeness of commitments in society and the erosion of positive reinforcements for celibacy. A deeper purpose for celibacy and for living in community as celibates is demanded.

This brings us to the final consideration of relationships as an essential element in celibacy as fasting: the societal dimension. How will contemporary celibates express that true religion which keeps us "unspotted" as we meet the needs of today's widows and orphans, namely, those in need (cf. James 1:27)?

If we are in solidarity with those in need, our fasting as celibates calls for new ways of "unleasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke, setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke, sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own" (Isa. 58:6-7). If today celibacy as fasting is not part of a total structural reordering of society, I cannot see how it will either be a truly religious act or an adequate sign of the inbreaking of God's reign in our world. If our world is "marked by the grave sin of social injustice" (Synod of Bishops, 1971), and if our manner of fasting as celibates does not address this reality of grave sin which stands opposed to the God we experience in prayer, I question both the value of the celibacy as well as the authenticity of the prayer.

The "fast" that will reorder society's pain often requires the sacrifice of time that can be spent meeting the normal needs of the family, especially the nuclear family. If men and women are going to be responsible in their decisions to express themselves genitally in a heterosexual manner, then they must also accept the responsibility for the life which might ensue. Even in extended communities, infants and children need parenting. Since part of the contemporary struggle to perform "the fasting that I wish" (Isa. 58:6) implies the possibility of civil disobedience and jail terms, some forms of "fasting" may be best suited for those without children, such as celibates.

In conclusion, authentic celibacy, like fasting, must include giving up some good(s) for a perceived greater good -- a surrender which reflects purposefulness. It demands communal support and the need for quality relationships with self, God, others, and society. Finally, as Isaiah wrote about the "true fast" that is required of us (chapter 58), maybe those of us who are celibates will be nourished by what Isaiah also wrote:

Do not let the eunuchs say, "See I am a dry tree." For thus says the Lord to the eunuchs who observe my Sabbaths and choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant. I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; an eternal, imperishable name will I give them. (Isa. 56: 4-5)

We can decide that we do not need to be dried up trees, shriveled "grouches." Rather, we can recommit ourselves to live in solidarity with each other, becoming more open, growing people with an evident purpose which not only contributes to the transformation of society but enables us to hear the Bridegroom saying in the depths of our hearts: "Come."