Longtime blog followers will know that I have written a lot about the vow of poverty. It is very misunderstood, often neglected, and rarely means much in our practical lives as friars. We are told we must live chastity and obedience without any exception, but poverty? Well… that’s a big more complicated, we say. We sort of “grow into” that one.

On the one hand, I understand why. As opposed to the other two, poverty has an all-encompassing yet difficult to define nature. It involves material possession and acts of will alike, and there is hardly a proper measuring stick to grade one’s performance. While chastity and obedience might be said to be goods in their own right, poverty is more often something we speak about in a negative sense: it is something we must eradicate, and freely taking it on is merely a pathway to something else.

It is also the most visible of our vows, something that people can see (and judge) from the outside without a full picture. Seeing my laptop, camera, house, car, and vacation, some have taken it upon themselves to criticize my life, to call me a fake or a fraud, and to explain to me what true poverty is.

How do you respond to that?

Just like the vow itself, the answer is muddied and complex. In one sense, yeah, people are right. We could do better. This vow is a bit of a joke at times and we just sort of accept that we mean something different than the rest of the world does. We are not poor and can never be poor like those who are financially desperate. Our voluntary poverty often lacks a sense of stress or pressure, and the lack of urgency in living it means that we rarely feel any spiritual effects from it.

And yet, what we profess to live is not abject poverty. What we give up is not the use of material goods. How, really, could someone live without anything? This image of religious life—one of the strictest austerity and deprecation—is not a virtue as much as it is actually an idol, focusing our attention on something that is not God rather than using it to lead us to God. The vow of poverty, if exclusively about the amount of material possessions one owns, runs the risk of turning into a weapon to empower or belittle, to put ourselves above or below others. When its ultimate focus is not what is beyond—a life lived in Christ with humility—it is not longer a vow worth taking.

My hope is that this week’s video will help continue the conversation that I have already started here. If you would like to read more about this topic, below you will find links to a four-part series I wrote a number of years ago.

My Struggle With Poverty
Why Poverty?
How To: Poverty
My [Continued] Struggle With Poverty

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Outside of rare circumstances, all priests in the Catholic Church are required to be celibate. You can choose ordination or marriage, but not both. For many, this is a heavy burden to carry, requiring one to either be “heroic” in their denial of the goods of marriage, sacrificing what many want in order to serve the faithful. For many, this burden is simply too much, and is cited as a major reason for the lack of priests in the modern world.

And maybe it is. Maybe some who are married should be allowed to be ordained as well. Being that clerical celibacy is a discipline of the Church and not a doctrine or dogma, it’s conceivable that we could see a change in the future.

But that is a question for someone else. For me, the more interesting question is not whether those who are married should be allowed ordination, but why the practice was instituted in the first place and what benefit has the Church seen in it for centuries. Time and time again people have questioned it, and time and time again the Church has maintained it. Why? What’s so important about it?

After taking a course called Ordained Ministries, and with the help of Msgr. Paul McPartlan, esteemed member of the Catholic University of America faculty, I want to suggest something rarely stated on the matter: celibacy is a gift to the priest and the people of God. That’s right: a gift. While the idea of going one’s entire life without getting married or experiencing the joy of having kids is certainly difficult for some, the idea that celibacy is simply a “means to an end” and that it has no merit in itself lacks vision, imagination, and an understanding of the reason for the practice in the first place.

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There are few shows that I enjoy (and quote) more than Scrubs. Just ask my friends. More sentences have been started with, “It’s like that episode of Scrubs…” than any other phrase. There isn’t a life situation that I can’t relate back to one episode or another.

This week, though, the association went the other way around: while watching an episode, I was struck by something I had learned last year in my marriage and family class.

The episode is entitled, “My Sex Buddy,” and I’m sure you can guess what it was about. While going through a rough patch in each of their lives, two of the main characters find themselves in bed with one another to ease the pain. The next morning when they wake up, they’re both terribly embarrassed. Besides the fact that the same thing had happened in the previous season, starting a relationship that barely lasted an episode, they just know they’ve made a terrible mistake when they look at one another… Until one of them decides that it wasn’t a mistake at all. “I guess we could be sex buddies,” she says. And so the episode goes. Vowing to sever emotion from sex, the two seek each other out whenever they’re stressed, excited or just bored. Sex is a game, an adventure, an event to pass the time. There’s no need to get bogged down in emotions or commitments. “It’s just sex,” she says. This, her male counterpart thinks, is “what every man wants to hear.”

But despite the warnings of another lead character against the arrangement, the situation ends poorly. One of the characters finds himself unable to separate his emotions from the sexual encounters and is left hurt by the rejection of the other; the other character, continuing her normal trend established in previous episodes, seems unaffected by the situation but struggles to find happiness in her relationships. Both characters, until the final season of the show, exhibit incredible difficulty committing in a relationship.

While just a typical television sitcom, what these characters go through is exactly what scientific evidence has suggested in recent years and what was a topic of discussion in our Marriage and Family class. You see, besides obvious increased risk of unwanted pregnancy, STIs, and feelings of shame and lower self-esteem (more likely among women than men), casual sex can drastically mess with one’s brain chemistry. Aside from producing dopamine, a chemical in the brain that produces pleasure in the similar way that intense exercise and synthetic drugs do, sex also exposes the brain to oxytocin, a hormone intrinsically related to social distance between people. Increasing one’s disposition to trust, become attracted to another, and willingly raise children (oxytocin is produced in women while breastfeeding), oxytocin is a medical explanation of love and commitment.

What do we make of this? Some in today’s world look to this as a way to argue for greater promiscuity and experimentation, as it will inevitably lead to creating lasting bonds. Test out sexual encounters with many people until the bond is created, they say. Unfortunately, this is incorrect. While there have been noted potential benefits of sexual encounters in general, ranging from higher confidence to better test scores, casual sexual encounters actually hurt one’s ability to create lasting bonds. Even though we are biologically disposed to create bonds and sex helps facilitate that, research is showing now that repeated casual encounters that attempt to sever emotional attachment from sexual activity, tied with continued cycles of sexual encounters that eventually lead to break up and loss, trains the brain to suppress the effects of bonding. In other words, “hookups” actively fight against our natural tendencies to be together until people are biologically disposed not to bond; hookups challenge one’s ability to commit.

So what, you say? Anonymous sex is exciting, mysterious! It makes me feel alive! And for many people researched, it is. At first. But as one severs the emotional attachment from the encounter, two very big problems have begun to occur in many people: 1) the lack of communication or relationship has led to an entirely physical focus, actually diminishing the pleasurability of the act over time because emotion is such a powerful part of the experience, producing 2) a desire or need for increased number of encounters to achieve the same experience, essentially creating an addiction to the release of dopamine rather than a fulfilling, healthy experience. Together with the ease of access of internet pornography, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy estimates that 12 million people in the United States experience some level of addiction, while incalculable number experience greater difficult achieving intimacy in their relationships. This is not just a problem, this is an epidemic.

So, why does the celibate man choose to discuss such a topic so close to Valentine’s Day? Might he be a bit jealous or repressed, simply wanting an opportunity to seem morally superior and in control?

I assure you that this is not the case and that I am by no means morally superior to any of you. This is not a condemnation of anyone or an exaltation of myself. We all have our sins and vices, past and present, and we should never forget that.

In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure why I write this today. Maybe it’s because the issue is so prevalent in our lives and I don’t find enough intelligent conversations. Maybe it’s because I see so much pain in people and want them to have a fuller experience. Maybe its just because I found the science interesting and wanted to share it. Who knows.

What I do know, though, is that sex is everywhere in our culture. It’s the topic of our conversations, jokes, entertainment, and advertisements. Everywhere we look we are bombarded with messages of sex. Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, I imagine many of us like that too. Sexual desire is a strong desire in humans, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Too often the Church is branded as anti-sex or prudish; the very notion that a friar is writing this may seem odd or scandalous to many. The fact of the matter is that the Church loves sex, sees it as a wonderful gift from God, and wants people to enjoy it to its fullest. Sex can be an act of prayer, an experience of the transcendent God. What else can one do to produce life? It’s a mystery, a wonder in our eyes.

Or, at least it can be.

And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe that’s why I chose to write today: the wonderful gift that God has given us is too often tread upon, neglected, or misused. The fact that our culture gives sex so much prominence and attention isn’t what bothers me, it’s that it strips it of so much of what makes it so wonderful. It isolates one aspect of the experience and manipulates it for the greatest gain, leading so many to believe that “hooking up” is the height of excitement and pleasure. But it’s not. The Church is not prudish or repressed when it calls people to commitment, relationship, and life, it is simply calling everyone to realize that there’s so much more to sex than simply hooking up.

It’s like that episode of Scrubs.

The Irony of Being Celibate

Today I attended a three-hour sexuality workshop to fulfill requirements set by the Church and my province. It was the first of two sessions that we will attend this year, the second level of a four-year program. Prior to this, my classmates and I attended three workshops during Postulancy and Novitiate, each consisting of two or three sessions per day for more than three days each. If that’s not ironic, that is, celibate religious men devoting a tremendous amount of time talking about and developing their sexualities, I don’t know what is. But wait, there’s more!

We talk about sexuality much more [intelligently] than before. 

The ironic thing about being a celibate in a religious order is not just that we talk about sexuality much more than we ever did before entering, it’s that we do it much more intelligently than in the outside world. Sure, guys would get together and talk about sex, but when did I ever have a conversation about sexuality? The thing is, sex and sexuality are related but not the same thing. Our schools were required to talk about the practical aspects of sex, but who ever talked to us about attraction, orientation, loneliness, friendships, non-genital expression, boundaries, or addictive behaviors? These topics are vastly underdeveloped in secular education and common knowledge, and were never the topic of my conversations prior to entering the friars. In religious life, these are common place.

Because of this I find myself to be more self-aware and self-accepting of who I am than I ever was when I had the possibility to date. Talking about these topics ad nauseum (and I do mean nauseum) and studying them in an intelligent context has given me the language and skills to identify not only important aspects of my own sexuality, but also to understand those around me much better and to enter into relationships in a much more meaningful way. Why everyone doesn’t take a full two years to understand oneself, how one relates to others, and social dynamics is beyond me. Going through the process of becoming a celibate religious prepared me for dating more than anything else in my life.

Clearer boundaries actually makes for freer relationships.

Because I am very comfortable with who I am and the vocational path I am following, I never enter a relationship confused or plagued by sexual tension. I am certainly still attracted to people and find myself wanting to be around certain people more than others (welcome to being human), but there is a clear boundary in every relationship that was never there before: I do not want to date you. Really. I don’t care who you are. (I still may be speechless or swept off my feet, but I don’t want to date you!) This, I have to say, is one of the greatest freedoms I have ever experienced in being with people.

When I stopped looking at everyone as a potential date, relationships opened up for me.

When I stopped looking at everyone as a potential date, relationships opened up for me.

Before becoming a friar, there was always the internal tension in every new relationship: “Do I find her attractive? Does she find me attractive? Could I date her? Should I try? Am I trying already? What could I do to make her like me? Dang, look at that body! I wonder what she thinks of me?” With clear boundaries, I know that the answer to any one of these questions now means absolutely nothing to me anymore and am free to completely disregard them for a less superficial relationship that before. Do I succeed at this? Not always. Vanity is a tough one to kill and we all want to feel important around attractive people. I will say this though: giving up the desire to date has helped me tremendously in looking beyond one’s attractiveness and has helped me treat attractive women with much more dignity and respect than I did before.

The ironic and somewhat tragic part of this is twofold: 1) Obviously, that it took stepping away from women for me to objectify them less, and 2) more tragically, that I would be so much better of a boyfriend/husband now having spent three years learning how to be in intimate relationships while having absolutely no intention of possession or objectification. Come on! I’m nowhere close to perfect now nor will I ever be, but I often wonder what a relationship would be like with this more mature and respectful approach.

As “men in uniform” and in positions of authority, we are more attractive than we were before.

The last part is a little bit of a joke but true nonetheless: people in leadership positions, especially for organizations of service or selflessness, are very attractive to people. Add a great looking uniform and be under fifty years old and people will come in droves. As friars, we know that we are “attractive” people. We’re friendly; we’re jovial; we’re virtuous (sometimes); we’re in charge of important things. Whether deserved or not, people tend to think highly of “the brothers” and naturally want to be around us. This is a natural attraction that none of us has ever experienced in our lives.

The difficult part of this for some friars is understanding the difference between being attracted to “Br. Casey” and “Casey”. We were told a story as postulants of a well-liked friar that was very attractive to the people he served, particularly the single women. Seeing other options, he left the friars to pursue a relationship in which the girl later realized that it was “Br. X” that she had been attracted to all along, not X, and they never ended up getting married. (If that’s not the most twisted irony you’ve heard today I don’t know what is!) Sometimes, it’s both “Br. X” and “X” that people are attracted to, but the point remains: being a public person in authority wearing a respectable uniform is going to attract more people than we’re used to and we need to be prepared for that.

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To summarize, I know myself much better, I would make a much more mature and respectful partner, and I find myself with more opportunities than I had before. And this is preparing me for a life alone? Yes and no. While ironic in the sense that it has potentially prepared me for its opposite, celibacy is a gift that has truly prepared me to be a man for everyone, not just a man for someone. In this life, I know myself better, I am a more mature and respectful partner (to all) and I am given more opportunities to love than I would ever have been offered in an exclusive romantic relationship. I guess you could say the real irony of it all is that celibacy deters people from religious life because they are afraid that they will not find the love that they need. In reality, celibacy is a life learning how to love as many people as possible as well as one can possibly love. Wouldn’t you give up something too if you could do that?

A Priest, or Just a Brother?

In Christ, we are all one: Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, priest and lay.

In Christ, we are all one: Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, priest and lay.

I was walking through campus the other day when I was stopped by an inquisitive student, who, unbeknownst to him, was about to receive way more in an answer than he ever intended in his question. The question went something like this:

“Hey Brother! You are a brother, right? [Yes I am. My name is Casey, nice to meet you.] So will you stay just a brother, or will you become something else?”

Meant to be a completely innocuous, friendly question, a question that I’m sure many of you have asked yourself, I didn’t take offense at it because I knew that it was asked out of a genuine desire to understand. That being said, I decided to make it a teaching moment:

“You know,” I said with smile so as to assure him that I meant no harm, “That is actually quite an offensive question to some friars. You see, we as friars like to emphasize equality in our fraternities, and each of us takes our vocation as ‘brother’ very seriously.  To be ‘just’ a brother implies that being ordained a priest or deacon makes a friar’s vocation or status more important than a friar who is not. We simply do not see our brotherhood in this way.”

Being a friar is a commitment that defines who we are and how we live; it says nothing about what we do as a profession. Some friars have been identified publicly as ordained ministers and therefore do sacramental work, but other friars work as teachers, painters, chaplains, spiritual directors, writers, principles, accountants, justice and peace advocates, caretakers, administrators, tradesmen, groundskeepers, counselors, and musicians. These professions no doubt add another layer to one’s personal identity.  There’s no denying that. But what I’d like to argue is that our primary identity is our vocation as friars, and that what we do, while important while we’re doing it, is secondary and altogether temporary.

To me, it’s like the identity of a mother within a household. Would anyone ever dare ask a mother, “Are you going to stay ‘just a mother’ or will you become something else?” Sure, she may have a profession, and that profession may be a very highly respected one.  Within the context of her household, however, her being “CEO” or “librarian” has no effect on the primary relationship she has with the rest of the family. She is first and foremost “mother.”

It’s my opinion, just like the mother who is always a mother but only a CEO when at work, that we as friars are always brothers, and only acting in persona christi, that is, set apart from the rest of the congregation as a stand-in for Christ, when we are performing priestly duties. The fact that a friar is ordained should bear absolutely no weight within a fraternity in regards to duties, responsibilities, privileges, or respect, outside of his duties directly related to sacramental ministry. At all other times, he is called to a life of humility and mutuality with each of his brothers, always remembering that his vows are the same as everyone else’s.

In this way, I am always reminded of the funny, and yet powerful question one of our friars often asks new or perspective guys: “So, are you going to be a brother, or just a priest?” In one sense, it is a comical deflection of a potentially frustrating situation that helps to ease any tensions. In another, it helps to capture the core priorities of our charism: Are you going to remain faithful to your fraternity and all of its needs, or are you going to leave your brothers behind to pursue “better” opportunities? As I continue to feel myself called to ordained ministry as a priest in the Catholic Church, I must remind myself of this question daily. No matter where God may lead me in terms of ministerial duties, I still have a duty to be humble, present, and responsible for all of my brothers.

For another perspective on this topic, I suggest reading this article written by my classmate, Br. Ramon Razon, ofm, who has accepted a call to be a religious brother.