Tomorrow I am attending a two-day retreat of sorts for newly ordained priests; as a seminarian-on-leave, the diocese decided these might be helpful for me. The topic of the retreat is the meaning and the practicalities of celibate living.
In preparation for the retreat, they sent us selections from Theology of the Body and Christpher West's helpful companion to it. The only problem is that they only gave us every other page. The chapter out of West's book has only the odd pages; the chapter out of the Pope's book only has the even pages. It's as if the packets themselves were celibate--yearning for the Other that is their missing pages!
So I read every other page of Christopher West's chapter on Celibacy for the Kingdom. I didn't even try to read the Pope's stuff; reading John Paul is hard enough when I have energy and intermittent pages aren't gone. And West points out several angles of meaning for the celibate that reminded me a little bit of what made celibacy interesting to me in the first place.
For me, the conspicuous absence of a wife and children among priests--or of husband and children in the case of nuns--was always an indicator of a conspicuous presence of something else. This is not to say that a man's loves compete in a zero-sum game. They definitely do not, I say emphatically (against the tendency today to view children as burdens and strains on marital love). But that amazing sort of gap in a celibate priest's life, where otherwise a wife and children would fill, has exerted a draw on my attention in a similar manner to the missing leg of a stately and dignified war veteran, the deafness of a pretty girl I crushed on in high school; or to shift the analogy a bit, the poignant slouch of a centuries' old romanesque church sinking into the ground, or the seductive pathos attached to ghost towns, broken statues, and moldy books.
I imagine that there is something universal in human taste; a fascination with the mystery of the incomplete, with the abrupt interruption of expected completion with startling absence. After all, in Greek myth the Oracle is a blind woman. Although there are certainly futile absences and defects to which nobody attributes aesthetic value, other times human taste seems drawn always to defects suggestive of secret power. Among the statues adorning the entrance archways of gothic churches, I have always found the statue of fallen Israel, with her blindfold, broken crown, and snapped scepter infinitely more fascinating than her ecclesial counterpart, the regal and spotless statue of the Bride of Christ.
Why? Is it because of an inborn hero complex; a desire to complete that which is flawed; to fix; to fulfill? I used to think so; now I do not. I now see that what has always attracted me to these testaments of brokenness was not the project of self-affirmation through "fixing". Rather it was promise--or at least, the possibility--of learning an arcane secret; an ancient truth for which this person, or this object, has paid a dear price. Defects and absences that are earnest and simple (i.e., not merely affected) are powerful credentials. It is precisely in the pitch black darkness of a room where the alarmist center of our consciousness imagines any number of possible threats. A mime's gesticulations more powerfully evoke the presence of objects than if they were actually there. And is it not at least psychologically relevant that our highest symbol of hope is a man hanging on a tree?
Celibacy, I suggest, beyond having all of its proper theological meaning outlined in Theology of the Body, also participates in this natural, psychological phenomena of consciousness, of the play of absence and presence which tantalizes the human imagination. A priest--particularly, a joyful priest--is a man dancing ballroom style with no visible partner. To the world, such a dance, precisely because it is not normal, forces the question: what, or who, could possess this man to do such an odd thing? And if the answer is that he is not, after all, alone, then we welcome (as the beginnings of faith) the speculation as to the transcendent beauty of she who would enrapture him so much that he cared not how silly he looked.