Q: I’ve loved your books The Music of Silence and The Ground We Share. Thank you for taking up the issue of sex. Could you talk a bit more about how to deal with the issue as a single person? I’ve chosen not to have sexual relationships without marriage because of my spiritual views, and it has caused either difficult relationships or sparse ones. Recently, I was involved with a man who insisted that I was not saying yes to life because of this, and we ended up breaking off our relationship. How do we say yes to life if we have chosen to be celibate outside of marriage? And, this means addressing masturbation which to my thought is not really a helpful thing on the spiritual path. Thank you. — L.

A:  +There is a one-word answer to your question, L., “How do we say YES to life if we have chosen to be celibate outside of marriage;” the one-word answer is, “gratefully,” because the YES to life is gratefulness — grate-fulness — our full response to the gratuitous gift of life. We all experience life as gratuitous, freely given, gratis; this accounts for the first part of the word “grateful.” My answer will focus on the second part — on what a full response to this gift implies, particularly for a single person committed to the high spiritual choice you have made.

How can we tell, first of all, that a choice we make is truly spiritual? Spirit means life, lifebreath, life-in-fulness. A choice inspired by the Spirit will prove healthy; it will promote growth. By choosing one option we reject others; I admit that we may feel this as a limitation. But the limits we accept in a truly spiritual choice will never stunt or stifle our growing process; they will channel our energy and will make it flow all the more vigorously. We choose a guiding principle, not a rigid framework. If our choice to be celibate outside of marriage is truly spiritual, truly life-affirming, we are not choosing a safety zone, but a direction in which to move and grow.

Growing rarely happens without growing-pain. You speak of difficult relationships. Your difficulties may well have been the positive, life-affirming ones of growing and of learning. You may ask yourself: What have I learned in and through those relationships? When I ask myself that question, I find invariably some aspect of my experience that makes me feel grateful. Even when I recognize that I have missed an opportunity, this recognition itself is a learning experience that makes me grow; I will start my next relationship on a more mature level; I will try to be alert to new aspects, new dimensions.

There are three poles to every relationship. Experience has taught me to pay attention to all three. We tend to be preoccupied with only two of them; let me call them the I and the You. But we can pay greater attention to our experience and become aware of a third, equally important pole: the great, overarching whole to which both You and I are related. I will call this third pole of every relationship the One, since myself and the other — I and You — are one in it; this One is our Source, our Home, and the ultimate Goal of all there is.

From your question I know that you are already aware of the One as a powerful pole in the force field of every relationship. Your free decision to be celibate outside of marriage indicates that you committed yourself to a guiding principle that lies beyond the dynamics of your interactions with a partner and beyond your own changing whims. When we attune ourselves to the One, we find our bearings; we get a clearer sense of who we are and in what direction we need to move; we find that we are being guided — not by outside rules and regulations, but by our deepest innermost desire. The only guidelines that make a choice like yours authentic are the growth lines of your unique personal unfolding.

When you commit yourself to this path, you keep feeling your way along in openness, trust, and courage. You call out for guidance — often without words — and doors open, doors close, circumstances point the way. In the process, you come to know the way, step by step, and you come to know the that the One who guides you is trustworthy. Many call that One “God;” that is fine, as long as we start with experience and don’t insist on one particular name for it. Unfortunately, the name “God” stresses too much that the One goes infinitely beyond us, and too little that the One is also “closer to me than I am to myself,” as St. Augustine put it. God is not only the One for whom we long, but the One who longs and the very longing. In this sense, every relationship is, in Christopher Fry’s words, “Exploration into God.”

Of course, it is also exploration into another human being’s life. Much could be said about facing the other truly as other, since we are always apt to turn the You into a mirror for the I, or to use the other as a reflecting screen for our own projections. In the context of your question, however, I will focus on an aspect that is more directly connected with celibacy. The, You, the other is somebody – some body. This makes the body an integral aspect of every relationship. We must do with it; the question is only how?

Since the choice to be celibate outside of marriage will express itself in one’s behavior, “when a body meets a body in the rye” (or wherever else), it will be only fair to speak frankly about its bodily implications with your partner. You have done this. But here the third pole of your relationship comes into play. Only if your partner is also attuned to the One, can you count on understanding. Mutual respect springs from this deep understanding and creates a healthy climate for mutual sharing. In this sharing, other aspects may be more important to the two of you, but coming to know each other’s bodies will necessarily be a part of it. In fact, you may be able to savor bodily intimacy more fully and more delightfully by tasting it bit by bit rather than swallowing it whole. One of the most sensuous scenes in any film I remember occurred in a Japanese one: a couple touching each other merely with their fingertips; it felt like two live electric wires touching.

A fully alive relationship is “exploration into God,” and exploration into your partner’s life, but certainly also into your own. It is the opportunity for new self-understanding and new self-confidence through self-exploration. “This means addressing masturbation,” you rightly observed. After all, you are not a disembodied mind. Self-exploration means coming to know some-body that happens to be you. Exploring one’s body includes exploring how it works — sexually and otherwise. Children do this quite spontaneously and with complete purity of heart. When we leave them alone, they discover quite naturally the pleasure they can derive from playing with themselves. If we make no fuss about this, it becomes simply part of their joy of being alive in a body. Adolescents discover of course the attraction of sex with others. Even when this leads to long-term bonding, one of the partners is eventually left alone again. In many people’s lives the period of bonded sex is a mere interlude between the solo-sex of their early and late years — quite apart from the statistical evidence that masturbation is frequent even during the bonded phase.

To reduce the notion of sex to sex-with-an-other distorts reality. One danger of this distortion shows itself, when partners blame each other for lack of sexual satisfaction; they make the other responsible for what they are fully equipped to derive on their own. Once they realize this, the couple is free to enjoy each other a great deal more — even sexually — without making demands. This can certainly be helpful on the spiritual path, though it is called “masturbation.” Since this term has a decidedly negative ring, I would reserve it for solo-sex that is not in tune with the flow of life — that is exaggerated, imbalanced, compulsive, and often exploitative through its use of material provided by the porno-industry. Masturbation in this sense is certainly not helpful on the spiritual path; I fully agree with you on this; in fact, it is positively harmful.

Many celibates try to free their mind from all sexual activity. Others use methods for channeling the sexual energy as spiritual practice. You are a celibate whose eventual goal is marriage. You will almost certainly have to let your body come to play a part in relationships which are potentially open towards marriage. I am reminded of the elaborate courtship rituals of certain species of birds — especially those who mate for life; their bond holds only if the ritual has run its full, uninterrupted course. How low-key their mating games start; how they make every little gesture count; how they delight in repetition; how they take their time — weeks in some cases, which would mean months or years in human time. These cranes, or wild geese, or whomever, give the perfect answer to your question, “How do we say YES to life if we have chosen to be celibate outside of marriage?” Their instinct mirrors on an un-reflective level the clarity of your choice. Their gradual attunement to each other can be a model for your conduct towards a partner. What they express by their exuberant joy in life will on your level find expression in grateful living.

–Your Brother David

Br. David Steindl-Rast
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.