Some of my readers know I am a student of philosophy, both Western and Indian. In philosophy we see what reason is able to obtain through observation and rational reflection upon what we observe and experience. We don’t, apart from faith, find the Eternal Wisdom that saves, but we do come to discover universal knowledge as such – this is often what we called science.
I am not a syncretist and my purpose when I engage a pre-Christian philosophical tradition is not to create some sort of syncretic melding together of the two . I am a practicing Catholic and my philosophical orientation can best be described as Aristotelian Thomist. Nevertheless, I am deeply enriched by studying and learning from the wisdom of other cultures, particularly their practical wisdom. An example of this I found while reading part of the Bhagavad Gita the other day. I have been studying the practical wisdom related to the practice of celibate chastity in Indian philosophy recently. This interest was rekindled by re-reading the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. He gives sound practical advice in that text for celibacy when he talks about his own path to mortification of the sexual desire.
In the Indian tradition brahmacharya typically is used to denote the practice of celibacy for the purposes of contemplation of the divine reality.* Similar to the Christian tradition where celibacy is understood as a way to focus on seeking God with an undivided heart, in the Indian tradition it is understood as a way to harness one’s vital energies for single-pointed focus on the purification of the mind through focusing on the divine reality.
Celibacy, then, cannot be understood apart from the context of seeking union with the divine reality in the Indian tradition. This is something perhaps many have lost sight of in the Catholic tradition where we often see celibacy as abstinence from sex/not marrying. We tend to view it in terms of a deficiency and sacrifice. While it is no doubt a sacrifice, if it isn’t ordered to the highest good of a human person – communion with God – then it could be disordered, and perhaps bear the painful fruits of sexually disordered behavior.
The practice of priestly celibacy, for instance, can’t be understood apart from seeking an intense union with the heart of Jesus Christ. It potentially fosters a type of union that simply isn’t possible for a person who is sexually active primarily because sex diverts attention.
In the Indian tradition it is common for a householder even (a layman) after the period of fruitfulness in marriage, to advance in the spiritual life through the practice of bramacharya. In the Christian tradition we have examples of married couples who at some point in their union (usually after child-bearing years) abstain from the conjugal act. And all responsible Christians who are married practice some sort of periodic continence. And some, like Jacques and Raissa Maritain, practice celibacy within marriage.
Celibacy is chosen for a higher goal – to seek God with an undivided heart. What St. Paul says about the good of undivided heart also reflects a natural wisdom that cultures who weren’t in a dialogical relationship with the Gospel were able to articulate.
In 6:14 of the Bhagavad Gita we read,
…with a serene, fearless, and unwavering mind, and staunch in the vow of celibacy, the vigilant yogi should meditate on me, having me alone as the supreme goal.
The celibate has the divine reality as the supreme goal, and his celibacy is understood in the context of a psychological experience that is serene, as well as a volitional commitment that is courageous and unwavering. Here we see some essential natural elements to celibate chastity that are relevant for any single, even for those that hope to be married some day, and even married folks who also are called to grow in the practice of periodic continence.
But it is especially important for the celibate: celibacy is meant to allow for an undivided heart that seeks God. If it becomes a means to avoid intimacy, escape responsiblity, or is based in unhealthy shame of one’s own eros then it is disordered and will not achieve its end. But oriented to God and in the context of faith, sacrament, moral life, and prayer, it is a direct means of communion with the Holy Trinity.
Thus, constantly keeping the mind absorbed in me, the yogi of disciplined mind attains nirvāṇ, and abides in me in supreme peace.
In the Bhagavad Gita we see here that celibacy allows one’s devotion to become single pointed and constant. The single pointed and constant devotion allows an experience of the divine reality that fosters deep and abiding peace. The peace has an immediate practical effect – it tends to produce command over one’s passions.
What does this communicate to the Christian committed to celibacy? That if you are relapsing into a sexual behavior you are missing the mark, so to speak, of celibacy, which is union with the Holy Trinity. You likely are constantly agitated and lack interior peace – your attention is being scattered and diverted away from God.
Union with the Holy Trinity requires an ongoing commitment of the heart and will to seek God as God, as the source, center and end of human life. It is an ascetic and mystic commitment that must be constant and single-pointed. If it isn’t both of these together it isn’t possible.
An interpreter of the above parts of Bhagavad Gita gives sound direction that any Christian could immediately employ for the practice of celibacy or chastity in marriage. He reminds us that celibacy isn’t merely not having sex but begins in the thoughts.
Thus, to be truly celibate one must abstain from:
1) Thinking about it.
2) Talking about it.
3) Joking about it.
4) Envisioning it.
5) Desiring it.
6) Wooing to get someone interested in it.
7) Enticing someone interested in it.
8) Engaging in it.
For one to be considered celibate, all these must be shunned (ref).
Are we committed publicly or privately to celibacy but allowing ourselves to think about sexual pleasure? If so, this is form of duplicity. What about talking about it? Do we always bring it up? Bringing it up constantly will produce it. What about joking about it? Do we think it is okay to joke about things of sexual nature or to objectify others? Might this not be a subtle form of indulging in it? What about envisioning it? Do we imagine it with other people while we are in public or private, even for a fleeting moment? If so, this is not celibacy. Do we desire it? If so, the desire needs to be mortified through penance and prayer. What about manipulating others to get it, or to desire it? Not only would that cause grave scandal but it is very selfish and betrays double mindedness. And then obviously, if someone is engaging in the sexual act, whether a heterosexual act, a homosexual act, or masturbation, then that person is not practicing celibacy – even if there is a vow of celibacy.
The commentator on the Bhagavad Gita knows from natural wisdom alone, that to be celibate all of these must be shunned. Do we, who possess both natural wisdom and the gift of faith, recognize this adequately to truly live with an undivided heart consecrated to God alone?
If the yogi is this motivated to seek the divine reality, which remains obscure and distant, apart from faith, should not Christians who commune directly with the Christ not be even more motivated to forgo all else for seeking union with God? Then why don’t we see more ascetics? Why don’t we see more mystics? Why do even our priests & religious often live on the terms of the World? Are they really celibate?
If we are to truly have a New Evangelization in the secular west it won’t be until our devotion supercedes that of peoples who are pre-Christian in orientation or neo-pagans. Otherwise people will be attracted to their devotion, and follow them, not Christ. We communicate that Christ isn’t that valuable when we put Him to the side and want to have the World on its terms first. The heart of the New Evangelization must be people willing to follow Christ and seek union with His heart in a way that is total, constant, and unwavering. As Pope St. John Paul II said, all pastoral initatives must be set in relationship to holiness. Let those who are committed to celibacy, be truly celibate, and forgo all for seeking union with and glorifying the Most Holy Trinity.
*I use the term ‘divine reality’ to describe the reality that Christians know by faith to be incarnate in the Logos, God, the Creator of all, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, I don’t use the term, “God” when speaking of the ultimate or divine reality that is sought in Indian philosophy to make the distinction more evident between the understanding we possess of God as Creator, through faith and reason, and the Indian philosophical account of the divine reality, which is not the account of a Creator as such. Even though it is said that the Indian philosophical account of the divine reality in places approach monotheism it is still deficient in its account, even purely from the perspective of natural reason, because the divine reality it describes is not a Creator that creates freely ex nihilo.