While I don’t think there is a universally accepted checklist that will help everybody arrive at the answer to that question, I do think there are a few common denominators that can serve as general guides.
First, I think most people with this calling come to know Christ as a child and have a vivid memory of that event, including all the emotions surrounding it. For me it was a day of excitement. I remember feeling a wall of protection around me, one that was higher and thicker than even my parents could provide – protection from other kids laughing at me, questioning my beliefs, being left behind because I didn’t go along with the crowd, etc. It was a relief knowing that my life didn’t have to go down the same road. I was able to understand the significance of that day and its long term significance in a real grown up kind of way. One of the things that really intrigued me was eternity – forever and forever and forever . . . etc. I got dizzy thinking about it. My parents helped me find the Bible verses that described heaven and I knew in my heart that’s where my destination would be.
I accepted Genesis 1:1 as being just as real as the toes on my feet. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” I was able to close my eyes and visualize that, and still can. To me that meant that no teacher, preacher, or even my mom and dad knew it all because they didn’t create it all. And it meant that sex fell into that realm. It meant that my biology teacher could draw the molecules of the atmosphere and strands of DNA on the chalkboard until he was blue in the face, but he didn’t know it all. It meant that I could smile with content as he displayed the monkey to man evolution chart. I took comfort in knowing there was something left for me to discover when I got older. Even more important, as complicated as things may seem on this earth, it could all be distilled down into one single verse. God made it all.
Which brings us to mystery. If God made it all, is it possible for anybody to understand it all? At first, that question seemed frightening. My biology textbook in the 7th grade was bigger than my Bible. But I was eventually able to understand that all the biology books in the world don’t compare to what God knows. Even more important, I understood that textbooks could only describe the world and molecules of H2O – that it was God who made it and is still making it today. And I found that the Bible validated my love for mystery: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God (1 Cor 3:19). I think my love for mystery is one of the keys that initially pulled my heart out of the world of marriage and family and into the world of celibacy and God’s concerns. So not only is it not possible for everybody to know everything, God never intended it to be that way. It’s comforting today to know that the most technical jargon in any field of study is complete foolishness compared to God’s wisdom. Cloud storage with RAID mirroring technology you say? Complete nonsense God says.
The world of the sacred cannot be expressed without art and I think artistic ability is another trait often found in those called to celibate life. I was aware very early that the beauty I saw was very different from the beauty the world saw. Specifically, for me, it was the small details and patterns found in nature – seashells, water ripples, leaf veins, clouds, etc. I drew everything I saw. While other boys were focused on cheerleaders and getting some action behind the football field bleachers, I was focused on tree ring patterns and spider webs. Did anybody think that was cool? Did that win me any popularity contests? No. During my senior year, they voted me the quietest person in the class. But I didn’t care. I was able to look beyond superficiality and ignore them. I think an appreciation of uniqueness and individuality is also common. My mom can still tell you about the hours and days I spent studying spider webs and mounting them for display. I was able to see how different they were – just like fingerprints, just like humans – and came to the conclusion that the beauty of a woman could not surpass the splendor I saw in the natural world, in a mere snowflake.
Sensitivity to other people and “the least of these” (Matt 25:40) I think are also common denominators. Whether it was a bird with a broken wing, a spider ‘s web demolished by a falling limb, or a dog that couldn’t find his home – I felt responsible for them. I learned that, even though God made them all, I couldn’t save them all. And I learned that empathy is something the world does not reward. Guys are not supposed to be sensitive today. They’re not supposed to take time out of their multitasking lives to help someone because it might rob them of a precious dollar. All of our society, including churches, validates the macho man image scavaging for his next dollar, the next hookup, the next sexual consequest, the next easy way out. So the person choosing this life will have to tolerate rejection and lead a countercultural life that is not easy for the masses to relate to.
So countercultural will his life be that I feel he will feel compelled to publically share his convictions. Even Matthew 19 tells us that there will be some who have “renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Renouncing something requires making it public. That’s pretty much taken for granted for those living in monastaries and convents. But it’s more of a challenge for those outside the Catholic church, living in main street USA and dealing with the stereotypes of the day.
Understanding that Christianity is not about happiness and self-fulfillment is a common trait. I do not feel comfortable in prosperity driven churches, where numbers of children and financial portfolios are more important than God’s word. In a real way, we are aliens from another planet and know our time here is but the blink of an eye when compared to eternity.
Finally, I think we are able to adore other single brothers and sisters in Christ as unique creations of God and value their friendships on a level that surpasses romance and sex.