In her new book Chastity Is For Lovers, my friend Arleen Spenceley includes a quote (p. 36) by Argentinian poet Antonio Porchia (1885-1968): “He who makes a paradise of his bread, makes a hell of his hunger.” For most Americans today, hunger is a foreign concept. Whatever your appetite, you have a civil right for it to be met. Your paradise could be drugs, porn, sex, sports, etc. Anything. Whatever your heart desires. Not only that, you don’t have to wait on anything. That would be unloving and cruel. You have the right for your pleasure to be met on a moment’s notice. That sounds like a pretty good description of addiction, doesn’t it? That’s because we live in a culture of addiction and debauchery. The biblical truths of chastity and self-restraint have been replaced by whatever it takes to bring pleasure and happiness in the short term. Anticipation of eternity has been replaced by big dreams for tomorrow. Anticipation of the wedding feast in heaven has been replaced by a hookup on Saturday night. I think few people realize that God does not promise us happiness on earth. Only in heaven will we find eternal happiness. That requires waiting. We are called to live as faithful servants of Christ while awaiting his return. And we are called to live as chaste men and women awaiting marriage – whether on this earth as husbands and wives or in heaven as brides of Christ. As a matter of fact, Christianity is based on waiting, on the advent of Christ’s return. It is based on hunger for more than can be fulfilled on earth.
Passing up paradise and leaving a portion of bread in our bowls requires us to acknowledge we are never alone at the table and that we have a responsibility to care for those in need. We have to take the “me” out of our worlds and replace it with serving other people and bringing glory to God. We have to show the humility that Christ showed on the cross. We have to show the humility that he does every time he gives us his body in the Eucharist. As St. Augustine said: “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts our meaningless.” When a person is humble and recognizes where his bread comes, he does not feel the need to make a paradise out of it. He realizes that, by providing him sustenance, it becomes part of the process of glorifying God. It allows us further service in his name. This kind of humility leads to faith and dependence on God for everything. Not just food. A better approach to our bread might be: “Dear Lord, bless this food to our bodies and our bodies to Your service.” Thankfulness and faith allows us to see our bread bowls completely empty and that we are nothing without Christ. Not only that, it should allow us to see the empty bread bowls of our neighbors. Do you think you would notice the crumble of bread on your neighbor’s plate if your stuffing down a three-course steak dinner? Humility serves to keep our paradises grounded in reality. This would not be possible while floating in the paradise of a more than satisfied appetite. So we must first give thanks for our daily bread and acknowledge God as the provider. And instead of completely devouring what we do have, we save a portion for those who don’t have anything to eat. If we lead lives of gluttony and pleasure for the here and now without knowing what sacrifice is, then our bodies will expect quick satisfaction in the future when we don’t have a full plate. Self-control is a discipline that requires us to see beyond what’s on the menu today.
Just as we should be able to picture an empty bowl of bread, we should be able to picture our lives without sex. Just as a paradise of bread is not promised to us, a paradise of sexual fulfillment is not promised either. We are not promised sex in marriage, outside marriage, with a man, with a woman, or on top of a courthouse. Nada. As a matter of fact, Paul advises us to live as if we had no spouse: “From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not (1 Cor 7:29).” Since God included the sex drive in the DNA of our creation, remaining chaste before marriage or until Christ’s return takes a level of self control that the world does not know. This hunger makes room for unconditional love. Those who are saving sex for marriage know the importance of self-control. And they also know how moderation plays a role in every aspect of our lives. It’s part of who we are and our witness to the world. A lot of times, the paradise of our bread is made in the recesses of our minds and unrealistic expectations. We have bought into the world’s view of Prince Charming sweeping us off our feet and Cinderella being the babe of our dreams without first discerning if marriage is God’s will for our lives. In other words, we don’t start with an empty bowl. We assume it’s filled with marriage and work towards that end. Tragically we have bought into the notion that our lives are supposed to be one act drama-packed reality shows where emotions rule. Emotions are nothing more than hazy chalk marks on the expressway of life. They are strictly temporary. I can hold a baby and feel the “father gene” in me wake up. I can talk to the loveliest girls in the world and feel the “mating gene” in me wake up. But that doesn’t mean that God has called me to marriage. It doesn’t mean that I’m ruled by those emotions. It doesn’t mean my bowl is full of anything. It means that emotions take a backseat to the long-term will of God when he’s in the driver’s seat. As good and holy as marriage and sex are, they are part of this world. The temporary romantic love they represent is fading faster than moonlight on a summer’s day. Celibacy for the kingdom of God, however, is an eternal lifestyle choice. It involves a sacrifice that goes way beyond that found in dating, mating, and procreation.
If you are in the process of discerning marriage or celibacy, think about this: The next time you feel the need to have sex, to be a mother or father, to have someone at your side, to have someone to wake up with every morning – ask yourself what your feelings would be if you had no one else to compare your life with. What would your thoughts be if your bowl of expectations had no frame of reference? How would you define hunger? The next time you’re at a theme park and sandwiched between couples waiting in line for rides, don’t think of them as couples having a paradise of sex while you’re not. Think of them as individuals – just like you – waiting in line for the same thing you are. If they are Christians, they’re supposed to be living like they had no spouse anyway. Right? Don’t let what they may have be a reminder of what you don’t have. Better yet, put yourself in Adam’s shoes in the Garden of Eden before eve was created. What will be your answer when Adam asks “What’s a woman?” Now how do you feel about being alone? What’s alone? Let your celibacy be a reminder of what you do have – Total reliance on God to meet all your needs and God’s total reliance on me to have an undivided heart. Married people may not have the paradise you think. Honestly, they could be the unhappiest couple on earth and you may be the person they envy. Don’t start a narrative about a couple where one doesn’t exist. Just like you don’t want them to make assumptions about you as a single person, don’t make assumptions about them. Really, I doubt many couples look at me and say: “Oh, that poor single man. He would be so much happier with a woman by his side.” Being coupled in public or being alone in public doesn’t make much of a statement about our marital status or happiness. And it certainly makes no statement about our relationship with God. “Oh, but what if they don’t see God in me and just see my lonely pitiful self?” Do your best to mirror God’s love at all times. Loneliness is part of the human condition, whether married or not. Show the world that love exists outside the world of When Harry Met Sally. Show them that your completeness does not depend on a spouse and that you are able to be content with an empty bowl while waiting for the real paradise.
I think hunger is a natural part of every Christian’s life. We can never be too satisfied with this world because we know there’s a better world waiting. This is magnified for those of us called to celibate life, where waiting takes on the complexity of multidimensions that only the crew of the Enterprise could appreciate. But it doesn’t mean we lack passion. My love for God is made deeper by longing for what I don’t have. And I think my capacity to love mankind is deeper as well. Don’t let the world define who you are. If you’ve chosen celibacy, tell others about your choice of a higher love. Let them see just how you depend on Christ to meet all of your needs. Use your solitary completeness as a radical witness to the time coming when there will be no marriages. As incomprehensible as it may sound, remind couples that what will satisfy your hunger in the future will be better than the sex they are having today; that the paradise they are having with their bread today will one day be no more tastier than a stale wet cracker bouncing off their lips. So, eat the bread you do have with moderation and thankfulness. And make heaven, not hell, out of your hunger.