Celibacy—Exquisite Torture, or a “Yes to God”?

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The visit of Pope John Paul II to America last fall may come to be remembered most for the strange contrast it presented between the overwhelming enthusiasm shown for the man and the decided lack of enthusiasm shown for what he had to say. Among the unpopular positions espoused by the Pope was his insistence on maintaining the celibacy of priests. On the evening of October 3 he reiterated this position before an audience of seminarians at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, a complex of imposing buildings of huge grey granite blocks, where the Diocese of Philadelphia trains its priests. The Pope’s visit here particularly interested me, since a few years earlier I myself had spoken before the seminarians of St. Charles—and on the very same topic.

It is rare but not odd that a Pope should speak before American seminarians, but it is perhaps rare and odd that a Hare Krishna devotee should do so. What the Pope had to say was not unexpected. He stressed the full commitment the life of a priest demands, urged prayer as necessary for priests “to remain in a state of continuous reaching out to God,” and praised celibacy for priests as the “concrete response in their lives to express the totality of the ‘yes’ they have spoken to the Lord.” Naturally he was received enthusiastically, and the seminarians were reportedly “touched” by his speech. My own reception was somewhat more subdued, though respectful. But it is interesting that the Pope did not hear the seminarians voice the protests against celibacy that I—a member of “another religion”—did.

I had been invited specifically to address a class on the topic of revelation. Fifty or so young men in black filled the lecture hall when I arrived. I had thought over carefully what I would say: it must be clear to them that I had no sectarian message. I could speak on the general principles of religion that ought to apply as much to their faith as to my own.

And I knew some of their problems. I knew that the Church was losing priests at an alarming rate, and that there was agitation among the clergy for a married priesthood. Indeed, I had seen some of this turbulence at an appallingly close range: while doing graduate work in religion at Temple University, I had watched as one Catholic religious after another abandoned their vows to take up secular life. Some got married; others simply hit the streets.

I wrote the Hare Krishna mantra on the blackboard and then explained to the class that it was simultaneously a prayer and the prayer’s fulfillment. As a prayer, it begs the divine energy that unites us to God to join us with Him through service, and at the same time it is that union, for by chanting we directly associate with God in the form of His divine names (Krishna the person and “Krishna” the sound are nondifferent). Then I taught the seminarians how to pronounce the words of the mantra and asked them to chant it with me in call-and-response fashion. And then, to my immense delight, we had a wonderful kirtana, as fifty strong voices clearly and vigorously chanted the Hare Krishna mantra with me. After years of lecturing, I could get just about any audience to chant, but this chanting was exceptional; it was robust, spirited, with none of the sectarian reluctance I had feared. It was alive. These were clearly not ordinary men.

After the kirtana, I began to explain how chanting was related to the subject of revelation. Revelation is two- sided: there is the giver and the receiver, and then the receiver becomes the giver to another receiver, in turn. In Sanskrit this process is called parampara, or disciplic succession. Since the All-perfect reveals Himself perfectly, His revelation must be passed down without any change or alteration. For God’s revelation to be potent, it must be preserved intact, in all its original integrity.

How is this possible? The original giver, God, may be infallible, but the receiver is all too fallible. And yet, as I explained, we must understand that the divine revelation is not merely a collection of sentences, not just propositional truth. Memorization and rote transmission are machinelike functions that do not in themselves suffice for transmitting the revelation. God’s revelation—His word—like His names in the mantra, is absolute, and therefore God Himself is given in His word, in His own revelation. For this reason, the word of God possesses a concrete power. Just as a potent antibiotic injected into the bloodstream destroys the agents of infection, so the word of God, injected into the ears of a fully submissive receiver, destroys all his material contaminations, and he becomes transformed into a fitting receptacle, into an unsullied transparent medium. Such a person not only speaks the word of God; he lives it, and living it, becomes the word personified.

Thus the potency of God’s revelation is exhibited through the devotees, who are living exemplars of the purifying power of God. The word that is in relation to God can be received as-it-is only from those persons who are in relation to God. They are the life in which the letter lives. The revelation of God becomes a dead letter, like a law without government, when there are no pure devotees living the life of the letter.

So far, I had their full attention. Now I began to explain the four regulative principles, which are absolutely necessary for a person to observe if he wants to transmit the revelation of God intact. I enumerated: no eating of animal flesh, no indulgence in illicit sex, no taking of intoxicants, and no gambling—and I saw that I was losing my audience. Feet shuffled, eyes wandered ... and then the monsignor, their instructor, announced that it was time for a short break.

He and I sat down together. I wanted to talk with him about meat-eating, but before I could begin to offer reasons why a Christian ought to refrain from animal slaughter, he began to offer reasons why a Christian could indulge in alcohol. This was not an auspicious sign, to say the least, and as I began the second part of my lecture, I was somewhat less sanguine about the spiritual chances of these wonderful chanters. The monsignor, after all, was their teacher.

I spent the second part of the lecture explaining the spiritual principle that it is possible to give up the material activities of the senses not by rigid nullifications or barren abnegations, but only by giving the senses superior engagements in divine service. It is first of all necessary to control the tongue, I explained; only then can the other senses (including the genitals) be controlled. In the Krishna consciousness movement, I told them, we control the tongue by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra and by talking about the transcendental activities of the Lord and His devotees, and we eat only the sacred food called prasada (or God’s mercy), which is sanctified by having first been offered to the Lord. Similarly, the eyes, ears, nose, hands, and legs are all controlled by spiritual engagements in divine service. Our senses are not repressed by such engagements; rather, they become purified by being kept in contact with the divine through active service. And thus our mind, the hub of the senses, becomes fixed in constant remembrance of the Lord, and such recollection gradually reawakens our dormant love for God. When this original love is misdirected, it assumes the guise of material desire, of lust. This is why, when spiritual purity is restored, material desire is not present even in a repressed state, where it can break out at any time; rather, it has been wholly transmuted back into its original and natural form, pure love for God.

I answered a number of questions, mostly concerning the particular practices of Krishna devotees, while they passed around the large bowl of sweetballs (prasada) Ihad brought for them.

After the class was dismissed, about a dozen seminarians lingered behind, all very friendly and inquisitive, and began to question me, mostly about the four regulative principles. I saw that several of them had lit cigarettes.

In the course of our discussion, I finally asked one of the smokers, “Do you really find that impossible to give up?" I wasn’t prepared for his answer—or for the vehemence of it.

“If I could just take a girl out on Saturday night, he exclaimed, “instead of having to sit around here, crawling up the walls, I might not have to smoke!” There were murmurs of assent. And with much bitterness and resentment, they began criticizing the celibacy rule.

The Krishna consciousness movement, of course, has married priests. (I’m one.) But I told them that even married couples restrict sexual intercourse to once a month, and then only if they are trying to have a child. (“Rhythm” we regard as another form of cheating.) One of them said that it sounded worse than celibacy: they clearly didn’t want marriage on those terms either.

I was appalled by the amount of sexual frustration these men were giving voice to. It was wrong. So I started to question them about their life in the seminary, and it soon became quite clear why they were having such immense difficulty. To begin with, they had large stretches of idle time on their hands. And then, they freely read novels and magazines, habitually watched television. All these activities certainly agitated their senses. There was nothing spiritual about their eating habits. It was strictly for the tongue, and they were accustomed to drinking beer and smoking. They had lots of idle time, their senses were kept continuously under the bombardment of materialistic stimulation, and then—they were told to be celibate!

No one could be celibate under those circumstances. They were being cruelly, exquisitely tortured. Then I remembered the monsignor with his perverse syllogism: “Everything God has made is good. God has made alcohol… .” (He made arsenic, too, but you don’t ingest that!) I became angry. It was criminal to do this. These seminarians were not ordinary men: they wanted, and wanted very badly, to dedicate their lives fully to God. But nobody was showing them how. They were living in a way to agitate all their senses, and then commanded to be celibate! Of course they were always falling down, always laboring under a huge load of guilt. No wonder they were so cynical, so bitter and resentful. I wondered why nobody was teaching them. They didn’t even know the practical ABCs of spiritual life. They were being criminally betrayed.

It was so frustrating for me. I had told them what to do—but could they do it in the context of the Church? To chant God’s names and dance with His devotees, to eat the sumptuous feasts of His mercy, to hear and read the always- fresh stories of His activities and pastimes, which fill volume after volume, to let their eyes feast on the gorgeous form of the Lord in the temple ... could they do things like these? I had an overwhelming urge to take these men, right now, out onto the streets to chant. Then, I knew, they would be all right, they would be safe. They wanted a pure life (a rare thing), they wanted to surrender fully to God, they wanted to overcome the powerful “law of the flesh”—and I knew how they could do it.

But here they were, all in black. As we began walking down the long corridor, I asked one of them if there were some spiritually advanced person here he could follow. He shrugged.

“I don’t know.” He turned to his friend: “What d’you think?”

“I don’t know.” Silence for a few paces.

“Hey!” another suddenly exclaimed. “What about Holy Joe!”

“Hey, yeah! Holy Joe!” They began to laugh.

My depression deepened. We walked through the high, deserted halls, our footsteps ringing in the emptiness. The massive stone of the seminary loomed over us.

We stopped at the entrance to the chapel (the one where the Pope would speak a few years later). They wanted me to see it. They were proud of it. But it was huge, dark, and cold. Walls of bone-white marble shone dully. It was like a sepulcher. I shivered and mumbled something polite.

Before I left I told them that I had not come to criticize their religion. But as I looked at their faces, still clearly marked by the purity of their calling, I could only think that they were being horribly betrayed. I do not want to criticize their religion now, either, but I can only honestly report that I did not see there the spiritual energy that the word of God bears when lived by his pure devotees.

With John Paul II there has come hope. He is young, energetic, and is said to have charisma. But the sign of real renewal will not be the protestations of affection, the big turnouts, the cheers, and the applause. It will be when those seminarians embrace their vows not with bitterness and resentment but with joy, enthusiasm, and confidence.

You may not believe such a thing is possible, but I have seen it. I have been blessed to meet a pure devotee of God. Some of us have not been betrayed.