John Brundage is a seminarian with the Companions of the Cross. He is currently studying at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI. This reflection was originally published on his blog, Integrated Prayer, and is reposted here with permission.
At the seminary I attend, seminarians must submit an essay outlining their understanding of celibacy before entering formation. I originally wrote this reflection, but later decided to send them something which answered the prompt more directly and which somewhat respected the word limit. Even though a few years later I can now see some clunkiness in the writing and gaps in the argumentation, it’s still one of my favorite pieces. I hope you enjoy it.
In one of his many video reflections, author John Green notes that one of the perks of getting older is the ability to have a long term relationship with books. He explains how fascinating and satisfying it is to recall how his experience of certain books has changed and deepened at various stages of his life, and how revisiting these books is now an opportunity to revisit those stages.
I still have a ways to go before I am out of the woods of being a ‘young adult’ (according to the World Youth Day limit of 35), but I’m still old enough that I can begin to relate to what Green is saying. For me, the movie Shrek has a particular resonance and richness not simply because it is an outstanding movie in its own right, but also because I have seen and enjoyed it in nearly every stage of my life. I have changed a great deal over the years, taking on many different priorities, attitudes, outlooks, hopes, joys, and sorrows. But so much of this change is so easily forgotten in the glacial shift of aging. The way I am now can seem like the way I have always been. For me, watching Shrek vividly brings back to life what it was like to be ‘me’ when I was going through childhood, adolescence, and now young adulthood.
This ‘long term relationship’ with Shrek came in handy when I watched it after my first year of formation with the Companions. This had been a beautiful but very challenging year. I was far from sure that I wanted to continue in formation. Worse, I was far from sure that the happiness and fulfillment I desired was attainable given my weaknesses, mistakes, and sinfulness, (much of which had been recently uncovered by my time in formation). One fear that loomed particularly large was the fear that I was letting an opportunity for the joy of falling in love and getting married slip through my fingers. That I was missing out on my best life and wasting my best years, and that a future of disappointment, drudgery, and regret awaited me.
Watching Shrek while in this emotional state was extremely helpful and healthy, not simply as a comforting nostalgia trip, but as a way to ground my identity and take stock of myself at a time when I felt adrift. It was a very effective and unexpected tool to see the full history of my life, allowing me to put this particular confusing and painful moment in context.
During this viewing I was especially struck by the transformation of the main character, an ogre named Shrek. In the film’s iconic opening scene, we see a montage of Shrek going about his daily routine in his swamp. We see that the swamp is Shrek’s domain. Everything within its boundaries has been fully customized to Shrek’s comfort, pleasure, and personal preferences. By all appearances, Shrek is fully alive, fully content, and fully himself. Initially we get no indication that there is any underlying sadness or discontent. But as he winds down his day and sits down to dinner with himself, we the audience, (with the help of the film’s achingly beautiful score), see that something is missing. Shrek is conspicuously alone. While this void is something Shrek does not appear to be consciously aware of or suffering from, it is unmistakably there, and it brings the vivacious, high energy opening to a bittersweet end.
Shrek’s superficially comfortable lifestyle is turned upside down when he discovers that the tyrannical Lord Farquad has turned his swamp into an internment camp for fairy tale creatures, who have been rounded up and dumped on his land. Overcome with frustration, he vows to confront Lord Farquad and have the fairy tale creatures removed from his swamp. When he sets out on his adventure, Shrek’s goal is initially a single minded quest to restore his former way of life. However, when he meets and eventually falls in love with Princess Fiona, his eyes are opened to the possibility of finding happiness beyond what was possible in his old life through a relationship with her.
As Shrek quickly discovers, this sort of happiness comes at great risk and suffering. Throughout the movie we see Shrek repeatedly face dire physical danger with a fearless swagger and hearty self confidence. But this self assurance evaporates when he is faced with the decision to make himself vulnerable by sharing his true feelings for Fiona. At one point, overcome with despair and heartbreak at an apparent rejection, Shrek storms back to his swamp and locks himself in his home. At this, the emotional low point of the film, there is now no mistaking his isolation, and no disguising his loneliness. It has occurred to me what a staggering tragedy this movie would have been if it had ended here. Fortunately, with the help of his friends, Shrek is persuaded to face his fears and take up again the fight for his relationship with Fiona.
What does all of this have to do with celibacy? I think there are many points in my life where I have consciously or unconsciously been pursuing my own ‘swamp’ as the object of my happiness. A life where I find satisfaction in being comfortable and gratified, and most importantly, in being free of discomfort, boredom, and suffering. In the swamp I am never bored. The swamp can never disappoint me. It will not make me uncomfortable. It will never break my heart or reject me. But the reason Shrek is such a timeless movie is because Shrek discovers that the happiness of his swamp does not deserve to be mentioned alongside the happiness of a life with Fiona, even with all its risk, pain, frustration, and sacrifice. Even in this secular movie, we see clearly and emphatically that we gain true life and true joy when we give our lives away.
The question then becomes, how do I give my life away, and to whom do I give it to? Our faith shows us that the happiness we are seeking is found fully, and ultimately only in a relationship with God. Marriage is thus not an end in itself, but a means to this end. It is a vital means. A beautiful means. A noble means. An awesome to the point of being godlike means. But is nonetheless a means, and from the very beginning of Christianity it has been observed to be a means that entails a substantial tradeoff with one’s spiritual, emotional, and relational availability. Thus from the very beginning of Christianity, people in love with the Lord have voluntarily sacrificed marriage in order to be more available to him and his purposes.
During my first year of formation we read When God Asks for an Undivided Heart by Fr. Andrew Apostoli CFR. I very much appreciated Fr. Apostoli’s honesty and candor on the subject of loneliness in a celibate vocation. As a man, I am created for communion with a woman, and if I choose to forego that communion it will leave a void in my heart that will always be there. While it is true that there is a wide variety of healthy ways I can mitigate and sublimate this void (e.g. prayer, the apostolate, healthy friendships, brotherhood, hobbies) these things only go so far. From time to time, I will have to face this void in its full force with its full agony. Fr. Apostoli wrote that this void is not something to run from or to try vainly to fill, but it is a cross to be embraced as an opportunity to gain a special closeness and intimacy with God. An intimacy not available to people who have so much of their bandwidth taken up by the all encompassing commitment of marriage.
Since I read Fr. Apostoli’s book, I have experienced the effectiveness of his counsel first hand. There have been various times (especially during the summers) where I have not only felt intense longing for romantic relationship, but also had realistic opportunities to pursue it. Thanks to the Holy Spirit working through the wisdom I had been given, I was fully equipped to face these difficult feelings head on, and to embrace the cross of loneliness and longing rather than run from it. And in this embrace, in being able to lay down my life and let go of my attachments, I found a taste of the joy that lies before me. A joy which has made me ready to despise the shame of being unmarried, to leave the swamp behind forever, and to wholeheartedly commit to the vocation it seems that the Lord is calling me to.