Some months ago, I received a question from a young woman that, after telling me her story, could be boiled down to her question at the end: How have you dealt with feelings of attraction after you decided consecrated life was best for you?
This is a great question, and depending on where we are in our discernment (or if someone is still discerning), we can approach it from several perspectives. I’d like to note that this question can come up both when we’re initially discerning a celibate life, and again at some point when we’re living celibacy or consecrated life.
If we are discerning our vocation between priesthood/consecrated life and marriage…
then these feelings are an opportunity to further discern our vocation. (Just a note here: feelings of attraction are a part of life, no matter our vocation or state in life. Being attracted to someone is no indication of a vocational calling.) For someone discerning marriage, a key question is how strong the attraction is, and what about this person attracts us? If it is simply a physical attraction, then we acknowledge it and let it go. We don’t need to give it additional thought or energy. If, however, it is a deeper attraction—for example, we are drawn to the person’s goodness, the way that they relate to us or to others, their vulnerability and strength—then we might want to think more about it and bring it to prayer.
Discerning between marriage and a life consecrated to God means discerning how God is calling us to express our love. Especially if we are in the early stages of our vocational discernment, if we find someone with whom we want to explore spending the rest of our life, then it makes sense to choose to get to know that person and see how the relationship develops. On the other hand, if we have been discerning our vocation for a while and have been moving towards the possibility that God is calling us to consecrated or priestly life, then this could be a good opportunity to “test” out our call to celibate chastity. Can we simply put the attraction aside, choosing not to spend time or energy on it, and see how we are several weeks (or months) later? If we find our minds constantly returning to this person we are attracted to, regretting that we didn’t engage with that person, then it may be an indication that living celibate chastity might not be our call, or we may not be ready yet to embrace it.
If we have already made a commitment to priestly or consecrated life…
then when feelings of attraction arise, we simply don’t give them attention or energy. (We guard our thoughts, hearts, and imaginations so that we are not dwelling on merely physical feelings.) If we have an obligation to the person—for example, we work together—we also may need to practice prudence in how we spend time together. Limiting the time we spend together, inviting others to join us, or not working at night together are some examples. Eventually, the feelings dwindle through lack of encouragement.
Personally, I have worked with wonderful Catholic men in my media apostolate. Especially when I first started working in cable television, there were very few women in the field. I cannot say that I was not attracted to any of the men I worked with. Occasionally, the thought would even pop into my head, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be married to someone like him?” But because my heart already belonged to Someone Else—with whom I was in a vital relationship—I didn’t encourage or engage in thoughts or feelings that contradicted my vocation.
As a woman religious, I identify closely with the description of my vocation as a spouse of Christ. So I delight in “keeping the romance going” in my relationship with Jesus. I sometimes write him poems; I love “candlelight praying” at night where my attention is focused on the spotlighted crucifix or tabernacle; I wear a ring to remind me every day that I belong entirely to him. Most importantly, however, I try to pay attention to him, and to his tender ways of showing me his love. (And there are so many, even in just this past week when I was on retreat!) I try to balance my life which, despite the intensity of our mission and lifestyle, also has moments of great joy and relaxation. Healthy friendships (both within and outside of community) provide tangible affection, companionship, and support for consecrated men and women, which offsets the occasional loneliness that we might feel in living consecrated chastity.
All of us, no matter our vocation, are called to live chastely,
whatever feelings of attraction we may experience. If we are committed to living a chaste life, we stay attuned to our feelings and take them for what they are—no more and no less. In #2340, The Catechism of the Catholic Church encourages us to use these means to grow in the virtue of chastity: self-knowledge, self-discipline in daily life, obedience to God’s commandments, living the moral virtues (the four cardinal moral virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance), and fidelity to prayer.
(For more insights on living chastity as a young woman who is discerning her vocation, check out this book: He Speaks To You by Sister Helena Burns, FSP).