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Living the SCL in the world

Sue Hartley

The gift of Consecrated Celibacy is about lifelong devotion to God and complete availability to the service of humanity. The SCL is not just something to foster my own personal relationship with God, it’s a gift that God has given me both for the church and for the world. Within that, some are called to active ministry and others to a more prayerful way of life.


In today’s society celibacy is often seen as irrelevant, unnatural; a pointless sacrifice. So celibacy is counter-cultural.

We show that sexual relations are not essential to a healthy, fulfilled and balanced life. By the grace of God, it’s possible to live a self-controlled yet fulfilled life.

We can challenge people to consider how a man who lived and died 2000 years ago can inspire such total devotion that marriage is willingly foregone.

It also says something important about the all-sufficiency of God who is able to give such deep personal fulfilment.

We are more available for prayer and service.

Celibacy is also a sign of God’s future kingdom. It serves to remind the church that the things of this life are temporary.

St. Ignatius developed his spirituality with the lay person living in the world in mind. His exercises are all about growing in freedom and finding God in all things. I have found it helpful to draw on some of his principles as I have reflected on what it means to live the SCL in the world.

The Principle & Foundation of his exercises states: God created us so that we might know, love and serve him in this life and be happy with him forever. His purpose in creating us is to draw forth from us a response of love and service here on earth, so we may attain our goal of everlasting happiness with him in heaven. All things in this world are gifts of God, created for us, to be the means by which we can come to know him better, love him more surely, and serve him more faithfully. As a result, we ought to appreciate and use these gifts of God insofar as they help us toward our goal of loving service and union with God. But insofar as any created thing hinders our progress towards our goal, we ought to let it go. In everyday life then, we should keep ourselves indifferent or undecided in the face of all created gifts where we have a choice. We ought not to be guided by our natural likes and dislikes even in matters such as health or sickness, wealth or poverty, honour or dishonour, between living in one place or another, or in the career path we take. Rather, our only desire and our one choice should be that option which better leads us to the goal for which God created us. 

I feel that this is a good general principle for all of us who seek to live SCL in the world. Vowed members of SCL have discerned that, for them, celibacy is the way in which they use their gift of sexuality to glorify and serve God.

In his book Money, Sex and Power, Richard Foster reflects on how a Christian life might look lived in the opposite spirit to these 3 major worldly goals. He considers the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience and looks at how these might be lived out by a Christian living in today’s world. So as we think about living SCL in the world, we will reflect on the broader picture of what single-hearted devotion to the Lord might look like: a lifestyle of which consecrated celibacy is an essential part. Although we don’t make vows of poverty and obedience, we are called to live in the spirit of these evangelical counsels. We are called to live a life of chastity, simplicity and humble accountability in a world obsessed by money, sex and power, and thereby witness to the values of the Kingdom of God. Our use of money should be about stewardship and generosity rather than about possessive ownership & greed. Our use of our sexuality should be about love rather than lust for pleasure and manipulation & exploitation in relationships. Our use of power should be about service rather than control and pride.

1. Celibacy and sexuality.

Sexuality is good: it’s the energy that bonds us with others in mutual affection, warmth and compassion. The vow of chastity frees us to relate to both women and men as whole persons and not as sexual objects. We don’t have to be sexually active in order to be emotionally stable and fulfilled. Celibate people are whole and complete in themselves and in Christ. We are no less sexual beings than others. But we need to channel our sexuality into loving God and those we are called to serve. The offering of our bodies is our spiritual worship (Romans 12) - the Christian religion is incarnational – what we do with our bodies is important. Our life should be something of beauty, attracting others to the Lord we are devoted to. So we should nurture our sexuality: it’s a gift that enhances our relationships.

Part of celibate sexuality is the realization that the time and energy that would otherwise go into sustaining a marriage can be poured instead into deepening our relationship with God.

Our sexuality and spirituality are closely linked – they are rooted in our need to be intimate with God. Celibate people are perhaps more free to explore the concept of being beloved by God.

And let’s delight in our own sexuality. God finds us attractive and we can enjoy being attractive to others. So let’s affirm each other’s beauty – in appearance and personality. This will help us grow into wholeness, and it will enhance our capacity to love others . Celibacy is freedom for a full and creative life. Celibate love moves us towards a greater inclusiveness of others: we are brother/sister to everyone and spouse to no-one. He calls us to be all that he made us to be—embodied, sexual, whole. If you’re invited, it’s the only dress that fits. Let’s affirm our sexuality and put it at the service of love.

And let’s cultivate meaningful friendships in which we can be open and vulnerable; friends who will nourish us and help us grow in openness and honesty with God and with others. Even though Jesus was unmarried, he did not live without companionship. He lived a life which was both fully human and fully whole, expressing His sexuality in close and healthy friendships with both men and women. Jesus lived out chastity by engagement with others rather than withdrawal from interpersonal involvement. He was never cold or aloof but loving, warm and affectionate. He responded sensitively to both men and women without fearing tenderness or being overwhelmed by sexual passion.

2. Obedience

Obedience flows from the humble acknowledgement that we have been created by a loving God. We give up all illusions of being totally self-sufficient and acknowledge our dependency upon him. Like Jesus, we are called to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. Christian obedience is listening sensitively to the word of God speaking in our lives, and submitting in loving trust.

We defeat our lust for power by rejecting the weapons of this world: manipulation, control, exploitation and intimidation.

We choose to be under authority ourselves and to be obedient to the ways of God.

The cure for the love of power is the power of love: a love is characterised by humility, self-limitation (we hold back to let others grow), joy, vulnerability, submission and freedom. It doesn’t dominate: it liberates. We serve people; and don’t seek to advance our own reputations.

3. Poverty

Jesus said: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Poverty of spirit means we humbly acknowledge our limitations in the face of realities such as death, change, and loneliness. It strips us of all illusions of self-sufficiency and turns us toward God in expectation and trust. Spiritual poverty does not necessarily mean we shouldn’t provide for the future. It means simply that our resources are not accumulated in order to foster a sense of independent self-sufficiency, but are put at the service of our relationship with God and others. Poverty of spirit frees us from making money and possessions gods in which we entrust our total welfare. Only God is absolute. When created things help us praise and serve God, they are good. But when they threaten our union with God, they become snares which endanger our spiritual growth. We deepen our spiritual poverty:

By solidarity with the poor 

By simplicity of life which means singleness of purpose: using material things without letting them master us. It means freedom from covetousness; receiving material provisions gratefully; and giving joyfully and generously. While we delight in the goodness of all created things, we must say "no" to those things that could hinder us saying “yes” to our deepest desires.

By a readiness to serve – we are called to place our knowledge, talents, energy, and time at the disposal of others.

Christ wants us to be aware our absolute dependence on God.

He wants us to realise that we are valuable because we are loved by a God whose faithfulness is unshakable. When we doubt our value, we constantly bolster our weak self-worth by idolising "things” such as our appearance, talents, qualifications, possessions, reputations, careers, performance and even our health. Letting go of these things can feel frightening because we feel we are giving up a part of ourselves.

Spiritual poverty says, "I have talents (good looks, possessions, etc.), but I am not my talents." This separation from self is one of our main spiritual tasks which continues for a lifetime. It allows us to enjoy a new freedom in our relationship to the material world as we are stripped of the things we use to prop up an insecure sense of self: it enables us to be simply who we are and to receive God's love as unearned gift. We can be at peace in having or not having. St Paul expresses his own poverty of spirit in Philippians: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”