“Nothing touches our lives but it is God Himself speaking… Get into the habit of saying, ‘Speak, Lord,’ and life will become a romance.” –Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest
I’d tasted something sweet and I couldn’t get enough. On October 11, 2015, less than two weeks after my divorce was final, I wrote in my journal a list of characteristics I wanted in a spouse. And then I set it aside and wrote this: “A year seems intimidatingly ambitious, so I dedicate the next six months of my life, until my 37th birthday, to listening. To setting aside the noisy things in life—consumption, alcohol, sex, romantic relationships—to hear God.”
That was not an easy decision at the time. I’d seen glimmers, and I wanted more. But I was tossing out all of my security blankets—the things I went to when I felt bad to get a quick and easy sense of safety and contentment. This wasn’t just sexual celibacy, I ran full-tilt into a life as simple and stripped-down as I could make it. If there was anything at all that could get in the way of hearing God speak, I didn’t want any part of it. I cut back my non-work activities to almost 0, I gave away or sold anything I owned that didn’t seem necessary, including (or especially) my TV. You could say I turned my home into a monastery of sorts—I cultivated quiet, peace, and contemplation. The walls were gray and I had very few things hanging on them. The house had even come with a mezuzah (Jewish scripture scroll in a box) nailed by the front door. I carved out a space of solitude and prayer. I quieted my life so I could hear and experience more of Him.
What followed was one of the loveliest periods of my life so far. I found I loved the romance of God so much I kept extending the time beyond the six months, first to a year, then more. My name means “beloved,” and for the first time in my life I began to really know myself that way, deep down. In spite of my bad experience with marriage, I have known love in my life. I have a beautiful, loving family. I have great friendships. But even so, it can be hard to escape the nagging doubt deep in my heart that tells me I may not be enough. When love only comes through other people, doubt can always say, “Well, they don’t really know you.” It’s not humanly possible to tell another person everything about yourself. There’s always one more thing that fear says might turn them away. And besides, even the kindest, most well-intentioned people will hurt you sometimes. Our needs bump up against one another. We can’t all win all of the time.
But with God… Oh, with God…
Over the course of my monastery life, I’ve learned why my thoughts in my head are verbal, why my brain uses words to talk to itself—they’re meant to communicate with someone besides me. The Bible says that the Spirit of God lives IN ME. I’ve come to know prayer as not just tossing my desires into the cosmic ocean, messages in a bottle I hope God receives and answers. Prayer is the most intimate connection possible, the sharing of myself and my experiences with the One who made me. He didn’t just make me so I could enjoy His creation and obediently thank Him for it when I think of it. He made me so He could experience it with me, so He could enjoy me enjoying it.
I’ve spent hours walking up and down the bike trail in the beautiful woods behind my house, talking with God, enjoying Him enjoying me enjoying Him. I remember one time, I had this idea that He wanted me to move back to southern California and I was expressing concern about that. I looked around me at the beauty right behind my house—the trees, the creek— and asked Him how He could possibly ask me to move back to that cement wasteland. His response: “I knew you would live here when I put that creek here.” I still don’t know whether He’ll send me back to California at some point. In some ways, the what and the where matter a great deal less now. He often responds to my questions about specific direction with a show of His deep and abiding love for me, His appreciation of who I am and His desire to cultivate the best parts of me. “You’re worried? You’re so lovely, even when you’re worried. Look, I am doing things to make you happy. And I’ll keep doing them, in all places, everywhere you go.” (“Your life will I give unto you for a prize in all places where you go.” Jeremiah 45:5.) He put a creek in a certain spot hundreds—thousands?—of years ago with me in mind. You can take your dying plants from the florist and stuff them—I’ll take a babbling, clear, cold creek teeming with salmon and haunted by foxes over a dozen roses any time.
A few weeks into my experiment in radical celibacy, I wrote this in my journal:
“I just had the strangest experience. I enjoyed looking into the mirror. That’s rare enough, but I enjoyed it with 0 sense of vanity. I had just finished listening to a song in the bath and as I [got up and] rounded the corner to the sink, the lyric came on: ‘I stare into the face of my savior, King and Creator’ and I saw Him reflected in me. And I enjoyed looking at myself. I didn’t feel like a stranger in my own body. When I think I’m just looking at me, I have to step outside myself and pretend I’m Other to appraise myself. But when I look for traces of Him, I can look for me looking at me AS me. I see myself in my own eyes and God’s eyes, and I see him in me.”
Maybe now you know why I feel like trying to describe the experience of God is like telling you about my friend Bob in Pittsburgh—you just have to meet him and see for yourself. But I hope you’re catching at least a glimpse of what it means to share my experience of my life with God, the way it lets me inhabit my life as someone who is LOVED. Enjoying Him enjoying me enjoying Him enjoying His creation together—it’s a beautiful cycle that just builds in momentum and love the more we pass it back and forth.
And there you have it, my experience of celibacy, of abstaining from a whole bunch of things—including sex—to hear God. I did hear Him, and it was an experience that was so breathtaking in its romance I didn’t want it to end. That, my friends, is better than any sex I’ve ever had.
I wouldn’t push the monastery life on anyone. I don’t think I could. I suppose you can make someone stop and smell the roses, but you certainly can’t make them enjoy it. And if you can’t make them enjoy it, why would you bother?
I do recommend it, though, if you’re inclined. The whole experience—clearing my life of clutter (some bad things and some just distracting) and using that time to get to know God—is something I’m very glad I had before trying to get into a relationship again. I think if I’d done it before I got married, well, I might not have gotten married when I did to the person I did.
I’m not sure I’d recommend the monastery life for very long, though. I guess people have found satisfaction in it as a lifestyle, but I don’t think it’s for me. Even though I kept extending it, it was only six or seven months into it that God started gently reminding me of my desires to share my life with someone. He started giving me dreams (real, night-time dreams). He threw smart, good-looking men in my path when I least expected it. He began waking up desire for interpersonal romance even as I was being romanced by Him. But… well, that is a story for another time.
If you want to read more about experiencing the presence of God in lonely places (and not just deliberately quiet ones), check out this transcript of a communion talk I gave at church.