I stood at the front of the grand entrance of the Pantheon in Rome. With 30 boys from my old school, and 4 teachers, I joined a huge crowd of people seeking dry refuge from the torrential rain and crackling thunder. I had brought the boys there to learn about one of the oldest pagan temples in the world and to marvel at its architecture. Instead, they were more interested to see how wet they could get and whooping as loudly as possible when thunder struck. It was a victory, however. Temples like this were built because of this kind of weather, divinized and feared. Now the boys laughed and chanted, glorying in a world in which they were adopted sons of the Divine, fearless before nature, drinking in its awesome beauty. Thou hast conquered, O Galilean.
My mind began to wander. My eyes were diverted upwards by a light. A woman – late 20s, early 30s perhaps – had just opened the shutters of her apartment window. She leaned on the metal railing and looked out onto the piazza. What a wonderful view, to have the Pantheon right in front of you. But she was staring straight ahead, into space. I could tell that she was just enjoying the moment, feeling all warm and dry while wet and wind reigned below. I knew the feeling. I was happy for her. A few moments later, a man came up behind her and wrapped his arms round her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. Cheeks pressed together, they stared out, two pairs of eyes, one vision. He rubbed her belly as she caressed his hands, and after a few minutes they faded back into their room. All that was left to see was an open window and the light on the back wall.
I stared into that empty space for what seemed like an age. In my mind’s eye, I could see them on the sofa, the man laying behind the woman, enveloping her body with his own, gently touching her face and breathing softly into her ear. I could feel the satisfaction it gave him, reading and responding to her movements. The closeness of a woman, who needs do nothing else except be a woman, to make him feel like a man. I couldn’t bear it. I stared down, the rain was hitting the cobbled pavement so hard. At that point, I even envied the cloud, pushing forth so vigorously in full release. Where was my release? I was filled with such longing, such desire to give, to pour forth from myself to another. I wanted a woman. Not just any woman, but one woman, given to me for the sole purpose that I may have someone to give myself to.
“This is at last flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones…” – Has there ever been an exclamation so joyful, so natural, so pure? Adam is freed from his loneliness as he beholds the first woman – ‘therefore a man leaves his mother and father and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh’.
I knew that primordial urge, an urge that had nothing to do with lust. It was almost as if my body had briefly remembered just how blissful it was to be united to my soul in perfect harmony, only to have it ripped away in an instant. There is no feeling of loneliness so profound than to have the object desired in sight but just out of reach, beautifully demonstrated to you only to have the veil pulled over it, sensed yet never consummated. The gift – the woman – will never be mine, for I am a celibate male.
I began to wander around under our shelter as I turned this feeling over in my mind. How could I cope with this desire? Was The Woman to continually remain in view, drawing me away from the promise I had made before God? It wasn’t fair; I was made for The Woman, my passion, my physiology, everything seemed to be screaming at me in that moment, ‘what are you doing?’ I just wished that God would take it all away “take away the feelings, take away the passions, bely my masculinity, just make me faithful. If you have called me to this way of life, then make it possible, because I can’t bear it.”
The Lord, however, is the ultimate pastoral counsellor. The questions and pleas raced from my mind up to his throne, I got no response. Instead, my mind was allowed to wander further. When speculation and fantasy exhaust themselves, we always fall back to memory, and so it proved for me. I remembered that flutter of the heart I got when I first compared the prospects of marriage or priesthood. I was a teenager, I had dreamed up the perfect woman – they never have a face, they just are – a woman who would let me love her, protect her and satisfy my desire to give her my all. The very thought made me happy at the time. But the priesthood, giving it all up to serve Him… produced a tremor so shattering that I could tolerate it only briefly. I was afraid, but it wasn’t of my desire, it was of his desire for me. Everything seemed as nothing in the face of this prospect. I remembered the day of my ordination to the diaconate, when the promise of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom was made. I remembered the joy, which went deeper than feeling, of knowing that the Lord would always be with me, because he had to be. My promise to Him was merely a pale shadow of His promise to me. I remembered the conversation I had a few weeks after ordination with my old parish priest; I was flipping out, believing I had made a terrible mistake – quite a common phenomenon among the newly ordained, I was comforted to know – which ended with these words, “James, you could leave it all and get married, but you know it will never be enough.”
It will never be enough. That was it. I had been seduced long ago by that glimpse of a life where none are given in marriage. My very being was to reflect and point to a deeper desire, deeper than the primordial desire, and a destiny infinitely more glorious. Man was made for woman, but some God reserves to himself to remind the world that its ultimate goal is Him. They pour out their lives as a libation, a thanksgiving offering for one who gave his life to us. They rejoice in a peace that the world cannot give, because they have found the pearl of great price. And I am one of those chosen.
I turned and walked into the Pantheon. Crowds of people were gathered around the middle, where rain poured through the great hole in the middle of the dome. It seemed to me – and this may just be purely my imagination or perhaps an effect of the different climate inside a building – that the rain fell more slowly inside than outdoors. It glided down, like snow on a winter’s day. The storm without had cleared, within there was peace. I was the open window, emitting the light that I had received. I stared up through the hole and mouthed “thank you.”