In “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Jean-Paul Sartre tells a story of a young man who became a Jesuit priest. As a young man, the fellow had had a number of bad breaks: he grew up in poverty; his father died at an early age; he felt like a charity case; and he botched every romantic relationship he ever had. For all intents and purposes, he was a loser’s loser, a cautionary tale for the rest of us. Strangely, though, instead of being bitter or depressed, he looked upon all these events as signs that he was meant to live a sacred life, not a secular one – no doubt “for the greater glory of God.”
Sartre asks, why interpret the signs this way? Other interpretations were possible: he might dedicate himself to carpentry, or become a revolutionary. In all of this, it’s clear that the events or signs had no “content” in and of themselves; it was the young man who gave those signs their meaning.
There’s a conundrum tied into this story, something I like to call “the problem of the ugly celibate.” Imagine that this young Jesuit was born horribly disfigured, without hope of changing his appearance. Suppose further that it never really dawns on the young man that this horrible disfigurement may be at the root of all his subsequent bad breaks – too ugly for human connection. And still, with all of this, the young man says yes, I take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, all for God’s greater glory.
Here’s the problem: can you say you are living a chaste life if, in fact, there was never any chance that you would ever get laid? It’s the good-looking celibate (male or female) whose vow of celibacy embraces a real sacrifice – or “such a waste,” as I remember those from either gender comment upon the news that a classmate wanted to enter the religious life.
In conjunction with Sartre’s take on humanity as the source of all meaning, it comes to this: Is the ugly celibate only deceiving himself? Or does he in fact affirm humanity’s ability to give meaning, no matter how seemingly illusory, to ordinary, everyday existence? An aphorism from Nietzsche helps: “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” If an individual is aware of the conditions in which she lives, and still says “yes,” that’s not self-deception – that’s affirmation, of both self and world.