Brother Luigi Gioia on the challenges of prayer and celibacy

(Photo: Michael & Christa Richert)

On the second and final morning of the HTB Leadership Conference, Nicky Gumbel was joined on stage by Brother Luigi Gioia; a Benedictine monk and lecturer in theology at Pontifical University of Saint Anselmo, Rome.

Famed for his strong prayer life, as well as his keen presence on Twitter and perhaps surprising friendship with such pastors as Judah Smith of City Church, Seattle, Brother Luigi is passionate about encouraging real community and unity to flourish throughout the Church.

Prompted by Gumbel, however, Luigi began his discussion with a conversation about the power of prayer, which he labelled as "the most important moment of my day".

"It's the most important moment in my life; to go into the presence of the Lord and bring to him all the feelings in my heart; which can be frustration, joy, anger, or even a sense of failure," he shared.

"Each time I begin I feel like it's a waste of my time! I say to the Lord 'This is pointless! I don't have time for this', but as soon as I start to pray, immediately there is a feeling of being loved by God; I experience his tenderness, his presence, and immediately a sense of peace."

Brother Luigi went on to describe the process of entering into a rhythm of prayer as a sort of "fine-tuning", akin to turning the dial on an analogue radio.

"The Holy Spirit is already there, but I try to fine-tune my feelings and thoughts to this prayer which is already going on in my heart until I find it! The image is like flying - finding the wind, then letting the wind take you, and then I find that the time goes very quickly!" he laughed.

"God's presence is about feeling loved, and feeling his tenderness. Everything quietens down, and what remains is a feeling of being with him as I am, with my poverty, and my brokenness and my difficulties, but being loved by him."

Gumbel then asked Brother Luigi to discuss the decision to remain celibate; and the challenges that such a life-choice presents.

"I decided to become a monk when I was 17, 27 years ago, and celibacy at the time meant just not having sex, which didn't sound too difficult to me! I had so much love for the Lord, and I joined a community which was very loving, supporting, and I received all the emotional support I needed….celibacy, in that context, is not a problem," he shared.

"But then at every different stage of my life, chastity and celibacy has become again a challenge. The most difficult moment was when my younger brother had a daughter, and it was as if I had to choose celibacy all over again. I realised that celibacy is also giving up having children.

"I was forced to look at why I'm doing it; and I believe it's because the Lord has called me to be a sign that his love and his tenderness can fulfil us; they can give us what sex also can give - but only on the condition that it is an expression of love - so if we experience real love, and real tenderness in friendship, in community, and in family, sex does not become as big a problem as most people would think."

Speaking further on the vitality of intimate relationship, Brother Luigi declared that "friendship is everything" to him.

"I'm here because of friendship…I'm thankful for the friends I've met and what they've given to me. Friendship in a community is a space in which I'm comfortable and free to be myself; I don't have to prove anything, and as I experience love and tenderness I can learn, little by little, to accept and love myself.

"Real community offers the possibility for someone to go from fear to trust," he added.

At this point, Gumbel interjected and noted that authenticity is something the monk is keen to promote, which plays into the idea of real intimacy between friends as well as the role of someone in leadership.

"Authenticity is helping people not to be afraid to be themselves," Brother Luigi agreed.

"This requires from the leader a lot of self-knowledge, and a kind of self-examination if you will - not in a cold way, but in the light of God's love and forgiveness.

"When one accepts himself with all his brokenness, contradictions and difficulties, he feels more compassionate about other people.

"Being a leader with what you are - and also with what you say and do - allows people to feel free…When a leader tries to be completely authentic, people around them feel that they can breathe, it frees positive energies and helps them to use whatever negativity or brokenness they have in themselves positively."

The Benedictine monk rounded up his interview with a frank discussion on unity, and the importance of different arms of the Church embracing all believers, regardless of differing traditions or ways of worshipping.

"Unity, I think, for the Church has to be the absolute priority," he declared. "I can genuinely, honestly say that one of my greatest sufferings is the fact that my own church - and also other churches - speak about unity, but we're not prepared to do what it takes to go forward for unity.

"What it takes is friendship, and for me it's first of all to be genuinely, authentically interested in people who are different from me, and not to be afraid of that. It's about being interested in other people, other ways of worshipping and expressing relationship with the Lord which are not mine, but are beautiful, and if you're interested in other people it always bears fruit.

"Often people think 'If I worship with others in their way, then I will lose my identity', but that means you're not certain or comfortable with your identity. If you're at ease, then you're free to go very deep into worshipping and learning from others, which always creates unity before we're even aware it's happening," he said.

As someone who practises unity in his own life - Brother Luigi enjoys close friendship with believers from all traditions - he also praised the work of the HTB conference in promoting and encouraging diversity within the Church.

"There are people of all denominations here, but we're brothers, we pray for one another, we're already united!" he exclaimed.

"Because we're all willing, we all feel the need for evangelisation, and we all know that we can call God our Father. We've tried for decades to have theological unity - it's not working. We've started from the high levels to get unity - and it's not working either. It starts with us, at the grass roots. It's working here, so we should carry on!" he laughed.

"We need to keep praying."

The session finished with Brother Luigi leading the congregation in a time of contemplative prayer, encouraging those gathered to speak to God in the silence of their hearts and connect with him on an intimate level.

"It's true that the Holy Spirit is praying in us; he's there…and all we can do is let it happen," he finished.