“Lean in” and “having it all” (or not): Buzzwords that frequent my RSS feed daily.
Sometimes I look at the beige walls of my cube and the lack of ring on my left hand, and then back at my screen, and I can’t help but laugh. If I lean in, it’s typically to bang my head on my desk while contemplating that it is probably anti-productive to talk about having it all when I’m still working to have- well a balanced checkbook wisdom, along with fiscal success and a fulfilling life outside work.
Basically, #myfriendsaremarried and I’m just over here saying, “So I think I’ll go to a lecture on cyber security because I’m tired of being told to throw my hands up in the air. So there.” In a world of mommyblogs, millennial Girls-style musings, career-chic, and the superheroes who manage to do both, backwards, in heels, fell me and my single, Catholic friends. While we have had our Auntie Seraphic over at Seraphic Singles as a listener and supporter, I was thrilled to come across this article by Carissa Mulder over at Public Discourse.
In her piece, Carissa, after identifying the unavoidable fact that the Church contains many single Catholic women who do not have vocations to religious life, poses the question: How ought the Church (in her members) help these women get to heaven? I like Carissa, would like to expand this discussion as well.
Let’s talk frankly: I would run out of fingers and toes if I were to begin counting off the women of my acquaintance who are single- not just unmarried, but no-boyfriend single. Each of these women is lovely, kind, funny, a good Catholic, raised in a good (and often large) family, wants children; basically the entire Good Catholic Girl checklist. As far as I know, all of them would like to date and marry. Many of them have rolled their eyes, and signed up for CatholicMatch. And then OKCupid, identifying themselves in the “About Me” section as “Practicing Catholic, uphold all the teachings of the Church, will not have sex before marriage.” And yet, through no fault of their own, they remain unmarried.
When discussing vocations, most of us identify married, religious life, or the priesthood. Yet fundamentally, each of those vocations is rooted in the vocation of our nature, an answer to a question we all should know by now. In vocational discernment, our heart cries out to God: why did You make me? God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. This is the ultimate vocational groove written into our hearts—the ultimate love that our state-in-life vocation orders us to.
This debate about single women cannot be carried out constructively without acknowledging that “when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” Beatitude is not a consolation prize to focus on because you could not have marital unity—marital unity itself is directed to beatitude, or at least it should be. All vocations ultimately order us to perpetual union with God, in varying stages of immediate participation. That is why even, and especially, the mystics long for death. A striking line in St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue is her description of Christian wayfarers as “pilgrims, forever running on towards the term of death.” John of the Cross explains this theme in his Spiritual Canticle:
One of the main reasons for the desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ [Phil 1:23] is to see him face to face and thoroughly understand the profound and eternal mysteries of his Incarnation, which is by no means the lesser part of beatitude. The first thing the soul desires on coming to the vision of God is to know and enjoy the deep secrets and mysteries of the Incarnation and the ancient ways of God dependent on it.
The faithful desire beatitude. Ultimately, marriage and religious vocations are ordered to a love beyond what they can present to their initiates. The indelible mark of priesthood remains in heaven, but even the priestly vocation is no longer a calling but a rest. This call to beatitude, to participation in the Trinitarian inner life of God, is the universal call to holiness irrespective of one's state of life. As a Church we must remember that while it might be pastorally useful and organizationally tempting to categorize people into “marrieds,” “families,” “youth,” “college students,” and “all the single ladies,” fundamentally we are all children of God.
Any attempt to address the situation in which unintentionally single women find themselves must keep this truth at the forefront: Fundamentally, such individuals are beloved daughters of God who were created for their own sake—as are married men and women, priests, single men, and religious. While addressing this situation, I agree with Carissa: We cannot look at singleness as merely a hallway. When we look ever increasingly to the future or dwell on the past, we lose the now. In the Christian life, this loss of now creates one of the largest hindrances to holiness. God is—a verbal conception of God that identifies the “nowness” surrounding Him; He was and is and always will be according to the human, linear conception of time, but according to His eternity He is the eternal now.
When it comes to living—be that in a state of marriage, religious vocation, or as a single individual—it is essential to remember that we become saints by being holy not tomorrow, but now. I know I used to think, “Well, I will make a better effort to say the Divine Mercy Chaplet daily when I am married and have a family.” This Lent, however, I realized how dangerous that train of thought was. It is so easy to be a saint in the future, but God has us all in the particular circumstances in which we reside for one reason—to bring us to holiness and grow us in love for him. Singleness is a time when we can find sanctity—as is marriage, as is religious life or the priesthood.
However, while encouraging singles to strive to holiness in their current state, we cannot direct the entire fulfillment of their every need to God. He is that fulfillment, as He is for marrieds, etc., but man was made as a social animal—it is not good for us to be alone. In a series of emails regarding the single life, Carissa made this point to me:
God wouldn't have created multiple humans if He didn't want us to live in community with each other as well as with Him. So I think we need to recognize that however hard we try to find God in our lives, we are probably still going to need other humans.
This is where the body of Christ has a responsibility towards singles, particularly as single women grow older. Many of these good Catholic women would love to have their own child, and see the days of that possibility ticking down. If you have children, a lovely way of fostering that community is to ask your friends to be godparents, and allow them to be more than birthday and Christmas present godparents. Beyond inviting your friends for the holidays, I would encourage marrieds at all ages to remember their single friends and plan spontaneous days. This may require childcare arrangements (or perhaps bring the children along!), but placing value on those friendships is a gesture that helps to fight the loneliness.
Something I would also encourage singles, or marrieds and singles, to do is plan family dinners. When I was at graduate school, one of my favorite experiences was Sunday night dinners—where all the singles (and occasionally our married friends and their children) would gather for dinner and discussion. Such gatherings become so much easier when you only make one dish, and allow the free-flow of communal conversation to go a long way toward easing feelings of loneliness.
To note one more thing as we open this discussion: Often, we attempt to make a future contingent statement into a determinate truth—“I have a vocation to marriage,” for example. Yet the harsh reality of material temporality is that it is impossible to make a true future contingent statement. Feeling called to marriage does not determine that is must occur—feeling called to the priesthood or religious life does not determine that it must occur. Particularly in the case of marriage, there is no “one” person God picked out for us. Rather, there are many who are more or less compatible, and we are able to choose among them; meaning to not chose one or to not be chosen does not imply fault.
If we will marry, does God know who? Absolutely. Does that destroy our choice—no more than anything about free will does. This touches to the heart of predestination and is rooted in the above distinction of our linear experience of time as compared with God’s eternity. As predestination is a rabbit trail dissertation of its own, let’s just leave it as given that God can know and we can still choose. For singles, this is essential: Singleness is a reality, not a punishment. You didn’t fail to be good enough—it simply is a matter of circumstances in that vast amalgamous of interactions we call life.
Being unintentionally single is hard. It is hard because of its apparent isolation, but it is also hard because unlike marriage, religious life, the priesthood, or intentionally chosen singleness, unintentional singleness is well, unintentional and seems undirected. Theology of the Body taught the beauty of marital unity to the modern world. I believe that a modern presentation of the truths held by the Church of how to live the single life would be equally beneficial. One person to start with is St. Josemaría Escrivá. However, we must also note that unintentionally single women are not "less than" other women. They are called to live the feminine vocation as much as a wife, mother, sister, or nun is. Marriage is sacred and holy, but it is for this life. In the end, the universal call to holiness is universal. To reiterate that call I would like to open this discussion on what it means to be holy by employing the Church's words in Lumen Gentium:
The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one—that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity.
This is a call that transcends states in life: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. For singles, this holiness sought out in the embrace of the Church and her members—this call—is where our discussion must begin.