The passionate possibilities of Christian single life
The church is increasingly recognizing the vocational dimension of single life, but that does not mean that today’s single Catholics have it easy. A friend who underwent a painful divorce told me that it ruined his life, and for many people intimate break-ups can be even more troubling than the struggle to find a spouse in the first place. Yet whether widowed, divorced or unmarried, single Catholics can find it difficult to find support in the church.
With the exception of young-adult ministry, which also includes married persons, sparse attention and resources are devoted to single persons in the church. The single vocation is rarely mentioned in official documents, homilies and magisterial teachings. There are encyclicals, pastoral letters and synods focusing on family life, but not on the single vocation, despite the fact that the number of singles is growing. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, in 2014 there were 124.6 million single Americans, which for the first time accounted for just over half the U.S. population (50.2 percent).
Attention to this vocation as witnessed in the Bible, tradition and the living church (the magisterium and the sense of the faithful) can offer therapeutic and redemptive responses to the ways our secular culture at times glorifies, exploits, corrupts or caricatures single life. And the church has made some progress—within the last half century there has been increasing awareness and recognition of the vocational dimensions of single life. Events like the National Catholic Singles Conference and the teachings of St. John Paul II’s theology of the body have been helpful. Singles are not necessarily adrift in the church, but they certainly do not suffer from excessive attention.
A Complex Situation
In a pastoral setting, single life presents particular challenges. Going to Mass by oneself can be a lonely experience. Solo participation in church activities is sometimes awkward. Priests are not usually trained to deal with issues faced by single persons. (Deacons are often better equipped, as many have more recently been in the dating world, but they often are busy with other responsibilities.) Priests know the moral dos and don’ts, but less so the subtle temptations and practical problems faced by singles. Too often simple, moralistic answers are imposed on complex situations better suited to nuanced responses. Middle-aged singles often fall through the cracks. There are established support networks for the old and the young, but what about those caught in between, whose social needs and challenges are even more acute? The church has work to do in the area of supporting single life, just as with respect to families and consecrated life. We as church should emphasize that those called to the single life, whether temporarily or permanently, can approach their mission with a passion, recognizing it as no less meaningful and vibrant than other vocations.
In the Bible, to be alone is to be near the world of death. Whether within the parish or outside of it, loneliness can be a major challenge for singles. Socially, most married couples gravitate toward other married couples. And as individuals grow older, it can be harder to break out of ingrained social habits. Some singles grow less receptive to the fellowship or spontaneous social interaction that might present possibilities for friendship, companionship and/or romance. Trust issues from past relationships can also influence behavior. Some restrict themselves to a static circle of friends and a lifestyle that inhibits spiritual, emotional and social maturation. Others become reclusive or overly dependent on digital devices or pets for companionship. We need to cultivate more opportunities, resources and constructive alternatives that foster growth, healing and solidarity, which often have their roots in dialogue, particularly as defined and lived by Pope Paul VI (see the 1964 encyclical “Ecclesiam Suam,” which set the tone for the conclusion and implementation of the Second Vatican Council).
On the other hand, some Catholic singles are more than willing to stretch themselves and their social circles, to take risks and to grow. Many make efforts to meet new friends or volunteer, not only with dating in mind, but simply to create a rich life. Many people have made good friends or met their mates at singles groups like the Catholic Alumni Club, while others have encountered cliques, shyness and social ineptitude. These diverse experiences are not unique to Catholic circles. The truism of managing or tempering expectations for a particular event is a good approach for any singles situation. Many people simply try to engage in pleasant conversations and meet new people, and if possible have fun, and then let God take it from there.
Some choose to participate in online dating as another potential venue in which to find a person with similar interests and values, and there are several dating sites aimed at Catholics. Still, looking for a suitable partner can feel like seeking a needle in a haystack. While some people make fruitful connections online, others find the climate and behavior little different from secular dating websites, in which messages go ignored, or worse, are met with a rude (or overly pious) response.
Despite these challenges, single life in the church offers many possibilities. There are many opportunities to serve, worship, learn and interact with others. By definition, single persons often have freedoms and options unavailable to married persons and religious. But boundaries are necessary because friends and family sometimes incorrectly assume that single persons have more flexibility, time or resources. They may also fail to factor in the dearth of support and collaboration that singles often experience. Ultimately, single life is circumstantial and personal. Each person’s history and experience is unique. For some the single life is a transitional stage, lived deliberately and perhaps reluctantly, before following a call to marriage or religious life. For others, it is a chosen state.
One of the possibilities that is rarely considered is that of dedicated service, whereby single persons put themselves at the disposal of family, church and God, and in effect live a consecrated life, sometimes formally so. This decision requires ongoing effort and discernment, and not everyone is capable of it or called to it (Mt 19:11–12).
It is important to remember that singles are not second-tier Christians. Their witness is not inferior to that of other vocations. In some ways it can be more painful, because it is often involuntary. Simon of Cyrene can be an inspiration for singles who wish to be married someday, as he was pressed into service against his wishes. The Gospels do not reveal his emotions and perspective. Singles bring them to life in their response to the heavy burden of involuntary celibacy that they bear and share with many.
No matter how much we pray and have fellowship with others, this is a lonely undertaking. Others can suffer with, but not for us. In a profound address to married couples on May 4, 1970, Pope Paul VI pointed to a reality that is equally applicable to single life: “They are not freed from the need of persevering effort, sometimes in cruel circumstances that can only be endured by the realization that they are participating in Christ’s passion.” The Lord appreciates this company, for he was single and felt alone and abandoned himself.
Singles in Scripture
The spirituality of single life and its distinction as a vocation is rarely mentioned in the Bible. St. Paul offers recommendations in his First Letter to the Corinthians that are influenced by his perception of the imminent second coming: “Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do, but if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire” (1 Cor 7:8–9). The passage can be hard to parse, but it can also be helpful. For some people, it seems to echo the traditional Latin expression age quod agis (do what you are doing). Live your life as it is given to you, and make the best of it. For others, his advice on getting married rather than being consumed by passion is relevant, especially since our horizon for eternity is different than his.
While the single vocation as an entity in itself is insufficiently developed in Scripture, there are numerous colorful characters who face challenges to which single persons can particularly relate. From “a sudden blow” Ezekiel lost his beloved wife—“the delight of [his] eyes”—one of the most moving expressions in not only the Bible but in all of literature (Ez 24:16). How many husbands or wives before and since can resonate with that expression! Thus he was unexpectedly thrust into prophetic single life, bereft of the love of his life and his primary means of support.
How difficult it must have been for Ezekiel to relay God’s message to the Israelites in the bizarre and eccentric ways characteristic of his ministry when inside he was shattered by the loss of his love. Likewise, singles have to move on with their life and carry out their responsibilities despite profound loss, sadness, personal eccentricities and difficult emotions and circumstances.
Jeremiah is perhaps the purest example of a single believer in the Old Testament. The celibacy chosen for him by God must have intensified the loneliness and alienation he felt when he proclaimed his message of impending terrors to a disbelieving people (Jer 16:2). His feelings of being ostracized are something many singles can relate to.
In the New Testament, John the Baptist, who preached in the desert, must have felt lonely, particularly given the opposition of the religious and secular leaders to his message of repentance and hopeful anticipation. And although St. Paul embraced his life as a single person, he tells us movingly in his later letters of his feelings of abandonment and despondency. Holiness never immunizes us from the painful aspects of life; rather, it helps us face and transform them. Jesus’ close friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus may also have been single. They must have felt some of the opposition accorded Jesus by the religious authorities, and undoubtedly helped him bear it. It is reasonable to assume he sought comfort and fellowship from them in addition to teaching them the Gospel message.
These persons and others epitomize the prophetic dimension of single life. By persevering in a unique way in the struggle to be faithful to the Gospel, single persons become dynamic reflections and incarnations of God’s word and love. God speaks through human attitudes and actions: we become the Bible for those who might otherwise not read it
While the single vocation is unique, the experience of single people in the church should not be differentiated too finely from married persons, priests or religious; most challenges and trials have universal human dimensions. Loneliness is part of the human condition. Spouses can be separated by out-of-town work, military deployment or caregiving for elderly parents or disabled children. Spouses experience various degrees of apathy or abandonment in the form of immature or deplorable behavior by their partner. Priests can be given undesirable assignments far from home and loved ones. Cloistered nuns have to continually accept with vibrancy the consequences of letting go of the possibilities of societal interaction.
Persons are or become single by way of a multitude of paths that escape static generalizations. Our discussion of this diverse vocation must always be moderated by a recognition of the enormous variables, subjectivity and ambiguity that mark all vocations.
Both the Old Testament and the New Testament cite marriage as the primary analogy for our relationship with God. The intense, passionate and volatile longing of the sexes for each other mirrors the fundamental human relationship with God. It is important for single and married people alike to have recourse to biblical passages that proclaim God’s profound and benevolent designs for sexuality and marriage. Despite the difficulties of romantic relationships, we must never lose sight of the mutuality, complementarity and fruitfulness that remains constitutive of such relations, even when obscured by sin. Like people in other vocations, singles must always celebrate the gift of sexuality, even though at times it can constitute a painful cross.
Thus single life necessitates a consciously passionate dimension, if it is to redirect sexual energies in healthy or, better, redemptive fashion (Col 1:24). Singles need to exercise formational self-direction and self-discipline in a creative, responsible and at times courageous way. We should view cultivation of a social support network, a fitness regimen for proper care of the body and mind, hobbies, travel, leisure and ongoing education and cultural enrichment as integral rather than peripheral dimensions of single life. Further, persons of all vocations need to interact with each other in a mutually enriching manner. We are all members of the body of Christ who are called to collaborate in facilitating each others’ potential fulfillment and wellness, as outlined by Paul VI in his encyclical “On the Development of Peoples” (1967).
Passionate attitudes will help everyone, but particularly singles, persevere in participating in Christ’s passion in a joyful manner. Like Abraham when called to sacrifice Isaac and, in effect, his future, we do not have to understand or welcome the daunting missions God imposes and entrusts. As St. John Paul II explained in his apostolic letter “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering,” God listens for and awaits our questions and the expression of our difficult emotions. Even Jesus lamented on the cross. God can handle our intensity and raise us up, as God did with Jesus. In him, ultimately, are our hopes.
Armed with a sense of humility, humor and passion, singles may willingly choose the single vocation or endeavor to make the best of their de facto circumstances as single people, thereby exercising their prophetic ministry as vibrant witnesses of God’s kindness and fidelity. Whether voluntary or involuntary, celibacy, even when practiced imperfectly, is a gift to God. Singles can be lifegiving through their hearts (i.e., disposition, orientation), words and actions and thereby give glory and honor to God by accepting and cooperating with his mysterious will and salvific plan.