The Crisis in the Single Life

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for awhile now, but haven’t had the energy to really collect coherent thoughts on the subject.  The SCOTUS decision made me come back to it.  I figure I’ll ramble here, maybe get some feedback, and then post my coherent and articulate thoughts on joanmwatson or at Integrated Catholic Life.  So if you’re reading this, know that you’re my guinea pigs well-loved friends with whom I can be vulnerable and open.

Over the past ten or twenty years in the Church, we’ve heard talk about crises in the priesthood and crises in marriage.  This post isn’t going to contradict those ideas. We have been bombarded by false images of those vocations, and a lack of understanding of those vocations have led to severe problems.

But I think we’ve neglected to think about the crisis in the single life. Sure, a false understanding of marriage has led to the Supreme Court decision. Absolutely. But so has a false understanding of the single life. And in the Church we can even perpetuate it with a false emphasis on vocation.

Let me ‘splain.

I was struck when the French bishops came out this spring encouraging the synod on the family not to forget singles. The article mentioned that theologians “studying the issue said the Church should not ‘absolutise states of life’ and idealise marriage.”  While I hate vague references to no one (“theologians” is like saying “they” and never talking about who “they” might be…), it got me thinking about the idea of “absolutizing” states of life.

I think I’ve said here before – I don’t think the non-vowed single life is one of “VOCATIONS” of the Church, like marriage, consecrated life, and priesthood are. (the capitalization here and what follows is all completely intentional. I want you to feel yelled at. haha)  I think we actually do damage to those of us living this non-vowed single life by acting like it is.  It’s sometimes thrown into petitions and whatnot, probably somewhat out of pity and/or fear of neglecting someone. But I don’t know if God made me to live alone. I don’t think He did.  If I thought He did, I would take vows as a consecrated virgin.  And then I wouldn’t be alone because I would be in a vowed relationship with Him.

I don’t think He created me to be alone, but here I am. And here are hundreds of thousands of young men and women.  Now, if you find yourself in this spot, don’t immediately assume your Aunt Betty or your newly-engaged-best-friend are correct in asserting that you’re in this position because you’re too picky or because you don’t get out enough.  (you’ve heard that, I know- we all have.)

It might be a consequence of something…. such as our sexed-crazed culture that has destroyed babies, destroyed morals, destroyed an understanding of sacrifice and love, and destroyed the physical, spiritual, and emotional lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

And as a result, there are a many of us who find ourselves single.  Is this our “VOCATION!!!”?  I don’t think so.  Will all of us get married someday?  I don’t think so.  And you know what?  That’s okay. Because our ultimate vocation is holiness.  I think that’s what the “theologians” might be getting at when they talked about “absolutizing” vocation. We’ve begun focusing so much on “PRAYING FOR YOUR VOCATION!” and “FIND YOUR VOCATION!!!”  that we’ve neglected to talk about the vocation we don’t have to go searching for, we don’t have to wait for, we don’t have to wonder about… because it’s right in front of us, in the every day grind of life, in our friends and family … holiness.  Ulitmately, all those vocations just serve one purpose: holiness.  So rather than getting your panties in a wad because you haven’t “FOUND YOUR VOCATION!”, why don’t we all just concentrate on being holy?  If God brings a spouse to you during that time, or proposes to you in the form of an attraction to priesthood or consecrated life, great.

But if not, you’re not a horrible person.  You’re not a failure. Will life be hard because you’ll feel alone sometimes?  Sure.  Will holiness be difficult because you won’t have the grace of a sacrament or the grace of vows?  You betcha.  But it’s okay.  There are crosses in every vocation.  Yours are just easier for you to see.

“Absolutizing” the vocations has repercussions when we look at our brothers and sisters struggling with same-sex attraction.  How do we tell people struggling with these attractions that holiness is possible if we’re so busy absolutizing vocation? “You should go find your vocation!! … oh, but you can’t get married to the one want to marry.  Um, no, you can’t become a priest.”  Hm.  And so what do we do?  We try to make the single life a vocation.  But how can it be a vocation if it 1) might not be permanent and 2) it’s not vowed to another (either God or a spouse)?

Why don’t we stop trying to make it a “vocation” and instead accept (and work through) the uniqueness of the transitional single life… that might not be transitional?  Why don’t we teach what chastity actually is? I know chastity has to be lived in every vocation, but I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist (or a psychologist) to know that it is particularly difficult for those living the transitional single life.  Sorry, married friends, I know you have your unique struggles, but don’t try to tell me our struggles with chastity are equal, haha.  If we are going to preach this Gospel of chastity to those struggling with same-sex attraction, it would behoove us to understand the nature of the transitional single life (that might not be transitional).

Until we try to understand the nature of this unique stage (that might not be a stage) of life, we aren’t going to be able to preach to our society that is so in need of healing.  I’m not just talking about those of us who are trying to live chaste single lives in this sexed-crazed world, or those who struggling with same-sex attraction.  What about those people who are divorced but can’t remarry because their first marriage was valid?

A few of my transitional-single-life-that-might-not-be-so-transitional friends and I were discussing some of these things recently.  We agreed that we’re sick of people telling us to go find our vocation, as if we never think about it (when we’re reminded of it in some way every.single.day.)  We agreed we are sick of people praying for “an increase of vocations to the single life.”  STOP IT.  Really. Just stop.  No one deserves your prayers for that. Stop.  And we’re sick of people telling us that we are picky, we need to get out more, or acting like we don’t understand life because we haven’t “found our vocations.”

I read an article once that said, “Singleness isn’t a junior varsity version of marriage.  it’s an entirely different sport– and if you haven’t played it, you haven’t mastered it.” Yes. A million times yes.  At risk of someone thinking I sound snarky, I’m going to say that I’m tired of married people thinking they know what being single is like simply because they were single before they got married (by age 25) or because they’re alone some evenings when their spouse is at work.

It’s time for us to start looking at this unique state of life.  Not by adding it into the petitions (again… please… no…) or by throwing more “singles events” at the parish (aka mixers) or by acting like it’s one of the permanent vocations, but by really trying to undertand how this transitional-maybe-not-so-transitional way of life fits into the parish family and society as a whole.  It’s time to listen and figure out what we have to share with a world in so much need of healing.

Wednesday morning thoughts

I need to be finishing up a talk I’m giving this weekend, but I’m having trouble hunkering down and concentrating, so I thought writing here would give me some momentum.

I’m in my new office now. A little more than half of us from the old building are now in the new building, and everyone is at various stages of settling in.  Phones and internet are still in limbo for some people, so I’m pretty lucky that I have both.  Nothing is hung up on my walls yet, but all of my furniture is in place and I’m completely unpacked.  I suppose that’s one of the perks of only being on the job for 8 months – I didn’t really have that much to pack and unpack.

The previous occupants of the building left a lot behind, so a few of us spent a few hours wandering around and seeing what goodies could be claimed.  The leftover office furniture has been parcelled out to various rooms, so I went to the “chair room” yesterday to look for a new desk chair.  I also had laid claim to a rocking chair that we found in one of the nursery classrooms, but I returned it once I realized I wouldn’t be able to sit and read in it for long amounts of time.

My commute hasn’t been terrible, mostly because I’m going the opposite direction from pretty much the entire rest of the city.  So while I’m going to be filling up the gas tank a lot more often, I’m still making it to work under 30 minutes. We’ll see if that changes after school starts.  I do feel a little isolated out here – no more meeting friends for lunch or dashing over to Aquinas College for Mass – but I suppose I’ll get used to that.  Jesus hasn’t moved to the new building yet, and I’m ready for that to happen too – I’ve worked with Jesus in the building for the last seven years, and you just get used to being able to pop in to say hello.

I guess that’s all for now.  Maybe I’ll post pictures eventually – my favorite room so far is the big auditorium that seats 800 (but doesn’t have built-in seats, so we can clear it out and set up tables for dinners, etc) and I’m antsy to have a class in there.  I guess I shouldn’t expect to fill it the first time I have an evening bible study out here, though, huh?  Start small…

Thoughts after Chapter 1

I’ve spent the last day wading through Laudato Si and plenty of articles and blog posts about it.  I’ll be honest- because I think I can still be transparent and frank here – I’m still sorting out my own mind about it.  After finishing the first chapter, I’m uncomfortable with the amount of “science” in it and am hoping the second chapter has more theology. But that’s just my honest opinion.

So I’m not finished with it, but I wanted to come here and share some links in case you have questions yourself.

Father Barron’s commentary is excellent, and after listening to his refreshingly clear and insightful comments, I found myself wishing he had been on the committee to help draft the document. Watch here.

Father Pius is a Dominican priest studying in Rome, and he shares some good initial thoughts on the encyclical here.

Here’s a good round-up of quotes you won’t hear the mainstream media speaking about: 11 Things You Won’t Hear…

One thought as I close.  I was looking over my notes to teach RCIA last night, and I happened to use the notebook that I also used to teach church history a few years back.  I happened to open to my notes on Galileo, so I took a second to look over them.  I had tried to set the scene for my students – what the study of science was like at the time, how science was seen as natural philosophy and thus was naturally related to the studies of theology and philosophy, etc.  It wasn’t strange for the Church to be in the debate – after all, most of the leading astromoners were clerics, anyway.  Well, as I was reading my notes, I thought how funny it was that the some of the same people who yelp about how wrong it is for the Church to poke Her nose into a discussion of science don’t even seem to blink at that first chapter of Laudato Si, where the Pope seems to be speaking a lot about science.  Just a thought.

A quick catch up, plus a new writing gig

It’s always a good rule of thumb to blog when sleep-deprived.  You get the craziests posts that way. I actually just typed Hello, royal leaders! instead of loyal readers… and then ended up scrapping the whole paragraph I wrote.  Let’s try this again…

So we missed Easter and the entire Easter season, huh?  Now I’m back and it’s mid-June and I have a phone full of food pictures and a head full of blog posts, none of which have been written.  So here’s a quick rundown of what’s been happening.

I just got back from San Francisco, which deserves its own post.  The trip was incredible, even though the trip home was more eventful than it should have been.  (After being delayed out of San Francisco for no apparent reason, our connecting flight at O’Hare then left 5 minutes early…which turned into 12 hours of airport fun, as we tried to get home through weather delays, air traffic control messes, and a variety of standby flights.)

This summer I’m a regular blogger for a great site called Integrated Catholic Life. Check out my posts every Friday.

We had a little mini bourbon retreat last month, because that seems to be our Pentecost weekend tradition now. We hit up Barton’s, home of one of my favorites (1792) and Willet. Someday soon we want to visit Buffalo Trace, because I haven’t tasted much out of Buffalo Trace that I didn’t like. (Anyone have an extra bottle of William Larue they want to give me?)

May was also filled with fun events like Steeplechase and even a Rennaissance festival.  One week I was cheering on thoroughbreds while wearing a fascinator on my head, the next week I was watching jousting surrounded by people in costumes. Life is never dull unless you choose for it to be.

At work, we are the in the process of moving to a new building — hundreds of people in four locations moving to one single enormous complex on the other side of town. If it sounds eventful and crazy, it is.  Most of my stuff is over at the new place, but I’m staying in my old office for another week.  I’ll probably head over there next Monday and begin to make the new place home.  I’m grateful for the opportunities that the new complex will give us- like the 800 seat auditorium that is right next to my office.  The commute will take awhile to get used to (which is why I’m still working here for now!) but I think the future is exciting.

That’s it for now.

and that has made all the difference

Last week at the Chrism Mass, I sat a few rows back from a young man who came into the Church last year.  I teach for RCIA classes occasionally, and I distinctly remember the night I taught his class.  He was full of questions — really good, probing questions.  I could tell he wasn’t there lightly. He was really searching.  I could tell just from his questions that he had been in several different faith communities, had experience with different theologies, and had a strong philosophical background. He had done his research.  But the answers he had received in the past were not satisfactory.  Later, after talking to him, I learned he was a self-described skeptic.

I left class honestly not sure if he would come into the Church.  I hoped I had answered his questions, but I felt he wasn’t truly satisfied.  And I knew he had more.

You know the end of the story, because I already told you.  He did end up entering the Church, and he’s one of those beautiful zealous souls that is 100% inside.  Perhaps he would still describe himself philosophically as a skeptic, but I don’t see it when I talk to him now.  There is that contentment and joy that comes when you really and truly take the plunge. All in. No-holds-barred.

As I sat behind him the other night, I thought of what an example he is of the gift of faith. There are some questions that don’t have satisfactory answers.  And there are some answers that are only understood with the grace of the sacraments. While I’m not telling anyone to come into the Church flippantly (exactly the opposite, actually), I do think we need to let go of trying to solve every predicament or clear every roadblock of doubt.  Perhaps there are some things that only grace will answer.

As we enter this Easter season, let’s remember the importance of mystagogy.  Most of us are fully initiated into the Church and have received the sacraments. That does not mean we are finished with our journey of faith, but that we’ve just begun.  Now that we’ve received the mysteries, now that we’ve received sanctifying grace, we can begin to enter into them, to unpack them. Now it is time to LIVE the mysteries… something that was impossible before receiving them.  It is impossible to know the Church and Her Mysteries from the outside. It is only possible from the inside, in grace.  (I highly recommend “Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians.”)

Don’t get discouraged when friends or family members don’t seem to understand Christ and His Church.  Some things are only possible with faith.  Pray for the gift of faith for them, and don’t take your own faith for granted.  Thank God for it, praying that He gives you even more.

Happy Easter!

For theirs is the kingdom of God

I belong to a pretty fantastic parish.  It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty wonderful. We have both the old and the young in the pews, there are opportunities both for formation and fun, and we’re blessed with a pastor who pours his life into his work.

Last week, one of our newest members finally found happiness. And I’d venture to guess it was due in large part to my pastor and our parish.

Teresa stood outside of St. Mary’s for many years and sold The Contributor, Nashville’s weekly street newspaper.  I don’t know how long she sold it there, but she had been there since I began going to the parish a few years ago.  She would often come in during Mass and find a seat in a pew, to stay warm or dry or cool, depending on the season. I was first struck by the parish’s love when they had a birthday party for her at coffee and donuts.

Seeing Teresa every week reminded me of how hard it really is to live the Gospel. Did I always want to smile at her?  Did I welcome her into my pew with open arms the first time she plopped down next to me?  Was it always easy to love her?

No.  I had a hard heart that prefers to give some money in the collection plate or write a check to a nonprofit rather than to care for my brothers and sisters myself. I didn’t want to walk out of church and walk by her and feel guilty I wasn’t doing anything to help her. It’s far easier to look the other way, and then rationalize away feelings of guilt by believing all homeless people are going to abuse the dollars I give them.

But my heart began to turn, little by little, week after week.  I tried to look her in the eye, as a human person, and address her by name.  Good morning, Teresa. Have a nice week, Teresa.  I didn’t do as much as I should, don’t get me wrong.  It was easier to give her a few dollars for the paper than to buy her breakfast from the coffeeshop, which I probably should have done.

Two weeks ago, Father Baker announced that Teresa had been diagnosed with advanced cancer and was living in hospice. He also told us that she had requested to be received into the Church and had received her first Holy Communion.  St. Mary’s had adopted Teresa so many years ago, but now she was our newest parishioner.

Teresa died last week, shortly after Father visited her, praying the rosary and the prayers for the dying with her. She will be buried from her home – St. Mary’s.

I will perhaps always regret not being a better Christian for her. Not visiting her in hospice before she died, despite Father’s invitation. But her death should give us great joy.  The homeless, abused soul who left this world with nothing has left it with everything.

It seems heartless to be happy when someone dies. But it’s hard for me to mourn Teresa’s death.  To mourn her life, maybe. But it’s hard for me to be sad about her death.

As Father reminds us in his blog post, Teresa was our Dives.  Now Dives gets to go to heaven – not because Lazarus ignored him, but because he didn’t.  Through Father and the parish, Teresa found Jesus Christ and received Him in the sacraments. And last week, after a life of loneliness and suffering, she left us for eternal happiness.