When I was 12 or so, I became fascinated by the religious life. Out of nowhere. I never knew any religious sisters save one, a friend of the family, and she dressed like an ordinary person and I never knew her that well. I became worried about my unbidden interest, most of all because it seemed like some sort of terrible burden: my only real image of religious life at the time was from Sister Act. You know, the movie where nuns are so stupid they need a lounge singer to suggest they might want to serve the poor. My mother, after first wresting from me what had put me in a bad mood for weeks on end, helped to remedy some of those images. We watched The Trouble With Angels. She assured me nuns were not idiots, but brave. My ardor for the religious life grew.
Here is a great clip from The Trouble With Angels:
I am not now a nun. I admit I had wanted to be, I admit it also terrified me, but life and its strange turns leads to unexpected destinations. Thomas Merton grasped it best in one of his prayers:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you and I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road although I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
I am not a sister, not right now, and I begin to think I may never be one. That I was not meant to be one. I have a frail body built for learning, and not really much else – whether it be in a habit or in a family. I know this. It’s one of the bald facts of my health. So, if I am to take God seriously, I must only know that he will take me where I need to be if only I follow. It is not my job to invent or force a vocation for myself despite all odds. That would make the vocation anything but a calling – its Latin root, vocare, means “to call” and not “to make” – and anything other than a calling would only be an idolatrous creation of my own device. The destination so far looks like a doctorate and a life in the academy. Should I serve the task rightly, it might become for me a form of monastic devotion.
But I am not stupid or arrogant enough to think they are the same. I am a lonely servant of God wandering through the academy. This is where I am, and thus where I am to serve. We are to serve wherever we may find ourselves. And with joy.
What is it, though? What does it mean? You must understand how much I respect the religious life to know how I feel its loss despite it never being within my grasp. I am old school enough to think the religious life is the highest of the vocations, the one that – should God give it to you – best reflects how we will be in heaven. And I am old school enough, too, to love families. They are the domestic Church, the formative heart of the Church. Knowing that I right now live neither of these noble vocations does not tempt me to deride them. I love them both more.
Yet my love for these vocations does not somehow fill the great lacuna in the Church’s understanding of vocations: the single life. Go ahead and look up “vocation” under V in the Catechism index. You will find the vocation to evangelical counsels (religious life), to marriage, to beatitude. There is also the profound series of reflections on the vocation of the laity, drawn from Vatican II. But to say that the question of the single life has been answered in the reflections on the laity is only to beg the question: marriage is a lay vocation, too, and “being a layperson” does not in any sense resolve how either marriage or the single life are unique. Nor does pointing a finger toward consecrated virginity answer the riddle of the single life, since now we are only indicating a rare vocation that takes up the attitude of the religious life in the midst of lay life. Most single people are not that. What do we do with them? The Church does not appear to know, either officially or pastorally – whether lay or religious. Quite simply, we live now in an unprecedented era where the single life is something at all. And relatively common. It is a brand new question that has yet to receive its answer.
I am not even sure the single life can be called a vocation, properly speaking. It is for most a transitional vocation, which makes it more of a ghost of a mission – a foretaste of a calling – rather than a calling in itself. For those who find themselves single their whole lives, that is precisely the complexity of the problem: they find themselves in it rather than choosing it as a vocation from God, and most (when pressed to confess honestly) would have preferred to find someone to love. The single life is the great accidental vocation, and that only seems to make it a half vocation. Something lesser.
I was impressed recently by some moving stories from married friends of mine. They spoke elegantly of their marriage proposals, which is really a condensed way to explain falling in love. Their faces took on a strange cast, a warmth almost impossible to describe. They seemed most at home with themselves, and people are almost never at home with themselves, and that makes them seem almost strange. The only other time I have seen that expression is when I hear priests and nuns explain why they are what they are. They fell in love.
What single person talks like that?
The problem is only complicated by the varieties of single life. There are really many single lifes, as it were, that the Church finds itself asking its members to live with holiness. Single people who will marry or take vows, single people who simply have never married, single people who have resolved to be so, and even those single people who struggle with homosexual tendencies. These last are not permitted to marry, and not generally allowed in the religious life, but they are asked to be holy and to be witnesses. I place them within this lacuna of the single life as much as I do other singles, because theirs is a unique situation that needs to be addressed with love as much as the others. I support the Church’s teaching and not its compromise in any fashion, but my support does not mitigate the need to answer in what way all these various single people can live a life of holiness.
What way is this?
I can only speculate. My recent attempts to comprehend this problem have revolved around the family. If I take, simply as a fact, that the single life is a strange almost-vocation, I can begin to approach it with some sense. I can begin to understand it as it is, instead of trying to make it into an ideal it does not natively own. And this “almost” gravitates toward the family, and then toward religious life.
The single life, in all its forms, is the mendicant servant of families and vocations.
Most single people know families. They also know their parish priests, and sometimes are lucky enough to know religious orders. Regardless of the exact situation, the single person is to serve these, the primary vocations. (We must rejoice in our lowliness, our hybridized graces, because God looks with love on the poor.) Help the parish priest with friendship, with assistance, with food. Help a married friend with the kids, with the chores, with companionship. In a hundred thousand ways, it is possible to serve. This will strengthen marriage and religious life, both of which are the lifeblood of the Church.
All of this does not really relieve single life of its almost-qualities. Again, I find this an important reality to preserve. I think that the single life operates a lot like the God-followers of the Old Testament, those Gentiles who attended synagogue and familiarized themselves with Judaism and yet who could not quite be Jews because they were not ethnically so. They served in the Temple and the synagogue as best they could, despite their half-measure existence. The single life exists in this half-measure, I think, and this humble position exalts it. (Nor is it for us to decide who is greatest, only to serve in whatever form of humility God presents us with – whether it lasts a lifetime or not.) And, as Christ tore the dividing wall, so he will again – in beatitude, we will love God with the fullness of our hearts, however big or small.
My speculation perhaps does not satisfy. I do not know that it is meant to satisfy. My own desire is only to say that, if I am to sit at this place of least exaltation, I will do my best to love it and to serve with joy while I rest in it. Not to make it more than it is. I am allowed to be sad, too, but not for long. There is much yet to do, and grace along the road to do it.