From August 27, 2005 (the links to other people's August blog entries may or may not still work):
Michael Liccione, at Sacramentum Vitae, has recently highlighted articles on Catholic singles and the question of whether there is a vocation or a calling to the single life. Among these is a 5-part series of articles by David Sloan on Catholic Exchange, and an article in Kairos Catholic Journal by Teresa Pirola entitled “The Single Life,” Kairos Catholic Journal, Vol. 16 issue 14 (August, 2005):
The articles reflect an uncertainty among the Church’s singles in defining our identity as single Catholics.
Sloan described the need and uncertainty of the issue in Part 3 of his article as follows:
“The simple fact is that society has recently begun and is now racing away at a breakneck pace from everything the Church knows and understands best, which is family life, and toward what the Church knows and understands least, which is single life and the values which lie at its core.”
Another recent article about Catholic singles is Mary Beth Bonacci’s article, “Called to Singlehood?: A single girl questions the existence of the single “vocation.” 2003-09-16
Bonacci concluded that there is no such thing as a single “vocation,” viewed in the light of John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Vocation and Dignity of Women), chapter six, which is entitled “Motherhood – Virginity: Two Dimensions of Women’s Vocation.”
“The chapter opens with this statement. “We must now focus our meditation on virginity and motherhood as two particular dimensions of the fulfillment of the female personality.” That same paragraph closes by referring to “these two paths in the vocation of women.”
She further explains why being single cannot be viewed as a “vocation”:
“Traditionally, “vocation” has been understood to indicate a call from God – and a subsequent public vow -- to completely give oneself and one’s life to someone (or Someone, as the case may be.) As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes says, man finds himself only in a sincere gift of himself. And just plain old singleness doesn’t do that.”
That tells us what we are not, but it is not the entire picture. Rather, it is worthwhile to see how Catholic singles have been viewed by the saints over the centuries, and to then attempt to articulate what they have had to say in the context of the present day Church and the Eucharistic theology defines the Church as a whole.
ST. EDITH STEIN
letter from the early twentieth century described an incident that may
sound somewhat familiar to most Christian singles, and which may
surprise some to learn that it is about the life of St. Edith Stein
while she was a single woman in an academic profession, before she
entered the convent:
“She loved Hans Lipps, the phenomenologist who was part of our group . . . I am also certain that she would have married him if he had wanted it. But he did not want it. When that was absolutely clear, I had a talk with her – concerning the photograph which, all by itself, still stood on her small desk in our Bergzabern home. I said to her that it didn’t seem right to surrender totally to God and to want to dedicate oneself to Him and yet to keep on the table the picture of a man who didn’t want to marry you . . . . She was deeply affected ahd shortly thereafter . . . the picture disappeared from her desk.” [Susanne M. Batzdorff, “Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint,” Templegate Publishers, 1998, p. 178, as quoted by Lou Ella Hickman, IWBS, in “In Search of Edith Stein,” “Spiritual Life,” Spring 2003.
The friend who wrote that letter thought Edith’s conversion and later entrance into the convent was partly due to her disappointment in love. [Hickman, pg. 35]. Hickman added, “Perhaps Edith, like so many of us, needed someone to challenge her perceived level of commitment. Yet, painful as the incident was, Edith listened to her friend’s advice. Even though this incident revealed an Edith who was less than a saintly person, it also revealed the kind of friend I want to have.” [Hickman, Pg. 35]
Edith’s first application to become a Carmelite nun was turned down. Only after she was forbidden by the German government to continue to lecture, as a Jewish woman in Hitler’s Germany, was her renewed application accepted. From her baptism on New Year’s Day 1922 until the Third Reich barred Jews from teaching in 1933, she lived that life of a Catholic single career woman in the era before it became such a common thing to be: neither married nor a nun, uncertain of her future. She later wrote:
“I had urgently pleaded for permission to enter the order. It was denied me with reference to my mother and because of the effectiveness which my work had had in Catholic circles in recent years. I had yielded. But now the walls that had stood in my way had crumbled. My effectiveness was at an end. And surely my mother would prefer me to be in a convent in Germany rather than a school in South America.” [Edith Stein, “How I Came to the Cologne Carmel,” translated by Susanne M. Batzdorff, from “Edith Stein: Selected Writings,” by her neice Susanne M. Batzdorff, Templegate Publishers, 1990, p. 19]
Edith later wrote briefly
about the Catholic single life that had been hers for more than a
decade. In her essay, “Spirituality of the Christian Woman,” [published
in English in Edith Stein, “Essays on Woman,” ICS Publications, 1996],
“Now we face the question especially important for our time: How might it be possible for the unmarried woman to fulfill her destiny apart from life in the convent? Without doubt, her state is particularly difficult. On the one hand, she may have had to renounce marriage and motherhood, not of her own free will but rather compelled by circumstances, even though a natural longing for the happiness of family life is still alive in her. . . . Or, on the other hand, she has been drawn towards virginal life since her youth; moreover, the model of the religious order seemed to be most in accordance with this, but existing circumstances prevented her from fulfilling this wish.”
In Edith’s case, perhaps both described herself, as she had once felt drawn toward marriage and later felt drawn toward a religious order, and both had been denied to her for a time. She had lived as a Catholic academic for more than a decade with no assurance that either door would ever open. Yet, she added:
“That which is not personally chosen and made one’s own, freely and joyfully, can be accomplished only by the woman who sees God’s will at work in the force of circumstances and aims at nothing else than to harmonize her own will with the divine.” Such was the single life as she had come to know it.
this, without calling it a “vocation,” she described the single life as
a “special calling” and, most importantly, described it in the context
of the Eucharist:
“It may be considered as the direct sign of a special calling when one is pulled out of the course apparently given by birth and upbringing, or one personally hoped and striven for, and then thrown into an entirely different path. This calling is for a personal mission which does not stand firmly outlined in advance, with its track already traced out and cleared; rather, it is revealed step by step. And here it may be that the unique strengthening needed for the duties of such a life is found by the woman going her own way rather than in the communal life of consecrated liturgy. It is particularly important in this matter to watch carefully for signs showing one’s path. Above all, this requires that everything be done in one’s own power to stay in God’s presence, i.e., that one uses the means of grace at the disposal of every Christian.
“It is most important that the Holy Eucharist becomes life’s focal point: that the Eucharistic Savior is the center of existence; that every day is received from His hand and laid back therein; that the day’s happenings are deliberated with Him. . . .
“Moreover, life with the Eucharistic Savior induces the soul to be lifted out of the narrowness of its individual, personal orbit. The concerns of the Lord and His kingdom become the soul’s concerns, precisely as for those consecrated to him in a religious order; and, to the same degree, the small and large needs of individual existence lose importance.”
By viewing single life from a Eucharistic standpoint, St. Edith answered the foremost difficulty of single living: the risk of becoming self-absorbed in the absence of family and community. Sloan, in Part 4 of his article mentioned above, mentioned a similar concern as a primary need of singles.
The solution to the uncertainty of single living is not to use a Catholic congregation as a temporary substitute for family; rather the proper solution is to orient one’s life around the Eucharistic Savior and thereby to be lifted out of “the narrowness of . . . individual, personal orbit.” In centering one’s focus on Christ and the Eucharist, rather than on the social environment of the congregation, a single person forms a bond that is real, rather than one that substitutes for what is missing; a bond that is permanent, rather than one that is likely viewed as a temporary measure. Moreover, focus on the Eucharist removes from the shoulders of the congregation the burden of having to substitute as family for the singles within the congregation. The single person whose focus is Eucharistic does not enter a congregation with expectations that the other members will fill needs that are ordinarily met by a family; rather, he or she enters the congregation oriented toward Eucharistic worship and a desire to have “every day . . .received from His hand and laid back therein,” as God’s will “is revealed step by step.”
ST. TERESA OF AVILA
Teresa of Avila also speaks of the single life as compared to her life
as a nun. In “The Life,” she described how she and her brother had run
away from home in the early hours of the morning when she first went to
a Carmelite convent as a young woman, against her father’s wishes. Once
she was there, he relented and allowed her choice. She explained:
“I had now become subject to severe fainting fits attended by fever, for I had always had very poor health. But I got fresh life from my continued fondness for good books. I would read the Epistles of Saint Jerome, which gave me such courage that I resolved to speak to my father of my resolve [to become a nun], which was almost like taking the habit. For I set such store by my word that I should never, I believe, on any account have turned back, once I had announced my intention. My father, however, was so fond of me that I was quite unable to obtain his consent; nor were the entreaties of others, whom I asked to speak to him, of the least avail.” (Chapter 4, “The Life”).
She had been one of two girls among her parents’ ten children, all born between 1510 and 1528. The only other girl was the baby born in 1528 when their mother died, leaving Teresa (born in 1515) as the primary person expected to help her father raise her brothers after her mothers death. Given her father’s needs and her own health problems, few people initially supported her wish to become a nun, and her “Life” has no story of her father ever arranging a marriage or trying to pressure her to find a husband. Rather, she fell within a small minority of women who might have lived their lives as single women in that day.
Years later, in “Interior Castle,” (Third Mansions) she took a more mature view of her decision to become a nun:
“And believe me, what matters is not whether or no we wear a religious habit; it is whether we try to practice the virtues, and make a complete surrender of our wills to God and order our lives as His Majesty ordains: let us desire that not our wills, but His will, be done.”
In the final analysis, then, the choice itself did not matter; doing God’s will mattered. Again, in the Sixth Mansions, she returns to the theme of God’s will: “Believe me, the safest thing is to will only what God wills, for He knows us better than we know ourselves, and He loves us. Let us place ourselves in His hands so that His will may be done in us; if we cling firmly to this maxim and our wills are resolute we cannot possibly go astray.”
ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA
A third saint to consider, with regard to the single life, is another doctor of the Church: St. Catherine of Siena. She was the youngest child in a large family. Her parents wanted her to marry, but she did not do so. Instead, she became a Dominican tertiary. Her family gave her such domestic chores that it interfered with the amount of time she would like to have spent in church. St. Paul of the Cross later used that event from the life of St. Catherine in a letter giving advice to a woman who had sought his counsel. He wrote in a letter:
answering your letter, and I tell you it is to your advantage to have
much fatigue and household duties. So, too, did Saint Catherine of
Siena have all the work and management of the house and the cooking and
all the rest, and had no time at all for prayer in church. But the
saint in a holy way outwitted her relatives who, led on by the devil,
tried to keep her so constantly busy. She fashioned a beautiful oratory
within her soul, where she was always at prayer in the midst of her
household work. You should do that, and you well know how often I have
recommended that. Often arouse your soul to love of God and embrace him
with holy affections within. Work with great peace, without anxiety or
haste, for anxiety and haste are the plague of devotion, as Saint
Francis de Sales tells us. So remain in peace, thinking of God, work,
cook, serve everyone in peace, loving God with your soul in the embrace
of the gentle Jesus. Oh, what a great work this is! Oh, what a shortcut
to reach holiness! I do not want you to entertain human respect about
withdrawing yourself. There is no necessity for you to be chatting,
laughing, etc., or being ashamed that you are a servant of God. Such
things I do not desire, my daughter.
You need to always maintain a holy seriousness and modesty. Say what is necessary in a polite way, but you do not have to gossip, as do seculars, in order to avoid being considered a fanatic. So flee converse with people, except for what is necessary, and in that way God will speak to your heart.”
[St. Paul of the Cross, letter to Teresa Palozzi (11), September 8, 1759, from The Letters of Saint Paul of the Cross, Vol. III (1759-1775), translated by Roger Mercurio, C.P., and Frederick Sucher, C.P, c. 2000, New City Press, Hyde Park, N.Y., p. 32.]
In the same way, it is most productive for singles of our own era to accept the work we do as “a shortcut to reach holiness” and not as a distraction from it, as long as we are walking that path, step by step, seeking God’s will in the single life. Rather than viewing work as a substitute for the life of a wife and mother, or as a secondary role as compared with that of a priest, nun or monk, we should instead view our lives as lived according to the will of God and see that as what really matters.
FOCUS ON THE EUCHARIST
It is easier to view married life or consecrated life Eucharistically than to view single life Eucharistically. It is the absence of the lifelong vow, the distance of the Eucharistic symbolism of the union of Christ and the Church that truly distances single Catholics from others in the Church. The solution, as St. Edith Stein wrote at least in part, is to define the role of Catholic singles with reference to the Eucharist.
The foremost means of this will be for each single Catholic to fully understand his or her role as a believer priest as that concept exists within Catholic theology (and as clearly distinguished from the role of ordained priests).
Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov wrote somewhat about the calling of the laity in his book “The Sacrament of Love,” which speaks of marriage as a calling like the calling of a priest or monk. Although the primary purpose of his book was to describe the calling of married people, he does so with reference to the role of believer priests as follows (pg 85):
“It is not a question of "priest" in the sense of "a presbyter" and of his sacramental power (the bishop). A priest of the royal priesthood (every believer) is one who participates in the Priesthood of Christ, not through his sacred functions but by virtue of his sanctified being. . . . This means that the believer offers the totality of his life and being as a sacrifice, that he makes of his life a liturgy. Every layperson is the priest of his existence.”
Evdokimov looked at the Church Fathers as sources of this Eucharistic, sacramental view of each person’s life. Origen linked it to the anointing of the sacrament of confirmation in a passage that Evdokimov quotes (pg 90) from Origen’s “Leviticum homilia” IX, PG 12:521-522:
“All those who have received the anointing are priests . . . each one carries his sacrifice within himself, and he himself puts the fire on the altar so that he becomes a continual sacrifice. If I renounce everything I own, if I carry my cross and follow Christ, I have made an offering on God's altar. . . . If I love my brothers even to give my life for them, if I fight for truth and justice even to death, if I mortify myself . . . . if the world is crucified to me and I to the world, I have offered a sacrifice on God's altar and I become the priest of my own sacrifice.”
Evdokimov also considered the
Letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (ca. 95 a.d.), which
mentioned "rules for laymen." The command "Go and teach all the
nations" (Matt. 28:19) was given to all Christians, and not just to the
apostles. In the liturgy, the words of the Gospel are read to each
baptized person. Their call means that every confirmed-annointed
Christian is a missionary, an "apostolic man" in his own way. (Pp.
86-87). Evdokimov thus wrote, "It is through his entire life as an
interiorized liturgy and a Trinitarian dwelling, it is through his
entire being that every layperson is called to give unceasing
testimony. It is even to this end that he is entirely consecrated."
(Pg. 87). The development of a single laity without mission is thus not
truly Catholic, but rather was the result of what Evdokimov called the
"treason of the laity," beginning in the fourth century, an
"abdication, a very strange alienation from their priestly nature."
POPE BENEDICT XVI
While absolutely essential to keep this concept distinct from the role of the ordained priesthood, the concept of the priesthood of all believers exists within Catholicism, and its Eucharistic symbolism should be central to the way Catholic singles define their role within the Church. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote the following about the distinction between clergy and the priestly role of Catholic laity in “The Ministry and Life of Priests,” published in “Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith,” Ignatius Press, 2005:
“.[T]he priesthood of the Church
is a continuation and an acceptance of the Old Testament priesthood,
which in this radically new and transformed state finds its true
fulfillment. . . . Such a conception of the priesthood does not mean
any devaluing of the priesthood of all believers. Again, it is
Augustine who brought this out very well whenhe said that all believers
are servants of God, but the priests are the servants of the servants,
and from the perspective of his mission he calls the faithful his
In another essay in the same
collection (“Eucharist and Mission”), Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a good
bit about the mission of the Catholic laity, viewed with a central
focus on the Eucharist. It should be this same focus that defines the
life of Catholic singles. In I Corintians 6:12-19, he wrote, “we have
also come upon the starting point for referring to the Church as the
body of Christ, upon the inner interlacing of the Eucharist and
ecclesiology. . . In the Eucharist we receive the Body of the Lord and,
thus, become one body with him. . . . The Church is the Eucharist. To
receive Communion means becoming the Church, because it means becoming
one body with him.” [Pp. 102-103] “Anyone who is only looking for his
own group or clique in the Eucharist, who is not, in the Eucharist –
and through it – plunging himself into the whole Church, moving beyond
his own realm, is doing exactly what is being criticized in the
Corinthians’ behavior.” [P. 106] Considering Romans 12:1, he wrote,
“[T]he true sacrifice to God is that of man’s inmost being, which is
itself transformed into worship.” [P. 115]
JEAN-PIERRE DE CAUSSADE
The concept is similar to that of several earlier Roman Catholic writers. One such book is Jean-Pierre de Caussade's “L'Abandon à la Providence divine,” available in English translation under the names of “Abandonment to Divine Providence” and “The Sacrament of the Present Moment.” In Chapter 8, taken from the translation published under the latter name (translated by Kitty Muggeridge, Harper San Francisco, 1966), Fr. de Caussade gave the following counsel:
“'Sacrifice is just sacrifice and hope in the Lord' (Psalm 4:8, Vulgate) said the prophet. . . .
“What, then, is this duty which for each one of us is the very essence of our perfection? It is twofold: a general obligation which God imposes on all mankind; and specific obligations which he prescribes for each individual. . . . I believe that saintliness depends on the measure of love we have for the will of God; and that the more we love it, whatever it may be, the greater is also our saintliness. And this is borne out by Jesus, Mary and Joseph, since in their private lives there was more nobility and excellence than worldly splendour, and we never say of that Holy Familythat they looked for the holiness of things but only the holiness within things. And all this shows that there is no one particular or specific way which is the most perfect, but that perfection is to be found in surrendering to the will of God, each one according to his state and circumstance.”
ST. FRANCIS DE SALES
Francis de Sales is another source of a similar idea, in his collection
of letters. One abridged source of some of his letters is published in
English translation under the name of “Thy Will Be Done; Letters to
Persons in the World,” translated by the Very Rev'd Henry Benedict
Mackey, with updated revisions, published by Sophia Institute Press,
1995. In two different letters to lay women, St. Francis de Sales gave
the following counsel:
"Let us be what we are, and let us be it well, to do honor to the Master whose work we are. . . . Let us be what God likes, so long as we are His, and let us not be what we want to be, if it is against His intention. For if we were the most excellent creatures under Heaven, what would it profit us if we were not according to the pleasure of God's will?"
[Letter No. 4 to a wife who thinks marriage hinders holiness]
have a great desire for Christian perfection. It is the most generous
desire you could have: feed it and make it grow every day. The means of
gaining perfection are various according to the variety of vocations:
religious, widows, and married persons must all seek after this
perfection, but not all by the same means."
[Letter no. 11 to a married woman, on harmonizing family and devotion]
Thus viewed, for Catholic singles, the focus on the Eucharistic should take on a more predominant role in connection with seeking God’s will in the present moment. The solution for Catholic singles is not so much a matter of finding a creative new means of defining a vocation, but rather a matter of gaining an understanding of the Church’s long held views on the role of the Catholic laity, with a focus on the Eucharist, as applied to our own state and circumstance. If we can define ourselves with reference to those principles, there should be no sense of uncertainty about our role within the Church, as that role has been long defined and now needs to be more widely understood.