“Christian, Single, AND Lonely? Is That Even a Thing?”

Hi Folks, some of you have already read the original version. I took that one down and rewrote it. Here goes… -M

Here is a true confession that leaves faith-based people absolutely at a loss.

Try it some time. Try being a mature devout earnest helpful woman who sets up chairs and brings snacks for the parish hall. Then one day in fellowship hour when someone asks “How’s your weekend going?” say “Single life feels lonely.”
Then wait.
They will laugh, blurt out a chipper slogan, and walk away. Or they will stand their ground and insist that Christians can’t feel lonely.
Now granted, reactions of hilarity or alarm or disapproval are standard on the secular streets. (That is another story. Maybe I’ll write that too.) But in churches, it would be heartening if the situation were different; if the people in families had the head room to think about the rest of us.

One church group did.
In 2000 on a freezing night before Christmas, some Salvation Army volunteers were ringing bells at a coin kettle at Prudential Center mall. The ringers were 10 or 20 grownups, all ages, caroling their hearts out with laughter and jokes.
“Say, what’s the big idea?” I put on a mock-stern look, fists on hips. “YOU lot are not New Englanders at all; y’all are having way too much fun.”
“WE are from TEXAS!” they chorused, hopping to show gladness or at least to fend off hypothermia.
These holly-jolly folk shared one thing in common. The year 2000 had left them all single, without their consent and often without warning. They’d lost their husbands or wives or betrothed sweethearts through combat in Iraq, car crash, cancer, Alzheimer’s. Now they all faced their first Christmas alone. So they teamed up! Right at their church! They decided to go volunteer somewhere, in a complete change of scene — and to share the experience together. They picked exotic Boston, and came to Salvation Army Jubilee House in Dorchester for family-style hospitality, service, and mutual support. Now that’s a singles ministry!

“But plenty of churches have a singles ministry.”
Yes, and the invitations specify college students, or youth, or people up to 35 years of age. (For those who have passed age 36 are apparently not considered single any more. What are we then?) Even Catholic discernment events for candidates to monastic life invite only young people; Catholic communities don’t accept people over 40.
One time I asked a dedicated Catholic youth coordinator “Say, any activities for singles over 50?” She assured me that “Parishioners over 50 are not spiritually searching the way young people are.” She was sweet, sincere, upbeat, and probably not familiar with statistics on suicide by age group. To be fair, that church does have an outreach to older single women — inviting them to cook and clean the parish hall for the women getting married. They also have a regular event for senior citizens, offering sweets and board games; the flyer title is “Are You Lonely?” The flyer title is not “Are You a Kickass Powerful Elder With Wisdom and Strength and Companionship To Share?” though I’ve had the impulse to graffiti that in.

Take a look at church websites in a range of denominations. They tend to extend a special welcome to couples, kids, and families. Social events, announcements, celebrations, and building spaces and amenities affirm students, engaged couples, newlyweds, babies for baptism, and teens for confirmation. Ministers and clergy raise prayers of thanksgiving for the presence of children and young couples as a sign of congregational vitality and growth. One sweet young priest kept offering prayers asking God to grant more people vocations to marriage. I finally quipped that his prayers were answered. “Father, your pews are full of women with vocations to marriage! What do we look like — chopped liver?” Christian families tend to interact mainly with their own kin, and strike up friendships with families having kids of the same age. The moment of Passing the Peace leaves me standing with a sheepish smile and an outstretched hand, scanning around for any interested takers, while the intrafamily exuberance suggests that Boyfriend or Dad has just arrived in port from a year at sea.

It’s a pleasant break then, to visit gender-reserved sacred spaces at the local Chabad-Lubavitch shul or Islamic Center masjid. In both, the men are off in the main hall, children run freely in perfectly behaved packs, and we women are left to pray together on our balcony or behind our curtain in peaceful closeness. Russian Orthodox churches can be a relief too, with a good balance of mature people. This may be because in Russian tradition, elders were highly respected, and older women were the mainstays of the church. Under Communism only elderly women were allowed to attend services anyway, while young people were shooed out of church by the police or were penalized at their schools or jobs. Besides, for the Orthodox, the priority is Liturgy and preservation of tradition — not outreach, growth, or entertainment.

Still, in Orthodox congregations one has to tread carefully around a long history of complex group traditions. An insular historically beleaguered minority church, still traumatized by the abrupt departure of the Western Christians in 1054 AD, can not afford to prioritize individualistic inquiry. At age 40 I was praying intensely at our Orthodox church for God’s help to start a family before it was too late. At that time it was quite a heartache, to come across this quote in Diary of a Russian Priest, by Father Alexander Elchaninov:

There is the monastic life and the state of marriage. The third condition, that of virginity in the world, is extremely dangerous, fraught with temptation, and beyond the strength of most people. Moreover, those who adhere to this condition are also a danger to the persons around them. The aura and beauty of virginity, deprived of direct religious significance, in a sense ‘nuptial feathers,’ exercise a powerful attraction and awaken unedifying feelings.”

This cultural precedent may explain why an American woman at my church asked me to please stop attending services; she explained that my unsettled status might create scandal. Or why the elder Russian women, anxious to see me pregnant before my biological clock ran out, were terribly upset once they figured out that I was first holding out for a husband. These war widows, once their husbands were killed at the front, had been forced to make discreet arrangements in order to have children at all. Now they reacted as if my baroque marriage dream were a direct condemnation of them. “You and your single life!” one of them finally shouted at me. “Selfish, selfish, single life! Either adopt a baby now, or enter a convent. What will it be? Decide today!” I did; I decided to stay behind a pillar during services and stop trying to converse with anybody.

The best congregation I’ve ever come across for genuine fellowship was the Metropolitan Community Church. The members were virtually all single people. Each one took platonic friendship very seriously. Each forged close deep relationships with men and women alike. Everyday mutual support, both practical and emotional, was actually a foundation of worship on Sundays.

Now I may be the only vote on this, but for a companionable grownup with a sociable affectionate nature, Sunday morning niceties over coffee do not constitute a full Christian life. When refreshments are done and the tables are put away, couples and families flock to their cars and back to their homes and their real everyday relationships with one another. I walk home to my room and put away the bulletin, hang up my good clothes, sit down in the silence and think “Where is the Body of Christ now? Where is the fellowship of the faithful? How can I get some?” It’s an enormous letdown. I’d love to find day to day Christian companions; people to pray with, to share a walk and a bowl of soup and deep conversations about our spiritual path, some ordinary affection and mutual help and support.

Serious traditional Christian authors dismiss this inclination as nothing more than a “felt need,” exhorting us to focus instead on the true need — being saved. Serious Christian authors also tend to be married. Is their devotion to spouse and kids nothing but a dispensable felt need as well?

Over the years, whenever I’ve breathed a hint of feeling sad about being on my own, church members have rushed to supply some form of these popular quotes.

1. Have you tried prayer?
Oop. Didn’t think of that.

2. If you keep coming back, you’ll find that your kids are the same age as other people’s kids, and then you can make friends with those parents.
A very nice man said this to me when I revealed sadness about having no family of my own. He really did.

3. But God has given you a special calling to single life!
God has actually called me to be married. And very persistently, at that.
Church members agree that a “vocation” involves a voluntary call and response of free will. After all, in America nowadays we tend to frown on the idea of locking people into monasteries, or forcing them into marriage; we don’t hail that kind of coercion as a vocational calling. Churches are happy to honor those who respond voluntarily to a calling to married or monastic life. They are equally happy to inform single people who feel left out that this constitutes a voluntary calling as well.

3B. But people called by God to marriage or the clergy can have sad moments as well.
Every state of life includes tribulations which are intrinsic to that state of life. But if an engaged fiancée in pre-Cana counseling is sobbing at the prospect of making love with her future husband on her wedding night, or at the thought of sex with men at all; or if a seminarian is in despair at having to transubstantiate bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ for the rest of his life, a spiritual director should say “Hm. Matrimony (or Holy Orders) may not be the right state of life for you.”

4. But other women in our church are fine without a man. They never complain.
Did you ask them? Besides, most have learned to keep their emotions to themselves.
At a very good Bible study once, the leader was enthusiastic about how much the Church honors women as more beautifully created. “This is why you see men who lose their wives falling into depression. But women without men are content and flourishing.”
I gently pointed out to him that if those women express loneliness, they will find themselves interrupted, contradicted, and shunted aside by other church members — particularly women.
Instantly, two women in the class cut me off, insisting that this was not true. They added that they were perfectly happy alone, and committed to church ministries.
The leader guided us back to the lesson, repeating the conclusion that women are well suited to thriving alone.

5. Other single women make peace with their aloneness by about age 40. There are much bigger problems to focus on in the world. How can you still be having these feelings at your age? That’s self-centered and immature.
Or well-preserved.

6. The church grants you all the same rights as married people: to receive the Sacraments, and to serve.
Yes, but there is no wedding or ordination or year of discernment counseling or lifetime support and honor for people facing a lifetime alone. There is only one ritual that will mark our lives, but we’ll be in no shape to notice.

7. But for Catholic women there is the Ordo Virginum, the privilege of taking vows as a Bride of Christ living in the world.
Yes indeed. For a woman who offers herself as a Perpetual Virgin, the website consecratedvirgins.org promises two special privileges:
1. a personal audience with the Bishop every year, and
2. with permission from the Order of the Diocese, the right to keep in her home and to venerate a consecrated Communion Host of Christ the Bridegroom.
Note that unlike those vowed to marriage or monasticism, a PV is promised not to the Church, but directly to Christ. Therefore the Church can never ever release her from her vow — hence the prerequisite of “a number of years” of “tranquil celibacy.” No guidelines on when the tranquility will show up.
I witnessed a Dedicated Virgin ceremony for a woman who for years longed for marriage. Waiting was such a heartache for her that she resolved that on her 50th birthday she would stop the pain of dating and of hoping for a husband. After her virginity dedication, she quipped “The suspense is over! My cat and I will have the bed to ourselves for good.”

8. But if no man has married you, it means that Jesus has called you apart to be his bride.
Jesus and I are close already, and his motive is more granting free will than being possessive.
A very lovely priest urged me to sit before the consecrated bread of the Blessed Sacrament on the altar, communing with the Real Presence of Christ so I could experience how much Jesus loves me.
I kept it up for several Friday evenings, sitting in darkness and silence at church. It left me feeling so desolate and empty that I’d run straight to the store for cookies and chocolate to eat at home.
Finally one night I sat staring at the consecrated Host thinking “I guess I have to sit here until that piece of bread up there is all the companionship I need.”
That was my sign to call it a halt.

9. You receive extra benefit from parish activities. You can attend our movie & popcorn night, while married women are at home serving their husbands.
If I had the husband, he’d serve me by getting the movie and I’d make the popcorn and we’d watch it cuddled in bed in comfort; not with a long bus ride to & fro and sitting in a drafty hall on those little metal folding chairs.

10. But my lesbian daughter found our Catholic church to be very accepting when she was single and came out to them. Then when she married and introduced her new wife, the congregation gave them a warm welcome.
All these years I could have had a girlfriend? Then the Catholic Church would have given me a warm welcome too?

11. Single people are “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12).
Married people enjoy how much that thought is going to cheer us up. Here it is in The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher, pg. 214: “Jesus said that some are called by God to be chaste singles (‘eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’).”
Guys, Jesus didn’t say that!
What Jesus said is that some people make themselves eunuchs. It’s for people who choose it.
People tend to quote us the same Bible bits over and over: In Christ there is no male or female, so you’re not missing out on anything, are you? Or, St. Paul says it’s better for everyone to remain unmarried. Or, In heaven no one else is going to marry or be given in marriage either. (And that is why some of us are interested in having a chance at it here on earth.)
Why not quote something more heartening instead?

Here’s Psalm 16:6-11, a meditation for someone feeling alone:

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. I keep my eyes always on the LORD. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Here’s II Corinthians 2:19-22, for that sense of feeling overlooked and left out:

The Son of God, Jesus Christ…
was not Yes and No, but in Him it has always been Yes.
For no matter how many promises God has made, they are Yes in Christ.
And so through Him the Amen is spoken by us to the glory of God.
Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ.
He anointed us,
set His seal of ownership on us,
and put His Spirit in our hearts as a deposit,
guaranteeing what is to come.

Or Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 1:34, my favorite life verse:

Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort;
Who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be comfort those in any trouble, by the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

Searching for and writing down helpful Bible verses, by the way, is a good bedtime ritual for solitary evenings.

12. Jesus was the most fully human masculine man who ever lived. He was tempted in all ways as we are, but did not sin. And as a single person he chose celibacy as a model for us.
Yes, in no way do I live up to the standards set by my Savior. He did however freely consent to every event of his life and death on earth. He was an able young literate charismatic Jewish man with several trades, with a respectable family who cared about Him, with a whole group of women who were eligible to love, follow, and pay his expenses; it seems reasonable to assume that one of them would have been happy to marry Him. But as we are taught, Jesus was already betrothed — to his bride, the Church.

13. But Jesus IS enough for you.
Jesus wasn’t enough for you married folks. You didn’t wait around long enough to find out, did you?

14. Marriage and family is not a perfect life.
Dear Ones! This is not to minimize or deny your sorrows and difficulties! Most of us were raised in families and saw some of the problems ourselves. And we see married friends driven to distraction by lack of sleep with sick children, or afraid for spouses posted in combat zones, or coping with a teenager with a mental illness. And yes, you’ve honored me with many confidences about the immense suffering that can happen within families. The children’s hospital right up the street must know a river of tears; the helicopters and sirens run at all hours, and I pray as they pass by.
Of course being single is easy! It’s a la-z-boy recliner for the heart while the rest of you are out there free-soloing in pairs up El Capitan. We get that.

15. Be careful what you wish for! You may get a husband and regret it. At least you’re not in an abusive relationship. You should be grateful.
I am very grateful for being safe, thank God. And God’s will be done: Jesus knew best when He took attractive dating prospects away from me over the years, and faith would indicate that He was shielding me from outcomes that my faith couldn’t handle. And we do have to approach marriage with tremendous caution and discernment at any age. Meanwhile I offer up loneliness as a prayer for the millions of women and children and men on this planet who would give anything to have a bed to themselves tonight in safety and peace.
The goal here is not necessarily promoting marriage at all. It’s promoting close companionship, and empathy for people who would like more of it.

16. We all had to live through what you do. We were all single too at one time.
Ya, when you were young. For women, being single is a huge asset in our teens. It can be exhilarating in our twenties. It’s character-building in our thirties — especially if we believe the Church’s promise, that chastity and patience will add to our value in the eyes of a moral decent man. But if you were single until age 30 and then got married, don’t tell me what it’s like to still be here at 60. And don’t assume that single people find it easier to be on their own later in life.
In the The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher openly describes renouncing his free active dating life after becoming a serious Christian at age 25: “Choosing chastity out of fidelity to Jesus is taking on a heavy cross…. It was five years before I would marry at the end of an ascetic trek across a dry desert….” It’s nice to come across some validation like this, though to some of us the idea of five years between one oasis and the next sounds less like a Via Dolorosa and more like a pretty sweet deal.

17. Adopt a baby!
A lot of us mature women are concerned about financing our own retirement. Budgeting for a baby would be a whole new level of endeavor.
Besides, children don’t exist to fill the vacuum in a grownup’s life. A child deserves a mom who fulfills her own support needs with other adults. In a perfect world, a baby would start out with two parents with two incomes and a circle of voluntary relatives nearby, and close companions to form a supportive community. With all that in place, I’d love to adopt a baby.

18. Volunteer in all of our church ministries! You’ll be too busy to be lonely.
We do. After a while, over the course of a lifetime, keeping busy and distracted is like eating empty calories: we can just end up overfed and undernourished and totally out of touch with ourselves.
This week I told an atheist gal friend, “Once we’re past breeding age, Church expects us women to serve and serve and serve and keep smiling all the time.”
She said “Oh no. Oh honey. That’s how you turn into The Joker.”
Which made for a pretty good laugh.

19. If you are single, then WE are your God-given family — a community of believers serving as the literal hands of Jesus Christ on earth.
Not to be difficult here, but — “family” is what you marrieds have: people who can be there for you when the doughnuts run out. It is a person who can be at ease having you in their living space, who shares chores, who knows your story, who looks through your photographs with you, who says “How was your day?” who will bring you soup when you are sick, who will reach out and touch you just because, who will keep your little letters and keepsakes safe when you die. Or vice versa.
People with families do not see the difference between that, and coffee hour mingling. They do not. Do not. Not. Clearly I’m not good enough with words to explain that. Perhaps Boy Scout wigwag banners? Singing candy-gram? A play with Indonesian shadow puppets?

20. But at OUR church you’re in good company: We have widows.
Women who have lost their husbands are wonderful at keeping churches running. However, the widowed women in my life are not looking for a single woman best friend. They are still living and walking with the utter transformation in their marriage, from sharing earthly life to sharing in the heavenly communion of saints. My widowed friends grieve their spouses, and want to focus on their comforting memories. They also tell me about the wonder of sleeping through the night without being a medical caregiver; or discovering what they actually enjoy eating for dinner; or taking their very first watercolor art class. What delights them is a little space and free time alone to sit by the window with the cat and a cup of tea and watch the birds at the feeder. It’s a different phase of a different journey.

21. Join one of our church families for Christmas Day.
It is kind of you to ask, and I do that. We guests admire the decorations, share dinner, hear about your memories, observe your mutual affection and in-jokes, enjoy the children’s excitement as they open gifts, and benefit from the thoughtful courtesy of a ride home at nightfall. It is a touching privilege, and something to savor and appreciate. I also go back to my room and think, Can I ever be more than a guest and a witness? Can I ever mean more to anybody?

22. You have Our Blessed Mother, the angels and saints for company. You have icons in your room for prayer time.
Yes, and amen. And as the little girl said in the old joke, when her parents told her that God was sufficient comfort during a thunderstorm, “Sometimes you just want someone around with skin on.”

23. You have the joy of the risen Christ. If you don’t feel completely loved, it is because you have not opened your heart to the Holy Spirit and you are afraid of the love in our hearts. It is bright enough to burn you alive.
Try me!

24. Only Jesus can ever fulfill your deepest and most intimate human needs.
Another popular slogan. It comes up in 7 Myths About Singleness by Sam Allberry, a single person who is clearly devoted, sincere, and walking the walk: “Paul reminds his readers that their relationship to Jesus is analogous to that of a sexual union between a man and a woman….” anticipating the ultimate wedding: Christ the Bridegroom marrying his Church for all eternity. The book teaches that sexual longings can never be fulfilled with a spouse in earthly marriage anyway, because Jesus created erotic desires specifically to point us toward Him: “[Celibate] Singleness now is a way of saying that this future reality is so certain and so good that we can embrace it now.”
The author also advises that we appreciate the graphic verses in the Bible which celebrate erotic love, because when we behold the gorgeous majesty of sex we won’t venture to trespass and violate the sanctity of what is the privilege of only married people. Sounds to me as if we can rejoice today because we will find fulfillment with our perfectly created emotions and bodies once they are dead.

Let’s open our Bibles to Genesis 2, since not every seminary seems to cover it:

“…If that were true, why did God say in the very beginning that “it is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18)? Why did He create for Adam “a helper comparable to him” (Genesis 2:18)? Why did He bless Adam and Eve with the words, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28)? It’s central to the Lord’s original intentions for the human race.
There’s an important difference between mere “singleness” and a genuine spiritual calling to the celibate life. We must be careful not to confuse the two. Singleness is circumstantial. It “happens” to people for a wide variety of reasons. Inability to find a mate. Death of a spouse. Difficult family situations. Medical or financial difficulties. The list goes on and on. Celibacy, on the other hand, is a vocation. It’s a rare gift that God grants only to a few special individuals (see Matthew 19:10-12; I Corinthians 7:7). In our opinion, the charge of living a completely asexual life – and this, we must remember, is what “singleness” or celibacy implies for a serious Christian – is a difficult standard to achieve. That’s why we consider marriage such an important part of the divine plan for the average believer (I Corinthians 7:2).”

Thank you, Focus on the Family! https://www.focusonthefamily.com/family-qa/the-apostle-paul-on-marriage-and-singleness/

Now the next three quotes are from “Take Two with Jerry and Debbie,” the episode “Holy, Happy, Single.” It aired on 9/18/2019 on EWTN, Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network, with tips for Catholics who are dedicated to leading a chaste life.

25. Quote 1: “Dr. Phil says you have to teach people how you want to be treated. Sit in the front of the church so you don’t have to see all these couples! Go to a pancake breakfast and ask a family if you can join them. You got to tell people how you feel.”
That family in the parish hall can’t find the car keys, the kids are dunking a beanie baby doll in Dad’s coffee, and Mom is ransacking the kitchen for the right adaptor to the waffle maker. Married people don’t have the bandwidth to sit and listen to how single people feel.

26. “Take 2” Quote 2: “I’ve never really thought about [a relationship]; I spent 6 years of formation in seminary [then left], and that was my focus. Now I’m 58, I’m content, don’t feel bad, don’t really think about it, don’t feel left out.”
That sounds nice. You sure don’t need to be reading an essay like this. Single Christians consistently make that point to me: “But I’m fine being single. I don’t need anybody. What’s the problem?”

27. “Take 2” Quote 3: [When your friends are sharing pictures of their grandkids], “Show pictures of [your dog] Duke, and say ‘He’s a good boy.’”
Jerry and Debbie sound like lovely folks. It was nice of them to dedicate a show to suggestions for single people. But… you know those twin happy/sad masks in old Greek drama? Listening to their show created a sad mask out of the muscles of my entire head.

28. “Unless you become okay with being alone, no number of relationships, no kind of relationship will fill that void. You have to become okay with being alone first, before you can really enter into any kind of serious and mature relationship.”
That’s a quote from young Father Mike Schmitz, one of the Catholic Church’s brighter sunbeams in these latter days. In his YouTube talk “Learning to be Alone,” Father Mike teaches that God creates us for relationship, but that in this broken world loneliness is part of all human life. He recommends that we allow loneliness to 1. teach us to sit all alone in a room with ourselves, 2. propel us out into service work, and 3. purify us into becoming saints.
Well Father, we’re on it. We’ve played our assigned church role of serving with a smile, and we’re great at sitting alone in our rooms for decades on end. Maybe we’ll even be saints some day.

But Harry Harlow did that research. He took baby monkeys away from their mothers and put them into empty cages. Somehow, those babies never got the drill of being all alone as a pre-condition for mature relationships. It hurts to watch that old lab footage, and the human anguish on the faces of these lil fellas trying to nurse on a wad of terrycloth.
This is not rocket science here. We too are primates, evolved to grow up surrounded by relatives, to groom each other and bicker and share tasty grubs and huddle on branches in the rain.

Part of our primate nature is that a group will rush to brace up any group member who dares to express a vulnerable emotion. The group message is “Look out! Don’t be the slowest member! You’ll endanger yourself, and all of us!”
I believe that this is why a cohesive group will address a member’s distress by making tactless insensitive comments. It’s a hallowed social ritual to slap that member back into full functioning again.

So churches don’t conspire to undermine or ignore older single people in particular.
It’s that they undermine and ignore everybody, in any state of life, facing long-term weariness and discouragement.
Churches survive by recruiting fresh new subjects who are easily enchanted by the ceremonies and promises of the faith. That is why the Church favors outreach to people living in poverty, especially in what we stupidly deign to call “The Third World,” to those who can be gladdened by food packages and mission visits.
This is why the Church celebrates and favors dating couples excited by the anticipated joys of married life.
It favors married people delighted by their infant, ready for baptism.
It favors seminarians galvanized by the graces of new priesthood.

But where is the Church for those people, decades later?
A wife may end up desperate for a night’s sleep away from her husband’s apnea, or alcohol, or abuse.
An older priest can end up depressed if he’s transferred from parish to parish with no chance to establish stable adult social support.
A sister may struggle to finance her dental care or shoe inserts, because for her lifetime of labor the Church never paid Social Security taxes toward a pension.
And the single woman past peak fertility who is not producing babies for baptism finally learns: after obeying the Church’s teachings on dating, she’s ended up as someone that her Church does not value or even see.
Church leaders have no program or resources ready to help someone worn out by a station in life. That’s why they don’t try. In fact, they don’t seem to notice.

It would help to hear Christians acknowledge (in a sermon, in community prayer, or even over the doughnuts) “We value our single people. We know that being single can be its own kind of lonely. We are sorry for how that must feel. How can we be there for you? How can we welcome your gifts to empower and enrich us?”

It would help if services could ease up on the implicit incessant message that If somebody loves you, then so does God and so do we; if you are mated and breeding, then you have a place in The Kingdom with us.

It would help if churches would not only require their personnel to attend child-safety training (conducted by allegation-prevention legal specialists), but would also say “And let’s reach out to you adults out there who are not in relationships today because of trauma caused by other adults who accessed you in churches. How can we help? How can we get it right in the future?” For that matter, how about preaching this: “Don’t abuse your spouses or children! And if you are doing anything of the kind, come to us for intervention.”

It would be nice to hear this too: “To all you lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the pews who renounced intimate relationships or gender affirmation just so you can remain in this congregation, composing the music and designing the vestments and wedding cakes and bouquets: It all looks terrific. Thanks everybody!”

Churches could start tuning in to single people, listen to them, respect what they feel, introduce them to one another, and build community.

Convents could open their doors to women over 40 who would love to serve as extern members and follow the house rules for one or two or five years or more. Plenty of older women are fit and healthy and financially prosperous enough to rejuvenate women’s communities and help care for older Sisters.

Traditional congregations can look around and ask why we don’t have families of color making themselves at home there. I certainly don’t see them. For that matter, I’ve never seen people from the Deaf community in a church of mine, or people with visual accommodations, or people with extra weight or facial differences or the task of rebuilding their lives after prison. Where are they? How can I as an invisible parishioner use those feelings to become more sensitive and welcoming to other people?

With more oxytocin shared indoors, we might have less oxycodone sold outside.
Everyday home-style closeness in household relationships can foster growth and health and spiritual maturity.
What is wrong with single people wanting that? Why does our culture and our notion of Christianity ignore the longing to feel safe and at rest in home space with people on hand to talk to and touch? Am I speaking Etruscan here?

We could team up on this.

Maybe I can learn by interacting more with the secular single people in my life.
They’re not looking for understanding in churches. Instead they spend Sunday mornings at the yoga studio, mindfulness meditation, dance practice, hiking with their dogs, and out with laptops at the coffee shop. Maybe it’s time to join and talk to them, to take a break from seeking affinity in churches.

Maybe it’s time to find kindred people outside who can start a church of our own; one that values the community and communion that Jesus had in mind.

Just today, a happy gracious grandmother volunteering in the community asked me where I lived, then said “Oh! Do you attend that church? What do you think of it?”
“It’s good,” I told her. “The pastor is excellent. Solid teaching. Fine organist. Active congregation with many worthwhile events. I’ve attended for four years, though I’m on a hiatus at the moment.”
“A hiatus?” she asked. “What’s that about?”
“It’s about being single and looking for my community connection. That is a family church; they socialize as families.”
“Oh, you don’t need all that side socializing part,” she said.
“Actually I need it very much. It’s gotten too hard watching the families together. But YOU would like it there. It’s good for children and teens and couples — and certainly grandmas.”

“Well good.” At that thought, she brightened right up. “It means the church is including just about everybody!”
“Yes they are,” I assured her, and left it at that. “Yes indeed they are.”

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John Kralik and the 365 Thank Yous

Does anybody else out there keep a calendar of favorite books to re-read on the same day year after year?

If so, here’s a perfect choice for Thanksgiving: Judge John Kralik’s book 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life.

This would work as a New Year’s book as well, as the story begins on January 1, when the downcast author took a solitary walk in the mountains over Los Angeles. As night was falling, he lost the trail. His long and winding search for the way back to town was a plaintive symbol of several of his cherished life dreams that seemed gone for good. Then, a sudden spiritual prompting clearly informed him that his life would never square up in the way he hoped, until he began actively demonstrating appreciation for all the good that he had all around him. He resolved on the spot to write one thank-you note each day of this new year. With that, he found the trail again and was soon safe at home.

The rest of this quiet thoughtful memoir tells how a ritual of one thank you note each day began to change a gray existence to a warm and sweet life.
The author writes a good solid simple story. It’s an honest, open-hearted account of where he was, his decision to change, his patience and persistence, and what happened next. The reader can open any page at random, and find some small precious story of a note winging its way into the world, and creating ripples of delight and response in the people who read them. Over time, the notes align like bright tiles in a wonderful mosaic or like strands in a bright web. By the end, we see a man who looks around with fresh eyes, amazed and humbled by the blessings that were always around him, waiting to be found.

Even if you are already the thank-you note type, this endearing little book is an uplift for the spirits. 365 Thank Yous would make a good holiday gift (especially if you include a pack of thank-you stationery). It would make a nice donation to a library or church or school or assisted living center. The lesson is that even when we feel lonely or unhappy or unsuccessful (or all three), we just might be able to pause and look around, and see the plain little ways that Life tries to reach out and touch us with refreshment and comfort.

For Steve Hartman’s charming short news clip of John Kralik, you can search for this link on YouTube:
“CBS Evening News – On the Road: The lost art of thank you notes”

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10/1 Sleepytime Ritual

Bedtime routines are a real help. It’s a pleasure when I manage to tune out non-essential distractions, tick through a list of evening chores, and settle in early.

Recently it occurred to me that my spiritual practice wasn’t as close or comforting any more, and rest was not as restful. Finally it dawned on me: the kitchen stove light, a small incandescent bulb, burned out several weeks ago. It was the perfect illumination: soft enough for transition to sleep, and a reverent sidelight for the icons and flowers on the fridge. It made the kitchen a nice place to stand and pray in front of the icons and study the Bible as an end to the day.

Well, the overhead fluorescent kitchen lights were much too bright for bedtime or prayer, so I’d taken to lying on the floor outside the bathroom. But that’s not nearly as comfortable for reading, and no way to contemplate icons, so that bedtime devotional time was just not taking place.

Finally while chatting with a group of neighbors I told them my brilliant insight that the difference in devotional zeal was really just an ergonomic lighting issue. Arriving home, I put down the groceries and heard someone knock on the door. It was one of the neighbors. He held out a stove-sized light bulb.

As he and I agreed, Don’t wonder why God doesn’t feel as close any more; just change the darn bulb!

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The untraveled back alleys in our older residential neighborhoods have tiny tool sheds and tree houses and dog huts, woodpiles and heaps of tomato stakes, trumpet and wisteria and sweetpea and morning glory and honeysuckle vines softening the picket fences. Back alleys are where the fruit trees are. In August and early September, in some alleys the ground is littered with apples and plums and tiny pears. About half of it is moldy or buzzing with yellow jacket wasps, but some is sound fruit. If the stuff is lying around and getting spoiled, then it is likely the homeowner isn’t going back there to fuss with it, and it is a sure bet that the bugs and crows and raccoons and coyotes and whatnot will step up to the plate. Often the owners put up a little FREE sign; in fact I’m going out today to leave a thank you note in one owner’s mailbox, and to offer them some apple sauce.

With a couple of produce bags in the knapsack at all times, you’re ready to pick through the windfall and bring it home. But that fruit shouldn’t just sit out on the counter in a bowl. It’s wise to dip and rinse it all and process it right away, because any insect or worm spots will only get spottier. (If that isn’t possible, I set it in a pot on the balcony to give the bugs a chance to escape somewhere that isn’t my kitchen wall.)

In windfall apples, even a tiny surface bite hole can be the start and sign of a rotted core. That is why shaving off just top layer of a bite hole is not enough. This serves as a reminder that my everyday moments of impatience or judgment, which I flatter myself are relatively minor, indicate deep-seated attitudes which really need to change. For a soul, a sacramental confession with a good priest is just the thing, something like a gum pocket cleaning with my periodontist. For an apple, it takes a cut right through to the center; cutting the fruit in half will make the inner state easy to see and judge.

Sound apple cores can boil with the vegetables in the soup stock pot. Decayed parts go in the compost, and straight outside to the bin. But imperfect peels and flesh can be cooked for apple sauce. (With organic apples from the store, I make apple sauce raw in the Vitamix. For fruit from the sidewalk, cooking seems like a safer method.)

Three quarts of trimmings for a pot of sound fruit.

Sure, it means extra work. But there is nothing like windfall for taste. Simmered in a bit of water with cinnamon and cloves, then blended in the Vitamix, this goes in batches in the freezer. It makes a good salad dressing base for raw salads and slaws. A dash in a cast-iron skillet makes a nice accent to sauteed mustard greens. And of course it’s good with almond meal or sunflower butter or yogurt for a dessert.


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The Eep in the Uproar

At midnight a police car shot down our main road at breakneck speed. The officer switched on alarms which (according to the teacher at our precinct’s Citizen Academy) indicated a highest-priority distress call; perhaps another police officer in mortal danger. I listened intently, lying on the floor in my blankie roll, voicing prayers for everybody’s safe return.

A few minutes later there was another sound close by, a highly magnified male voice shouting out one word: “FIREARM!”

It is astonishing how much adrenalin and cortisol are ready and available in unlimited quantities, catapulting one from half-sleep to roll halfway across the room and away from the windows. My immediate fear was that this was a police car megaphone, telling the neighbors that we had an active shooter prowling around. (There’s no indication of that, though; today’s precinct feed and city news outlets and 911 incident maps don’t show anything unusual.) Still, while bolting those six steps I grabbed the cell phone, checked the security peephole to scan the hallway, then went diving into the windowless bathroom to get dressed and shod and to wait in the dark for further signals.

After tuning in for a good while to the vibes of our apartment building and the streets outside, I finally shut the bathroom door and turned on the light to calm down with an inspiring book on education (The End of Molasses Classes) by Atlanta school teacher Ron Clark. Having seen videos of Mr. Clark’s teaching style (bursting on to stages, dancing on desks, bungee jumping in the school library) I had to smile at the realization that for one golden midnight moment, I’d been moving just as fast as he does all day.

Back on the floor and blankie-enrolled, attending to the darkness outside, I heard another sound: “Eep!” That’s a favorite familiar night noise, some little spring peeper or bug or whatnot. It’s a tiny pure hopeful cheep, like the triangle at the very back of the symphony orchestra. Night after night our Eeplet is a sweet sound in the city, something tender and true to make silence even more golden. Like the plaintive hesitation notes of killdeer winging through the dark, or the barred owl in the Douglas firs asking “Who cooks for you-all?” it’s a nice sound for falling asleep in our neighborhood.

The Eep-in-the-siren-aftermath calls to mind the day I quit the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. My participation days were numbered anyway, because year after year to my bewilderment the Audubonnaires were really only there to count birds, not to be friendly to other bird watchers. (To me, sloshing through mud on a pre-dawn winter day tallying sparrows is really just a prelude to friendship with kindred souls. I guess this backwards thinking just puts the “rank” in Amateur.)

Anyway. On that fateful New Year’s Day several years ago I was duly up and out the door at 5:50, running through main roads to the residential street entrance of an urban forest trail. The intrepid leader of our large party named our group reunion point up ahead, and assigned me to join three fit yoga-trim senior women in sensible shoes. Off we went.

The women flowed right along over fallen logs and boulders through moss and mud, discussing search strategies among themselves. Clambering and thrashing along with them, I suddenly caught sound of a very distant thread of voice. Deep in the woods, down gulleys and gulches by a running stream, there was a man shrieking at the absolute top of his lungs. He was venting his displeasure with life and the human race. Clearly his New Year’s Eve had done him no good; the same adrenalin and cortisol that catapults sleepy people right across a dark room were impelling him to rave the most explicit profanity at an impossibly rapid rate. For the next ninety minutes, while we steered almost a mile all around him, he did not skip a beat in this tirade of graphic invective. And then, with their comfy homespun little noises the birds themselves, little troupers all, began to stir: nuthatches, flickers, robins, starlings, crowned kinglets Ruby & Golden, Steller’s Jays, on and on. The contrast made a surrealistic acoustic layer cake:

Birds: Rrrrrrrr. Oop oop. Weech! Bah walla. Tick tock.
Man: !@#$%^&*()+! [Sending Colonel Mustard, with the candlestick, to the Conservatory.]
Ladies: “Yes, jot that down: Three more Haberdashered Wooty-Woots.”

That’s when I stepped outside the park and walked home thinking about our culture, where at Christmas every sparrow is counted by civic-minded people, where even its discarded feathers and nests are protected by law. But a human being in obvious need of intervention can slip through the cracks and sit screaming in a public park all night.

And yes, nature is no pre-fall Eden either; there is plenty of danger going on there right under our awareness. But what’s amazing is that the birds and frogs can share space with us, and still have the heart to go right on chirping and beeping. One sunset on the Olmsted Emerald Necklace, distorted decibels boomed across the water and phragmite reeds, from an overly magnified “We Will Rock You” at Fenway Stadium; but somehow, one Goldfinch kept right on trilling from his seat atop a flowering thistle. One rainbowed evening at the Granary Burial Ground (founded in 1660), two boys tuned their boom box to “Let’s Go All the Way” and started a fist fight among fragile historic headstones while a robin unveiled a first spring song right overhead.

In sounds of everyday ruckus and mayhem, it’s a great comfort and uplift to stop and notice and breathe thanks for all the small things that keep on singing.

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Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn

You can learn things just by taking the garbage out to the garbage cage and saying hello to people that you see walking down the street. Last Sunday some folks passing by said a hearty hello back, speaking in a faint but very pretty accent. It turned out that they speak Polish. Well, so did I, back in college days, so we had a nice chat. “Wait right here,” I asked them. “There’s something for you upstairs.”

Running up to the kitchen, from its place of honor on the fridge I took down an icon of Our Lady.

That icon came from the thrift shop, where it sat on the bargain shelf because someone had defaced the bottom of it with a magic marker. At the time, wondering who would do an irreverent thing like that, I picked up the icon for a closer look. And glory be — the inscription was in Polish: “With Blessings — John Paul II.” Well. If anybody gets to write on an icon, it’s probably the Pope. So for 99 cents I brought the icon home. It’s lived on the fridge for 12 years, while I took it on faith that some day a nice Polish family would appear as the true and rightful owners. And now here they were! So I ran outside and handed the icon over to the family.

What I didn’t know, though the Pope probably did, was that this portrait is the beloved Mother of Mercy “Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn” (Polish, Matka Boża Ostrobramska). The original (see above) hangs at the gate of the city wall of Vilnius, Lithuania — which used to be part of Poland, as my Polish neighbors emphasized to me. Then when the Russians took over Lithuania, the family’s ancestors got away to safer ground in Poland, carrying a replica of the icon with them. That icon brightened and warmed the little room where the family all lived together.

Now the next generation has moved here to town, where some total stranger burst out of the garbage cage and presented them with yet another replica of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, with a handwritten blessing from their own newly canonized Polish Pope.

They, being Polish, insisted that the total stranger come inside and join them as their guest for a full course Sunday dinner. Then we all discovered that we attend the same large Catholic church, they in their favorite corner on the far right back, I in my favorite corner on the far left front. Next Sunday we’ll try swapping sides and meeting in the middle.

A humble house chore errand, but a pretty good adventure in the end.

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Gene Stratton-Porter, An Indiana Author

Mrs. Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924) was a favorite childhood author who I still re-read today. Nowadays we can take with gentle grains of salt her occasional sallies into soapbox crusading (an anti-immigration phase, lamentation about high heels and jazz dancing, warnings about “the scarlet woman” and the “dress of unearned cloth”). Most of all, she deserves credit as an enterprising woman who hiked considerable distances with camera and notebooks. Her novels are a vehicle for her considerable knowledge of nature photography and nature study passages, and glimpses of everyday housekeeping, natural health advice, traditional holidays, family bonds, and aesthetic tastes; these passages are still brimming with charm.

Over the years, browsing dollar-clearance book carts and garage sales, I’ve pounced on any available copies of her novels. Each lucky find was a scuffed worn fragile little treasure, with intricate woodblock or engraved illustrations and ornate covers. Just seeing them in their place of honor on the bookshelf felt like a moment’s interlude to beautiful settings described a century and more ago.

This week it was time to pack up these old friends and donate them to the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site and house museum in Indiana. After all, I can read them at the library, and even on line. But it felt as though those original editions really belonged at the author’s cabin house, back home in Indiana.

I emailed the Museum to inquire. They emailed back right away. And sure enough — the Museum welcomes donations to sell in their bookstore. Visitors enjoy buying vintage copies, and the proceeds go to maintain the house and wildflower grounds. The books were due for delivery there today. Maybe they’re on display now, in this appealing shop:


Here below is my favorite passage from The Harvester, my favorite Stratton-Porter book. It impresses me to think that the author took it on faith that the Youth of Today would recognize all of these wildflowers; maybe in 1911 they really did. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone painted them all in a landscape? Copies of The Harvester traveled with soldiers going to Europe for The Great War; apparently the men even read it aloud to one another in the trenches and field hospitals to keep up their spirits! It has certainly done my spirits good over the years.

The Harvester, Chapter 13, “When the Dream Came True”

…Everywhere flamed foxfire and cardinal flower, thousands of wild tiger lilies lifted gorgeous orange-red trumpets, beside pearl-white turtle head and moon daisies, while all the creek bank was a coral line with the first opening bloom of big pink mallows. Rank jewel flower poured gold from dainty cornucopias and lavender beard-tongue offered honey to a million bumbling bees; water smart- weed spread a glowing pink background, and twining amber dodder topped the marsh in lacy mist with its delicate white bloom. Straight before them a white- sanded road climbed to the bridge and up a gentle hill between the young hedge of small trees and bushes, where again flowers and bright colours rioted and led to the cabin yet invisible. On the right, the hill, crowned with gigantic forest trees, sloped to the lake; midway the building stood, and from it, among scattering trees all the way to the water’s edge, were immense beds of vivid colour. Like a scarf of gold flung across the face of earth waved the misty saffron, and beside the road running down the hill, in a sunny, open space arose tree-like specimens of thrifty magenta pokeberry. 

High around the blue-green surface of the lake waved lacy heads of wild rice, lower cat-tails, bulrushes, and marsh grasses; arrowhead lilies lifted spines of pearly bloom, while yellow water lilies and blue water hyacinths intermingled; here and there grew a pink stretch of water smartweed and the dangling gold of jewel flower. Over the water, bordering the edge, starry faces of white pond lilies floated. Blue flags waved graceful leaves, willows grew in clumps, and vines clambered everywhere….

With wide eyes she stared around her. “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME IT WOULD BE LIKE THIS?” she demanded in awed tones.

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