We traditional Christian types believe that in marriage, God draws two people together to be closer to Him. We are taught to find joy with our spouse, but that the point of relationships is not to make us happy, but to make us more like His Son.
That said, on to our three points.
1: There are Christians who hoped to find a spouse, but haven’t. In fact, some of them have no close relationships at all. A few of them are sad about this.
2: Christian congregations could acknowledge and support these people.
3: Single Christians could team up and support each other.
Any Sunday, in any parish hall, in any denomination, after the weekly service and over the coffee and doughnuts, people like to ask in friendly fashion “How are you? How’s your morning/weekend/holiday going?”
The correct answer is “Great! Yours?” If you say that, people can smile and move on.
Yet, every so often, after I earn a baseline of regular attendance and appropriate conformity and volunteerism, I try some emotional honesty. “Pretty lonely. Being single can be hard.”
The church member will walk away pretty quickly, after a kind laugh and the first cheerful comment that comes to mind.
“Well Jesus loves you!”
“A Christian can’t be lonely if she has faith.”
“Ha! Take my husband and kids. Please!”
“I’ll pray for you.” (Since clearly your prayers are not working.)
“Yeah wait until you hear what happened to my car fender.”
Granted, people at the office water cooler or grocery checkout line will scatter just as fast.
But at church, can we aim for more attunement and empathy?
Christians excel at sending help to strangers on the other side of the planet; maybe they could try listening to one of their own members standing right next to them?
That’s why it is still a warm memory, to recall one church that tried something different and good.
Back in 2000, in Boston, on a freezing night before Christmas, outside the Prudential Center shopping mall there was a flock of Salvation Army bell ringers. They were a dozen grownups, all ages, caroling their hearts out with laughter and jokes.
“Say, what’s the big idea?” I asked them. “You lot are not New Englanders; you are having way too much fun.”
“WE are from TEXAS!” they hollered, hopping about to show gladness and stay warm.
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 true loves to cancer, car crashes, combat in Iraq, Alzheimer’s. Now they all faced their first Christmas alone. So at church they teamed up and set out together to go find people in misfortune to care for, in a total change of scene. They picked Boston, and came to the Salvation Army Jubilee House in Dorchester to help with the mission there. We had such a delightful visit that I went to Jubilee House myself and spent a week observing their community work.
Now that is a singles ministry!
“But Mary. There are singles ministries at lots of churches.”
That’s right. And who is invited? The flyers will tactfully specify college students, or youth, or people up to 35 years of age. Even Catholic discernment events about becoming a sister or priest state that only people in their twenties and thirties need apply.
Our Catholic church hired a coordinator to promote social events for young single folks.
I asked her, “What if we start some activities for single people over 50?”
“Parishioners over 50 are not spiritually searching,” she assured me. “Not the way young people are.”
I thanked her and came away thinking that her answer was sweet, sincere, and unclear on the concept of suicide stats among people over 50.
(To be fair, one time the church did announce an opportunity for older single women, though somehow it didn’t catch on. They invited us to clean and cook at wedding receptions for young women getting married.)
I go to Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran services, and visit many more. I study websites of churches in different denominations all over the country. Their words of welcome reach out to and encourage families. The social events, announcements, celebrations, building spaces and amenities are built or dedicated to parents, or newlyweds, or engaged couples, or college students, or children. Is there a church with a special welcome for mature single people too somewhere?
At Sunday services, ministers and clergy are pleased to offer up thanks to God for the presence of children and young couples. What a pleasant surprise it would be to hear one say, “And how wonderful that we have single people too, with their maturity and wisdom.” Perhaps church leadership simply assumes that the older people have no place else to go, and so don’t need much of a welcome?
One sweet young Catholic priest leads the congregation in a prayer every week, asking God to grant more vocations to marriage and family life.
Finally I told him “Father, I’m right out there listening to your prayer. I’ve got that vocation. But mine doesn’t seem to be good enough for God or anybody else.” The dear man gave me a stricken look and said “It never dawned on me that anyone out there might feel that way.”
Doesn’t dawn on much of anybody.
One happy gracious grandmother asked, “You live right by Church X. Do you attend? What’s it like?”
“It’s good,” I told her. “You should go. The pastor is excellent. The teaching is solid. Fine organist. Active congregation with many worthwhile events. I’ve attended for four years, though I’m taking a break at the moment.”
“A break?” she asked. “What’s that?”
“It’s about being single. That is a family church; they socialize as families.”
She burst out laughing. “Socializing! Nobody needs all that.”
“I do,” I confided. “I need Christian community very deeply. It gets sad, watching the families together. But YOU would like it. The church is perfect for children and teens and married couples — and certainly grandmas like you.”
“Children and teens and married couples and grandmas!” She was delighted. “That’s wonderful. Why — then the church includes JUST ABOUT EVERYBODY!”
“Right you are,” I reassured her. “They sure do.”
Meanwhile, out in the pews, the couples and families stay pretty much with their own date or spouse and kids. When a family member does reach out in friendship, it’s probably going to be with his or her counterpart of the same age and gender in another family. The custom of Passing the Peace should be a perfect opportunity to reach out to new people in the congregation. But it generally leaves me standing there with a smile and hand floating at the ready while family members leap into each other’s arms and children give me troubled glances (Who is this stranger? Why is she smiling at me?).
One church member listened with interest when I finally confided what it was like to be single at a family church. He said “Well, keep coming back; you’ll find out your kids are the same age as someone else’s kids. That is how you make friends here.”
A visitor from another planet might think that The Good News of the Gospel is “Look! We are mated and breeding regularly! And if someone loves you, it means God loves you too — and so will we.”
It makes a nice break to visit our Chabad-Lubavitch shul or Islamic Center masjid. In both, the men are off in the main hall, children frolic in happy packs, and we women are left to pray on our balcony or behind our curtain, shoulder to shoulder in companionable contemplation. Russian Orthodox churches with their serious sober contemplative atmosphere can be a nice change too, with plenty of mature people and a profound respect for elders as pillars of the church. That doesn’t mean that Orthodoxy is all smooth sailing. The year that I turned 40, I stayed in our Orthodox church night after night, praying desperately that God would fix whatever was wrong with me so I could start a family before it was too late. The older Russian women took notice. They were war widows who’d raised their children alone under terrible adversity, and they rebuked me for the delusion that I’d find anyone at my advanced age. “Despondency is the sin of pride, brought on by your selfish selfish single life,” they scolded. “Either adopt a baby now, or enter a convent. Make up your mind right now!” That fit right in with the church’s copy of Diary of a Russian Priest by Father Alexander Elchaninov. I still remember how it hurt to open that book to these words:
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.”
But in many congregations, once coffee hour is over, couples and families flock to their cars and home to their real everyday relationships with one another. Me, I walk back 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 would be good to find Christian companions for warmth and mutual support, prayers and a walk and a bowl of soup and deep conversations about our spiritual paths. Instead, what Christians offer me is pat advice. Here are some favorite catch phrases tossed at me over the years:
1. Have you prayed about this?
Whoa. Didn’t think of that.
2. We Orthodox Christians are here purely to manifest the Holy Spirit. We have priests administering sacraments, not personal rescue. If you are unhappy and in need of human service counseling, then go to the Protestants instead. They are good at that sort of thing.
Protestants have a cure for wanting to get married?
3. Single life is your calling, your vocation from God. Why aren’t you listening to His voice?
Actually, God called me to marriage. Clearly, too.
By age 14 I set out to learn relationship and domestic skills to marry and settle with my husband on a farm and have six kids of our own and adopt six more. All along, I’ve offered up every life experience and setback as a lesson to become the very best wife for the husband God sends me.
A vocation is a call and voluntary free response.
In fact, Americans tend to frown nowadays upon locking people into monasteries, or forcing them into marriage; we don’t call coercion a calling. But Christians are still happy to inform single people that we made some cosmic agreement to end up here.
Of course, people in any state of life experience sufferings and difficulties intrinsic to that state of life.
But if an engaged fiancée in pre-Cana counseling is sobbing at the prospect of having to make love with her future husband, 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 competent spiritual director ought to say “Huh. Matrimony (or Holy Orders) may not be the right state of life for you.”
4. But other women at our church are fine without a man. Unlike you, they never complain.
Did anybody ask them? Does anyone listen to how they might feel?
Maybe those women have learned the hard way to keep their feelings to themselves.
One Christian woman used to berate me on and on: “Church members A and B and C and D and E are all single and they deal with it. Why can’t you be like them? What makes YOU so special?” Finally I said “America is full of people with back pain, and they just live with it. Why do YOU go to great lengths to get yourself treatment and medications and massage and heat lamps and special care?” Luckily she found that pretty funny.
At a Bible class, our very good devoted pastor marveled that when men lose their wives they can fall into depression, while women on their own are content and flourishing.
I tried chiming in. “If a woman admits that she is lonely, she’ll be interrupted and contradicted by the other church members — especially the other women!”
Instantly, two older single women in the class interrupted and contradicted me.
“THAT is not true!” said one.
“You can’t just assume that single women are lonely!” said the other.
“Okay,” I said, and passed the sugar cookies.
5. Other single women reach the stage of peace with their aloneness in their thirties, and move on. It’s a stage of growth in adult life. How can you still be having these notions at your age? That is self-centered and immature.
Right. It does feel immature, to miss out on the steel-tempering tasks and ordeals faced by married people raising a family. It feels immature and ungrateful to God, to keep soldiering along but secretly just waiting for life to start.
There are plenty of admirable single people in churches who transcend and renounce that whole drive to be personally known or loved or cared for. They devote themselves to selflessly serving the happiness of everybody else. Watching them is impressive. They get a lot done in a day.
But this is not about gift-wrapped chocolate boxes or corsages or champagne or diamonds or that dreamy vampire with the great head of hair in the high school cafeteria.
It’s the everyday things; it’s being at home with somebody else.
For instance, there’s a ritual that close couples share, when they’ve been out with other people. They take time to process the evening together. “Do you think everybody had a good time? Do you think my boss was upset with me? How can we support Gina with her health diagnosis?” They exchange impressions, offer a reality check, hold each other accountable, provide support, add this event to their shared history as a story or in-joke, and balance their energies to navigate future interactions together as a team. (As the single guest at parties, offered a ride home by married couples, I’ve had many chances to sit in back seats and watch them bond. It’s a beautiful thing.)
I come home from social events still buzzing with the static of spoken and implicit conversations and cues, longing for a chance to share, learn about, heal from, validate, and enjoy everyday impressions with a supportive someone.
People tell me “If you are overwhelmed in group settings, it means you are not an extrovert. It means you are an isolate — an introvert who wants to be all alone.” No, it means that I want to come home to one person. But Americans don’t understand that when I tell them. Our language doesn’t have a word for that. A monovert?
A strong marriage offers a forged tempered communion in adversity.
That’s the theme of the memoir Joni and Ken: A Love Story, by and about Ken Tada and Joni Eareckson Tada. Since 1967 Joni’s lived with quadriplegia — and with searing pain, broken bones, bed sores, and now two rounds of cancer. With meticulous candor they describe the medical issues that they deal with day and night. At one point the pressures and exhaustion caused them to withdraw in pain from their own feelings and from one another. But with uncompromising courage they drew on their faith in Christ to keep working on their marriage. During one account of life-threatening pneumonia (Joni doesn’t have muscles to cough or clear her throat), Joni had a near-death vision where Ken’s hands holding her up and Ken’s voice coaching her to breathe merged with a vision of Christ pulling her back to life through the touch of her husband. Since then their marriage is stronger every day. What in this world is more profound than experiencing the love of God through the love of a spouse?
6. The church grants you all the same rights as married people: Confession, Communion, and opportunities to serve.
Yes, but there is no community milestone to prepare us for facing a lifetime of solitude. We aren’t offered a year of counseling, a community celebration, or any ongoing support or support whatsoever. The church has only one ritual to mark our lives. When that happens, we’ll be in no shape to know about it.
That calls to mind “Who Will Call Me Beloved?” the November 11, 2019 installment of the BBC series “Sounds.” Poet Tania Hershman walks through a cemetery, reading gravestones out loud, noting that no one carves “Beloved” on the headstone of a single person.
She notes a few of the alternative epitaphs:
“She had fun.”
“Still not a morning person.”
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 takes vows as a Perpetual Virgin, the website consecratedvirgins.org promises two special privileges:
1. A chance to personally meet with her Bishop once a year, and
2. With diocesan permission, the right to keep in her home a consecrated Communion Host of Christ, her Bridegroom.
But the Church specifies that because she is pledged not to the Church but to Christ Himself, she can never ever be released from her vow. Hence the prerequisite of “a number of years” of “tranquil celibacy.”
I witnessed a stately and heartful Dedicated Virgin ceremony once, for a woman who for years longed for marriage. The hope of finding a husband caused her such sadness that finally she resolved: If she was still single at 50, she would stop the search and become a perpetual virgin. After her ceremony she smiled “At least the suspense is over! My cat and I will have the bed to ourselves for good.”
8. But if no man married you, it means that Jesus loved you so much that He set you apart to be his very own lover.
Jesus can’t figure out how to be close to married people??
I thought He operated through free will, not sabotage.
Early in 2007, one very caring confessor urged me to sit before the consecrated Host of the Blessed Sacrament on the altar during Friday night Eucharistic Adoration. He insisted that by communing with the Real Presence of Christ, I would find myself amazed and consoled by the personal revelation of Jesus’s love for me: “Our Lord is longing to be your most intimate companion and true love in life.”
That was in my first year in a new city. My job was silent nights in the ER with sleeping patients in pain, then going home to dormitory neighbors who were so intoxicated that I was scared to turn on the lights, and slept in a locked bathroom with furniture barricading the studio door. If Father had known that, he might have told me to join the church garden club or the choir.
But I was desperate enough to give it my best try for the next six Friday nights.
Eucharistic Adoration is a much-loved custom for Catholics, as expressed in this quote by Pope Paul VI:
Anyone who has a special devotion to the sacred Eucharist and who tries to repay Christ’s infinite love for us with an eager and unselfish love of his own, will experience and fully understand — and this will bring great delight and benefit to his soul — just how precious is a life hidden with Christ in God and just how worthwhile it is to carry on a conversation with Christ, for there is nothing more consoling here on earth, nothing more efficacious for progress along the paths of holiness.
For six weeks I spent hours every Friday evening kneeling in a dark empty church, gazing at that consecrated Host in its cross-shaped monstrance on the altar, and utterly imploring God to teach me the deep profound meaning and value of single life.
Nothing ever happened. It was like sitting in a soundproof chamber, trying to hear the ocean in a seashell.
Those evenings in the dark always left me so desolate and empty that it scared me. After church I’d beeline to Trader Joe’s to buy ice cream and chocolate, wolfing them down behind the furniture barricade in my studio bathroom. Finally one night in the pew I thought “I guess I have to sit here until that piece of bread up there is all the husband I need.”
Suddenly, my imagination offered what that Host on the altar was trying to tell me. “Of course nobody wants you. That’s because I don’t want you either.”
This didn’t sound like a message from God, but it still sent me bolting out of there and away to the ice cream aisle.
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 going out to get the video. Then I’d make the popcorn and we’d watch it cuddled on the couch 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 daughter found our Catholic church to be very accepting when she was single and came out to them as a lesbian. Then when she married and introduced her new wife, the congregation gave them a warm welcome.
So if I married a woman, the Catholic Church would give me a warm welcome too?
11. You’re called to be a “eunuch for the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12), receiving a name that is better than sons and daughters (Isaiah 56).
The married folks think this one will cheer us right up.
It shows up 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’).”
Hello. Jesus didn’t say that. Jesus said that some people make themselves eunuchs. Voluntary. Free will again.
Here are more thumpable Bible tidbits that people enjoy tossing me, like peanuts to an elephant.
– In Christ there is no male or female, so you’re not missing out on anything. 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. Or,
– Isaiah 54, the barren woman can sing for joy and widen her tent, because her Maker is her husband, and he will build her up with turquoise and sapphires. Or,
– Hebrews 13:5, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” John A. MacArthur, Jr., in his solid book on prayer Alone With God, states that this verse “Removes loneliness…. To drive away loneliness, God’s presence is all a believer ever needs.” (The author is happily married.)
If people want to quote the Bible at me, could they select something more constructive? In fact, I look for constructive verses myself. Searching for and writing them down is a good bedtime ritual for solitary evenings.
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 of God’s plans:
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.
The Psalms with their whole spectrum of emotions lend a bright spark of perspective. You can read five psalms a day and work through the whole book every month. There is always some line in a day’s portion that comes alive in a fresh new way.
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. He chose to be a celibate single person as a model for us. He experienced as much loneliness as you do.
In my Bible, the loneliness of Jesus is specific to times when his disciples fail to grasp His message.
Otherwise, He freely foresaw and consented to every event of his life and death on earth. He was a highly marriageable able-bodied young learned charismatic man with a good trade, with a respectable family who cared about Him, with immense social capital and a flock of women disciples who were available to love, follow, minister to Him, and pay his expenses.
He had plenty of prospects and choices. But as we Catholics are taught, Jesus had no interest in marrying anyone because Jesus was not single;He was betrothed to and in love with His Bride the Church.
13. Many of us spouses do not have caring or affection either.
We single people know that. I am very very sorry if that is the case for you. If you don’t have caring and affection in your marriage, then you deserve all the support and help that there is.
But you probably have gotten some caring and affection at some point. And for most couples, the chances of having some tonight are still higher than permanent zero.
14. It really hurts that you single people just assume that married life is perfect!
Is anyone anywhere oblivious enough to think that? Even single people were usually raised by couples; we got to be inside observers on just how hard a relationship can be.
Meanwhile, maybe you married folks can give yourselves a break from the exhausting work of keeping up appearances?
When you send me Christmas photo cards of both of you at Disney World, or tell me all about your vacation at that ski chalet, or show me pictures of the latest grandbaby, or plan that early retirement to sail around to Florida — I don’t know how to crack the code that his drinking and temper are off the rails, or that she is losing her memory. Sometimes you-all put on the best floor show right when that floor is falling out from under you. How are we single friends ever gonna figure that out and be there for you?
Or then again, sometimes I never hear from you at all for years on end except when you’d like to vent a bit; once you do, you’ll both be back in love again and gone from sight. Therapist Lori Gottlieb expressed this beautifully in the 6/3/2019 issue of The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/06/how-be-okay-being-single/590854/
Besides, married people are clueless about the wealth of social, legal, and ordinary homespun privileges that they take for granted every day. It’s very moving for me to hear any woman at the office toss off the casual remark that her husband is coming to pick her up in the car because it’s raining, or that he made dinner, or that he’s going to sit and wait through her surgery. Of course not every spouse is safe, reliable, or kind. But many can take it on faith that at least one partner will be there for the other. In the past few weeks I’ve seen three dramatic examples of three husbands charging fiercely to the defense of their wives, instantly securing better police safety and better medical care and even better consideration from a graduate school admissions program. I watched with awe, thinking “The life of a married woman is worth so much more than the life of a single one.”
For ten years I’ve shopped at the local grocery every Saturday, interacting with truckers, grocers, bakers, and cashiers. These guys are my peeps by now; we have a rich store of happy banter and in-jokes, and their joshing is a highlight of my week. The other day a married friend of mine was shopping, and courteously held my basket while I made the rounds. The men on the staff snapped to attention. They greeted me with quiet formal deference, stepping aside for my handsome companion and then eyeing me with a wondering look of “Hey now. Has she been a female all this time? Was there something special about her that I’ve been missing?” It was many years since I’d experienced the automatic respect a woman is granted, just for having a man at her side.
This is not in any way to minimize or deny the sorrows and difficulties that spouses go through. Right on my street there are couples devoting their lives to children with special needs, or coping with military separations, or caring for parents with dementia. The children’s hospital right up the street holds a river of tears; the helicopters and sirens run at all hours.
Of course being single is convenient — at least when we are healthy and independent and have a paycheck coming in. It’s like being confined to a padded la-z-boy recliner for the heart while the rest of you are out there free-soloing together up El Capitan. It is also true that no matter what happens to us in life, society counts family problems as more important. In any conversation, your shared sorrows will always take precedence over ours. So will your shared joys. And your shared money and shared resources will get you a lot farther in life too.
15. At least you’re not in an abusive relationship. You should feel grateful.
I should and do. At that local grocery recently I stopped in the produce aisle, struck by the realization that today there is no one around to feel jealous and affronted if I stop to chat with the grocer about the organic leafy greens. It has been many years since anyone slapped my face or shoved me up against a wall to scream about the way I wash my socks. And I offer up loneliness as a nightly prayer for the millions of abused women and children and men on this planet who would give anything to have a bed to themselves tonight in safety and peace.
Faith tells me that Jesus always knew best, when He took away the dating prospects over the years. God shielded me from dangerous outcomes, and allowed me at least a glimpse of wonderful men, with several good decent ones who were interested in me but died young.
Tante Corrie ten Boom mentions God’s protection in Tramp for the Lord, Chapter 27, “Secure in Jesus”:
I did have Jesus, and eventually I went to Him and prayed ‘Lord Jesus, You know that I belong to You 100 percent. My sex life is yours also. I don’t know what plans You have for my life, but Lord, whatever it may be, use me to realize Your victory in every detail. I believe You can take away all my frustrations and feelings of unhappiness. I surrender anew my whole life to You.’…
Those called by God to live single lives are always happy in that state. This happiness, this contentment, is the evidence of God’s plan….
God does not take away from us. He might ask us to turn our backs on something, or someone, we should not have. God never takes away, however; God gives. If I reach out and take someone for myself and the Lord steps in between, that does not mean that God takes. Rather, it means that He is protecting us from someone we should not have because He has a far greater purpose for our lives….
There are some, like me, who are called to live a single life. For them it is always easy for they are, by their nature, content.
Marriage is not the answer to unhappiness. Happiness is found only in a balanced relationship with the Lord Jesus….
The cross is always difficult. ‘But you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3:3). Dear girl, it cannot be safer. That part of you which would cling to a husband is dead. Now you can move into a life where you can be happy with or without a husband — secure in Jesus alone.”
It’s a nice passage, though Tante Corrie specifies that this contentment is reserved for those who are actually called to be single.
16. We know how you feel. We went through it too. We were all single too at one time.
Yes, we are born that way. For women, being single is a huge asset in our teens. It can be an exhilarating time of anticipation in our twenties. It’s character-building in our thirties, if we believe the Church’s promise that chastity and patience will attract an especially moral decent man. But if you were single until your thirties and then got married and had kids, please stop telling me that you know how it feels to still be here at 60+. And do not assume that being single gets easier as we get older; it does not.
In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher assures the reader that he understands the asceticism of single life, having renounced free active dating 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….”
‘Scuse us? Five years between one fertile sexual oasis and a marriage? That’s not a Via Dolorosa; that’s a cakewalk.
17. But at church we serve plenty of [community of people with urgent drastic special needs]. Volunteer with them! They’ll be your new friends!
One church elder insisted to me, “The cure for your loneliness is working in our shelter. Homeless men are very affectionate. They’ll give you plenty of hugs.”
I do volunteer; always have. And a balanced mature ethical volunteer doesn’t expect the clients to fix her life, to come home with her, or to be her date.
18. But if you volunteer in all of our church ministries, you’ll be too busy to be lonely.
Plenty of parishioners do use up all their time and energy that way. I used to be one of them. Keeping busy and distracted is like eating empty calories: we can end up overfed and undernourished and out of touch with ourselves.
Just this week I told a co-worker, “Once we’re past breeding age, Church expects us women to serve and serve and serve and keep smiling, to turn us into saints.”
She said “Oh no. Oh honey! That’s how you turn into The Joker.”
19. But OUR church has widows. They are good company for you, because they know how you feel.
You’re in luck; widows keep the churches running.
But the widowed women in my life either 1. are utterly exhausted by the thought of ever being truly close to anyone again, even in friendship, or 2. give top priority to conversation and thought about their spouses. The widows I know are discovering the wonder of having their own living space, many for the first time in their lives; or sleeping through the night without being a medical caregiver; or deciding what they actually enjoy eating for dinner; or taking their very first watercolor art class; or having a kitchen and bathroom that stays neat and tidy, the way that they left it. What delights them is not solid close female companionship, but 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 and get the whole newspaper to themselves. It’s a very different phase of a different journey.
After attending one church for years, I was volunteering at a quilting group for women who found themselves single after retirement. They confided their sense of isolation, living alone in large four-bedroom two-bath houses now that their husbands were gone and the kids and grandkids far away. Every woman shared the same heartfelt fears: “What if I fall and can’t get up? What if an intruder breaks in? How will I ever pay the property taxes? My neighbors and their houses are gone; it’s just new high-rises all around me.”
Eagerly I shared with them my dream of single women forming Beguine communities — Christian fellowships where we all care for one another. “The mature single women in my life are all frightened of being priced out of our apartments,” I told them. “What if we each rented a basement room from each of you? We could share shopping and chores, invest our rent money in your houses, and form our own virtual neighborhood centered on this church, with women visiting to help each other.”
The ladies gave me a blank stare and a long silence before continuing their conversation.
20.Holidays won’t be lonely for you if you join one of our church families for the day.
It is very kind of you to ask. I have done so many times, and this year would rather not put myself through that any more.
We guests can admire the decorations, share terrific cooking, hear about your memories, observe your mutual affection and shared stories, enjoy the children’s excitement as they open gifts, and then head on home. It is a touching privilege to be honored by the invitation. This isn’t meant to sound ungrateful, but after a day of watching families I go back to my room and think, How can I be more than a guest and a witness to other people’s lives? Can I ever mean anything more to anybody?
21. If you are single, then WE will love you as your God-given family — a community of believers serving as the literal hands and heart of Jesus Christ on earth.
Thank you, and… here’s what I know about the meaning of a family.
It’s 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 eats your cooking,
who says “How was your day?”
who will help you to the bathroom when you are sick,
who will reach out and touch you just because,
who will show up at the hospital and fight like hell so you don’t die from some cockamamie medical error,
who will keep your letters and keepsakes out of the dumpster when you die.
And who lets you do those things for them.
When you families go home to someone, coffee hour mingling is all you need.
When I go home to nothing, it is not. There’s a difference.
But, you don’t believe me.
I have told this to church people gently, patiently, in detail, over and over. Not a single one hears it. They have no idea what I’m talking about. Their thought bubble reads “But I successfully got what I wanted in life. Therefore your need for real companionship is imaginary and unimportant.”
Maybe I should act it out with Boy Scout wigwag banners, a singing candy-gram, Indonesian shadow puppets. Am I speaking Etruscan here?
22. You have Our Blessed Mother, the angels and saints, and icons in your room for company.
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. If you don’t feel truly loved, it is because you are afraid to open yourself to the congregational love in our hearts. It is bright enough to burn you alive.
Okay. Try me!
24. But God really IS enough for you. Only Jesus can ever fulfill your deepest and most intimate womanly needs.
That’s the classic slap-down designed to shut us up for good.
Well, God wasn’t enough for the intimate needs of you married folks, was He? Did you try postponing that wedding for a year to give Him a chance?
How can a rational human believe that the benefits of human bonding can be successfully replicated by bonding with Jesus instead? That’s like expecting me to learn photosynthesis so it won’t be necessary to eat food any more. I could stand here with my head in the sun and feet in a tub of mulch to generate my own sugar supply.
Pastor Sam Allberry, a single young man who is clearly devoted, sincere, and walking the walk, works this God-is-enough idea to the max in his brave book 7 Myths About Singleness. “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 claims that God intentionally designed our sexual longings to never be fulfilled with a spouse in earthly marriage (that sounds like a rather clunky Creator, doesn’t it?) because all erotic passion was created by Jesus for the exclusive purpose of pointing us toward Him alone: “[Celibate] Singleness now is a way of saying that this future reality is so certain and so good that we can embrace it now.”
As the ideal vision of marriage, the author refers to the Book of Revelation, with its description of a Bride of perfect beauty. Since no woman is gifted with perfect beauty, therefore by definition the Bride of Christ can not be a woman at all; she is the heavenly Jerusalem, a city of gold with gates of pearl and walls of precious stones. The conqueror Bridegroom, resembling a Lamb who has been slain, charges in through the gates of his Bride wearing a robe drenched in the blood of his slaughtered enemies, with his eyes of fire and a sharp sword protruding from his mouth instead of a tongue.
Is this prospect of marital consummation consoling anyone out there?
The author assures us that just as married people glorify God through loving passionate sex, single people have a crucial sexual mission too: to abstain from all sexual actions and thoughts so that the married people can have it all, and to pray for the healthy conjugal lives of married people. He advises singles to stop cringing away from and to seek out Bible verses which graphically praise erotic passion (a gem studded epic of gushing fountains, paired gazelles, perfect bodies rolling in ointments and spice), so that the blazing majesty of sex will leave us so dazzled that we will never dare to have any ourselves.
The book’s best offer is its core promise: at the wedding of the Lamb, true fulfillment awaits for our perfectly created emotions and bodies just as soon as they are dead.
I dreamed this fulfillment just this week. I lay buried underground, reduced to a handful of ashes. Every human being who might care for or remember me was long dead and gone. There was no consciousness left but the thought “At last! I’ve become the woman that my religion wants me to be!”
Waking up I lay there in the dark, brain-locked with sadness. It took everything I had to drag out the door to my very first Sunrise Yoga lesson. There, at a wall of picture windows overlooking our own city alight with rising gold, our gentle luminous loving teacher coached us from pose to pose, affirming our connection with all that is bright and good in the cosmos. It did me good.
Now let’s open our Bibles to Genesis 2. Christians don’t think to quote this one at me.
“…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).”
And 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 transcribed verbatim 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 single Catholics committed to a chaste life.
25. “Take 2” 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.”
Oh honey. Married people have zero bandwidth to sit and listen to how single people feel. That family in the parish hall? They 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. They are not about you.
26. “Take 2” Quote 2, from Host Jerry: “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 peaceful. Anyone who feels that doesn’t need to be reading an essay like this.
27. “Take 2” Quote 3: [Debbie’s tip for 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 and take suggestions from callers. (By the way, among the people who called in with advice, the most popular suggestion was to pray to God for a spouse and then go get married.)
You know those twin happy/sad masks in old Greek drama? Listening to their show fused 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 Father Mike Schmitz quoting his happily married his sister. 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 there. We Christian single people are great at sitting alone in our rooms for decades on end. We’re pretty good at service with a smile. And maybe sainthood will be ours one day. Thanks.
29. Loneliness is only a perception. Your wish for companionship is only a “felt need” beckoning you toward a holier life. The Church is not here to fulfill your “felt needs.” The Church exists to inform you of your TRUE need: to repent, find salvation in Jesus Christ, and to further the work of God’s Kingdom.
So, you evangelists: What about your devotion to your spouse and children, and your “felt need” to see them healthy and happy and close to you? You don’t seem to see that as a conflict between your family and God’s Kingdom work.
In Meaning & Medicine, Larry Dossey describes research stating that widows and widowers experience a sharply increased mortality danger in the first year after the death of a spouse. I certainly hope that no one has ever told a bereaved spouse that his or her bereavement is “only a felt need,” or that the ache in their hearts was deliberately installed there by Jesus to be fulfilled only by Him.
Is solitary independence really the prerequisite for healthy bonding?
Harry Harlow did the research.
He took baby rhesus monkeys away from their mothers and locked them into empty cages. Strive as they might, those babies just never figured out how to be perfectly happy all alone as a pre-condition for mature relationships. That old lab footage is painful to watch, with the human anguish on the faces of these lil fellas passing up a real bottle of milk so they could cling to and try to nurse from an empty wad of soft terrycloth.
We humans are made in the image of God. But like Harlow’s monkeys we’re designed to grow up surrounded by relatives, to groom each other and bicker and share tasty grubs and huddle on branches in the rain.
And sadly, part of our communal survival instinct is to slap around any group member who dares to express a vulnerable emotion. The collective message is “Look out! Don’t be the slowest member! You’ll fall out of the tree and endanger yourself and all of us!” This is why a cohesive social group with a member in distress feels compelled to hurl tactless insensitive comments; it’s a hallowed social ritual to shake that member back to function at peak efficiency, or at least put on a good act to reassure everyone else.
It’s not that churches conspire to undermine or ignore older single people in particular.
It’s that churches 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 most likely to be gladdened by food packages and mission visits.
This is also why the Church celebrates and favors people who are already excited and joyful about a life transition approved by the Church: marriage, baptism, ordination to the priesthood. These ceremonies are a public declaration and display that a church contains plenty of happy folks; the underlying message is that if the rest of us follow the rules, we can find some happiness there too.
But where is the Church for those same people, decades later?
A wife may end up desperate for a night’s sleep away from her husband’s apnea, or alcohol, or abuse, or simple cluelessness about the kinds of touch that she might like and which kinds just hurt.
An older priest can end up depressed after a lifetime of being swapped around 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 rules on dating (to the utter confusion or annoyance of perfectly good potential suitors), after holding out for a chaste Christian man, she’s ended up as a woman 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 have the bandwidth to notice.
And here is the one thing that Christians have never admitted.
30. But if we ever acknowledged that you single people are lonely, we’ll have to admit that we’re lonely in our marriages or rectories or convents too.
Yes. And if you do, then we can all support each other more deeply than we ever have before.
Loneliness is everywhere. There are many ways to feel excluded and left out. As a white able-bodied cis-gender American with medical insurance, I have privileges that leave out all kinds of people. So, yes. Being single is a gift if I can use it to find ways to reach out and help people find some comfort together. But I can’t do that alone.
Can we team up on this?
A church could tune in to the few single people who are grieved about it.
We can be more aware of the pitfalls of solo living; even sensible people who take fierce pride in their independence can end up with astonishing mistakes and misfortunes that would never occur if everyone had attentive accountable day to day community.
A church could listen to single people, respect what they feel, introduce them to one another, and build up that fellowship.
Christians could say (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. How can we be there for you? How can we welcome your gifts to empower and enrich us?”
Catholic convents could open their doors to women over 40. Why not? Contemplative convents used to have extern sisters and lay women who shared in worship life, and who lived in the world assisting the nuns. Plenty of us would love to follow the house rules for a vow of one or two or five years or more. Plenty of older women are fit and healthy and financially prosperous enough to ply their trade, rejuvenate women’s communities, pay rent, fix up the buildings, build vocation websites, and nurse the older Sisters.
We’re not demanding church members solve our problems, and we’re not stalking your spouses. But it would help to hear any acknowledgment that for a few people, being single is not just some superpower privileged gift of God, but a plain misfortune. It helps to hear any kind word of how deeply it can affect the course of a life. One wonderful Dominican confessor prayed deeply about my situation, and with great empathy said “My sense from God was that He selected several men for you over the years who would have made excellent husbands. But they did not listen to Him; they chose their own will, and went their own way.” That was a validating thing to hear.
It was a rare consolation too, to come across this verse, apparently by a Russian poet by the name of Vladimir Semënov:
You’ve tried to find him everywhere.
He must exist, he must be out there.
Where could he be?
And so your youth passed by,
the beauty that once shone.
You live on, never knowing:
You were a wife to none, a widow all along.
And he was killed at war, before you ever met.
And here’s a gentle word from the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Renewal, in the Bronx.
As Mother Claire mentions, the mystery of suffering with an unfulfilled desire could be part of an economy of grace and redemption for the good of the world.
“Giving God Your Hopes and Dreams.”
It would be wonderful if single people felt supported enough that they could even ask themselves whether they would like any closeness in their lives, and how that might look. But in America we’ve been trained to build ourselves little hideouts furnished with the internet, Amazon deliveries, and all the comforts money can buy. The single women in my life fill their days with worthwhile and enjoyable pursuits.
I keep suggesting to them all sorts of ideas on how we can get together and do life — housing, transportation, shopping and cooking, teaming up on rent. But the answer’s always the same: we women are just fine all on our own, thanks.
Are we, though?
What if we took some of the energy that we pour into travel, fitness, handicrafts, pets, and surfing the internet — and invested that energy in one another’s life goals and dreams?
More people sharing oxytocin indoors could mean fewer of them buying mass-produced chemical equivalents out on the street.
Everyday home-style closeness in household relationships can foster growth and health and spiritual maturity. Why do churches ignore the longing to feel safe and at rest in everyday home space with real live people on hand to talk to and touch?
I’ve spent a lifetime of intense church involvement, and many visits to all kinds of congregations. For decades I’ve been patiently open and eager to become and find the best spouse possible, or (failing that) to experience God as truly being all the companion a person can need, or (failing that) striving to forge close Christian friendships, or (failing that) to find a church that eases any part of the burden of aloneness, or (failing that) learning to be radiantly happy all alone (and failing that too). In the end, it’s standing in the parish hall with the small talk, watching the family affiliations and networks flashing all around.
As far back as I can remember, walking in to a church gave me the hope that good things would happen in community.
But these days, church just makes loneliness worse.
Two months ago our pastor gave a lovely sermon about the importance of family life, concluding that God has sent us families as a blessing not only in joy, but also as comfort in times of tragedy and sorrow.
At those words, something in my heart just snapped. I walked out of the building, and haven’t been able to venture back in.
I miss it terribly: the prayer, the central structure for the week, the learning and beauty of the services, the worship leaders and their wisdom and humor. Most of all, I miss the belief that the Church was established by God not only for our salvation, but as the rightful home and cradle of human love at its best.
Here’s a parting quote from the Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 4, verses 9-12. It doesn’t make it into sermons for some reason. Maybe it should.
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. —
God is still good.
Church must be working for somebody.
Maybe someone reading this will take heart and find what I’m looking for myself.