Celibacy and the Priesthood: Pick a Side

From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Robert Cardinal Sarah

Devout reviewers at goodreads.com and on Catholic websites have hailed this book as a powerful testimonial to priestly celibacy as a Church tradition, and a powerful response and rebuttal to its detractors.

We Catholic faithful deeply appreciate and love our many wonderful priests and their sacrifices for us. These men are gems and lights of Catholic culture. Willa Cather described the potential beauty of that state of life in Book 8 of Death Comes for the Archbishop. After a final farewell to Father Vaillant, his lifelong partner in missions, the Bishop comes home dreading his first night in an empty mission house.

But when he entered his study, he seemed to come back to reality, to the sense of a Presence awaiting him…. That feeling of personal loneliness was gone, and a sense of loss was replaced by a sense of restoration…. It was just this solitariness of love in which a priest’s life could be like his Master’s. It was not a solitude of atrophy, of negation, but of perpetual flowering. A life need not be cold, or devoid of grace in the worldly sense, if it was filled by Her who all the graces; Virgin-daughter, Virgin-mother, girl of the people and Queen of Heaven….

In line with this power and beauty, and the example of good priests over the centuries, the book addresses two demands: news coverage of scandals in the church, regarding the celibacy of certain priests, and a suggestion at a recent conference that the Church consider ordaining married men. 

After reading and appreciating my copy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, I was eager to read this new book, looking for words of compassion first and foremost for children and vulnerable adults abused by priests; compassion for priests in so much pain that they’ve hurt other people, and need counseling themselves; compassion for priests in pain who never hurt anybody and keep forging right along; compassion for priests in pain who feel that their religious convictions are shaken, who might consider leaving the priesthood or leaving the Church, and need transitional support for the discernment process; solidarity with us allies — single Catholics, living alone in obedience and faith; and, resolve to support and connect all of these people, devoting church space and time so we can help one other lead better lives, and build healthy communities. 

Instead, the book offers this.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI acknowledges that some priests and laity are disillusioned with the Church’s promotion of celibacy, and its track record on living it out. The author blames this disillusionment on “a methodological flaw in the reception of Scripture as Word of God,” and “abandonment of the Christological [and Pneumatological] interpretation of the Old Testament.” As his solution, he then sets out to prove in scholarly detail that today’s state of celibacy among the clergy is a direct heritage of the priestly community in Israel. 

The first similarity offered is that the priestly tribe of Levi had to live on tithes and were not allowed to own land. Psalm 16 is interpreted to cover modern priests as well, with its idea that in celibacy a priest’s natural land is God, and God alone. (It’s a beautiful reading of Psalm 16. But while individual priests do not own their rectory real estate, how does this fit the Church’s historic talent for acquiring land, buildings, and material wealth?)

The second similarity presented is that the Israelite priests were required to abstain from sex while presiding over ceremonies at the Temple. The early Christian church as heirs to this tradition also linked abstinence with the Eucharist. But the book points out that the early Church then found the Eucharist to be a daily necessity, meaning that priestly sexual abstinence then needed to become a permanent state. (Page 41) This meant “the impossibility of a matrimonial bond” as “sexual abstinence… was transformed… into an ontological abstinence.” (I looked up the definition, but still could not figure out what it meant, or how ontological celibacy is different from not having sex.) Just as celibacy is determined to be essential in celebrating the Eucharist, so the Eucharist is seen as essential to celibacy. Later, Cardinal Sarah argues that “No one can remain faithful to celibacy without the daily celebration of the Mass.” (115-116) Does this statement account for us lay people of faith who somehow seem to carry it off?

One might wonder how the Church accounts for the survival of Orthodox Christianity. Orthodoxy does ordain single men, those preparing for life in a monastic community. But aside from some special dispensations, for parish life their Church requires that if a man is called to counsel and confess families, then to qualify for ordination he must first be a married man committed to family life. The entire married congregation, priests and laity alike, observe sexual abstinence anyway from Saturday through Sunday during their fast before communion and during the very many fast days of the church year. Setting aside the question of whether on an Orthodox altar the bread and wine are in fact transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ (Catholics will passionately argue for or against), Orthodoxy is traditional Christianity which has always accommodated family life within parish priesthood as not only possible, but a foundational support. One factor is that in Orthodoxy, the Eucharist is not assumed to be a daily routine event or a right. It places much more emphasis on preparation for Communion, through fasting, special prayers the night before and the morning before Sunday Liturgy, and often confession. And while a Catholic priest can be condemned in the headlines if he declines to offer Communion to someone at the rail, in an Orthodox church it’s routine. If a priest there knows of any spiritual issue affecting potential communicants, he will not hesitate to greet them at the altar, and invite them to instead stop by confession or counseling first before approaching the Chalice again. Most Orthodox have small commuter congregations, with Eucharist offered in general no more than once each Sunday, so the Church balances days of marital abstinence each week and during the great fasts as a natural part of life.

For the second half of the book, Cardinal Sarah speaks to “priests who are disoriented, disturbed, and wounded in the very depths of their spiritual life….” (63) “You seem lost, discouraged, overcome by suffering. A terrible sense of abandonment and loneliness grips your heart.” (64) That raised this reader’s hope that the conclusion would be “Enough of leaving our priests bereft of stable supportive human bonds! Let’s unite and do everything possible to give these men a closer Church family and home life with parishioners who need them!” (Catholics may or may not approve of all the points raised in Dilemma by Father Alberto Cutié, who left the priesthood to marry and who now serves in the Anglican clergy; but his warning of serious systemic loneliness among our priests is worth taking seriously.) What does the Cardinal name as the root cause of discouragement among his fellow priests? Not isolation, but “violent challenges to the Church’s doctrine” on the part of society. (63) “A priest on fire with faith and apostolic love quickly realizes that the world in which he lives is, so to speak, upside down.” That would indicate that discord is caused not by the actions of certain priests, but rather by society itself and its lack of appreciation for faith and apostolic love. (This conclusion brings back memories of a “Welcome Home” class at my parish for lapsed Catholics. I attended to welcome and support the visitors. The organizers told the lapsed Catholics to share their reasons for leaving. Every one of them related some painful incident which made them fear setting foot in a church again; one guest shared a particularly sad story of sexual abuse. The organizers then cheerfully criticized the logic of the visitors’ reasons for leaving, and announced that they had all left the Church because they had been “poorly catechized” to begin with. One by one the hopeful returnees walked out in tears, while the organizers joked about the people who had left. Finally I walked out too.)

The book responds to a Church conference about evangelization of the Amazon region and its shortage of priests. At the conference, some delegates suggested that the Church start ordaining local married men in that area. The Cardinal calls this a “contemptuous, neo-colonialist, infantilizing” solution (117) brought on by “theological milieus at universities,” (75) “sorcerer’s apprentices, who wish to utilize the distress of poor peoples as an experimental laboratory for their clever plans.” His assessment is that ordaining married men would be a “pastoral catastrophe,” detracting from the honor of sexual chastity and its lineage with Old Testament practices and the early Church. He also warns that the presence of married men as “second-class” priests (71,72) would discourage vocations to celibacy (109). “The faithful of all cultures unfailingly recognize Christ offered for all in the celibate priest.” (116) And for those who fail at this recognition, the importance of the Gospel gives evangelization the right to “destabilize” and “purify” that culture, as Christ brings “not peace, but a sword,” unveiling celibacy as a “scandal for the world.” Could there be anything neo-colonialist in that idea?

As proof of the value of celibacy in impressing the people of a mission, Cardinal Sarah describes a pastoral visit to Guinea. There, traveling in arduous conditions under full sun, he felt uplifted in the journey by the thought that he was “self-giving for the Church Bride.” (70) Is celibate mystical union with the Bride the prerequisite which enables a man to tackle the adversity of mission life? So much for Brother Andrew van der Bijl and his 60+ years of dangerous work in Communist countries, or Jim Elliot, Oswald Chambers, and Eric Liddell, persisting in mission work right up to their deaths. The Cardinal emphasizes that his celibacy is the reason for the Ghanaian people’s “unimaginable joy when I celebrated Mass, which they had not experienced for a long time.” (70) His conclusion is that the people would have taken the Eucharist dismissively for granted if all along they’d had the benefit of local married priests. “The thought of it wrenches my heart. What sadness!” (74) But instead the people of Ghana were able to greet the Cardinal with appropriate ceremony. “What festivity! The songs, the dances, the effusiveness, and the meals express the gratitude of the people for this gift of self in Christ.” It just happens that Africa is blessed with a rich heritage of communities with a genius for songs, dances, effusiveness, and radical hospitality for strangers. But the explanation given for this warm reception is that “Poor and simple people are able to discern with the eyes of faith the presence of Christ the Bridegroom of the Church in a celibate priest.” 

But the book explains that ultimately it is we parishioners who dictate that our priests be exclusively celibate men. “The Church, as the Bride of Christ, desires to be loved by the priest in the total, exclusive manner in which Jesus the Head and Bridegroom loved her.” (82) Quoting Pope John Paul II, the priest’s spousal love must radiate “divine jealousy,” maternal tenderness capable of bearing the “pangs of birth” until “Christ be formed” in the faithful (85-86). This passionate zeal is thought to be especially essential to set a good example “in countries that are just being evangelized… [where] sometimes the meaning of marriage is distorted; the dignity of the woman is trampled on.” (Do new mission fields have a monopoloy on disrespect toward women in intimate relationships?) The book maintains that we 1.3 billion Catholics constitute a wedded Bride ready for love, demanding a celibate priest to consummate our mystical union in the Eucharist, since in any wedding “the nuptial bed is the Cross.” (83) Is anyone else consoled by this favored Catholic comparison between ecstatic virginal lovemaking on a wedding night and death by public torture? It’s always troubled me. I don’t need a priest coming at me with spousal love and divine jealousy. I want him to be stable and fortified in a network of other priests, parents and siblings, good friends, and neighbors. 

This analogy of Christ as Ardent Bridegroom would then rule out the ordination of women to the priesthood. The book points out that the Bridegroom role can be filled only by biological males. What’s more, women are seen as irreplaceable in the pews in their role as witnesses to model the receptive acceptance of Jesus’s virginal love, and carry on Mary’s gift of femininity, of “listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting.” (88) The book concludes that women must be left unordained and free, to bring the church their special genius; in relation to the all-encompassing Bridegroom, “in the heart of every woman… there is a fundamental disposition to receive love.” (Is soaking up love the role that women play in this world?)

The womanly role of receptive acceptance of love draws the Cardinal’s concern, that a married priesthood would prove oppressive to women. “What will happen to the wife of a man who has been ordained a priest? What place will there be for her? Is there a vocation to be the wife of a priest?” Yes there is. In the Orthodox Christian churches, the priest’s wife holds a highly honored and well loved place. Of course there are tragic exceptions out there, and marriage is no family guarantee against loneliness, depression, or sexual problems. But when my friends argue for the ordination of women, they are pleasantly surprised to hear stories of how a committed Mátushka (Russian “Little Mother,”) lends invaluable spiritual and practical authority in a congregation. (One excellent article in the Russian press advised seminaries that in selecting candidates for future ordination, they must also seriously consider the character of his wife as a mainstay of his vocation.)

The Cardinal’s concern extends to the children of married priests, born to a life which they did not choose: “A better appreciation of the dignity and of the freedom of each person makes this modus operandi impossible now.” (80) Does it? And do Catholic children freely choose the vocation and habits of their parents? Do the children of military service members, or neurosurgeons, or cattle ranchers? Those families are called upon to make major sacrifices in support; should we allow only celibate people in the military or medical school or farming? Plenty of children grow up inheriting their parents’ way of life; Bindi and Robert Irwin found themselves growing up in their parents’ Australian zoo, and they radiate joy about it. Among my Orthodox parishes the children often became priests or married them, and established churches of their own; some gravitated to careers in classical music and architecture. They flourished in the parish house, surrounded by beauty and prayer and ceremonial languages and music, seasons and feasts, structure and service to others, honorary relatives, and wholesome fun with the other parish kids.  

But finally the Cardinal proceeds to the real concern: “Will married priests have to be paid accordingly?” (A living wage? Why not, if you’re getting the work of a whole family instead of one man?) Yet only celibacy, according to the book, renders the priest “totally available to men and women.” (68) In other words, “How could Christians understand that the priest gives himself to them if he is not entirely given over to the Father?” (69) Earlier in the book, the Cardinal maintained that total self-sacrifice to God makes it impossible to be devoted to one spouse; then he states that only total self-sacrifice to God makes it possible to be  available to everyone. Which is it?

Total availability is a lovely idea, except in its present form. In my childhood, priests were much more socially connected. They lived in communities, with some mature neighborhood widow living nearby to rule the house and scold The Fathers for skipping lunch or going out in the rain without their galoshes. The priests worked long hours with many cares, but they also played with us kids in the school next door and were welcome guests in parish homes, and often had parents and flocks of relatives nearby. Today our parish priests generally live alone and commute to two or three parishes. They not only maintain a schedule of Masses and confessions, but must attend to fundraising, event logistics, building maintenance, soup suppers and food banks, strife among the flock, and now pandemic precautions with far fewer donations and far more cleaning and monitoring tasks. From what I’ve seen, in Orthodox families the peripheral business incidentals can be handled by the family, multiplying pastoral availability and leaving the priest more time to prepare for and celebrate the lengthy services and counsel parishioners. Besides, generally the priest or his wife, and sometimes both, bring in money from outside jobs. (The children of one such family asked me shyly how Catholic priests manage church chores without a family to pitch in and help. At the time the kids and I were using citrus oil on the candlestands, polishing off the celestially fragrant beeswax which gives such rich candlelight. “Oh, our candles are electric. We just push a button,” I replied, to their delighted amusement.)

How does the Church account for married Protestant pastors who convert to Catholicism with their families, and are ordained as married priests? The book dismisses these as a transitory situation, not as an exception. (108) What about the Catholic Church’s tolerance of married clergy in some Eastern Churches in union with Rome? This is described as “a gradual development toward the practice of celibacy.” (81) The book further states that all married priests in the early Church were required to observe celibacy with their spouses from the time they were ordained. (42) The book discounts many centuries of marital and family life in the Eastern churches as a transcribing error in canons introduced at the Council in Trullo in the year 691. (79-80) 

What about the Orthodox model of both celibate monastic and married parish priests? “[With that option] We run the risk of inculcating… the idea of a high and a low clergy.” (110) Quoting Pope Francis, “I don’t agree with allowing optional celibacy, no.” (138) The book further states that “there are many Orthodox Christians who would never go to confession to a married priest.” What? Where are they? In 22 years of worship with hundreds of Orthodox parishioners I have never met one. On the contrary, parishioners with families gravitate to the counsel of a family man, and women seem reassured that that man is settled with his own spouse. The Orthodox do not judge their priests as high, low, or “second-class.” Parishioners have profound reverence for men in monastic communities, and make regular pilgrimages to these monasteries. But they are devoted toward their priest at home, and see both vocations as mutually supporting.

The book concludes with exalted praise for the self-abnegating and yet elevated mystical state of the celibate priest, where at the altar he is “ipse Christus; he is Christ himself.” (113) Quoting Saint John Vianney, “A priest is a man… who is vested with all the powers of God. See the power of the priest! The priest’s tongue makes a God out of a piece of bread.” (112) Father Vianney, the Curé of Ars, could make this statement as he stood on solid spiritual ground of holiness, extreme parish labor, hard travel, and strife among the faithful. But in general, a man who declares a vocation as a spiritual figure is vulnerable to hazardous temptations. This is where an Orthodox family can be a tempering force. In The Scent of Holiness, Mother Constantina Palmer tells in Chapter 20 of a priest’s wife who at home after church services would say to her husband “‘Take off that gold cross. Do you think you are someone special because you serve with the bishop? Just because you serve in the cathedral doesn’t make you a good priest. A good priest has humility!’ He took it all very well, with a grateful heart… ‘I have a good presvytera [priest’s wife]; she humbles me.’”

The book defends this elevated state from “detestable scandals,” which it blames for hurting morale and missionary fruitfulness (122, 123). It adds, “How can we bear the fact that some of our brothers could profane the sacred innocence of children?” (125) Here at last is a word of concern for children — but only as a function of how priests suffer. I once saw a priest in a sermon ask in tears how he could possibly bear it, if any of his brother priests had ever committed such an act. He did not ask how the children might feel themselves, or how he might serve them. The book describes the priesthood as “Wounded by the revelation of so many scandals.” But revelations and scandal didn’t wound anybody. Sexual actions did, something the book doesn’t address.

What then does the book suggest, as a solution to the current crisis of faith? It tells us all to pray for more vocations to the priesthood, and more apostolic fervor. It calls on us to reject criticism of priestly celibacy as “theatrical productions, diabolical lies, and fashionable errors.” (146) It tells lonely priests to spend more time sitting all alone with Jesus in prayer. (128). It commands us to voice our support for this teaching (147), calling down on us “woe to the one who remains silent.” (148) (This echoes a recent sermon at my parish, that priest pedophilia will always continue until we the faithful stop it — through prayer, fasting, charitable works including tithes to the Church, and by all of us becoming saints.)

We people in the pews do not oppose celibacy; even detractors on social media are able to recognize good priests doing good work. It’s just that we want our kids to be safe. We want abused and scandalized loved ones to recover from heartbreak and to be okay. We want the Church to help our priests, the ones who suffer from depression, addictions, or personality changes caused by social isolation. Whether they stay or go, they need safe places to talk and find support — long before problems start, long before the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe takes notice. We just need the few troubled clergy to pick a side, not preach one thing at us from a pulpit while practicing another in private.

I still remember the moment years ago that convinced my Catholic mind that the Church can benefit from a married as well as a monastic clergy. At one Orthodox church after a festive Liturgy, a visiting priest finished hours of chanting, standing on his feet on a sweltering day. He descended through the Royal Doors of the iconostasis to bless the parishioners. He wasn’t received with an entire village, singing and dancing for joy. He wasn’t hailed as a man whose tongue turned a piece of bread into God. Instead he got a good talking-to from his three year old daughter, who ran up and cried “Oh Poppy — you locked Bunny Bee in the car all alone, and my sippy cup too.” Uh-oh! Poppy was in trouble now! He took a separate car to church early that morning, while Mom was dressing the kids. He didn’t notice the lidded cup or plush toy stowaway in his back seat. And so our distinguished celebrant, all gold brocade vestments and long hair and flowing beard and scholarly glasses, gazed down at his small petitioner. His grave countenance softened in tender repentance. Sifting through layers of vestments to his belt, he unhooked his keys and humbly handed them over to his wife. Soon Poppy’s wee one was all contentment on his lap at the church supper, with a sippy cup of milk and Bunny Bee safe in her arms. Just a typical moment in the life of a parish. Ceremonial worship bore a man’s consciousness aloft to heaven. His child’s needs brought his feet back to earth again.

After three reads of this book, it took me a few weeks to shake off the spiritual despondency. The hierarchy may be talking from the depths of their hearts, but they are not listening to the depths of ours. If for even one priest in a thousand celibacy simply does not work, then that constitutes a crisis which can harm them, and people around them.

For Catholic priests who feel especially distraught about lack of home life, what ultimate consolation does this book offer? It advises that when sexual deprivation feels like a burden, a priest can connect his feelings of emptiness to the bleeding nailed empty hands of Christ. In addition, on the eve of each Eucharistic celebration, if priests can “remain like children snuggled in her arms, the Virgin Mary prepares us to deliver ourselves body and soul to Jesus Christ” (114) where for comfort they can “get onto the Cross.” (125) Is that the best the Church can offer? Is it even a mentally healthy balanced goal?

That might work for just about everyone. But for a few men out there, a better use of time would be to hand over the keys, and get Bunny Bee out of that car.

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8/13/20: Cecropia

Back in the day, August was bug time. Insects were everywhere, sharing our lives whether we asked them to or didn’t.

Houseflies got in through the screen door no matter what, landing to rub their little faces and tap the kitchen table with their tongues if they got half a chance. That meant running to get the fly swatter from inside the closet door, because if they landed on our hands we’d get the typhoid fever. We had no idea what typhoid was, but we knew to run for that swatter when they got in the kitchen.

Dive-bomb beetles came in at night to bounce off the walls during the best part of TV movies and right into our lemonade.

Cicadas rattled the air every day. We called them locusts, hefty noisemakers in green military camouflage and armor and clear wings, thrumming around in treetops and then leaving empty molted shells of papery brown skin and glassy eyes clinging to the bark.

Ant wars looked like a pound of coffee grounds in motion dumped on the sidewalk. Every so often they even sprouted wings and came right into the house to swarm on the curtains.

Inchworms spun around on invisible threads to drop down and hunch and wave along. They got into Mom’s petunias, so we had to coax them out and put them back on the trees.

Rose beetles hid in the roses, ready to burble out and ambush our noses when we stopped for a perfume sniff.

Tomato hornworms could strip a whole tomato stem in no time. A common chore for children was to check all the plants and pick the caterpillars off, and to wave away the white cabbage butterflies before they could lay eggs. We also had termite duty, checking all the concrete foundations of the house with the garden hose, to wash away anything that looked like a sand tunnel leading up into the wall shingles.

Click bugs ticked at night before thunderstorms.

Some moths were beige and got into the pantry for the flour, and then we had to shoo them away outside. White moths circled and circled the porch lights at night. But the prettiest kind was Sweetheart moths. They sat there on a tree like just part of the bark. But if you got close they opened their pretty pink underwings and flew away.

Praying mantises the size of your hand rocked back and forth on branches and twisted their tiny heads around to stare at us. We kids knew that if we killed one there was a fifty dollar fine, and the police would knock on the door and tell your parents and take the money out of your allowance for like a whole year.

Candy-striped leafhoppers had beautiful red and turquoise stripes, and lived on the wooden street light pole.

Dining needles, or darning needles, or dragonflies, were pretty too. Their wings were so fast and clear that you couldn’t see them. Instead you could see that they were very thin shiny bright blue or green sticks. Tt the edges of ponds and streams they skipped around forward and sideways, flashing in the sun.

Yellowjackets would be all over a soda can or hamburger in no time if we left them on the picnic table.

Nobody liked spiders, but we had to let them stay around to get at the flies.

Everybody liked ladybugs. If you hold still and let them walk to the tip of your finger, they pick up their red shell wings and unfold their black lacy wings underneath and sail away. We counted the spots on their back to see how old they were, because they grow a new spot every year.

Crickets were good luck, so we didn’t mess with them. It was nice when one crept in under the warm oil burner and kept chirping right into frosty weather. We knew about Dolbear’s Law, how we could count the chirps in 14 seconds and add 40 and get the temperature outside. But it took a lot of arguing to get the kids to agree on what was 14 seconds and which cricket we were listening to, so all the crickets generally got quiet until we let them be.

Lightning bugs trailed their lights around after dark, nestling with their stickly feet and pink and black stripes, turning our cupped hands into magic lanterns.

Bees were everywhere, hard at work with multiple armfuls of fluffy yellow pollen. So were butterflies: Tiger Swallowtail, Zebra Swallowtail, Mourning Cloak, Skipper, Painted Lady, Monarch, Cloudless Sulphur, Buckeye, Red Admiral.

But in life with bugs, I had this dream of finding the most beautiful insect of all — a Hyalophora cecropia, a Cecropia moth. I read up enough to know that the Norway Maples lining the street would be just the right habitat for them, and knew just what color pattern to watch for at what time of year. I kept going to Martin’s Candy Store and soda fountain, and asking for any empty cigar boxes. Finally one day Mr. Martin happened to have one in the trash, and he fished it out for me — a real Dutch Masters, with men in black hats standing around in the picture. Then I asked Mom for some cotton from the medicine cabinet, and pins from the sew box, and moth balls from the linen closet. I drew a nice label on an index card, with a space for the place and date of capture. With display case and butterfly net ready, with daily patrols around the neighborhood, I was all set for that moth to show up.

There was competition though; pesticides and light pollution and habitat loss. And there are plenty of natural enemies out there, from parasitic wasps to squirrels and birds, who find an appealing target in a red white and brown moth with a seven inch wingspan. One summer slipped by, then the next. Only one moth turned up on a morning after a big storm, a traveler with shredded wings who latched on to our kitchen light to breathe his last until he spiralled to the ground.

Summers and years went on, and later I was a teenager at college, walking around in a lot of locked-in sadness and not knowing why. But one day Mom and Dad invited a favorite guest for supper, a cheerful friendly elder priest from Ireland. He’d spent his summers helping out at our parish, and his kindly counsel in the confessional was a real comfort over the years. It was comfort too to have that little distraction for the day, helping Mom with the meal.

By noon, everything was planned out. The patio furniture was scrubbed and hosed off, the garden was watered, the table settings were ready to carry outside, the flowers were earmarked to cut for the centerpiece, the citrus-scented citronella candles were set out (our insect friends included mosquitoes). The vegetables were picked and trimmed, the meal all prepped for final cooking and assembly. I stopped to rest in the kitchen garden doorway, looking around to see it all through the eyes of a guest. What more could I set out, for an appealing atmosphere?

Maybe this Cecropia.
It landed on the house, right at my shoulder. It was a perfect specimen seven inches wide, in warm vivid oxblood-brown with red and white highlights, a furry red body, and feathered red antennae. I slid sideways inch by inch, lifted a fluted glass vase from the picnic table, eased it down over the moth, and slipped a napkin under to seal him in. This was our living centerpiece now, a gem that few Americans and fewer Irishmen would ever see. In only six hours Father would be here to marvel at it with me, with his signature delight in all the workings and wonders of the Creator.

The moth under glass fanned its wings in slow trusting gentle strokes, waving its antennae. Its fresh coloring, clear markings, and perfect wing condition suggested that he’d just emerged from his cocoon, perhaps that very morning. For a person carrying around an individual portion of inner darkness, it was very moving to sit transported by such amazing beauty, to know how fleeting and rare this experience was. I knew that Cecropias live for only a few days, and that this moth had one mission in life: to fly and fly and find a moth like him, and spend the day with its own mate so that one or other of them could lay some eggs before they both died.

Then it dawned on me. For a creature with three days to live, half a day lost was a disaster. Cecropias did not grow on every tree. In these hours of fluted glass captivity, what if this moth’s mate was passing by and the two of them missed each other and just kept searching and searching for the rest of their small lives?

That night, Father (may he rest in peace) got a fluted glass vase near his plate, and a story with his dinner of the moth that got away.

That Cecropia was long gone by then. He floated over the roof on his way to the sky.

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6/7/2020: The Lourdes Garage, 1963

J | M

J

The little shrine was close by, just right for an after-supper family outing.

The Our Lady of Lourdes Garage Project started when a homeowner a few miles off turned his backyard garage into a prayer room. Soon, word spread to the neighbors, and got around town. How? Maybe it was printed up in the St. Anthony Messenger that every household got in the mail, or mentioned at church with the week’s announcements. However we found out, it was all the talk on our street, at night when neighbors sat on the steps and lawn chairs talking about the day. One long summer evening, our parents decided to go see for themselves. They hopped in the cars with the children, and we set out in a little convoy. 

The family with the garage was at home mowing the lawn and hanging the wash on the line. They were used to people stopping by, and told us to go right on in. The men stood outside a while first, talking to the man of the house about his creative home project. They listened to and talked with our host about his giving up a good indoor parking spot, and his investment in concrete, plumbing materials, electrical wiring, benches, a stereo system, landscape and garden supplies, not to mention statuary. Then, once they knew how the shrine worked, they took a look in the door and agreed that the place was fixed up nicely and was worth the trip. 

The moms talked to the wife in a quiet way off to the side. They listened to her story about the Blessed Virgin’s intercession for their family. We kids didn’t hear any details about it, but we heard other stories like it all the time. Maybe somebody’s relative needed an operation, or a couple wanted God to send them another baby, or a son was going into the Army. So families printed a note in the church bulletin to dedicate a Mass, or they asked the priest to serve a whole novena of Masses nine days in a row, or they made a pilgrimage, or stayed in the church all night for 40 Hours’ Adoration to gain indulgences for a deceased loved one in Purgatory, or they took out a newspaper ad with the prayer to St. Jude, patron of hopeless cases. This family prayed to Our Lady to intercede for them with her Son Our Lord; the prayers were answered, and the family built the shrine. 

That made perfect sense to us.
We all liked extra devotions. At school, at the top of every sheet of paper, before writing a word we always drew a cross with the initials J M J, to dedicate our work to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. One mom in town made a pilgrimage on the first Saturday of every month for a year because the family’s new baby had asthma, so Mom got up at 3:00 a.m. and left the baby and the kids with Dad and drove Upstate to a mission shrine for a special healing Mass and a bottle of blessed holy water; she always got home just after midnight, and she anointed the baby with that holy water every day until the next month’s trip. One grandmother took old broken charm bracelets and necklaces, and made rosaries as gifts. One girl in high school baked hot cross buns with sugar crosses on them for every day in Lent and gave them away. One neighbor went to her garage piano at 5:00 every morning to play and sing “Immaculate Mary, our hearts are on fire!” and we could hear her all up and down the street. One family lost their son when he was hit by a car, so the father made a little altar with his son’s picture, and candles; then he cast a white plaster mold of Michelangelo’s Pieta, the size of your hand, and put that on the altar. The he made a second Pieta to put beside it. Then the neighbors liked his Pietas so much that he worked for weeks, day and night, to make Pietas for everybody. He painted them in silver and gold with Christmas glitter around the base, and even made enough to surround his backyard fishing pond. There the little Pietas formed a circle around the pond, sparkling in the sun. 

But the Garage Shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes was special.

It was like a whole outdoor scene right inside in a room, like the Natural History Museum in Manhattan, or the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Garden, but more holy. In different houses I  saw plenty of little scenes like H&O model railroads with green plastic grass hills, or Nativity sets with fluffy spray-on snow. But this was the first time in any house that I could walk in and feel like we were all surrounded out in a peaceful place of nature. 

The garage door and ceiling had corky white squares with holes like Munster cheese, to keep out noise. There was a chorus singing music, and not like our phonograph record turntable or transistor AM radio either. This music came from everywhere all around and filled the air but in a very soft way. The front wall was a hillside grotto cave made out of white stones, and a waterfall with spray mist trickling down the rocks into a fountain. The ceiling was like a black velvet sky with tiny white twinkling lit-up stars. The waterfall grew thick ferns and jade plant and white peace lilies and moss. The grotto had a beautiful statue of The Holy Virgin. The family kept a little bouquet of white roses at her feet. She wore a white flowing robe and blue veil and gold crown and the gentlest face, holding out a long crystal rosary in her hands.

I sat on the bench looking up at the face of Our Blessed Mother, and thought about how this is how she really looks all the time, watching over us. Everything outside that garage faded away, and the bench felt like a good and comfortable place to just stay for good. But finally the parents called their kids to get in the car, and we all drove home. And even then, the picture of that shrine was too beautiful to forget. Everyone else went indoors to lights and conversation and housekeeping and TV. But to keep that picture fresh in mind, I stayed outdoors in the silence. I lay down on the front lawn in a cross shape, and looked up at the sky.

The weather was perfect and quiet and clear. The sun was setting. The sky was all goldish blue. Right overhead, there were folds of light clouds row on row like flying geese. They turned from white to pink to lilac. I lay there a long time in the white clover flowers with the planet turning under my back. The thought of Our Mother left a completely pure feeling in the grotto of my heart.

Heaven looked so close. It seemed a very good idea to die, leave now, and float up there.

I prayed to God to let me keep this shrine feeling forever, and thought that maybe this feeling would stay if I went through the rest of my life and never committed a single sin ever again. Then in the end my soul could rise and fly along as just another rose cloud.

In the house, through the open kitchen window, Mom and Dad dried the dinner dishes and got ready for the next day of job and school. They didn’t say anything about our trip to the shrine. They talked about work, because they worked all the time. So I didn’t mention our visit to them or to anybody else. But now all these years later, it would be good to mention it to that family, to find them again and thank them and to hear their story at last. 

That family didn’t preach at us with special visions or prophecies from the Queen of Heaven. Instead, because of her they gave up savings and weekend free time and living space, put the car outside in a weatherproof tarp, made trips to the hardware store and garden center, tinkered with the tool box, and then opened their driveway to interested strangers. They seemed to think that grace waited to bless anyone who stopped by. And they were right.

Their gratitude and hospitality were the real beauty of the Lourdes Garage. It was devotion so pure and simple that pure and simple people can make a home for it anywhere. 

At any time. Under any roof.

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5/24/2020: One Drop of Distance

They all had the right of way.

They walked in pairs holding hands, or in little family groups, many holding a walker or baby stroller or dog leash. On this sunny Sunday after days of rain, stuck in town on Memorial Day weekend, they were all over the place. And caught up in conversation, they didn’t monitor the pavement width or social space or anyone around them.

So on every block, I stepped off the sidewalk.
That meant sidling between parked cars and checking for bicycles or traffic, walking down the middle of the street in a wide arc, then stepping back up on the curb. After an hour of deferring space to anyone who belonged to anyone, I stopped on the hilltop and took off my mask for a deep breath, looking up at the overcast gray sky.

The sky looked like life as a Single person; individual quarantine with no Phase 1 in sight. Before, that was chronic low-grade desolate. With orders to stay at home, life got colder. Offices and churches and libraries and stores and coffee shops shut down. Loved ones teamed up with loved ones and went to hunker down together. The rest of us were left outside the collective Ark.

And, that is no license to complain.
Not with other people overcrowded in, some running out of groceries. Spouses self-isolating on separate floors of the house, or scared of abuse or addictions under their roof. Students trying to graduate. Parents trying to home school. Kids going up the wall. ICUs and nursing homes with heartsick relatives locked out and heartsick patients locked in. Mourners in Italy allowed only to shout farewell and blow kisses through the closed back door of the funeral home. Medical staff, meat plant packers, priests sprinkling holy water at freezer trucks. A teacher at a closed school, gloving and gowning and reaching through a plastic partition so she could sterile-hug her little pupils goodbye for good. Small business owners. People in prisons and refugee camps and tent cities. In a sea of planetary suffering, what’s one solo life in a studio apartment? It’s one ocean drop of insulated trouble-free convenience and ease.

It still tastes empty and meaningless.
The thoughts came teaming in that God is off perfecting triple helixes or rings on Saturn or whatever. And out of seven-point-eight billion people, He couldn’t bother sending a single conducive human to team up with me at home to do life with in an alliance of any kind. But it’s supposed to be fine, because after death we’ll see the lovely picture on the right side of the embroidery hoop and shout praise for His master plan. Well, tonight that master plan drew only a couple of choice silent words from me as I put my mask back on and stormed in to the local open-air vegetable stand.

“Hey MARY! Hi!” The owner’s son waved happily. Behind his cash register and mask and gloves, he welcomed me and the other customers to his very own homemade alcohol hand sanitizer, tinctured with herbs and coconut oil. He eagerly pointed out the good-as-new bargains, and the newly arrived seasonal fruits and vegetables just stocked today. As always, he was hauling cart after cart of food, arranging richly colored pyramids of produce, tidying the space, sweeping the floor. He presided over his eclectic music collection, his warm artfully arranged lights of Christmas cheer for covid days, and fresh free coffee and tea. He told us the stories of our purchases as he rang them up, talking with enthusiasm about the small local farms and cottage industries that his father conscientiously seeks out and highlights in the store. As always, he added his usual sage humorous kindly observations about the weather and current events. He even delighted one young woman by admiring the hand stitching in her wallet.
“Mary. Always great to see you,” he said, handing me my receipt.
Gazing at one another over our masks, we were all smiles.

Still beaming after that first social interaction of the day, I stopped and looked at the sky again. Now it was a soft tinted vault of sunset, a cathedral dome so spacious that all my hurt and anger fit in there quite comfortably. It felt then as if plenty of believers must have a whole spectrum of feelings like mine; just part of the whole sentient spectrum of the Body of Christ.

The strolling families had gone home to their supper. The side streets were empty, with only bunny babies and songbirds and squirrels. Soon I was stopping to take pictures of vegetables and flowers. At our apartment complex, at my own little home patch I gathered some kale before heading indoors.

“Excuse me?” A young woman called from the street. She seemed anxious about disturbing me, but urgent about her message. “You’re a retired nun, right?”

Retired nun? “Oh! The convent,” I realized. “Right, I used to live in one.”
“That’s what I’ve heard.” She hesitated, but forged ahead. “And I’m not exactly the most religious kind of person. But see, I’ve got a friend, she’s on my phone earbud right here. She was raised a Catholic. And she has a situation going on right now, it’s serious, and she’s telling me all about it. And then — there you were. Will you pray for her?”
“Pray? I most certainly will! What is your friend’s name?”
“She’s named for Saint Therese.” She spoke into the phone connection. “Yes, I’m talking about you to someone. She’s going to pray.” Back to me. “She says thank you.”
“Tell Therese I have an altar upstairs, and a list of people to pray for. At night I say a decade of the rosary for each one of them.”
“Yes! Like that. Send her a blessing, will you?”
“Right away. And wait, what is your name? I’ll look for you, to find out how she is.”
“Last apartment second courtyard, around the corner.” She gave me her name before saying goodnight. “Thank you. I saw you, and there was this… cosmic connection.”

And to think what kind of person she was asking, and where that person’s religion was only an hour before! Well, there was only one thing to do.

“Rosary!” I called after her. “Right now.”
Gathering up the kale I headed upstairs to put the vegetables away and start the prayers.
White Wisteria White Cottage 5.18.20

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5/29/20 Suicidal Thinking: Open Questions

The day was going along pleasantly, when there in my internet viewing queue was a highly acclaimed Christian film about evangelization to teenagers at risk of suicide. Obligingly I took a look, meaning to write a review about its teaching material. But, nothing doing: the film looked like shock programming to trigger and strong-arm vulnerable teens into agreeing to accept the evangelizer’s package of Jesus. I soon turned it off, wondering with alarm how many susceptible people will see this film. How in this day and age can anyone still produce such a terribly anti-helpful message?

How would it look, to even start to get it right?
I have no professional credentials for this. But if I could make my own movie, the message would be this. – M

The Huge Print
1. I don’t know a thing about the acute emergencies of suicidal teenagers or children, or anyone living with an unsafe life or a head injury or chronic pain or a mental illness or an addiction. That’s a crisis calling for immediate professional help. Don’t look to some language major like me writing an amateur blog.

2. Writing this is not to claim that we can rush in and rescue anybody.
If you have lost a loved one to suicide already, you don’t deserve a bunch of advice. You deserve all the support and help and kindness in the world.
Besides, when people in my life committed suicide (and all of them were better stronger smarter people than I), it always came as a complete shock. So bear in mind that my success rate with them was zero. Having me as a friend didn’t save a single one.

So, these are a few thoughts on how to maybe not make things worse, and hopefully to help.
It’s based partly on weathering the hurtful idiotic feedback that other people have said while trying to snap me out of my own problems.
Most of all, it’s learned by listening to friends who confided to me. These are hyper-brilliant over-educated types with a fierce gift for self-reflection and eloquence and humor. As a rule, they’ve worked through every therapy, recovery program, diet, exercise, and personal philosophy option they can find. Most of them ended up stabilizing from serious episodes of despondency, perhaps because they are so skilled at self-expression. Even those who go on bearing innate melancholy over the long term tend to soldier on and forge strong families and productive careers.

When a person experiences a suicidal turn of mind, it generally doesn’t mean that he wants his life to end. He probably wants his life to begin -— a life that is safe, that is his, that bears some hope. I don’t have the exact quote or the book at hand; but in Ritual Abuse, author Margaret Smith wrote that a suicidal thought is a soul saying “I hoped for more from life than this.“)
This alarm signal should not just be shut off at all costs. It deserves to be heard and held in safety, to see what lessons it is bringing and what fruit it can bear.

That said, you as an amateur friend have to be ready to step aside and call for professional help if there are enough indications of danger. Don’t set out to be a hero with this.

Now. While you’re listening to a person in pain who is afflicted by suicidal thoughts, try to not do these things.

Please God — do not laugh and crack jokes. Just trust me on this one.
As Judge Rob Rinder tells us on TV, “Don’t be STIUPID.”
This goes double if your witticism is sexual or morbid. Some perfectly nice people resort to jolliness by default, in the well-meaning (or frightened) effort to snap their loved one out of feeling sad. (These are the same folks who clown their way through wakes and funerals. Maybe they’ll all show up for mine, pouring out of a little car with bicycle horns and a rubber chicken.) A whole group of my college students from Country X loudly insisted that the only way to respond to a suicidal person is to ridicule him — and the more earthy and graphic and explicit and revolting the jokes are about his demise, the better. I wonder what success rate is attained by Taunt Therapy?

Don’t tell her that if he commits suicide he’s going straight to hell.
That’s about the level of narrative cooked up by the Brothers Grimm to keep small children from wandering off into the forest by themselves.
And if you believe (or have been told) that your loved one is in hell, whoever told you that made a terrible mistake. You deserve counseling and understanding from the best and wisest advisor possible.
The Scared Straight Deterrence method just does not work.
Your friend has heard that. Over and over. Besides, your friend is basically living in hell already. All we can do is the same we’d do for someone stuck on an elevator: tap on the wall and tell him we know he’s in there, that help is out here on the way, there are ways to navigate this, and that plenty of other people have been rescued from this elevator in the past.

Don’t tell him that his abject mood constitutes despair as a sign of pride.
This is two mistakes in one. But it’s still believed by some well-meaning traditionally religious people.
Example: The cherished Russian Orthodox monastery of Optyna Pustyn’ is known for its generations of revered priest elders. They left a treasury of personal letters with spiritual counsel. A strong theme of their advice is that despondency is a result of pride. Maybe it’s because the more formal letters were written to benefactors among the aristocracy, the literate letter-writing members of society who were more likely to feel pride?
By the way, the Catholic Encyclopedia emphasizes that “anxiety, no matter how acute, as to the hereafter is not to be identified with despair.” The official Catholic definition of Despair is more a determination to deny and rebel against God’s plan of salvation and grace for us. Chances are your friend is not up to challenging the Almighty; he’s too busy feeling miserable.

Don’t promise that she will feel better if she converts to your preferred idea of God.
Heaven knows how many people have demanded that I convert to their faith in their dunk tank or fire-coal walk or whatever, in order to be cured.
Now there are plenty of cases when people on their own initiative become interested in a whole new way of life, embark on that change, and then feel better.
But I would never tell my atheist friends that converting to my faith will cure them, because my atheist friends are waiting for faith to cure me first. (It’s still a perfectly good faith; Jesus didn’t promise us an easy life.)
Of course, it can be helpful to listen for and gently sift through someone’s beliefs if they are virulently damaging to him or her. For example, one friend asked me in fear and trembling to reveal the secret Bible verses; she informed me that The Jesuits use a special esoteric translation of these verses as permission for them to rape children. So I sat down with her and we chatted through that one.
If he or she has a favorite faith system with positive sensible beliefs and practical value, then sure — take an interest and show appreciation. I’ve gone with people to their favorite house of worship, made and sent cards with inscriptions from their favorite holy books, and learned to sing some of their favorite hymns.

Don’t tell him that suicide is for cowards.
People who believe that could learn a lot listening to combat veterans.
Chances are, your loved one already believes that these feelings mark him as a total loser. At one Catholic church event attempting to raise suicide awareness, every single audience member vented plenty of anger and zero compassion — over the suffering that their suicidal relative had caused to them. One woman, in obvious and understandable pain at losing her middle-aged son, cried out “Suicide is a cluster bomb aimed directly at The Family.” I bit back my tongue from saying “Ma’am, your son was in no shape to aim anything at anybody. That cluster bomb went off in his mind years and years ago.”

So what can help? Where do you start?

First, take very good care of yourself.
Therapists have training and continuing education and support networks to help them set boundaries and recharge their energy. Amateur friends don’t.
And if you’re signing up as a deep listener, chances are you’re also sensitive and impressionable and might even have some trauma of your own.
So be careful. Aside from special emergencies, being there for your friends will be a marathon, not a sprint.
Besides, it’s good for your friends to keep the perspective that they are not alone in their suffering — that the people around suffer too and need some consideration.

If this is going to be a deep dive into someone else’s pain, speak up with your availability and limits in advance so that you don’t have to interrupt later. Let your loved one know whether you can handle drop-in visitors at your office or not, or whether you’re ok with a phone call or a knock at the door at 3:00 am. If there are certain details about violence or abuse that are too hard for you to hear, let them know that hearing that won’t be your share in the work that needs to happen.

If a friend’s revelation takes you by surprise, take a moment to think about your own needs right now. What next step were you going to take in your day? If in an hour you’ll need to let the dog out or go get ready for an appointment, say that up front. If time is limited, you can still say something like “Thank you letting me know that this is happening. You matter very much to me, this is important, and I want to hear all about it. Let’s sit down now for ten minutes, and then after my work day I want to call you and we can share the rest of it.”

If this is a good time to listen, start with a wellbeing check. Are you both seated comfortably? Are the lighting and temperature okay? Do you have enough privacy? Before the talk starts, both of you go take a trip to the rest room and fix a mug of tea to hold before you hunker down.
If the talk goes on a while, a person talking about horrific emotions may well take a break by suddenly shifting gears. He might say “And how about YOU? Still taking that vacation?” She might want to show you a cat video. This is normal; people need to rest their minds at times, and if you like you can roll with it and chat about the news for a while. One friend of mine in massive bereavement started joking one day, and I promised her “You can joke around all you want. I promise to not assume that you’re Over It.”

A useful question for the end of the talk is “What is your strategy for getting through today, or tomorrow?”
Is there someone they can call and talk to? Do they have a hotline number on hand? Are they in therapy? If they are, encourage them to talk about what the therapist might say now. Does the therapist have a way to collect urgent messages after hours? When will you check in with this friend again? It’s a nice touch to say “I look forward to hearing how it went.” The idea is to let the person know that his future plan matters and will serve as a future point of connection. If he says he’s going off to watch Hamilton, then keep that in mind (or even jot it down as a reminder), and ask later what he thought of it — and then what his next future plan is.

After the talk, check on your own wellbeing. Do you need to decompress in some way? Do you need to talk to someone yourself?
Then if you feel like it, next day reach out to your friend. I thank them for sharing what they did, and send the hope that they’re having a good day and we can visit again soon. That can help your loved one from the after-fear that you’ve been driven away and are now going to bail out of the friendship entirely.

What things can you say, then?

As a listener I first ask “What is your level of safety right now?”
Are they just trying to escape from an abuser? From a whole cult of abusers?
Is someone at home keeping them locked in with violence or threats? (This can happen to men as well as women.) Is someone bullying or stalking them? Did someone hack in to their social media or target them for harassment?
The first task is to know how safe this person is when they go home tonight for dinner and a night’s sleep, and when they wake up tomorrow. And if they don’t have dinner or a place to sleep, again this is a crisis that needs extra help.

Then I ask “What’s the picture of this in your mind?”
If the plan has specific details and called for real planning on their part, this would be a real cause for concern.
Does it involve weapons or travel to a specific place or a specific special holiday or life milestone, like a birthday?
Did they make arrangements for their pets or home or favorite things?
Is there a note that they want to write? Who is it for, and what will it say? What do they want people to remember about them?

What addictions are crowding in on this person’s life?
Gambling or random sex or alcohol or drugs can make it very hard for anyone to make decisions or calm down.
For plenty of people in my past, nothing I did or said or was, not all my love or caring, was ever as fascinating or as beautiful as a can of beer.
That is also true if your loved one is completely wrapped around some other person — either an ideal figure who is now lost, or someone abusive. There are times when your loved one has tied up all the bandwidth in their fixation on someone else, and your presence does not stand a chance of having an effect. If you try to talk to them and they seem to be hearing (and talking to) only a third person in the room, you may not be getting through at all.

Is your loved one reacting to some event or (more important) his own story about the event? Was it loss of a loved one, loss of health or job, threat of being deported, chronic pain, humiliation, betrayal? What message did they internalize about the event? Is there a conclusion they’ve drawn, a special slogan that they tell themselves about how life is and always will be?

What is their constellation of close people? What’s been going on with these close people lately?
In the psychiatric ward of a large city hospital, I once assisted with three different patients. All were women age 20 or so, all undocumented immigrants with very limited English, all completely hysterical after suicide attempts. All were brought in without their consent and placed in locked cells. Then clinicians stood there with clipboards, checking off questions from a list: “Have you noticed a change in your sleep patterns? Eating? Bathroom habits? Blood pressure? Do you no longer practice activities which you used to find enjoyable? On a scale of one to five, would you say that you always, seldom, or never experience thoughts about…” Because I have no clinical training, I couldn’t understand their methods at all; I wanted to chime in and ask “WHERE IS YOUR MAN?” Why wasn’t her husband or boyfriend here in the waiting room? Where were her children? Her family or friends? Would a young woman really would make it all the way to the US and then try very hard to end her life all on her own? I thought the first order of business ought to be finding out what had happened in her close relationships that very day.
Somehow our Anglo-American retail mass media popular culture assumes that we are all emotionally independent agents, no matter what our social circle may be up to. But in fact the opinions and activities and even health habits of our people can affect us deeply. (Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” But although Mrs. Roosevelt bravely bore many secret burdens and sorrows, social inferiority was not her area of expertise.)

What everyday situations or activities does your friend navigate, to manage the level of this pain?
What helps? What doesn’t?
Your friend might feel like a paramecium under a microscope light, ricocheting around in a rapidly shrinking water drop. Her ricochet pattern might baffle or frustrate the rest of us. We can never see all the same limits or constraints that she does. But nevertheless, people are still geniuses at navigating their own lives within the limits and constraints and resources that they can see. Chances are, they’ve already heard a lifetime of unwanted advice; they might be quite defensive if they feel that you are just tapping on their aquarium glass to see which way they jump. But, if you can gently elicit their insights on the boundaries of their life as they see it, and if they can tell you their logic such as it is, that can teach a lot about what they are dealing with.

What is your loved one’s map of guilt and shame?
Do they feel guilt over something they have done?
Have they acquired a sense of shame over who they are?
Perhaps they have been imposed upon with the message that people with their body shape / facial symmetry / ethnic heritage / criminal record / family messages / spectrum processing differences deserve to die, or will never find anybody anywhere who can understand or love them.

Shrapnel fragments of guilt or shame can burden even people who project a forcefully self-confident, assertive image. They can have an armament of overcompensation tactics to keep you or themselves from ever seeing that cause for shame. At times some random pleasant remark of mine has caused others to detonate from zero to sixty in anger or hysterics; later it turned out that they had a hidden source of guilt or shame, and I’d blundered right into it.
If a person is able to identify and talk about guilt and shame, then they may benefit just from hearing the news that they are in good company, that other people share this sentiment, and there are local or internet resources and support abounding.

Have they ever thought of harming anybody else?
Among my people this was an issue in only two cases, and those feelings were temporary. Still, it’s a good idea to find out what local resources are qualified to help if someone is troubled by an idea of this kind.

What is their secret dream?
You don’t raise that subject by saying “You should be proud of yourself. Look at all your innate gifts and skills.” The idea of unused potential is one more thing for upset people to be upset about, especially if they know their Bible story about the buried talents.
But if a person does have a secret dream of a real-world experience that they might enjoy, try listening to their ideas. The most miserable men I have ever met had some secret cherished dream, one that was reasonable, positive, and in easy reach.
One longed to put on a glittery uniform and twirl a baton in a marching band.
One yearned to go cuddle orphaned puppies in an animal shelter.
One fantasized about singing karaoke.
One wanted to decorate fancy hats with gold lamé and tulle and velvet flowers.
One confided that he wanted to make marionettes and put on a show.
When they decided to trust me with their secret, I always burst out with “Great idea! Let’s start today!” And every one of them said “What are you — nuts? I can’t do that. EVERYBODY will laugh at me,” which seems to secret code for “My dead father laughed at me 20 years ago.”
But their dead father got the wrong idea, probably smacked into him by his own dead father. The truth is, people can hook rugs or do magic tricks or yodel or flash a yo-yo and yet still look way cool. If you buy your friend that pogo stick and give it a demo in their driveway — the secret dream can crack open a window to more light and air and company.

Who is their guiding light?
This doesn’t mean an exclusional hero such as a K-Pop band singer. (Not to criticize anybody’s music — but the terms of a K-Pop promotional contract excludes just about everyone in the world from joining the band and making the cut to the top.) A media product star is not available to bring companionship or kindness to someone’s life, and media fantasy worlds don’t strike me as the safest footing for a deeply depressed person anyway.

In contrast, a guiding light is a real-life person who notices the people around them, who imparts kindness, wisdom, acceptance or support in a personal encounter, often without realizing that he or she is having any affect on other people.
This could be the elderly gentleman at the store who bags our groceries and has a smile and a “Have a nice day” for everyone. It could be the school bus driver who greets and learns the names of the pupils. It can be a priest who stays after Mass to chat with the parishioners, a little girl creating wonders in colored chalk on the sidewalk, a clarinet player on the balcony across the street, a UPS driver who sings while slugging boxes to the curb.
If we can invite our loved one to think back and talk about guiding lights, this can align them to notice and benefit from positive people in the future, and to see the guiding light within themselves.
If your loved one can’t think of any examples, show them some Steve Hartman clips from CBS News. They feature people of all kinds who create differences in their communities using the means within reach. Watching these short stories can set up some good mirror neurons and a sense of the possibilities waiting right at home.

Who is their role model in resilience?
Now don’t go hand someone a copy of Unbroken and tell them to be more like Louis Zamperini.
And again, this isn’t about a music celebrity or fashion model or actor or sports figure or portrayed superhero. But see whether your loved one resonates with someone who was slammed with suffering and adversity, and who then
1. took clearly defined steps and choices to work through it,
2. used positive values and ethics,
3. created something better that could never have happened without that adversity, and
4. shared those benefits with other people.
For me that long list includes book authors like these:
Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear
Jimmy Wayne with Ken Abraham, Walk to Beautiful
Rob Scheer, A Forever Family
Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree
Joni Eareckson Tada, Ken Tada, and Larry Libby, Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story
John Elder Robison, Be Different
Laurence Gonzales, Surviving Survival
Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam
John Hockenberry, Moving Violations
Diamond Dallas Page, Positively Unstoppable
Nick Vujicic, Life Without Limits

Who needs your loved one?
Don’t admonish someone to “Hang in there; look at the people who need you.” Chances are that your loved one is already simmering in guilt, imagining “I’ve let them all down, and they are better off without me.”
But if the conversation does come around to care for a favorite person or pet, then by all means listen to and appreciate whatever way he or she has of being there for them.

In the film Me Before You, maybe what Will needed was not only Lou to love and care for him and cheer him up and take him on vacation to lovely scenic places. Maybe what Will needed was a couple of demanding toddlers who would crawl all over him and grab his glasses and clamor for his attention and fatherhood and presence in their lives.

How is your loved one reaching out as a physical creative self?
Again, we have to be very careful not to tripwire a loved one’s shame with this.
When the women in my life talk to me, a top subject is sadness and remorse and frustration about weight, waist size, and diet. Many of us are discouraged about our insulin resistance and food cravings, or the physical experience of moving around in our own bodies, or catching sight of those bodies in the mirror without the usual assortment of clothes. And we Americans as a culture are terribly harsh about criticizing our own musical or artistic talent, preferring to find all our entertainment in purchased or downloaded professional products. (Try asking American adults whether they can sing or draw. They’ll probably protest like a bottle rocket.)
But maybe we can listen for and show pleasure at any spontaneous physical activity on their part. Maybe he or she has started to practice with a dance video, or started a little garden, or started walking a neighbor’s dog, or fished the guitar out of the closet, or rediscovered the French lessons from college days. Physical hands-on tasks and activities can move the brain forward, expanding it outward from whatever hurt and pain has injured its wellbeing. Even small tasks can build a foundation for good things.

Is there positive structure or organization to build upon in this person’s life?
Frozen intertia and perfectionism go hand in hand. Perhaps your friend is afraid to tackle any task or have any structure. Maybe he fears the shame of missing a day of the routine, or she fears being mocked if she makes a mistake. But perhaps your loved one would enjoy calling you at the same time every morning to establish a regular waking and sleeping cycle, or would like sharing even a 15 minute walk after supper. If clutter or hoarding is a source of stress, perhaps the two of you can have an Amish-style Barn-Raising or Quilting Bee: he or she sits with you at your home for one hour one week to be supportive while you declutter a closet, and then you go and visit for an hour while he or she tackles some housekeeping chore with your support.

What might help (or at least offer some breathing room) is to show up and be physically present to your loved one in some manageable consistent reliable way.
What helped me was a valiant little self-facilitated support group that met every single Saturday for ten years until everybody got better and moved away.
One group of men formed a Sunday baseball team. They were all recovering from severe sexual abuse, and all were in therapy, but according to their wives they didn’t rehash it in conversation. They just relied on the other guys to show up once a week and crack a bat and chase a ball all over a field.
One friend booked a weekly schedule among two dozen women neighbors. At the scheduled time she would show up in each living room, curl up in a corner, sob her heart out, and crochet gorgeously colored drawstring bags. We all knew her story, and we could go right on fixing dinner or grading papers until the end of the hour. Then she’d dry her eyes, give us a hug, and drive to the next house. Before long her fine handiwork was in demand in shops all over town, and she started her own business. She recovered beautifully, and two dozen women were the happy recipients of lovely crocheted gifts.

Can he or she start keeping a journal of good things?
A wonderful priest used to encourage us to keep a daily journal, and to write down three good things to be grateful for from each day of our lives.
During one very rough time I started writing down every single offer of help. When anyone said “Here is my phone number. Call any time before 10 pm,” or “I’m always happy to give you a ride to the support group,” I wrote it all down. It felt good to have a written record by the phone of people and their offers.
Nowadays, right before bed I read five Psalms, choose one particularly beautiful sentence from among them, and write it out in a notebook kept with my Bible in the kitchen. That one sentence is something to memorize and appreciate as a last thought of the day while falling asleep, and a first thought for waking up the next morning. The notebook also keeps all my favorite verses, ready to pick up and review.

Does your loved one have some idea of how a good life would look?
Perhaps the person has no idea. Here are some possibilities dreamed up by my imagination.
A family of people who support, understand, and are eager to know and respect our thoughts and feelings and to tell us theirs.
A Beloved Person to do life with, somewhere along the way.
A spiritual community.
Physical affection.
Nourishing food in health-promoting quantities.
Home space of safety and permanence as a place for rejuvenation and self-expression and hospitality.
Creative handicraft.
Balanced wholesome exercise as our health permits (I’ve known completely bedridden people who improved their health just by deep breathing and meditation).
Good work that brings fulfillment, a comfortable income, and appreciation.
Access to natural beauty.
Something to stay alive for next year, and in 5 and 10 and 20 years.

“Hey Mary — you didn’t mention diet, exercise, medications, and treatment methods!”
Yup. Plenty of websites do, written by people who unlike me are qualified experts.
And say now. Speaking of websites — advice columnist Cary Tennis is back! Good news for lucid public wisdom:
Learning From Pain: How Not to Kill Yourself

What else?

What matters is not just the strength of someone’s death wish.
What matters is the strength of their will to live.
The two can co-exist for an entire highly productive honorable lifetime. The most suicidal people I’ve known, even on their worst days, can still
– Love other people and creatures great and small.
– Create beautiful works and kind deeds.
We can affirm their ability to do just that, and we can notice and appreciate the efforts that they make.

Despondency seeps under the foundation of our shared human condition.
Sometimes despondency can take people under, and they can die from sheer pain.
It can also galvanize us to great and wondrous achievements.

Being suicidal is not just a black or white either/or condition. There can be many many steps that lead a person closer to the edge. There can be many many steps that lead away to safe pasture. Interaction with us can be one of those steps. Every day, every time another person crosses my path or my desk phone or my email, I don’t know the pain they are in or what kind of day they are having or what forces are blowing through their sky. All we can do is make every effort to say a kind word and show some courtesy and respect.

Sometimes, just for today, that can make a difference.

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2/26/2020: Secret of Eternal Beauty

Miss Florence was one class act. Blue eyes, French-braided silver hair, porcelain white skin, slender willowy figure. How old? Good luck with that; she wasn’t talking.

Miss Florence was no churchy type, but every Sunday she picked out a special outfit (on the day in question, a vintage dress in peacock blue with white piping, and a fetching blue hat). Then she’d set out from our convent housing complex, walk to The Hotel, order a cup of Earl Gray, and nurse her tea watching the smart set come and go.

Then she’d come home and slip in to a housedress and housecoat and tell us all about it while fixing Sunday supper: half a can of soup, one breadstick, instant coffee and a pudding pack. She’d preside at the convent kitchen table, holding forth on how to be a true lady in these knavish times.
— “Flo!” One resident was adding hot water to an instant cup o’ ramen. “How do you stay so glamorous? What is your secret of eternal beauty?”
I looked up from stirring my split-pea soup. Who wouldn’t want to hear the secret of eternal beauty?
— “Simple,” Miss Florence assured us. “To be a beautiful woman, look only at beauty. Refuse to look upon anything unpleasant. I look only at attractive cultured people; well groomed, well dressed.”
— “How do you do that?” asks one housemate, unwrapping a newspaper full of plucked squabs from the Chinatown Sunday-night clearance bin and tossing them into boiling water.
— “Work at it!” Miss Florence insisted. “The other day, I was sitting on the bus. In walks some pregnant girl, belly and stretch marks slopped way out to here. Sweaty tank top. Holding a grubby infant, leading a toddler, juggling a diaper bag, dropping toys and a pacifier. Naturally, I looked away. Then a man in a rusty coat, reeking of alcohol, dragged in a trash bag. So I looked the other way. Then a teenager in a wheelchair made us wait while the driver fastened his seat belts! The kid was actually drooling; he couldn’t even hold his head up straight. I don’t know why his nurse let him out! I didn’t look twice. You have to have standards.”

_______________________________
— “So ended all my hopes,” I tell Nikolai and Danica years later in 2006, “of ever attaining eternal beauty.”
Danica raises one eyebrow. No comment; Nikolai’s colostomy has all her attention. His skin had an allergic reaction to the last adhesive. She’s tending to the area now.
— “Yes, you’d better stick with your split peas,” Nikolai laughs, slapping his knee with a big hammy fist. “Say, you two! Who is the most beautiful American woman — like, one who is a real lady? Is it Jackie Kennedy?”
— “No data.” Danica is still cleaning his stoma. “I’m from Sarajevo.”
— “Who is our real American lady?” I think about it. “I vote Mrs. Dana Reeve. She died this spring.”
Nikolai listens eagerly while I tell him about Mrs. Reeve. “What a woman,” he agrees. “And what a good wife, too!”
Danica catches my eye, nodding toward a packet of gauze. I hand it over.
— “You’re beautiful yourself,” Nikolai tells Danica, hand over heart. Gallantry and good humor are the coin of the realm for this cheerful old soldier. “Like all the Yugoslav girls.” That skin inflammation must have hurt him. The least and most I can do for this hearty soul is to keep him entertained.
— “‘Miss Sarajevo’ is a documentary by Bill Carter,” I tell them. “During the war some women there held a beauty contest. For morale. With judges and all.”
— “Beauty contest.” Nothing ruffles Danica’s flair for flat affect. “Whatever.”
— “I am sure that the winner was you.” Nikolai beams at her. “Were you a contestant?”
— “I was living in a dugout under a cellar,” she reports. “After a bombing a guy on the street yelled at me ‘You! Get over here and help me.’ He was a surgeon. I held a basin for him all day, and every day. Start of my career in medicine.”
— “But you’re so young now!” Nikolai is all ears. “How old were you?”
She eyes her handiwork, paints on a different brand of adhesive, reinserts his tubing. “Ten.”

It’s anybody’s guess what Nikolai sees then, gazing at the floor. His own war ended in Stalingrad 61 years ago; his silence for her now lasts a long moment. Finally he wheezes and heaves himself to his feet, tucks in the bag and his shirt, pulls up his suspenders. “YOU are the woman,” he reflects, “with the secret of eternal beauty. And it’s not like that Miss Flo; you did not get yours by turning away from the people in trouble who look unsightly to others.”

He doesn’t mean beauty skin-deep, though Danica’s got it in spades: chiseled bone structure, cameo skin, thick copper hair cropped short like a boy’s, eyes and voice deep and cool as moonstones.
Danica rolls up the counter pad with its tubes and gauze and cotton, drops it all in the biohazard bin, unpeels her gloves inside out and drops them in, reaches for the soap dispenser.

— “Of all the people I have seen, in all my life,” she shrugs, heading for the door, “Dead, alive — every one of them was beautiful.”

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

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:
“Inspirational friend.”
“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.”
Well!
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?
No answer.
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.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H32tJEdl2X0

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.

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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”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_u9W_yIKa4

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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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Windfall

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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