Being a traditional Christian means that single life comes with a few assumptions.
1: If we turned our relationships over to God’s will in the first place, then He’s worked them out for communion with Him, and for love towards one another.
2: Life, single or married wasn’t designed to bring me constant satisfaction and good times; it was designed to make us more like His Son.
That said, on to our three points.
1: Among traditional Christians there are people who hoped to find a spouse, but haven’t. A few of them are sad about this. (Or maybe only one of us is sad. Maybe I’m it?)
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 supposed to be “Great, thanks! Yours?”
And yet… Once in a while, after I earn a baseline of attending regularly and setting up chairs and bringing brownies, I try some emotional honesty. “Pretty lonely. Being single can be hard.”
The church member will laugh, change the subject, and walk away. But first, they will hurry to distract you with the first helpful 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 laugh and walk away just as fast.
But at church, can we come up with 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.”
Yes there are. And who is invited? The flyers will spell out that it’s for college students, or youth, or people up to 35 years of age. 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 some younger women getting married.)
I go to Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran services (and visit any church that happens to be open for guests), I like to read websites of churches of 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 designed for parents, or newlyweds, or engaged couples, or college students, or children. There might be a church with a special welcome for mature single people too. Maybe some day I’ll find it.
At Sunday services, ministers and clergy are pleased to offer up thanks to God for the presence of children and young couples. It would be a pleasant surprise to hear one say, “And how wonderful that we have single people too, with their maturity and wisdom.”
One sweet young priest led 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.
And when a church member does reach out in friendship, it’s probably going to be with his or her counterpart another family. (One church member welcomed me cordially to the congregation by saying “Keep coming back; you’ll find out your kids are the same age as someone else’s kids. That’s how you make friends here.”) 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 woman, and why is she smiling at me?). A visitor from another planet might think The Good News is “Look! We are mated and breeding regularly! And if someone loves you, it means God loves you too — and so will we.”
It’s 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. Not 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 a passage in a church copy of Diary of a Russian Priest by Father Alexander Elchaninov:
There is the monastic life and the state of marriage. The third condition, that of virginity in the world, is extremely dangerous, fraught with temptation, and beyond the strength of most people. Moreover, those who adhere to this condition are also a danger to the persons around them. The aura and beauty of virginity, deprived of direct religious significance, in a sense ‘nuptial feathers,’ exercise a powerful attraction and awaken unedifying feelings.”
The best denomination I’ve ever discovered for fellowship was the Metropolitan Community Church. I belonged to one MCC for years, simply because the members lived the Gospel right to the ground in their radical hospitality for anybody who walked in and needed help. Members treasured their friendships, and pitched in with mutual everyday support of all kinds — jobs, housing, social resources, visits to shut-ins, rides to the doctor. That was their foundation for worship on Sundays.
But in many congregations, once the Sunday coffee and treats are put away, the 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’s still a castle in the air, the thought of Christian companions sharing warmth and mutual support, prayers and a walk and a bowl of soup and deep conversations about our spiritual paths. But if I confide a wish for real companionship, Christians have one resource to offer in abundance: advice, whatever cliche leaps to mind. They are confident that their pat answers are fresh, original, and certain to set me straight. 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 are here purely to manifest the Holy Spirit. We have priests administering sacraments, not social workers intervening in your personal life. 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 where God has called you.
Interesting: church members agree that a calling to other states in life is a vocation, a response of free will.
In fact, Americans tend to frown nowadays upon locking people into monasteries, or forcing them into marriage; Christians wouldn’t say that coercion is a calling. But they’re still happy to inform single people that we made some cosmic agreement to end up here.
Actually, God called me to marriage. Clearly, too.
I knew that at age 14, already planning to marry and settle with my husband on a farm and have six kids of our own and adopt six more. Every life experience and setback, I’ve offered it up as a lesson to become the very best wife for the husband God sends me.
People in any state of life experience 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.”
Well, some of us are perfectly suited for marriage and end up without it, watching it bestowed quite freely even on people who don’t revere the sacrament at all.
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, someone 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.
It’s not about gift-wrapped chocolate boxes though, 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 something close couples do when they’ve been out with other people. They process it all. “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 shared story or in-joke, and balance their energies to navigate future interactions together as a team. It’s a beautiful thing to watch as a bystander.
I come home from social events still buzzing with the static of spoken and implicit conversations and cues. It would be a great happiness to share, learn about, heal from, and validate 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, 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?
There’s a forged tempered communion in a strong marriage. 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. Without the muscles to cough or clear her throat, one of Joni’s bouts of pneumonia came close to claiming her life; it was Ken’s hands holding her up and his voice coaching her to breathe that pulled her back from a near-death experience. Opening her eyes she had a vision of Christ working 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 celebration to prepare us for facing a lifetime of solitude. We aren’t offered a year of counseling, a community celebration, or any support at all. The church has only one ritual to mark our lives. When that happens, and it will, 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 for deceased single people the word “Beloved” never appears. She notes a few of the alternative epitaphs:
“She had fun.”
“Still not a morning person.”
7. But for Catholic women there is the Ordo Virginum, the privilege of taking vows as a Bride of Christ living in the world.
Yes indeed. For a woman who takes vows as a Perpetual Virgin, the website consecratedvirgins.org promises two special privileges:
1. A chance to personally meet with her Bishop once a year, and
2. With diocesan permission, the right to keep in her home a consecrated Communion Host of Christ, her Bridegroom.
But the Church specifies that because she is pledged not to the Church but to Christ Himself, she can never ever be released from her vow. Hence the prerequisite of “a number of years” of “tranquil celibacy.”
I witnessed a stately and heartful Dedicated Virgin ceremony once, for a woman who for years longed for marriage. The hope of finding a husband caused her such sadness that finally she resolved: If she was still single at 50, she would stop the search and become a perpetual virgin. After her ceremony she smiled “At least the suspense is over! My cat and I will have the bed to ourselves for good.”
8. But if no man married you, it means that Jesus set you apart to be his very own lover.
Meaning that God is unable to be close to married people?? Jesus and I are close already. He operates through free will, not sabotage.
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 very closest companion and true love in life.”
It was worth a try.
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 two 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.
Was my motive too selfish? Was it just bargaining for God to step in and console me?
Those evenings in the dark always left me so desolate and empty that afterwards I’d beeline to Trader Joe’s to buy ice cream and chocolate, wolfing them down in my little studio room. 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.”
At long last, an answer came from the altar. “Of course nobody wants you. That’s because I don’t want you either.”
Now, you don’t need a theology degree to tell that this was no message from God.
All the same, it sent me bolting out of that church and straight to the ice cream aisle.
That was my first year in a new city. My job was silent nights in the ER with sleeping patients in pain, going home to dormitory neighbors who were so intoxicated that I slept in a locked bathroom with furniture barricading the studio door. If Father had known all that, he would have told me to join the church garden club or the choir.
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. 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).
People think this one will cheer us right up.
Here it is in The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher, pg. 214: “Jesus said that some are called by God to be chaste singles (‘eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’).”
Guys. Jesus never said that!
Jesus said that some people make themselves eunuchs. Voluntary. Free will again.
Here are more thumpable Bible tidbits that people enjoy handing out.
– In Christ there is no male or female, so you’re not missing out on anything, are you? Or,
– St. Paul says it’s better for everyone to remain unmarried. Or,
– In heaven no one else is going to marry or be given in marriage either. 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.
You ought to, and if you don’t you deserve a lot of support and help.
But you probably have gotten some at some point. And your chances of having some tonight are still higher than zero.
14. It really hurts that you single people just assume that married life is perfect!
Does anyone anywhere think that? A lot of us were raised by couples; we got to be inside observers on how hard a relationship can be.
Meanwhile, maybe you can rest a bit 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 at the very time that the floor is falling out from under you. How are we gonna figure that out and be there for you?
Or then again, sometimes I never hear from you at all except when you’d like to vent a bit, and then you’ll both be back in love again and gone out of sight. Therapist Lori Gottlieb told it like it is 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 can take for granted a whole wealth of social, legal, and ordinary homespun privileges. 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 their partner will simply be there for them. 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 better attention from a graduate school admissions program. I watched with awe, thinking “The life of a married woman is worth so much more.”
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 whole scene changed. Every staff member snapped to attention and greeted me with quiet formal deference, stepping aside for my handsome companion and then eyeing me with a wondering look of “Hey now. Was she a female all this time? Was there something special about her that I’ve been missing?” It’s been so long, I’d forgotten that a man alongside would throw so much respect at my feet.
This is not 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 — that is, while 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 will go farther 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. 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.
Jesus always knew best, when He took away the dating prospects over the years. With the perspective of time I could write up a whole litany of thanksgiving for the times when God shielded me from outcomes which would have hurt me and my faith, and another litany for the best ones, who died young and still inspire me today.
Tante Corrie ten Boom mentions this 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.”
There is comfort and wisdom here, though that state of contentment, that “always happy,” doesn’t come to all of us.
16. We know how you feel. We went through it too. We were all single too at one time.
Yes, we all tend to be 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, do not tell me you know what it’s like 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 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.
And the widowed women in my life give top priority to conversation and thought about their spouses. They are also discovering the wonder of 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. 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. It’s a very different phase of a different journey.
After attending one church for years, I was volunteering at a quilting group for women who found themselves single after retirement. They confided their sense of isolation, living alone in large four-bedroom two-bath houses now that their husbands were gone and the kids and grandkids far away. Every woman shared the same heartfelt fears: “What if I fall and can’t get up? What if an intruder breaks in? How will I ever pay the property taxes? My neighbors and their houses are gone; it’s just new high-rises all around me.”
Eagerly I shared with them my dream of single women forming Beguine communities — Christian fellowships where we all care for one another. “The mature single women in my life are all frightened of being priced out of our apartments,” I told them. “What if we each rented a basement room from each of you? We could share shopping and chores, invest our rent money in your houses, and form our own virtual neighborhood centered on this church, with women visiting to help each other.”
The ladies gave me a blank stare and a long silence before continuing their conversation.
(“Ya scared ’em off,” a galfriend of mine told me later. “They figured you’d show up in the driveway with the U-Haul and the toaster oven.”)
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 may never do it again.
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 benefit from the thoughtful courtesy of a ride home at nightfall. It is a touching privilege, and something to savor and appreciate.
Then after watching the 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 errors,
who will keep your letters and keepsakes out of the dumpster when you die.
And 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 no one, it is not. There’s a difference.
I have told this to church people gently, patiently, in detail, over and over. Not a single one believes me. 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.”
Should I act it out for them with Boy Scout wigwag banners? 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 God is longing for you to give your heart to Him. You are afraid to open yourself to the love in our hearts too. 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 human needs.
Well, God wasn’t enough for you married folks, was He? Did you try postponing that wedding to give Him a chance?
That’s expecting a lot of Jesus, and even more from me. How can any reasonable person believe that the benefits of human bonding can be successfully duplicated by bonding with Jesus? That’s like asking me to learn photosynthesis. If I stand here long enough with my feet in a tub of water and pebbles and my head exposed to sunshine, I can somehow generate my own sugar supply all by myself.
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 anyway, because all erotic passion was created by Jesus for the exclusive purpose of pointing us toward Him: “[Celibate] Singleness now is a way of saying that this future reality is so certain and so good that we can embrace it now.”
By the ultimate marriage, he means the Book of Revelation, with its description of a Bride of perfect beauty. Since no woman measures up to perfect beauty, therefore the Bride can not be a woman at all; she is 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 to 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 anyone out there consoled by this?)
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, and to pray for the healthy conjugal lives of married people. He advises singles to study Bible verses which praise erotic love, so that we can keep in mind the immense meteorically dazzling majesty of sex so that we will never dare to violate its sanctity by having any ourselves.
Does that work?
Single Christians who have walked the strait and narrow already tend to be idealistic about conjugal life. Its portrayal as a gem-studded epic, or as people with perfect bodies rolling in mountains of spices and ointments, is not good preparation or good realism.
The book’s main source of comfort is a core promise: 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 ever care about or remember me was long deceased and gone. There was no consciousness left but awareness of the Trinity and the thought “Finally! 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 a Sunrise Yoga class. (But Mary — traditional Christians don’t do yoga! True, but it sure seemed worth a try.) In class, at a wall of picture windows facing east overlooking our own city alight with gold, our gentle luminous loving teacher coached us from pose to pose, affirming the beauty of our bodies and their connection with all that is bright and good in the cosmos. It did me a world of good.
Now let’s open our Bibles to Genesis 2, a quote that Christians don’t think to mention to 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).”
Why 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. That family in the parish hall can’t find the car keys, the kids are dunking a beanie baby doll in Dad’s coffee, and Mom is ransacking the kitchen for the right adaptor to the waffle maker. Married people have zero bandwidth to sit and listen to how single people feel.
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. (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 the 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 a quote from young Father Mike Schmitz, one of the Catholic Church’s brighter sunbeams in these latter days. (Though actually it’s a quote from his sister, who happens to be happily married.) In his YouTube talk “Learning to be Alone,” Father Mike teaches that God creates us for relationship, but that in this broken world loneliness is part of all human life. He recommends that we allow loneliness to
1. teach us to sit all alone in a room with ourselves,
2. propel us out into service work, and
3. purify us into becoming saints.
Well Father, we’re on it. We’re 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.
29. Loneliness is only a perception. Your wish for companionship is only a “felt need” beckoning you toward a holier life. 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.
What about your devotion to your spouse and children, and your commitment to see them healthy and happy and close to you? You don’t seem to see your love as conflicting with your salvation or Kingdom work.
In Meaning & Medicine, Larry Dossey describes research in the sharply increased mortality danger for survivors in the first year after the death of a spouse. I hope that no one has ever told a bereaved spouse that his or her bereavement is only a perception of a felt need, or that the ache in their hearts was deliberately put there by Jesus because it can be fulfilled only by Him.
When it comes to solitary independence as a 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 trying to nurse on a wad of terrycloth.
We humans are made in the image of God, but like Harlow’s monkeys we’re primates too — suited 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 primate nature is slapping around any group member who dares to express a vulnerable emotion. The group 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 feels compelled to hurl tactless insensitive comments at any member in distress. 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 fool the leopards.
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 who can be gladdened by food packages and mission visits.
This is why the Church celebrates and favors dating couples excited by the anticipated joys of married life.
It favors married people delighted by their infant, ready for baptism.
It favors seminarians galvanized by the graces of new priesthood.
But where is the Church for those 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 of any man who didn’t know what brick wall he was facing), 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 seem to notice.
And finally, here is one thing that Christians have never said to me.
30. But if we ever acknowledged that you single people are lonely, we might have to face the fact that we’re lonely in our marriages or rectories or convents too.
Yup. And if you do, then we can all support each other more deeply than we ever have before.
Loneliness is everywhere; there is an infinite number of ways to feel excluded and left out. As a white able-bodied cis-gender American I float along in a bubble of random unearned privileges that leave out all kinds of people. Right now I’m reading a fine book, Walk to Beautiful by country singer Jimmy Wayne. It’s about his childhood running for his life and surviving violence and still keeping his soul. Today he dedicates his life to teenagers growing out of foster care, raising funds with songs like “Where You’re Going.” 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 minority of single people who are actually 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. 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 rejuvenate women’s communities, pay rent, fix up the buildings, build vocation websites, and nurse the older Sisters.
We’re not asking church members to fix our problems. But it would help to hear any acknowledgment that for a few people, being single is not just some superpower privileged gift of God, but a plain misfortune. It helps to hear any kind word of how deeply it can affect the course of a life. One wonderful Dominican confessor prayed deeply about my situation, and with great empathy said “My sense from God was that He selected several men for you over the years who would have made excellent husbands. But they did not listen to Him; they chose their own will, and went their own way.” That was a validating thing to hear.
It was a rare consolation too, to come across this verse, apparently by a Russian poet by the name of Vladimir Semënov:
You’ve tried to find him everywhere.
He must exist, he must be out there.
Where could he be?
And so your youth passed by,
the beauty that once shone.
You live on, never knowing:
You were a wife to none, a widow all along.
And he was killed at war, before you ever met.
And here’s a gentle word from the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Renewal, in the Bronx.
As Mother Claire mentions, the mystery of suffering with an unfulfilled desire could be part of an economy of grace and redemption for the good of the world.
“Giving God Your Hopes and Dreams.”
It would be wonderful if single people felt supported enough that they could even ask themselves whether they would like any closeness in their lives, and how that might look.
In America, being alone looks easy on the surface; we can stay home with the internet, Amazon deliveries, and all the comforts money can buy. The single women in my life action-pack 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: that women are just fine all on their own, thanks.
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 even the churches disparage or 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) learning to be radiantly happy all alone (and failing that too). It’s still standing in the parish hall with the small talk, watching the family affiliations and networks flashing all around, and wondering how the social machine works and how to merge in.
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 there was 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 is the rightful home and cradle of human love.
Here’s a parting thought that 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. — Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
God is still good.
Hope is out there, waiting to be found again.
Maybe there is some for me too. Maybe in this lifetime.
Update, Valentine’s Day:
I printed out this essay, knowing that some day I’d be walking down the street and see my local pastor and give it to him. Putting the printout in my knapsack I set out for home, and there on the street was Pastor calling out and saying hello. So I gave him this essay, explaining “It’s not meant to be blasphemous. It’s really just wrestling with an angel.”
He got back to me with a great idea that I could start a group, and the church can host it in the building. We’re going to meet to talk about it next week.
You never know.