It's Friday. For Catholics, it's traditionally a day of penance and, interestingly enough, identity renewal. If I go all day without eating meat, as I generally do, I feel a sense of belonging, not just to other traditionally-minded Catholics alive today, but to generations of Catholics in the past.
Many of the old traditions and metaphors had (and have) an importance not fully appreciated until they were allowed to lapse. The "good news" that British Catholics didn't have to stick to fish or veg on Fridays turned out not to be such good news after all. It did a number on their sense of identity, and it took away something we all need training in: healthy renunciation of, and healthy detachment towards, created things, to say nothing of acceptance of God-sent suffering.
The primary metaphor in my Confirmation classes was "adult in the Church." The second one was "priesthood." I don't remember much about "priesthood" except that we fourteen year olds all wore stoles to our Confirmation. B.A. looks at the my Confimation group photo and screams, utterly screams, with horror at this exaggeration of the "priesthood of the laity." However, I somehow got the sense that "adult in the Church" was an even more bogus concept. I mean, I was just fourteen. I still wasn't allowed to get my ears pierced, never mind driving, buying booze, seeing a restricted movie or voting.
Fortunately for little me, my school never bothered burning the pre-Vatican II religion textbooks I found in a classroom cupboard. This religion textbook was really cool. It made being a Catholic Christian sound like the most important thing in the entire world. And it said that Confirmation was when boys and girls were transformed from children of God into soldiers of Christ.
Soldiers of Christ! When I was 14, I wasn't thinking, "Oh, militarism is sooo bad. It is horrible. What a terrible image, soaked in blood, responsible for the sufferings of Africa, blah blah blah." When I was 14, I still thrilled to the battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings and gobbled up RAF stories. For me, Soldiers of Christ was a deeply chivalric image, and what I thought particularly cool was that girls, like St. Joan of Arc, could be knightly too.
The textbooks also said that on my Confirmation Day, the bishop would slap me. This slap would be a reminder that being a Christian is hard and that sometimes I would suffer for my faith. As a matter of fact, the bishop did not slap me, but he did clunk his heavy hand down upon my shoulder, and that was almost as good.
Beforehand, sitting there in the Church, I thought about the (minimal) preparation of my religion class ("The bishop says he won't confirm anyone who doesn't know the Apostle's Creed") and the stirring images of the old religion texbook. What did Confimation mean? The two things that popped into my mind, so clearly that I still remember them today, were that Confirmation meant 1. I couldn't have sex before marriage and 2. I might be martyred by the Soviets, should they finally invade. No-sex and death. Yee-hah! Well, look at the sufferings of Bilbo and Frodo in their journeys. No guts, no glory. No crown without a cross, bay-bee.
Listen. This Single Life thing? It can really suck. I've been married (happily this time) for eight months, and I haven't forgotten the dire suckitude being Single can be. But that's the mission God's handed you for now, soldier. And there are two basic ways of living the Single Life.
First, there's the half-assed way of trolling bars and dating sites, and hanging with just anybody, and compromising your religious principles, or going to strip bars (male) or reading racy romance novels aka erotica (female), wrongly thinking they will help you blow off steam. Then there's the dignified way: thinking very carefully about whom to spend time with, planning ahead for emotionally-difficult times (Christmas, Valentine's), praying, managing one's TV and reading habits, and balancing social, work and alone time.
Post-divorce, I've been down both roads, and the dignified one is better. Much, much better. You're a soldier, and you can be a lousy soldier ( Private MacAuslan comes to mind ) or you can be a great soldier, a hero soldier like Sir Douglas Bader. Speaking of Douglas Bader, my biggest hero when I was 14, it is true that sometimes, spiritually speaking, you get taken into captivity by the Enemy. But, then like the guys in the Great Escape, your mission is to dig your way out of Stalag Luft III.
Do you get some medals, some nice reward, for all your suffering, for all your derring-do? I don't know. Don't ask me. What I know is that when all this is over, you're going to be dead. And so am I. Life is one big battle nobody survives. However, when it's over, you're going to have to look your Commanding Officer in the eye, and you are going to want to hear Him say, "Good job, soldier."
So hang in there.
Update: My latest column in the Catholic Register is about Vocation. Once again, something for Single people!