Friday, 8 January 2010

Spirituality for Singles

So yesterday I was in the National Library of Scotland, and I had a look at a book called Celebrating the Single Life by Susan Annette Muto. I was struck my its solemnity. It made me feel like a frivolous soul. I imagined myself at a theological cocktail party with Susan Annette Muto, having the following chat:

Me: So what do you do?

SAM: I'm a spiritual writer.

Me: Oh, great! So am I! What have you written?

SAM: Well, among other things, I wrote a book called Celebrating the Single Life (Crossroad, 1985).

Me: That's amazing! I wrote a book about the Single Life too! It's called Seraphic Singles (Novalis, 2010).

SAM: Really? What school of spirituality did you employ?

Me: Um, what?

SAM: Did you delve into the importance of prayerful presence?

Me: Um, no.

SAM: Did you break open the scriptures to reveal the special message the Gospel holds for Singles?

Me: Um, um, wait. Let me think. Oh! Once. At least once. I'm pretty sure once. At least once. Maybe twice.

SAM: I was greatly helped by the guidance of Father Adrian Van Kaam.

Me: Well, I read The Rules over and over again.

SAM: I thought you said you were a spiritual writer.

Me: Ah, yes, well, I'm spiritual and I'm a writer, so, ah, er. ..

I'll tell you what Seraphic Singles is like. My book is like a collection of letters from a Catholic Single friend who gives a lot of unsolicited advice and has tragicomic romantic misadventures with Germans. Why Germans? Why, indeed. Anyway, it's like being able to read my blogposts without lugging your computer around. And now you can see the cover online! I'm so excited. (For more information, click on "Coming Soon.")

But for serious spirituality stuff, complete with suggestions for future readings, I recommend Muto's Celebrating Single Life. It won't make you giggle on the bus, but it seems to be full of good food for your soul. I'm going back to the National Library today to make sure.

Here's a passage from Muto's preface that struck me as particularly helpful:

Let us begin...with the bold assertion that the single state is the foundation of all human formation. We are born single (that is, unique) and we die single. In this world, before one chooses any other state in life, he or she is single. Only to the degree that persons accept this blessing of uniqueness can they enjoy the togetherness offered by marriage or community membership. Married couples who really love one another know how much the preservation of their relationship depends on respect for the other's uniqueness. Vowed religious agree that their solidarity as a community finds its greatest resource in each one's solitude before God...

Celebrating the Single Life is definitely in the school of thought that there is a real, permanent Call to the Single Life, quite apart from circumstantial singleness. So Serious Singles should particularly consider reading it. Those of you who are more-or-less sure you're going to be called to religious life or marriage might find in it more comfort as you wait for your marching orders.

There's a gem in the "Introduction" by Father Adrian von Kaam that explains how you might know you have a true vocation to the Single Life. A true vocation to the Single Life shows "little or no envy, spite, jealousy, discontent or tension over the peace, joy and nearness to God that others enjoy in their marital or conventual life...[S]uch a [Single] person is at ease in affirming others in their calling and showing them the respect they deserve."

My response is that there are some very saintly Searching Singles who don't feel envy or spite about other people's married or conventual happiness, but let that go for the moment. What I want to stress is that if you feel a deep desire to wear a Benedictine habit and sing Psalms all day or to have babies and scrub the kitchen floor while your spouse hoovers (vacuums) the sittingroom, and cry with loneliness after weddings and vow-takings, God is probably not calling you to Permanent Single Life. Not so far, anyway. You know you have been called to something (or, more accurately, in the case of a community or a person-to-marry, someone) when you fall in love with it (them, him, her).

One thing that drives me nuts is that vocations tend to be treated BOTH as something we choose of our own free will AND as something that God decrees of HIS own free will. Since people seem to act as though your vocation is something you have to pick (and yet also discern) by the time you leave university, they lead one into the temptation of telling the Almighty to hurry up already. But God is FREE. God gives FREELY. So we have to, and should, await upon our Lord's convenience and not go into super-panic in the third or fourth year of our B.A. degrees because He hasn't spoken yet.


Alex said...

When you think about it, there almost has to be a vocation to the single life. If you believe that every person is truly called to religious life, the priesthood, or marriage (as I have seen some other bloggers argue) it can lead to a frightening conclusion that goes against everything the Church stands for. Let me tell you what I mean.

Premise 1: All people are called to religious life, priesthood, or marriage.

Premise 2: For some people, such as those with Down syndrome, autism, or certain other mental and physical disabilities, marriage, the priesthood, and religious life are not viable options.

Conclusion: People with those types of disabilities are not fully human.

I'm not sure how one can avoid that conclusion from those premises. Either one denies the first premise, as you do, or one denies the second, which would mean that the Church needs to figure out a way to make religious life a viable option for people with those kinds of disabilities.

Personally, I would argue that the truth lies somewhere in between. There are some people with disabilities that are so serious that they can barely even support themselves, much less support a family or be a priest, and they would not fit in a religious community because they'd have to be taken care of all the time, and couldn't really contribute much to the community. On the other hand, there are probably some people with high-functioning autism or other types of personality disorders that would not make very good parents or priests, but could still do some good work within a religious community, provided that some accommodations were made.

Anonymous said...

Is it really so usual for Searching Singles to feel envy or spite regarding other people's marital happiness?

I cannot recall that this was ever a feature of my own response to friends' or relatives' weddings, unless I happened to be in love with the bridegroom. Yet I am no saint.

I think for many single people a more likely response to their married friends is a painful sense of loss, that they are once again losing a reliable companion in singlehood. A degree of embarrassment is not uncommon, either: it can be awkward attending weddings as a single person when fewer and fewer friends of one's own age remain single.

I mention these things because I think it would be a pity if brides were convinced that the single friends attending their weddings were probably torn apart by jealousy. It's a natural enough feeling and undoubtedly common, but it's by no means universal.


Seraphic said...

I agree with you! Although I felt blue after weddings and even after the odd ordination here and there, I never had it in for Married People or felt envious of their spiritual riches. No, instead occasionally I would get inwardly snarky about male and female religious and seminarians, who seemed to me to be the golden children of theology schools and departments, their vast riches, their comfy sitting rooms, their groaning tables and liquor (drinks) cabinets, etc., etc.

However, we called where we're called, and there is no point thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, 'cause it isn't unless you're supposed to be on it.

Once again, I think there is a difficult balance to be maintained between identifying and supporting a vocation to the Permanent SIngle Life as such and marginalizing those who very much hope they are only temporary Singles.

As for a bride, I think she ought to remember how she felt when her girlfriends were brides. She must in whatever way assure her girlfriends that she isn't dumping them, and she must remember that, as happy as they are for her, they could be feeling a bit wistful about their Single state. I mean, I felt that way at 21. Really: 21.
Totally irrational, but there it was.

berenike said...

yay you. You made that other woman's book sound quite interesting, but the quote is a dead turn off. People should employ to write amazon reviews of their books!

Seraphic said...

Oh dear! But I like her book. I don't agree with it all, but there are tons of good, rich, solemn, spiritual reading in it. If it helps, that quote isn't by her but by her mentor, Father van Kamm.

Kristine Maitland said...

Congrats on your book, cara, from an old friend and Lady Bachelor of Good Will! While no longer a Catholic, no longer a pagan, and at best an Anglican by name only, I do see your argument regard singleness as being a vocation of sorts. I always had an admiration of nuns (any denomination) but never felt the call. I think I was always meant to be random and unmarried - even to the Lord. I look forward to reading more of your blog. Caramente, Kristine

Dominic Mary said...

It seems to me, Seraphic, that - whether the quote is by SAM or Fr VK - it (at least semi-)ignores a fundamental distinction which - to adopt your system - is that between 'single' and 'Single'.

'In this world, before one chooses any other state in life, he or she is single.'

With every resepct to the author, being 'single' in that way is a condition, not a state of choice; being 'Single' (in the sense of, eg, 'Seriously Single') is a state which you choose to be in.

Now; I quite understand that many if not most 'Searching Singles' would say that they haven't chosen to be single - and would rather not be.

However, it seems to me that much of what you write (I was about to say 'preach' !) is that people who are 'single' should CHOOSE to be that, whether they are 'Serious' or 'Searching', so that their state is still one of choice . . . and you rightly commend this because it is that acceptance - which is itself a form of choice - which makes the state rich, and fulfilling, and enjoyable.

I think it's easy to see where you're coming from; whereas I find the quote suggests that - in effect - choosing to be single is choosing to stand still; whereas you and I would say that it was choosing to move forward, even if it does not involve a change in condition - or, to be Aristotelian about it, we believe that the substance of being 'Single' is not the same as that of being 'single', even though the accidents are !

Alisha said...

Alex - thank you! I've tried to make that point so often before and you've done it more succinctly than I managed...the only thing I would caution is that people with disabilities contribute, but not in the traditional ways that would be expected by traditional communities - this is the premise of l'Arche community.