Friday, 9 August 2013

Auntie Seraphic & the Vocations Victim

I spent some time this morning answering this letter, so it is the only Single topic on my mind. Hopefully it will not be a shock to the letter writer if she finds my answer here before she finds it in her in-box.

Dear Auntie Seraphic, 

Hi! I enjoy your blog very much. I just shared it with a friend of mine who appreciated it too! 

So, I'm wondering what to do when priests cannot seem to find another topic to talk to young women (people) about than "Wow, you would make a good nun. OR maybe you should find a boyfriend. Have you LISTENED to God about what he wants for your life?" 

In all respect to their (probably) kindly and fatherly intentions ,I find this insulting  because it seems to imply 1) that I'm in my mid-twenties and haven't even THOUGHT about what God wants from me or 2) that somehow I am weird and less a person/Catholic/devoted to God because I'm not in some kind of life-long commitment yet. 

So how does one respectfully and yet abruptly end such conversations without appearing rude/getting angry/bursting into tears? 

I'm of the opinion that even priests don't need to know your whole life story unless they are your confessor/spiritual director or close friends. It just makes life too complicated when you have to answer off the cuff "Yes I have thought about it but discerned X was not for me and was then dating Y but he broke up with me to join the seminary" etc etc. 

How does one kindly and respectfully but firmly end such conversations? 

Does that question imply in it the hopelessness for our generation that it seems to? 


God bless,
Vocations Victim 

Dear Vocations Victim,

As someone who married at 25 and divorced at 27 and got an annulment at 28 and didn't marry again until 38, I do not like the panicky climate of vocation angst that has prevailed since the 1980s. 

I think it stems from the loss of thousands of priests and nuns in the 1960s and 1970s, who abandoned their responsibilities, communities and vows, either to get married or, in some cases, to have a good time. Somehow subsequent generations are expected to pick up the slack. And I suspect we are are expected to pick up the reproductive slack for two generations of Catholics on the Pill, too. And all this without the wider, confident culture of the pre-1963 era that honoured priests, religious life and large families.

If you restate this in your own words to the next priest who gives you a hard time for not being a nun or a married lady, that might give him pause for thought.  

I see that you are worried about having appropriate respect for a priest. As a fellow Catholic I understand this. However, as a fellow Catholic who has been around priests quite a lot, in theology school, for example, I understand that the best way to respect a priest is to speak to him as truthfully as you would to any other adult. Say exactly what you think, and make it short and snappy, with no hemming and hawing or life story.  Anger--which can be a virtue (see Thomas Aquinas)--is useful here. 

If you think you would love to be married, but the men of your generation all seem to expect premarital sex as a normal part of dating, tell him. 

If you think you would love to be a nun, but your parents despise nuns, tell him that.

If you think he is being terribly rude and inappropriate, tell him you think he is being terribly rude and inappropriate. 

If you wonder why he would assume you have not thought about your vocation, ask "Why do you assume that I haven't?" If you feel insulted, say "I feel insulted."

If you feel like bursting into tears, there are few things men hate more than women bursting into tears. I think women underestimate the power of our tears. Of course, this can be manipulative, so only do it if you can't help it or it is the only way to express yourself without shrieking. Crying is okay; shrieking is not.

You might also ask him what he personally is doing to help his young Catholics meet each other or religious communities. Has he thought of organizing a parish dance? Has he thought of organizing a parish visit to the local monastery? How old was he when he was ordained? Were his parents supportive? What if they hadn't been?

What I am suggesting takes an awful lot of confidence. However, part of becoming an adult--and how the post-Vatican II era bangs on about the laity "becoming adults"--is asserting oneself before officious adults. 

I realize what you want to do is stop the conversation without rocking the boat, but acting as though a priest were just an ugly but precious piece of china you'd prefer to keep at a respectful distance is not the Christian, Catholic way. It's his job to help you, and if he's doing it all wrong, it is respectful--and loving--to tell him that. 

I hope this is helpful. 

Grace and peace,

Sociologists would have a field day if they examined the ways priests and young people, especially young women, interact. (Actually, that would be a field day for a sociologist.) If a middle-aged man you barely knew told you you would make a good nun or asked why you didn't have a boyfriend, I very much hope you wouldn't feel you had to tell him your life story. Of course you don't. And, indeed, you shouldn't. In fact, I bet the average Scottish twenty-something lassie  would look at such a man with venom and say, "P*** off." And off would toddle the middle-aged man with his tail between his legs. 

Now, obviously we can't say "p*** off" to a priest because a priest does not deserve such a curt (but effective) dismissal just for doing his job. His job is saving our souls, and he has been taught that the way to do this is to get us to hear God's voice calling us to religious life or marriage, not just to love Him with all our hearts, all our souls and all our minds, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. And, to give the seminaries credit, both marriage and religious life do indeed free us up for the Commandment of Love because once we get the Sex and Marriage Questions settled, we can stop worrying about them.  

As Catholics who want to have our souls saved, we have to help priests do their job. And the only way to do that is to speak to them honestly, as adults. That does not mean telling them our life stories. That does not mean apologizing for ourselves. That certainly does not mean uttering a few platitudes as if stuck with our father's most boring friend at a cocktail party.   

By the way, one of the most simple and devastating questions in the whole world is the word "Why?" If any priest, inspired by my obvious and perhaps distressing lack of children, told me that I would make a good mother, I would say, "Thank you. Why?" I would not feel I had to tell him how I old I was when I married, or how old I am now, and what the doctor said, and if I have considered adoption, and blah blah blah. 

That reminds me, "You would make a good nun" is not in itself a bitter insult in Catholic circles and should not be regarded as such. It is not the same thing as saying "You look like a sexless being no man would ever want." That is not what a nun is, no matter what pop culture says. If anyone tells you that you would make a good nun, say, "Thank you. Why?"  Unless, of course, it is a complete stranger whose advances you have rejected, in which case, if he looks too old or timorous for violence, consider your local version of "P*** off."


proverbialgirlfriend said...

It's too funny! Before reading your advice, Auntie, I thought to myself, I'd tell her: "Oh, honey, if you need to just go ahead and cry. Men won't know what to do with that and they'll think twice before ever prompting that sort of experience again." :) I also think your advice for direct statements is a breath of fresh air. Here's one more: "Why, I am living my vocation--the primary one-- to love and serve God to one day be with Him in heaven." Conclude with beatific smile.

I also like your line that the secondary vocations of "marriage or religious life free us up for the Commandment of Love." But you know, I have been mulling over the recent posts on vocation and am leaning toward the thought that perhaps these secondary ones are not...mandatory (that is the best word I can think of). Rather, they are specific callings to a specific community/ usually most people I've met called to the religious life felt called to a specific order/the seminary; and many many married women I know realized while they had desired marriage, they only felt called to marriage to a specific person.

I too wish there wasn't such anxiety about "my vocation" and it being fulfilled/unfilled, because I feel that my primary vocation takes much more priority than my desired vowed one (marriage in my case).

Bernadette said...

Once I was listening to a Theology On Tap on the topic What Celibate People Do To Have Fun. I think it was supposed to be a "it's fun to be holy and chaste" sort of thing. The speaker was a young-ish (under 40) priest, who had discerned his vocation before he was 21, entered the seminary at 23, and was ordained at I think age 26 or 27. He proceeded to tell a whole bar full of mostly single Catholics that the very best fun in the world, the only thing that's really 100% fun, is either having married sex, or concelebrating the Eucharist if you're a priest.

When he was challenged on this during the Q&A (specifically, is there any hope for fun for the audience members, some of whom may never get married, and most of whom will never be priests), he basically said no. He then went on to say that if you weren't happy being single, then clearly you haven't prayed enough about your vocation.

When he said that, I looked at the other ladies sitting at the table with me: beautiful, holy, accomplished, intensely prayerful, who have discerned their vocation to the married life twenty ways from Sunday (literally), and almost all currently single. And that's when I decided that maybe I should go home early that night so that I didn't have to go to Confession for punching a priest.

Bless his little heart.

Sarah said...

I have been very lucky, I guess, with regards to priests. I know several who I would regard as close friends, and some of my old school mates who went into the seminary upon high school graduation are starting to be ordained.

Because of my relational "nearness" to them, I have a very fond love for priests, but also a very realistic view of them as people. One of them, not too long ago, asked a personal question and I had no qualms about telling him, politely and coolly, to mind his own darn business.

But my spiritual director is really the best. He has never insinuated that he thought I should be a nun. In fact, when I mentioned the idea in half-jest, there was a little bit of an eyeroll and a chuckle as if to say, "Yeah, whatever."

I also have close relationships with many nuns who were former teachers. If pressure toward the convent has come from any direction, it's been from them. But mostly they just want to remind us that that's an option, and an option that can lead to as much happiness as one might find in marriage, and possibly they want to share their obvious happiness with the younger girls they know.

Seraphic said...

Oh, Bernadette. I can't stop laughing. Ah ha ha ha! It used to be that only the smartest boys could become priests. ROFL! Oh dear, oh dear.

I wonder who told him that the greatest fun in the world for laypeople is married sex, and if he really thinks concelebrating the Eucharist is the greatest fun he ever has. It sounds more like he thinks he is toeing the party line and actually hasn't a clue what fun is.

So many things are 100% fun. Dear dear dear! Pyjama parties with my dear friends Lily and Stella (not their real names) were 100% fun. Aquinas class when the dumbest guys were away was 100% fun. Writing up a report on a particularly newsworthy Sunday is 100% fun. Drinking too much vodka and dancing to German techno music (alone or with BA) at full blast because there are no neighbours is 100% fun. Driving through the streets of a German city with seminarians to celebrate a German football win was 100% fun. Provoking a stubbornly silent but intelligent man into speech is great fun. Just talking to Lily on the phone (let alone in person) is 100% fun. Watching a new episode of "Sherlock" is 100% fun. Writing posts can be 100% fun.

So many things are fun. Even translating Polish can be fun.

I wish people, be they virgins or libertines, would stop telling virgins that sex is semper et ubique the best fun you can have. It isn't. Sometimes it is great fun, but sometimes it isn't, and some people discover it takes a lot of getting used to.

Mustard Seed said...

What bugs me about this is that just because someone is a priest, doesn't mean he has the right to ask such personal questions about vocation, unless a person has specifically sought out his advice or opinion. I guess they mean well. I like your suggestion of asking "why?" because it puts the question back on the asker.

Do you think the response should be any different for family members? I had an older, distant cousin (who really barely knows me) say, "Gee, you're getting to the age when your friends must be getting married. Have you tried online dating?" This came literally moments after "how are you" and years after I had last talked to him. I was 28 and actually had a boyfriend at the time, and the remark came totally out of nowhere. I was speechless and still feel mad about it.

I think people don't realize (or maybe don't care?) how personal they are getting with these types of questions. With such a sore subject, it's very hard to be gracious.

Seraphic said...

"Have you tried online dating" indeed! I'd be thinking, "Have you?" or "So, how are things going with whatshername? Gee, you're getting to the age when most of your friends are divorced. Have you tried counselling?"

Come to think of it, he did have internet dating on his mind... Hmm... I wonder how things ARE going with whatshername?

Seraphic said...

So that would be my answer for officious older male relations. Enough about your personal life, let's have a look at his!

Mustard Seed said...

Hahaha... that "have you tried counseling" line is a great one. :) I'm not sure how I'd deliver any response without revealing my anger, which is not an emotion I'd like to introduce to an otherwise jolly family party, so ever since then I've avoided that guy at family functions. Easy enough! Coincidentally he's married, but had a bunch of broken engagements before then and maybe the grass looks greener when he looks over his shoulder. Who knows.

Anonymous said...

Totally off topic Seraphic but I have been thinking of the young girl Yulia who went missing. They made a renewed appeal for her and the photo is much clearer. She actually looks Spanish or Portugese here.

I was listening to the news today about the teenagers who committed suicide after online bullying. It is easy to forget that social media can also be a blessing. I pray they find her soon.

By the way, what was that joke you made about Pelagianism to your aunt when she asked if you were still single? I liked that one.


Seraphic said...

Heavens, I don't remember. It couldn't have been an aunt, as I don't have any. My favourite answer to "Why are you Single" is "I was born that way" but I'm drawing a blank on Pelagius.

Maggie said...

It's from a few years ago, "The Gentle Art of Single Self Defence" and the relevant excerpt is this:

"Goodness, Mary Kate, how can such a beautiful girl still be Single?"

"Well, Aunt Joanie, I've prayed about this, and I've concluded it's God's will for me right now."

"Oh, um," says Aunt Joanie, totally embarrassed by the G-word. "Well, you know what they say: God helps those who help themselves!"

"Gracious," says Mary Kate. "Is that in the Bible? Anyway, that sounds like Pelagianism to me."


"You know, the idea that if you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, independent of the help of God's Grace, you can reach perfection. St. Augustine was really down on that."


"Oh, Aunt Joanie, you're such a joker!"

Renee said...

One of the things that really set me off the deep-end for my clinical depressive episode this summer was the fact that I went to talk to the new priest at my parish and the first thing he asked me during Confession was whether or not I have discerned the religious life. My seminarian friend had already asked me if I would consider becoming an Consecrated Virgin a week or so prior. I told both of them that I feel called to marriage. My seminarian friend said that so did most Consecrated Virgins until they became CVs, and the priest said "well so did I, but sometimes we have to give things up for God."

Meanwhile I had attractive militant agnostic asking me to coffee.

And just graduated college and no job.


Seraphic said...

@Maggie. I am in awe of your research skills.

@Renee. That's terrible. I'm so sorry that happened to you. What to say in those circumstances, when your very heart is laid open to those men...? Well, the best I can come up with is "Well, I'm not them, am I?" and "Well, I'm not you, am I?"

Seraphic said...

Meanwhile, I see I may never be able to quit answering Auntie Seraphic letters, if that's what priests are saying to young women.

I may have to open an Auntie School.

tryingtobeseraphic said...

Thank you for responding to my question!! I was not at all alarmed to find it published here, I thought it might be something others experience too.

All my friends certainly have. Maybe another thought, we can remind priests that "finding your vocation" is not the only virtue, perhaps patience and perseverance are virtues too? " And that's the one I'm working on at the moment? lol


Renee said...

Thank you, Seraphic. Those would have been good responses. I will take note for future encounters, though I am avoiding future encounters to best of my ability as I am still in depressed state.

I was hoping this new priest might end up being my spiritual director too, but his preliminary mode of communicating with me put me off.

Anonymous said...

That is really terrible. I am sorry. Great advice from Auntie Seraphic.

A few similar things happened to my in my early-to-mid twenties, too. Once I was at mass with a friend of mine who'd gotten married at twenty-three and had a baby at twenty-four. A few older women looked at her and the baby and said, "It's so great that you're following your vocation!" I sat aside, a bit stung at the idea that I wasn't doing so- and grateful my friend who desperately wanted to get married young but whose college boyfriend went to the monastary wasn't around!

It's tough. There ARE a lot of young people who rarely if ever think about their vocation, so I can see the urge... but I don't think those comments would help those people, and they are certainly don't help those of us who perhaps spent too much time occupied with this question.


Seraphic said...

I would have gone for "What a beautiful baby! And what a beautiful mother! It does my old heart good to see you. You look like a painting of the Madonna and Child."

And I am reasonably sure that's what your average older woman would have said before we all started going on and on and on about marriage as a vocation.

Anonymous said...

That's the one Renée, thank you kindly!

You see Seraphic, we cite you like scripture now. You are officially a guru! ;-D


Anonymous said...

I beg your pardon, I meant to thank Maggie. Sorry Maggie!


Seraphic said...

If you see a guru in the road, kill her. I mean, don't you girls dare make me a guru. It will be bad for all of us! Your only gurus should e saints or dead theologians, preferably dead canonized theologians.

Renee said...

In retrospect, I came off as an Angry Young Woman in my original comment. Not good. Let us pray that all "vocation victims" feel peace. :-)

Maggie said...

"Your only gurus should be saints or dead theologians, preferably dead canonized theologians."

That should be on a bumper sticker.

My research skills aren't that praiseworthy in this regard; blogger has a "search this blog" feature at the top-right corner, and I searched for "Pelagianism." But thank you!

Anamaria, I hear you 100%! But I would guess that the older lady in question wasn't trying to demean you, just compliment your friend. It's easy to feel slighted when a compliment to another hits really close to home (I do this *all* the time), but I truly hope Older Lady wasn't being passive-aggressive by complimenting your friend to make you feel badly.

It is hard, though. I think we women are so quick to be self-critical and take things to heart... at least I am!

Julia said...

As far as I know, no-one has ever asked me if I have considered becoming a nun or consecrated virgin. And nearly no-one ever mentions my single status (probably because I'm 23 and marriages before the age of 25 don't seem to be common in my country).

An Older Lady family friend once asked me something like, 'Is there anyone special in your life?' Can't remember how I fobbed that one off. I was only 20!

Sometimes my grandmother has asked about my single status. Here is a conversation we had:

Grandmother: So, do men ever wolf-whistle at you?

Me: No.

Grandmother: Why not?

Me: Um...I don't know.

I mentioned to a couple of my friends that my grandmother can ask probing questions about my single status. So one of my friends, an ex-seminarian, suggested that I say something like this: 'Actually, I had a boyfriend, but he left as soon as he found out about the baby.'

Athanasius lover said...

Oh Julia, that answer is hilarious!

Seraphic said...

Oh dear, poor Grandma! I don't know where you and she are from, but where I'm from men don't wolf whistle anymore. I would have said to Grandma "Because thirty years of legislation against sexual harrassment in school and the workforce has rid men in western nations of the habit. Also, male resentment of no-fault divorce and abortion-on-demand is so acute that the stance of the average man in the street towards stranger women is either indifference or contempt."

To which any older woman in my family would reply, "Whatever you say, dear."

Julia said...

Hahaha! I'm Australian, my grandmother is Polish-born and we are both in Australia. Men don't seem to wolf-whistle here, which is totally fine by me (and I'd say most women). And yes, eventually I did think of the sort of reply that you suggested, but with my dear old Babcia it'd go in one ear and out the other!

I visited her today actually. And yes, she brought up my singleness. Here's a basic paraphrased version of the exchange:

Babcia: So do you know any gentlemen?

Me (deliberately playing dumb): I know plenty of them.

Babcia: But is there one in particular?

Me: No.

Babcia: Why not?

Me: Well, they mostly already have girlfriends.

Babcia: That's a shame. You're 23, and this is the best you will ever look. Once you reach 30, the bloom [of your looks] fades.

At this stage I did my best to convince her that turning 30 does not mean the end of one's life or looks, and eventually she more or less said that I'd be best off spending the next few years doing what I like. She did seem to need reassurance that I'm not afraid of men though (I'm not). She wondered whether men are afraid of me. I said I doubted it.

Grumpy old Polish grandmas, hey? But in all honesty, her comments don't really bother me and I tend to laugh about them later on.

Athanasius Lover, I found that potential response quite funny too! I haven't used it, and I'm not sure I ever will. If I used it with my grandmother, she'd believe it for about three seconds and then probably laugh.

Jam said...

Men don't wolf whistle in Chicago, they honk their horns, make slurping noises as they pass, and/or shout "nice t***ies!" or "hey gorgeous!" or "ooo mami!" or "daym girl that body!" Contempt I might buy but not indifference.

Seraphic said...

Oh heavens. I think I looked much better at 30 than I did at 23. But that's by the way. In Babcia's day, half of everyone in Poland was safely married or in the convent or in the seminary by 23. So Babcia is really thinking 20th century Poland, not 21st century Australia. Meanwhile, I know a really great Polish book Babcia might enjoy. It's all the rage in Poland (or sort of was in Catholic circles in 2012) and is called "Anielskie Single." It was mentioned in Nasz Dziennik, favourite newspaper of all Catholic babcie, so it is safe.

Seraphic said...

@Jam. LOL! That reminds me that in Boston I would get "I love your hair! What's your number?" from African-American guys and in Toronto from the occasional African immigrant.

I get absolutely zero attention from white men in Toronto, and very little in Scotland, but strangely, I get melting looks and "bellissima" from teenage boys in Italy and, astonishingly, sneaky stares from 20-something boys in Poland. On the tram. At the tram stop. AT MASS.

As for the Italian teenagers, I am sure it is just a case of Italian boys being Italian boys, but I haven't figured out what the Polish boys are thinking because, believe me, I am INVISIBLE to 20-something guys in Scotland.

I wonder if it is because I am obviously FOREIGN and therefore possibly excitingly wicked or because I look at them first and they have some kind of a-woman-just-looked-at-me radar. At any rate, I don't mind. (Understatement of day.)

Pearlmusic said...

Ha ha - Julia, I just can't help laughing!!! I'm Polish and I was reading your comment as if it were my own déja-vu good old chat with any of my two Babcie (one of them deceased, R. I. P.) and I’m feeling sorry at the same time because this was a sign she really cared. My Grandma married at 28 after WW2 (she was deemed stara panna – spinster at that age) and because she was not fully happy in that marriage, she believed she would have had a better husband had she married much younger. The other, who is still alive, married at 18, divorced and remarried in her forties. In all, they both insisted that I should marry in my 20s, so that I’m perfectly happy. On my part, I used to think it would be the best to marry when I turn 30.

But, alas, I’ve turned 30 this year and although I don’t have a husband yet, I have never ever in my life felt more attractive than I feel now. So I know exactly what Seraphic means. I have read some research outcomes recently (believe it or not), according to which women are most beautiful in their thirties, not twenties. I also know a few stunningly beautiful women in their forties. So don’t worry about your looks at all.

Yeah, I was terribly jealous and unhappy when almost all my college friends married towards the graduation time while I was dumped by my boyfriend-to-be shortly before my MA degree. But right now a few of them are already divorced and/or remarried, while those who had to wait a bit longer for their spouse, seem to be happier and they say it was worth the wait.

Julia said...

Jam, that sounds like it'd be a real pain in the side.

Seraphic, yep. Babcia is 87 and married in 1950. And your book! Of course! Alas, her eyesight is very bad, so she'd have no hope of reading it in either English or Polish. Ever thought of doing a talking book? How about in Polish too?????

Also, I think if I did a quick survey of twenty-something women here in Melbourne, they'd nearly all say they are invisible to twenty-something men! In fact, probably invisible to all men.

Pearlmusic, this must be an Eastern European Old Lady thing! I have a friend with a Polish grandmother, and another with a Ukrainian grandmother, and a family friend whose mother is an elderly Serbian lady, and I can imagine any of them coming out with similar stuff! Don't worry, I'm not worried about my looks - I find these conversational moments with Babcia to be amusing rather than crushing. Sometimes I think I should write them down. I mean, this stuff is gold. I probably have a sitcom on my hands here.

Pearlmusic, I'm wondering which country you're in because such early marriages seem pretty rare in Australia, even among Catholics and other Christians. That's why I'm sometimes shocked to read on this blog and in the comments that women around my age are panicking about being single when their friends are all getting married. A thirty-year-old single woman in Australia is not rare.

Pearlmusic said...

@Julia – I live in Poland :) But mind that when I said graduation time, I meant age 23-25, not younger (I’m not sure our educational system has got equivalent grades to yours – hope this has been clear). And this has been a standard, if not late age for a woman to marry, for the past decades. Nowadays it is not unusual to be 30 and single in my country, but it is still a new phenomenon and it still somewhat bears a sense of “a chance lost”, missed vocation” or whatever you call it. We adjust rather slowly to what is normal in the West.

And what a great idea of a Seraphic audio-book! A friend of mine who is visually impaired would love it :)

Seraphic said...

Please don't adjust to what is normal in the West! This is the worst time in history to become more like the West. In many ways, the West should be become more like Poland--and I say that knowing that Poland has some problems, especially economic ones. Although it is sad that so many people in Poland think the "Singla" are selfish like the women in "Sex and the City", in the West people encourage Singles to be selfish and more and more of them want to be Single (or married and childless or with only one or two children) like the women in "Sex and the City."

Midwest Miss said...

A friend once, during the course of a single lunch date, said all of the following:
1) Oh, don't worry, you have all the time in the world to get married.
2) Why aren't (our 30 yr old single friends) married yet?
3) Do you think I'll ever find someone?
4) You might be called to monasticism.
5) You'd be PERFECT for my ex-boyfriend!