Dear Auntie Seraphic,
First of all, thank you for your blog!
I'm writing to ask for your perspective on a view of dating that was expounded to me by a young man enamoured of the religious life. I bring it up because, although I laughed it off at the time, it kind of rankled, and I think a lot of other young women might well relate to what I felt.
I was sitting outdoors [one moonlit night] with a young man whom I will call George--we'd gone to college together but had never known each other well. He has a brilliant intellect, and a strong will, and his top priority is to become a saint. Although his personality is kind of irritating to me, [he is really very kind.] I say this at the beginning so you'll understand why, in spite of the sting of what he said, I'm still convinced that he meant it in all charity. I just happen to think he was really dangerously wrong, and that women should not listen to this kind of junk.
George had resolved on entering the religious life. He was on fire for God, and he asked me about my vocation. I assured him that after having recently received some spiritual direction, I was 95% sure that the religious life was not for me, but that I hoped perhaps to get married someday.
He asked me thoughtfully how old I was. "Twenty-five? Well, I guess you have some time. If you get married in the next couple years, that would be plenty of time to raise a family. Just don't waste any of it."
"It's true," he said mildly. "It's the biological reality that a woman only has so many child-bearing years..."
"Well, I'm not worried about it," I responded. "I believe that if God wants me to get married, He'll send the right kind of guy into my life. And if he wants me to have x number of children, then I'm sure that I will."
"God helps those who help themselves," he said earnestly. "I'm saying this because I know so many wonderful young Catholic women who fall into this trap of waiting for 'the right man' and end up unhappy and unmarried in their late thirties. Actually, the whole point of marriage is to raise children and help each other to get to heaven. You don't need fireworks of physical attraction to do that. What you need to do, once you decide that marriage is your vocation, is to go marry a good Catholic man without wasting time, and to work out your salvation through your married life."
I laughed again. "You've got to be kidding! Nice Catholic men whom I could stand to be married to aren't exactly waiting around of street-corners for me to fall into their arms!"
"Be honest," he replied. "You could be married now, with three children if you had made it a priority. I knew you in school, and I knew of more than one guy who was interested, but you didn't encourage it."
"That's true," I replied. "But I thank God I didn't encourage anything! I honestly could not stand to be married to any one of the men who, up to this point, have shown romantic interest in me. A lot of them have been weak and insecure characters, needy for attention, or academic and pedantic. The mere thought of being married to such a person is enough to bring on an allergic reaction. And I'm even grateful that none of the handsome, devil-may-care fellows whom I was interested in ever returned my feelings, because a maturer viewpoint shows me what really poor husband-material they would have been."
"Then, you're obviously not making it a priority to pursue your vocation and work out your salvation in the state of life to which God has called you. You're not unattractive; you would have found a good man by now if you didn't have romantic ideas of finding a soul-mate."
"So, you're saying it's my fault that I'm still single at the age of twenty-five-and-one-half?"
"Don't get upset; I'm not attacking you, or trying to make you feel guilty. I'm just trying to give you some advice in the hopes that it will help you to find an husband and settle down in that state of life to which it seems you are called."
"I'm not offended, I just think you're wrong. What if it's not a problem that I'm not married yet? What if it's God's will for me to wait a few years, and that's why I haven't met someone yet whom I could marry?"
I didn't say it to him, but I could have elaborated: It seems to me that my lack of romantic entanglement is a gift from God. Yes, I've been lonely, yes, I dream of being married, I plan my wedding day, I long to have cuddly babies and a big strong husband to welcome home from work. I want to teach my children to love Jesus and the Blessed Mother, I want to bake cookies and wear a frilly apron. But God knows, I have not been ready for a relationship.
I'm a late bloomer. I was your typical awkward, socially inept homeschooler in college. I was self-absorbed and scrupulous. I've grown up so much in the years since then--in ways that I truly do not think I could have while married to Mr. Lets Become Saints, or Mr. I Love the Fact You Always Wear a Mantilla, or Mr. You're Such a Kind and Loving Little Woman I Know You'll Always Be There to Listen to My Troubles.
You see what I mean? Furthermore, what if God is speaking to my heart and teaching me His will for me throughout this lonely time? What if, as I truly believe, He wants me to begin to learn to be the woman I was meant to be before He sends the man whom I will marry with joy and gladness? What's the problem with that? Why should I start throwing myself at men, or accept and encourage advances which merely bore and trouble me? If I never do find the man I can love, I'm okay with being single the rest of life. It won't be easy, but it's certainly preferable, in my mind, to a difficult marriage, where the only kind of love I have for my husband is produced by an effort of the will."
But my self-appointed mentor was not convinced. He was sure that I was dreaming of a Prince Charming with loads of magnetic personality and "fireworks of physical attraction".
"Look at the parents of St. Therese," he said. "What a holy marriage. It certainly was not about physical attraction. They planned to remain celibate, and only decided to change this on the advice of a spiritual director. Anyway, I think a lot of Catholic girls worry about finding 'the right' one, and about whether 'marrying this man is God's will for me' when all they have to do is accept the one who is there."
I could have noted that anyway, they liked each other very much, for a start--and that Zelie Martin had an interior locution when she first saw Louis. A voice spoke in her heart saying, "This is the man I have prepared for you," Or the fact that Lous was already in his mid-thirties, and though I don't know how old Zelie was, she had already established herself as business woman. She must surely have been in her mid twenties at least.
"I'm not looking for the perfect man!" I protested. "I'm not looking for fireworks! But I really, really want to be with someone whom I can relate to, connect with intimately! I want us to be able to understand one another, to share a sense of humor and irony. I want to be best friends with the man I'm going to marry. If I found such a man, and he was manly and reliable and virtuous, I think falling in love with him would almost go without saying. It'd be as easy as rolling off a log! I am so ready for love! But I am not going to marry, or even date, some insecure bore just because he's trying to be a saint, and don't try to make me feel as if I'm somehow at fault for failing to secure a man before the age of twenty-five, because I think your theory is totally wrong."
Well, as I say, my companion is brilliant, so the long and the short of it is that he managed to talk circles around me and present a solid theological case, without convincing me in the slightest!
"I may not be smart enough or educated enough to prove it," I wound up saying, "but my heart has common sense. And anyway, with my frail virtue, marrying a man who bores me, with whom I cannot connect, who doesn't make my heart beat a little faster--why, that would just be placing myself in the way of all sorts of temptation. Temptation to become a bitter shrew, to feel sorry for myself, to compare my lot with that of other women, to compare my husband with theirs, etc. Of course, a saint wouldn't do that, but the truth is, I'm far from being holy, and I'm not about to put myself in a situation that I know is beyond my strength. I'd have to be an idiot."
So that was that.
But I wanted to write to you about it, because I feel that we young single women are so in danger from this guilt-trip! It is hard enough to be single, and then we hear that it's our fault? What a recipe for scrupulosity!
What a disaster, if we were to go all-out for marriage, feeling that we were not following God's will for us unless we did our darnedest to snag the nearest available Catholic male of good morals. It's a sad but true fact, by the way, that the men who are standing around ready to be snagged and start "a holy Catholic family life" are generally up-tight, control freaks with issues. I'm sorry; it's true. It seems to me that we should not be looking for just anybody who matches certain criteria, but that we should be looking to relate to a person with a good character. Anyway, I want a man to value the unique person that I am, not just the fact that I dress modestly, wear a mantilla or hat at mass, and want to have babies. And I want to be able to love a man for all the unique little things that are special about him, not just for the fact that he's a good provider, or wants to pray together (I've had maladjusted self-absorbed, control-freak bores who wanted to pray with me. Just sayin').
I wondered if you might present this question of guilt and scrupulosity, and reassure the young women out there who are suffering from this sense of failure and shame! I was able to laugh it off--I know it isn't true--and yet, y'know? I can't help being a bit stung (esp. because I've never dated! Yikes! Is it possible that it's because I'm cold-hearted and arrogant? Am I truly seeking God's will, or just what I want? Etc, etc.) And I think a lot of us are like that.
Once again, thanks for your wise and witty words on your blog!
Annoyed by Future Saint
PS--for what it's worth, Sigrid Undset, in an essay on "Woman", wrote that it seemed that the fact that women no longer need to marry in order to be provided for, may be indicative of the fact that they ought not, unless they feel called to do so. There are plenty of useful things that merry old spinsters can do, instead of becoming bitter, long-suffering wives.
Dear Annoyed by Future Saint,
My very first thought, upon reading your email was, "How old is George?" It strikes me that only a very young man would dare give a young woman he is not related to such solemn, magisterial advice on what to do with her life. Fortunately, a good seminary works wonders.
My next thought was that I married at 25 because I couldn't understand why I kept getting bored with my boyfriends and thought I would conquer my wicked fickleness with a plunge into the abyss. [And although I didn't have to listen to lectures on marriage is for babies and working out your salvation, I did have to struggle with the guilt of preferring to marry a fellow Catholic--how "bigoted" of me---and that was just to start with.]
As a result I was divorced at the age of 27, had an annulment (thank heaven) at age of 28, and remained unmarried until I was 38. The worst part was swimming around in a sea of broken dreams and disappointment and struggles from the ages of 24, when I was engaged, until 32, when I went to theology school and found real happiness in God's service. But that was eight years of my life destroyed by marrying the wrong man [and being the wrong woman]. I still have invisible scars today.
There may be women who can "just get married" to the first good Catholic man who comes along, and "just do it" when they go to bed with him, and "just offer it up" when they find him incredibly annoying. There may be women who can channel all their hopes for a real love-connection into their children, and forgive their husband for not being "all that" because at least he provided both their beautiful children and, hopefully, a decent life for them all that does not involve grinding poverty or domestic violence. However, I don't think those are university-educated, idealistic women. I think those women mostly come from cultures where women are raised from birth to expect nothing and just be grateful for whatever they get whereas their brothers are treated like little emperors.
Meanwhile, although this is treated by the Catholic young as a hideous nightmare, there is not much wrong with being an unmarried woman in her late 30s, as long as she has work that provides her with satisfaction and decent living conditions and the emotional support of friends, family or both. I know many such women, and although some would no doubt like to be married, I would not call them miserable. No doubt there are some women who are, but why they would be sharing their unhappiness with young George is beyond me. Has he been watching daytime television?
My final words: don't settle. Ir doesn't matter what brilliant 20-something boys say. My ex was a brilliant 20-something, too. To paraphrase from my favourite film, "What they don't know about women is a lot."
Grace and peace,