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Vocation and Singlehood

We should see vocation on the whole spectrum of love, understood as charity, as willing and doing whatever God tells us to do in the duty of the moment, however our lives are externally structured.

(Image: us.fotlia.com)

Mary Cuff’s recent Crisis article premising that the single life is not a vocation, has left many singles rather nonplussed. The following words are meant to offer some hope and consolation to those who, for reasons that may soon be adduced, do not end up in one of the three traditional ‘vocations’ – priesthood, the vowed religious life, and marriage.

I write these words having just attended the marriage of two alumni of the college at which I teach (a graced opportunity I have had many times over the years) but I also know of many others who have not found spouses, and don’t discern a call to the convent or seminary. There are untold numbers of such unsettled ‘singles’, many of whom are so, as the Catechism says, ‘often not of their own choosing’ (par 1658). What are we to say to them?

We might take a step back, and look at ‘vocation’ in a more etymological and personalist sense, as a ‘calling’ from God given to each soul, to follow the path that He wills for one’s life. None of us (save Our Lady) fulfills this perfectly but the Church has developed various paths one may choose, to ensure as well as we might that we are doing God’s will. The Apostles and disciples followed Christ Himself; then we have the orders of virgins and widows in the apostolic era, the beginnings of monasticism in the early desert Fathers, the coenobitic and the eremitic, flourishing in the rule of the Augustinians, Benedictines, Cluny and Citeaux, the Basilians and others in the East; then the itinerant Friars of the Middle Ages, minor et maior, the clerks regular, the Jesuits being foremost; then on into the early modern era, with societies of apostolic life, personal prelature (Opus Dei, the Anglican rite), and various consecrated lay apostolates.

Some have vows, some have promises, some are rather less externally structured: Saint Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratory, never wanted the men in his community to be bound by vows, even crossing them out from a draft of the rule, writing in with his own hand that his men would be bound solely in vinculo caritatis, by the bond of charity alone.

The thing is that the concept of ‘vocation’ is a developing varied one, that is best seen as a branched tree, with many paths of life leading to heaven (one may hope), each with its roots in Christ. After all, in a previous era, marriage would not have been included as a ‘vocation’, but would have been more of a natural default (for want of a more felicitous term!), what everyone did, if you didn’t have a vocation, a term reserved for a calling to a supernatural state transcending the natural desire for a spouse and children, written into our very nature. When students mention that they feel ‘called’ to marriage, I think – and have oft times said, half in jest – who doesn’t? A woman who left the novitiate, or a man who left the seminary, would be described as having ‘lost their vocation’, not as having ‘found their vocation’ to marriage.

But we will take the point as given, if vocation in a broader and more expansive sense implies being ‘set apart’ – consecrated, in some sense – for a particular purpose or mission, great or small. We are all in one real sense already consecrated – set apart for a mission by Christ – by Baptism, and by Confirmation, the latter making us ‘ambassadors for Christ, quasi ex officio’, as Saint Thomas put it.

The ultimate vocation of every human person is what the Church has called the ‘universal call to holiness’, that imitatio Christi, the way, the truth and the life. Yes, the promises of marriage and priesthood, and the vows of religious life, are a salutary means to this necessary end, and hence would be termed more ‘vocational’ paths, but the promises and vows are not the end themselves.

There are two problems with maintaining too rigid a notion of vocation. The first is that a certain number of people – we know not how many, in the tangled depths of the conscience – are simply not called to one of the traditional vocations, or ‘states of life’. We should not leave them to fall into discouragement, if not despair, as though they had been rejected or had themselves ignored a ‘call’. They may start to ‘feel’ one, even though one does not exist, and enter into a frustrating path, that is almost entirely not conducive to their holiness.

And what of marriage? It would seem that a relatively happy and flourishing singlehood is to be preferred to a tragic match. Striving to shoehorn one’s way into such a vocation for which one is ill-suited seems not to be recommended. After all, every vocation is a gift from God. Whatever one thinks of ‘online dating’, is there not a slight Pelagian tinge to filling out questionnaires, replete with characteristics of what one is looking for in a potential spouse, from height to eye color to liturgical sensibilities, and then being disappointed with the real person? And beware of desperation and marrying because one’s biological clock is ticking – seven and twenty and no prospects and all that – or because you think you have to be married, whether for natural or supernatural reasons. As Dr. James Dobson once quipped, don’t confuse your needs with someone’s (oft illusory) assets. To seek a spouse at all costs, come hell or high water, may well result in both hell and high water, should the marriage prove disastrous, and readers likely know all too well of many such tragedies. Serendipity and patience (not passivity) in one’s romantic endeavors seems to be preferable, corresponding to the oft-mysterious ways of God.

We may be glad to see the end – or nearly the end – of coercing men and women into seminaries, convents and orders, with the youngest son destined for Holy Orders, unless one younger came along. Mothers across the land would pray for at least one her boys to become a priest and would go into her old age with a tinge of sadness if they all found brides, even if she was blessed with grandchildren. As the saying goes, the seminaries in Ireland were filled with young men whose mothers had vocations.

For the young women, Hamlet’s cry echoes through the ages, ‘Get thee to a nunnery’, if they found themselves stymied or rejected in the pursuit of marriage and motherhood, ‘by chance or nature’s changing course’.

We might add that of those who do have vocations, how many are frustrated in their path by the sad state of dioceses, seminaries and orders across the Church? We have all heard of conservative and traditional candidates have been cast out, when found saying the rosary or being too ‘pro-life’, or preferring certain traditional liturgies.

And as far as marital prospects go, our own era may be likened as spiritually analogous to the years following the Great War: Just as millions of the most eligible bachelors were blown to smithereens on the battlefields of Europe, so too, millions of young men are now morally compromised (even to the point of being unmarriageable) by the sea of impurity – the plague of pornography – in which our world is immersed, and the moral degradation that ensues. To paraphrase the Catechism, the integrity of the gift in marriage is dependent on the integrality of the self who gives. Men dis-integrated by unchastity won’t make good husbands and fathers.

On the other hand, so many young women are themselves distracted by careerism and feminism, that they have to get themselves ‘established’ before even thinking of marriage, if they ever do. Who needs a prince, as the saying goes?

Which brings us back to the single lay state, with so many people single not of their own choosing, having to carve out a ‘vocation’ in the midst of what pursuits they do follow. One of the key elements to holiness – a sine qua non – is to dedicate our lives in some way to a purpose higher than ourselves – some apostolic work, whether humble or great – which in turn is offered to God in divine charity. This may be anything from caring for the sick, or aging parents, to education and forming of the young, or really any work that may be done ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

Yes, it is easier, one may suppose, to devolve into selfishness and instability in the single path, but this may happen in any vocation, vowed or unvowed. One need not look far for disastrous examples.  Apostolican Actuositatem, the document on the laity from the Second Vatican Council, exhorts all of us in the lay state to adopt a ratio vitae – a ‘plan of life’ – an analogue, if you will, of the religious rule, so that we may use the hours, days, and weeks, to offer them to God, and so fulfill the end for which He created us, which, ultimately, is the purpose of any vocation.

Of course, we should still pray for and support the traditional vocations to the priesthood and religious life’, and we may add, if you like, ‘to holy marriages’, that many, especially those who are resisting, may respond to the call of God. Pope John Paul II’s 1985 Letter to Youth, Dilecti Amici, is an excellent meditation on this theme, which I give to all my students to read. But I would propose – and I use that term advisedly – that we see vocation on the whole spectrum of love, understood as charity, as willing and doing whatever God tells us to do in the duty of the moment, however our lives are externally structured, just as Our Lady exhorted the stewards at that wineless wedding, ‘do whatever He tells you’. For the Almighty can turn whatever we’re given, even if it be a jar of ordinary water, into an elixir leading to everlasting life.


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About John Paul Meenan 3 Articles
John Paul Meenan, M.Sc., M.A., teaches theology and science at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in Ontario, Canada, with a particular interest in the relationship between faith and reason, and how the principles of our faith should impact and shape the human person and modern culture.

16 Comments

  1. The Holy Spirit has a plan for all the faithful and really is the greatest matchmaker ever. For the faithful who are lonely the Holy Spirit will find the right person; and for faithful who are driven and have no time to be lonely there will be fruitful work for the glory of the church outside of the Clergy. I belive it to be true that some are called to dedicate their lives to making the money so the church can survive, some to be the soldier protector of the faith, some to be dedicated healers and someone to help interpret crede ut intelligus/intllige ut credo for the zeitguist in which we live. As a father of 3 sons I appreciate the fact that they are there to help me and my family navigate this modern world along with our dedicated priests and nuns.

  2. I was also disappointed in Mary Cuff’s essay. The notion of a “default” vocation at which Mr. Meenan hints is what needs to be developed more. We shouldn’t confuse the possibility that one has accepted the default setting in life, possibly without any thought or consideration, with a discerned call to single life, which has the distinct advantage that one can belong to no one but be available to everyone. A single person can even accept the possibility of developing a commitment to a holy and selfless single life while he waits for an opportunity or a call to pursue another vocation. We may even want to get away from the idea that every vocation has to be lifelong. Some people are late-bloomers, and while they may not be ready for a lifelong committed vocation at 20 or even 30, perhaps by 40 or 50 they may be ready for such a thing. Given that life spans are much longer these days, the idea of becoming a priest or religious at even 50 may still leave another 30-50 years for a traditional vocation. The implication in Cuff’s Crisis article seemed to be that anyone who didn’t make some sort of commitment or vow was somehow selfish or less holy.

    On God’s team, think of the selfless single person as a utility infielder who can play any position if necessary (except those positions that require Holy Orders or marriage). In my company, for the last twenty years I’ve been the one who could work late, start early, jump on the train without notice to head for the big city, answer the phone on Saturday, help people with computer problems at home after hours– all the things that those with other family commitments wouldn’t be able to do, all the while as I prayed for an orthodox, dedicated Catholic wife who never materialized. The dedicated single person can pour his heart and soul into all these things, not necessarily for money (even though they may produce income) but just to help others who need help, and perhaps in doing so allow others who have family commitments to fulfill them. The dedicated single person, then can be “at service” to the other, more traditional vocations. Speaking of service, a single person may also be able to be active in service organizations in a way that those with other obligations cannot do– or perhaps he can volunteer to teach religion (not all single people hate children).

    These are things we need to consider before we sneer at singleness as a vocation. It isn’t just a way for playboys and careerists to escape commitment and family life, and I think Mr. Meenan understands.

    • I was also disappointed in Mary Cuff’s essay and still wonder why she took the time to write such an article which appeared to me more divisive than helpful. Did respond with a comment at Crises and my comment was responded to by another reader who told me to “grow up.” Guess single Catholics like myself are just supposed to keep quiet and suck it up which is what many of us have been doing for years. I thank Mr. Meenan for his balanced article.

  3. ‘..,Men dis-integrated by unchastity won’t make good husbands and fathers…’

    Could be read by some as ‘closing the door and throwing away the key’ – so a better (albeit clunky) rephrasing can be: ‘…Men (and women!) who stick/cling to disintegration by unchastity won’t make good husbands (wives) and fathers (mothers)…Those prodigal children who “come to their senses”, repent and strive to return to the Father’s house may face setbacks; but even they, by allowing Jn. 15: 5 to “sink into their marrow”, by imploring the grace of God and cooperating with it, can become good spouses and parents.’

    • Thank you, jn, for that clarification, which I hope was implied – at least, I meant to imply it, and likely should have with another clause. After all, are we not all prodigal sons in one way or another? And there but for the grace of God go I?

      So, yes, those who persevere in grave sin will never fulfill any vocation properly, but those who repent, convert and amend can become great saints –

      Saint Augustine, oro pro nobis, et pro eis!

      jpm

  4. Lumen gentium talks about profession of the evangelical counsels EITHER PRIVATELY or in some Church-sanctioned format, as expressions of the essential holiness of the Church. It’s right in Vatican II that not all vocations to chaste celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven are in some official canonical vocation. And, it’s common sense. Christ can give to whom He chooses (people with disabilities, etc etc) a charism and grace to live in radical single heartedness for Him as a path of personal sanctity and for building up the Church.

  5. Having seen the control the states exude over a man divorced by his wife; it’s not surprising to see youth ‘shacking up,’ or ‘living in sin,’ as we used to call it.

    • The state has no authority over marriage. It can’t “divorce” someone and permit them to re-marry. The only possibilities are annulment which means that the marriage wasn’t valid to begin with or the Pauline privilege. The Pauline privilege is only applicable when both spouses are not baptized.

      • Well, I wouldn’t want the govt in charge of sacramental marriage, but it seems fair for a civil authority to have some charge over legal separations/divorce as far as financial & property issues go. Sadly, civil divorce can sometimes be the only way to protect a spouse’s assets. That said, civil divorce has no bearing on whether a sacramental marriage exists or not & it doesn’t give us free reign to remarry.

        • My point is that the husband/father goes from being the head of or partner in a marriage and then the wife turns it over to the probate court judge. Divorced males with under age children can be some of the poorest people out there.

        • The sacrament is IDENTICAL with the contract of adhesion that constitutes marriage. Meaning that ONLY AFTER the Church believes that a separation is indicated, THEN the civil authority can step in. It’s not that there is a “legal fiction” that the rights and duties associated with the married state can be suspended by the state because one (or both) party/parties demands it. Some judge couldn’t say “Well I agree that technically you may still be married in the eyes of the Church and they haven’t communicated to me that you should be separated, but nonetheless I have the authority to require you to vacate your shared residence, and I will determine the fate of your children and all your assets (shared or not). Have a nice day!”

  6. The annulment process is too liberal. People with underage children should probably concentrate on them instead of jumping into another relationship. Most of us are guilty of fornication in one way or another; yet people openly practicing it are going to Communion. Our church just confirmed the new wife of a parishioner who was married and divorced and had several children go through our school. It is very confusing how all these marriages were not valid. Just because someone cannot stand someone now does not mean that was not a valid marriage. I understand that in Biblical times the life expectancy was very low.

    • knowall,
      I agree with you about folks concentrating on their children. Children have to come first.
      Average life expectancy was certainly lower in Biblical times but so was the age of marriage. We’ve added a decade or two on to the ages considered suitable to wed in Our Lord’s day. Or even compared to a couple generations ago.
      There are any number of folks in my family who married as teens & remained married until death.
      I knew a 13 year old who was married in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s because she found herself in a family way. She & her young husband raised their son together with the grandparents’ assistance until her untimely death at 21 in a car wreck.
      I always wonder about the intentions of folks who want to ban “Child Marriage” but seem to have no problem with child fornication. When contraceptives fail teens, the powers that be promote feticide & if all else fails they promote single teen moms on welfare. But Heaven forbid a child should be given the father’s name & raised in a home with 2 married parents.
      The only times young girls like the 13 year old we knew were granted exceptions to the marriage age laws was when they were pregnant & even then it required consent from the grandparents & a judge.

      • Part of this is that American society and the education system have instilled that almost all need to go onto ‘higher education.’ How many lawyers do you need in a civilized society? Nothing should get in the way of this pursuit of betterment is the idea. But how many kids actually graduate from college and how much good does ‘college’ actually do? We need more skilled trades people, not more lawyers, many who are ‘starving.’

        • Amen, knowall. I agree.
          But you know universities had “married student housing” available. Perhaps this was a feature leftover from GI’s returning to school following WWII but I remember seeing on-campus housing for married students & their families as a child in the 1960’s.
          Being a college student wasn’t seen as being incompatible with marriage & children back then. Goodness knows college was more affordable also.
          Looking around the internet it seems some schools still offer on campus housing for families. I wonder how common that is anymore?

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  1. Can Being Single Be a Vocation, and a few other things... « Catholic Insight
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