There have been discussions elsewhere as to whether the single life is a vocation akin to marriage or religious life. I don’t want to debate the question here – but I will share my opinion: unconsecrated single life is not a vocation. And the fact that it is not is part of what makes being single difficult. Vocations offer a) an invitation which is accepted, b) provide committed community – they are your people and you are theirs, a designated recipient of your love and service -- and c) provide accountability.
It’s true that not having to spend ourselves on a religious community or our children means we can give of ourselves in unlimited ways. That’s one of the tricky bits, isn’t it? To try to live life “loving everyone” is too shapeless to sustain in a satisfying way. We need focus and purpose.
A family unit, or a religious community sustains its members through mutual service and love. No one person does all the loving or serving. It flows from one to another, nurturing the whole, and from there to others beyond. That support is so important, emotionally and physically.
The importance of accountability cannot be overlooked. Living with other people in a committed and trusting relationship provides regular opportunity to face yourself in all your warts and glory. No matter how good our intentions or how advanced in the spiritual life we may be, checking in with ourselves is less than accurate, allowing for a slight drifting to become serious straying from the course.
Here are some ideas for how to bring something of those attributes into your life:
You may have looked over your life and wondered if you misheard at some point. Did God call you to a religious community and you missed it? Or what if you’re not married because there is something wrong with you? For how long are you supposed to smile when friends reassure you that “Someday your prince will come.”? Perhaps you’re a widow, and some days you’re not sure you have it in you to be resigned to a life alone.
God may not have called you to a life alone. In fact, I’m sure it wasn’t His plan. Why He allows it, or how it came to happen as it did, I don’t know. But there is an invitation for us in these circumstances – an invitation to be fully alive, though our life may look far different from how we envisioned it. We have the opportunity to offer our sorrow, the hardships -- even the disappointment and unhappiness – in union with the sufferings of Christ. No life is empty of meaning or value or worth, unless we spend it all waiting for it to be something other than what it is.
There are a few different facets of love to consider. One is the giving of it, the other is the receiving of it.
We are all called to love our neighbour. I am to love the people I work with, the other drivers on the highway, the harried shoppers in the supermarket. I think as women we need more than that. We need to love specifically, too. We need to see and know the person we give our love to, to have a relationship with them. For some of us, there may be extended family to meet this need. Others of us will need to seek it out through true and deep friendships.
Love goes hand in hand with service. Again, family and friends may provide all the opportunity you need to give of yourself, but consider also the possibility of volunteering or ministry in ways that allows for personal connections and relationships. Answering the phone for a service organization might not fit the bill.
Love and service are important because they take us outside of ourselves. One of the drawbacks of being single is the distinct possibility of growing in selfishness, fussiness, and isolation. Having commitments to other people will counteract those tendencies.
We need to receive love and service as well as give it, and it can be much harder to meet that need. Because we’re single, with only ourselves to look after, we may think we shouldn’t ask for help. But life is life. Maybe you’ve had a hellish week at work and can’t bring yourself to prepare a decent meal, or are at a loss for how to repair the toilet, or you’re just plain lonely. But if you try to carry it all on your own shoulders, you’re bound to sink. Reach out. Ask for help. Invite yourself somewhere for a meal. Ask to borrow a husband who is a genius with plumbing issues. Be honest when a friend asks how you are. Don’t answer back, “I’m good.” If you’re really not. Give another person the privilege of helping you.
Asking for love is harder than asking for practical help. But we need that too. Years ago I attended a ‘motivational’ seminar at work. The speaker talked to us about our need for physical contact. It wasn’t lascivious at all; it was about a touch on the hand, a pat on the back, tucking the hair behind the ear – innocent physical touches. I thought she was a kook, at the time, but in my life now I can go weeks without someone deliberately touching me, and I find myself tempted to ask my elderly landlady to brush my hair! I have no tried and true advice on how to go about taking care of that need. Hopefully you’ve got young nieces or nephews or grandkids who love to love up on you. Get a pedicure and soak up the experience of someone taking care of you. In any case, use wisdom and discretion in who you ask to provide it… but accept that it is a need.
I can’t stress how important this one is. It is not good for us to be alone because we cannot objectively assess our spiritual condition. I don’t think anyone can lead us astray as easily as we do ourselves. Occasional slips become frequent occurrences which develop into habits. Making yourself accountable to someone as a conscious decision – with their knowledge and acquiescence – is very different from having a group of friends you hang out with. It should be a regular confessor, or a spiritual director, or someone who is mature in their faith and sees enough of you (in depth and frequency) to have an accurate idea of what’s going on with you. This isn’t about authority in that you must do what they tell you, but rather trusting someone enough to be honest with them about yourself, and trusting them enough to hear what they tell you about yourself.
May there be joy in our sorrow and dancing in our mourning. O God, You are Lord of all, and we offer You praise and thanksgiving. We give You our yes. Amen.