It is an old request, but a friend has asked if I would say something on the dignity of the single life. I don’t suppose myself an authority over anyone else, quite the contrary: I’d welcome hearing dispatches from other outposts. But as I have the impetus and the means…
This friend asks, I think, from a position of struggle. And she has seen her share of personal trials, but I mean of a more general struggle, to be single in an age obsessed with coupling, and even more obsessed with sex, which formerly (and some would say naturally) implied coupling.
The saying among men was that the marriage ring was a shackle, and the wife was a ball and chain; now the notion is that being single implies living with unrequited love, and whether one is laden with this burden or absent its fulfillment, it is cause for sadness.
We are afraid of loneliness, perhaps, more than of Hell.
But if the single life is truly a shame, the very first thing that occurs to me contradicts this: That is, we were all single once. And if you go back far enough, coupling was the least of our concerns.
If being single is a shame, do we really think children ought to be ashamed of it? Certainly not. So it cannot be singleness, qua singleness, that is the issue.
Moreover, there is a kind of dignity in children, which accompanies their singleness – they are permitted to develop, their growth is celebrated (sometimes even at trivial intervals), and it is at the outset of maturity that we expect them to truly seek their fulfillment.
Now, it is often taken for granted that this fulfillment will take the form of a committed relationship, the formation of a family, and a productive life. What I think my friend refers to is the result of failing (or declining) to participate in the committed relationship and in the formation of a family. If all that is left is a productive life – say, a career suited to one’s talents, good friends, maybe some hobbies and other interests – somehow, that individual is fundamentally lacking something.
I confess that, to some extent, I cannot understand this. After all, I once thought I might become a priest. And while I did know that being celibate cost something – namely, everything that I now strive for and enjoy as a father and husband – I also recognized that it paid extraordinarily well in other ways, none of them financial.
But few of us so lack empathy as to think that being single with a vocation like priesthood or the religious life is the same thing as being single as a layperson. There is no institutional or social support for that; nor is there a white-collared or veiled target on your head, either.
The single woman and the priest can both understand what a priest once told me: When you’re visiting a married couple, and they end up in a fight, somehow you feel a little better about climbing into an empty bed that night.
Be that as it may, we have an outline of the single life which is marked more by absence than an abundance of good things. Yet, when you put it like that, I think we may have a way out of this…
That is, when I’ve heard people extol the single life, they are largely pointing to their sense of freedom and self-determination. They are NOT accountable to anyone else, they are NOT compelled to wake at all hours of the night for the sake of their children. Rather, they fill these hours with delights, with stillness or activity, but always with what they themselves decide.
Or at least, that is considered the norm. What my friend faces – nay, embraces – is a life lived in virtue, which means rejecting illicit pleasures and balancing licit ones, which means striving toward holiness through loneliness – and before long, one sees how the latter may assist the former.
Indeed, St. Paul thought it was married men and women who were at a disadvantage:
“But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.”*
And again, he thought it was the single, the celibate, who lived in a preferred state:
“32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”
In other words, it is only in the natural order that married people seem to have the advantage, seem to have the utmost fulfillment that this life can provide. As St. Paul says, they are indeed concerned with the affairs of this world (since they must care for the physical and emotional needs of their families).
But if we consider the supernatural order – if we truly believe in an immanent God – then it becomes clear, spiritually, that it is better to be single, to be unencumbered by the affairs of this world. Else, how will you dedicate yourself to the affairs of God?
So yes – if we are just meat machines walking around, seeking the best this world has to offer, it may be that marriage and progeny are the height of human fulfillment. It may be that dying as a old man or woman, with many productive and loving children, is the height of the human experience. If so, and no more, then being single would be (and was) mournful.
If, on the other hand, all this world is a mere prelude to a greater reality; if, while critical in so many ways, marriage is not the penultimate sacrament; if, while children are born all around us, it is not imperative for each to bear their own; if, too, God has imprinted on certain hearts a calling to be undivided in their love, and fully dedicated to Him; well, then, it may be that being single is a blessing, something to be preferred.
But one must have eyes to see, and ears to hear.
*1 Corinthians 7:28. Second quotation is from the same chapter, verses marked.