Vocation and the Single Life


(This article recently appeared in Catholic World Report and may serve as a good addendum to Father Callam’s exhortation for the Church to canonize more married people. Well, what of the singles, we may also ask? )

Mary Cuff’s recent article, premising that the single life is not a vocation, has left many singles sort of non-plussed. 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 – for there are many paths to heaven.

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 feel called to the convent or seminary. There are untold numbers of such unsettled ‘singles’, many of whom are so, as the Catechism says, ‘not of their own choosing’. 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 fulfills this perfectly – with few exceptions, like Our Lady – but the Church, in her Tradition, 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. After all, to offer but one example, a Carthusian is a higher path, and a deeper consecration, than the secular priesthood, which in turn is objectively higher than the lay state. This is why Saint Jean Vianney, the Cure d’Ars, three times tried to escape his parish for the monastery, to ‘weep and do penance for his sins’, which should give us pause.

We are all in one real sense already consecrated – set apart for a mission by Christ – by Baptism, and, at a certain age of maturity, 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 much to be preferred to a tragic match, whose disastrous effects on children are incalculable. 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 ‘on-line 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 colour 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, 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 endeavours seems to be preferable, corresponding to the oft-whimsical 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 to this that 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 their 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 ageing 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. The document on the laity from the Council, Apostolicam Actuositatem, 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 1984 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.