The Single Life is Not a Vocation


June 25, 2014 by lucieromarin

People  – including authoritative people – will tell you that the single life is a vocation. This is irksome for a number of reasons.

First of all, if the single life is really a call from God, with a specific role and meaning in the Church, then where are the prayer cards asking God to send us more single people? Have you ever been told to pray for an increase in vocations to the single life? Have you ever heard the words, “We have to pray daily, beseeching God to send the Church more single people.”?

You have not, and this is because, though it is promoted by some as a vocation, no one can tell you what the Vocation to Singleness is actually for. It is true that the call to holiness is universal, as is the call to save souls. But a vocation is a layer of identity and mission above and beyond the universe call: priesthood, religious life, and marriage each have a specific meaning and purpose which can be defined and which cannot be fulfilled outside of that vocation. This, however, is not true of the single life. It has no specific identity, which is why your vocations page can only list what a single person might do (Readings at Mass; Visit Sick People), rather than stating what he or she is (Mediator between God and man; Spouse of Christ).

A vocation is a calling, and a call demands a response; it demands a definitive moment of commitment. You do not wake up one day and discover that you are a priest. A single person, similarly, is not going to wake up one day and discover that the state into which he was born has suddenly turned into his vocation. Furthermore, that necessary moment of commitment is always witnessed and blessed by the Church, as the vocation exists in part for the life of the Church, and requires vocation-specific graces dispensed by the Church. If the single life is a vocation, where are the vows? Where is the ceremony during which you give your ‘yes’? Where is the preparation period, corresponding to marriage preparation or religious novitiate? Where are the anniversaries? Who’s celebrating his fortieth anniversary of entering the vocation of the single life?

A distinct identity and mission, formal preparation, public commitment, and the blessing of the Church are not trimmings; do not tell me that all vocations need them except one.

And here is the heart of it – if the single life is a vocation, where is the call? It is true that singleness is sometimes embraced as a necessary condition for a particular apostolate, but there, it is the apostolate that is chosen, not the singleness. The fact is that nobody knows any serious Catholic who wants to be permanently single. None of the single saints wanted to be single; mostly, they wanted to be religious, but were either too ill or too poor for the convent or monastery. The Church today is full of people who want to be married but are in distress because nobody wants them. But who, exactly, is going round saying he’s discovered a call to the single life? I can tell you who – nobody. The brutal reality is that the single adults in the Church do not want to be single forever, and the recent promotion of the single life as a vocation is… well, it’s spin. It’s a way of trying to make the numbers look less bad, but it ignores the fact that all those being told that this might be their vocation have never felt any call to it at all and are there contrary to all their hopes and convictions.

No, the idea of a vocation which involves no specific identity or mission, no formation, no definitive moment of commitment, no vows, and no liturgical or ritual action on the part of the Church is ridiculous.

So, if the single life is not a vocation, what is it? The Church speaks of one’s ‘state in life’, which means the particular circumstances in which you find yourself, whether that is healthy or ill, loved or unloved, rich or poor, happy in vocation, struggling in vocation, or in no vocation at all. The reason we do not despair of the single life is that sanctity is possible in every state in life, including those states in which vocation has been missed, lost, stolen or destroyed. You will find in every state in life a saint who became holy even though he or she wanted something else. Your state in life may not be a vocation, but it has a holiness of its own, because it is the concete expression of God’s will for you at that very moment, and it is in living His will that you find Him. This is precisely why the vocationed are not supposed to look down upon the unvocationed! That God permits you to live with your vocation unfulfilled is no more an indictment upon you than His permitting some married couples to experience childlessness is an indictment upon them. Vocations are not objectively equal; subjectively, however, there is no possible perfection greater than the living of God’s will in the present moment. And if that includes livingly lovingly with something God has permitted that you don’t naturally like, then, well… that means livingly lovingly with something that God has permitted that you don’t naturally like!

What we have never been asked to do, in the whole history of the Church, is to pretend that things are other than they are. Singleness is a state of life which is permitted by God either for the sake of another good (such as an apostolate) or as the natural outcome of tragedy (all the men were killed in the war) or a similar evil (poor health prevented you from entering a convent; you were born poor into an society in which a dowry was a necessary condition for marriage). If you find yourself confronted by inexplicable numbers of confused single people, and there is no obvious tragedy around them (war, the Black Plague), you need to take a closer look at your society and ask questions about it (maybe the dowry system is unjust?). But you should not give the single people spin.

7 thoughts on “The Single Life is Not a Vocation

  1. Charlie's sister says:

    “you need to take a closer look at your society and ask questions about it”

    That sounds like you have the inklings of some of those questions already… be interesting to hear them.

    • Amanda says:

      I agree. But even tougher and probably more necessary is to continue the process of taking a look at your church and ask some questions about it. The world is not devoid of good, faithful, loving and interesting men, most of whom aren’t Catholic and would not be willing to convert (on this I refer you back to comments I made a few weeks ago about non-Catholic perceptions of the Catholic church). Choosing to be single and miss having children rather than to look outside a narrow section of society (and one not noted for valuing intelligent, ironic and opinionated women such as you are) seems to me to be a very specific kind of choice. The next few years are crunch time as far as having a family is concerned. You need to be incredibly sure that the huge personal sacrifices you’re making for the view of reality offered by this institution are actually necessary and you won’t regret them when it’s too late. I am sorry to be so extremely brutal, but for anyone who cares about you, this matters. I think it’s a mistake to hide behind comforting ideas about God’s will and holiness when you don’t really know what God’s will is, or whether getting into a situation that is very likely to induce long-term bitterness is particularly conducive to holiness.

      • Amanda says:

        And one more thing – doesn’t this also come back to the question of whether the promotion of an aesthetic of (sometimes self-inflicted) suffering as a good in itself is a major factor in both producing and silencing the ‘roadkill’ of the church?

  2. Amanda says:

    Sorry – really last thing now: it’d be interesting if you ever wanted to write a post on what you think God intends for you by ‘giving you’ the experience of being burned out and the impulse to explore it in this format?

  3. Barbarac says:

    Suffering is only beautiful when it creates good for another. A lot of suffering is pointless and meaningless. What possible good foes it do anyone else to have people suffering through lives of unwanted singleness….to have to applaud the blessings of others while we starve…for what good reason?

    • lucieromarin says:

      I wish I knew. I can only think that the individual must find her own reason (or his own reason). It is her experience and her suffering, so the reason will come from her and not from anyone who wants to make a quick judgement about why she’s single.

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