Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Is the single life a vocation?

Below is an article that I wrote for Catholic Exchange a while ago. Still, it remains a relevant topic and one that is frequently raised in TOB circles.

A Single Vocation?

Several years ago I participated in an incredible 1,300 mile pro-life walk throughout the Northeast. While the majority of my fellow walkers were engaged in intense feelings of being called to marriage or priesthood/religious life, a few of us were completely unsure of the path to which God was calling us. And so we dubbed ourselves, “The Question Marks.”

Six years later, many of the men who were dating are now in the seminary. And women who were convinced they would have a “Sister” before their name, now have a “Mrs.” But there are still some “Question Marks” among us, though our numbers dwindle as fellow walkers make public vows after being called to a particular state of life.

There are many “Question Marks” in the world. Some are twenty-somethings who are trying to discern God’s call. Some are fifty, sixty, or seventy year olds who are wondering why they don’t have any letters before or after their name. This leads to the monumental question pounding in the minds of singles everywhere – Is the single life a vocation?

At first glance, it would seem to be the most sensitive answer to respond with an enthusiastic “yes.” Yet, in reality, this issue requires some more pondering.

We toss around the word “vocation” with as many meanings as ways to make apple pie. In the strictest sense, a Vocation (with a capital V to differentiate it from other uses) involves a total and irrevocable gift of self to God. This is done in one of two ways – either by vowing oneself to one’s spouse or by professing vows as a consecrated celibate or virgin. In one Vocation, someone gives his entire self to God, generally through vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In the other Vocation, someone gives his entire self to God through vows to another human person, who becomes his spouse.

Inevitably someone will utter, “That’s not fair.” Whether it seems fair or not isn’t the question, however. John Paul II explained in Familiaris Consortio that each and every human person is created from God who is Love, through love and in order to return to love. Thus, the “fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” is love (FC #11).

This vocation to love is expressed through two Vocations – priesthood/consecrated life and marriage. In both Vocations, the person responds to Love by giving a total gift of self forever to another Person or person. In both vocations, the body is indispensable in the gift of self. The body’s spousal dimension (call to love) is more fully expressed through a Vocation, since love desires to give totally and forever.

In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II explored the meaning of being a human person, made in God’s image and likeness. He explained that the human person is made “for” another, called to be in relation first with God and then with others.

The late Holy Father wrote,

“Being a person means striving toward self-realization (the Council text speaks of self-discovery), which can only be achieved ‘through a sincere gift of self.’ The model for this interpretation of the person is God himself as Trinity, as a communion of Persons. To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist ‘for’ others, to become a gift.” (MD #7)

In the single life, no vows are given, and one lives in a state of the temporary. Of course single people give a gift of self in many ways – by volunteering, by working in ministries, by loving relatives and friends – but without a vow of forever, their state lacks the fullness of a love that says “forever.”

This often leads singles to ask, “Where’s my place in the Church?” Again, it would seem this is the wrong question to propose. Indeed, every human person is called to love, first by virtue of being human, and secondly and even more deeply, by being a baptized Christian. The role of each of us, regardless of our current or future state of life, our age, our sex, or our hobbies, is to love. God gives us ways in which to love those He has placed in our path. Rather than focus on our “place” as if it were a job title, we should thank God for placing us where we are and ask Him to guide us to love others in the unique way only we can.

In that sense, single people have a “vocation” (notice the small “v”) to love in the unique and unrepeatable way God calls a particular individual to love. Perhaps this particular single will give a total gift of self through marriage or priesthood/consecrated life in the future. Perhaps not. Either way, this doesn’t change the importance of having two Vocations as expressions of the total and forever aspects of the fullness of love. It also doesn’t negate the fact that single people, as created in the image of God who is Love, are able to make an unrepeatable contribution to the world in the way in which God calls.

Many who are single want or have wanted to marry or enter priesthood/religious life. Perhaps they never felt called, or experienced circumstances that made this desire impossible to execute. Can we say that they don’t love “enough?” Just as with marriage and priesthood/religious life, there is a unique suffering associated with single life. Part of this suffering is the desire to give a total and irrevocable gift of self, but not having the opportunity to do so. The openness and desire of the single person to follow God’s call is a unique gift of self. While it is not a Vocation lived through making vows to God, it is a service of God and others.

Rather than employ an “us vs. them” mentality, those who are living their Vocation and those who are waiting for a call must recognize the irreplaceable ways each is able to express God’s love for the world. The suffering associated with the single life can be offered to God, allowing Him to bear fruit from this gift. In today’s culture, a single person dedicated to chastity, is an eloquent witness of God’s plan for life and love. The unique availability of a single person to serve others can benefit ministries, families, and parishes.

Those of us who belong to “The Question Marks,” regardless of our age, are living Theology of the Body, through our call to love God and others. Many singles focus on making their own corner of their home, the Church. Many singles moan over their single plight, placing a wall between themselves and those with a ring on their finger. We need to recognize that we all have the same home, the beautiful Catholic Church who aims to guide us in our call to love.

In our compartmentalizing of Theology of the Body – for singles, for married couples, for priests, for consecrated persons, for the divorced, for the widowed – we often lose sight of the common denominator. We all have bodies that are created in God’s image and likeness. We are all called to receive love and to give love in return. Focusing on the particular ways Theology of the Body informs the lives of various groups of people is necessary, but it mustn’t forget the common humanity we all share.

As singles, in particular, it’s time we change our self-focus and start asking God how we can love Him better today. Who knows? Maybe His answer of our vocation will lead to our Vocation.

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