Finding THE ONE is the topic of much discussion, the center of rotation of many personal reflections, conversations, art, music & film. The default story anywhere we look is a love story between a man and woman.
At the core of who we are, we have an existential need to receive and give affection. We also need to give of ourselves, and receive it from significant people. The Less people, the more intense the feelings might be. At the basic level of human appetite we crave affection & sex. Being single or being in Consecrated Life does not mean that one is asexual.
This past weekend, I attended the National Catholic Singles Conference in San Diego, only to hear Confessions, and it got me thinking about developing this idea. I am writing specifically for the purpose so that people can think critically about what they take for granted: Married Life is the Default or Normal Way for Christians to live their life, while Consecrate Life is exceptional, and Single People are only given a negative or neutral value in God’s plan. This is not advice for singles, neither is it a detail about the actual single vocation (or the variety of single vocations of Consecrated Life in the Church). I want to write that Married Life is not the Default Christian Life, neither is Consecrated Life exceptional, that everyone is called either permanently or temporarily to a Single Vocation.
Married Life or Consecrated Life
Many people figure that the major vocational decision is between getting married to another human or to God. Many of them see Married Life as the Default. There is the command in the Bible since Genesis. Among devout Catholics there is talk of protecting the family. There is a lot of Talk of Theology of the Body, Relationships, Dating, Chastity, in regard to complimentarily, coupling, and the ultimate goal of marriage.
Marriage is characterized as being in crisis. Divorce is rampant. Young men refuse to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood. There might be a whole lot wanting in the Western World’s pop culture perceptions of marriage, love & commitment.
Often the term Vocation Crisis refers exclusively to the rapidly diminishing numbers in Consecrated life. Others will apply the term Vocation Crisis to the state of marriage. Even lay Catholics who are deeply convicted of their personal vocation to have been married and have children, are deeply troubled to talk about this. It is such that people accuse me of being “TOO YOUNG TO BE A PRIEST.”
However, Religious are not seen as single. Consecrated Life is described as a marriage to God. Religious and Consecrated MUST be in an exclusive & all-consuming relationship. Even more explicitly people insist on this EVERYONE MUST BE MARRIED theory when they understand that priests are married to the Church.
Consecrated Life is really a kind of Marriage. There is NOTHING in God’s plan that ISN’T MARRIAGE Therefore, Single people have just not found the person that they are looking for.
Single People don’t get a break
Catholic gatherings, particularly young adult gatherings focus on socializing and connecting people. There are plenty of people who go expecting to find THE ONE. There are events that are planned, hoping that people will find THE ONE.
Conversely, they overlook countless members of society who have never been married. In many parts of the world, some people never marry to care for their parents. Throughout history, there have always been people who have lived lives of service because of their social status, and never married. People not marrying did not magically start happening the instant that the West abandoned God or whatever. It is presupposed by devout Catholics that every single adult that forgoes marriage for a career is a self-satisfied sociopath. It is never even hinted at that even young egotistical career-aholics might actually have a lifelong call to being single. Even in the secular career world, nowhere is someone considered admirable for being single. Our American Culture, influenced by Protestantism that abandoned Religious Life, MANDATED MARRIAGE FOR EVERYONE, and so we are copying Protestantism in the Church.
Single people are said to be a negation. Negatively they are too egotistical to enter into a self-sacrificing married relationship, or positively just haven’t found the right person. Most good Catholics who even accept the theory of a Single Vocation look at Single People as on the way to marriage, and want to fix them with someone. We wouldn’t dare think of insulting someone by suggesting that they will find their vocation in loneliness and negation.
The primary relationship in one’s life.
Because people look at Vocation only in the big picture, and only in terms of a long term relationship, (because Consecrated Life is only a kind of marriage) people overlook their vocation in the moment. God calls. Vocation means calling, God calls in a variety of ways. God calls us to discipleship FIRST.
The primary relationship for the disciple is a mentor relationship. In order for there to be a successful mentor relationship there MUST NOT BE ANY ROMANTIC INCLINATION. Perhaps the most important relationship one can have in their life is a mentor relationship. For the Christian Jesus Christ is the primary Master / Mentor. Perhaps one can find a secondary Master / Mentor in a Saint like Augustine, Ignatius, Theresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, or Mother Theresa. On a human level we actually need a mentor or two. The Church mandates that we have godparents and Confirmation Sponsors (but we are often pressured to select people who have no actual experience of Christian Discipleship, the Spiritual Life, or even practicing their Catholicism).
A lot of people imagine that the “secret” to chaste celibacy lies in supernatural power directly transmitted by God. There is certainly a need for grace. Others think that the secret is in natural balance, healthy relationships with self & others, regular exercise & days off. I have been surprised at how difficult chaste celibacy is without mentors & particularly a Spiritual Director.
The mentor, who is not parent, would have to be in a completely celibate non-romantic relationship. They would also have the advantage of grace and wisdom, in that the young person is not, and never in a position to pay them back. The mentoring relationship is clearly more valuable to the youth, and not to the mentor. However, sometimes the mentor does not need all the answers, for their presence is often enough to bring a sort of peace to the panicked frantic youth who is unsure that their life will work out for them.
If one were to look at the trend in popular movies before 1980 and after 2000 you could characterize it as such. Movies before 1980 were primarily interested in romantic relationships, whereas many movies after 2000 were significantly more interested in the mentor relationship. (exceptions might be Back to the Future and Star Wars)
Take Batman as an example. If one were to look at Batman before Christopher Nolan’s adaptation you could characterize it as such. Batman is a fully self-sufficient man. Although he has the help of Robin, or Commissioner Gordon, Batman could do quite well without them. Were you to look at Batman Begins, the primary relationship seems to be Bruce Wayne’s and Ra’s al Gul, or conversely Batman and Alfred. Ra’s al Gul even has a positive effect on Bruce Wayne, but it is Alfred who is indispensible. In fact Alfred is more indispensible then that one girl, what’s her name?
Be it Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games, films that have become extensive cultural phenomenon’s, I believe, because they have brought out the significance of the mentor relationship. Instead of focusing on self-actualization through romance, they have focused on self-actualization through wisdom.
The opportunity of the Postmodern West
While serious and intelligent Catholics are stuck lamenting the cultural insignificance of the Father, Film has given positive images of how alternatives can work. The parents are always absent or irrelevant, and somehow the character manages to grow into an integrated capable person with the help of the mentor.
It truly is a tragedy that Fathers are failures or irrelevant in the West, it would be a misunderstanding to presume that every person who has had a destructive relationship with their father ends up destroyed hopelessly.
Even if we lived in a world were prolonged adolescence wasn’t as normative as mature responsible manhood or fatherhood… Even if, our world really consisted of a majority of men who were admirable and not cowardly, and many young people cite their father’s as their primary mentors, and even pop culture acknowledged this phenomenon, none of that could diminish the need for an additional significant mentor, or several.
Grandparents, godparents, aunts & uncles, older siblings, and other mentors would still be just as relevant. They would still serve in bringing an individual to their fullest self. Besides all this CRISIS talk is overestimated today, because here was have a clear opportunity.
Even married people who are mentored are mentored as individuals
Because the mentor relationship necessitates complete celibacy, as well as non-reciprocity in that the young person is not in a state to repay their mentor, it happens to the person as a single person.
People who are married or in religious life might cite the need for mentors in those states of life. I believe that there are many problems in married life because of a lack of mentors in earlier life. Many people enter marriage not as self-actualized individuals, and feel the need to separate in order to become actualized. Some people never learn to develop trust, something that can only be developed among people in completely celibate disinterested relationships like a mentor relationship. And perhaps couples have emotionally intense relationships where there is a desperate mutual need, these feelings do not get to the depths of the person, a type of relating that is often carried out by people who have had relationships with elders. Finally, many people falsely imagine that married life will grant a surrogate father or mother, or, in other words, another appropriate mentor.
It is not to suggest that somehow when one has found their vocation, or have gotten married, that they are eliminated from being mentors. The Mentor Relationship happens to and among individual persons. If a married person mentors it is as an individual and not as a couple. The young son needs his father to impart wisdom, and would personally benefit in the same way were his widowed grandfather or single uncle were to impart wisdom. In order to become a mature individual, there is virtually nothing that makes the person in married life or consecrated life elite. In order to impart wisdom one must have had, as a single person, had wisdom imparted to them, and had experience.
On the other hand, even when a couple turns to another couple for marriage, it may be the rare exception. However, the mentoring that happens here is often from the man to the man, and from the woman to the woman. It is often still between individuals navigating the same issue. Were this mentoring always to happen with all individuals present, From couple to couple, it would probably not be nearly as effective. Yet all this marks out the one exception where mentoring happens as a single person. However, if one has had some decent mentoring prior to marriage, will have so much more to give as a mature individual.
Someone who has, as fully as possible, worked at integrated and growing into a responsible individual can then almost go anywhere. They are likewise as effective as a biological father or spiritual father. A single person is a ripe for being mentored, and it is as a single person that one mentors.
It is always and only as a single person that one makes a choice on what vocation they will enter. It is as a single person, as a Christian Disciple, that one can commit their life to Christ, properly discern, pray, and be mentored before committing to a vocation. Even if most people are not called to some kind of Single Vocation, or Consecrated Singlehood, there is nobody who is not called to a Single Vocation of Christian Discipleship & Discernment. Married life is not for everyone. There is no Christian who cannot be single.