The door closed, and I crumbled. It was Christmas, and I was alone. I had never been alone on Christmas. Having been raised in a family of six children, I was always surrounded by siblings, wrapping paper, and Ping-Pong table-size dinners. When I married at 19, I moved into a larger family network sometimes requiring double-duty on Christmas.
But this year was different. After Christmas brunch at my house, my former husband left with our four-year-old son for their own celebration. Ten years of married life now seemed like ancient history. I was single again. It was Christmas. And I was alone.
Ten years after this gut-wrenching transition, I was lamenting the trials of single life to a dear friend. “It’s so hard being single in a married world,” I said. “You’re wrong,” she corrected me. “It’s not a married world anymore. It’s a couples’ world.”
Those four simple words sent a seismic shock through my system. The cultural ground shifted beneath me, and marriage as the bedrock of society seemed to slip through the 21st-century crack. While the 20th century proclaimed, “God is dead,” the third millennium announced the logical follow-up: “Marriage is dead.” Coupleness was in, marriage was out, and I was still single.
As I began looking at American culture through this new lens, coupleness appeared everywhere: The short form of the 2000 census no longer bothered to ask American citizens if they were married. A front-page article in the Wall Street Journal described the sacrifice made by a couple living together when one of them was summoned for military duty to fight the war on terrorism. California and Massachusetts are debating legislation that would give homosexual alliances the same rights and privileges as marriage.
Sex dominates movies, teen magazines, television sitcoms, romance novels, and pop music. A statistic taken from the Center for Population Options and quoted by CareNet in a fund-raising letter I received last fall left me speechless (well, actually, I was livid): A typical teenager sees about 14,000 sexual encounters through the entertainment media in a year.
We’re awash in “couples” garbage. While I was struggling to pay bills and teach my son the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary,” coupleness and contraception came of age. It’s now “normal” for two people to live together out of wedlock. It’s now “normal” for high school boys and girls to discuss their sex lives. And it’s now “normal” for first or second dates to turn into sexual encounters. Contraception hasn’t just unleashed its infertile poison on the sexual act; it’s rendered marriage irrelevant.
So where does that leave me as a single person without a “partner,” or even a boyfriend?
Don’t Wait for Prince Charming
I am constantly under pressure to couple up. This pressure comes not only from the media but from well-meaning friends. As part of an article I wrote on single parenting, I asked some single friends what comments get under their skin. Here are a few choice items: “You’re so pretty, so intelligent. I’m sure there’s somebody wonderful out there for you.” “Of course you’re going to get remarried.” “We’ve just got to find a good Catholic [woman/man] for you.”
Unwittingly, these comments convey to single people that they’re incomplete without a partner, that coupling up is simply a matter of good looks, young age, bright intelligence, or fervent prayer (i.e., finding the right novena). These comments reinforce what singles feel acutely everyday as they drink their protein shakes, work out at the gym, and climb into bed alone at night: The single life is a stagnant waiting period, and the sooner it ends, the better.
In my own life, I was stuck in this waiting mentality without even realizing it. After receiving an annulment, I assumed I would remarry. I just had to maintain my part-time job until Prince Charming came along and swept me off my feet. I was waiting for a man to rescue me from a script I hadn’t chosen, waiting for a new romantic relationship to bring excitement, energy, and purpose into my life.
After two years, I realized I was stuck in the Prince Charming mud. I had to extract myself from this romantic assumption and learn to walk in the solitude of single life. I had to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life to support my son and myself. I had to develop hobbies, interests, and ways of serving. I had to learn how to be single.
My first lesson came from an unexpected source: the First Couple. Before Eve was created, Adam was alone. He looked at creation and saw all the animals as part of a couple except himself. God, too, knew this wasn’t His design, and so He put Adam to sleep and formed a woman from his side. Upon waking from his slumber, Adam gushed over the woman (I like that part). The next verse, however, enraptures me: “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and the two become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Once Eve was created, everything changed. A new possibility came into being, the possibility for union.
Now this may seem like the antithesis of good news for a single person, but it actually opens new horizons. As Pope John Paul II points out in his theology of the body, this ability for union, which is symbolized by our gendered bodies, isn’t restricted to the sexual gift of self. Rather, we’re made for union with God and others, union with nature, and union between body and soul. Living out these four unities constitutes the identity and mission of every person, and it doesn’t require being a couple to do it.
Here’s the bottom line: Each of us is made in God’s image and likeness and, as such, is created to reflect God. In other words, our actions and bodies make God visible. Through the New Testament, we know that God isn’t solitary (One) but Triune (Three). This means the Father pours Himself out in gift to the Son, the Son pours Himself out in gift to the Father, and the Holy Spirit bursts forth as the fruit of Their self-giving love. Genesis 2 shows us that we as human persons are no longer just one (Adam) but two, and so we can pour ourselves out in self-giving love to each other. This self-gift isn’t meant to be sterile but fruitful.
The mistake our culture makes is twofold. First, it’s made this self-gift sterile through contraception, and second, it applies this self-gift exclusively to coupleness, which is redefined as any two people regardless of age or gender. The result of redefining “self-gift” in this way has been to destroy the image of God. Coupleness no longer mirrors the union and communion of fruitful, self-giving love of the Trinity but is any convenient arrangement of mutual appropriation: I use you and you use me for sterile, mutual pleasure, and the world goes on as it pleases.
No wonder single people have a difficult time finding their identity in this world of mutual appropriation. Their options seem to be limited to flirting with this cesspool of mutual appropriation (and getting pulled into it) or waiting, waiting, waiting for marriage.
Bear Spiritual Fruit
Is there a third option? Yes, and we find it in the nuptial meaning of the body, in the reality that we’re made for union. The Father and Son live a union that’s fruitful, that bursts forth in the third Person of the Trinity. Single people need look no further for their identity and mission: We’re called to live a fruitful, virginal union with God and others in imitation of the Trinity. This is how we live as authentic images of God in the world. How else can a single person understand a verse such as John 15:8: “My Father has been glorified in your bearing much fruit”?
I never thought about spiritual fruitfulness until God crashed in on a romantic relationship of mine. As I was driving to meet my date one day, the Holy Spirit said to me: “Pray to convert your romantic love into a maternal love.” I’m embarrassed to say my first response was “No way!” But I soon yielded to the Spirit and began praying. Still, I had to ask myself, what is a maternal love?
A couple of weeks later, the answer came to me: A maternal love is the way I love my son, Michael; it’s constant, unconditional, and doesn’t expect my emotional needs to be met in return. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Holy Spirit was preparing the ground for the most important concept of my single, feminine life: spiritual motherhood. It was only when I read the pope’s “Letter to Women” and “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women” that I realized what I was doing had a name. It was called spiritual motherhood, and it meant nurturing the emotional, moral, cultural, and spiritual lives of others.
For every single woman, spiritual motherhood reveals the meaning of her virginal life. Women can be spiritual mothers anywhere—in the office, at the grocery store, on the subway, with their nieces and nephews, with the church youth group, or on the phone. When I teach confirmation, I’m nurturing the spiritual life of young people. When I listen to a friend who’s in tears because her preschool sons refuse to obey, I’m helping to replenish her emotional reservoir.
Does the world see and recognize my spiritual motherhood? Is there a flashing neon sign that alerts others to what I am doing so they can pat me on the back? No. The hardest part about spiritual motherhood is the hardest part about biological motherhood: It’s hidden. It doesn’t pay the bills. It won’t win an Academy Award. But our world is dying emotionally, morally, culturally, and spiritually because many women have sloughed off maternity in favor of more visible masculine traits. Without realizing it, we’ve traded fruitfulness for productivity, basing our identity on our professional status rather than on the fruitfulness of our lives.
And what about single men? How are they called to live this fruitful, virginal union? In a word, priesthood. Now most people’s first reaction is to think of ordained priesthood, but I’m referring to spiritual priesthood. Just as every woman is called to express her virginal fruitfulness through spiritual motherhood, so every man is called to express his virginal fruitfulness through spiritual priesthood.
While priesthood is certainly pastoral in nature, its root goes much deeper. It’s the offering of one’s life so others can draw closer to God. This is what Adam failed to do in the garden: By not intervening on Eve’s behalf in the face of evil, he failed to exercise his male priesthood. As a result, priesthood became ritualized in the Old Testament through the sacrificial system whose purpose was to purify Israel of sin and its effects. Whereas in the beginning, priesthood was the prerogative of every man, with sin and the establishment of the Levitical priesthood, it became the domain of a restricted few.
Jesus’ death on the cross and His institution of the Eucharist forever changed the mission of men. Hebrews 10:5 says of Christ, “Sacrifice and sin offering you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me?’ In order to fulfill His priestly mission, Jesus had to have a body. Priesthood, even spiritual priesthood, is incarnational. It requires the offering of one’s body to purify the world of sin and its effects.
How can single men be spiritual priests in their daily lives? When they resist the temptation to look at pornography or to give in to self-stimulation, they’re being priestly. When men carry out their work with integrity and don’t cut corners even if they can get away with it, they’re being priestly. When men pray daily and build brotherhood with other men, they’re being priestly. Turning back the culture of death and building a culture of life isn’t just the responsibility of the clergy; it’s the responsibility of every spiritual priest. On the cross and in the Eucharist, Jesus offers His life for one reason: so that we can live in union with God. That’s the commission of every spiritual priest—to transform society and culture from within so that the very way society organizes itself leads others to union with God.
We’re back to that word again—union. If we’re living as spiritual mothers who nurture the emotional, moral, cultural, and spiritual lives of others and as spiritual priests who lay down their lives for the sanctification of the world, then the whole movement of our lives is toward union—with God, with others, and between body and soul. We begin to see virginity not as a state to be lost but as a spiritual quality to be preserved. Virginity is being totally available for union with God, and that union bursts forth into the world with supernatural fruitfulness.
Could there be a better mission for single living? I don’t think so.