Being Alert to Singularity

Singularity is the sin of taking satisfaction in flying above my neighbor, running ahead of the crowd, wandering off the beaten track in my prayer life, my devotion, and my spirituality.

The great tradition presents an assortment of vices about which we should be alert. The vice I am thinking about right now is singularity. A singularity of the intellect is an upgraded version of the kindergarten taunt, “I know something you don’t know.” Louis Tronson traces it to vanity:

Is it not from vanity that we devote ourselves to study, and that we strive hard to excel in some branch of learning or science? Does not vanity cause us to affect singularity in our opinions, our tastes, and our habits, and to adopt readily every novel theory, particularly as regards sacred things? (Examination of Conscience)

A singularity of the will sounds a similar note: “I do something you don’t do.” This can be applied in actions ranging from religious devotion to political undertakings. The singular person adopts his own manner and style so that others will notice him. But Blosius warns the believer, instead, to “diligently avoid all faulty singularity… There are some who take a strange delight in doing anything that is not done by others” (The Spiritual Works of Louis of Blois). A strange delight. A strange vice. But a familiar one. 

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The spiritual tradition says that the desire to stand above the crowd can be self-love in motion. It is a sort of hubris, easy to see by looking around, or looking within. Jean Grou notices that self-love “hates simplicity and common every-day life; it affects singularity, and defines holiness as consisting, not in the perfect performance of ordinary actions, but in a course of extraordinary conduct” (The Spiritual Maxims of Pere Grou). 

To return to the kindergarten playground again, singularity shouts “look at me!” One place this can be witnessed is in religious life. Francis de Sales criticized the tendency to practice singular mortifications. About his temperance, Jane de Chantal writes, 

He always avoided any outward display of mortification, except as far as it was commanded by the Church. He manifested no kind of singularity in any one of his actions, but took care to lead an ordinary life… He preferred the mortifications which presented themselves, however small they might be, to the great ones which were self-chosen. (The Depositions

This creates a beauty of the soul within.

Singularity is a problem in religious life if it tempts someone to color his mortifications outside the lines laid down by the Rule. Blosius complains, “They are better pleased if they have once fasted while their companions were eating, than if they had fasted ten times with others.” A vow to a Rule is a commitment to a common life, a life in community, where each must do like the others. So Saint-Jure says, “singularities, as expressed by the word itself, are diametrically opposed to social and community life; for, to go alone is not to go with others” (The Religious, vol 2).

But singularity is not a problem unique to religious, which is why I bring it up here. Anyone could be bitten by the snake as they try to go it alone in their piety. Alphonsus Rodriguez says the saints counsel us to avoid singularity in devotion “because singular and unusual actions are most remarked, and most spoken of…whence arises the spirit of pride and vainglory, which makes us look upon others with contempt” (The Practice of Christian and Religious Perfection, vol 1). 

How could the temptation be defeated? By adopting simplicity and not fanning one’s self-love. By living in true koinonia, with obedience. Grou says: 

True devotion, when left to itself, walks in the simplest and most common path; it follows the beaten track, and shuns the by-ways. It abhors singularity, dreading to be observed and noticed; its disposition is to hide itself, and to be lost with the crowd. A friend to those virtues and practices which have the least show…it prefers them to all others. (The Characteristics of True Devotion)

He advises us to have a fear of being noticed.

This stings. The expression of vanity with which most of us are most familiar is exactly the desire to be noticed. The theologians of abnegation advise us to do exactly the opposite and embrace a life that is (a) common, (b) ordinary, and (c) hidden. 

This is rare, admits Surin. The temptation to make a show of special gifts will lead persons “to distinguish themselves from others, practise devotions which they alone enjoy and esteem, depart from true devotion, and sometimes even from the Faith; there being nothing easier than to pass from singularity to delusion, and from delusion to error” (The Foundations of the Spiritual Life). Far better, he says, to lead a life that is outwardly common but that contains inwardly rare and extraordinary virtues. “Those who do thus, wish to be known to none but God, Who searches the heart; they discover themselves to Him Alone.”

There are different ways of leading a hidden life—it is not only done by monks fleeing to the desert. And although the pious believer does not seek to be noticed, Boudon says, “They who lead an ordinary life in the world, whatever pains they may take to escape observation, will hardly, after all, prevent men from recognizing their virtue, and bestowing upon them the approbation it so justly deserves” (The Hidden Life of Jesus).

Have we any models of a life that is common outwardly and exceptional inwardly? Is there an exemplar who could guide our path? Of course. Jesus was the first to lead the Christian life. Grou advises that, as far as the choice depends on ourselves, we should “prefer a common life, in order the more perfectly to imitate Jesus Christ, to preserve humility, to guard against pride, which loves singularity” (The Interior of Jesus and Mary). 

Our Lord “never refused invitations to the tables of the rich, whether Pharisees or publicans, and there ate and drank without the affectation of singularity. Neither did he attract notice by devoting a long time to public prayer like the Pharisees.” If we live in Christ, and Christ lives in us, then this characteristic should be evident. 

And who has followed our Lord more closely in this than Mary. Grou marvels that “she exteriorly led a common life, while interiorly endowed with the sublimity of sanctity; and she had no aim but to conceal her spiritual prerogatives within the depths of her own soul, and to avert the observing gaze of creatures.” She was favored with gifts of grace, heavenly revelations, stupendous miracles, “but now the day of prodigies had passed, and she rejoiced to repose once more beneath the shade of common life.” 

We sometimes say that faith is seeing by different eyes than those of the world. In this case, it seems the pathway of faith is seen by different eyes than those with which the world sees. “The sanctity of simple and interior souls is unknown on earth, unless God manifests it Himself,” says Grou, 

because their very simplicity makes them walk in a way that is quite common and ordinary as to the exterior; because they affect no singularity; because they have few exterior practices of devotion; because everything passes within them secretly, and is only seen by the eye of God, and because they hide themselves not only from others, but also from themselves. God wishes them to belong to Him only…and He almost always allows them to be humbled, calumniated, and persecuted. (Manual for Interior Souls

Each person is unique. Each path to holiness is divinely crafted to be a perfect fit for an individual soul. We can be pleased by that fact but not proud about it. Singularity is the sin of taking satisfaction in flying above my neighbor, running ahead of the crowd, wandering off the beaten track in my prayer life, my devotion, and my spirituality. It ignores tradition and obedience. Defeating singularity by humility is required to attain the kind of communal, simple, hidden, and everyday piety Jesus intends for His mystical body. Then—instead of boasting about what I know, or what I do, and comparing myself with others —the real interior work can begin.

[Image Credit: Unsplash]

  • David W. Fagerberg

    David W. Fagerberg is a professor emeritus in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. His field is liturgical theology.

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