Friday, January 30, 2009

'A sacrifice hidden and silent'

[The following story of mine originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Catholic World Report. I published it here at the time and thought I would repeat it for those who missed it the first time around. — Dawn]

The most immediate effect of writing a book on chastity for marriage-minded single women, as I have done, is that you lose your amateur standing. You can no longer merely be on the winning side of the battle against sexual temptation. Instead, you become a professional, expected to answer questions on “how far is too far,” and an easy target for variations on Oscar Levant’s legendary epigram, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”

It took a never-married friend who read an advance copy of my book, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On, to remind me that chastity is, for some women, not just a lifestyle, but life. The friend, who is in her late 40s, told me she was glad I mentioned the prospect that the reader might never get married.

She was being generous. The book mentions the possibility of a lifetime as a chaste single woman only in passing. At the time that I wrote it, I didn't know how to expand upon the prospect of lifetime singlehood without making it sound like a death sentence.

It wasn't until the book was at the publisher — and after reporter Nadine O'Regan of the Irish Times asked me point-blank how it felt to realize that I might never meet the right one — that I began to articulate the sentiments that had been forming in the back of my mind.

"Experience has shown me that I'm not getting more unhappy. I'm getting happier," I said. "So, as depressing as it may be to think of another five years, or a lifetime, of not being married, the depression is only in me in the fear. Actually living out a chaste lifestyle indefinitely is not sad. I'm accomplishing so much with my life that I didn't think I'd be able to accomplish."

G.K. Chesterton writes in his Autobiography that, according to the Penny Catechism he read before entering the Church, "[t]he two sins against Hope are presumption and despair." We don't usually think of hope as something that can be sinned against. But it is a virtue, and presumption and despair are its corresponding vices. More than that, it is, along with faith and charity, one of the three theological virtues, meaning that it is directed towards God.

A person living chastely while longing to be married is living in hope. I believe such hope is virtuous because it is directed towards a virtuous goal — and that goal is not centered upon wedding vows.

Here I run up against the difficulties of the language we use when describing the single life. I don't believe that one desiring marriage should merely "stop looking," as advice columnists would have it, nor that one should "cultivate other interests" or "just be the best person you can be."

Back in 1989, singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams, with her catchy tune “Passionate Kisses” encapsulated the mentality of that “Greed Decade” and beyond: "Shouldn't I have this, shouldn't I have this, shouldn't I have all of this ... Give me what I deserve, 'cause it's my right." In our consumer culture, we are immersed in that kind of entitlement mentality, so much so that denying one’s own wants is seen as equivalent to denying one’s own rights. Well, call me radical, call me crazy, but it's becoming increasingly apparent — especially as I spend time with religious faithful and with people who do charitable work — that what I imagine are the most important things for me to accomplish in life are not necessarily those that God considers most important.

What seems like an eternity for us here on Earth is less than the blink of an eye in Heaven. Moreover, there are no marriages in Heaven. In Heaven, we will find our spiritual children — those whom we have helped come to the faith — which, for a single person, could well exceed the number of children of a married one. (Isaiah 54:1: “Sing, O barren ... for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord.”)

The hope in which I strive to live, then, is that Jesus, through Mary, will enable the graces He has given me through the gift of conversion to come to full flower. This is the "hope [that] maketh not ashamed," as Paul writes in Romans 5, "because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us."

Make no mistake about it, I want to be married and experience the love and companionship of a husband on every level — physical, emotional, and spiritual. And, sure, I think about it a lot. But when I think about the short time we have on Earth, I feel the need to focus on discerning God's will for my life from day to day. It's a will that requires me to become more loving to everyone — as opposed to becoming more attractive to that special someone out there.

As a late convert to chastity, I sometimes have a hard time explaining my vocation to people — and not just to those who think it’s bizarre to forgo premarital sex. There are Catholics of traditional upbringing who look at me as if they’d never met a 38-year-old woman who wasn’t either a mother or a nun. When I wrote on my blog about the response I gave to the Irish Times reporter, a male reader commented, “[T]hough there might be something to be said for ‘easing’ into the idea of a lifetime of singleness, at some point, I think that making an affirmative commitment to single lay celibacy would give that life the same focus and purpose that men and women living holy orders or marriage enjoy.”

I believe that a small but significant number of people share that reader’s perspective, in that they are uncomfortable with the idea of uncertainty. They can’t imagine themselves leading a chaste single life for an extended period of time, and so they feel uneasy at the idea that someone would choose a life lacking the “focus and purpose” of celibacy vows. To them, the idea of an unmarried person’s attempting to live chastely without consecrating their choice before God is the equivalent of a couple’s shacking up rather than making their union official. I feel as though they think I’m just playing at chastity.

When it comes to faith, God recognizes no mushy middle. On the one hand, the Bible is filled with exhortations to take a stand, perhaps most eloquently in Revelation 3, when Jesus tells the Laodicean church to be cold or hot — but not lukewarm. But on the other, the Bible makes clear that our life on Earth is an ongoing study in reconciliation. “I have been a stranger in a strange land,” said Moses, and God’s people have always been strangers among the worldly. The Lord wants us to rely solely upon Him for direction, as David writes in the 25th Psalm: “Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord; for he shall pluck my feet out of the net.”

In other words, as I see it, we are supposed to be absolutely certain of where we stand — but not so sure about where we’re going.

Through Jesus’ reconciling the world to himself, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5, we as Christians are given the “ministry of reconciliation.” This ministry is intended to be ongoing. It does not end when one lives under vows, regardless of the sense of closure such vows may provide.

A friend of mine, while training me to volunteer at a charity that helped homebound senior citizens, warned me not to assume that a healthy-looking client was able to take good care of himself. “Not all disabilities are visible,” she said.

In the same way, not all abilities are visible. It is impossible to tell from observing someone’s life what spiritual graces that person has received. "The world admires only spectacular sacrifice," wrote St. Josemaria Escriva, "because it does not realize the value of sacrifice that is hidden and silent."

Compared to those who are married or live in a monastery, a chaste single person may seem to lack a sense of being grounded or having a spiritual home. In truth, they may have a home within the home of this world — a spiritual place where they maintain deeply rooted faith even under shifting and unpredictable external circumstances. “For in the time of trouble, he shall hide me in his pavilion,” sang David in Psalm 27.

If I live my entire life waiting in hope of marriage, I can’t imagine how that could be a tragedy — as long as, while I wait, my eyes are not on a fantasy of my future husband, but on Jesus.

The only way to truly discover one’s vocation is to act on it, as one understands it, in the present moment — to step out in faith.

St. Maximilian Kolbe wrote, “If you have the will to love, you already give proof that you love. What counts is the will to love.” In living day-to-day in the vocation of single, unvowed chastity, I am relying upon God to take my will — to grow in love of Him and my fellow human beings — and put it into action. In making that my goal, I have hope that, whatever my vocation proves to be, Our Lady of Grace will grant me the grace to, as St. Maximilian Kolbe put it, “love without limits.”