The exchange of contemporary Catholic cultural piety online largely reflects a sincere desire of many good, (mostly) young people to express their own efforts and successes at integrating their faith in the midst of secular modernity. It contains some well-meaning absurdities—usually marked by a St. Augustine or St. Theresa of Avila quote repurposed in wedding-invitation font at the bottom of what on the surface appears to be a black-and-white perfume ad with some gorgeous brunette 20-something, her pants rolled to mid-calf, beckoning her beloved (is it her lightly-bearded fiancé? Christ himself?) to prance about a bit on the shores of some vast sea.
These are relatively harmless flashpoints whose only real damage is a minor prick of nostalgia from some viewers whose lives, despite their sincere faith and hopes, have not quite squared with this romanticized digital narrative. Yet, those most eager to consume (and dare I say produce) these intentionally encouraging snippets often leave out an important part of the redemptive side of living out our faith: calling suffering by no other name. I am here particularly concerned with discourses (in this case: short articles, video testimonies, and Catholic “memes”) that try to use this prepackaged sentimentality to comfort those Catholics who feel called to marriage and have not yet found a partner.
These articles almost always contain some important truth: you can live a life full of love as a single Catholic; you should wait with hope for the best God has to offer; you must keep your heart open to God changing your vocational plans, etc. But underneath these helpful thoughts I sense a certain anxiety derived from the fact that the audience and sometimes the authors cannot quite live these teachings so perfectly as to eliminate the suffering created from not having found a spouse. This suffering cannot be explained away comprehensively: nor should it! While all those truths listed above may bring comfort and sustain and motivate single people who feel called to marriage, the suffering remains. The problem is not simply that those in this circumstance have not lived these truths completely. No, the suffering is an essential part of the totality of our vocations. That must be acknowledged if we are to make the most of the redemptive value of this suffering.
The following are seven sorrows of the unwanted single life. Instead of explaining these sufferings away with pious reflections, it might be best to describe and embrace them as a site of possible redemptive suffering, where we can unite ourselves in a special way to Christ’s suffering. I first want to list them without offering too many easy solutions, which is how most single people experience these sorrows in real time.
I) The Unsolicited Questions & Advice
It seems logical to begin with the most clichéd circumstance that can cause pain for the single person who would like to find a partner and live the married life: the aunt who asks why you cannot find a spouse; the mother who wants to set you up with a Catholic with whom you have nothing in common; the friend who wants to set you up with the “perfect” match who does seem perfect, but whose only flaw is that they find you rather unattractive or uninteresting; the priest who thinks you are just over-thinking it all: just choose someone and move forward. (Not to mention the vague secular aphorisms: “You’ll find someone when you stop looking.”)
We might look at these pieces of advice and be offended: how dare these people (descendants of Job’s friends, no doubt!) presume to know my experience and how the Holy Spirit works in my heart? Or we might be touched by charity: how full of gratitude is my heart that so many people sincerely want to contribute to my happiness by pointing me to a vocation! But even if we have the strength for this gratefulness, we still feel the lack of connection.
II) Is There Something Wrong with Me?
This question reveals one of the more psychologically trying sufferings of the unwanted single life. The pain is further highlighted by the apparent unworthiness of those who do find spouses. How can that lazy man who barely prays attract that fascinating woman of faith? What does this sensitive athletic former seminarian see in that prissy, inarticulate little woman? (Hopefully, you are less judgmental than I am often tempted to be!)
Herein lies a painful reality: no one is truly worthy of marriage and all people receive this vocation as a complete gift. In other words, there is something wrong with you (original sin, at the very least), as well as with everyone who has gotten married. Yet immediately following that truth lies a paradoxical reality: everyone authentically called to marriage should be able to find a spouse. And we have not, and it hurts.
III) The Missed Opportunities, or Wisdom Come Too Late
This notion particularly inflicts those of us after the age of 35 (or maybe 30 for women). If we only had the grace and self-understanding that we have now when we were in our early 20s, then we would have married X man or Y woman and been happy with 5 children and a dog! Or we look at the plethora of holy young people in our church and see so many worthy faithful Catholics who will make fantastic spouses: but we have aged out of this eligible pool.
There is almost no comfort in answer to these thoughts. They may be misguided, but they are difficult to avoid. Maybe we really have missed great opportunities. Yes, our God can create ever-new perfect plans for our lives. But the temporal loss remains.
IV) The Wasted Time
Here the questions encircle the years when we knew what we wanted but somewhat knowingly chose routes that turned us from our vocations. We held God out of our lives deliberately, possibly even knowing (scandalously!) that we intended to turn back. We spent months, maybe years, with someone for the wrong reasons. These sufferings, I imagine, are magnified by those who have married and had the marriage annulled.
Fortunately, the past is in play for the Holy Spirit. God can have mercy on it if we will it to be so. He never imposes but always invites. This mercy allows us to move forward again. But it cannot eliminate the wasted time, which may have contributed to our state.
V) The Re-Examinations of Hope
As the waiting continues, we double-down on belief that God will provide: He will provide the desires of my heart! But the silence hurts. The question “When will this happen?” changes into “Will this happen?”, and, then, as the years slide by: “How can this still happen?” We have believed ourselves to be on the cusp of meeting the right person many, many times in both authentic encounters and in prayer! Always we are left with nothing.
This event has happened so often that we have now learned to be suspicious of this supposed intuition. How many times are we willing to be tricked or trick ourselves? What does hope, in this part of our lives, mean for us? Should we continue to hope for this specific vocation? Should we re-define our hopes?
VI) The Present Circumstances
We have prepared ourselves. We do not believe it is too late. We pray and hope in the right way. We have come to believe through faith and confirmation of our friends that there is still something deeply appealing in us that will attract the right person with the help of the Holy Spirit. But this stupid city has all the wrong kind of men and women! If only I was in New York or Denver or Austin or even Warsaw, then it would all work out! If only my job introduced me to a different quality of person or allowed me the hours of freedom to have the necessary encounters to find a spouse.
We are left wondering how much of a priority we should make this desire for marriage. Should we leave our happy career for another city because we believe the market of eligible spouses will vastly improve? What if we are wrong and end up, foolishly, with the wrong job and more alone then ever? We pray about it and receive no clear light.
VII) Judgment & Resurrection
Maybe this locus of pain is rare, but it is not entirely uncommon. Are we the heirs of the man who buried his talent in the field (Mt 25:25)? We might believe that we have disappointed God because of cowardice or some other flaw by proving unable to use our freedom to find a spouse and raise children in the faith. We hope this is not the case, but there is no assurance.
When we imagine the resurrection, we picture our siblings or friends with their children and see ourselves forlornly pining for what might have been. These thoughts are on some level heretical in light of a proper conception of heaven, but they may work their way into our thoughts.
It might seem almost cruel to examine these matters and provide no clear solutions, no salve that cleanly alleviates the pain of living the unwanted single life. Misguided reflection on these matters may tempt despair. But Christ does not scream from the cross: “It does not really hurt! It’s not so bad!” He feels abandoned, as many of us do. He “despises” the “shame” of suffering, and so do we. This acknowledgement is an essential component in the redemptive aspect of His suffering. At the very least, we should not excuse ourselves from this opportunity to unite with Him in this specific way, as long as he asks us to do so (Col 1:24).
It may be fruitful to contemplate the thorns weaving around the Sacred Heart. Those experiencing the heartache of the unwanted singleness share Christ’s Sacred Heart. We might offer to Him our hearts that bleed from these small but painful wounds. Think of the grace that might be thereby unleashed.
And we must recall that he suffers His shame “for the sake of the joy that lay before him” (Heb 12:2) Even in this world, we have not received fully. We are speechless before these mysteries. Yet the Sacred Heart assures us that all will in fact be well.