All the (Involuntarily) Single Ladies

Memorial of St. Edith Stein, Cologne, Germany
Memorial of St. Edith Stein, Cologne, Germany

A friend of mine recently related that she feels like a “vocational orphan,” not yet married or in a religious community, and not seeing a clear sign from God which way to go. There are a lot of Catholics who know that feeling: both men and — especially — women (since women play less of an active role in initiating dating, there tends to be more of that waiting and wondering). Today, I’m looking at you, unwillingly single Catholic ladies who wonder what God is doing in your life, and when (or if!) you’ll ever get a wedding ring or a habit.

If you hear yourself in that description, I know a Saint with some tough love for you. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as St. Edith Stein, in one of her Essays on Woman, has this to say:

We have become familiar with the special aids to grace with which the Church can supply the married woman and the nun toward realization of their vocations. Now we face the question especially important for our time: How might it be possible for the unmarried woman to fulfill her destiny apart from life in the convent? Without doubt, her state is particularly difficult. On the one hand, she may have had to renounce marriage and motherhood, not of her own free will but rather compelled by circumstances, even though a natural longing for the happiness of family life is still alive in her. Only with difficulty can she be totally absorbed in the occupation which she has chosen even if it is suited to her natural bent and talents; this is true more than ever if the work is undertaken, perhaps even with reluctance, only to make a living. Or, on the other hand, she has been drawn towards virginal life since her youth; moreover, the model of the religious order seemed to be most in accordance with this, but existing circumstances prevented from fulfilling this wish.

Stein’s not beating around the bush: she’s saying yes, you might find yourself single against your will, and yes, this is tough. This might be temporary, it might be permanent, and you might not know which it is. And whether it’s marriage or religious life that you’re longing for, you face the same risks:

In both instances, the danger exists that she views her life as a failure, that her soul becomes stunted and embittered, that it does not provide the strength for her to function fruitfully as a woman. Moreover, it would seem that she lacks the aid to grace provided by the other feminine vocations. To operate merely by natural strength under a lifestyle in conflict with one’s own nature can hardly be achieved without doing injury to both nature and soul. At best, this can be endured only with weary resignation; but usually, it is met with bitterness and rebellion against one’s “fate ” or by flight into a world of illusion. That which is not personally chosen and made one’s own, freely and joyfully, can be accomplished only by the woman who sees God’s will at work in the force of circumstances and aims at nothing else than to harmonize her own will with the divine. But whoever makes her will captive to God in this way can be certain of a special guidance in grace.

This is a crucial point in the life of grace: it’s not a sacrifice unless you make it a sacrifice. There’s a difference between giving up wine as a penance, and finding that you’ve run out of wine. The first is a sacrifice, the second is a loss. But you can turn the second into a sacrifice by uniting your heart and your will to it: by willingly embracing your circumstances. In other words, don’t run away from this. Recognize God’s will at work in it, whether it’s to be for a season or indefinitely.

Stein couples this with some good news, and some good advice. The good news: God hasn’t given up on you, and what you’re experiencing is a sure sign of the workings of Divine grace. Your task is now to be attentive, step by step:

It may be considered as the direct sign of a special calling when one is pulled out of the course apparently given by birth and upbringing, or one personally hoped and striven for, and then thrown into an entirely different path. This calling is for a personal mission which does not stand firmly outlined in advance, with its track already traced out and clear; rather, it is revealed step by step. And here it may be that the unique strengthening needed for the duties of such a life is found by the woman going her own way rather than in the communal life of consecrated liturgy. It is particularly important in this matter to watch carefully for signs showing one’s path. Above all, this requires that everything be done in one’s own power to stay in God’s presence, i.e., that one uses the means of grace at the disposal of every Christian.

Given your unique spiritual mission, you might not have a neat 20 year plan that you can fall back on, in your mind. Try to make one, and you’re just falling into the world of illusion and escape that Stein critiques. Instead, stay by God step-by-step. Stein offers a particularly good of advice for how to do this — stay close to the Eucharist:

It is most important that the Holy Eucharist becomes life’s focal point: that the Eucharistic Savior is the center of existence; that every day is received from His hand and laid back therein; that the day’s happenings are deliberated with Him. In this way, God is given the best opportunity to be heard in the heart, to form the soul, and to make its faculties clear-sighted and alert for the supernatural.

Joshua Reynolds, The Infant Samuel (1776)
Joshua Reynolds, The Infant Samuel (1776)

In talking about vocational discernment (and really, any discernment), I like to bring up Samuel’s call in 1 Samuel 3. The chapter begins by saying, “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision” (1 Sam. 3:1). God seems to be quiet. You might be feeling that as you begin to discern, as well. But look at what happens next:

  1. God speaks to Samuel while “Samuel was lying down within the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was” (1 Sam. 3:3). As Edith Stein said, stay close to the Eucharist. It’s your best chance of having a clear understanding of what’s going on in your life. Even if you’re not going there for the purpose of seeking an answer (which, after all, the sleeping Samuel wasn’t), you’ve put yourself in a place in which you’re in the presence of God, and ready to listen to Him.
  2. “Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me”” (1 Sam. 3:4-5). Samuel, upon hearing the voice of the Lord, doesn’t understand what’s going on. So what does he do? He runs to Eli, the priest. When we sense God’s stirrings in our soul, we should lay them before a priest or a competent spiritual director. (And really, if you’re serious about vocational discernment, get a spiritual director. Ask a priest you trust for advice on how to find the right director for you.). It’s only after speaking with Eli that Samuel comes to recognize the way that the Lord has been calling him.
  3. “Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears.’”” (1 Sam. 3:8-9). Notice that Eli instructs Samuel to wait on the Lord. Samuel is ready to respond, of course. Eli’s not calling to an apathetic idleness, but to patient waiting. Too often we try to put God on our timetable: I’m going to Mass, I’m praying a Holy Hour every day, why hasn’t He told me yet? Keep praying and waiting.
  4. “And the Lord came and stood forth, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for thy servant hears.”” (1 Sam. 3:10). Samuel is now prepared to respond to the Lord in humility and obedience. He hears the call, recognizes Who it’s from, and recognizes what it means. Success.

Some of you are doing all of these things, and you’re still at the praying and waiting stage. That’s fine! Don’t get so hung up on the destination that you miss the workings of grace in the journey. After all, if God is waiting to call you to something, it might be because He wants to prepare you in some way. So be attentive to the ways that He’s strengthening you, testing you, and preparing you.

Edith Stein, circa 1920 (age c. 28)
Edith Stein, circa 1920 (age c. 28)

I should close by revealing why St. Edith Stein is such an expert on this, and why we tend to call her St. Edith Stein. After all, her religious name is St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and we don’t normally call nuns and monks by their birth names (I’ve never heard anyone refer to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux as Saint Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin, for instance).

St. Edith Stein (October 12, 1891 – August 9, 1942) didn’t become a religious novice until April 1934, at which point she took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. By that point, she was 42 years old. This is a woman who knew what it was to be single for a long period of time. She had wanted to enter religious life 12 years earlier, after her conversion from Judaism. But instead, she waited. And she made the most of it: she was one of the foremost philosophers of her day in the field of phenomenology (she had received her doctorate of philosophy from the University of Freiburg under the philosopher Edmund Husserl, considered to be the founder of phenomenology). From her biography on the Vatican’s website:

Immediately after her conversion she wanted to join a Carmelite convent. However, her spiritual mentors, Vicar-General Schwind of Speyer, and Erich Przywara SJ, stopped her from doing so. Until Easter 1931 she held a position teaching German and history at the Dominican Sisters’ school and teacher training college of St. Magdalen’s Convent in Speyer. At the same time she was encouraged by Arch-Abbot Raphael Walzer of Beuron Abbey to accept extensive speaking engagements, mainly on women’s issues. “During the time immediately before and quite some time after my conversion I … thought that leading a religious life meant giving up all earthly things and having one’s mind fixed on divine things only. Gradually, however, I learnt that other things are expected of us in this world… I even believe that the deeper someone is drawn to God, the more he has to `get beyond himself’ in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it.”

Edith Stein helped to set the world on fire, first as a brilliant female philosopher, then as a holy nun, and finally as a martyr at the hands of the Nazis. This wasn’t a life that she had all planned out, twenty years ahead of time. It was a life that she grew into, accepting each challenge and opportunity as it came. She followed her own advice; we would do well to do likewise.

16 Comments

  1. “This is a crucial point in the life of grace: it’s not a sacrifice unless you make it a sacrifice. There’s a difference between giving up wine as a penance, and finding that you’ve run out of wine. The first is a sacrifice, the second is a loss.”

    Well said. Further, one can serve God an not necessarily have to take on the task vocationally. History has many an example of lay brothers and sisters. I tend to think we can’t always avoid doing what we think is GOd’s will because we are waiting for a sign that may never come. We need to set our minds to submitting every thought, taking them captive, to Jesus Christ. If one in this process is concerned that they might not be able to truthfully fulfill the vows of a certain religious order, than simply do not join one and serve God where you are called to in your church. They’ll have jobs for you, don’t you worry.

    “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). We don’t do good because it is will get us something with God. We do so because once we know CHrist, and we know the deepness of His love for us that He died for us, that we willfully set it all aside and lay down our lives for Him. THe plumber to the priest, the spinster to the vowed celibate all have a role in this.

  2. Many of these “ladies” have found themselves single because they are just too picky. Others are downright heinous.

  3. Beautiful, insightful article. I often think about my protracted singleness but ultimately, I know it’s in God’s hands. The reality is, these days, not all of us who are faithful and have a vocation to marriage will marry. There is a widespread lack of understanding about love, marriage commitment. The women of today have lowered the bar (as a woman, I can say that about my own sex). There is a dearth of masculinity. Men don’t know how to pursue or are chasing after the same women that secular men are. Or they are simply bitter (see Richard’s comment above).

    I just received St. Edith Stein’s Essay on Woman and I am looking forward to learning more (in a Catholic context) about what authentic femininity is. Thank you again for your insight.

    1. For Catholic singles I think the internet is an essential tool for finding a compatible partner. I just celebrated my 11th anniversary 2 days ago, and met my wife on a Catholic website. Knowing that I wanted a woman who loved the Lord, prayed the Rosary, was against abortion/birth control, believed in the authority of the Pope, and knew her Catholic faith and Bible well, the Catholic site (formerly known as St. Raphael’s) was indispensable.

      An amazing thing also is that I was always a great devotee of St. Francis of Assisi since I was brought back to the Catholic faith by reading his biography, and I actually had a printing press in my basement with which I also printed selections from his life (by St. Bonaventure) to distribute to the public. And it just happened that I encountered my future wife on the internet singles site on the same date that St. Francis died and entered into Heaven, which was on Oct. 3rd.

      Anyway, as Jesus said ‘seek and you shall find’, the various internet sites for singles are a great place to look. My wife now attends Mass about 5 days per week, and myself about 3-4. We both pray the Rosary nightly, and do evangelization together on a weekly basis, handing out about 500-1000 Catholic Radio cards per week at various public sites. Without the internet I think it would be pretty hard to find a partner who would tolerate such types of religious activity. But with the internet you can be honest with your plans, and wait to find a person of like faith who will not try to damage your devotion to God, and on the contrary, actually help you to spread the Christian faith to others.

      So, for me, the internet was invaluable. I highly recommend it to any Catholic who is single and trying to find a faithful partner.

      1. I am on the 2 major Catholic websites but unfortunately online dating in not a panacea for good Catholic singles. I have also been to Catholic retreats, conferences, trips, etc. You can put yourself “out there” and still miss the mark. There are broken Catholics in these settings as well.

        1. Sifted heart I am going to say a prayer for you. Don’t settle for less than you deserve. You are loved by God and His Church. There are good men out there at every age. Please stay hopeful. God bless you.

        2. SiftedHeart,

          Maybe you can try evangelization. You can try fishing for souls, and at the same time… try fishing for a suitable husband? I am out evangelizing every week in public places, such as farmers markets, supermarkets and college campuses. I mainly give out Catholic radio cards and bumperstickers, but also have rosaries available, as well as Divine Mercy pamphlets and even Scott Hahn books occasionally.

          Anyone can do the same. The goal is to contact people in public places trying to find a way to converse with them about faith topics. Everyone seems to like the Radio cards (Immaculate Heart Radio 1260 AM in my area). But it is also a way to converse with very many people on any given day. If you evangelize in this way maybe a good fish will come your way…whether it be a soul who wants a closer relation with Christ, or a soul who might want both, the Lord …and a good Christian wife. In either case you will not be wasting your time.

          And also, I have a friend who lost his wife when he was about 72 years old. At 76 he found a woman who was very active in evangelization, just like he was. Both were in the Legion of Mary. They decided to marry at that late age (she was in her late sixties). I was the best man. And you wouldn’t believe how great this marraige has been. They are some of the most active people I know, helping to start Legion of Mary presidiums all over Northern California, and Nevada too. My friend also goes to Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration and the hour that he chose was 2AM in the morning. Then he goes to Mass at 8:00 am every single day. I don’t think he has missed daily mass for decades.

          But what I’m trying to get at, is that there is really no time table for marriage. What you should be looking for is a partner in the faith. Sex is really quite minor, and the older you get the less it matters. Faith and true love is much more important. My friend, at 81 now, is still very active and vibrant of faith. He is always so enthusiastic that he seems to be about 30 yrs. old in spirit. His wife is also youthful even in her 70’s, and is always occupied in doing faith filled activities. These two are about twice as active in the faith as I am.

          So, never give up hope. And also, keep looking. Try to find a very vibrant parish filled with activities. If you need to commute somewhat to a good, holy and active parish you should make the sacrifice. If you have a Dominican parish in your vicinity try it out, as they are usually pretty orthodox and attract an intelligent and spiritual congregation.

          And if you still cannot find a prospective husband you might consider looking for a spouse in a foreign country. As long as they are authentically Catholic it really doesn’t matter. But you should only consider men who believe in the Pope, the Rosary, the Blessed Sacrament, Pro Life etc. After that, it really doesn’t matter which country they come from….as long, of course, that they speak a little English. The true faith is really what makes a good marriage, no matter what country a person comes from.

          So, if you really think that you are called to marriage….don’t stop looking. And be open to new strategies. Jesus never said that fishing for souls, or husbands, was going to be easy. But focus on the Kingdom of God, and see what happens.

          May God grant you a kind and holy partner.

          Pray to our Lady and keep up the good hope.

  4. Thanks you Tom and Al for your encouragement and prayers. I have not given up hope yet! Peace and blessings to you both.

    1. Sifted Heart,

      One last idea. I am Irish in background and married a Latino woman, and as said before, a very devout one. Latino’s who are very faithful to their Catholic faith can make very great spouses. Because many come from countries that are still predominantly Catholic, there is a larger pool to consider from, as compared to native born American Catholics, who might actually be heterodox in their faith. There are also many cultural traits that can make a marriage very interesting, and even maybe difficult at times, but it can be a great ‘net positive’.

      There are many Latin American Catholic Groups that have good and faithful Catholic men in them. One is the Guadalupanos. Another are the various Spanish Curia’s of the Legion of Mary. I’m sure you can find others too. And Filipino’s also are great Catholics! In my area (SF Bay Area) there are Churches where about 90% are Filipino. The men are usually pretty devout and very ‘easy going’. This is why so many work in hospitals, because they have, on the whole, very amiable and friendly natures. It’s easy to find a man who prays the Rosary…which should really be a requirement, I think. The Legion of Mary is predominantly Filipino and so I know the culture well. Again, they are very devout Catholics for the most part. It might be good fishin’ in those waters?

      That’s about the best I can do. I wish the best for you in Jesus and Mary.

      1. I have always been open to interracial and intercultural dating. In my opinion, love knows no color. Sadly given the history of this country, as an African-American woman, I am not generally considered a “suitable” marriage partner (because of the color of my skin and all the stereotypes that go along with it…). However, I have not lost hope! God is able to do the seemingly impossible and I am confident hat the right man will see me for the person I am, not the externals. Again, thanks for your suggestions! I am taking them to heart. 🙂

  5. Sifted Heart,

    In my opinion you have an exceptional advantage being African American. And this is because there are so many Africans (from the continent of Africa) that are excellent and orthodox Catholics. And they are great guys also! I studied under a Nigerian in my University days and was friends with many Ethiopians and some Eritreans and also. The African Catholics are highly orthodox and are now leaders in the Catholic Church at the Vatican Congregation of Divine Worship with Cardinal Sarah and former Secretary Cardinal Arinze. In the Legion of Mary in the country of Nigeria there are so many members that at one yearly event (Acies) they had about 45,000 members present. At our recent Acies they had only about 100. Pretty sad. And in Nigeria alone they started 700 presidiums (small LOM groups) in only the last year. All of these members pray the Rosary, follow all of the Church teachings, do evangelization/charitable works on a weekly basis, and are generally great people.

    So, I think you have a pretty large school of big fish to choose from! I traveled 5000 miles, and lived in her country (Dominican Republic) for 5 years to marry my wife. But it was all very much worth it. It makes for a very interesting life.

    Best to you in Jesus and Mary!

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