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.
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:
- 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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
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.