being a single saint on Valentine's Day/Ash Wednesday
Three years ago today I woke up in a stark room in a monastery in rural Indiana.
I had been traveling all over creation for speaking engagements, and I was weary. I knew I needed to fill up again before I had anything to offer to others, so I blocked off 5 days to spend at a Catholic monastery.
In addition to being weary, I was lonely -- my singleness was weighing on me instead of making me feel free. I traveled everywhere by myself. I spent my days hopping on and off planes alone, eating alone at tables-for-one, driving rental cars by myself and waking up alone in more hotel rooms than I could count.
My only constant companion was God - and at the moment, God felt really, really far away.
I was hoping that five days of solitude and rest would restore my soul, and reconnect my heart to Divine Love, which my faith tells me is ever-present.
The retreat center offered spiritual direction sessions, so I booked five. I would spent the mornings writing, and in the early afternoon I'd walk down the hall and sit in a wooden chair across from a nun in a simply-decorated living room of sorts.
Because I had only five days with her, I didn't waste time on pleasantries and small talk. I got right down to it.
Sitting across from a saintly, white-haired septuagenarian nun, I said, "My life is harder than yours."
I know. I can't believe I said it, either. But the blunt blunder just came flying out of my mouth before I could filter it.
She raised her eyebrows, inviting me to expound on my assertion.
"I mean, it's harder for me to be single than it is for you," I explained.
And that's really what I'd meant when I said my life was harder than hers. I meant that my singleness was harder than hers. (Which, of course, isn't necessarily true.)
I was actually a little jealous that she got to live here with dozens of nuns, and she got to engage with hundreds of parishioners and retreat-goers in the chapel next door. And she got to be part of a religious tradition that venerated singleness and viewed single saints with special respect.
Whereas Protestants? Not so much.
Many Protestant churches are suspicious of single people, to the extent that many won't hire single men as pastors. Single women are often marginalized to child care and Sunday School, free childcare workers for exhausted parents who want a break. And even though these churches take a lot of the Apostle Paul's teachings seriously and literally (i.e., forbidding women to teach men), they brush right over Paul's recommendation that singleness is preferable to marriage.
In the thousands of sermons I've heard in my lifetime, I've never heard a sermon that was all about singleness and how valuable it can be. I've never heard any pastor talk about how to leverage singleness to spread more Love to the world. No pre-marital counseling includes the question, "Have you considered not getting married so you could spend your money and energy and time helping other people?" I've never, ever had a pastor ask me what I need in order to live the single life well.
Instead, lots of churches have Pastors of Family Ministries -- but no Pastors of Singles Ministries. Several pastors have told me they don't host any get-togethers for singles because "it just turns into a meat market" (whatever that means.) Lots of churches host marriage conferences, but when it comes to offering resources for single people to navigate singleness well? Crickets.
When I've written about singleness and discrepancies in the church in the past, people have told me I'm bitter -- a term that's applied to lots of single people when they try to point out the ways in which they receive inferior treatment compared to their married counterparts. Calling single people "bitter" is akin to calling all opinionated women "shrill." It isn't fair, and it isn't true.
I'm not bitter. What I am is baffled.
How do people who follow Jesus -- a single man -- lose sight of how valuable singleness can be?
How do people who claim to take the Bible literally never, ever, ever preach I Corinthians 7? ("He who marries a woman does right, but he who does not marry her does better")
It's like Valentine's Day -- the day a single man named Saint Valentine was martyred for his faith -- becoming all about couples and flowers and chocolates and diamond rings.
It's appropriate that Valentine's Day falls on Ash Wednesday this year.
It's a chance to remember that true Love isn't gushy, self-focused or self-indulgent. Love is sacrificial and selfless, and only ever meant to be given away.
It's an opportunity to remember that single people are uniquely gifted to pour Love into a parched and waiting world -- and that we need the encouragement and support of our community to do this well.
It's a chance for those of us who are single to re-commit our time, our energy, our passion -- and our life itself -- to doing (in the words of John Wesley)
all the good we can...
by all the means we can...
in all the ways we can...
in all the places we can...
in all the times we can...
to all the people we can...
as long as ever we can.