The Treasure of Singleness

It can be difficult to be a single Christian. I remember watching as one by one my friends would marry, start families, and settle down. The cards would come just before Christmas with news of another baby or a new home, and I would set them on the table in my empty apartment and sigh. As a Christian, my newsfeed was like one long drawn out toast to holy matrimony, and I was getting tired of holding up my glass. The Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast, and the baptized faithful had so much to say about marriage and family. But I was single. At least the world, as St. Paul calls it, didn’t rub it in so much.

So it was more than the intensity of color or the exquisite detail, the visual intricacies or the physical presence of the figure that drew me into the oil-on-wood painting by John Millais, Mariana. It was the sigh of broken dreams, of singleness, of yearning.

A lot of people are single, and they love it. Singleness can be a beautiful and rewarding vocation. But for a lot of other people, singleness can be painful and hard. It was, after all, singles of whom St. Paul spoke when he spoke of those who “burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9). This reflection on Mariana is a gesture of recognition for the passion of singleness. It’s for those who are in the long slow burn.

The Long, Slow Burn

Mariana is a portrait of waiting. Waiting for love. Waiting for belonging. Waiting for fruitfulness and laughter and beginnings. But the waiting has been drawn out, the seasons keep turning, and yet again autumn is ending. Like a pen almost out of ink, singleness can be thin, scratchy, and annoying. And nothing ever seems to change—no matter how hard you push.

John_Everett_Millais_-_Mariana_-_Google_Art_ProjectLook closely at the scene. It is a moment of desire, of Autumn, and a nearly finished tapestry. The maiden has stuck her needle upright into the richly patterned, flowering embroidery. She stands up and stretches, pushing her hands into her back, pushing her torso forward, leaning her head to one side. The posture is casual, absent-minded, tired. Is she praying? How long has she been gazing out the window? Long enough to let the leaves land on her embroidery.

Perhaps you can strangely relate to this Victorian spinster. Maybe you know the feeling of just needing to stand, to stretch your aching back. Or maybe you know the swelling of a sigh over the prattle of a room littered with leaves. So your eye moves from the maiden to the tapestry. The creases in the cloth demand your attention. The gloom around the altar on the right and the lonely glow of a diminished prayer candle. You try to catch a glimpse of the landscape outside—Will he come? Why hasn’t he come?

Against this veiled backdrop of a landscape, the stained glass window flashes brightly. The windowpane of the Annunciation—when the angel Gabriel brought happy tidings to the Virgin Mary—shines out clear as day. God is close, the window seems to say. Behold, he makes all things new.

In Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, Mariana has been abandoned by her lover Angelo, because her marriage dowry was lost at sea. In Millais’ painting we see an aging virgin. The mouse, the leaves, the worn look of the place betray the sad tale of lost fortunes, and a home falling into decay due to poverty and neglect. Shakespeare’s play ends happily, and Angelo agrees to wed Mariana in the final scene. Does the Annunciation scene in the stained glass window confirm a sense of promise and hope, for a future marriage and a child? Is her pose not one of despair, but of yielding to the Light, perhaps with a sigh: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).

Perhaps, even though singleness can be difficult—as all waiting is—it can also be good. Anything worth doing is difficult. Why should singleness be an exception?  Singleness is worth doing, and doing well.

My Soul Waits Upon the Lord

Look at the painting just once more, but zoom in on Mariana herself. The velvet blue dress brings relief to the intricate detail of the room. The maiden’s face is beautiful in a plain, unimposing way. Her jeweled belt suggests wealth. Yet autumn leaves blow in. A mouse scuttles across the floor. She is alone, her estate dwindles, winter approaches, and she grows tired in the half-light. What is the lesson?

In light of the Annunciation scene that splashes through the stained-glass window or the votive candle burning at the altar, I think the lesson is this: God’s timing is not our timing. Good things rarely come quickly. Winter is approaching, and autumn is blowing in under our doorways. So often we can feel very alone. But the loneliness has a purpose. It’s not meaningless. “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always” (Psalm 105:4). He will make your paths straight (Prov. 3:6).

Again, many single people are happy to be unmarried. So I do not want to send the message that the single life is not a worthy, noble life. But I also know that for many people, singleness is a painful waiting, a long, slow burn. And this reflection on Mariana is for them.

Singleness can be exhausting. It can be labor. But anything worth doing is difficult. What we learn from Mariana is that the unsung treasure of singleness lies hidden in suffering. The passion of singleness is an invitation into the open side of Christ. It is because God seeks to be glorified in our lives that singleness is worth doing, and doing well.

In the end, everyone is waiting. Most of us just haven’t woken up to the deepest yearning of our heart. May we all pray with the Psalmist: “My soul waits upon the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). More than watchmen wait for the morning, more than Mariana waits for her husband, more than any of us wait for anything, may we wait upon the Lord. The treasure of singleness is that it reminds all of us that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. We were made for God, and a life lived well is a life of waiting for him.

Perhaps your life has been littered with pain and broken relationships. But, like Mariana, you are surrounded by the promises and provision of a God whose name is Love. He is always present, even if you cannot feel him. Perhaps the votive candle burns for a reason. Perhaps it is in the waiting that God is refining you as in fire. “Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul” (Psalm 143:8).

Tyler Blanski

By

Tyler Blanski is praying for a holy renaissance. He is the author of When Donkeys Talk: Rediscovering the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity (Zondervan, 2012) and Mud & Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred (Upper Room Books, 2010). www.TylerBlanski.com

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Ladasha Smithson

    “It can be difficult to be a single Christian. I know, because I did not marry until I was 28 years old.”

    I’m sorry but you’ve never truly experienced being single. You married at around the average age for marriage for your gender. You have no idea or experience of what single people are complaining about.

    Single people over the age of thirty are ostracized in all aspects of their life especially in the Church. If we want to sit in the middle of a pew in mass, we are often pushed to the edge to make room for families or worse, hear uncharitable comments how single people should sit in the back. Every parish event is based around marriage or children. Single men are automatically assumed to be perverts and single women are assumed to be spinsters. More often than not we are told straight up to not come, as if single women can really steal a married woman’s husband. And when the Church want us to participate in ministries it’s because they want us to serve, instead of being served.

    It seems like the married people who tend to run all the church can’t fathom that singles have time and money consuming obligations too. I still have to go shopping, cook, clean, maintain my house and car, groom myself and perform at a job. Just because someone has kids doesn’t mean chores take x number of kids longer to do.

    No one in the Church should be telling singles to just “be happy”. For one thing that sounds like the modernist hedonist lifestyle that has caused the marriage crisis in the first place. Second, God gave us the desire to marry for a reason. A sacramental marriage provides exclusive graces to the couple that helps them become more holy and obtain salvation. By constantly telling singles to “wait on God’, “learn to love being single” and “singleness has treasures”, the Church is preventing singles from pursuing marriage.

    Yes it is true that you can go to heaven without marriage, but because marriage was made to get us into heaven, it’s a whole lot closer to God’s plan. There are souls in Hell right now simply because they didn’t receive the graces of marriage that would have saved them.

  • Charlie500

    And for some, marriage can be painful, long, and hard when one wants to remain faithful to a covenant yet is very unhappy in a marriage.

  • peacebwu12

    I am deeply sorry to hear about your experiences, especially as they seem so foreign to me and all of the parishes I’ve attended (I was not married until 38-years of age). I do not see the Church as a whole with such attitudes, but again I am so sorry that you have been hurt by some members of the Church or your parish (or even your parish priest). Please do your best to forgive those who make comments that are hurtful to you, and then love them as our Lord loves them, if even only in your heart you are able to do so. Then, your suffering will become a blessing for all involved, and you may grow in ways you never imagined. Most especially, please do not condemn or accuse any one of God’s children before God, as that is simply not our place. I will pray for you often and I have so much hope that your pain will not turn into hate but rather into love!

  • peacebwu12

    Ladasha, I am deeply sorry to hear about your experiences, especially as they seem so foreign to me and all of the parishes I’ve attended (I was not married until 38-years of age). I do not see the Church as a whole with such attitudes, but again I am so sorry that you have been hurt by some members of the Church or your parish (or even your parish priest). Please do your best to forgive those who make comments that are hurtful to you, and then love them as our Lord loves them, if even only in your heart you are able to do so. Then, your suffering will become a blessing for all involved, and you may grow in ways you never imagined. Most especially, please do not condemn or accuse any one of God’s children before God, as that is simply not our place. I will pray for you often and I have so much hope that your pain will not turn into hate but rather into love!

  • HenryBowers

    Singles need more than prayer. They need therapy. The difference between marrieds and singles is that the former confide in their ability to respect others, while the latter do not. When people possess such confidence, they likewise possess the confidence to detect it in others, or to deal with its lack; and so they seek companionship. Anyone disagree?

  • JMJ Girl

    Singles need THERAPY?? Singles don’t respect others?? Am I misunderstanding your comment?

  • JMJ Girl

    I hear ya, sister. I know that the breakdown of the family and strengthening it now with the World Family conference coming to Philly next year is the most important issue facing the Church…..As the family goes, so goes the world and society as a whole. But singles are part of the collateral damage of the assault on family and I have never seen a parish priest or bishop or pope ever give anything substantial to discussing the true place and calling of a single person within the Church and the family of God. I have never seen the Church giving substance by means of spiritual direction in groups or in homilies or anywhere, to singles, in their solitary journey, nor the support needed for every single person to receive every grace available to continue the journey to heaven. There is barely a mention, as everything is about Husbands and Wives, Mothers and Fathers. For cryin’ out loud, if I see any more wealthy double income families getting breaks on tickets to parish events, faith conferences, etc., for coming as a couple, I think I will scream. Singles have less with one income, and always are expected to pay MORE. Doesn’t anyone realize that just a few weeks ago, the barrier was broken, and more than 50% of children are now born to single mothers? This issue is only going to become dramatically more pronounced if we keep leaving out half of the population.

  • HenryBowers

    You sound like a hysterical single who needs therapy. My polite question was: agree, or disagree?

  • Blobee

    What does “confide in their ability to respect others” mean? Whom do they confide to?

  • HenryBowers

    Self-confide.

  • Blobee

    Self confidence?

  • JMJ Girl

    Your comment was far from polite, and your attitude continues in this discourse. But God loves you and so do I.

  • HenryBowers

    Well, you still haven’t agreed or disagreed with me yet (on the topic I raised), so I don’t know what you’re about. But that’s okay, I won’t judge you.

  • HenryBowers

    Must be.

  • Missy1965

    I had exactly the same reaction – singles need THERAPY??? What ever for? That statement implies there is something inherently wrong or mentally unstable about singles.

  • pnyikos

    You already judged JMJ girl by saying she sounds like a hysterical single who needs therapy. And I disagree with what you wrote, and I believe you do too. I believe you are a troll–someone who enjoys posting things he doesn’t really believe, just to get a rise out of people.

    You made a blanket statement about singles, and about married people, that is insulting to singles and flattering to married people. Having been single until 37 and happily married ever since (I am now 68) I’ve lived in both worlds long enough and deny that your insult to singles applied to me then and also that your flattery to married people has applied to me since I got married.

    By the way, are you married, or single? Don’t bother answering if you can’t answer honestly.

  • Bob332

    Funny how it’s the married people who usually end up in THERAPY, either one or both!!!

  • George Galloway

    Good article, Tyler. God bless you and your young family.

  • Philip Sieve

    The problem is there’s all these sites for finding dates as potential spouses, but none for a spiritual friendship. Why do we hear if consecrated singles as a calling, but there’s ni way fir them to get to know each other, unless one I’d outgoing and networks? If you’re shy, tough luck.

  • HenryBowers

    I wish more of them did.

  • HenryBowers

    Thanks for your perspective. But I don’t know why you think it needs to be about me.

  • JMJ Girl

    I wholeheartedly agree with you, sister. Have you ever read, “33 Days to Morning Glory?” The more I internalize Mary as my Mother, the easier and more focused my life has become. I no longer worry about what God has planned for my life, but just keep giving Him each day and letting Him surprise me. Trust and surrender have been the keys to my life as a 40-something. 🙂

  • AnneM040359

    As an older single Catholic, at 55, God calls us to follow Him, be it marriage, as a priest or sister/brother, or even as a single. What matters to God is not our state of life, but our faith.

  • Marty Dancy

    You hit the nail on the head, Anne. Too bad that so many dames don’t get the picture on these things. People who feel sorry for themselves are a pathetic lot because in our country so far, we are very blessed, at least I feel that way. I am glad that I did not marry out of desperation because that never works. We don’t have to conform to the status quo if it is not the best choice for us. I thought by now that most gals would get over this single thing. It is a trap they make for themselves. They should, instead say, I had rather be single than to wish I were.

  • Catherine Palmer

    I resent your remark greatly. What does being single have to do with therapy. I have a great respect for others. I am an upstanding member of my community and my church. I believe that God gives us different paths. Mine at this time is to not be married. Instead I am able to take the gifts that he has given to me to be of service to others. I am an active member of my parish and have been since I was a child (I’m in my 40’s now). Being single gives me the ability to give time and attention to my students what my colleagues can’t because they are married with children of their own. It allows me the flexibility to take care of my parents as they age. It allows me to be an incredible Aunt to my nieces and nephew. I have sought companionship and have found it in any ways. There are many ways to serve God whether one be married or single. Each is a gift in it’s own way. I didn’t make any of this up either I was taught this through lessons of life that I shared with my Priest and Brothers that I have worked with and prayed with.

  • HenryBowers

    Thank you for sharing. You help me see that I may have painted with too broad a brush. I apologize.

  • Catherine Palmer

    no apologies needed. Good Conversation is all about respect. Respecting others for their opinions. I needed to write what I did in part because I need to remind myself at times that I am just a vessel of Gods work. Have a great evening.

  • Stephen Beale

    A wonderful, heartfelt, and thoughtful article. Thanks for sharing.

  • Missy1965

    I’ve heard of 33 Days, but not read it yet. I do have special devotion to the Blessed Mother and pray the rosary often.

    The comments on this thread about “getting over” loneliness and such are very off the mark. Some of us have spent time in discernment, and we’re not just looking for something that makes us “feel good” or gives us “more money” or whatever other made up reason someone makes up to explain it. Society’s acceptance of easy divorce, contraception, and a “me centered” culture have harmed marriage to a great extent and made people afraid to even try.

    And no, I don’t believe in soulmates and that there’s a perfect match or “right one”. We are all sinners who need God’s grace. We need God’s help in discerning our spouse. And keep God at the center – I’ve noted this is a key element of my friends who have strong marriages, their commitment to God and to each other.

    There are advantages and disadvantages to singleness and to marriage. But to see singleness simply as freedom to do as we choose is a shallow view. We are still called to love and serve God, by giving our time, talent, and treasure to others, to the church, to God.

  • Kelli

    “God’s timing is not our own timing.”How hard this truth is to swallow, and how wishing it away will never change it. Thank you for this article to remind us to remain waiting, watching, hoping in our Lord to save us. For many souls are caught somewhere between whom they once were and whom they are becoming. We have to ultimately accept ourselves before God and trust that it is good. God’s plan is always best.

  • Mariana ;-)

    Love this article! Thanks 🙂

  • pnyikos

    You are here, and I am here, and you’ve made some bizarre claims in your opening salvo that you haven’t even explained except for some cryptic replies to “Blobee” that only make me think you threw out a bunch of random but provocatively worded noises to see what effect they would have.

    You carefully avoided explaining anything to “JMJ girl” and “Missy1965” and instead lit into the former while ignoring the latter altogether.

    So, this little sub-thread HAS to be about you until you start making more sense. You may begin by REALLY explaining what you mean by “[being confident] in their ability to respect others.” Do you seriously think an unrepentant murderer is worthy of respect in the same sense that someone like Nelson Mandela was worthy of respect?

    And I’d like to know the connection, if any, in your mind with “seeking companionship.” Do you seriously think that singles don’t seek companionship while married people do?

    There are many cases where the reverse is true–singles seeking companionship with a huge variety of people while many married people are locked into a tight circle of people which may not go far beyond each other. Have you read the posts of Ladasha Simpson and JMJ girl below from that angle?

  • pnyikos

    Your words “Since all on earth is a test for heaven” make me wonder whether you still have a lot of learning ahead of you. The Baltimore Catechism I had in grade school said, “Why did God make me?” the answer was “To know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” It did NOT say “To put us to the test like He did with Adam and Eve, with terrible consequences if we fail the test and great happiness if we pass.” But that is the pragmatic answer some Catholics of the old school are still locked into.

    And by the way–does anyone reading this take literally the answer the old catechism gave? Almost all of almost everyone’s life is spent without consciously thinking of God one way or the other. And very few people are equipped to go through life in any other way. That’s one reason why your advice to singles to “get over it” is badly misplaced.

    Another reason is that the very things going on in our society — like not making a big deal of divorce — that you give for “getting over it” are the very things we as Catholics are called to resist rather than taking that attitude, or the worse one of “if you can’t lick them, join them.”

  • JMJ Girl

    AMEN Sister!

  • HenryBowers

    Unfortunately, because Mandela supported legal abortion, he is a complicit party to mass murder 🙁

  • Afraid of dying alone

    Reality of singleness is often very lonely, and that is fact. There are bonuses for sure, and because some of us won’t settle for the wrong person, we are ignored by the majority. Sure we get more freedom for prayer and corporal works of mercy but it is very lonely coming home to an empty house when your own family is 6 hours away. Many singles inside and outside of the Church are worried about being found eight years later after they have died as they live alone. Please fellow Catholics don’t let this happen to your fellow singles, please start behaving more like the Evangelical Christians who are more inclusive of those living alone and don’t end up being found dead 8 years later like Mrs Wood. http://www.catholictalk.com.au/walking-the-talk/blog/item/171-natalie-wood

  • Mike Feehan

    Great comment, Anne MD. I completely agree.

  • Liberty

    THIS so much!!! While the *CHURCH* considers us equal members most married Catholics and clergy don’t seem to realize we exist and need love and support, too.

  • Liberty

    Yes, singles need more than prayer. But the answer isn’t therapy and saying so is extremely rude. Marriage does not mean someone is more mature or superior to a single person. Many immature, selfish, thoughtless people get married every day, even Catholics, and many stay that way. We are all individuals and marriage is not a cure all for one’s issues.

  • Liberty

    Amen!!! I feel the same way and I’m so glad you said it. I wish we could have coffee and chat about this! I totally need some friends who understand this and are also single. God bless you.

  • Liberty

    EXACTLY.

  • Ladasha Smithson

    Very true. Modern culture expects us to go from strangers to dating within a few days of meeting. But modern science has shown friendship it the single most important factor in a successful and happy marriage.

  • Philip Sieve

    Why one is single is the big question. Of course, some have shotgun weddings.

  • Philip Sieve

    I’m talking of remaining friends, like St. Benedict abd St. Scholastica; St. Francis and St. Clare.

  • HenryBowers

    Some are made incapable of marriage by others (Mt 12:19), and I think this applies to psychological hang-ups. In a perfect world, religious clergy would be experts at identifying [not treating] signs of depression among all walks of life. People well-formed in faith and morals can spin their wheels for years trying to apply a spiritual solution to a biological (mental health) problem, and get nowhere.

MENU