Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 22, 2010
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life
Following is an excerpt from Dorothy Cummings' book Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, published by Novalis. Cummings, a Canadian, tells of her determination to remain true to Catholic moral teachings while navigating the wild world of dating while a theology student at Boston College.
Seraphic Singles is available in Catholic bookstores as well as from www.novalis.ca.
For over two years, they called me Seraphic Single. When I sat down at my computer in November 2006 and began to write online about the Single Life, I had no idea where that life would lead me. Catholic, divorced and 35 years old, studying graduate theology in a city far from home, I had recently had a revelation. I wanted to share it with other Catholic women. The revelation was this: it was okay to be a single woman.
That this was a revelation might come as a surprise to the editors of both Ms. and Cosmopolitan magazines. The Single Life, to many people, means freedom, fun and sex without strings. But for sincerely Catholic women, as for women of most faiths, the state of "single blessedness" is something a lot more serious, a lot more real, than the sugary fantasies of Sex and the City. Unlike our more secular sisters, we are discouraged from dulling the pain of loneliness with shopping, alcohol and sexual sin.
Partnership is the norm of the secular world and, despite the sexual revolution, marriage is still presented to women as a glittering prize. And this is neither surprising nor wrong. Marriage is, as theologians have told us since ancient times, the natural end of the human person. (Consecrated celibacy, like that of monks and nuns, is a heroic sacrifice of that end.) And most women, despite the feminist revolution, still hanker for a man and a family of our very own. The 2007 self-help book, The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, sold millions of copies.
I read The Rules. My friends read it. I constantly referenced it as I wrote about the Single Life. And yet the book offered no guarantee that any of us would find Mr. Right. The future was a complete mystery, and we were afraid that husband and babies would never be ours.
And yet there was a lot to love in the Single Life. My spiritual director advised me to see where God was working in my life right then, so I had a look. I saw that I had talents, interests, friends and family. I saw that I was living in an exciting city, with plenty of opportunities for travel and study. I reread St. Paul's conviction that the Single Life was a life he would wish for everyone, and I decided to take it seriously. I reflected that if one were called by God to remain single, whether temporarily or permanently, then one should be as cheerfully accepting of God's will as possible. I dubbed this option "Seraphic" and I optimistically named myself "Seraphic Single."
"Not every woman who wants to get married gets married," I wrote, and before I knew it, hundreds of readers across the English-speaking world were reading my blog, Seraphic Singles. Predominantly young and Catholic, readers found my essays and stories about being an unmarried, continent, church-going Catholic worth a daily visit. They wrote comments. They linked to my blog on their own blogs. They sent me emails telling their own Singles' stories and asking for advice. They wrote from the University of Notre Dame, from Harvard, from Oxford, from Aberdeen. They wrote from across the USA, from Canada, from Britain, Ireland, Australia, South Africa and the Philippines. I met some of them in person. I even travelled to Scotland to meet my British readers.
And there I fell in love.
When this book goes to press, I will no longer be Seraphic Single. At the age of 38, I got married. Finding Mr. Right should not have been a shock: had I not received an annulment from the Toronto Marriage Tribunal over 10 years before? The possibility of marrying again had indeed for many years lurked in my mind. But falling so completely in love - and with a devout Catholic man my age, to boot - was a shock, all the same. And it seems a very funny cosmic joke that, having accepted God's will that I be Single, and, indeed, having written this book on the Single Life, God called me to Married Life after all.
Most Catholics do, in fact, get married. But before we do, we need reassurance that the life we live as Singles - however frustrating, lonely and poor at times - is a life worth living. I hope that this book will help Single Catholics feel more Seraphic about the way of life in which God has currently placed them.
What if he's not coming?
As I said in the Preface, not every woman who wants to get married gets married. This is the cold, hard fact from which many of us run. Similarly, not everyone who gets a divorce and an annulment receives that second chance. Or we blow that second chance. Sometimes, our prince doesn't come.
There are countless reasons why this prince might not arrive. Some are historical, such as most of the men leaving town for work, or the anti-marriage trend of the sexual revolution. Some have to do with our circumstances: we work in a mostly female environment, or in a profession dominated by gay men, or in a profession dominated by celibate men, such as priests and religious, or in a community where everyone else got married at 22.
Some have to do with our poor choices: we dated the wrong man for a decade and have finally dumped him or been dumped; we date only unmarriageable men; we are drinking alcoholics; we are using users; we are bad-tempered harridans that no one can stand to be around. Some have to do with personal tragedies: we are physically scarred, maimed or plain as a pan of milk; we are chronically ill; we are "old"; we have been irreparably slandered in our communities; we are big-boned, full-figured or just heavy women, and no matter what we do, we cannot lose the weight. That is why Prince Charming has not come.
Or maybe not. Maybe some of us are just "too picky." I hear this one a lot, especially from grumpy single men. But what I, and many other chronically single women, usually want is just a nice man whose looks we find attractive, who is intelligent and funny and faithful, who goes to church, who has a job that he enjoys and is proud of, and brings in enough income so that if we lose our jobs, or have a baby, we all won't be in a financial mess. I wrote this once on a website, and a poster wrote, "Wow, you're picky." So maybe these men don't exist anymore or were all snapped up when they were 22.
Or maybe not that either. Maybe it is an insolvable mystery. Maybe, for some inscrutable reason of his own, God has decreed from eternity that many of my single friends and I will never find The Right Man. Maybe, in fact, we have been called to be Single. I am a Roman Catholic, and for Catholics, being called by God to be Single doesn't mean that we have been given divine sanction to be swinging singles, living only for the moment and ourselves. It means that we must discern how we can serve God and neighbour as single women. Unfortunately, it also means putting up with a lot of disrespect and presuppositions from others, including other Catholics. Some people think that single women are selfish. Others think we are losers. What I hope to do with this book is give a lift to the thousands of single women who are gradually losing hope that they will ever get married (or married again), or who have decided to cut their losses and embrace the state of life God has placed them in.
Single but Sustained
Although fundamentally disorganized, I am becoming a creature of habit, and my Sunday schedule is sacrosanct. In fact, I know that if I miss the 9:25 a.m. bus to Harvard Square on Sundays, I have hit organizational bottom. But today I caught the bus and went to the chocolate shop on Brattle Street for my weekly cup of hot chocolate. Getting a table is never guaranteed in that little shop, but today I had my pick. I wrote in my diary and admired the sun bouncing off the yellow trees and the old building on the corner.
One wonderful thing about Boston and Cambridge is that they are so often sunny. Spring, fall and winter, the view from the chocolate shop is gorgeous. Today, maybe because I am thinking so much about enjoying being single, I noticed two or three handsome young men walking by. They were blond, fresh complexioned, well dressed - and about 14 years younger than me. One nice thing about being a Seraphic Single is simply enjoying the beauty of young men and then getting on with whatever I am doing, without regret.
At 10:45 a.m., I left the chocolate shop for Mass at St. Paul's Catholic Church. The 11 a.m. Sunday "High" Mass is not just the engine of my week, it is my greatest solace. I am old-fashioned in my liturgical tastes, and in my sensitive opinion, St. Paul's gets things right. The church itself is a beautiful neo-Romanesque building, the homilies are pitched high, as befits the Catholic community of the University, the rubrics are obeyed, and the music - ah, the music. The music makes me misty with joy and gratitude. I feel that this beauty is a foretaste of heaven.
St. Paul's has a boys' choir school. My brothers went to a boys' choir school, so from childhood I have associated Sunday Mass with music written for men's and boys' voices, not just congregational singing. St. Paul's also has a Men's Schola, who supplement the boy sopranos and altos. All the musicians of St. Paul's appear to be consummate religious professionals: they know the difference between "concertizing" and supporting prayer through music. I notice, too, that the hymns chosen for congregational singing are usually classic hymns of thanksgiving.
It took me almost my entire first year in Boston to brave the coffee hour, but I was glad when I finally did. There are some very friendly people there, and they made me feel right at home. Now that I am an old hand, I like to meet newcomers myself, and introduce them to the doyen of coffee hour, a lawyer who likes to meet everyone. Today one of the newcomers, a handsome teaching fellow, asked for my email address before I left. As a Seraphic Single, I am not going to get overly worked up about that. However, it was quite flattering, I must admit.
On my way to the southbound bus stop, I stopped in at the Harvard Bookstore. It was crowded, and even if I weren't worried about my budget, the long and winding queue before the cash registers would have discouraged me from buying anything. But I went to have a look at the handsome shelves of exciting shiny volumes of Western Philosophy anyway, and was overcome by an ocean wave of gratitude for my life of intellectual privilege.
Then, providing icing to this rich Sunday cake, I spotted one of my single women friends, and we walked to the bus stop together. Crucial to being a Seraphic Single is good conversation, especially with other women. Of course, reading is another form of conversation.
Ten Great Things About Being Single
If I had to say what I like best about going home to Canada for a visit, it is making coffee for everyone in the house when I get up. When you live in a family, you have to think about things like that, and it's nice. However, here I am alone again, and so here is my list of 10 great things about being single.
The Truth About Men
Today I received an email from my friend Boston Girl, a tradition-loving, straight-talking, beer-drinking, book-learning, churchgoing gal like me. She was expressing her frustration that the man she had a crush on turned out to be twitchy and completely self-absorbed. To add insult to injury, he smugly hinted that she had thrown herself at him when last they had a drink together. What a jerk. My pal rightly faked confusion and made it clear she didn't know what he was talking about. Then she said she had to go and went.
She seemed to be asking for advice, so I gave the best advice I know about men, something that took 35 years to get through my head, and it is this: men are who they are and not who you want them to be. I wish I had known this at 18; I would have been saved a lot of sorrow and stupidity. Sometimes you have to look beyond a man's words (not to mention his handsome face) to see what he is truly like, but very often a man will tell you right up front what his faults are. I have dated an alcoholic who told me on our first date that he had a drinking problem. I thought, "Oh, he's my age, so he can't be an alcoholic. He must be exaggerating."
(Ha.) I have dated men long after discovering that they were atheists. I have thought, "Well, St. Monica turned her atheist husband around eventually." (Double ha.) The Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan would call these examples of "the flight from understanding."
The second piece of advice I would give to a Single-But-Searching friend is to pay attention to how she really feels around a man she is interested in. If, after he is out of sight, she feels peaceful and happy, that is a very good sign. If she feels drunk and giggly, she should be careful that infatuation does not cloud her reason. And if she feels discontented, depressed or dislike for herself, she should wash that man, as they say, right out of her hair. When I think of the times I have called men who alarmed me just because I was pleased they liked me, I could kick myself.
That leads to my third piece of advice, the old ancient Greek classic: gnothi seauton, or "know thyself." When you are a young woman, it makes sense to meet and date all kinds of men, with the caveat that they must treat you with respect, of course. You haven't figured out who you are yet, and you can learn interesting things from different people. (Through dating, my mother learned about motorcycles and Studebaker cars and also improved her German.)
However, once you have seriously moved into (post-school) adult life, you should have some idea of what you do not want in a man and the backbone not to date men who have it. You should also have an idea of what you can put up with, because no man on this earth is perfect. For example, even though I cannot stand men who are contemptuous of others, I do not mind men who are smug. And although I don't like men who talk too much, I do like men who don't talk enough.www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSNfz44yFi4.
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