In the Church we talk about four "States of Life":
- Ordained (deacons, priests and bishops)
- Religious (or Consecrated; including nuns, sisters, brothers and other consecrated men and women)
It's the single that is the hardest to pin down, since it can be expressed in so many ways. So here's my short guide to living singly - but not single minded!
1. We all live the single vocation at some point in our lives
All of us spend some time being single by virtue of not being in one of the other States of Life. Call it "Consequential" or "Temporary" single life. The reasons for this time could be simply because you haven't been asked out yet, or because you're discerning one of the other vocations. Living singly isn't necessarily an intentional choice.
Interestingly, this includes people that are dating. In my own case, I consider myself living the single life even though I'm not "single". Though I am in a relationship, I'm not married yet, I haven't made that ultimate binding commitment to my partner. Yes, I am committed to her and to our relationship; but we haven't made the marital commitment to each other, so to expect that level of commitment of her other would be an unfair burden. Furthermore, a mark of marriage is that it is a free commitment of individuals to each other. To adopt a marital-level commitment to each other now would make marriage a progression, not a choice. I think this applies to any vocation: when we're discerning we still live the single life, because to adopt the commitments of another state of life binds the freedom we need to freely choose that vocation.
2. The single life can be an intentional short-term commitment
In my own life I've committed to being single for a time. This isn't "voluntary loneliness", rather its making one's life fully available to a purpose or a mission. For me this time was when I was serving with NET Ministries. The choice not to pursue a romantic relationship freed my attention to serve my teams and the youth we ministered to. It doesn't have to be a mission-related choice: I have friends who, because of different circumstances, just aren't ready for a relationship. They've made the choice to work on themselves first before sharing their life with another.
3. Some people choose single life as a lifelong commitment
No, these aren't crazy people! These are people who have discerned that God calls them to a specifically different purpose than ordained or religious or married life. Being permanently single allows one to commit their whole life (time and resources) to serving God, the Church or others.
4. There's a difference between being alone and being lonely
The greatest fear that comes with single life is loneliness. Choosing the single life is not choosing loneliness, it's choosing to be alone. Being alone is a far different thing to being lonely. We see this in Jesus' life in the Gospels. He is constantly surrounded by people, but he also goes off to be alone. Realistically though, having time alone comes with all states of life: ordained and religious men and women obviously make this choice too, but even married couples will have time away from their partners. As a society we need to stop believing the negative connotations of being alone.
5. Single life necessitates choice
At some point, living singly leads to a choice, whether it be to a relationship or to specifically discern the ordained or religious life or to remain single. "Consequential" single life isn't a permanent choice. When single life remains consequential then it becomes single mindedness, it becomes avoidance of any other possibility. Make the choice to be intentionally single or be open to the idea that God might be calling you to something other than what you're waiting for.
6. But while you are single, do something amazing!
For me, being single allowed me to travel across Australia, to live in different cities, to explore the priesthood and discover what I sense is my life purpose. For friends it has given them the space to resolve issues in their life allowing them to fully commit their life to someone else. The marital vows or the religious vows or the promises of ordination aren't burdensome - in fact I think they're freeing, but that's a whole 'nother article! Those commitments however are specific. Since single life remains so undefined (in a legislative sense), there are endless possibilities for how one can serve God, Church and the world while living singly.
As a vocation single life isn't the painful last alternative, not does it need to be ignored because its hard to define. Living singly is a reality we will all experience at least for a time. It's important that we seek to understand how God would call us to use those solitary times in our lives.