Answering the Call to Holiness in the Single Life
BOOK PICK: Single for a Greater Purpose
SINGLE FOR A GREATER PURPOSE
A Hidden Joy in the Catholic Church
By Luanne Zurlo
Sophia Institute Press, 2019
208 pages, $18.95
To order: sophiainstitute.com or (800) 888-9344
Luanne Zurlo’s Single for a Greater Purpose is a book that fills a tremendous need. For various reasons, our world is filled with unmarried men and women of marriageable age, many, if not most of them, yearning for a suitable spouse. For Christians such a deficit can be experienced in an especially painful way, since many have dreamed of serving God through loving a spouse and raising children together; they have viewed marriage and family as their particular path to holiness and happiness. Not feeling called to the religious life (often after careful discernment), they are frequently filled with frustration and envy and a sense of having missed out big time, not to mention their loneliness and confusion about what the heck they are to do with their lives.
Zurlo’s book proposes that such individuals seriously consider that God may be calling them to the dedicated single life, not as a vocation that is a Plan B for those not called to marriage or the religious life, but as a beautiful way to achieve intimacy with the Lord and live a life dedicated to him. Indeed, the circumstances in which one finds oneself might be one of the biggest indicators of one’s calling. While Zurlo doesn’t speak of the widow, widower or abandoned spouse, or the person born with or who has acquired a condition that precludes marriage, such individuals may find that because of their life situation, they are living as a single; and as they embrace it, they may find it to be a life of many graces and opportunities for self-giving. The phrase “bloom where you are planted” (attributed to St. Francis de Sales) has some force here, I think.
I am one of those individuals who spent much of her life pining after what I did not have: I always wanted a large family, though I doubted that I had the makings of a good spouse or a likely one, given my peculiar ways of being. In spite of the longing for children and “normalcy,” I was maximally dedicated to the “divine assignments” sent my way — and to be sure I derived immense satisfaction from them. And I slowly realized that “normalcy” might have suffocated me. I found Zurlo’s book an accurate representation of what the single life has to offer the devout Christian and an excellent guide for how to live out that life. Eight years ago I became a consecrated virgin, and my life has been spectacularly better since. (Within her text Zurlo carefully explains the differences between consecrated virginity and the dedicated single life; see Appendix 1.)
For the person truly wanting to love Jesus completely and who is seeking God’s will rather than one’s own, the dedicated single life offers clear opportunities. Zurlo stresses the freedom for regular prolonged prayer that requires time generally unavailable to those raising families. She describes well the delight that comes from learning how to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit that shape one’s day: meeting a different sort of demand than those who attend to the needs of a spouse, children or religious community. Those, too, are the directives of the Holy Spirit, but more mediated, so to speak.
While marriage and the religious life are filled with surprises and adventures, challenges and sufferings, the dedicated single life seems especially appropriate for those of us who might lovingly be described as square pegs in a world seemingly more designed for round holes. This doesn’t mean that dedicated singles are necessarily “weird,” but they just might be! (Of course, in our culture everyone is “weird” who chooses to shape their lives by Christian principles. This is my observation, not Zurlo’s.)
Zurlo’s insights come from many sources. Much comes from the wisdom of the Church conveyed to her through reading Scripture, the Church Fathers, saints and contemporary authors. Her book is a feast of quotations from well-known authors and some not well-known (at least to me, and I will be seeking some of them out). A contemplative introvert who also loves to go out into the world for the adventure of serving others, Zurlo tells marvelous illustrative stories that trace the trajectory of her discovery that she was called to the dedicated single life. She has also been blessed with spiritual directors who recognized the movement of the Spirit in her life. Moreover, it is clear that she has spent much meditative time with Scripture wherefrom she has received gems of insight.
I found myself highlighting and putting stars by passages on many pages and wanting to slow down my reading so I could ponder the profundity, novelty or aptness of what she was saying or quoting. The book is peppered with lovely quotations from Scripture, from spiritual writers and from poetry, but many of her own observations are riveting. Let me give you some samples:
- Her definition of what she is describing: “What constitutes a true single vocation? It is the call to the single life as the permanent and providentially ordained means to love and serve God wholeheartedly; the definitive giving of oneself to Christ exclusively and permanently” (p. 24).
- In speaking of the film Ida, where the central character chooses religious life despite having fallen in love, Zurlo states, “The secular filmmaker conveys, in an extraordinarily and powerful way, the sense of hollowness and weariness that a human spousal relationship evokes in a heart designed to be Christ’s alone” (p. 59).
- Of the dedicated single life that is one of “hiddenness,” she observes: “Ours is a unique, individualized call, lived out alone, obscurely cleaved to Christ, amid a fantastic array of God’s beloved weaklings” (p. 97).
- She believes Simon of Cyrene would be a good patron saint for singles. “Although many, if not most, dedicated singles take a while to respond to Christ’s invitation to be exclusively His, once embraced, our state in life allows us to be more spontaneous, to respond at a moment’s notice to the needs of others” (p. 98).
Men and women who are truly seeking to discover God’s will for their state in life ought to let themselves be open to the invitation that Zurlo’s book offers. Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, spiritual directors and vocation directors should give this book to those who are not succeeding in finding spouses or a suitable religious order. The reason for that lack of success might just be that God has a different adventure in store for them: He may want them “for himself,” one they will not find to be second or third best, but one delightfully suited to their temperament, skills and circumstances — and one most suited to advance them in their quest for holiness.
Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a moral theologian,
recently retired from Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.
Read related commentary here.
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