When I was 17, I was desperate to be married. I figured I’d have to wait until I graduated from college, but I was, as I would have told you emphatically, ready to be married.
When I was 23, already the single friend in my very Catholic crowd, I was even more desperate to be married. I’d read The Good News about Sex and Marriage and seen It’s a Wonderful Life and I knew exactly what marriage was. I used to pray, telling God that I was ready but that I understood that my husband might not be yet.
I’m sure some people who get married at 17 are ready.1 And plenty of people who get married at 23 do just fine. I was probably as ready as most. But I wonder sometimes what my life would be if I had.
I’d have a passel of kids—4 or 5, if my friends are any indication. My life would be frantically busy, leaving little time for the Lord. I wouldn’t be consumed with zeal for souls—that was trained into me in my years as a spiritual mother. I wouldn’t have much sympathy for sin or stupid drama—I learned that from loving my spiritual children. And I wouldn’t pray. Not with any regularity, anyway. Not beyond the rote.2
Then again, maybe I would. Maybe I would have progressed much faster with a partner. But ten years ago, I had absolutely no concept of the need for silent prayer and evangelization. It was the convent and the classroom that taught me those. Getting married young is a beautiful thing and I hope to God that all of you who are married are growing every day in piety and virtue. But if you’re not yet married, consider this: maybe what you need to become the spouse you ought to be is these (interminable) years alone.
I’ve taken to thinking of single life as a sort of novitiate. When you’re in religious life, you start with several years of training. Newbies—novices—are pulled even further away from the world, given fewer responsibilities and more time for prayer. They do very little work and have extra chapel time. They’re thrown into prayer so that when they withdraw a little from the cloister to re-enter the world as active religious or vowed contemplatives with more responsibilities, they’re grounded.
What if that’s how we treated the single years? You have tons of free time. The world says to use it to have all the fun possible, or at least to work extra and build up your savings account. But what if you used that time as an opportunity for increased prayer? Most childless single people, if they’re being honest with themselves, could make a holy hour every day. If you live in a major city, you can almost certainly get to daily Mass. Your commute is perfect for spiritual podcasts. Your bedroom can be a little cell, a place of silence. You could even plug your phone in somewhere other than your bedside table and spend your first waking moments with a book of the lives of the Saints or some quiet time with the day’s Gospel reading.
If you sucked the marrow out of your single life by using it to become a man or woman of deep prayer, marriage wouldn’t end that. I know that marriage is hard and kids take up every free moment and all the busy ones, too. But a person doesn’t go from an hour a day of prayer to nothing. Maybe you cut the Office or drop daily Mass to once a week. Maybe you pray the Rosary in fits and starts throughout the day instead of first thing in the morning. But if you’ve spent years scheduling your life around prayer, you’re going to go into marriage planning to pray.
I used to say there was no way I could pray as much as I need if I got married. And while I’m under no illusions that it’s easy to find time when you’re married with kids, I know that–by God’s grace–we could make it work. I could drop the Office and the Chaplet. I could cut back on spiritual reading. If I really look at what I need, it’s possible. If I go into marriage saying, “I need daily Mass and a half hour of silence with Jesus every day,” we’ll plan around it. We’ll get a house near a church with decent Mass times. We’ll make sure my husband can be home to relieve me before they lock the church or we’ll get a key or we’ll find an adoration chapel or I’ll learn to get up early or something. People make these sacrifices for things that matter and if prayer is what matters in our marriage, we’ll make it happen.
It’s the same with apostolic zeal. You can’t spend 5 years trying with everything you have to love kids closer to Jesus or feed the poor or welcome the immigrant and then just cut that off. It’ll take a different form, sure, but it’ll still be an essential part of your life. I know because I’ve seen it in countless couples whose marriages are for the Church and the world. It can be done.
And relationships. If you spend years cultivating soul-friends, you’re not going to drop them because you’ve said “I do.” You’re going to have people who challenge you and encourage you, people you can invite into your family and people who will invite you into theirs. You’ll have community, not just friends, and marriages thrive on community.
What this means is a marriage that’s focused on prayer—both individually and as a couple—on service to the world, and on Christian fellowship. Which is, I think, exactly what marriage should be.
I see plenty of these things in couples that got married the day after college graduation. Evidently, they did their novitiate while I was having every possible conversation with every possible person on campus. Or maybe they needed to do their novitiate together. Or maybe they didn’t figure it out until later in their marriage and really struggled for a while. But I think many would agree that if they had lived their single life more intentionally for the Lord, it would have blessed their marriage dramatically.
So to you who are single, whether lamentably or intentionally, let me issue a challenge for the New Year: restructure your life around Jesus. Resolve to be all for him. Try making one resolution for each of three categories:
- Prayer. Be honest, you’ve got the time. Unless you’re a first year teacher, you could probably even swing a daily holy hour. You could certainly do more than what you’re doing now. Ask yourself what you would do if you were a saint and then do that.
- Service. Teach a catechism class. Sort donations for refugees. Invite people to Mass with you. Be a missionary. Be pro-life. Serve your Church. Do something.
- Community. I get that most of your old friends are married with kids–believe me, I get that–and often that means that your schedules and interests don’t line up the way they did. So find a Catholic young adult group. Or join a group that isn’t focused on your demographic. Figure out a way to have fellowship with friends whose lives are pinned down by board books and lullabies at 7pm. Find one good friend to meet up with for a serious talk every month. Being single can destroy you if your longing for love isn’t met by your community but community doesn’t generally just happen to people. Go out and find it.
Figure out what matters most and live for that. Schedule in prayer time. Find a way to serve the world. Seek friends who are living for Christ and be intentional in the way you spend time together. Set a base-line for your life that would make Pier Giorgio Frassati proud. Then if the Lord ends up calling you to marriage, you and your beloved can approach your life together with the knowledge that without prayer, service, and the love of a community, you will starve.
Maybe the reason you’re still single is that the Lord is holding out hope that you’ll be so much more than you are right now. Marriage was designed to make saints, but it’s not magic. Live a novitiate now, and you’ll have some raw materials to bring to the table.
- Somewhere. In some foreign country?
- This is me. It’s probably not you. Self-reflection, not an accusation.