Sanctifying the Single Life

 

st-john-maximovichNowadays so many people, so many friends and acquaintances of mine, especially middle-aged, are disappointed, drained, left alone with children, empty and lonely (both in and out of relationships), feeling robbed. What are we to do with our lives in order to avoid self-centered ends and the spiritual abyss?  Marriage and monasticism most certainly lead to the most intimate communion with the Creator and fellow creature and fulfill their promises: the soul can still be purified through either of them. They restore the soul’s appetitive drive to its divine orientation. The roads are narrow, their gates straight, but they lead to the deification of the soul. But maybe this path is not open to us — yet? — for a variety of reasons and circumstances. So WHAT  is to be done?

 

Apparently, there is also a third way.  Jesus Christ teaches that certain people are called by God to the single life.

 

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. The disciples said to Him: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is expedient not to marry.” But He said to them: “Not all people can receive this saying, but only to those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made so by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”  (Mt 19:9-12)

 

The apostle Paul elaborates on Jesus’ teaching.

 

It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the temptation to immorality each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband… I say this by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

 

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion… And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. … Only let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. (See 1 Cor. 7)

 

The single calling

The single life is a calling. It is a way of life which is given by God.  A person, certainly a Christian person, does not choose to be single or to be married. He or she rather discovers the way of life which the Lord provides within the conditions of his or her existence. People really only chose to receive, or to reject, what has been given them. They do not determine it.

 

There are any number of reasons why a person may be single. They range from the sense of having a positive calling to the celibate life for religious purposes, to the plain fact of being unmarried without one’s own conscious choice, and perhaps even against it, just because this is the way that things have happened to work out. Whatever the reason for one’s being single and however mysterious or ambiguous, willed or unwilled the causes for one’s being in this state, at some point in our adult life each of us must accept the form of life which is ours and consciously offer it to the Lord, freely and voluntarily, for the sake of the love of God and neighbor.

 

Sanctifying the single life

The single life is sanctified the way every life is sanctified: by perfecting it according to God’s will. The first task of the single person according to God’s teaching as revealed by Jesus Christ and the apostles, martyrs and saints of the Christian Church, is that of maintaining and developing one’s sexual chastity.

 

The single person who says “yes” to God and to his or her calling to the single life automatically says “no” to all forms of physical, sexual activity with the opposite sex, with one’s own sex and with oneself. This is so because sexual actions other than the conjugal act of married love destroy the wholeness and integrity of one’s being through the dissipation of one’s spiritual and physical energies. No matter how loving, fulfilling and pleasurable they may at first appear to be, sexual commitments without the totally faithful commitment of unending love in marriage – with all of the responsibilities and obligations for inter-personal communion and the pro-creation and protection of human life which this involves – cannot but result in dissatisfaction, disappointment, despondency and despair. this is so because human persons are made in the image and likeness of God who is Love, and as such can find fulfillment and happiness only in ways of living and acting which express and image His own.

 

A hard saying

The teaching about sexual purity in the single life is a difficult one. When many people hear it they are moved to say what Christ’s disciples said when they heard other of His teachings: Lord, this is a hard word. Who can hear it? Who then can be saved? And the Lord’s answer is always the same. He said that His teaching has to be hard because “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few”, adding as well the fundamental point  that as far as His teaching is concerned, “with human being it is impossible, but with God all things are possible”, particularly to those who believe. (See Jn 6:60; Mt 7:13-14; 17-21; Lk 18:27; 35)

 

Like all forms of Godly life and behavior, the single life of celibate chastity is a way of the Cross. It is a way of sacrifice and suffering which alone brings joy and happiness to a human being.

 

Conditions for perfection

For the single life to be perfected according to God’s will, with the preservation of sexual purity as its heart and foundation certain conditions must be fulfilled. First of all there must be firm spiritual discipline for the sake of a lively interior life. The single person must have a rule of prayer which is diligently kept, with the reading and pondering of wholesome and edifying words and images. Great attention must be given to keep oneself free of all thoughts and images which lead to spiritual and physical defilement and disintegration. The “spouse” and “life partner” for the single person in the most direct and specific way must be the Lord himself.

 

The single person must also have a firm rule of external life and behavior. Capricious and willful actions, things done without order or form, but just as they happen to come up, must be avoided at all costs. Forms of responsibility and accountability to others must be found and fulfilled with conscious obedience. This is especially true for those who do not have such natural obligations as, or example, the care of elderly or infirm parents or relatives, or duties within a religious community.

 

The single person must also be committed in a formal way to a spiritual father or mother, which can be a member of the clergy, a monastic, or even a lay person mature in the faith. If, due to specific circumstances this should prove impossible, then the single person must, as everyone else, draw his strength and knowledge from the Holy fathers, the lives of the Saints and, of course, the Scriptures.

 

Some might say that such conditions are necessary for all who are living a human life according to God’s will, whether or not they happen to be single. This is true. But these conditions are particularly necessary for the single person precisely because of their single state in a world which renders them particularly vulnerable to self –centeredness and loneliness on the one hand, and lack of commitment and accountability on the other, with the additional cross of often being misunderstood and taken advantage of by those around them because of their single status.

 

Christ and the Saints

It is common in the modern world to think that one cannot be fulfilled as a human being in the single state, especially if living a sexually continent and chaste life. The claim is that without sexual activity and intimacy, a human person is diminished and even distorted in his basic humanity. If this is true, then the Christian faith as understood and practiced by the Orthodox, and by millions of other Christians, is wholly false.

 

The Lord Jesus Christ was single and celibate, yet He was the most perfect human being who ever lived, the Son of God and God Himself in human form. Jesus’ mother Mary, though legally married, remained a virgin her entire life. John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the greatest man ever born of woman, was clearly a chaste celibate according to the Gospels. So was the apostle and evangelist John. So was the apostle Paul who, as we have seen by his own report was single at the time of his conversion and ministry. Indeed, the calendar of Orthodox Church saints is filled with single people who are praised and honored for their chastity and devotion to God and their neighbors. In this perspective it is clearly the Christian conviction that being single is conducive to the highest and most perfect for of fulfillment possible to human beings: the life of sanctity . (Source: St. Luke’s Orthodox Mission)

 

 

See also: Marriage of Monasticism? and Belonging to Neither and Both

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Belonging to Neither and Both

Belonging to Neither and Both In the Middle Between the World and Monasticism From the Letters of St. Ambrose of Optina

An Elder’s Correspondence to his Spiritual Daughter Caught Between the World and the Monastery (*)

January 3, 1879

In our last letter of December 14, you wrote that you cannot find any books applicable to your situation. You say that all books discuss monasticism, and that you are not a nun but are simply living near a monastery. In response I would say this to you: the Gospel teaching is given to everyone in common, and everyone is obliged to fulfill it. Monasticism stemmed from the desire to live exactly according to the Gospel teaching. This is terribly difficult amidst the noise of the city and the cares of life in the world, which hinder such a precise fulfillment of the Gospel teaching, even though everyone is called to this. Monastics are distinguished from laymen in that the latter are permitted to live in a state of matrimony, while the former choose to remain unmarried. Read more often the Gospel of Matthew, from the beginning of the fifth chapter to the end of the tenth, and try to live according to what is written there. Then your life will be marked by harmony, and you will find peace of soul.

January 11, 1879

Peace to you and God’s blessing, and a strengthening towards good. On January 3 I briefly wrote to you that monastic life by no means differs from the Gospel teaching, and that those living in the world differ from monastics only as concerns their married state. About married people, however, St. John of the Ladder writes that they are like those whose hands and feet are bound with fetters. Although even these can walk the path of righteousness, it is only with difficulty; they often stumble and fall and become sorely wounded as a result. The unmarried–and particularly monastic–state offers greater facility in the fulfillment of the Gospel teaching. It is for this reason that monasticism was established by the Holy Fathers.

You are now in the middle, between the world and monasticism (*). The middle path is everywhere approved, and for you–both on account of your upbringing and your weak constitution–it is in many ways appropriate. Only try to live according to the Gospel commandments. Above all, judge no one about anything, so that you yourself will not be judged …..

In my letters I’ve always had one aim –to dispel your misconceptions about monasticism and spiritual life in general, which you formed while still living in the world. You have perhaps heard it said that even apparently correct theory does not always coincide with practice. One’s own experience, when it follows the experience of spiritual people in the past, is a good instructor, provided we check our life against the Biblical and patristic teaching.

You laid for yourself and your life a rather strange foundation: I wanted so, I thought so, I intended so… You are not the only one; many desire a good spiritual life in the simplest form. Few, however, (they are rare, in fact) fulfill their good desires in actuality; they are those who hold tightly the words of Holy Scripture: “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), and who, entreating the help of God, try to bear the griefs and illnesses and various discomforts visited upon them without murmuring, always keeping in remembrance the words of the Lord Himself: If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. (Matt. 19:17)

And the most important of these commandments are: “Judge not and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:17). Besides this, those who want to be saved must bear in mind the words of St. Peter Damascene, that salvation is accomplished between fear and hope…

To live in a simple hut without humbling oneself will not lead to any good. It is better for someone who is weak in soul and body to live in a comfortable cell and to humble himself, blaming and reproaching himself for such comfortable and spacious quarters. Only few, and those possessing a strong constitution, can without harm lead an austere life, and endure cold and hunger and dampness and sleeping on the ground. According to the words of St. John Damascene, those who are weak in body derive more profit from humility and thanksgiving than from physical labors and podvigs to which they are unequal.

You are adversely affected by the harsh words of such people who, in your opinion, should speak differently. St. John Climacus writes that God providentially leaves some flaws even in spiritual people so as to bring them to humility.

If you wish to set yourself on a firm path toward salvation, try above all to pay heed to yourself alone, and leave everyone else to God’s Providence and their own will, and don’t concern yourself with instructing anyone. Not in vain is it said: Each man begetteth himself shame or glory according to his deeds. This will be most beneficial, meat conducive to salvation, and, what’s more, more peaceful.

From the Letters of St. Ambrose of Optina

(*)  *Sigh* It is so me …

See also Marriage or Monasticism? and Sanctifying the Single Life