Bible verses, spirituality, vocation

A Season of Singleness

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to give birth, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

– Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

“And a time to be single,” I remind myself as yet another engagement happens on Facebook. “And a time to be single,” I remind myself as yet another save the date or wedding invitation comes in the mail. “And a time to be single,” I remind myself as yet another friend or acquaintance enters a new relationship. “And a time to be single,” I remind myself as yet another friend is going on a date.

“There’s a time to be single,” I remind the anxious parts of my heart and mind that steal away my joy for my friends in their happy moments. “And this is my time to be single.”

But what exactly is the purpose of being single?

Being single has had its definite perks (appreciated mostly in hindsight, of course). Being single in college allowed me to focus on studying, building good friendships, and establishing a real relationship with God. Being single at the end of college allowed me to pick a job without no one but me and my career goals in mind. Being single last year allowed me to travel the country from end to end, exploring career and life options on each coast, discovering amazing new places and cities, making a handful of really good friends, learning about myself and my limits, reconciling my past, finding new hope for my future, and renewing my relationship with God.

Being single has had its perks. But now, I’m in a place mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and even financially where I could be in a good, healthy relationship that could very easily end up in good, healthy marriage after yet another appointed time. The possibility is both frightening and thrilling. As much as the anxious parts of me want to both simultaneously jump into a relationship and run away from a relationship because for the first time in over two years I’m in place (mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and even financially) to do it, I’m trying very hard to understand the purpose of the season of singleness.

So, what exactly is the purpose of being single? What’s the purpose of being alone when my Creator formed me with a purpose of becoming one with someone else? What’s the point of all this alone (and sometimes quite lonely) time?

I doubt I’ll ever completely understand or even appreciate my season of singleness, but I know this: God formed Adam alone purposely.

In the beginning, in the earliest creation story of the Yahwist text in second creation story in Genesis 2, the earth was barren.

There was no field shrub on earth and no grass of the field had sprouted, for the LORD God had sent no rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the ground, but a stream was welling up out of the earth and watering all the surface of the ground (Genesis 2:5-6).

No fields, no rain, no real life but a stream with the potential to produce green? Why is it so barren? But then that means God purposely created the earth barren. He created something purposely with less than perfect beauty, knowing it needed man to till it, work it, take care of it. Indeed, after God doesn’t reveal the Garden of Eden until after He creates man. And He creates the garden with the purpose of man taking care of it:

The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it (Genesis 2:15).

To be noted, the author uses the Hebrew word “adam,” which is a generic term for a human being. “Man” is termed as in humanity man, thus meaning men and women. The author does not differentiate between men and women specifically until after woman is created. So, anything “man” experiences until the creation of woman is meant to be true for both men and women. So, our verse could be translated to:

The LORD God then took the woman and settled her in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.

So, the Lord created me, created you, created all of us with a work in mind, with a purpose in mind, even in our solitude. He wants each one of us to cultivate and care for another part of His creation. Maybe that part of creation is the poor and serving in a non-profit organization or volunteering in a soup kitchen. Maybe that part of creation is children and serving as a teacher or tutor. Maybe that part of creation is the earth itself and serving as an environmentally conscious farmer or animal rescue personnel. Maybe that part of creation is just other people and serving as the best financial planner, manager, custodian, bank teller, etc. you can be.

Point is, God created humans knowing the earth would be barren without them.  Point is, God created you knowing the earth and humanity would be missing something without you. Point is, God has a purpose for you.

But man (humanity man) is alone.

The LORD God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him. (Genesis 2:18)

“Helper?” Really, God? That’s all I get to be to someone in the other half of our relationship else is a “helper?” A nice, weak little “helper?” That sure doesn’t scream #relationshipgoals to me.

But the word “helper” is actually “ezer kenegdo,” a word used in the Psalms (46:2) and Deuteronomy (33:7) to describe the Lord Himself. “Helper” is a weak translation, not a weak word. “Ezer kenegdo” is discussed in length by people much wiser than me, but a better word is “strength.” Our spouse is meant to be our strength, our equal, our life saver who we need to come through desperately, our gift from God Himself.

Wow, ok. That sounds great. I mean, it’s a challenging goal for me to be to someone else, but I could use me a life saver that lasts longer than the sugary treat. Now, how do I find this helper?

So the LORD God formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name. The man gave names to all the tame animals, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals; but none proved to be a helper suited to the man. (Genesis 2:19-20)

Whoa, whoa, whoa, God. You promised me my strength, my partner, my equal, my life saver, and you give me animals? Say what?

But, let’s look at the series of events. God does not want us to be alone in our work, our divine purpose of caring for a corner of the earth. He presents us with something useful that cannot fulfill our deepest desire. 

Adam is suddenly not alone. He’s surrounded by all these strange creatures that in some way help him and fulfill his desires. Some fulfill his need for help in the fields like oxen or horses. Some fulfill his bodily needs for food like chickens. Some fulfill his need for companionship like dogs or cats.

“But none proved to be a helper (ezer kenegdo) suited to the man.”

Adam needed to name the animals. He needed to see the animals, name the animals, and realize he is inherently different from the animals. He needed that time of naming to become aware of everything he is not and in turn, become aware of everything his helper, his ezer kenegdo is not. 

If we are called to be married, created with a purpose of becoming one with another, I think an important part of a season of singleness is coming to terms with not what we desire marriage to be but what God created marriage to be. 

I admit. I’ve fallen into the Hollywood idea of love and believed its false, flashy veneer for years. Man swoops in and saves the day. Woman supports everything in the man’s life, even his boyish habits. Man feels perfectly strong. Woman feels perfectly beautiful. Everything is perfect, better, more magical, more perfect when you’re together. There’s no problem cannot be solved with a gigantic gesture of love and affection.

Putting my brokenness and the told and untold brokenness of the men I’ve dated next to that, nothing compared. Wanting the outwardly perfect relationship, I hid myself, ignored underlying problems and tensions in relationships, and placed horribly impossible standards on the guys I dated. And it took all of those dates and relationships falling apart to realize that it’s not what God created relationships to be.

That kind of love a lie. It’s a little spark of divine love, yes, but spark fades. If you’re looking for a long-lasting heat, every even the newest fire-tending Boy Scout knows sparks are not the goal of a fire; coals are. Coals are the most constant part of a fire, keeping people warm for hours and making life-sustaining foods like s’mores. Sparks last seconds, provide nothing, and produce nothing.

Yet, sparks are part of the process. It’s what starts everything. But if sparks aren’t supported, not tended to, not build up around things that will feed it, it will never become a fire, never become coals. Looking for that kind of exciting, “fulfilling” love is looking for a false fulfillment of a very human, very holy desire for unconditional love. Realistically only God can fill our need for unconditional love, and a spouse can lead us only to a greater understanding of it.

Our spouse, our ezer kenegdo, is not meant to be a fulfillment or a replacement for God. No, our spouse is meant to lead us and us lead them to God, to become a better version of ourselves in the process. Our spouse is not going to fix all our problems, fulfill all our desires, make all of our dreams come true. If anything, marriage is going to put all of brokenness under a giant microscope and make it ever more present in our lives.  Marriage is a mirror and we’re going to see ourselves at our worst through the mirror of another person who, God-willing, will love us despite and for that brokenness.

“But none proved to be a helper (ezer kenegdo) suited to the man.”

Adam innately desires Eve, not a dog, not a cat, not even a penguin (the cutest animal of all creation). And God wants Adam to give Eve to Adam. But His fatherly love is very present here, to both Adam and Eve, before Eve is even created. We as “adam” (human being) are both Adam and Eve.

As a father, God is challenging Adam. Adam is presented with animals, possibly a symbol of our innate, base, animalistic desires. Will Adam recognize his innate free will, his choice to separate himself from the animals? Will Adam come to understand his solitude as having a divine purpose?

As a father, God protecting Eve from use. God does not want Eve to merely be a companion, a temporary relief for a bodily desire, a helper in the field.  God creates Eve with the purpose of being Adam’s ezer kenegdo and Adam with the purpose of being Eve’s ezer kenegdoLike Adam and Eve, those called to marriage are created to be a gift to someone else and receive another as a gift. If Adam was lonely once and Eve was given to him immediately, would Adam appreciate her? What about after he searches among the animals, finds himself as a distinct person, and comes to understand his sense of incompleteness as holy?

“But none proved to be a helper (ezer kenegdo) suited to the man.”

“Adam” recognizes nothing he has chased after has filled him, nothing she has searched for has filled her. In this poverty, in this emptiness, in the recognition that the things of this world left a need, God can finally work.

So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The LORD God then built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. When he brought her to the man, the man said:
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
This one shall be called ‘woman,’
for out of man this one has been taken.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body. The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.

– Genesis 2:21-25

These 4 verses alone contain so much theological goodness that St. John Paul II spent multiple Wednesday afternoons discussing it in depth in his collection of talks that came to be known as Theology of the Body.

But one thing has always stood out to me: “yet they felt no shame.”

I cannot in good conscience look at my dating history and feel no shame. I did not treat my brothers in Christ with all the respect they deserve, and I wasn’t always treated with the respect I deserve. Being a fallen, broken, fallible human being, I know I’m not going to always treat my future spouse with the love and respect he deserves as a son of God. And him, being a fallen, broken, fallible human being, I know I’m not going to always receive the love and respect I deserve as a daughter of God. We’re going to sin, hurt each other, and otherwise going to fail to love each other as God loves us.

But that’s the challenge, that’s the goal, that’s the purpose: to return to this original state of innocence and love our spouse as God intended. Receive them as a gift, give ourselves as a gift, and love as God does.

The thing about God is His love is markedly disinterested. Though He loves us more dearly than we’ll ever fully realize, He allows us to break His heart. He allows us sin. He allows us run away from Him. He allows us to divide ourselves from Him. I can only imagine how much agony sin and separation hurts such a pure, divine, holy, loving heart as the heart of God.

But love to be love needs disinterest in that the betterment of the beloved comes first. Why else would God give us free will, allow us to hurt Him, allow us to sin, allow us to hurt one another, allow us to crucify Him on the cross? An interested love would never do that! In His disinterested love, God self-sacrifices Himself, putting our good and our salvation first. Always. 

We called to marriage are too challenged to love disinterestedly and sacrifice ourselves and our very lives to our ezer kenegdo. It’s a overwhelming call, especially because our lives are tainted with sin. We’ve lost the original innocence God intended for us. We’ve lost our the original close connection to our Lord and each other.

St. John Paul II cites the core challenge of marriage succinctly in Theology of the Body:

Man and woman must reconstruct the meaning of the reciprocal disinterested gift with great effort

– St. Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology Of The Body, 22:4

But even our great efforts fail. We fail. Our relationships, romantic and otherwise, are broken.

So, too, we can look back to the beginning, before humanity ever touched God’s creation with the potential to harm it:

“The Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).

Man (adam) is formed from dust (adama). Dust is made up of little particles of waste matter: dead skin, soil, pollution, and other disgusting things. Into a collection of the deadest waste of the world, God breathes life.

God breathes life into the body, our imperfect, broken body. Our bodies like our hearts are imperfect, yet God allows the body to express our soul, our personhood, making an outward sign of our inward dignity, making is visibly clear who we are and who we are meant to be.

Again, as a disclaimer, I don’t read or understand Hebrew, so I have no idea if that’s the exact word the text uses, but the concept remains: In Hebrew, the word for soul is “ruach,” meaning breath. God breathed. God created life out of waste. God infused Him, His goodness and life, into a deadened space. It’s a powerful metaphor that still applies to us today: into our relationships (romantic and otherwise) deadened by sin, God can breathe new love, new goodness, new life.

So, too, the death of autumn and winter is overtaken by the new life of spring. Heaps of snow melt into puddles of water. Green grass grows among the deadened brown patches. Green leaves sprout among the deadened tree branches. Birds sing as they build their nests from the dead sticks.

So, too, a season of singleness will one day give rise to the new life of marriage and all it entails.

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.

Ecclesiastes 3:1

“And a time to be single,” I continually remind myself when my heart begins to give into anxiety, fear, and despair. There’s a time to be single, and for reasons the Lord knows and understands, this is my still time to be single.

If the Lord intends it, He has a purpose for it, a purpose for this time, a purpose for my heart and salvation.

What did man (“adam”) do before his ezer kenegdo that prepared him for her? What can I do before my ezer kenegdo to prepare myself for him?

Cultivate the earth and name the animals.

I will cultivate my corner of earth. I will do my work as well as I can, infusing it with a taste of the Lord’s love, learning to love the broken parts of humanity I encounter.

I will name the animals. I will come to know myself, learning who I am and who I am not. I will come to know my desires, discerning what is holy and what is not.

“And a time to be single,” I say with a soft smile, newly confident that the Lord has a purpose for me.

As much as I doubt it, I know God is at work.

If nothing else, He is at work slowly taking deadened parts of my heart away, perhaps with a plan to use that dust to breathe new life.

I know He already has breathed new life within me.

For a long time, I wanted a spouse more than I wanted God. God was my way to get a good husband. I prayed to Him as one puts money into a vending machine. But God loved me too much to allow me to love one of His broken beloved sons more than His Son. He allowed broken relationships and shattered dreams. I treasure those broken moments because I learned in the depths of my heart how Lord desires my love, my heart, and my salvation home to Him more than anything else.

Being single, uncertain about my future, and watching others seemingly take for granted that which I greatly desire is difficult. Whenever my heart beats with annoying anxiety and my brain swirls with unsettling uncertainties, I like to think of myself as in a divine sleep. Like Adam, I am “asleep,” trusting that I am blissfully unaware of all God’s work outside my knowledge. Like Adam, I am “asleep,” hoping in that the Lord is forming my ezer kenegdo and I as we are conscientiously aware of our lack of one another.

I’m incredibly grateful for my continuing season of singleness, and I’m learning to embrace the joys and challenges it brings. In God’s time, He’ll walk down me that aisle, towards that future, towards a new journey, towards salvation with my ezer kenegdo. For now I am alone, in solitude, and yet I’m not alone. The Lord is at my side, and I trust He has a purpose for this time.

“But the more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon – a deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.

Therefore I would like to voice loudly and clearly what might seem unpopular and maybe even disturbing; The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.

When we are impatient, when we want to give up our loneliness and try to overcome the separation and incompleteness we feel, too soon, we easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know with deep-seated, intuitive knowledge – that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence. Thus we keep hoping that one day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potentials, the book which will explain everything, and the place where we can feel at home. Such false hope leads us to make exhausting demands and prepares us for bitterness and dangerous hostility when we start discovering that nobody, and nothing, can live up to our absolutistic expectations.

Many marriages are ruined because neither partner was able to fulfill the often hidden hope that the other would wake away his or her loneliness away. And many celibates live with the naive dream that in the intimacy of marriage their loneliness will be taken away.”

Henri Nouwen,  The Wounded Healer

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2 thoughts on “A Season of Singleness”

  1. Beautiful post–and I especially love your ending, the Henri Nouwen quote–it was my strongest takeaway from The Wounded Healer! I just found your blog recently through a Facebook post, and looking through it has been a delight, as both a fellow Catholic woman and nurse. Thank you! 🙂

    Like

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