What does it mean to be called to the single life?

I quite often say of a book I am reading for a book blog that I recommend “everyone should read it.” I must be blessed in my reading matter that I am able to say this quite frequently. I state it again, unreservedly, of Single for a Greater Purpose by Luanne D Zurlo (Sophia Institute Press). The author, an American who has been a Wall Street equity analyst as well as involved in educational reform in developing countries (she has lived and worked extensively in Latin America), has written a thought-provoking study of what it means to lead a dedicated single life as a Catholic; her sub-title, “A Hidden Joy in the Catholic Church” indicates her underlying message: such a vocation is not second-best but is a calling leading to real fulfilment and interior peace.

In her introduction, Zurlo raises a question that is a recurrent theme of her book: given the increasing number of single men and women in the western world today, “Might God be calling more Catholics to a deeper communion with Him, to live as lay celibates and bring gospel values to a sex-crazed, increasingly secularized culture?” It is a good question; you don’t have to be a concerned Christian to note the widespread lack of commitment to permanent relationships in our society, or the number of seemingly drifting young people who have experienced numerous fruitless affairs and who conclude, dispiritedly, that this is what life is about.

The Church too, anxious to encourage the sacrament of marriage and to help those already married to live out their vocation, has often neglected to address single people in the Church. Zurlo writes that she knows “untold numbers of Catholic singles who feel bereft, directionless, unwelcome, misunderstood, and even scorned” because they are not married or living within the priesthood or religious life. In the “rubble of our troubled, post-Christian world”, maybe God is creating a new form of Christian witness and apostolate in hidden dedicated single lives?

Zurlo points out that one of the problems single Catholics face is whether they are “transitional”, planning or hoping to marry in time, or whether God actually wants them to dedicate themselves wholly to Him while still living in the world. She admits that for some years as a young woman with an interesting and well-paid career, she thought she would someday get married. It took a long time, prayer and growing discernment, for her to conclude that, despite having sometimes dated possible future spouses, God wanted her to stay single “for a greater purpose”, as she puts it in her title.

What does a true single vocation mean? she asks. ”It is the call to single life as the permanent and providentially ordained means to love and serve God wholeheartedly”. Apart from well-known historical examples of holy single lives, such as Catherine of Siena, Rose of Lima and Joan of Arc, Zurlo also points to devout single people in our own times, such as the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, Jan Tyranowski, mentor to the youthful Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II and the Irishman, Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary.

Zurlo also includes a favourite writer of mine, Caryll Houselander, a wood carver and artist as well as a mystic, who endured a disappointed infatuation in her youth, before accepting that she was destined for a dedicated single life. And, warning against marriage being regarded as providing complete emotional fulfilment, she quotes Fr Raniero Cantalamessa on how the witness of lay celibate lives can “save [marriage] from despair, because they open up for [it] a horizon stretching even beyond death.” This is a timely book, deserving a serious readership.