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‘Nothing is more countercultural than a joyful celibate’: An interview with Luanne Zurlo

Having blogged recently about Luanne Zurlo’s important study of what it means to embrace singleness as a Catholic, “Single for a Greater Purpose: A Hidden Joy in the Catholic Church” (Sophia Institute Press), I was keen to get her to expand on certain questions in her book. Sometimes it is easier for readers of book blogs to take to heart what is said in an interview than what is written in a review – and there is much in what Luanne Zurlo writes that I would like to share.

Thus I wanted to know how she came to discern that God might be calling her to a single life rather than to marriage. Luanne replies that “It was a long discernment process, often spent in front of the Blessed Sacrament. While I always assumed I would get married, it wasn’t a dream that consumed my thoughts.” During her school and college years, “my first priority was learning, exploring and having fun with friends, not dating or looking for a husband. My first decade after graduate school was spent building my career, at that point on Wall Street.”

Luanne says she “did date, but no-one really captured my heart. During my late 30s I started to pray about the “need” to get married, at first asking God to send me a husband like St Joseph. Then I prayed to accept God’s will; then for holy indifference; and then, gradually, it became clear to me that God was calling me to Himself.” She recalls that “when the idea sunk in it brought great peace and joy. I felt very grateful as I became aware how privileged this call is to be in an exclusive relationship with Christ.” She adds that although she was open to a religious vocation in her 30s, “this did not speak to my heart.”

What advice would she give to other single people wondering about their direction in life? Luanne responds “Pray, ideally in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Read the spiritual classics. God does not hide His will for you, but you have to truly listen and this means making the time and being silent.”

What are the difficulties in living as a dedicated single person? Luanne responds, “Selfishness; letting prayer time slip because no-one is holding you accountable. Also, choosing to do things solely out of personal preference, when answering that phone call or spending time with someone in need is the “right” thing to do at a particular moment.”

She tells me that in responding to my questions “I’ve been interrupted twice by phone calls from friends who needed a listening ear and although I wanted to continue with my responses, I knew this wasn’t the charitable thing to do.”

Luanne adds thoughtfully, “Many people think loneliness is a difficulty for single people. That may be the case for me down the road when I am older and more crotchety, but up to now I can honestly say that I do not experience feelings of loneliness. This is probably due to the fact that I am an introvert doing extrovert work and am blessed with many friends and a close family. I yearn for and cherish my time alone.”

And how does she structure her prayer life within what is clearly a busy career? Luanne tells me that most morning she spends about an hour in prayer: reading the Magnificat and sometimes from the breviary, a spiritual classic or the Bible. “And then I just reflect and try to remain quiet and still. Often my mind scurries around so I have to keep quieting it down.” She tries to attend daily Mass if she can, commenting that “living in New York City affords me lots of Mass options. My favourite daily Mass is the 12 noon one at St Rita’s in the South Bronx near my office. The Spanish priest is wonderful and the parishioners simple Dominicans and Mexicans. I also try to spend an hour in Adoration each week and on most days I pray the Rosary.”

I am curious to know if Luanne thinks the Church could do more to support people in her situation. She answers, “I think more priests need to understand that God is calling people to live as His own amidst the world. When I speak about this vocation and my book to priests their reaction is always “I want to learn more because I have a number of parishioners for whom I do not know how to be a better pastor.”

Luanne believes that “Good spiritual direction is very helpful – but there is a dearth of good spiritual directors. Much of the onus is on the single person himself to seek out edifying material to read and ponder.” She also thinks that “many dedicated singles have finely-honed temporal skills that could be put to better use for the Church, particularly in administration.”

In her book, Luanne writes that dedicated single people offer a witness to married couples. She explains that although she does not have “a fully formed answer, it is obvious to me that joyful, dedicate single people witness to the truth that only God fully fulfils us in a way that not even the greatest of human spouses can. Marriage bears too heavy a burden today. It has become the lone ingredient for happiness.” (She treats this subject more fully in her book on pages 56-59.)

Why does she think God may be calling more people to this vocation in our society today? She responds, “Nothing is more countercultural and a more powerful witness to the truths of sexuality than joyful celibates who, on the surface, look “normal” and inhabit the same corners of society as any other.” She thinks “presumption and sexual impurity are the two great sins of our day. The ramifications of the rejection of Humanae Vitae are profound. One result of the sexual revolution is that there are many fewer people today who are well-formed enough to enter into sacramental marriages. Amidst the rubble of this post-Christian society I think God is calling more people to be exclusively His, which means foregoing what the world things is so necessary – sex.”

Luanne points out that “Priests and religious used to serve as visible witnesses of God’s Kingdom. With so many unchurched today, many cannot relate to these traditional witnesses. People imitate what is closest to them. Dedicated singles, by their very vocation, can evangelise in a unique way, just through their presence – in Wall Street, corporations, law firms, secular schools and universities, construction crews etc – where religious and even married laity may not reach.”

We conclude our conversation by Luanne reminding me that “the greatest power of a dedicated single vocation lies in a deep prayer life. Many of us are both Martha and Mary. Speaking for myself, I am extremely active but I also have a deeply contemplative side; I need to express both.  In the end I know that it is my relationship with Christ that is most fruitful, most important.”

She tells me that she hopes “some serious theologians will think and write about single people in the Church because it is such a pressing issue. Nearly 50% of American adults are single today and I would think this may be similar for the UK and much of continental Europe. I write in my conclusion to my book that we may be waiting for the Church to catch up with the reality of this form of spiritual life and its particular grace.”