What does singleness teach the church?

 

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“St. Paul” (1606) by El Greco

From Lauren F. Winner’s book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity:

Singleness tells us, for starters, of a radical dependence on God. In marriage, it is tempting to look to one’s spouse to meet all one’s needs. But those who live alone, without the companionship and rigor of marriage and sex, are offered an opportunity to realize that it is God who sustains them. Catholic writer Henry Nouwen suggests that this dependence is the unmarried person’s primary witness to the married. In singleness, says Nouwen, “God will be more readily recognized as the source for all human life and activity. . . . The celibate becomes a living sign of the limits of interpersonal relationships and of the centrality of the inner sanctum that no human being may violate.” Unmarried people are asked to specialize in “creating and protecting emptiness for God,” an emptiness that everyone, married or single, needs to maintain. This, perhaps, is why Aquinas spoke of celibacy as a “vacancy for God.”

In singleness we see not only where our true dependence lies, but also who and what our real family is. Singleness reminds Christians that the church is our primary family. In an era in which the church is known for prompting “family values” but not social justice, in an era in which families are so exhausted from an endless round of after-school ballet lessons and late-night work-related e-mail sessions that they sleep through Sunday morning worship, in an era when middle-class Americans hurtle across exurban sprawl in our SUVs and then zip through our subdivisions and into our garages without ever speaking to our neighbors, this is a very important lesson indeed.

Marriage, and families, can be sources of grace, but they are not the primary source of grace. The primary source of grace is the church. Single people witness to the Christian hope that the kingdom of God unfolds not principally when we nurture our nuclear families, but, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas explains it, when we show “hospitality to the stranger. . . . As Christians we believe that every Christian in one generation might be called to singleness, yet God will create the church anew.”

***

Single Christians remind the rest of us that our truest, realest, most lasting relationship is that of sibling: even husband and wife are first and foremost brother and sister. Baptismal vows are prior to wedding vows. (Inversely, insofar as marriage is essentially an opportunity to learn, in concentrated form with one other person, what being a sibling in Christ means, married people can instruct single people in some slices of the sibling relationship.)

Marriage and singleness remind us of and resonate with different moments in God’s relationship to His people. As St. John Chrysostom wrote, marriage “is the image of heaven,” and celibacy is the image of the kingdom, “where there is no marriage.” Married people—as the frequent scriptural analogies between marriage and Christ’s relationship to His church make clear—mirror God’s relationship with His people eschatologically. At the end of time, when the kingdom of God is consummated, when Christ returns, there will be a huge wedding feast between Christ and His people. Paul gets at this in Ephesians 5: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” The church, as a collective people of God, become the Body of Christ. Marriage, in this way, instructs the church in what to look for when the kingdom comes—eternal, intimate union. 

And singleness prepares us for the other piece of the end of time, the age when singleness trumps marriage. Singleness tutors us in our primary, heavenly relationship with one another: sibling in Christ.

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