Lord, am I called to lifelong singleness?

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

We’ve all heard (and many of us have asked) that dreaded question: “Lord, am I called to lifelong singleness?” This is usually followed by a protest. And it is sometimes followed by “How do I know?”

It’s good language, the language of call, when linked to either marriage or singleness. It reminds us that our social, familial, emotional, and sexual arrangements are not only about us—they are foremost about God, about the one doing the calling; and they are also about our community, the community that helps us discern and live out these callings. The language of call reminds us that the choice to marry, or to join a convent, or to stay single sans monastic vows, is about more than merely making a choice.

I once heard a pastor address the question, how do I know if I am called to lifelong singleness? His answer: if being single is not hard for you, if you are able to do it easily, then you might have a call to remain single forever. This is a reasonable word on discernment as far as it goes; we are generally called to the things God has gifted us in, and that gifting often translates into a certain ease and desire. Calls to professions or jobs offer a useful analogy: I am quite certain I am not called to be an architect, because spatial relations are impossible for me. If I were asked to read blueprints for a house, I would find no joy or ease. But many of us are called to things that we do not always find easy. I may be called to be a writer, at least right now, but I often find writing to be the hardest thing in the world. And ask most married people whether they think “gifting” equals “ease”—they may feel they have been called to be married, but not too many married couples will tell you marriage is easy. I think these burdens are part of the fall. 

Perhaps we ought not fixate on the call to lifelong singleness. Some people, of course, are called to lifelong singleness, but more of us are called to singleness for a spell, if even a very long spell. Often, our task is to discern a call to singleness for right now, and that’s not so difficult. If you are single right now, you are called, right now, to be single—called to live single life as robustly, and gospel-conformingly, as you possibly can. The problem comes when the assumption that these are lifelong callings creeps in—panicked single folks think they must discern, at some given age or some given date, whether or not they are called to singleness forever. Again, consider our professional callings. We are often called to certain vocational or professional paths for periods of time—one is called to be a doctor or a teacher or a waitress, but to discern a call to go to dental school at age twenty-four is not to assume that one will be called to work as a dentist forever. Perhaps at thirty-five, one will be called to stay home with small children. Perhaps at forty, one will be called to open a stationary store. Perhaps at sixty-three, one will be called to retire. Indeed, even calls to marriage are often not lifelong—not because of divorce, but because of death. Jane may be called to be married to Peter right now, but if Peter dies, she will find herself called, for a season, to singleness—to widowhood.

Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov has stressed that discernment is always mysterious, tricky, careful work; we always see through a glass darkly. We should think of vocation as “an invitation, a call from the Friend. I accept it today in the contours of my present situation until the moment when I will perhaps see more clearly.” A single person contemplating his future, says Evdokimov, should accept the “open, though still undefined, horizons” that stretch out before him, and he should not let fear push him to “control the freedom of the spirit.” (This is wise advice, but I find it very hard to follow. I am a terminal J on the Myers-Briggs, so I love closure and plans. The open horizons and freedom of the spirit sometimes makes me very, very nervous.) “For the time being,” writes Evdokimov, the single person “accepts this situation cheerfully, with joy; he views it as a task limited to today, as the present and the full value of his life.”

This wisdom, I think, teaches us something about vocation and discernment in general—not just how to think about a call to singleness or a call to marriage, but how to think about a call to teach, or preach, or parent, or befriend. “One’s vocation is found exactly on the crest between necessity and creative freedom, along the line of faith, which reveals the direction as its free and strong confession grows,” says Evdokimov. “One’s entire vocation is an option, an answer to a call that has been heard. It can simply be the present condition. It is never a voice that clarifies everything. The dimness inherent in faith never leaves us. There is one thing we can be sure of, that every vocation is always accompanied by renunciation. One who is married renounced monastic heroism; a monk, the married life. The rich young man of the Gospel is not invited either to marry or to enter a monastery. He had to renounce his wealth, his ‘having’ his preferences, in order to follow the Lord . . . . However, in all cases of deprivation Scripture speaks of, grace offers a gift; out of a negative renunciation it creates a positive vocation.”

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What is chastity?

Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora, 1445-1497; The Combat of Love and Chastity

“The Combat of Love and Chastity” by Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1475-1500)

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

Let’s get down to brass tacks. What is chastity? One way of putting it is that chastity is doing sex in the Body of Christ—doing sex in a way that befits the Body of Christ, and that keeps you grounded, and bounded, in the community. As we’ve seen, that means sex only within marriage—which means, in turn, abstinence if you’re not married, and fidelity if you are.

Sex is, in Paul’s image, a joining of your body to someone else’s. In baptism, you have become Christ’s Body, and it is Christ’s Body that must give you permission to join His Body to another body. In the Christian grammar, we have no right to sex. The place where the church confers that privilege on you is the wedding; weddings grant us license to have sex with one person. Chastity, in other words, is a fact of gospel life. In the New Testament, sex beyond the boundaries of marriage—the boundaries of communally granted sanction of sex—is simply off limits. To have sex outside those bounds is to commit an offense against the Abstinence before marriage, and fidelity within marriage; any other kind of sex is embodied apostasy. 

***

Chastity . . . is a spiritual discipline. Chastity is something you do, it is something you practice. It is not only a state—the state of being chaste—but a disciplined, active undertaking that we do as part of the Body. It is not the mere absence of sex but an active conforming of one’s body to the arc of the gospel.

From G. K. Chesterton’s essay, “A Piece of Chalk“:

Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white. In a sense our age has realised this fact, and expressed it in our sullen costume. For if it were really true that white was a blank and colourless thing, negative and non-committal, then white would be used instead of black and grey for the funereal dress of this pessimistic period. Which is not the case.

Bodies matter

During the summer recess, our students read a common book for discussion in the fall semester: Lauren F. Winner’s Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity. Success will occur if and when our students hear the good news about Christian sexual morality as “good news”:

As ethicist Thomas E. Breidenthal once put it, “We must do more than invoke the will of God if we wish to recover a viable Christian sexual morality. . . . Even if God’s will is obvious, it cannot provide a rationale for any moral code until we are able to say, clearly and simply, how God’s command speaks to us, and why it addresses us not only as a demand but as good news” (pp. 30-31).  

The following passages reinforce that any treatment of Christian sexual morality must not be abstracted from the body:

The most important – and also perhaps the most complex – figure in the articulation of a distinctively Christian understanding of the body is the apostle Paul. In his New Testament epistles, Paul meditates at length upon bodies. Paul is concerned with human bodies – what they are made of, what they are good for, and how Christians should inhabit them. He also uses the body as a theological metaphor that captures the essence of the Pauline understanding of the gospel. As Anglican theologian John A. T. Robinson eloquently put it, “The concept of the body forms the keystone of Paul’s theology. . . . It is from the body of sin and death that we are delivered; it is through the body of Christ on the Cross that we are saved; it is into His body the Church that we are incorporated; it is by His body in the Eucharist that this Community is sustained; it is in our body that its new life is to be manifested; it is to a resurrection of this body to the likeness of His glorious body that we are destined.” As Robinson notes, Paul encompasses almost all of the basics of Christian theology – humanity, sin, incarnation, atonement, ecclesiology, sacramentality, eschatology – in the single image of the body (pp. 35-36). 

***

Early Christians were keenly aware that, in the phrase of church historian Wayne Meeks, “the body and its relationships were the arena in which the moral contest of life must take place” . . . . Paul does not assume that bodies are morally neutral. He understands that bodies are the sites of longings and temptations, of desires that can sometimes trump reason and rectitude, of powers and passions that can be glorious but can also be dangerous. Bodies, Paul knows, are complicated. Though they were created good, their parts and impulses, their desires and leanings were corrupted in the fall, just as human emotions and human intellect were corrupted. It is hard for us moderns to hold Paul’s two truths in tension. We want things to be clear-cut, yes or no, either/or. Bodies can be exploited; they can be destructive and dangerous. At the same time, bodies are good, as all of God’s creation is good; and rightly ordered by a Christian moral vision, bodies are tools God uses for His glory. Meeks has captured the nuances of Paul’s take on bodies. In Meek’s phrase, Paul insists that “what is done ‘in the body’ is morally significant”; however, Paul also maintains that “the human predicament is the result not of the limitations of physical existence, but of sin”

Bodies are central to the Christian story. Creation inaugurates bodies that are good, but the consequences of the fall are written on our bodies – our bodies will sweat as we labor in the fields, our bodies will hurt as we bear children, and, most centrally, our bodies will die. If the fall is written on the body, salvation happens in the body too. The kingdom of God is transmitted through Jesus’s body and is sustained in Christ’s Body, the church. Through the bodily suffering of Christ on the cross and the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead, we are saved. Bodies are not just mirrors in which we see the consequence of the fall; they are also, in one theologian’s phrase, “where God has chosen to find us in our fallenness.” Bodies are who we are and where we live; they are not just things God created us with, but means of knowing Him and abiding with Him (pp. 34, 36-37).

On book reviewing

Since I have written published book reviews, I was interested in this article from the Harvard Review Online.

On December 6, 1990, Harvard professor and eminent literary critic Helen Vendler gave a talk on book reviewing. Somehow the text of this talk found its way into a copy of Erato/Harvard Book Review, where it was discovered twenty-six years later by a Harvard Review staff member who was packing up boxes to send to the University Archives. We are delighted to be able to share these notes and hope you enjoy Professor Vendler’s insights into the duties of a book reviewer.

Writing a book review is a difficult task: it requires us to describe an object that is invisible, to recreate it for someone who has never seen it.

Who is the reader of a review? It is someone coming for the first time to a work—often a work that no one knows very much about. The reviewer needs to know something about the readers: are they experts in the field, interested amateurs, the general public that doesn’t know much about the field or the particular work? Am I writing for my optometrist, my dentist, my taxi driver? What can I assume about them? What do they need to know in order to read my review? One can think about two classes of readers: those who read the review because they think they will want to read the book, and those who read the review because they know they won’t want to read it. Reviewers must be mindful of both groups as they write.

Reviewers are responsible for selecting the important elements of a book and explaining their importance. Though they must be as inclusive as possible, reviewers must learn not to report everything; they must compress. Deftness will help—the insertion of a qualifying phrase, an aside, will set the scene or reveal a trait of character. Try to tuck things into the body of the review; use lists if they will help. Try reducing chapters, even whole books, to a sentence. Then take that reduced statement and decide how to expand it. Remember that publishers set a page limit, and use that limit to help yourself select the central issue, the significant details, the quotations. The first draft is almost always too long; learn to cut without destroying the work.

Where to begin the review: in the Garden of Eden, the English Civil War, or the first lines of Paradise Lost? “Where do you put in your wedge?” It is useful to think of the development curve of the book. How does it move from A to B, from preface to concluding chapter? Following this curve may help plan the shape of the review.

Reviewers can plot the curve in part by making extracts. Isolate passages that you might want to quote because they illustrate the best and worst characteristics of the book. Compile an anthology, a mini-book. Then reread the quotations. Why did they attract you? What do they illustrate? Which can you use to start the review or to end it? Which will you use to illuminate what points?

What are the desiderata: what would we want or expect to learn from this book? What does the book claim to do? What do we find? Were we disappointed? We can trace for ourselves the curve of expectation and match it to the jagged line of reality, sometimes above, sometimes below that curve. Does the book exceed our expectations or disappoint? Does it make us irritable? How shall we measure or explain the difference between promise and performance?

A review has three main parts: a description of the book, an evaluation, and a defense of the evaluation. Fitting those parts together will vary from review to review.

The first task is to describe, to produce a taxonomy of the book: what kind of book is it? Reviewers should describe the whole and its parts economically. Give readers the big picture, then focus on one piece. Use comparisons and contrasts to give readers a sense of the whole work without describing it in excessive detail. “Unlike Jane Austen, this author …. ”

In most books there’s a slough of despond waiting to trap reviewers: a chapter they don’t want to discuss. (Often this is because the author didn’t much like writing that chapter.) Be fair to the author; recognize the “flabby connective tissue,” but don’t let that weakness overwhelm the book or the review.

Turning to the evaluation of the book, reviewers ask about its context. How does it fit into its era, its nation, the ideological patterns of which it is a witness? Situate the book. How is the topic under discussion seen nowadays; does this book fit the paradigm or does it propose a new model? Ask about its ancestors and about what books it might generate. Books make other books happen. What would we like to see next? What evidence, devices does it use; does it use them well?

These questions reveal the reviewer’s criteria as well as the nature of the book. What framework does the reviewer use to measure the book? What are the standards, the measures by which the curve of expectation was drawn?

There’s one ethical rule for reviewers: read every word, including every footnote, the index, the bibliography, the captions of the pictures. And another rule: don’t review what you don’t feel competent to review.

Writing a book review is like giving oneself a mini-seminar. One has to know an enormous amount about the matter of the book to understand it and be properly critical. Preparing to write is a process of self-education; it involves experience and self-awareness. Critics who are too young haven’t read enough; those who are too old may have lost touch with the center of a generation.

Helen Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard, where she received her Ph.D. in English and American literature, after completing an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Emmanuel College. She has written books on Yeats, Herbert, Keats, Stevens, Shakespeare, Seamus Heaney, and Emily Dickinson. Her most recent books are The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar; Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries; Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill;and Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. She is a frequent reviewer of poetry in such journals as The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Republic. Her avocational interests include music, painting, and medicine.

R. S. Thomas: “a great articulator of uneasy faith”

Since I have a deep respect for Rowan Williams, who is a first-rate theologian and accomplished poet, I am inclined to explore the poetry of fellow Welshman and Anglican R. S. Thomas on his recommendation alone. Here is an introductory video on the poet.

From David E. Anderson’s “The Things of This World” (Religion & Ethics Newsweekly):

In the twentieth century, one of the greatest poets of the dialectical imagination was the Welsh Anglican priest R.S. Thomas (1913-2000). Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called him “as influential as T.S. Eliot in religious circles,” and one critic designated Thomas “a poet of the Cross, the unanswered prayer, the bleak trek through darkness.” His powerful poem “The Porch” needs little explication:

      Do you want to know his name?
      It is forgotten. Would you learn
      what he was like? He was like
      anyone else, a man with ears
      and eyes. Be it sufficient
      that in a church porch on an evening
      in winter, the moon rising, the frost
      sharp, he was driven to his knees and for no reason
      he knew. The cold came at him;
      his breath was carved angularly
      as the tombstones; an owl screamed.

      He had no power to pray.
      His back turned on the interior
      he looked out on a universe
      that was without knowledge
      of him and kept his place
      there for an hour on that lean
      threshold, neither outside nor in.

God’s absence, wrote Thomas, was for him like a presence “that compels me to address it without hope of a reply.”

From David E. Anderson, “R. S. Thomas: Poet of the Cross” (Religion & Ethics Newsweekly):

Thomas is mostly interested in God’s silence or absence, the deus absconditus or hidden God, and what that means for forging an identity in the modern world. What language might be used to address such a God in a meaningful way? As Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written, R.S. Thomas was—like one of the poet’s spiritual mentors, Soren Kierkegaard—a “great articulator of uneasy faith.”

***

Rowan Williams, in his essay “R.S. Thomas and Kierkegaard” in the collection Echoes to the Amen: Essays after R.S. Thomas, argues that a kind of complex love begins to address, not resolve, this paradox [of absence and presence]. He cites a passage from The Echoes Return Slow:

But love answers it
in its turn: I am old now and have died
many times, but my rebirth is surer
than the truth embalming itself
in the second law of your Thermo-Dynamics.

The lines point a slow coming to a kind of faith, a faith in the poet’s own resurrection of some sort that he posits, at least momentarily, is as certain as the dead laws of science and technology. There is in the poem something of the dying to self in order to be born again. Williams concludes that “God, for Thomas, is both the frustration of every expectation and the only exit from despair. And that God is encountered only in the embrace of finitude.”

Related

Two kinds of religious imagination

I read an article that invoked a fascinating distinction between two kinds of religious imagination from Mary Catherine Hilkert’s book, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination:

The Sacramental Imagination

  • emphasizes the presence of the God who is self-communicating love
  • the creation of human beings in the image of God (restless hearts seeking the divine)
  • the mystery of the incarnation
  • grace as divinizing as well as forgiving
  • the mediating role of the church as sacrament of salvation in the world
  • the “foretaste” of the reign of God that is present in human community wherever God’s reign of justice, peace, and love is fostered.

The Dialectical Imagination

  • stresses the distance between God and humanity
  • the hiddenness and absence of God
  • the sinfulness of human beings
  • the paradox of the cross
  • the need for grace as redemption and reconciliation
  • the limits and necessity for critique of any human project or institution, including the church
  • the not-yet character of the promised reign of God.

The author of the article then singled out great religious poets of the sacramental imagination (John Donne, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard Wilbur) and dialectical imagination (William Cowper, R. S. Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop).

SOURCE: Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: David E. Anderson, The Things of This World