The following essay was published in “Voices of Hope” – a newsletter from the Society of Helpers – as as part of their recent series on vocations. I am grateful to share it with you here.
There was a time when my “attraction radar” was on high alert at all times – beginning with Sunday morning mass, to my Monday morning commute on the train, then the Tuesday volleyball league, Wednesday night bible study, Thursday after work happy hour, and Saturday afternoon run along the lake. I constantly found myself on the lookout for a potential suitor, and if the same handsome man were to appear at two or more of these locations, then it was a sure sign that we were meant to be together! I took notice of many people along the way, always trying to read the signs of a potential romantic interest.
Years later, as I embarked on the journey that would take me from an aspiring consulting career into a life of ministry, I made a very conscious decision to put dating on hold. At first this was a very practical decision which I hoped would give me more time to focus on my studies. In reality, the actual number of dates was few and far between. What I really needed was permission to give the radar screen a rest! Unbeknownst to me, that one decision would have significant consequences for my life and my future.
Suddenly free from the pressure I had put on myself become someone’s other half, I began to take notice of the love that already surrounded me. I rediscovered my own love of prayer, scripture, and spirituality. As clients and coworkers learned of my decision to pursue a career in the church, they offered stories of their own faith experiences. (Many of whom I had worked with for years without ever broaching the taboo subject of religion.) The friendships I made in graduate school quickly moved beyond the superficial facts of life, and we easily exchanged stories of the not-so-straight paths that brought us to divinity school. As for romantic relationships, my interest quickly waned in favor of more interesting, meaningful, and intimate conversations with friends, classmates, and prayer group.
What I suspected would be a temporary decision, evolved into a more permanent way of being. I never intended to spend my years as intentionally single, but the call to single life found me ready and waiting with an open heart. As I allowed myself to dive into this new reality, I discovered a deep fulfillment and joy in this way of life. I recognized the truth of the gospel where it says, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you – and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.” (John 15:16) I began to see how God delights in me as a single woman, and God continues to bless and fulfill my “yes” in response to that call.
God calls each one of us to a particular vocation. And that same gospel passage continues, “This I command you: Love one another.” (John 15:17) God chooses each one of us to fulfill some unmet need for love in the world. Each vocation brings with it a different expression of love. The more I embraced singlehood, the more I recognized the many facets of love in my life. Love is expressed in generous hospitality, through the intimacy of prayer, and in compassion for those who struggle. I experience love within friendship, among my students, with my family, and for my goddaughter.
Something else changed when I embraced the single life as a vocation and not merely an extended layover on the way to some more exciting destination. Instead of keeping an eye toward external markers of beauty, I notice people’s hearts. I pay attention to sadness and joy. I recognize confusion and grief. I watch for gratitude and despair. I’m curious about people’s feelings, and I’m far less concerned about whether or not they are noticing me.
“To be enamored and elated by the beauty of another person is a gift and can make one feel so much more alive and responsive to others and to God.” (from the Trappist community)
Last semester, at the suggestion of a mutual friend, I invited a handsome young missionary to speak to our students. At the end of the evening, one of the girls pulled me aside, “Wow! Did you SEE him?!” Her excitement suggested something we both noticed – his deep blue eyes, dark hair, and other attractive physical features.
Sure, I saw all of those things. (Although, an earlier version of the single me would have spent much more time obsessing over this.) Instead, I found myself intrigued by his stories of mission, wrapped up in our conversation about ministry, and inspired by the compassion with which he spoke about his work with the poor. Grateful for our brief encounter, I was free to bid him farewell, certain that God’s grace was at work in our conversation. What I desired was not a deeper relationship with this one person, but when our time together was complete, I found myself more encouraged in my own relationship with God.
When we live out our true vocation, our capacity for love exponentially increases. New parents say, “I never realized I could love one little person so much!” Even in the midst of tragedy, a couple may reflect, “I never imagined I could love my spouse more than on our wedding day, and here we are 10, 15, 20 years later.” The same is true for those in religious life and the single life. We discover countless ways to share our hearts with others, and we are stretched into sacrificial service for those we love.
As we seek to discover our true vocation in life or to grow in deeper commitment within our chosen vocation, I invite you to pay attention to your love. Who are you in love with? To whom or toward what is your love being directed? How expansive is your love? And how expensive is your love?
Love is so much more than warm feelings or heartfelt expressions. While love may delight in beauty, it does not desire to possess or control it. True love multiplies itself – the more we give, the more there is. Love may cost us something, but it leaves us (and those who receive it) free to live more fully as God intends. Ultimately, a vocation based in authentic unconditional love draws our hearts closer to God, who is the very source of love itself.