For some singles, the pressure to marry threatens to overwhelm what they really desire.
Summer was in full blaze. Most of the students were gone until Labor Day, and the streets around campus were torn up for work on the sewer lines. Heat shimmers rose like ghostly phoenixes from the sidewalks.
Even so, the Edge of Night was packed, and what I had thought would be a solitary lunch had been pleasantly crashed by a trio of former students who had gone on to graduate work in other fields. Their locust appetites had devoured the food, and most of the dishes had been taken away. We rose to go. Only Katie remained seated.
"You guys go on," she said, waving her hand toward Zack and Woody. "I have to talk to Professor Theophilus about something." They said their good-byes and disappeared. I sat back down.
"What's up?" I asked.
"Do you mind?"
"Not at all — as long as the question isn't about pickle science."
She smiled indulgently. "That's Woody's field, Professor T."
"What is it that you do again?"
She knew I was kidding. "Molecular and cell biology, remember? I'm planning to go into medicine."
"That was it. But I can't help you with moly bio, either."
"It's not about moly bio," she laughed. "It's a personal issue. I thought you might have some ideas."
I signaled the waitress to bring coffee. "What kind of personal issue?"
"What do you think?
"The issue? The one we've talked about before?"
"No man in sight yet, I take it."
"What about the two who just left? Never mind Zack, he's attached. But —"
"Woody?" She rolled her eyes.
"Why not? He's got a Y-chromosome, I think."
"Thanks, Prof, out of the question. Peter Pan Syndrome. Bad case."
"Zack had a bad case too. He got over it."
"Woody's not Zack. Besides, no spark." She sighed heavily. "Professor Theophilus, I still don't know God's will for my life, and I'm turning ancient."
"I'd hardly call 24 'ancient,' Katie."
"Twenty-five. My married church friend Harmony says that the chances of a woman over 25 getting married are less than the chances of being hit by an asteroid."
"I'm sure they aren't even remotely that poor."
She smiled ruefully. "You know more about asteroids than moly bio?"
"As a matter of fact, I do. Largest, Ceres, diameter 622 miles. Second largest, Pallas, 377 miles. Third largest —"
"Enough, enough! Are you an amateur stargazer?"
"No, but when I was a kid I was space-happy."
"Well, Harmony's marriage-happy. She's got weddings on the brain."
"Why do you let her worry you?"
"That's a funny question from a person who thinks everyone should marry young!"
I was startled. "Where did you ever get that idea? I've never said that everyone should marry young. I've only presented arguments against the view that no one should marry young."
Now it was her turn to be surprised. "But weren't you and Mrs. T married by age 12 or something?"
"Not 12. Nineteen."
"And aren't you both happy?"
"Certainly. That doesn't make it a law for everyone."
"But I've heard you argue that the trend toward later and later marriages is bad for men and women, bad for society and bad for the Church."
I grinned. "Have you been secretly taping my conversations? I do say that — most people in our day take too long to grow up, and most wait too long before marriage. Even so, you've never heard me say that men and women should enter marriage before becoming mature enough."
"Then — are you saying that I'm not mature enough?"
She looked so pathetic that I had to laugh again. "No, Katie, I'm not saying that at all. But why are you so sure that you're called to marriage in the first place?"
"I'm not sure that I'm called to marriage. That's just the problem."
My turn to be surprised again. "You aren't? But I thought you pined to be married. Why else are we having this conversation?"
"I don't even particularly want to be married."
She looked at me. I looked at her. We both burst into laughter.
"I don't get it," I confessed.
"I thought you knew," she said. "Sure, I feel attraction for men. I was even in love once. If God intends marriage for me and shows me the guy, I'm sure we'd love each other, be happy and have lots of kids. But He sure hasn't done that so far, and if it's not His plan, that's fine with me too."
"Then what do you want? What is your heart's desire?"
A look came over her as though someone had lit a candle inside her eyes. "What really lures me is the idea of lifelong singleness, consecrated to the service of God. No distractions. Like Paul talks about in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians."
"When you say it 'lures' you, what do you mean?"
"Did I tell you that I've been working in the Christian medical mission on the east side? I love it." She looked down at the table and gave an embarrassed little giggle, quite unlike her usual confident laugh. "I love reading about people like Mother Theresa. This will sound silly — but if I were Catholic, I think I'd be happy as a nun." She looked up again. "It would be easier to be a consecrated single as part of a community. I've heard that there are Protestant religious orders. But I suppose it wouldn't have to be that way. I just wouldn't date or marry, and I'd avoid emotional entanglements."
"Have you thought about this?"
"A lot. I dream about it, just like I used to dream of marriage when I was a little girl."
"Have you prayed about it?"
"Many times a day, for months."
I rubbed my face with my hands. "Katie," I told her, "if you think you're called to consecrated singleness, then for the life of me I can't see your problem. Everything's unfolding just as it should. Why on earth should you be upset because there isn't a man on the horizon? And if you are upset about that, isn't it possible that you're not called to consecrated singleness?"
Here eyes widened. "Is that how I'm confusing you? I'm not upset because I want a man on the horizon."
"A minute ago you gave a fairly convincing imitation of a woman in that state. Then what —?"
The glow faded and the pathetic look came back. "Oh, Professor T," she wailed, "how do I know consecrated singleness is how God is calling me live? Suppose I serve Him in singleness, then discover 40 years later that He'd called me to marriage all along, and I haven't listened, and I've blown it!"
"That worries you — yet you say you have no desire for marriage whatsoever?"
"No, my inclination is all the other way. Toward consecrated singleness. That's the problem."
"What problem?" My head was beginning to spin.
"Harmony says —"
"Harmony, the church friend that I mentioned. We've known each other since snakes had legs."
"She warns me that I'm probably listening to my desires instead of listening to God. She keeps telling me that more people are called to marriage than singleness, and I ought to mistrust my inclinations. Am I making sense?"
"The lights are beginning to come on. Continue."
"She points out how terrible it would be to go wrong about a thing like this, and that I shouldn't conclude that I'm called to consecrated singleness unless I've done everything I can to investigate whether I might be called to marriage. So I'm forcing myself to stay open to the possibility."
"What do you mean, 'forcing yourself'?"
"For example, when she found out that I wasn't dating anyone, I let her talk me into letting her play matchmaker. You wouldn't believe some of the guys she tried to fix me up with. I even let her talk me into trying that electronic match-up service — you know the one —"
"How did that work out?"
She grimaced. "Let's just say once was enough."
"Thought so. Katie, can't you see the problem here?"
"I see that she's making me crazy."
"That ought to tell you something. But I mean a different problem."
"In the passage from First Corinthians that you mentioned, Paul says 'I wish that all were as I myself am,' meaning celibate — 'but each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another,' meaning that God gives some what it takes for consecrated celibacy and some what it takes for holy marriage."
"It seems to me that your friend has turned that around."
"How do you mean?"
"She wishes that all her friends were as she is."
"Right. And although her methods of spiritual discernment may have a hundred percent probability of finding out whether you have a gift for holy marriage, they have a zero percent probability of finding out whether you have a gift for consecrated singleness. Don't they teach you about Type I and Type II errors in your moly bio program?"
She made a face. "I thought you said you don't know anything about moly bio."
"I don't, but I know something about hypothesis testing. Look at it this way. Suppose you really are called to consecrated singleness. Her way, how would you find out?"
"I guess I never would!"
"Exactly. She urges you to do 'everything you can' to investigate whether you might be called to marriage —"
"I see where you're going. 'Everything' is a mighty big bucket. There's always another 'something' you can fit into it. I can hardly believe I didn't see that before." She mused. "The way Harmony wants me to think, the only way I'd ever know for sure whether I was called to consecrated singleness would be to get married — which in her view would prove that I wasn't called to consecrated singleness."
"But Professor Theophilus —"
"She's not all wrong in her thinking, is she?"
I smiled. "To be all wrong is a rarer state of mind than people think. What part do you think she's right about?"
"The part about the danger of trusting my own desires."
"She's right that a desire to live in consecrated singleness isn't proof that God is calling you that way. Don't go to the opposite extreme, though, as though it were proof that He isn't. Your desire to serve Him that way is real data, and much better data than mere lack of desire for marriage. I'd advise you to treat it with cautious respect. It might not be from God — then again, it might be."
"I see that. But at least she was right that it would be awful to make a mistake — to try to serve God through consecrated singleness when He was actually calling me to marriage."
"Yes, but that knife has two edges, doesn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that it would be at least as big a mistake to enter marriage when He was really calling you to consecrated singleness. Maybe bigger."
"Hey, that's right!"
I glanced at my watch. "Katie, I have to go. I'm sorry that I can't tell you whether you are called to consecrated singleness. You're going to have to work that part out with God."
"That's all right. You helped me decide one thing, anyway."
"I can break my Friday night date with Harmony's second cousin's roommate's younger brother."
Copyright 2005 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.