Part three of four posts, based on a conversation with Mark Miloscia, Catholic Lobbyist for WA state legislature. Part one, part two, and part four.
I challenged his assumption we are all called either to the clergy/religious
life or to the married life, and he acknowledged that there were exceptions to
the general rule, but insisted that for most people marriage was the path to
holiness. "That is the only way we learn how to love. I could have been more
blunt about it. I could have gone around the room and asked every individual
person, 'Why aren't you married? Why aren't you married?' But everyone needs to
be if they are not called to the religious life."
The question of vocation is one I have written about before. I have thought about it a great deal for the last ten years or so, but always trying to make sure that, even in the midst of seeminly endless discernment I was at least trying to do something worthwhile.
For Catholics the typical options are:
1) The priesthood or religious life (which includes celibacy).
2) Marriage, family, children etc.
For Mark, these are the only two options, (with a few rare and grudging exceptions) and most people will be called to the married life. He approached the subject in conversation with a refreshing directness and firmness of choice reminiscent of a time with fewer options. When he grew up, perpetual singlehood was simply not a common choice.
Whereas in Mark's day "discernment" was almost an unheard of concept, in our day it is expected of every good Catholic girl and boy. Why? We as a generation, we young adults, have been given more options than any other generation. Careers are open to us, dreams, aspirations, hopes, nothing is out of our reach it seems. We have been given so much! From my experience most of the Catholic young people I know who take their faith seriously at all have a strong sense that much has been given us and much will be expected from us. We want to dare and do great things, but at the same time we also want the comfort of home and relationships. We have so many possibilities, but the very surplus of possibilities seems to have a paralyzing effect on us. We are a lot like stem cells, full of potential. However, the only way to realize that potential is to differentiate, become one thing or the other, giving up all other possibilities.
I think, as a response to the lack of priests and nuns that has plagued the Church for the last thirty or forty years, parents, parish staff, youth ministers and everyone else in authority has been pushing the idea of discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. Sometimes it seems that marriage is veiwed as almost a second-rate vocation, for those who can't hack it alone. None of those who encouraged the young people in their care would ever say so, or even think it, but the effect is measurable. It is seen in that nagging feeling so many young people experience that we should be doing more, something better. The emphasis is on doing things for God, visible things.
I like Mark's idea that marriage is the only way most of us will learn to love. It counteracts the idea that holiness can be seized by doing great deeds. It does not deny the great deeds done by great Saints, like Mother Teresa. Instead, it acknowledges the true source of those great deeds. She did not become holy because she did great things. She did great things because she became holy. She became holy because she did little things with great love.
I cannot agree that marriage is the only path to holiness for most people. I believe it is the ideal path for most people, but, society being what it is, I have to acknowledge that some people will never find themselves on that path. Nevertheless, they will still find their way to holiness if they desire it. Some people, because of the wounds they have suffered growing up or in previous relationships simply do not have the capacity to live in a loving, respectful, human relationship. Others simply lack the desire, which is certainly a crippling emotional defect (not to be confused with an overabundance of desire for something greater, which is a great grace.)
The answer, I think, is to remember that marriage is not the end, it is only the means to the end, which is preparation for heaven. Heaven is relationship with God and with all other people in Heaven, and that relationship will be closer and more intimate than any relationship on earth ever could be. The purpose of marriage in this life is as a sort of purgatory, to draw the person out of himself and teach him to surrender his own wants and needs for someone else, constantly, day in and day out, in sickness and health, in richness and poverty. The purpose of the celibate life is to learn to let go of all temporal goods, including relationships with other people, for the sake of a deeper relationship with God. Both cramp our style. Both are necessary aspects of preparing for heaven, and whichever one we don't have time for on earth, we will make up in purgatory.
So this is my principle, for now (until I learn more and revise it again.) Live life so as to love God and love your neighbor. Life is in time and therefore I cannot love both with totality yet. I can only love one at a time, and I must choose one thing and follow that with all the strength God gives me. True, I will not learn some things that I would have learned had I gone the other way, but by God's mercy I can finish the rest of my education in purgatory.