When I was in my 40s, every morning on the New York City crosstown bus I had a knock-down, drag-out fight with God over being single. I was reading a spiritual classic, Abandonment to Divine Providence, which taught that nothing happens to us that God doesn’t will or permit, and that we must accept his will in everything if we are to grow in holiness. 

How I hated that book! It was a bitterly difficult struggle, but when I was finally able to say “Yes” to God, I found joy and fulfillment as a single woman.

Since then, through my work in two Manhattan parishes, I have met many young Catholic women who were longing to marry and struggling even to find someone to date. Knowing the suffering the inability to find a spouse entailed, my heart went out to them. I knew that the choice of these young women to abstain from sex before marriage meant that many of them would never marry. Non-Catholic men wouldn’t even date them because they weren’t interested in premarital sex, and the number of devout, marriageable Catholic men were in short supply. For a young woman to give up marriage and children to be faithful to the Church’s teaching, when it is almost universally ignored, is heroic. And it was a heroism that 10 years ago, at least, was unrecognized by their own Catholic communities.

In Luanne Zurlo’s groundbreaking new book, Single for a Greater Purpose, the author describes the explosion of singles in American life. Today, only about 20% of people age 30 and under are married, compared with 60% in 1960. This sobering statistic suggests that a very large percentage of single Catholics will never marry. It is a heavy cross for men and women at the threshold of their adult lives to confront. There is only one way that they will be able to eventually find peace, joy and fulfillment in their lives: They will have to grow spiritually.

In my own case, to my great surprise, I was to discover that God was calling me to make a permanent commitment to celibacy as a way of giving myself completely to him. In her book, Luanne Zurlo calls us “dedicated singles,” to distinguish us from the lay vocations of consecrated virgins, who make public vows, and members of secular institutes.  These are recognized by the Church as “consecrated” because they make public vows or promises conforming themselves to a spirituality or rule or program recognized by the Church.  Dedicated singles are not considered “consecrated,” because they do not make public vows or live in a church-sanctioned structured institute or society.  As dedicated singles, we retain great personal freedom. 

Having myself wrestled, if not battled, with God for two and half decades over my single state, I would like to share some spiritual wisdom from the great teachers of the Church that helped me when I still very much wanted to marry and which is meant for everyone, lay or religious, married or open to marriage. The first truth is about the nature of God’s love for us. In Scripture, God describes his love for humanity not only as a parent for a child, but also as the love of a bridegroom for a bride.

The saints and countless ordinary people who have been faithful to the methods of prayer taught by the great teachers of the Church have personally experienced this spousal love.

St. Teresa of Calcutta described feeling this immense and overwhelming thirst of God for each one of us when she received her call to found the Missionaries of Charity: “Jesus’ saying ‘I thirst’ is something much deeper than Jesus just saying ‘I love you.’ That boy and girl who fall in love with each other, that love is ‘I thirst.’ You have to experience it.”

In other words, God doesn’t just love us, he is in love with us — and that love is infinite. Our experience of being in love in this life is just a pale foretaste of what awaits us in heaven. There, our deepest desire to love and be loved perfectly will be realized, and it will be ecstatic.

We are right to long to be in love, because this is what we are made for. But even married people must wait until heaven to experience being in love for more than brief periods of their lives, if they ever experience it at all. But men and women who are unmarried against their will should know that if, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, they are able to consent to the cross of being single now, not knowing whether they will ever find a spouse, because it is God’s will for them, they are likely to grow in intimacy with him and begin to experience God’s love in contemplative prayer and the joy that comes with it. This is a gift God wants to give all of us, single or married, celibate or not.

The struggle to accept God’s will in the things we care about the most requires a real dying to self, and it can take years. But if we are faithful to a life of prayer, as taught by the great teachers of the Church, and strive to grow in virtue, the Holy Spirit will give us the grace to consent to his will, and our lives will be full of joy. If, on the other hand, we don’t manage to truly consent to God’s will, as opposed to being merely resigned, like all people who’ve experienced afflictions, our lives can be filled with emotional pain and bitterness.

The struggle to accept God’s will in the things that matter most to us can be bitterly difficult. But when we are finally able to say “Yes” to God, it is likely to be the occasion of what teachers of the spiritual life call the “second conversion.”

The first conversion happens when a person begins to take their faith seriously. The second conversion usually happens only after we have been faithful to God for many years. As Franciscan Father Benedict Groeschel explains in his book Spiritual Passages, to arrive at this stage in the spiritual journey, we will have to have eliminated mortal sin from our lives, be trying to eliminate deliberate venial sin and have a regular prayer life — although before the second conversion, one’s prayer is very dry, so dry that many people give up prayer at this point, and the overall experience is one of darkness.

A person’s most cherished dreams may lie in ruins. He or she might be abandoned by a spouse, a child might die, his or her religious order may fall apart, or ... he or she may be unmarried against their will.

But, as the saying goes, it is always darkest just before dawn. If people suffering afflictions persevered in authentic prayer — prayer in which they were able to be honest with themselves and God — they would eventually obtain from the Holy Spirit this grace of the second conversion. They would take the first hesitant steps toward trust and hope and be able to say with Christ, even if through gritted teeth, “Not my will but thine be done.” Once they can say that, everything begins to change.

“It is like the Resurrection on Easter morning,” Father Groeschel writes. They would find themselves entering into a much more intimate relationship with God and begin to experience the presence of God in contemplative prayer. The great teachers of the spiritual life taught that God wants to give the gift of contemplative prayer to everyone. And as God is love, the experience is largely one of feeling God's presence as love. Eventually, one begins to experience his or her nuptial relationship with God.

Like many of the people Zurlo mentions in Single for a Greater Purpose, I only began to discern that God might be calling me to a vocation to celibacy at the age of 49, partly perhaps because I had no idea that I could make a private vow of celibacy as a laywoman living in the world on my own. Unlike single people who remain open to marriage, who Zurlo calls “transitional singles,” because their state of life might change, dedicated singles believe that God is calling them to the single life as “the permanent and providentially ordained means to love and serve God wholeheartedly; the definitive giving of oneself to Christ exclusively and permanently.”

In Single for a Greater Purpose, Zurlo effectively untangles in detail the confusion over whether or not “dedicated singles” have a vocation. Unlike transitional singles, who do not, people who embrace permanent celibacy to give themselves completely to God and neighbor do. The wholehearted endorsement of the dedicated single vocation by Dominican Father Wojeich Giertych, in his warmly inviting foreword to Single for a Greater Purpose, is likely to win over skeptics. Perhaps like secular institutes, the celibate lay vocation will only be officially recognized in our time, when anecdotal evidence suggests that it is growing rapidly.

I can still remember where I was standing, looking out a window, when the thought that God was calling me to celibacy first came. Could it be, I thought, that after all this time, after all these decades of wanting and waiting for a spouse, it had become just me and Jesus?

My discernment process took two years, because without knowing it, I needed emotional healing to go forward. (Only some years later did I discover that St. Ignatius taught that discernment could be blocked for this reason.) Just as many young men have begun to discern a vocation to the priesthood during World Youth Day or another encounter with the pope, I was finally confirmed in my call to celibacy by a series of events that began with Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to New York in 2008. It came to an end when, in a discernment exercise during Eucharistic adoration, I told the Lord that I was going to make a vow of celibacy in front of the Blessed Sacrament and was filled with a supernatural joy that persisted for days. Since that time, a fruitful apostolate and many other signs have affirmed my head and my heart in this decision.

Mary Schwarz’s podcasts on the spiritual life are available at Rivers of Living Water on WCAT Radio.

Read related book review here.