The 2005 U.S. Census revealed a shift in American life: For the first time in our history, more households were headed by singles than by married couples. Nevertheless, society hasn’t exactly come around to recognizing this new majority. From workplace benefits to military-housing allowances tohospital-visitation policies, the privileges favor marrieds.
Many congregations, too, still focus on marrieds and families in the Norman Rockwell image. Some schedule special events for “singles,” rather than simply including all men and women in programs and projects. Others address their newsletter to “The Stephenson Family,” no matter if the recipient is a single person.
Even the word single seems to connote something that is incomplete, that needs something else to go with it.
What do these changing and even contradictory contemporary concepts of being single mean for our lives as Christians? I’ve found that going back in time and revisiting the teachings of the early Christian teachers and medieval monastics offers us all profound insight into the spirituality of singleness—and family.
Let’s begin in the sixth century with Benedict of Nursia. In his famous “Rule,” he addresses the most basic issue of life: How will you find life to the fullest? In his answer that it is in intimacy with God, he uses the word “tent” to describe the life we share with God.
This is a very Middle Eastern image, one we see in the Old Testament when strangers come to share Abraham’s tent.
The tent is a familiar place that provides essential shelter against the elements and a place to swap stories. Also, it’s portable. I love the idea that we share God’s tent, as much as we inhabit his house or temple.
Inside God’s tent
When Benedict said he shared God’s tent, he meant he shared it with others—not his biological family. He taught that “family” means something more than one or more partners and one or more children: The family of God is larger than our own families.
The spiritual lives of many early Christians were, in fact, based on a rejection of biological family in order to follow Christ. Benedict taught the importance of undergoing what he called a “conversion of life”—a total renunciation of what is past to focus solely on what is godly. “Admission of the religious life should not be made easy,” Benedict wrote. Only a man who persistently knocks at the front door of the monastery, asking for entrance to the life, should be admitted, he said. And he advised making them wait several days.
Once a man entered into the life, it’s intended to be harsh and difficult, won (not earned) by great effort and determination. This includes turning away from all that had previously comforted or cared for him.
And then, “If he owns anything, he must either give it to the poor beforehand, or deed it to the monastery, keeping nothing for himself, for he owns nothing, not even his own body. When this is done he is to change his clothes for those of the community” (The Rule of St. Benedict, Image Books, 1975; available from Amazon).
In turning away from the family, Benedict and others who followed sought to turn away from the bondage of the world, which they believed to include their fathers and mothers and, potentially, spouses and children.
Catherine of Siena cut her long, gorgeous hair very short, against her mother’s wishes, so suitors would stop coming. When the men of Clare of Assisi’s family came looking for her after she had fled to follow Francis of Assisi, she refused to allow them to take her home.
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© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers