What? A single vocation? You may be thinking, “this book must be about the vocation of the consecrated virgin living in the world.” This book definitely speaks to a woman seeking or already living that state in life, but does not limit itself to that particular vocation.
When I left religious life, I knew of three vocational options: religious life, marriage, or consecrated virginity. Later I became aware of and inquired into that very hidden vocation of persons dedicated to God in secular institutes. For various reasons, none of these vocations could be “it” for some of us LL followers. We remain “uncategorized,” even years after leaving religious life.
This book offers another way, for those who believe God invites them to it: that is, to choose perfect chastity for the sake of Christ as a single person in the world. From this book, we see that any woman who desires to take Christ alone as Spouse need not be hindered from doing so by her inability to enter religious life or another of the more formal ways of consecrated life. The author presents, to anyone who desires to be His and is single in the world, the option of making a private vow or simple dedication of oneself in celibate love to the Lord. Written before the vocation of the consecrated virgin living in the world was re-instated in the Church, it also alludes to, first and foremost, this particular call, but does not limit itself to that call. This is a message of hope for anyone out there who desires consecration but cannot enter religious life and, for whatever reason (and there can be reasons other than not being a virgin), cannot become a consecrated virgin.
I quote from the book, page 102: “This vocation…may be chosen even though one is forced to stay out of the other vocations…It should, in fact, be a vocation primarily for those normal and psychically sound people who deliberately choose it…[but also for] those who…are not eligible for the religious life…who could, however, choose the married state if they so desired” but who wish to be espoused only to Christ.
Fr. Unger also includes among those who could choose the state of perfect chastity in the world: widows, persons who were married but are now permanently separated, single moms, persons who would like to have gotten married but have not found a suitable companion, those who desired the religious life but could not enter, and penitents who have turned from a life of un-chastity and chosen to live their lives now in perfect continence for the love of Christ. (pages 100, 105-108).
Fr. Unger says of this grace to choose and promise celibacy in the world, “God usually gives His grace and call by making a person fit to live this type of life and by inspiring the correct motives for choosing it, and, at times, by allowing circumstances that will hinder one from choosing any other vocation…The choice can still be free, even when circumstances conspire against choosing any other vocation. If one would like to have married but must remain unmarried because of circumstances, or if one is prevented for various reasons from entering…religious life, one may…make the best of circumstances and freely consent to live in perfect chastity, since that is God’s will.” (page 100)
As for motives to live this way of life, on page 101 Fr. Unger writes, “One should have a well-balanced attitude toward life and toward the other vocations,” so as to point out that it cannot be chosen because one looks negatively at any of the other states in life. He continues, “The highest motive…is the undivided love that one wishes to bestow on Christ” and he contrasts this to “a single person living in the world who might, for all that, be doing very much good, but who lives in the unmarried state very regretfully.” And he writes of a secondary “supernatural motive of charity toward fellow men, since it frees one for a wholehearted devotion to the service of the Church and humanity.”
The vow or dedication can be made privately, by way of “internal resolution and no further formality. One could also recite a special prayer of consecration, privately, either in one’s home or before an altar in Church.” (page 59) I would also like to mention that in Volume One of An Introduction to the Vocation of Consecrated Virginity Lived in the World by the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins, Raymond Cardinal Burke is quoted on page 39 as mentioning that a woman may also offer a private vow before a bishop or priest in the context of Holy Mass.
On a personal note, I came across this book—I can’t even remember how—not long after I left religious life. At that time, I was not at all attracted to staying in the world as a single person. I wanted to enter religious life again, and as much as I wanted a life of consecration, would have preferred marriage to consecration (so I thought) if I had to remain in the world! The thought of remaining single in the world repelled me. So when I read it, I did so “at arms’ length”, and several miles distant from my heart.
Now here I am, years later, actually recommending it to my fellow Leonie’s Longing followers, because I have found so much hope and refreshment for myself in it!
I think that when a woman meets her husband, she doesn’t choose a way of life, but a person. If that person happens to serve in the military, or politics, or becomes handicapped…he remains one’s husband. Where, what environment, what lifestyle, even if it entails loneliness at times and other sufferings, is not of paramount importance. To belong exclusively to the one you love, that is what matters.
For those of you out there still trying to figure out your particular vocation, this book can help you to prayerfully consider whether or not some form of consecration in the world—either as a consecrated virgin or by making a private vow or dedication—could be the way of Love Our Lord may beckon you to. For those of you who already have chosen this route, I suspect you will find this book to be a source of great consolation and encouragement. So, read on! The Lord of Mercy has a plan of Love for each one of us. Alleluia!
The Mystery of Love for the Single: a guide for those who follow the single vocation in the world
by Fr. Dominic J. Unger, O.F.M. Cap
Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1958, reprinted by Tan Books and Publishers, 2005.
By Jenna Cooper, a consecrated virgin from the Archdiocese of New York.
Over the years, I’ve been privileged to be in touch with a number of women discerning vocations to consecrated virginity in the Catholic Church, with more than a few of these being former religious Sisters in the process of discerning their next step. Since consecrated virginity is not yet very well-known or well-understood, properly discerning a vocation to this particular form of consecrated life can be difficult for any woman. Yet I imagine it might present special challenges for those who have recently left a religious community.
Information and advice for former Sisters discerning consecrated virginity could fill several blog posts, but here are some basic points of consideration for anyone who finds herself in this position:
Not all women are called to be consecrated virgins.
While this may sound obvious and self-explanatory, I’ve heard of cases where a recent Sister is advised to discern a vocation to consecrated virginity by a priest, spiritual director, or former religious superior, even without anyone involved having much understanding of what the life and spirituality of a consecrated virgin actually entails. Other times, it seems women who have recently left convents consider becoming consecrated virgins almost reflexively, as though consecrated virginity were simply a sort of “catch all” category for unmarried women who needed to find a niche within the Church.
Yet consecrated virginity is not a general vocation which is categorically open to all the faithful, but is rather a relatively rare charism which results from a very specific call from God. Even a woman who meets all the canonical criteria to qualify for the consecration of virgins might not actually experience a true interior call to this way of life. And in some situations, there can be good pastoral reasons for advising women who are technically qualified to become consecrated virgins against discerning this vocation.
The upshot of all this is that no woman who has left a convent should feel in any way pressured or obligated to discern a vocation to consecrated virginity. As serious Catholics, we might sometimes be tempted to think that we should always be able to put ourselves into neat canonical boxes. But we need to remember that this is not the way that God thinks!
Our Lord loves and is pleased with everyone who sincerely seeks to do His will, regardless of whether or not one is settled into a permanent state in life. If a woman is truly called to be a consecrated virgin, this vocation will needed to be discerned on God’s time, and will come about solely as a result of His providential design and good pleasure.
Consecrated virginity is a distinct vocation in its own right.
Another common misunderstanding about consecrated virginity is that it is simply an “alternative vocation.” However, the charism of the Church’s ancient Order of Virgins is much more than simply “being dedicated to God, but without living in a convent.”
Consecrated virginity as a vocation actually pre-dates religious life by several centuries, and the spirituality of consecrated virginity is as unique as that of any religious family. For example, consecrated virginity as a form of consecrated life has a particular focus on the call to live as a bride of Christ, a special affinity with the Church’s early virgin-martyr saints, and a characteristic emphasis on the virtue of Christian virginity.
Consecrated virgins also have their own proper role and identity within the broader household of the Church. Through their consecration, consecrated virgins acquire a special bond with the local Church (and are therefore part of their home dioceses in a more “direct” way than religious, who are first and foremost members of their communities).
Likewise, consecrated virginity is also very different from simply making a private vow. A woman is consecrated as a virgin in a fully public liturgical rite, and from the day of their consecration consecrated virgins are called to bear a public evangelical witness.
Consecrated virginity has its own challenges
On the surface, a call to consecrated virginity might seem less demanding than a call to religious life, since consecrated virgins are not required to leave their homes and families or adhere to all the discipline inherent in community life. Still, my strong belief is that when a consecrated virgin is living out her consecrated life fully, this vocation is just as challenging as religious life, only in different specific ways.
One fairly obvious challenge inherent in the life of a consecrated virgin is the need for a great deal of self-motivation and self-discipline. Consecrated virgins are obligated to live serious lives of prayer (generally understood as the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, daily Mass in regions where this is possible, and daily time for private prayer), and they must be faithful to this even without the support of a community or the direct supervision of a superior.
Another significant challenge which is perhaps less readily apparent is the need for continual ongoing discernment. While canon law and the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity call consecrated virgins to be dedicated to the service of the Church, the practical details of how this can be best lived out concretely are left to the discretion of an individual consecrated virgin and her bishop. On even a purely human level, this requires a great deal of prudence and personal maturity; spiritually, it also demands a certain kind of asceticism. Consecrated virgins need to cultivate a listening heart which is truly open to God’s will and sensitive to the actual needs of the local Church, which underscores the necessity of fostering a profound sense of interior detachment in order to serve God’s people generously and disinterestedly.
A general lack of understanding and support is another difficulty which, while not intrinsic to this vocation, is a hard reality for most consecrated virgins at this point in time. Very few dioceses have well-developed formation programs for those aspiring to consecrated virginity, and young consecrated virgins in many places often lack peers and role models. Additionally, today’s consecrated virgins are likely to encounter, at least occasionally, dismissive attitudes and insensitive comments from even good people within the Church.
Of course, a woman who truly has a vocation to consecrated virginity will be given the grace to cope with these challenges. Still, it is important for discerners to be aware of them.
To sum up:
Consecrated virginity, like any life-long commitment, is a decision which needs to be carefully and peacefully discerned. Many recent Sisters may find it helpful to learn more about consecrated virginity, while keeping in mind that not every former religious who inquires about becoming a consecrated virgin will find that this is where she is called. Yet at the same time, I would also imagine that some former Sisters may actually have been called to the charism of consecrated virginity all along, with their time in the convent serving as part of God’s providential plan for the discovery of their true vocation.