It’s not an easy thing to be single and thirty-seven.
Granted, there are infinitely more difficult things to be, but it can be a challenge. I’ve felt confident of my call to remain single for several years now. I remember the day I “heard” it. I don’t think it could have been more clear had an audible voice come down, accompanied by a singing dove and a heavenly mariachi band. Perhaps I exaggerate, but it was very clear. I felt it in my soul, down deep, on the stone table that rests at the centre of every heart. It was clear and direct and felt like freedom. And it was true. I’ve never doubted it. Well, at least not for more than a second or two.
Of course, those second-or-twos can last a very long time. I see a husband and wife exchange a kiss, or a look, or even a thoughtless touch that represents everything beautiful about love, and there’s a second-or-two. A dad side-hugs his boy in the coffee shop line-up. A girl holds her father’s hand in the pew at church. There’s a second-or-two. It’s then that those second-or-twos can jump out of time and remain in a state of suspended eternity.
But it’s a good life, and there are times when I am reminded that this is just the life for me. Like when I’m standing alone on a mountain in a foreign land. Or when I’m praying with a weeping drunk at midnight. When I’m sitting on the street next to a homeless friend and a passerby gives us both some spare change. These are good moments for me. I am at peace with who I am in those moments. I am at peace with my calling.
But there are other moments, and these are neither about doubting my calling or being confident of it. They are the moments when I simply wish my inward call had an outward sign. These are moments when I very badly want something to cling to: a stamp, a symbol, a seal. A kind of spiritual wedding ring to show people, when they say things like, “Now when are you getting married?” or, “Oh, you think you’re a bachelor, but when the right one comes along…!” or my personal favourite, “Wow, you must have been really burned!” In those moments, an outward sign could make things a little easier. “Oh no,” I could say, “See my collar? I’m a priest. ” Or, “Oh, no. See my awesome habit? I’m a Franciscan Brother.” People don’t generally approach a Roman Collar or a man in an imposing brown robe and say, “Well I think you just haven’t met the right girl yet!”
Of course, priesthood or brother-hood may yet be in my future, but I don’t know for certain. (And if you thought this story of chasing Francis to Assisi was going to be about me finding out, you’re wrong.) It’s not for lack of prayers or desire or even trying. Ironically, it’s a bit like finding a girl. There has to be some stirring in the heart, some romance, and some sense of knowing. But I still want the sign, the vows, and it’s a little weird when you want to give all of who you are to God’s service by the promise of a sacred vow, and he seems to be the one saying, “It’s just a piece of paper, baby!”
This all becomes very tricky when discerning the next phase of one’s vocation. What if I only want to be a priest so that I can have a quick label with which to identify myself? Do I want to take Franciscan vows for a more palpable sense of identity? (After all, that friar’s robe is pretty impressive.)
Why do I want to take these vows? Have I not committed myself to them already? I live below the poverty line; I try to be generous and unconcerned with money. I am prudent and chaste and committed to celibacy. I want to follow and do the will of God, to be obedient to whatever and wherever he calls me to be. Are these personal commitments to poverty, chastity and obedience not enough? If they are not, who is it they are not enough for? My ego? My sense of identity? But is there not something pure and beautiful in this desire for vows as well? These questions walked close behind me through the streets of Assisi, they walked beside me on its mountain paths, they knelt down next to me in its holy places.
And so, Lord, I am tossed by the wind from peace to anxiety. To be secure, to be anchored, I must descend to the depths and understand a little more about the mysteries that motivate me. I’ve descended down into the depths of my heart before, and it’s dark there, and all I have to light my way is the moonlight trailing in from above. But I want to do your will, God; I want to please you; I want to serve you. So I pray as Brother Francis did eight centuries before me: Most High and Glorious God, illuminate the darkness of my heart.