The single life is a sacred vocation—and it’s more fulfilling than our culture leads you to believe

single life

As a seventh-grader at St. Catherine School in New Haven, Ky., during the 1960s, Fenton Johnson was proud of a poster he made for class depicting what he described as the “three church-designated callings”: religious life, marriage and being single.

At 12 years of age, Johnson recognized that the Catechism of the Catholic Church taught, in his words, “that being single was a legitimate vocation.”

Yet when a priest visited his classroom and asked each student about the paths they hoped to choose for their lives, every other student answered that they wanted to marry or become a priest or nun.

Only Mr. Johnson felt he had been called to the single life.

Today Fenton Johnson is a professor and author, but he continues to think deeply about what that calling means.

“Popular culture,” Mr. Johnson writes in his new book At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life, “tells us that, even in our postmodern age,” the single life is for partying and then a “way-station until marriage, or between marriages, or a dumping-ground designation for those who are unable to attract a mate.”

He writes that this view is pernicious and akin to the way our culture often describes celibacy: “[N]ot in terms of what it is, but of what it is not—not sex, not fun, not hip, not done.”

Mr. Johnson laments that our language itself is unable to encapsulate the experience of solitary life, having “few words to describe and express solitude, restraint, obliquity.”

He wonders what it might mean for our culture, and the Catholic faith that permeated his childhood, if the solitary vocation was more broadly lauded as a meaningful path—a way to live, create and believe?

Yet a life of solitude does not mean Mr. Johnson is alone on this path.

Although he no longer identifies as Catholic, he continues to draw inspiration from the church’s long history of finding the sacredness in this way of life.

For many writers and artists, drawing on this tradition has proved fruitful, even as their individual experiences of faith and their lifestyles vary widely.

For some, solitude means being physically away from other people—a life of literal distance.

Others manage to live in solitude in bustling cities, where they work and interact as part of communities but cherish their solitude at home.

Each of them lives alone for differing reasons, but each benefits from the contemplation and creativity afforded by solitude—and seeks to protect that element of their lives.

Their stories suggest that the ancient contemplative tradition of solitude has relevance to our chaotic present. A life alone is not a life of absence; for those who embrace solitude, living alone offers a sense of clarity, purpose and transcendence.

A Monastic Sense

In a letter in 1964, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that besides his identity as a writer drawn to solitude, the “rest is confusion and uncertainty.”

A member of the Abbey of Gethsemani, he considered himself as living in solitude secundum quid—“in some way.”

He described his solitary existence as “the only thing that helps me to keep sane,” and he was “grateful for this gift from God, with all the paradoxes that it entails and its peculiar interior difficulties, as well as its hidden and dry joys.”

Solitude was a central element of Merton’s worldview and faith, most fully expressed in his essay “Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude.”

He invokes the solitary, creative lives of those “most remote from cloistered life,” like Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, but his true focus is on the spiritual elements of solitude.

“The true solitary,” he writes, “is not one who simply withdraws from society,” but one who is able to “transcend it.”

The solitary life is not cruel and cold and distant from others; instead, the person choosing this life “is deeply united to them—all the more deeply because he is no longer entranced by marginal concerns.” In senses both metaphorical and physical, the solitary life is lived in communion with others. Continue reading

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