I'm back from St Andrews, having made sure its Catholic Society knows that there is something called a vocation to the Single Life and what it looks like and how you know you might have one and how you go about investigating its possibilities. I also talked about Searching Single stuff and Married Stuff and how priesthood is something Serious Single men might want to look into. At the end my throat was sore and, boy, did I need that beer afterwards!
The part of Serious Single life that I find so fascinating is that lifelong celibacy, such as began in the Mediterranean area only around Jesus's day, was a revolution against the ancient pattern of marriage-reproduction-death. Since the average lifespan even as late as the second-century A.D. Roman Empire was only twenty-five years, getting married young and having babies was essential to the survival of earthly society. But Christians, in their enthusiasm for the Kingdom of God, looked at earthly society and said "Who cares?"
This will blow your minds, but from St. Paul to St. Augustine, the Early Church Fathers had a bit of a problem convincing Christians not to throw marriage completely out the window. Some Christians, in their enthusiasm about being eunuchs for the Kingdom, preached that marriage was actually BAD. So St. Paul and St. Augustine, to name only two, had to put the breaks on and insist that marriage was GOOD and, yes, although lifelong celibacy was better, marriage was still great. St. Augustine's winning argument--get this--was that marriage was good because it produced more virgins.
I'm telling you, once upon a time being Seriously Single was where it was at.
Now the ancient Greeks and Romans were very impressed by celibacy. Never mind orgies and pederasty and all that. Philosophers and other educated Greeks and Romans valued temperence very much. And they thought that the most manly man was the man who could do without very much sex. Sex robbed men of their strength, brains, whatever. (An idea that still manages persists today with athletes. Do you remember in the film Rocky, the trainer's belief that "Women weaken legs?" You can thank the Romans.) So they were very impressed by men who had no sex at all. Pliny the Elder wrote with admiration of groups of prophetic celibate Jewish men, like the Essenes, in Palestine who lived without women or slaves. And later the total sexual abstinence of a growing number of Christians impressed Greeks and Romans so much that it helped in their conversion to Christ.
Thus, Jesus was not the first Jewish man in his time to have no wife. We hear all kinds of dumb theories of how weird it was for a Jewish man not to be married and therefore Jesus MUST have been married. This is nonsense. Historian Peter Brown writes that Jesus's celibacy was an unremarkable part of His calling as a first century Jewish prophet. Of course, one difference was that the Essenes didn't want women or slaves around because their celibacy was about being "single-hearted" and they thought women and slaves were "double-hearted." But when Jesus said, "Follow me", He was talking to women, too.
When early Christians decided to follow Jesus by going out and preaching as celibate people, they weren't just giving up marriage, they were giving up a rooted existence--and this was revolutionary, too. But what I find particularly amazing is that for the very first time, women didn't have to marry, have sex and have babies. The median age for Roman brides was 14. And even the Vestal Virgins were expected to marry when they retired from their positions at age 30. But for the first time, women could say "No, I want to stay Single, thanks." And they could add, "Like Our Lord Jesus."
By remaining celibate, women and uneducated men could belong to a spiritual elite. Celibate women and men were prized as heroes and, as we still see them, as signs of the Kingdom of God where there will be no marriage. And women, generally ground down, alas, took on something akin to male privilege by remaining celibate. And, indeed, since they didn't have children or the wear-and-tear of married life, they probably lived longer too. (Even today, Single women live longer than anyone.)
In the beginning, I imagine, Serious Singles were just Single without any blessings about it. But then they did take vows, and Consecrated Virgins and Widows lived as sacred presences in their family homes and later out in the desert as Desert Mothers. Even later they joined up and lived together as proto-nuns and then as really, truly organized nuns.
Later still, Single women tried experiments in living Single in the world, instead of living Single enclosed. The Beguines were one movement of such women, and they made bishops nervous. And then the Counter-Reformation Era Mary Ward wanted to start an order of roving nuns, a kind of female Society of Jesus, and got seriously stomped on by Rome before she was exonerated. Despite, Mary Ward's exoneration, the Loretto Sisters were made to act more like conventual nuns. Now that they have reclaimed their original "charism", their numbers have dropped like a stone. But never mind that for now. The point is that Serious Single female life has always been important to the life of the Church, as has, of course, Serious Single male life. But then, ever since St. Augustine's day, those Serious Single men have usually been brothers and celibate priests.
Today we tend to think that marriage is the better part and there is not as much need to remind Christians, at any rate, that marriage is good. Unlike the Early Christians, our problem is that we forget that celibacy is good, too. Indeed, it is better for those who can hack it, for it is truly a sign of the Kingdom of God.
Update: My report on my St Andrews trip is here!