I’ve reached that age: Every day a new person on my Facebook feed is pregnant or engaged. It can seem, in the rat race of social media, that we are falling ever-more behind our peers. I am keenly aware of how I have now crossed the threshold into participating in this phenomenon: I am recently engaged.
The proposal was, simply put, awesome. Guy put thought into so many details. He said such nice things when he asked. We found $11 on the ground. What more could you want?
People have come out of the woodwork to celebrate with and congratulate us. Sharing the news with loved ones was one of the best parts of our engagement weekend. We have no shortage of support from friends, and I have already received countless offers for wedding-planning assistance. (No. We don’t have a date. We’re in a pandemic. We’re going to ride the waves and see what happens!)
I am also keenly aware that any and all announcements of major relationship news can be eye-roll-worthy, to everyone but especially to women. (I have a post on feminine milestones and why our culture would be better with an expanded idea of family, friends, and vocation coming soon!) I am genuinely sorry if I announced my engagement and you felt a pang of resentment, jealousy, FOMO, etc. What a shitty world we live in when we reach this age and can already hear the holiday conversations with extended family about why we haven’t found a nice boy to marry yet.
If you’re Christian, one response reverberates from all corners of the internet: Pray, and enjoy your time of singleness.
During this New Year’s time, after the holiday marathon of diamond rings and newborn babies flooding your feeds, combined with the resolutions and “wellness goals” many are making in January, it is not uncommon for people, especially in Christian circles, to adopt spiritual commitments that are designed to soothe these pangs of “I’m behind.” I’m also conscious that Lent is right around the corner, during which Catholics will give up certain things as a 40-day offering in reminiscence of Christ’s 40 days in the desert and in preparation for His crucifixion and Resurrection. I anticipate that many women in my faith community may be on the brink of making certain spiritual commitments in order to feel better about wherever they sit in regards to love (and today, I’m going to try and talk you out of the most common ones, just a little bit…)
I learned about the 54-Day Novena from the same Catholic woman’s talk you probably learned about it from. 27 days of asking, something absolutely incredible and unexpected happens (or not) on day 27, and then 27 days of “thank you”s, no matter what God wrought. I don’t doubt that this novena has worked miracles in the lives of many people. I am confident it has also been a wishing well for even more.
I prayed my first 54-Day Novena during my sophomore year of college. After a tumultuous summer of what was, at the time, my brother Matthew’s biggest surgery, coupled with the will we/ won’t we of a new and troublesome boy from my home town, I returned to campus exhausted and ready to just MEET MY HUSBAND ALREADY. This “getting to know a person” and “seeing if they’re the right fit,” was too soul-crushing when the answer was “no they are not at all the right fit.” One YouTube rabbit hole of Catholic women’s talks later, and I was signing myself up for 54 daily rosaries.
In this novena, we are invited to imagine each prayer as a rose being offered to Mary, in exchange for her intercession on behalf of whatever we’re wanting. Rose after rose I offered Mary, asking that I meet my husband-to-be in college, and soon. When the first 54 roses I offered Mary didn’t bear fruit, I offered a second set of 54 later that year.
Meanwhile, I was starting a second on-campus job, leaning into the incredible friendships I formed freshman year, and beginning what would become a two year journey of making my first real, tangible goal possible: Leading a group of my peers on pilgrimage to Poland for World Youth Day 2016. I had all of these magnificent things unfolding in my life. Yet, night after night, I sat in front of my laptop, using my homework break to pray for my future husband. Looking back on it, doesn’t that seem… a little odd?
Around that same time I first heard the phrase “dating fast.” Not fast as in “quick,” fast as in “giving up” or “abstaining.” This practice of setting aside a certain amount of time where one does not date has become increasingly popular as post-graduate volunteer organizations like FOCUS, NET, and more increasingly require abstaining from romantic relationships in order to focus on one’s temporary ministry. Outside of organizations like these, many young Catholic singles adopt a temporary dating fast in order to focus on one’s present season: singleness.
Spoiler alert: I have never once heard a person say that a dating fast lessened their thoughts about dating and romance. I have heard from many people that they kept running into amazing, attractive, funny, faithful, smart potential partners during their fast. That it was torture wrestling with the feelings and not being able to do anything about them. Sometimes the other person was also committed to a dating fast, which made the workplace rife with tension. I have heard from many people that it felt like a deep offering to the Lord to show their commitment to a promise they made to Him, but I have never heard a person say a dating fast made them less interested in dating. It should be a clear sign that most people I have known who have tried dating fasts could not stop talking about the fact that they were on a dating fast. For all these reasons, I myself never tried one. It sounded miserable, and it didn’t seem to actually work.
What’s more, the belief that a romantic relationship impacts your ability to do your job well suggests to me some… concerning things about relationship norms in these programs and our Church, and the role these organizations believe they have to play in guiding young people through the process of dating and discernment. It’s certainly true that, for most people, maturity brings greater ability to balance work and relationships. But there is also something to be said about how experiences in dating help you mature.
When I was a post-grad volunteer, a dating fast was not required, though they did “encourage us” to end our romantic relationships and not pursue new ones for the duration of our volunteer year(s). This was intended to increase our reliance on intentional community and strengthen our focus on our ministries. Guy and I navigated whether or not we were going to pursue long-distance as I began my volunteer year, him in Canada and me in Oklahoma. In the beginning, my accompaniers never missed an opportunity to offer our relationship as the reasons for the hardships I endured. “You’re struggling to feel connected and happy in community. Might it be that you’re spending too much time talking to Guy?” Um. No. It’s that one of my community members just lost her husband to a heart attack and I am accompanying her in grief, and another community member tells me every night at dinner that my brother should be institutionalized so he stops burdening my family, but I can’t punch him in the teeth because he’s an old Christian Brother.
Eventually my accompaniers got on board with the truth of the matter: Guy was my one constant source of support. This is one of the dearest things we are robbing young people of when we require them to fast from dating while they embark on Church ministry: The opportunity for real, true support during what will inevitably be deeply challenging and demanding.
If these programs aren’t interested in accompanying young people as they navigate romantic relationship, then that’s a problem. Shouldn’t they be? Shouldn’t young people feel comfortable approaching Church leaders with all of their challenges? Might this expectation of “just fast and pray for relief from these pangs of attraction” echo the stark lack of resources the Church provides vowed religious, the LGBTQ+ community, and more when it comes to feelings of attraction? Might we be setting all sorts of Catholic people up for failure by not modeling healthy communication about relationship struggles, and by not holding religious leadership accountable to this accompaniment? It is damn near impossible to make a person stop thinking about romantic relationship simply by suggesting they focus on something that in all senses continue to imply it.
As with many things, “singlehood” is a concept that is necessarily defined by the shadow presence of its opposite: romantic relationship.
“Singleness” does not make much sense outside of the context of that opposite. Up until we learn about the idea or the term, we have probably been living in adolescent singleness without much thought to it as an identity. It only becomes visible–and disappointing–when we name it! Only then does it occur to us that we’re living in a time of lacking what singleness is not: Partnership.
Recently, online communities have made a concerted effort to distance the newest generations of Catholics from the emphasis on marriage as the pinnacle of a woman’s vocation. The increased opportunities for women’s involvement in Church organizations, publications, ministries, and other efforts has certainly contributed greatly. And yet, the increased presence of Catholic women, online and in-person, conveying messages to young people implicitly through the filters of how their particular life has gone seems to double down on these untruths: “Marriage is the biggest thing you have to look forward to in life. Then it’s children. Then it’s Heaven.” Who we elevate and what their lives look like inform what we think our goals should be!
Part of the problem stems from desires to universalize personal experiences that do not have their roots in Scripture. When a Catholic woman with clout begins public speaking on how “singleness can be joyful!” young people who have only just begun to consider their interest in romantic partnerships and would have never thought otherwise begin to assume that, without work, singleness will be the opposite. I bet far fewer women would be miserably single if we stopped implicitly telling them every moment of their lives from age 14 onward that singlehood is miserable. The only reason I returned from that difficult summer my sophomore year of college with the thought “meeting my husband will fix my problems” is because all the women I had to look to in my Church were telling stories wherein, implicitly, marriage seemed to fix all of their problems.
This emphasis on normative, temporary singlehood additionally excludes our LGBTQ+ brothers, sisters, and others, for whom a life of singlehood may be an important commitment. Our Queer Catholic family members will receive additionally painful mixed signals if they ever do commit themselves to a forever partnership, as they’re likely to be met with comments about the inappropriateness of their feelings or relationship. We should use this tension to motivate us towards both greater community with and amplification of Queer voices. If we, straight cis Catholics, have established the normative summit of vocation and preach to all young people about not-focusing-on-that-normative-summit while ourselves standing blissfully on the summit shouting down, we are not only neglecting but actively oppressing those who we already know we will never give tools to climb it themselves.
In my humble opinion, the 54-Day, I-Want-My-Spouse-Now Novena and the dating fast are just two ways contemporary Catholic culture continues its stronghold on creative, beautiful, talented, smart, giving, athletic, involved, faithful people’s time. Think of what you could accomplish towards your goals if you spent 30 minutes for 54 consecutive days working on them! Think of what you could learn about yourself and your preferences if you allowed yourself to date when dating felt right!
To be sure, the novena was not intended to become The Future Husband ritual. The baseline purpose of the novena is to commit yourself to praying for a 1). Big intention 2). That could have a clear outcome. If you’re using it as a genuine discernment tool, with defined options, whether about a relationship or not: Righty-o! Keep doing your thing. If you’re using it to offer up a deeply concerning intention–like for someone’s health or for a global circumstance–obviously that is very different. I am writing, today, out of concern for the way this set of prayers has been appropriated into a tool for demanding the acceleration of one’s unique vocational path. Giving somebody a bouquet of roses solely because you expect them to do something massive for you in return is not trust, it’s manipulation.
The dating fast is ultimately similar. If you find yourself in a constant cycle of relationships, without giving yourself any space at all to be single, taking a designated time to not date very well may be an opportunity to re-center. And like my Mom always said during Lent when I asked if granola bars with chocolate chips counted as a “sweet” to be given up: There are no fasting police. I certainly am not one of them! If you feel called to fast, either for a certain cause or for your own renewed relationship with the Lord, you go girl. You do that thing. However, fasting for a certain amount of time and expecting that 1). No persons of interest will cross your path and 2). God will bring your soulmate into your life the moment your fast concludes is not actually a sacrifice of goodwill, it’s manipulation.
We are demanding God act without acting ourselves. This is one reason I was so grateful for Kelsey’s takeover of Live Today Well Co. a few months back. In it, she emphasized the importance of going on dates if your goal is to date. We get so wrapped up in sitting in discernment, waiting for God to plop that handsome man right down in front of us while we’re looking *very interesting* at the grocery store, that we forget that the Holy Spirit moves, and so can we.
Often times, we talk about discernment of dating and marriage like we’re handing our relationships over to the Lord, when really we’re just ringing God’s doorbell because we feel He’s forgotten us. If we truly trust God’s timing and intention for our vocation, we don’t need to remind Him that we ordered a handsome, Catholic boyfriend a couple years ago that has still yet to arrive.
We make plans and God laughs. We demand an itinerary for 54 days straight, how do we think God is going to respond?
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t examine our habits, our health, our traumas, or our goals. Do you want to have the chance to live on your own? Do you want to have a certain amount of money saved? Is there solo travel you want to do? Who would you like to be before you are married?
But we must, must remember that these are not boxes to check before God blesses us. If we are going to slam the coffin lid on the problematic Prosperity Gospel, we have to stop viewing our future spouse as a reward for our good behavior. Especially because that line of thinking neglects to identify that we will still be imperfect and exhibit “bad” behavior when we are married. The patterns and habits you are working on now may very well be things you continue to work on with your spouse. They do not make you less worthy of love, and working on things with a partner doesn’t mean you’ve failed as an “independent woman” either.
These timelines are all BS, so don’t submit yourself to them as a New Year’s Resolution or a Lenten observation. If you’re feeling poorly because every single one of the people you were hoping to flex on at your 10 year high school reunion has more dogs, more money, or more babies than you, please know that it’s all arbitrary.
If you want an idea for a New Year’s Resolution or a Lenten observation that doesn’t implicitly uphold oppressive and sexist timelines and milestones, know that there are a million and one ways to invite the Lord into your present season that aren’t secretly transactional, and that invest in yourself in ways that aren’t self-absorbed. Would a post with a brainstormed list be helpful? Let me know in the comments, and if you have any practices you’ve found helpful and that meet those criteria DM me or comment them too! Let’s crowd-source our way to more authentic relationship with the Lord and more authentic singlehood (maybe even banishing that word from the lexicon all-together.)
Also you may be wondering: Now that I’m engaged, what was my future husband doing while I was praying my 54-Day Novena for him? He was making out with my college roommate.
Yes, my fiancé dated my roommate for a couple of years before he and I started dating. And while I sat in our dorm room eating Captain Crunch without milk, miscounting Hail Mary’s, he was definitely NOT thinking about me…
And that’s completely and utterly normal. We won’t always marry people who have been single before we came along. We won’t always marry people who fasted before dating us. We might marry people who were married before marrying us! We won’t always marry virgins! Maybe you’re not a virgin! We won’t always marry people who prayed for us, and the person we marry may not always believe in prayer.
We won’t always marry people who were anxiously anticipating us as much as we were anxiously anticipating them! And if it feels weird to talk to your partner about how much you anxiously anticipated them, let that be a sign unto you that these practices of constantly orienting ourselves towards a futurity that is not guaranteed is actually kind of weird, and far, far less fun than just living your life.
When it came time for Guy and I to actually fall in love, two and a half years after Day 54 of Novena round 2, the things that fed the flame were our independent experiences and projects. He was working on his senior project and I wanted to know more about the physics of photons and how sometimes light doesn’t go where it’s supposed to. I was working on my senior project and he wanted to know about the Gothic elements of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
I would love to hear what projects are filling you up right now. I would love to hear what life-changing experiences you’ve recently undergone. I would love to know what you’re looking forward to. I would love to swap SMART goals. Those are the building blocks of a vocation. Roses dripping in love potion? Far. Less. Sturdy.