One who keeps Christ at the center of her life is never alone, never abandoned, and has no need to feel that her life is purposeless or directionless. Edith Stein offers single women this essential reminder in her “Spirituality of the Christian Woman.”
The single woman who operates according to her own natural strength will suffer injury to “both nature and her soul,” Stein warns. But her passage on the single life ends this way:
"At best, this [the single life] can be endured only with weary resignation; but usually, it is met with bitterness and rebellion against one’s “fate” or by flight into a world of illusion. That which is not personally chosen and made one’s own, freely and joyfully, can be accomplished only by the woman who sees God’s will at work in the force of circumstances and aims at nothing else than to harmonize her own will with the divine. But whoever makes her will captive to God in this way can be certain of a special guidance in grace."
The Catholic woman is first and foremost called to model her life after the Blessed Virgin, who sets for us the refrain we must repeat: “Let it be done to me according to your Word.” To say these words with her and to mean it, to allow our will to be “captive” to God’s, means to abandon ourselves wholly to a God who knows the number of hairs on our head and what we need before we ask for it.
But this prayer must take on a radical character. Stein’s word choice is precise. The idea of being “captive” to anything or anyone is foreign in our world, where self-fulfillment, self-aggrandizement, and the freedom to do anything one desires is prized. We are told that any restrictions on a woman’s freedom imprison her and limit her potential. And yet to submit to God’s will, trusting in His Providence and His design, is actually the source of our freedom.
The single woman carries a cross, and it is not one always acknowledged. Sometimes a single woman feels that she is a lone traveler, a singular pilgrim. That cross can feel heavy. Some days it can feel like we can no longer carry it. And it can at times seem to go unseen by others. The world celebrates the single state as the optimal period of life for sex without strings and a time for self-indulgence and self-fulfillment. Parishes do not always pray for those who are single, except in their discernment of religious life -- a worthy, important prayer, but one that does not address a larger and more universal need for communion and love.
In those moments of feeling left out the single woman must look to Christ to help her embrace moments of uncertainty, moments in which choosing to trust Him can be difficult. I repeat the phrase of Christ in the Gospel of Mark to the daughter of Jairus, who was believed to be dead, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mark 5:41).
Every woman can learn the “science of the cross,” the art of fiat and the freedom that comes from saying “yes” to the Lord, even in seemingly small ways throughout the day. He wants our happiness more than we ourselves desire it. What a countercultural way of understanding our femininity: to entrust ourselves to the protection of a Lord!
As Stein notes, one’s singlehood might not be deliberately chosen. But one does have freedom in the face of it. Father Jacques Phillippe writes in Interior Freedom, “We need to understand that there is another way of exercising freedom: less immediately exciting, poorer, humbler, but much more common, and one immensely fruitful, both humanly and spiritually. It is consenting to what we did not originally choose.” Certainly the single life is not the only time for a woman to learn what it means to surrender to circumstances we wish we could change. But it can be viewed as a special gift of time given to us by God to practice the feminine gifts of receptivity, openness, and a willingness practice faith, hope, and love. It is also the time to learn the art of being a woman in everything, from how to dress so as to bring beauty to the world, how to manage finances (a practical skill for one’s lifetime), and how to be gracious in accepting or refusing a date while affirming a man. It is a rich time for learning about oneself and about how to relate to other people.
This period of life is an opportunity for discernment of a personal vocation and mission that God designs specifically for the heart of every woman. While the world encourages us to make our own success, the Catholic woman should quietly and prayerfully listen in order to be led. Certainly God will work through her natural desires, her temperament, and the opportunities He places in her path to reveal to her His mission for her and how she is to love. But she must be disposed to listen. A quieting of the heart is also essential to hear the voice of God. Stein asks, “What does to be called mean? A call must have been sent from someone, to someone, for something in a distinct manner.”
We’ve seen that this “someone” can be encountered through our relationships and in our work. But He is most readily encountered at the Mass. I can speak from experience that frequent reception of the Eucharist can sustain a woman in her single life: it can help her form her emotions, make her work a place of encounter, help her to better serve her family, navigate the matters of the heart in dating and relationships, and clarify questions about a religious vocation.
As Stein herself notes:
"It is most important the Holy Eucharist becomes life’s focal point: that the Eucharistic Savior is the center of existence; that every day is received from His hand and laid back therein; that the day’s happenings are deliberated with Him. In this way, God is given the best opportunity to be heard in the heart, to form the soul, and to make its faculties clear-sighted and alert for the supernatural."
Not everyone will be able to partake in the Eucharist daily. But there are ways to keep Christ in mind throughout one’s day, which can only help a woman to remember how close He is at all times.
One of the best ways to do this is to the keep the company of the saints and great spiritual writers, from the tradition and from our contemporary era, especially those women who have prayed their way through discernment, unrest, anxiety: I can think of St. Catherine of Siena, Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur, St. Gianna Molla, Caryll Houselander, Heather King, Flannery O’Connor, and of course, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (the religious name of Edith Stein), just to name a few. By reading their words, their insights, and even their prayers, I have come to realize that although every individual woman’s heart has its unrepeatable intricacies, we share universal sentiments, experiences, and desires. Taking cues from others as to how to navigate our questions and to maintain faith, hope, and love is immensely fortifying.
Some of the best advice as to how to view the single life was given to me by a Dominican priest on a retreat a few years ago. He spoke to the temptation of the person in their twenties or thirties to measure their life in a linear way: to measure their worth and success by whether or not they had achieved certain standard markers that they felt they “should” have arrived at: obtaining degrees, landing a dream job, getting married, having a set number of kids by a particular age, and buying a house. The priest said that we ought to measure our lives vertically, like the corpus on the Cross. We should measure our lives by the depth that we enter into the present moment and how much love we are putting into it. He noted that the liturgical calendar becomes a gift for us here: in ordinary time we should be loving in our everyday duties; in Lent we should be conscious of penance, in Easter we should be intentional in our joy, and so on. That narrative of time has irrevocably shaped my view of the way I measure my life, my work, and my relationships with family, friends, and men. It is one that I believe Edith Stein embraced, in the many movements of her life and the many turns it took.
Stein paints a portrait of the soul of a woman for her readers. It is a soul that must be cultivated and nourished, no matter the state that one is in: single, religious, or married. It is a soul that only a woman and God can form – no one else can do it for her. She writes:
"The soul of a woman must therefore be EXPANSIVE and open to all human beings; it must be QUIET so that no small weak flame will be extinguished by stormy winds; WARM so as not to benumb fragile buds; clear, so that no vermin will settle in dark corners and recesses, SELF-CONTAINED, so that no invasions form without can imperil the inner life; EMPTY OF ITSELF, in order that extraneous life may have room in it; finally, MISTRESS OF ITSELF and also of its body, so that the entire person is readily at the disposal of every call."
Of all of the gifts that Edith Stein has left us, this portrait might be her greatest. And alongside of the picture, she offers practical ways to become this woman. Armed with these, there is very little standing in the way of fulfilling our call to love.