Out of the Ashes of Defeat: Discovering A Call to Be Single


There are many people today who do not think being single is simply a default choice or a temporary state. After years of struggling to find their unique vocation, men and women are discovering they are not called to marriage or a specific religious community. They still want to solemnly vow to live their lives dedicated to God, exclusively. Unfortunately, there is no mention of a single vocation in the magisterial writings of the Church or even the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Church traditionally recognizes marriage and the consecrated life. A married man or woman give themselves to their spouse and a consecrated religious give themselves directly to God but what about men and women who do not feel called to marriage or a religious order and feel called to live in the world as a single person?  The Trappist monk and prolific author, Thomas Merton, provides hope and guidance to all singles searching for their vocation:

Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.  – Fr. Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O

Lay, single people have a special vocation because they are free to seek the kingdom of God not just within the walls of a church but “in the marketplace”,  to quote Catherine Doherty, founder of The Madonna House Apostolate.

Out of the Ashes- A Lay Apostolate For Single People

Catherine established a lay apostolate in Combermere, Ontario, Canada.  Madonna House is a family of Christian single men, women, and priests, living out the teachings of Jesus Christ by forming a community which strives to love God, each other and the people they serve. They make promises of poverty, chastity and obedience, living and working in quiet Houses of Prayer, busy soup kitchens in cities throughout the world, or serving at the Mother House on the farm, in the laundry, kitchen or as artists and writers.

What is especially fascinating about Madonna House is God rose up this apostolate from the ruins of a shattered life.

Catherine, born into a wealthy Russian family in 1896 and was married at 15. She found asylum in Canada after her family escaped nearly starving to death when peasant communists imprisoned them in their summer home in Finland. Catherine became a laundress once they reached Canada, supporting her sickly husband and son but was soon wealthy again once she found a lucrative career on the speaking circuit. Boris was abusive and her marriage was annulled yet after this setback Catherine heard a call from God to give away all her money and serve in the slums of Toronto, Chicago, and finally Harlem.

In 1947, Catherine was knocked down yet again and forced to close her soup kitchen when people feared she was a socialist. She retreated with a few faithful followers to the backwoods of Combermere in Canada and eked out a living in a run-down farmhouse she inherited from an uncle. Miraculously, out of the ashes of defeat, God rose up a worldwide lay apostolate.

The members of Madonna House wear ordinary street clothes with a large silver cross around their necks inscribed with the words ‘Pax Caritas’ (Latin for peace and love). However, although they are not called religious they still live in communities, under a director, and take vows. They really are not living as a single person, alone in the world.

Years of Frustration

A good friend of mine for over thirty years has struggled with finding her place in the Church for decades. Josephine is a  university trained teacher as well as a formally trained Montessorian who has taught in the Catholic school system and expensive, private Montessori schools. A faithful woman, she has attended daily mass for decades, prays the rosary daily, fasts and prays, goes to confession regularly and actively seeks spiritual direction. As a young woman, she set out to discover her vocation, first by teaching in Northern Canada with the Frontier Apostolate, founded by Bishop O’Grady. She tried out a stint with Madonna House and a few religious orders and then was married for a short time.

However, it was not long before she discovered her husband was bisexual, had no sense of commitment to her and did not want children. It was not long before he left her for another partner. The experience shattered her, leaving her completely broken and disillusioned.  Throwing up her hands, Josephine left her teaching career, learned how to drive a big city bus for a couple of years while she studied for her Master’s degree. She was completely fed up with trying to discover God’s call because it seemed every vocational door had slammed in her face one too many times.

Life as a White Teacher Up North

About twenty years ago, Josephine heard these words interiorly, “Take it (the Montessori method) to the poor and I will bless you.” Trying to obey this word from God, Josephine, spent ten years travelling thousands of miles to Northern Canada. Life as a white teacher on reserves was difficult because indigenous people had been abused in residential schools in the past and mistrusted teachers from the south. In addition, everything about daily life was a struggle in fly communities from finding nutritious groceries and clean water, to trying to keep warm living in poor housing conditions. There was limited access to confession and Mass, plus a lack of any professional support or friendship. Josephine lived an ascetical life with no T.V, in prayer, and silence. She handed out food at her door, baked bread, and chopped apples to give her kids breakfast in her classroom.

Josephine basically lived out the lifestyle described in Evangelium Vitae, Saint John Paul II called people to transform our culture by adopting new lifestyles which will accept those who have been rejected by our society:

In this mobilization for a new culture of life, no one must feel excluded: everyone has an important role to play. Together with the family, teachers and educators have a particularly valuable contribution to make. Much will depend on them if young people, trained in true freedom, are to be able to preserve for themselves and make known to others new, authentic ideals of life and if they are to grow in respect for and service to every other person, in the family and in society. (EV 98.2)

In her own words, Josephine describes the beautiful aspects of her missionary trips up north:

There was a romantic side to life in a remote fly-in Ojibwa community in Northern Ontario. It was like going back to my childhood in the 50’s. You know. As children, we are so sensory and those impressions make life so beautiful … how the spring rain smells, or the summer sun shimmering on the lake. Well, for me, Northern life was so simplified, I was thrown back into that kind of perspective.

The Northern lights were spectacular. The smell of wood smoke, the sound of women chopping wood on frosty mornings, children playing outside with no hat or mitts at -25 C. In October of my first year there, I wore a toque and the kids would mock me saying, “Is your head cold?” They were wearing jean jackets with no hat or mitts at -16 C. Outdoor hockey on very cold nights, broomball games on the lake after they shoveled the ice, skiing on the snowmobile trails followed by a loyal troop of local dogs always ready for a jaunt somewhere and the local people warning me that the wolves would get me … or in the summer on our fishing trip the shaman pulling out 25 fish in a few hours … fresh pickerel … children playing very creatively without programs as they hunted birds with slingshots.

They just loved Christmas … like children do … and they had so little … life was simple … beautiful … even though there was a dark side to life on isolated reserves. My first experience of a gas sniffer was in my grade one class. He had crusted scabs on his little six-year-old nose. There were a lot of funerals—young suicides. Parents were relieved if their children lived through adolescence.

Josephine discovered Native children with learning disabilities and those who were emotionally scarred thrive in a Montessori environment. In early childhood, Montessori students learn through sensory-motor activities, working with materials that develop their cognitive powers through direct experience: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and movement. It works for kids who cannot learn in traditional classrooms. Montessori is ethnographic. It surmounts culture and it crosses cultures because it’s based on human tendencies. The First nation’s children thrived because they were right brain learners, creative experiential learners. It was like teaching a community of artists because almost everyone was a painter. It was this group of people that the Woodland school of painting came from, people like Benjamin Chee Chee and Norval Morrisseau.

Burn Out

Although Josehine loved aspects of the north, her last stint as a single missionary without community support left her burned out.

Native teaching assistants resented her program and undermined her at every turn because they did not like the idea of having to retrain and learn Montessori methods, principals bogged her down in paperwork to beg for funding for children which meant she had to work late into the night.

Ten years ago, she was broken yet again; each experiment with a different vocation had failed and her last ditch effort to become a solo missionary drained her completely. Yet God used each experience to form Josephine into a strong, Godly woman, who now only depends on Christ and does not pander to others seeking praise and approval. Every bitter encounter drew out her woundedness and forced her to her knees in prayer. Forgiveness for those who misunderstood her and abused her gifts did not come easy. Her subsequent healing for deep, childhood wounds was even slower but Josephine persevered, went on retreats, sought out confessors and spiritual directors, read, fasted and prayed.

Discovering a Vocation as a Single in the World

Finally, Josephine rented a townhouse, transformed it into a beautiful, sacred space, which is appealing to children and adults alike. Josephine has only kept one upstairs room as a bed/sitting room, devoting her entire home to her little school, teaching the poor and disadvantaged. A few well-off, Catholic students and the government help subsidize the disadvantaged. She is finally free to “give it to the poor” and is already seeing God bless the work of her hands.

Saint John Paul II developed  Pope Paul VI’s ideas about the crucial role of the laity in Christifideles Laici. The lay faithful are responsible for a crucial mission because they live in the world, working, living, playing in secular society. Outside the walls of the Church, people often can only hear the message of salvation through the words, life, and testimony of lay people.  For lay people, “evangelization is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world” (CCC 907). Every person through the gifts given to them is a witness and instrument of the mission of the Church in the marketplace of ordinary life.

The good news is no matter how confused a single person feels, their unique purpose in life lies deep within their own souls. They are free to discover this call together with God:

Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.  – Fr. Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O

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13 thoughts on “Out of the Ashes of Defeat: Discovering A Call to Be Single”

  1. I did not realize the single state was mention prior to Vatican II. Well it is time for the Church to not just talk about the laity in general and then simply promote marriage, especially with so many divorces- people can be forgiven, healed and dedicate the rest of their lives to God without taking vows.

    1. The Church does not and never has taught that unconsecrated unvowed unmarried single life is a “vocation” in the church-y sense. There are ample articles and comment threads on this topic in recent years, although I don’t understand why folks are so desperate to have a “church vocation”. In my mind, that term only applies to priests, nuns, and other consecrated Church folks.

    2. Well it’s unfortunate and confusing that words which ought to have a precise and consistent definition, apparently do not. I “think” consecration implies taking vows somehow, but you view it differently. And I only recently learned that “vocation” in the church doesn’t mean “career choice,” but the church-y definition is quite obscure.

      This makes conversation awkward and difficult when we’re all using different definitions. But again, as I’ve read in many articles, the Church has never taught that “the single vocation” exists.

  2. thank you for the great article! I have always felt left out of the Church because I’ve been single all my life. I’m aware than in previous times it was nearly impossible to survive as a single person so I’m not surprised anymore that there is little effort made to use us.
    We all need to know that even the smallest of acts and kindnesses can bring great healing to our communities. I’ve met individuals who got off drugs (or alcohol) because a single person was kind to them when they were down and/or suicidal. I once said hello to a homeless man who was literally standing in the gutter in a big (dangerous) city while waiting for a bus. People looked at me like I was nuts – but I could tell from the man’s face that he desperately needed someone to treat him like a human being. We get so caught up in our fears that we don’t even recognize when it’s safe to have an interaction. I was in another downtown area and saw a man pushing a shopping card who was quite obviously paranoid (trying to hide behind his cart). I could not speak to him but said a string of prayers for him. Did the prayers help? Who knows for sure – but they did not cost me a thing.
    Little acts can have big consequences. We need to pray every morning that we take opportunity – if presented – to share God’s love and mercy with someone. They are all seeds and there is no way to tell which ones will grow or not. We all think we want to do big things and there is nothing wrong with that – but we should not discount how far reaching a small kindness at the right time can go.

    1. Your insights remind me of a speaker who said, “God just needs one open window, one land stripping, one radio tower, just one open heart to touch His people.”. Your are right,-one small act of kindness is like a pebble dropped in a pond, starting ripples which spread for ever.

  3. Pingback: TVESDAY CATHOLICA EXTRA – Big Pulpit

  4. Thank you. As part of the Vocation Ministry at my parish, we DO state that a single life (lived in GENEROUS SERVICE TO CHRIST) IS a Vocation. I spent 12 years in my 30s wondering where I fit in (in between state of Vocation.). We use a lot of information and literature from Vianney Vocations and they were the first place I encountered the Single Vocation (in generous service to Christ) as a Vocation. All of us have the same PRIMARY vocation-to be holy. That should always come first (and can be encouraged from an early age). Then begin to pray and ask God where He is calling you. Lastly comes your occupation-but not before personal holiness and Vocation call.

    1. Good point. Our primary vocation is to be holy – the years it takes to discover our vocation are not wasted because God uses the process to purify us.

  5. Good point, and points.

    I agree, that individuals have many options for vocation other than the priestly and monastic paths my culture calls “vocations.” One of the most obvious secular vocations is marriage. On the other hand, one of my kids clearly and consciously recognized single life as her vocation. I think her choice makes sense.

    I also agree, that there is very little discussion of the single vocation – or vocations – in “…the magisterial writings of the Church or even the Catechism of the Catholic Church…..” That is, perhaps, a blank spot the Church will be filling in.

    It’s not completely blank, however. There is at least one mention of the ‘single’ option: Catechism, 1658. ( http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c3a7.htm#1658 )

    That paragraph references and St. John Paul II’s “Familiaris Consortio,”
    which discusses closely-related matters – and Matthew 11:28, which I
    suspect is a reminder of the context of vocations.

    1. Thank.you, Brian, for this reference to the single option in the Catechism- I should edit my article and slip it in.

    2. I thank you too for the link given. I too am a single woman who never felt called to marriage, tried religious life and left.

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