The reading from Corinthians will probably infuriate its share of people. In a day and age when many of us are loath to admit any differences between religious life, clerical life, and the life of the laity, here comes Paul, shoulders and all, barging into our liturgy with these outrageous statements.
To top it off, he says it’s for our own good.
He offends just about everyone. Top of the list: me. As if to suggest that my life—childless, spouseless—is free of worries. We all know, as a matter of fact, that unmarried men and women can be the all-time best worriers. And there is ample evidence that celibacy and virginity guarantee neither singleminded service nor whole-hearted devotion to the Lord.
On the other hand, I continue to get reports, even complaints, that the last thing a husband is concerned with is pleasing his wife—or the wife her husband, for that matter.
In a nutshell, who can doubt that among married people are numbered some of the holiest people we know? And, among priests and religious, who has not found people capable of prodigious mediocrity? Or worse.
The point is, I really do not think that St. Paul is claiming something so boldly counterintuitive.
Certainly an unmarried person devoted to God will have more time for service of others, especially on an emergency basis, and also have more time for quiet and isolated prayer. All mothers and fathers I have ever known, immersed in the demands of labor and family, have in some way sighed for the time to do such things.
But the crucially operative word is “devoted to God.” If that is not there, all the “worryless” free time in the world will not yield a thimbleful of love. And as Paul has written elsewhere, with “devotedness to God” even the most ordinary experiences of parenting, family, and spousal love can be astounding revelations of God’s grace and intimacy in our lives.
I do believe, however, that Paul is getting at something more. It is this: when I look at my brother’s life—his spouse and children, his business and profession, his endless tasks involved just with house and automobile—I am utterly convinced that he reveals an encounter and intimacy with God that I never could. It is not necessarily higher or lower. But it is thoroughly different, marvelously diverse in contrast to my life.
But I also believe that a single person, whether lay or religious or priest, reveals by his or her life a dimension of God’s love and grace that a married person quite simply does not. To say the least, it reveals the possibility of a love which is greater than the loveliest gifts of this earth, a love through which all our earthly loves move and toward which all are drawn.
And surely Paul would agree: If such a life is not, indeed, grounded in God, what a terrible waste it shall have been.