in which I give voice to a new yearning

Articles and tv shows are bringing an old theme of reflection back to the surface. Several friends have posted links to intriguing articles from people living single and/or child-free lives, and the ranges of response to those choices from understanding to mis-understanding and even scorn (and the seemingly rare celebration and affirmation). In recent months I finally caught up with the popular show Call the Midwife, and I delight in this story about a group of women living in community, both the cloistered life of a convent and the embedded life of midwives serving their corner of the world. Call the Midwife draws me in through the convent doors to a yearning I had not previously recognised.

I am neither Catholic nor Anglican, the two main Christian traditions of which I am aware that have religious orders. Growing up, joining a religious order was never an option I considered, being outside of my experience, my tradition. But, then, I'm not sure I would have considered it even if it had been a part of my tradition, or had I belonged to another tradition. The story my western culture tells of expectation of partnering for every person (though over my life time acceptance has widened regarding who your partner could be and how you wanted to express that commitment) is a dominant story, and I devoured it without question until quite recently. During my twenties, watching any movie with its classic romantic riding off into the sunset, I would often be heard to rehearse the line in a sing-song tone, 'I wanna get married', with accompanying longing sigh. In the mean time, I wasn't in a relationship, partly because I was all along hoping for a long lost and ill-fated chance at 'the perfect match' that had crossed our paths, his and mine, far too early for either of us to know what to do with it. Then, in recent years, as I have embraced a vocation of storyteller/poet/minister and the element of freelance or itinerant wandering within in, I find that singleness seems to be a natural part of that vocation. Most of the time I am at peace with it, glad of it, even, actually, choosing singleness.

Is it a singleness that was always going to suit me better, though I could not hear this about myself for the deafening 'get married' din from society's dominant stories? Is it a singleness I have grown into because other choices I made to give time and attention to creativity and dreams left little time for relationships anyway? Is it a singleness that I have come to accept because the one person I have met so far with whom I thought to build a life and I drifted apart so very long ago?

Who knows?

Although I don't really need to know, one way or the other, I do suspect that singleness naturally suits me, may be one of the factors behind other choices I have made, and I don't need to be ashamed or apologetic for that.

Nuns have been choosing singleness in community for centuries.

Aha, and here we come back to Call the Midwife. And nuns. Living as single women in community. Supported, encouraged, nurtured. Of course the faith element is important to me, too, the singing and praying together as part of what enriches their life and wellbeing. Community has become invested with new importance since I embraced my singleness.

Embracing singleness has renewed all my relationships. I have let go of the longing that distracted me, that caused me to resist deeper connections with friends and family for fear of using them to 'replace' what I thought was missing. More settled in myself without the constant looking beyond for what I do not have has enabled me to be present in the relationships I do have, to delight in them for what they are, to give myself openly and generously.

Of course, I also hold a lot back when it comes to being present and available, simply because as a writer I spend a lot of time alone; I need the silence for the creativity that is at the heart of my identity.

Following the links friends were sharing this week, I came across this article, which discusses the notions of being asexual and aromantic. I don't think I would use those terms to describe how I am in the world. Singleness for me is less about desire – what is described by those who identify as asexual or aromantic is a lack of desire for sexual and/or romantic intimacy – and more about energy. On personality scales I am equally introverted and extroverted, which for me means that I am energised both with others and in solitude. Classically an extrovert will find solitude tedious and people life-giving, introverts will find people draining and solitude life-giving. I will always reach a point of exhaustion with people at which time I need to be alone. Spend enough time alone, and I crave connection.

The thing is, with that introvert / extrovert balance, I have a big space for community – for a congregation, a class, an audience; I have a medium space for close friends and family; and I have a big solitary me-only space. So while I occasionally feel a tingle of longing for a hand to hold, or wish I had a pair of eyes across a room with whom to share a secret, there is no room in my balance of energy to nurture the deep connection with a partner (and here come the buts and what ifs of others - 'you'd make room if someone came along' ... no, I wouldn't, I've tried, with a wrong person and with the right one: it does not seem to suit me to partner). If I make space for a partner, either I lose out and become unhealthy and / or unproductive as an artist because I haven't enough alone time; or community, family and friends lose out because people time is dominated by one person. I am not prepared to make either sacrifice. And well, I don't need to: because I am not broken. As I am, freelance / itinerant storyteller/poet/minister, I am well, healthy, whole.

It seems some people focus on the things one gives up, when joining a religious order (or choosing another way to be single and/or child-free). A former scholar from my current university has been in the news this week, interviewed as attention is paid to the growing number of women joining religious orders in England and Wales. She talks about how it's not what you are giving up that is foremost in your mind, when joining an order; it's what you will gain. Not denying there are things you do give up, but perhaps those things are more easily laid aside than the call and vocation, than one's fullest identity and being.

I will not lay aside the fullness of my being, my vocation and my identity. For if we are fully human together, this is how I am fully human for my sake and for the sake of healthy communities in which I participate.

I do wonder, though, when I watch stories like Call the Midwife (and recall the classic ABC Australia tv show Brides of Christ), and see those women living in intentional community – I think I would very much like such a community as a base from which to wander with stories and poems. There is much to like about where I have chosen to live, which I chose for its studio flat that gives me space, and for its being a community of students. My disappointment is that the community life in this complex is not what I had hoped it would be; most of the other students are undergrads, and seem to be drawn from a fairly self-sufficient demographic. Hey, ho, I am finding community with two faith communities and my college, and making wider connections beyond that, too. And my flat does have an awesome view ...

Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat. From my window. Yep. Awesome!

But would a contemplative community of single people be possible within my tradition? I don't think it's for me to set it up, but I happily put the idea out there, if someone wants to find a big house, or an appartment complex in Australia, and establish a Uniting Church contemplative community that eats together, prays together, and connects with the wider community from their shared life of Christian spirituality. I'll not be home for two or three years, so you've plenty of time ... cheers!


Michelle said…
Thanks for sharing your ever evolving insights Sarah. Isn't it interesting that the UCA's inclusive approach to the ministry attracted me to explore your tradition, while mine has the tradition of religious orders that attracts you? I do wonder about these labels and boundaries when the traditions have so much to offer and teach each other. And just to throw a challenge out there - couldn't the community you imagine be ecumenical? Does it need the UCA label? Or does it help such a community to have one particular tradition to own it/sponsor it/nurture it? Lots to ponder here - keep imagining and writing and dreaming of new realities! x
sarah said…
thank you Michelle

yes, the differences that allow us to see the other, to be in relationship.

I like your questions - could it be ecumenical? I don't know. Part of me says yes, especially because ecumenism is so much part of the movement of the Uniting Church anyway; part of me says no, because the particularity of worshipping according to one's tradition is helpful, nurturing. there are many different religious orders within both Anglican and Catholic traditions, shaped by their denomination, but also by particular rules, focus, etc. much to ponder, as you say.
So perhaps it could be ecumenical, and develop its own rule and worshipping traditions ... ??

I keep wanting to wonder about whether it needs to be a community of single people, or whether couples, children could be part of it. That would be a different kind of community, and one that would no doubt also be nurturing and life-giving. But then I stop pondering, because that would be someone else's yearning, someone else's dream.

I'll keep imagining, and write what I dream, and hope that someone with different gifts to me shares the dream and perhaps we'll start something new. Who knows?

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