February 1, 2015
There have been many misunderstandings of today's second reading. These have had detrimental ecclesial and cultural effects. These were felt most profoundly in Roman Catholic cultures and circles. Things are changing now mainly because of the abuse scandals but traditionally in these cultures, people who took a vow of celibacy were seen to be closer to God or more holy than those who chose marriage or the un-vowed single life.
Not all adverse effect are as well known as the abuse scandals. For example, when I lived in Ottawa, I knew three nuns who where in the psychiatric ward at the Ottawa General Hospital. Only one of them actually had a mental illness. The other two were hospitalized for the crippling anxiety each experienced when she realized that serving God as a nun was not her true calling. They had chosen to take vows because each had been pressured by her parents and religious advisers.
Conversely, among some none mainstream Protestant denominations, marriage is so much the ideal, that unmarried adults are viewed negatively. For example, when the long-term marriages of two of my female friends came to an end, one by separation, the other by the death of her husband, they began to experience exclusion from the activities of their respective churches. Instead of standing by these women, at a time when they needed community most, they were abandoned.
Today's second reading does not say one state of life is better than another. It is saying is that one state of life is better for some people than the other. For Paul, each state is uniformly negative if it causes us anxiety or distracts us from God, “whether anxiety about things of the Lord or anxiety about things of the world.”1
Why is anxiety such a bad thing? Richard Rohr provides an answer. He states, “The opposite of faith, according to a number of Jesus’ statements is anxiety. If you are fear-based and “worried about many things,” as he says in Luke 10:41, you don’t have faith in a Biblical sense. Faith is to be able to trust that God is good, involved, and on your side.”2
Today, our church seems to have forgotten its own teaching, that there are three vocations or states of life to which God may call us: the single life, married live, religious life. The single and married states don't receive much recognition or celebration from the church. For example, formerly, when priesthood or religious life was meant, it was referred to as “religious vocation” or “vocation to the religious life.”. Now, the word vocation refers exclusively to the priesthood or religious life. Paul is reminding us that there is more than one form of vocation. In particular, Paul is reminding us that the single life, as the examples I mentioned above illustrates, makes some people anxious and distracted while marriage makes others anxious and distracted. Each Christian must decide for herself or himself.
To make things even more confusing, one can successfully have a life that includes both the married and the single. St. Marguerite d'Youville, who by age 30 suffered the loss of her husband and four of her six children, is the foundress of the Grey Nuns. St. Elizabeth Seton began life as an Episcopalian (Anglican). She was 29, a widow and the mother of five children, when she converted to Catholicism. Four years later she founded the Sisters of Charity.
Paul reminds us no matter what our station in life, it should not be a cause of anxiety or distract us from God. Supporting and caring for one's spouse, family and the health of the world is not a distraction from God but doing the work of God. Whatever our vocation, it is a gift from God. Ideally, spouses support and comfort each other and grow together towards God with the love and support of their families, friends and communities. People who have chosen the single or religious life grow towards God, not as isolated entities but also with the love and support of their families, friends and communities. No vocation is superior to the other. We are all needed to bring about the Beloved Community.
Reflect for a moment, then please share your thoughts on vocation?
1Balch, David L. "1 Cor 7:32-35 and Stoic debates about marriage, anxiety, and distraction." Journal Of Biblical Literature 102, no. 3 (September 1, 1983): 429-439, p. 435
2Rohr, Richard, and John Feister. Jesus' Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1996. p. 118