What the church people don’t tell you is that, in any marriage, the person you wed will not be the same person you wake up with in five years, nor the same person who brings you coffee in fifteen years.
What you don’t imagine is that one day your spouse will look you dead in the eye and say, “I don’t believe in God anymore.” I didn’t imagine it, but it happened to me. Three years into our marriage, my husband Josh experienced a deconversion of his faith.
As I looked to attend a new church without Josh by my side, I wanted a big, diverse community to help me raise my kids in the faith. In the process, I learned that moving from a teeny-tiny church to a midsized church takes more time and effort to get to know people.
Newcomers have to join a small group, volunteer on a committee, or regularly attend a Bible study to move relationships beyond small talk. And when there are many traditional nuclear families, it can be lonely showing up week after week solo with a couple of kids in tow.
During that awkward fellowship hour after the service, I balance paper plates with pretzels, fruit, and veggies for my kids, smiling and saying hellos as I keep one eye on my three-year old, who is darting through the busy room. Hardly the environment for more than the most basic chitchat.
Each Sunday in the new church I selected, Calvary Church in Minneapolis, I drop my kids in the nursery and return to the sanctuary alone. Sometimes I sit with my friends Sam and Brandi from college, but mostly I find a spot by myself, toward the back right, where the other singles go.
Sometimes I watch the married couples around me: arms draped around the back of the pew, whispering to each other during announcements, passing a baby back and forth.
I am used to it by now; it’s been four years since Josh and I regularly sat in church together. But then some moments catch me off-guard: a married couple stands up front and presents their baby for dedication, a dad stands up and asks for prayer for his college-aged son.
Waves of loss hit me all over again—we used to be that couple dedicating a baby; he used to ask the congregation for prayer when family members hit hard times.
I look at the other people sitting in pews alone and wonder if they ever feel lonely in a church filled with families. In the Catholic Church, singleness is required for priests, monks, and nuns, though I am sure many unmarried lay Catholics feel the sting of exclusion in their parishes.
Lately, as I read about the saints in my Catholic prayer book, I imagine them showing up for church with me. I see Saint Jane de Chantal with her rounded black veil from the 1600s as she slides into the empty space next to me in the pew.
Saint Margaret Mary, blissed out after a mystical union with God, wedges next to her, her eyes closed during the sermon.
I spot Elisabeth Leseur in the balcony, where she is privately reading a book of theology.
Up ahead, Saint Monica raises her hands in worship while tears drip down her face. I see them shifting in their seats; I imagine them seeing me and nodding.
I nod back at these women, joining their communion, the sisterhood of the single or spiritually single, the long legacy of empowered women who embrace their faith no matter what obstacles are thrown at them.
When I learn about their lives, I don’t feel so lonely. I imagine them all around me, that great cloud of witnesses, and I am ready for the next step.
Some might say these female saints are all married to Jesus. Well, technically all Christians are part of the church, which is described by the Apostle Paul as God’s bride.
But is there a special relationship between those of us who are spiritually single—the ones with no earthly spiritual spouse?
Are our friendships with one another stronger?
Are we mystical siblings to one another?
Certainly the relationship between committed celibate people—the sisters who have lived in community with one another for decades—is unique.
Are there special relationships for the married but spiritually single as well?
I like this idea of a mystical sisterhood extending backward through time and space. My fellow females who are, at the very least, devoted to Jesus, lend me an example of what it looks like to love, serve, and follow God.
Sainthood is a slippery thing. It’s easy to deify people who have led remarkable lives, especially when a century or more has gone by and all that glorious human complexity has been smoothed over or lost.
Sometimes I read about the miracles these women performed in the fourth century and think, yeah right. I read about the impossibly pious nun who gave away all her money and kissed all the lepers and think, why even try?
In Robert Ellsberg’s book, Blessed Among All Women: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, he includes biographies of famous saints like Joan of Arc and Hildegard of Bingen and also impressive women outside the Catholic tradition.
The modern women featured in the collection aren’t the type who run off and join (or establish) a monastery but instead “find God in the realm of work, family, community, and the ordinary business of life.” These ordinary saints leave “no monument in the world” but contribute to the world’s growing goodness.
These kinds of quiet role models live the vocation of the greatest saints: “to embrace God’s love and reflect it back to the world.”
A faithful, hidden life. That is a sainthood I understand. It’s a sainthood I see all around me; in every church and school and community center I have ever attended, there are dozens of regular, quietly faithful people.
And it’s a sainthood that is well known by many women who have traditionally raised children, cared for elders, and held the fabric of society together while men have been off doing other things.
So why write about Catholic saints when there are plenty of women in my own Protestant tradition to exemplify?
Why take the time to explore their lives?
Maybe it’s because I’m lonely in a church filled with nuclear families and am looking for companions who understand spiritual singleness. Maybe it’s because I see their example and know that the obstacles in my life are not unusual, that I can carry on and serve God with my life despite my struggles.
Ellsberg writes that the “story of each holy person is also a story about God.” I suppose that’s the other answer—that I can’t find God, and the saints tell me to keep looking.
Even if Josh and I don’t share the same religion, we are still fellow pilgrims walking side by side. We are traveling through life together as we raise our kids and welcome friends into our home and struggle to define and live out our common values.
Nowadays, the only Christian practice we—irregularly—do together is the examen prayer. Josh and I first learned of examen, which Saint Ignatius of Loyola deemed the most important of daily spiritual exercises, when we attended a church small group together while we were dating.
The traditional examen includes a five-step process: express gratitude for the day’s blessings, invite the Holy Spirit to be present, identify missteps and faults from the day, ask for forgiveness, and ask God for help in the future.
But when Josh and I remember to pray the examen after the kids are in bed, we don’t actually close our eyes and pray out loud.
What we do is ask each other two simple questions: Where did you give or receive the most love today? and Where did you give or receive the least love today?
We have carried the tradition to our supper table most nights, where the kids join in the practice. We ask each other, Where did you experience love or joy today? Where did you not? It’s a variation on the questions we answered during our family
Invariably, I learn something about Josh that I didn’t know: how, in his middle school science class that day, one of his students told him his dad just died, or that he discovered a new running trail he loves.
Especially on the nights when we’re fighting, or disconnected, practicing the examen forces us to lean in a little, make eye contact, and share something that impacted us that day. The practice may be the brainchild of Saint Ignatius, who himself took a famous pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but its wisdom works just as well in our agnostic-Christian home.