In a posthumous collection of his writings titled Spiritual Formation, Henri Nouwen wrote of how we perceive people more often as characters than as individuals. To see others as characters is ultimately to see them as people “to use as we need or want.” Nouwen build off that with something easily connected to the role of the single and celibate adult in the church:
A teacher is more than a teacher, and computer technicians and auto mechanics are more than their functions. A person is more than his or her character or figure. If you relate to me only as someone who can do something for you or whom you can use for your own purposes, then I am not going to show my best self to you. I am going to become defensive, suspicious, a little careful, and I may hide my true feelings and opinions.
As I read that one morning during spring break, I found a paragraph that helped me make sense of the difficulty that I have being a single and celibate adult trying to be a part of community where a certain kind of practicality and function dominate the conversation. And I have to confess to being guilty of this approach myself. It is a dark and diminished version, I think, of what Ephraim Radner asserts about single adults in the life of the church in A Time to Keep.
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After a lengthy discussion of friendship in general and friendship through the lens of the single person in particular, Radner moves on to the topic of work and the single adult. There’s a good chance, of course, that spotting a single adult working in the church means finding someone working hard to fill in the gaps that can’t be met by those who are married with children. Earlier in my time at one church, I found myself at various times teaching Sunday school, serving as a greeter, serving on personnel committee, serving on a pastor search committee, serving on the discipleship committee, and doing it mostly without any immediate peer group. Such things are a joy and an honor to do, don’t get me wrong. But such activities are matters of meeting program and institutional needs, which can often leave people in a weird state when the momentum dies.
Radner asserts that “the central element of our calling as creatures is to engage in the growth of affection: to love God and neighbor.” Most Christians can connect those two things with committee work in something less than three easy moves. “Friendship,” Radner continues, “is rightly seen as the most crystallized form of affection, such that “friendship with God” itself became a vision of redemption in writers like Irenaeus and long after.” This friendship, when coupled with the freedom the single adult experiences, allows the single adult to “bring gifts of particularity” to the broader church community that the dynamics of marriage and family life might not allow. Radner concludes: “friendship’s deeper impulse and movement is the discovery of delight. The single person’s gift, as single rather than married, is epitomized in bringing friendship into the kids of the generative (family-based) community.” Radner sees this happening primarily through means of “working and eating.”
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With working, Radner connects the task of the single adult to the task of Adam in the Garden prior to Eve.
In the end, though, it is praise that marks the growth of such singling out of things, through their naming. If our movement toward such naming is blocked, overlooked, lost, or forgotten, then always there must be those who are caught in the woods alone, for a period, in a certain solitude, where they begin to hear the clamor of the world, otherwise lost in the trudging, or sometimes frantic reactivity of survival. The work of the single person is to give names to creatures that God has made. Jesus walks alone, on order to know the name of every sheep that is his (Matt. 18:12; John 10:3).
From there, Radner has much to say about work. He sees it, of course, as something affected by the Great Transition, as something that too often leads to a kind of death and not a particular kind of life. The important thing to note, at least for me, is that he does not define the work of the single adult in community life as simply meeting the needs of a particular program. To call it something like naming is to call everyone in the church community to something better (and something quite different from what seems to be the norm for many churches). It is more than seeing them as characters who simply need to get “plugged in” in a way that is really a kind of institutional “plugging of a leak.” If that’s all it is, and there is evidence of that kind of reality over the long haul, then maybe that particular ship should sink.
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As I finish this late Tuesday night, I’m thinking I’ve got two more posts to work out using Radner’s A Time to Keep: one about eating and the other a kind of summary-challenge for myself as much as for anyone else (the working titles are “What You Bring to the Table” and “The Dangers of Rejecting Gifts”). From there I’d like to spend a little more time with Nouwen, particularly his work on spiritual direction and formation. By then the next batch of new episodes of The Flash should have some previews for me to post, too.