As St. Augustine famous wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (well, Augustine wrote it in Latin originally, but you get what I mean)
If singlehood is painful in a deep spiritual sense, then that pain will not be removed by marriage. The deep hunger in all of us for the presence of God will not be satisfied by marriage or even by religious vows. No matter how wonderful, holy, and well-matched the spouse or how well the charism of the religious order fits your spiritual gifts and needs, that deep hunger for the presence of God will still be there, and it will never be satisfied until you’re in Heaven. The deepest pain of being single is the deepest pain of being on Earth, and whatever pain is incidental to being a single person is small potatoes compared to the deepest hunger of our being.
In marriage, the spouses are called to embody God’s unconditional and total love in a particular and exclusive way. By giving fully of oneself to another and receiving the same, the married couple does indeed echo the Divine Love that is at the source and fulfillment of all existence. Indeed, when a married people love each other well, the sacramental nature of that love becomes all the more evident. However, it is not as though the Christian vocation to love completely and unconditionally is restricted to marriage; in fact, it would be a sad life indeed in which the wondrous nature of God’s love could only be discerned through the experience of married love. God has made his love for us clear in uncounted ways, not the least of which is the celebration of the Eucharist, the closest any of us are likely to come in this life to the fulness of God’s love. In the Eucharist, we are reminded of our deep hunger for God and drawn into communion with those who have recognized that same hunger in themselves as well as the way in which the unconditional love of God calls us all to love one another as God has loved us.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’ve stopped complaining about the sign of peace at dorm Mass. Christ, truly present in the Eucharist, does indeed invite our adoration and love, but he also invites us to share that love with each other. He wants us to allow His sacramental presence to be manifest in our actions and for us each to be able to discern it in the simplest act of human affection. In the sign of peace, we affirm each others’ deepest desire for the love of God, and the chaotic maelstrom of affection that is the sign of peace at dorm mass is the clearest embodiment of that principle that I have ever encountered. The sign of peace is intended as an act of communion, an affirmation of the sacramental mystery of the Church through which God’s love is manifested to the world. The sign of peace, at its best, is the result of reverberation of God’s love as made present in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a miracle that shatters the laws of the material universe; if I cannot allow it to crack my pride only so much that I can see, at least for that moment, that those around me experience that same need for God’s love, and, in that moment, sincerely express the wish that they may enjoy the peace that is God’s love, then what kind of Christian am I? If the presence of Christ himself cannot bring me to express love of neighbor, then when shall I express it?
Furthermore, if I can encounter that love in another person even once at Mass, what further can I ask of them? If, in the Real Presence of their Lord and Redeemer, they are nonetheless able to notice me and love me enough to, through signs of affection, invite me more fully into Christ’s Presence, what else might I expect? If that love is sincerely felt, then any other question of affection suddenly seems irrelevant by comparison.
Vows, in binding us to a person (as in marriage) or a rule (in orders), help us by defining exactly how and to whom we are called to manifest that Divine Love in our everyday lives, but the particular guidance granted by such vows does not in any way mean that the single person is somehow deprived of that divine love which the marriage vows only symbolize, or absolved of the Christian responsibility to share that love with the world. The divine love for which we all hunger is shown to us first and foremost in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The mundane sacramentality of married life is the same divine love under different signs, but being deprived of those signs does not by any means mean that we are deprived of either divine love or the responsibility to respond to that love by sharing it with others. Single life is not empty except to the extent that single people box out God’s love with love of self, to mistake the signs of divine love for the thing itself and to try to fill with worldly things that hunger which God alone can satisfy. Gold, be it in bars in a vault or a ring around your finger, is not an adequate substitute for God. Expecting your spouse to be anything more than an imperfect sign of that divine love only serves to foil the way in which that Divine love intends to draw you both closer to Himself through your relationship with each other.