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An Unwanted Gift?

Article by Phillip Tovey

Singleness is something that needs a positive image. Much of our terminology presents it in a bad light; one is an old maid, left on the shelf, alone. Pressure is put on people to get married, particularly if they are the curate! Yet most people have periods of their life when they are single, either because of youth, divorce, or the death of a partner and it is the lot of a few never to get married. Indeed marriage itself is a phase often involving singleness. Yet, as a state, singleness is not highly valued, and the singles bars and clubs seem designed to help one leave singleness as quickly as possible.

However, both the Scriptures and various traditions of the Church have valued singleness. To some extent this has been discredited because of the fanatic asceticism that equated sex with sin, and saw marriage as an option for second class Christians.

Today we are swamped with the alternative view that to be human one must engage in full sexual exploration. To be single is to be half a person.

To be celibate is to be weird or even inadequate in some way. The Church has found it hard to value both marriage and singleness, to view marriage and singleness as two different paths, both from God, and both given by God as a gift at a particular phase of life. It is only by doing this, however, that all the phases of life will be seen as a part of the blessing of the creator God. In this article I want to look at singleness, a temporary phase for some and for others a lifelong vocation. The Syrian tradition has some very positive images of singleness which may be of help in strengthening our view of the single person.

Ihidaya, the Syriac for single, has a broad range of meaning and a rich use within the tradition. Its connotations include the following-words in English: singular, individual, unique; single minded, undivided in heart; single, celibate.1 What is not in this list is important. Often the English assumption is that single means lonely, unwanted, unfulfilled. These adjectives could not be further from the Syrian tradition. Each item in this cluster of ideas within the concept of singleness gives a rich and positive resonance to the word. Such theological reflection is needed if singleness is to be seen as valued by God and the Church.

Ihidaya was used to translate monogenes in John 1. 14, 18.2 This leads to singleness being an image of the Trinity, a startling idea. The high view of marriage as reflecting the mystical union of Christ and the Church, is one embedded both in Paul and in the marriage liturgy. The picture of singleness reflecting the relation of the Father and the Son both seems surprising and exalts the single state. The generation of the Son, in the Syrian liturgy, is seen through the model of the creation of Eve: 'Praise ... to that Child who came from the side of the eternal Father.'3 The Son was single, beloved by God, from God. The single person likewise is in a state that comes as gift from God and is beloved by God.

Within this particular tradition Adam was also seen as a single person. Wisdom 10.1 says 'It was wisdom which preserved the ancestral father, the ihidaya, who had been created in the world'.4 One version of the Adam myth portrays him as created as an individual. Commenting on Genesis 2.24 Aphrahat says that the single person 'loves and reveres God his Father and the Holy Spirit his Mother'.5 If in the first chapter of Genesis the image of God concerns the relationship of male and female, then in chapter two the image is reflected in Adam. These passages of course have been used to denigrate both women and single people, as if both are only half human until married. But Adam as single points to the fullness of the humanity of the single person. We are created single. If in the creation myth Adam is single, then the concept is also important in redemption through Adam-Christ typology.

Christ as the second Adam, the single beloved Child, points to another dimension of singleness, that of singleness of heart. James warns of the dangers of being double-minded (James 1.8) and Paul sees the interests of the married as divided (1 Cor. 7.34). Indeed Jesus was the one who resolutely set his course to do the will of God (Mark 10.32).

The heart was the place of Jesus' singleness to the Father and this was for him something that he found nourishing. The heart is to seek God's Kingdom and to direct the heart heavenward is the way to find true treasure.

Paul may be giving a rather negative view of marriage in 1 Cor. 7, but verse 7 puts both marriage and singleness on a level: each has its own gift from God. To see each as gift is to view each positively. Singleness is both an exterior state (viewed often in the negative term 'not married'), but is also an interior state, single-minded in devotion to God. In this meaning of the term it would seem that the married need to be single as well.

Baptism is also related to singleness in the early Syrian tradition. A high value was undoubtedly put on celibacy. Indeed this may have been a precondition of baptism6.   If, however, baptism is to put on Christ, and to enter again into life as in paradise, then it is not surprising that singleness was a baptismal theme. Ephrem talked of baptism in these terms: See, people being baptized, becoming virgins and qaddishe, having gone down into the font, been baptized and put on that single iljidaya.1

Dignity and purity may have been lost at the Fall, but through baptism these are regained. To insist on celibacy as a condition for baptism is to lose the idea that both marriage and singleness are a gift. For some, singleness, and even celibacy, is a part of the clothing that they have put on at baptism. This may take time to realize. The important point is that the church community should be such that this gift can be valued both by the one to whom it is given and by the congregation as a whole.

Singleness in the Syrian tradition soon came to be linked to monasticism. For some that is still an option today. But the monastic tradition has a much broader base than is often imagined. Murray talks of the 'Sons and Daughters of the Covenant' (early Syrian proto-monasticism) as 'a recognisable body within the Church (though not yet to be called monks and nuns), some living at home, others in small communities, but not yet isolated from the laity.'8 Such communities have sprung up in all sorts of periods in the Church, separate from the monastic orders. Indeed today there are churches owning houses in which a group of single people live together, as a part of the Church's community life. This would seem to be similar to the proto-monasticism of the Syrian and other traditions and is something to be welcomed.

The gift that is given by God is not to be despised but to be cherished. Singleness for some is only a phase, and the mystery of marriage will be undertaken. Evdokimov sets all our life within a sensitive search for vocation. For many this means marriage. For some it is singleness. For some this is expressed in a vow or monastic life. 'The voice of grace is never that of a tyrant; it is an invitation, a call from a Friend'.9 God's gift for each one needs to be discerned and seen in this light, a part of the divine friendship. Friendship is undervalued today. Eros is seen as the most important type of love. Many have never thought that friendship with God is possible.

Single people often have a deep appreciation of friendship and as such exhibit the eternal call to friendship with God.

The Syrian tradition has helped open up a rich variety of images associated with singleness. The only begotten Son is the single one. Adam was single and in baptism we put on a single life. Singleness is connected with the Trinity, creation, and redemption. It is a multifaceted and reinforcing image. The Church however is increas­ingly advertising family services. Much is said in society of the need to strengthen the family. What value is placed on God's gift?


1   S. Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life (Cistercian Publications Inc  Kalamazoo 1987) p. xxii. 2   S. Brock, The Luminous Eye, (CIIS, Muvattupuzha India) p. 112.

3   Francis Acharya, Prayer with the Harp of the Spirit, (Kurisumala Ashram, Kerala India 1983) Vol. 1, p. 95.

4 S. Brock, The Luminous Eye p. 112.

5 ibid. p. 113.

6 R. Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom (Cambridge University Press 1975) p. 15

7 S. Brock, The Luminous Eye p. 114.

8 R. Murray, op. cit., p. 14.

9 P. Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love, (SVS Press, Crestwood New York 1985) p. 96.

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