On Being Single and Quaker: Opposing Forces?

As I look off into the horizon of a youthful 50 that is drawing near, my mind fast-forwards into the future, wondering about issues of companionship, children, family, health, and so many others. I look back at checkered relationships, a failed marriage—all difficult lessons in life’s journey.

For me, being single is both by choice and by circumstance. I struggle with the tension of a faith community that eagerly welcomes families and oddly seems uncomfortable in its embrace of single, childless adults.

As Quakers, we are called to be sensitive to our higher virtues, to bring tender understanding and sensitivity in relations with others. We join in meeting to share a bit of our private lives with others, always relying on our faith in God and our fundamental belief that the Light within is an immediate, direct experience. We know that the inward Light, that the Divine Spirit, is in each person—single, married, men, women, and children.

And yet, the struggle of many single persons is finding comfort and peace in the stillness that may be pregnant with an inherent separateness. We gather together in silence, in God’s presence, knowing that God does not distinguish between those who are single and those who are married. We know that God’s love is always present and available to us. Our true nature is luminosity, clarity, and kindness.

When my heart feels crusty as day-old bread from not enough laughter and not enough loving, how can I reconcile my faith in this Divine Presence with the deeply felt longing for companionship? I turn to meeting to provide the ground for sensitive support, to be part of my life passages, and to witness my journey toward wholeness. Do we as Quakers set an inviting table for childless, single adults to feel in solidarity and in well-being with our meetings?

As Quakers, we call Spirit to guide us, relying on the virtues of equality, stewardship, fairness, and kindness, for example. This Spirit-led conduct is often particularly tested for single Quakers who often cannot rely on family support structure for guidance and comfort, and must use creative approaches to nurture, care, love, and affirmation of family.

I often fell into the well of self-pity, wishing for a mate that did not exist, hoping that if I found the right person, my life, my spiritual house would be in order.

It’s said that people come into our lives for a reason. I struggled with that part of me that was convinced, if I found the right mate, my longing would be answered, I would be complete and fulfilled.

I realize now that these beliefs were a necessary part of my spiritual growth. I needed to go through the phases of looking outside myself for the answers, for fulfillment. My prayers were for completeness that I sought in another. Seeking completeness outside myself was what I had been taught to do from an early age, looking to formalized religion, to Scripture and books for the inward knowing. While these are all good places to seek divine guidance, intimacy with God, spiritual maturity comes, in part, from letting go of the need for answers and becoming receptive and open to the mystery of human longing.

Looking within came unexpectantly, out of silent worship, as I began to focus less on what was absent in my life and focus more on what was present. My prayer shifted from asking God for something to being thankful for God’s outpouring and abundance and infinite love. It was a quiet, inquisitive deepening prayer that led me to seek less the need to reconcile desire with reality and to appreciate more the gifts of single life.

With seasoned insight, I realized that my task as a single person was to live the unresolved conflicts and the longings for family and mate with grace and dignity. I discovered the nature of human longing. It pointed to my deepest desire and is sacred ground, a place to direct my prayerful attention, to ask my soul for guidance.

In settling into this sacred longing, I began to look beyond the obvious aspects of finding a mate and looked deeply at what a soul mate represents—intimacy, care, love, belonging, security. In letting go of the intellectual need to figure it all out, to reconcile my longing and what it represents with the reality of my life, I came to understand the profound nature of the human struggle for completion, a universal tension in all people. My prayer, meditation, and reflections turned from wanting the longing to disappear to embracing the unfulfilled desire, to be kind, generous, and happy despite the incompleteness, uncertainty, and longing. In this embrace, what had been seen as deficiencies in my life became a place of acceptance and thankfulness, allowing God’s presence to penetrate my heart.

As we grow deeper in faith, we open to the fullness of our Quaker legacy. The Quaker adage "celibate in singleness, faithful in marriage," may resonate divine will, but does it provide realistic guidance to those who have never married or who remain single for many, many years? Knowing the sacramental nature of the body and the power and pleasure of sex, is it appropriate to simply remain celibate in a sexually charged culture? Instead, for single Quakers, the more relevant question may be preservation of our body integrity for long-term happiness and enjoyment versus short-term pleasure. We need to continually discern where the presence of God is in relationships and to hold those places tenderly because they contain the seeds of care, desire, and hope.

It is important to keep a faithful and open heart as a single Quaker, aware that alone does not mean without presence of the ever-available love of God.

We can practically cultivate this open and generous heart by focusing on the gifts of single life, giving generously of our time and resources to those in real need and nurturing intergenerational relations to create a substitute for the family we may not have.

As Quakers, we together make time in meeting for worship to recollect the heart of God in silence, to be open to the nuances and leadings, the longings and directions. In our hearts, our words, our meetinghouses, we must look to a heart that is open, dedicated, and alert to the needs of all members, attenders, families, and single persons, caring for them all in a spirit of affectionate interest and gratitude.

Valerie Brown

Valerie Brown is a member of Solebury (Pa.) Meeting and serves on the Board of Trustees of Buckingham Friends School in Lahaska, Pa. She is ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh as a lay member of the Tien Hiep Order. She led the 2005 New Year's Eve Retreat at Pendle Hill in Wallingford, Pa. She wrote this article last spring. In October, she was married to John D. Strachan at Solebury Meeting.