When St Paul talks about the advantages of being unmarried in our 2nd Reading today, (1 Cor 7:32-35) it’s easy to misunderstand him. It follows on from last week, when we heard him tell us not to be “engrossed” in the world. (7:31) Some people have taken this to mean that the only really good Christians are those who choose a single celibate life and spend all their time deep in meditation and prayer, and that the rest of us are somehow 2nd Class Christians! There are two answers to this nonsense. The first is that being unmarried does not stop you from having to do & to think about everyday practical things; & the second is that a few lines earlier St Paul has praised marriage as a holy thing in which an unbelieving spouse can be made holy by their believing partner.
This means that although the Church has always honoured those who choose to be unmarried, to offer their single life in a special way in the service of God, as monks and nuns do; it thinks of marriage as a different but equally valid holy calling. Both have a place, provided both are used to glorify God. In the world of today where there is an idea around that unmarried people are somehow a bit odd, we Christians want to get the balance right. What matters is how we use the particular life that we find ourselves living, not our particular lifestyle.
Part of the problem is that we Christians use the word “world” in two different ways. On the one hand, we talk about the world as a beautiful place that reveals the glory of God, and on the other we use the word to talk about all the things that take us away from God, about being worldly. In the first sense we ought to be engrossed in the world, to delight in how its beauty reveals God to us; but if we allow worldly things – our job, our clothes, our favourite sport, our internet connections etc, to take over our life so that we become engrossed in them, then we have definitely gone wrong.
People have often said to me how difficult it is to pray, because all sorts of thoughts come into their head to distract them and stop them thinking about God. I always suggest that instead of getting worried and trying to shut those thoughts out, what we should be doing is taking these thoughts and sharing them with God, as we pray. The most extreme example of this is faced by those who are parents or carers of little children. They would like to be able to come to Church and pray the way they used to, but instead they have to spend all their time trying to control their little ones, and gradually as they get old enough teach them to pray. I always tell such people to remember that it is the bringing of their child to church, to Mass, that is their offering to God. It is their quiet and persistent example to the child that is what matters; that their exhausting care for their child IS the way, at this moment in life, that they are giving their undivided attention to God.
The unmarried, and those married people whose children have now left home, can of course spend time thinking about the Readings and the Homily from the priest and the Prayers and what they all mean in a much more concentrated way. Their prayer will feel much more like the way we tend to think prayer ought to be ; and for them that’s right, but it is not the only way to pray, not the only way in which we can offer ourselves to God when we pray.
I remember once a young man who had the mental age of a child of 5. He couldn’t fully understand the prayers offered in Church, but that didn’t make him any less a child of God. He came to Church with a smiling face and simply enjoyed it, even though sometimes he would call out inappropriate things at the wrong time, just like little children do. I know too of people who go to Church in a country that is not their own, and where they cannot understand the language used. Some people say to me that they don’t see the point of going if they don’t understand anything. My answer is that it is the going that matters. It is the offering of oneself to God together with one’s fellow Christians that matters.
Why were the people in the Gospel today (Mark 1:21-28) impressed by the teaching of Jesus? Because it was not like the scribes. The scribes knew their Bible and taught by quoting this passage & that passage in a learned way, but Jesus (though he knew the Bible as well as they did) was recognised as someone who taught them from his heart, & it was because his heart was one with God, that they recognised that here was someone different. May our hearts be more like the heart of Jesus, whatever kind of life we lead.